The Pegasus Plateau & Other Stories (A Shameless Plug)

The Deepest Dive

The Pegasus Plateau and Other Stories is a collection of adventures for players new to Runequest and its world of Glorantha. I wrote for this book. I wrote two adventures (which got squished into one big adventure) and a small environment for new players to get a foothold in Glorantha.

Also, this is the first writing I ever did for Chaosium. After being a fan and a customer for most of my life (ever since 1981), I had never done any official writing for the company until now. And it was for a game I hardly ever played. But there’s a story in all that. Here it is.

My first RPG was Call of Cthulhu. The second was Stormbringer. The third was King Arthur: Pendragon. (I sometimes get the second and third mixed up.) For some reason, I never got Runequest. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I had Stormbringer and that was fantasy enough for me. But years went by and I maintained with my holy trinity with a smattering of Traveller and Champions from time to time along with a reluctant dose of The Other Game (as Ken St. Andre calls it). And on rare occasions, I’d play Runequest, but often, without its accompanying world, Glorantha. It was just standard fantasy using the BRP (Basic Roleplaying System).

In the early ’90’s, I started working with AEG and Chaosium would come down to the Los Angeles conventions. I’d hang out with whoever was there and I met Greg Stafford for the first time. (I also got to meet Sandy Peterson but it wasn’t until I moved to Phoenix that I got to meet Ken St. Andre.) I was star-struck. He was pitching the new Glorantha RPG, HeroQuest, and I picked up a copy. I liked what he was saying about it—all mythology and story and very little mechanics—and I was eager to try it out. Unfortunately, I never did. It stayed on my shelf. I read the books, got a sense of the rich and dense world, and it showed me the true potential of world building. And the dangers of it.

You see, Glorantha is a world unlike any other in fantasy literature. Yeah, I’m gonna include Middle Earth in that list. Greg (and others) had been writing about Glorantha since the ’60’s and the sheer bulk of world knowledge included in these books is massive. Now, I could say that and you’d say, “Oh yeah? Well, Middle Earth has a whole bunch of lore!” So, I’m gonna have to show you.

See this? This is my Red Notebook. It contains everything ever written about my favorite Gloranthan subject: the Red Moon Goddess. Just one subject. And this…

… is how thick my notebook is. Almost 1,000 pages. One. Subject.

Now, that may seem enticing to some but damn intimidating to others. Folks who like to take deep dives (you know who you are), you could spend a lifetime studying Glorantha. I’m serious. There’s history and mythology and speculation and epistemology and…

… yeah. I said “epistemology.” No joke. There’s a whole ‘nuther book I’ve got just talking about “what is real and how do we know it” for Glorantha. And that one is only two hundred pages (give or take). Hey, Forgotten Realms fans! You got a two hundred page Forgotten Realms book talking only about the nature of reality? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Like I said, if you like the deep dive, Glorantha is for you. But if you’re a more casual player and you don’t want to spend a summer studying the various myth cycles of the Orlanth pantheon (which you can do), all of this can seem very intimidating. Well, I’ve got some good news.

A Shallow End

My buddy Jared Sorensen likes to say, “Glorantha is a swimming pool with no steps, no ladders and only a deep end and a high dive.” Well, the fine folks at Chaosium have seen fit to provide both a ladder and a shallow end for new players. And that, my friends, is The Pegasus Plateau and Other Stories.

When Jason Durall asked me to write for this book, I got excited. I love Glorantha—even if I am a tourist by most Gloranthan standards—and I really love showing it to other people. The rich tapestry of cultures and stories is something I can talk about forever. But how do you introduce new players to something this… epic?

I’ll tell you what you do. You provide a single, small village in the middle of everything. A village just big enough to be growing and just small enough to need protecting. And that’s where your players come in. I created a center of operations for your players, a place of divergent cultures and peoples who are all unified by the fact that they need each other to survive. Glorantha is a dangerous place and they need dangerous people to protect it. The village was founded by veterans of the many wars over a place called “Dragon Pass” and they came from all over the world: Esrolia, Lunar Tarsh, Sartar, you name it, and they’re all united in a common cause: keep the damn wars out of our village.

As a GM, your players don’t need to know anything outside their own character sheets. The village is small enough that you can populate it with memorable characters (I gave you a head start) and make the village charming enough that your players will fall in love with it.

And once they fall in love with it, you’ve got ’em. Because we all know how to get players to care about a fantasy world: give them one thing they care about and put it in danger.

I built my village with that in mind. Every choice I made was to help you make your players fall in love with it so you can throw a new threat at it every week.

And they don’t need to know anything about Glorantha. You can show them new things every game session, slowly revealing the world one juicy bit at a time.

Oh, I also wrote this other adventure… and yeah, it’s got the same thing going on. You can use both of them together, in fact.

Dip in Your Big Toe

So, if you want to see what all the fuss is about, you can now finally try out Glorantha without worrying about all that nasty stuff called “canon.” The book is filled with other adventures with the same goal: introducing new players to a world that’s been growing for over half a century. But rather than throw thousands of pages of lore and history and… epistemology… at your players, you can give them a starting adventure that takes one or two nights to run.

Get a copy of the Runequest: Glorantha PDF and The Pegasus Plateau and Other Stories and run a Glorantha game for your players. Try it out.

And when you’re ready, I’ll let you peek in my Red Notebook.

 

 

The Pegasus Plateau and Other Stories includes:

  • The Pegasus Plateau is a desperate race to the top of a mountain to claim a priceless reward.
  • The Grey Crane concerns an ancient legacy, stolen from its rightful owner. (That’s me!!!)
  • The Rattling Wind is a deadly tale of ghosts and unearthly revenge.
  • Crimson Petals describes a curse afflicting a beleaguered town.
  • Gloomwillow’s Hollow details the Woods of the Dead, a realm ruled by ghouls and worse.
  • The Ruin on the Stream delves into an ancient ruin in search of long-lost secrets of dragon magic.
  • The Pairing Stones presents a tale of a wedding interrupted, lovers separated and reunited.

Additionally, The Locaem is a new tribe for use by gamemasters and players, and the lonely village of Renekot’s Hope (This is me, too!!!), perched between the Lunar Empire and its enemies in Sartar, provide refuge… or a springboard for adventure!

For a Few Tarts

A lot of talk about orks recently (the proper spelling is “ork”; “orc” is how the elves spell it with their silly hard c’s) and so here’s a story inspired by a game I ran not too long ago. It has orks. I hope you like it.

 

* * *

 

This is a story about the city and the rules of the street. Those who are wise will listen and learn. 

Circles always come around.

And never invoke the wrath of the Baking Lady.

 

1.

On the third day of the second moon, Javis Tal and his friends went slumming into the lower city, looking to cause trouble. He was part of the House of Tal, his family’s heritage well-known in the upper city, but not well-respected. His father was a villain and his mother even worse, and it was known in the upper city that any who crossed the House of Tal paid the price in blood and shame.

So, when Javis Tal, the youngest son of the House of Tal, went down into the Lower City to cause trouble, he made sure his insignia was on display for all to see. He hid behind it like a shield, like a magic ward protecting him from all worry and bother. He could cause mischief and mayhem and have no fears of repercussions. 

It was just before moonrise when he and his louts came across the ork selling bread, biscuits and tarts from a cart. The Lower City called her “the Baking Lady” and while few knew her real name, she was well known for her treats. Even those in the Upper City knew her and came down to the Lower City’s dismal streets for her sumptuous delicacies. 

All too often, when the Upper City slummers came down, they told her, “I thought you were an elf.” 

She wouldn’t object. Instead, she retrieved a piece of paper, signed by the governor of the Lower City himself, and stamped with his seal. The certificate declared that she was an elf, and since it was signed by the governor of the Lower City himself, it was legal and true. Then, after satisfying their curiosity, she sold them something sweet to eat.

And just before the moonrise on the third day of the second moon, Javis Tal and his ruffians found the Baking Lady and decided to start some trouble.

“So, what do you have?” Javis Tal asked, approaching with a drunk swagger, his hand grasping a tankard he took from one of the local pubs. “Something sweet for me, Baking Lady?”

The Baking Lady was no fool. She sensed what they were up to. “Go away,” she said. “Or you’ll find the trouble you’re looking for.” Very slowly, she reached down under her cart and found her iron club, the one with metal studs hammered into the sides. 

“We’re not here for any of that,” said Javis Tal while his compatriots giggled behind him. “We just want to buy some of your treats!”

“I know what you want,” the Baking Lady said, her thick ork fingers tightening around her club. “And if you don’t take off right now, you’ll get more than that.”

One of Tal’s boys picked up a lemon tart and began munching on it. He looked at Tal and smiled, his mouth full of pastry. “Hey, this is really good.”

The next thing in his mouth was the Baking Lady’s hammer, smashing his front row of teeth from his head.

The fight was quick. Javis Tal drew his sword with the training of an Upper City nobleman and put three cuts across the Baking Lady’s face before she could parry with her hammer. She backed up and swung blind, catching only the cool evening air. The rest of Tal’s crew followed suit, drawing swords and knives. 

Through the blood and pain, the Baking Lady saw the blades and knew she was outnumbered. She ran, ducking down the alleyway, using the maze of twists and turns to hide herself from the slumming noble brats. They ran after her, but as soon as they saw her vanish, their interest vanished as well. They returned to her cart, tipped it over, kicked it, took the coins and paper she had hidden in a drawer and snatched up the pastries they wanted, laughing as they walked back to the gates that led to the Upper City.

As soon as they were gone, the Baking Lady returned to her cart. She took one look and made a curse. She picked it up, set it back on its wheels and started sorting things out.

A few moments later, two more figures approached, this time from the inner part of the Lower City. One was as tall as tall gets and the other was only half his size. As their shadows approached, the moonlight finally shining upon them, we see who they are.

The tall one was as wide as a cow, his arms as big as a horse’s legs. His head was shaved and his eyes small and narrow. His large nose was pierced as were his pointed ears and he wore a black beard that looked as if it could terrify a razor. He wore a leather jerkin and a chain shirt over that. In fact, it was many chain shirts, all bound together by leather to fit his wide chest. On his back was an axe taller than his companion and a bow strapped across his chest. A quiver of black-winged arrows as well. Tall boots and leather pants with a wide leather belt around his waist. On his right arm was a handmade piece of scale mail and metal plates, all kept together by leather straps. His hands were ungloved for no glove could fit them and when he flexed his fingers gripping a weapon, they always ripped whatever fabric or leather they were clothed in.

His companion had the same eyes and same nose, but his lips were wider and seemingly always fixed in a smile. He wore a long leather cloak with a tipped hood that slipped easily over his large, pointed ears and jet black hair that was cut to just under his chin. Unlike his companion, he was clean shaven and wore no piercings. Under that cloak was a leather jerkin made just loose enough for quick movement. It also hid a great abundance of daggers. He had a thin sword on his belt and behind his back, hidden under the cloak, was a small hand crossbow. He also had a leather pouch thrown over his shoulder, and it were a great number of little things. 

As they approached the Baking Lady’s cart, she spied them and gave a sigh. She knew their names.

“Go away,” she said. “Don’t bother me.”

The big one’s eyes narrowed with concern. He rushed to help pick up the remaining pastries and handed them to her. He had to kneel to reach that far down and when she saw him kneeling, the anger in heart melted, just a little. Not much, but just a little.

“Thank you, Thrud,” she said.

Scav approached more slowly, but picked up bits of the cart, putting them under his arm. “Slummers again?” he asked.

She started sorting out the ruined pastries, sighing with each one. “You need to ask?”

Thrud finished with the pastries and stood still while his brother handed the Baking Lady pieces of her cart. “Little boys who think they’re so bad. Sounds like they need a spanking.”

The Baking Lady’s eyes turned to anger again. “Oh, no,” she said. “You won’t go looking for them. I forbid it.”

“The watch won’t do it,” Scav said, eyeing one of the pastries. The one with cherries baked inside. “The Uppers will just throw some coin and it will all be over.”

“I don’t want any trouble coming back,” she said. “You hurt them, their daddy comes down looking for revenge, and he’ll have a writ for just such a purpose!”

Scav made a tic tic tic with his tongue. “My brother and me, we’d never think of bringing trouble to you, miss. Not never. No, nay, never even.”

The Baking Lady knew better. She was well aware of what these two could do, the kind of fires they could stoke. She shook her head again. “I forbid it.”

Scav smiled and tossed a copper on her wrecked cart, picking up the cherry pastry. “You ain’t got no permission to give or take,” he said. “We only follow the law of the streets, and that says, ‘What you do, it always comes back to you.’”

She snatched the cherry pastry from Scav’s hand and put it back on the cart. “If you do anything to cause trouble and get the Upper City coming down here, Scav Littlefoot, I’ll make certain you never taste another of my pastries.”

“Oh now, why’d you have to go and say that?” he snarled.

“It’s true. You go to the Upper City for my revenge and I’ll never sell you another cherry pastry.”

“No,” Scav said. “Not that.” He lowered his eyes, his mouth frowning. “Why’d you have to go and call me ‘Littlefoot.’”

The Baking Lady sighed, throwing her hands up. “It’s clear I can’t stop you from doing whatever you’re going to do, but if it comes back here, to the street, know that you’ll never…”

“Have another of your pastries,” he finished for her.

She picked up his copper and put it back in his hand. “You don’t want that pastry anyway. It’s been on the cobblestones. Now go, and don’t you cause no trouble.”

Scav gave her a bow. “I apologize, oh great Baking Lady.” He recovered from his bow. “And I promise you, that we’ll cause no trouble that will come back to you.”

The Baking Lady shook her head. “Go on. I have to start baking for tomorrow morning.”

He made that triple tic sound with his tongue again, and Scav and Thrud walked away, slowly vanishing into the slowly growing mist on the Lower City’s streets. The Baking Lady went back to sorting out the mess when she saw a copper on the cart.

And the cherry pastry was gone.

2.

Dannel Drill stood guard at the gate that lead from the Upper City to the Lower City. He was a handsome young lad, no more than eighteen years old. His family lived in the Upper City but was poor—at least to the Upper’s standards. He stood watch at the gate because it was a job none of the richer family’s children would take and it paid well. At least, it paid well enough to keep his family out of poverty. He knew about “the incident” that dropped half the city over two hundred yards, right into the bay, filling the streets with water, but he had never seen it. On his first day, Dannel’s boss took him to the edge and he looked over it for the first time. He got dizzy.

Down below, far down below, he saw the Lower City. Its tall buildings and canals. From there, he could also smell it. Then, his boss showed him “the flying seats.” These were small carriages held up by rope and pulleys (his boss called them “windlasses”) that lowered or raised the carriage. He showed him how to operate the machinery to make the carriages go up and down. Then, he put Dannel into the carriage and lowered him down. 

And that’s where Dannel Drill stood guard. Right in front of the carriage that would bring you up to the Upper City. There were seven such carriages. His charge was to guard one of them.

He had only stood at this post for a week, and already, he knew most of what he needed to know. For example, he always had a copper in his pocket. This is why.

On the second day, a little old woman with a wheeled cart pulled by an old bull came by on the other side of the canal, selling baked goods. With the bridge in his way, he couldn’t quite make her out. She stopped and within moments, she was swamped with customers. He watched as they gave her coins and she gave them pastries and tarts. When the customers were gone, she picked up the reigns of the bull and moved on.

The next day, she came by again. Still too far away for him to see clearly, she stopped and the customers came out to buy her goods. When they were done, she picked up the reigns and went on her way.

On the third day, the same thing, but this time, she saw him looking. When she picked up the reigns, she crossed the bridge and approached him. As she got closer, he saw the little old woman was not a woman at all, but an ork. Her smile was full of teeth and he took a step back. “I’m the watch of the gate,” he said, as if it was some kind of ward or spell to keep her away.

But it didn’t keep her away. “I know,” she said. She reached back into her cart and opened a box. Inside was a vanilla tart.

“This is for you,” she said, and gave it to him.

Dannel looked at the tart in her hand and hesitated before taking it. 

“Go on,” she said. “It isn’t poison.”

Dannel thought to himself, Well, why not, and took the tart. He bit into it and the pastry was crisp and crunched between his teeth. And the vanilla cream was sweet and smooth and tasted so delicious on his tongue. 

“Oh my,” he said.

The ork laughed. “I’m glad you like it.” She raised a finger. “But only the first one is free! Bring a copper next time.”

She picked up the reigns and went away. 

And that is why Dannel always carried a copper in his pocket.

3. 

This late at night, there was little travel between the Upps and the Low. Sure, there were the slummers—those who put on old, dark cloaks and went from the Upper City to the Lower City looking for the kinds of sights and joys the Upps couldn’t provide—but very little trade when from the Lows to the Upps. When it did, it took the long, twisting road carved out of the stone wall, housed in large wheeled carts, carrying official travel papers.

And that’s what you needed to get from the Lows to the Upps. Travel papers. Going the other way didn’t require anything, but if you wanted the elevator to “go noble,” you needed proof you were a citizen of the Upper City.

So when two orks came walking up to Dannel Drill in the middle of the night, the big one looking like menace and the little one all smiles, he started shaking in his boots. He reached for the rope that sounded a bell high above, hoping the sound would wake the guards. But as soon as he did, the little one raised his hands.

“No, hold that,” Scav said. “No need for no alarms, watchman. We ain’t comin’ with no intent.”

Dannel gripped his spear with shaking hands. “Stay back,” he said. “Show your papers or walk away.”

Scav kept walking forward, his palms up, his smile wide on his face. “Ain’t got no papers and we ain’t lookin’ to go to Uppstown.”

“Then what do you want?” Dannel could feel his belly quivering. He’d never been confronted like this before. He’d seen orks, but always at a distance. They never came to the elevators. They never had a reason to. 

“Be needin’ to ask you a question, we do,” Scav said, taking another cautious step forward. Krav stayed behind, his body like an ominous shadow.

“Ask it from there,” Dannel said, dropping the point of his spear at Scav. 

Scav nodded and stopped, just a few feet short of the point of the spear. “Don’t mean you no harm, watchman. Just need some skim.”

“Skim?”

“Knowin’. Need to know what you know.” Scav turned his wrist and a large silver coin appeared between his fingers. “There’s a drop in it for ya if ya can say what I needs to know.”

Dannel looked at the coin. “I get seven silver coins a week for my watch,” he said.

Scav twisted his wrist again and three silver coins appeared in his fingers. “How’s that?” he asked. “Two more for three. Take your girl to a nice place. Put it in your old sock. A pretty, shiny thing for just sloppin’ yer gob. That’s all.”

Dannel raised his chin a little. He could feel sweat on his brow. “What is it you need to know?” he asked.

“A bunch of slummin’ nobs came down from the Upper tonight. Probably used this gate. You seen ‘em?”

Dannel thought about the question. He did see a small group of nobles come down. One of them was wearing the seal of the House of Tal.

“Maybe,” Dannel said, his voice cracking, just a little.

“That means yes,” Scav said. He tossed one of the silver coins at Dannel. The watchman let the coin fall at his feet, jangling against the cobblestones. “I gots another query for ya. They come back yet?”

The House of Tal was rich, powerful and vindictive. Dannel thought about that as he considered how to answer the question. This ork was clever. Something he didn’t know an ork could be. He was taught orks were little more than mindless brutes, driven by passion and bloodlust. But this one…

“I be waitin’,” the ork said, making the silver coins shine in the moonlight.

“What do you want from them?” Dannel asked.

Scav shrugged. “My mother told me ‘Never answer a question with a question.’”

Damn clever ork. Damn clever. That meant dangerous. “I’m not going to tell you any more,” Dannel said. “You want to harm them. I won’t be responsible for that.”

“We ain’t no cudgelliers,” Scav said. “And we ain’t no floggers, neither. We just want to know if they’ve gone back up the lift.”

Dannel shook his head. “I’m not telling you any more.”

Scav tossed the coin. It landed on Dannel’s boot this time.

“That means they’re still down here and you’re keepin’ your bladder tight because we’re glassin’ for ‘em.”

Damn this ork! Damn him! Dannel reached for the alarm rope again but Scav took a step back, the last coin still in his fingers.

“Last question, watchman, before we skedaddle.”

“No more questions!” Dannel said, his hand tight around the rope. “Go, or I call the guards!”

Scav let the last coin slip between his fingers. “No need,” he said. “We’re good and gone.” He backed up to Thrud and tapped the big ork’s chest. “Ain’t we, brother?”

Thrud said nothing, just kept his eyes on Dannel. His narrow, dark eyes.

4.

Scav and Thrud sat on the edge of a building, looking down at the canal and the streets on either side. The door they watched lead to a tavern and brothel with a little wooden sign above it with a rooster and a rose. They waited.

After an hour or so, five young men stumbled out of the building, holding each other up. One of them pushed the other into the canal. They laughed and fished their friend out, but not before jeering and teasing him. 

“That wretched water stinks like sewers!” the young man said. 

“Now you stink like sewers,” another laughed, pushing his friend again, but this time, he merely fell over and did not land in the canal. 

But Scav and Thrud were not looking at the man who stunk like sewers nor the man who pushed him. They were looking at the young nob with a crest on his cloak. 

5. 

Javin Tal and his friends stumbled up to Dannel Drill, laughing and falling over each other. Dannel Drill stood still, trying not to shiver. He was wondering how he could leave this position and find another. His father would yell at him about being a coward and his mother would sit quietly, saying nothing, but looking at him. His mother’s disapproval was worse.

Javin Tal reached into his jerkin and produced papers with a seal and a signature. “I am Javin Tal,” he said, then burst into laughter. Finally, he finished. “House of Tal, son of Verin, citizen of the Upper City.” He then degenerated into laughter again, his friends keeping him from falling over.

But not well enough. Javin fell right onto Dannel and the watchman could smell vomit and ale on the nobleman’s breath. 

“Javin Tal, you are authorized to use the lift. Welcome back to the Upper City.” Dannel pulled the rope and he heard the bell ring above. Ropes and pulleys moved and the carriage slowly descended from above.

One of Tal’s gallant few said, “Do you remember how that ork ran? We scared the shit right out of her, didn’t we?”

The nobs laughed and Dannel remembered the two orks who visited him earlier that night. “Be needin’ to ask you a question, we do,” the smaller ork said.

“She won’t be healing those scars you gave her face any time soon!” another of them said, budging Javin Tall with his shoulder.

 “I gots another query for ya. They come back yet?”

He remembered the smile on the smaller ork’s face and… the horrible eyes of the big one. 

The tallest one, the one with curly red hair, smacked Javin’s back. “We should go back and make her run again!”

Javin stumbled forward… and let his stomach loose on Dannel’s tabard. The stink of it reached Dannel’s nose and he almost retched himself.

The nob boys all laughed and Javin laughed, too. He pointed at the watchman, a wet, sick smile on his face. “Oh, so sorry!” he said. “Please send the bill to my father!” And he laughed more.

Dannel looked at his tabard. He used his glove to scrape some of the sick away. It slopped and splattered to the cobblestone.

“I should have told them everything,” he muttered to himself.

Javin Tal stopped laughing. “What did you say?”

Dannel looked up, his mind now realizing what he said. “N-nothing.”

“Should have told who everything?” Javin Tal stepped forward, right into Dannel’s chest. He looked down at the boy and Dannel shook his head. 

“I didn’t say anything, sir. I promise.”

Dannel heard the sound of steel and saw a knife in Javin Tal’s hand. “You said, ‘I should have told them everything.’ I heard it.” He gestured with the knife to his boys behind him. “They heard it, too.”

Dannel backed up until he felt the cliff against his spine. There was nowhere left to go.

“I… I…”

“Yes,” Javin said. “Speak up.”

“There were two orks,” Dannel stammered. “They were looking for you.”

“Looking for us, were they?” Javin said. “Did they say why they were looking for us?”

“N-no,” Dannel said. “They… I didn’t tell them anything. I promise.”

“You already promised me a lie once, boy,” Javin said. He made another gesture with his knife. “Search his pockets.”

Javin’s boys moved forward and Dannel tried to run. They caught him, holding him by his tabard. The tall one with red hair shoved his hands into Dannel’s pockets and pulled the two silver coins out.

“So,” Javin said. “You didn’t tell them anything. But you have two coins in your pockets.” Javin gave a wicked grin. “How does that work out?”

“I didn’t tell them anything,” Dannel said. “They asked me and bribed me, but I didn’t say an—”

That’s as far as Dannel got. He felt the knife enter his belly. Felt Dannel twist it. Then, he fell to the cobblestones, his eyes and mouth wide open.

The carriage finally reached the ground and the nob crew stumbled in, laughing and slapping each other’s backs. Dannel watched them rise up. They were pointing down at him. Another one opened his mouth and let the evening’s festivities fall at Dannel. His aim was wide. It splashed beside him.

6.

Scav and Thrud saw her at the very last moment. They were sitting in a tavern, Scav playing a hand of red queens while Thrud stood nearby, watching for cheaters. So far, he didn’t need to break any fingers.

The Baking Lady rushed in with her iron club, screaming Scav’s name. Everyone got out of her way. Scav turned and dodged at the very last moment, as I said above, as her club smashed the wooden table in two, sending cards and coins everywhere.

“Scav!” she shouted. “You little gunga!”

Now, gunga is a very bad word in the orkish language. I’m not going to tell you what it means. You’ll just have to trust me that it’s a very bad word, indeed.

The Baking Lady took another swing at his head and he ducked, just in time. Lucky for him, because she would have taken his head clean off. Everyone knows what happens when the Baking Lady hits you with her club. She may be the Baking Lady, but she’s still an ork, and she knows how to use that club.

Thrud grabbed the end of the club as she swung it a second time. She turned and faced him.

“And you!” she shouted. She tried pulling the club away from Thrud, but he was having none of that. 

“Give me back my club so I can smash your brother’s head down into his shoulders!”

Thrud shook his head, maintaining his grip on the end of her club.

“Fine!” she said. “I’ll kill him with my bare hands!”

She let go of the club and chased after Scav. The small ork was hiding behind a table. 

“Now, why are you so mad at me?” Scav said. “I didn’t do no harm to you.”

“They took my baking license!” she shouted, grabbing the table and throwing it over her head. All the way over her head. She was an ork, after all.

Scav backed up to the wall, raising his hands. “Baking license? I didn’t have anything to…”

“The order came from the House of Tal!” she shouted. She grabbed his collars and shoved Scav against the wall. “From the House of Tal, Scav! What did you do?”

“N-nothing!” he managed to say through his clenched throat. “I promise! We didn’t do anything!”

The Baking Lady looked into Scav’s eyes. Then, keeping her grip on his collar, she looked at Thrud. “Is he telling the truth?”

Thrud nodded, holding her club with both hands in a kind of reverent way that only orks would notice.

She looked back at Scav and growled, showing her teeth. Scav just smiled. “I promise.” Then, he whispered the Baking Lady’s orkish name.

“I promise,” he said again.

The Baking Lady’s growl subsided and she let Scav’s collar go. He slid down the wall to the floor. 

“I have the red hate, Scav,” she said. And Scav knew what she meant. “I want my baking license back.”

Scav nodded. “I’ll fix it.”

“I’ll fix you!” she shouted and charged at him again, teeth and jaws open. 

Scav raised his hands again, averting his eyes. “I’ll fix it! We’ll fix it!”

“Go do that,” she said. “I hate going to the Upper City. Don’t make me do it, Scav. Because I will.”

“Throd and I will get your baking license back.”

She stormed over to Throd and held out her hand. Throd gave her the club. She gave him a small nod and he returned it. Then, she stormed out of the tavern.

7.

Scav knew the Baking Lady wasn’t really trying to hit him, because if she did, she would have hit him. The Baking Lady wasn’t always the Baking Lady. She learned how to use that club in places Scav never wanted to go. But she had to make a fuss because that’s one of the rules of the street: never invoke the wrath of the Baking Lady.

She also said, “I have the red hate.” I should tell you what that means.

For orks, everything is a circle. What you do comes back to you. Action means consent. If you rob someone, that’s telling Fate that it’s okay for someone to rob you. If you strike someone, that’s telling Fate that it’s okay for someone to strike you. Only do unto others what you’re willing to happen to you. That’s what orks mean when they talk about “Fate keeps the circles.” Everything you do comes back to you.

Now, if someone hurts you first, that means its okay to hurt them back. After all, if they’re okay with knocking out a few of your teeth, they should be okay with you doing the same to them. That’s why you have to be careful with how you treat an ork. Every action is a signal of consent.

And that’s why orkish jewelry is always in circles. It’s a reminder. 

When the Baking Lady said, “I have the red hate,” it meant, “I’m willing to hurt someone.” Now, the elves and humans and others in the tavern may not know what that meant, but Scav did. It meant he had to fix this problem before the Baking Lady used that club of hers and smashed someone’s head in. The Baking Lady didn’t want to smash Javin Tal’s head in because she didn’t want that circle coming back to her.

Granted, Javin Tal started all this. He smashed up her cart and he cut up her face, which means he had given permission for the Baking Lady to do the same, but you have to know something about the Baking Lady to understand why she didn’t want Scav and Thrud to close that circle.

See, the Baking Lady doesn’t like violence. She doesn’t like revenge. She’ll do it if she has to, but she won’t make it carry out. If she can move on without finishing the circle, that’s just fine by her. 

So, as far as she was concerned, the incident with the nob brats was over. But when the House of Tal pulled its strings to get her baking license revoked…

The red hate.

Walking down the Lower City streets, Scav thought out loud.

“She said red hate, big brother.”

Throd nodded.

“We can’t have the Baking Lady walk around with red hate.”

Throd shook his head.

“Got to fix this.”

Throd nodded.

That’s when Scav stopped. He realized they had been walking toward the gate to the Upper City and someone was whistling. Scav looked up and saw the watchman by the gate. He was deliberately not looking at them and whistling.

Scav stepped closer. “And what you got to whistle about?” Scav shouted at the guard.

The guard stopped whistling and his face turned red. He made a slight gesture with his hand. Scav repeated the gesture back at him and the guard made it again.

Scav and Thrud walked over. The guard looked up at Thrud and down at him and the guard said to Scav, “Are you the two orks who talked to Dannel?”

Thrud looked down at Scav and he shrugged. “Yeah.”

“Good,” the guard said. And he rang the bell.

8.

A few days later, Javin Tal and his friends came down the lift to the Lowers, laughing and half-drunk already. When the lift landed, they poked at the guard and went on their way into the Lower City.

They managed to hit two taverns before they came by the street where they met the Baker Lady. And there she was, in front of her little cart, counting the money she made that day.

“Hey!” Javin shouted. “It’s that pastry ork!”

The Baking Lady looked up. She dropped the coins and paper and ran into the alleyway behind her cart. Javin and his crew followed, chasing after her.

They followed her down the alleyway, then followed her to the left. The narrow streets only allowed one of them at a time, so Javin was in front, chasing as quickly as his drunken legs could. When she made another turn, he stumbled, fell and hit his chin on the cobblestones. He cursed, pushed himself back up and…

… he paused. Looked behind him.

There was no one. None of his friends. 

That’s when Thrud stepped out from the corner he just turned. He tossed a tall noble with red curly hair onto the cobblestones. A wide grin on his face that looked a lot like his brother’s.

“Well, well, well,” said a voice that made Javin spin. “All alone, ain’t ya?”

Javin saw a small ork with a brown cloak, a sword at his side. Out of instict, Javin said, “How does an ork get a license to carry a sword?”

Scav rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. “Coin, my nobber. Coin.” 

Both Scav and Thrud moved closer. Javin drew his sword. But he was drunk and his stance was poor. He could barely stand. Without his friends to help him, he stumbled, grasped the wall for balance.

“You’re about to learn a very valuable lesson about the streets, my nobber gunga,” Scav said. “That everything’s a circle. And what you do… comes back to you.”

Javin thrusted his blade at Scav but the thrust was wild. Scav dodged it easily. From behind, Thrud grabbed Javin around the arms and lifted him off his feet. He squeezed and Javin dropped his sword. Javin almost screamed.

Scav walked up to the noble, but his head only reached Javin’s chest what with Thrud holding him up like that.

“Now, you should know,” Scav said, “that this isn’t personal. This is just what happens when you come down to the street and kick around the Baking Lady.”

Scav took Javin’s hand in his hands and extended one of Javin’s fingers.

“Nobody invokes the wrath of the Baking Lady,” he said and squeezed his grip around Javin’s finger.

“Wait!” Javin screamed. “Wait! Stop! I’ll do whatever you want! I’ll do anything!”

“Ain’t this you’re dueling hand, Javin Tal of House Tal?” He kept his grip tight on Javin’s finger, but didn’t move it.

“Yes!” Javin screamed.

“And if you weren’t able to use it, you wouldn’t be able to duel, would you?”

“Yes!” Javin screamed again. His eyes were shut and watering. 

“So, you’d best make peace with the Baking Lady, shouldn’t you?”

“Yes!” Javin’s voice was breaking now and Scav was sure the nob would pass out from fear at any time, so he let go of Javin’s finger.

“This is what you’re going to do,” Scav said, reaching into his big bag of little things. He found a rolled up parchment and unrolled it. The scroll had a seal. The governor’s seal. “Look here,” Scav said.

Javin opened his eyes and saw the parchment. “H-how did you get that?”

Scav rubbed his fingers together again. “I’m surprised at you, Javin Tal of House Tal. Don’t you know how the city works?” He also procured a quil and a small jar of ink. He opened the jar, dipped the quil and put it in Javin’s hand.

“This is a rebuke of your claims against the Baking Lady,” he said. “And an apology.”

“Wh-hut?”

“You heard me. Now sign it.”

Javin blinked and something changed in his face. Pride started replacing fear. “No. I won’t.”

Scav shrugged. “All right. No more dueling for you.” He put down the parchment and the quil and grabbed Javin’s middle finger.

“NO!” Javin screamed. “I’ll sign it! I’ll sign it!”

“Good!” Scav said, his face all alight in joy. He gave Javin the quil and he put his signature on the parchment in a quick, unsteady hand.

“Thank you, Javin Tal of House Tal,” Scav said. He blew on the ink until it was dry, then he rolled up the parchment. “You can let him go.”

Thrud dropped the nob to his feet and Javin stumbled and fell on his backside. Scav kicked his sword to Thrud and the big ork broke it across his knee, tossing the pieces into the darkness of the alleyway. The two orks then started walking away.

“What… that’s it?” Javin said.

Scav stopped and turned. “That’s it. You’re finished, Javin Tal of House Tal.”

“For apologizing to an ork?” He laughed. Laughed so hard he coughed. “Nobody in the Upper City cares about that! You idiot! You’ve gained nothing!”

Scav and Throd just kept walking. Javin kept laughing.

9.

Eventually, he and his nob friends made it back to the lifts. They were bloodied and bruised, but at least their fingers weren’t broken. That’s what Javin was thinking. He was also thinking about how he was going to burn the entire Lower City down looking for that damn pastry ork and her two friends. He’d make examples of them, all right. He would.

When they reached the lift, Javin showed his papers. “Javin Tal of…”

“Javin Tal of House Tal,” the guard said. “You are under arrest.”

Javin shook his head. “What are you talking about?”

More guards appeared. Without his sword, Javin could do nothing but watch as they surrounded him and his friends with spears and crossbows.

“Under arrest? For what?”

The guard showed him a rolled up parchment with a seal. The governor’s seal. Through his drunk haze, he looked at it… and saw his signature at the bottom.

“Under arrest for kicking an ork? Are you joking? Do you know who I am? Do you know who my father is?”

“That is not what this charge reads,” the guard said. 

Javin looked again, squinting. And when he saw the words, he started to cry.

10.

You never see orks in the Upper City. You just don’t. They need permits to travel up the lifts and no governor is going to give an ork a permit to travel in the Upper City.

So when Dannel Drill awoke in his hospital bed as the nurse changed his bandages, he did not expect to see the Baking Lady standing a the stoop of his bed. He blinked and smiled, and she vanished.

He looked up at the nurse. “Is there someone at the foot of my bed?”

The nurse looked. “No. It’s the opium. For the pain. It’s making you see things.”

She finished his dressing, then turned and had a small box in her hand. “But someone sent you this.”

Dannel Drill took the box and opened it. Inside were three vanilla tarts.

The Courage of Tamyn Taval: Part 1, Chapter 2

2

 

Later that night, she stood with Shy in a library. Count Jonsen held a book in his hand. He was tall, dark-haired, well-dressed, and well-groomed. Everything a count should be. He wore a heavy cloak—the room was cold with the autumn evening—and purple velvets. He set the book down, took a breath, then sat. He looked at them.

“All dead?” he asked.

Tamyn nodded. “Yes, sir.” Her hair was matted and her clothes torn. The scar on her face was no longer bleeding but had turned an awful red color. Her elven blood was working on it. She had not bothered to change. Shy stood beside her in the same condition.

He turned and sat down at a small table. He lifted a silver cover and looked at the meal beneath it. Lamb, steamed vegetables, bread. He began carving the lamb. “And you think it was a trap?”

“I know it was a trap, sir,” she told him.

He finished with the knife and picked up his fork, pausing before he ate. “How do you know?”

She felt the scar on her cheek burn. Shy stitched it well enough, but the pain was still sharp. “Sir,” she told him, “no one knew which way we were traveling. From which way we were to approach the forest.”

“The bandits did,” Count Jonsen said. He nodded, slowly understanding.

She nodded. “Yes. Exactly.”

He took a bite of the lamb and smiled. Then, he said, “That indicates someone in this household overheard my orders and your plans.” He shook his head. “Household intrigue. I don’t like it.”

Tamyn felt her stomach grumble. Watching Jonsen eat after days of dried fruit and meat. She heard a sound come from Shy’s belly.

“Oh, forgive me,” Jonsen said. “You must be famished.” He turned to a servant. “Please, fetch two more plates.”

The servant nodded and turned away. Jonsen picked up a goblet of wine. “Now,” he said. “How will we unveil this… spy in my household?”

“Fire the servants,” Tamyn said.

Jonsen made a sour face. “All of them?”

She nodded. “All of them.”

He shook his head. “Nonsense,” he said. “Surely, there is a way to do this that doesn’t involve such drastic measures.”

“If I may, sir?” Shy asked.

The count nodded and Shy continued.

“Tamyn and I have seen this before. Your brothers want your title. And if they’re willing to kill twelve men to get at you, they’re willing to kill you.”

The count laughed. “Nonsense,” he said. “Killing hired mercenaries is one thing, but my brothers would never…”

He saw the looks on Tamyn and Shy’s faces.

“You’re serious, aren’t you?”

Tamyn nodded. “Yes, sir. We are.”

The count thought about that while he sipped his wine. He made a face, looking at the cup. “Bitter,” he said. He looked at a servant. “Fetch me another bottle. This one has gone bad.”

Tamyn looked at Shy. There was panic in his eyes. Both of them rushed forward. Shy knocked the glass from the count’s hand. Tamyn screamed at the servant.

“Water!” she said. “Fetch water! Now!”

The servant’s eyes grew wide and confused.

“Now!” she shouted again.

The servant rushed out.

“What is going…” the count tried to speak, but Tamyn held his jaw.

“Stay still!” she said. Then, she looked at Shy. “Hold him!”

Shy grabbed the count’s hands and held them down to the chair. “I’m sorry, sir.”

The count looked at her. “What treason is this?” he shouted.

“Shut up,” she said. Then, she pulled off her muddy gloves and shoved two fingers down the count’s throat.

He choked an objection. Tamyn kept his jaws apart with her left hand, reaching with her right. Then, she heard the sound she was reaching for. The count’s body buckled and she withdrew her fingers.

The count vomited on the table, his body wrenching. Both Tamyn and Shy held him. Then, when he was finally still, they eased their grip.

“What…” the count started. “What…”

Shy sniffed the bottle, then nodded at Tamyn.

“Arsenic,” she told the count. “In your wine.”

The count shook his head. His body was still trembling as he sat in the chair. His hands shaking. “Madness,” he said. “Complete and utter madness.”

The servant returned then, holding a pitcher of water. Shy took it and gave it to the count. “Drink this,” he said. “All of it.”

The count looked at Shy like he was mad. “Water?”

Tamyn nodded. “All of it.”

He looked at the pitcher, then at them. He drank. He drank until the pitcher was empty. Then, he put the pitcher on the library table.

“Someone is trying to kill me,” he said.

Tamyn nodded. “Yes. They used the bandits to draw us away, then tried to poison you.”

The count stood up for a moment, swaying. Tamyn and Shy held him. He shook them off.

“This is enough,” he said. “I am retiring my chair in the Senate.” He stepped over to a bookshelf, barely able to hold himself up. “Retiring. I will give my title to one of my brothers.”

Tamyn shook her head. “No, sir. You cannot do that. This is what they want you to…”

The count held up his hand. “The two of you will be well compensated, but I have no further need of you.” He waved at them. “Go see my clerk. He will pay you for your service to me.”

Tamyn looked at Shy. He grinned, slightly. She looked back at the count, knowing there was no convincing him.

“Thank you for saving my life,” the count said. “But your services are no longer needed.”

The count looked at the servant. “Show them out.”

The servant stepped forward, gesturing toward the library door. Tamyn and Shy walked out.

Once they were out the door and in the corridor, she told Shy, “He will be dead in a week.”

Shy shook his head. “A silver says less.”

The Courage of Tamyn Taval: Part 1, Chapter 1

Part One

Shy and Tam

 

1

Tamyn Taval looked at the dead man in front of her, his empty eyes glaring into hers. A moment ago he was alive, but now, he was like a doll, silently staring. The arrow in his throat was meant for her. It skimmed by her cheek, ripping skin.

She ducked, fell from her horse and hit the ground hard. Her shoulder disagreed with that tactic. She rolled and found cover under a fallen tree. From under the tree, she looked back and saw who the arrow had struck. It was Jenns. The big man was holding his throat, the arrow sticking out between his fingers. That was when the second arrow struck him in the chest. He fell from his horse, his neck making that sick sound of breaking bones. He fell right in front of her, his eyes looking at her. His dead doll eyes.

It was less than a breath ago, but everything moved so slowly. She saw more arrows hit the other riders. They fell, too. She heard the screams of the dying all around her. Seven men and five women. The men and women of Count Jonsen’s Courage.

She looked to the woods, trying to find her attackers, but the forest hid them from her. Her cheek began to ache. She touched it, saw blood on her fingertips, and for a moment, she was surprised. She had forgotten the arrow. She tasted something bitter on her tongue. Then, someone whispered her name.

“Tamyn,” the voice said. She looked up and away from the dead man.

“Over here!” the voice whispered.

She found it. Just beyond the body, hidden well in the green. A small man with dark hair and blue eyes who looked like he could squeeze through a beer bottle if he had to. It was Shyver.

“Shy?” she asked.

He nodded. For some reason, she marked that he had no arrows in his throat or in his chest. For years, she would remember this moment, not understanding why.

“Are you hurt?” Shy asked, keeping his voice low.

Tamyn shook her head, not saying anything.

“They were waiting for us,” he said. An arrow flew by, but he did not need to dodge. It wasn’t for him.

She nodded. “Agreed.” Tamyn took a breath. Her thoughts were coming back to her now. “We will deal with that later,” she told him. “We need to get out of here.”

“Who is left?” Shy asked.

She dared a look around. Tamyn saw many bodies, none of them moving. She looked back at him. “Just us.”

“You’re right,” he said. “We need to get out of here.”

Tamyn thought about what he said. They were waiting for us.

She looked at Shy. “Whoever gave us up is also after the count.”

Shy didn’t understand for a moment, then his eyes showed her that he did. “Pull us away from him,” he said.

She nodded. “We have to get back to the castle.”

As she spoke, three more arrows hit the tree she hid behind.

“That is going to be more difficult than it sounds,” Shy told her.

Tamyn looked around. Between her fallen tree and Shy there was only open ground. She could run, but she would be an easy target. She thought for a moment.

She looked for a horse. None within reach. Then, she looked at the dead man. She saw nothing to help her.

Tamyn shouted to Shyven. “Do you have any oil?”

He nodded, ducking back into the green. He came back with an oil pouch. “Here!” he shouted, tossing it to her. She caught it and worked off the top.

She could hear movement in the woods. They were closing in.

Keeping close to the ground, she poured the oil over the fallen tree. As she did, Tamyn thought, My mother would never forgive me for this.

Then, she took out her smoking kit. She pulled out one of the black matches and struck it against the box. Nothing.

More movement. They were closer.

She struck it again. This time, it caught. She tossed the match on the tree and the oil caught, erupting into flames.

And she ran.

She kept low, hoping the fire would cover her movement. She ran fast, pushing against time. Then, when she reached Shy’s tree, she jumped. A swarm of arrows flew by her. She heard shouting from the archers. She looked at Shy and he smiled.

“Lucky,” he told her. “As usual.”

She touched her cheek. “Close this time.”

“We are near Invir Falls,” he said. “We can get horses at the way station there.”

More arrows flew by them, but the archers were just shooting blind now. She looked back at the bodies she was leaving behind. Then, she looked at Shy. “They’re all…”

He shook his head. “We won’t do Count Jonsen any good if we join them,” he said.

She nodded and turned away from the woods. Shy ducked down, running low. She was right behind him.

A few miles down the road, they found the Invir Falls way station. The guard recognized them from when they passed earlier. His name was Reg. Tamyn remembered thinking he was too young to be a guard when she first saw him. That was barely an hour ago. Seemed like a year ago.

“You’re a sight!” Reg shouted out to them. He ran, bringing a flask of water. Tamyn took it and drank deep. Then, she gave it to Shy.

“We need your horses,” she told Reg.

He nodded. “Of course. Anything for the count’s courage!” He ran off to the stable, grabbing saddles and preparing the horses.

She looked at Shy. “I’m going to fix this,” she said, pointing at her cheek. Shy nodded and drank more water.

The way station was small and unequipped. A building with two rooms and a sorry excuse for a stable. They were lucky there were any horses at all. She walked inside, found a washing basin and a mirror. She threw off her backpack and got her sewing kit out. She looked at her face in the mirror.

She saw her father’s brown hair fall down over brown eyes, all covered in dirt and blood. Human hair, human eyes. From under that hair, she saw her mother’s features: high cheekbones and elven ears.

She washed the blood and dirt off her face. When she looked back in the mirror, she saw Shy standing behind her. He was shorter than her, but only a little. Her mother’s blood again. He smiled when their eyes met in the mirror.

“You need help with that?” he asked.

She nodded. “Yes.” Her voice made her sound relieved.

“You never were any good with blood,” he told her.

“I know.”

He took the needle and thread from her thin fingers. His were thick and strong, covered with callouses.

“So why do this?” he asked. He threaded the needle.

She sat down and braced herself. “All the years we’ve known each other,” she told him, “and you’ve never asked me that.”

Shy leaned forward and pinched her skin together. He looked her in the eyes. “You should be drunk for this,” he said.

“One or two sips would do it,” she told him, smiling.

He laughed. “Thin elven blood.”

“Half-elven,” she corrected him.

He smiled. “I know.” Then, he stopped smiling. “Hold still,” he said.

She clenched her fingers against the bench and clenched her teeth together.

He frowned. “This isn’t the first time we’ve done this.”

She sighed. “Always feels like it.”

The needle pierced her skin and she winced.

“So,” he asked again. “Why do you do this?”

“You should be asking why do we do this.”

“All right,” he said. “Why do we do this?”

“The coin,” she said.

He shook his head. “More money doing other things.”

“It’s an honest living.”

She winced again and he put more water on the wound, cleaning away the blood. “Stay still.”

“Trying,” she said.

He put the needle through her skin and pulled it back out. “You still haven’t answered me.”

“I’ve given you answers,” she said. “You just haven’t liked them.” She winced. He tied off a knot.

“Done,” he said. “As well as can be expected considering the circumstances.”

She looked in the mirror. A bloody mess.

“Not your first scar,” Shy said.

She touched it. “Are the horses ready?”

He looked out the door. “Looks like it.”

She stood up. “Then let’s go. The count needs us.”

The Courage of Tamyn Taval: Prelude

Back when I was working on Wicked Fantasy, I wrote a novella set in that world called “The Courage of Tamyn Taval.” Years later, I expanded the novella, adding a whole bunch of new words and some subplots. It’s been sitting on my CPU for a couple of years, not really doing anything. This seemed like a good opportunity to make it public and let folks read through it. I’ll be releasing one chapter per day. Enjoy!

 

* * *

 

THE COURAGE OF TAMYN TAVAL

by

John Wick

 

 

courage

  1. The ability to act despite fear, withstand danger and difficulty
  2. mercenaries hired by a noble, usually to preserve the law and protect the noble’s subjects

The Reign Scholar’s Lexicon

After decades of civil war, the ten Cities of the Reign finally found peace, united as individual city-states. They established a Senate, complete with representatives of each City, to resolve internal issues as well as establish relations with the foreign nations of elves, orks, and others.

A History of the Reign, by Donnington True

 

 

Prelude

Tamyn stood perfectly still. Stay still and say nothing. That’s what her mother told her. Tamyn did as she was told.

The trees blocked out the sky. All she could see was green. Tamyn felt their presence, felt them watching. She looked with her eyes but did not move her neck. The trees spoke in song. She heard it. Distantly, like an echo, or like a voice from the other side of a hill. Their voices in harmony. Deep and low.

Tamyn’s mother stood beside her, holding her hand. Tamyn bit her tongue. She could feel her mother’s nervousness in her grip, right on the edge of pain. Tamyn felt her mother’s fingers trembling. Felt her pulse. Felt the heat and sweat in her grip. She was afraid. All her life, Tamyn never knew her mother to be afraid.

Standing among the trees were the elves. They were taller than anyone Tamyn had ever seen before. Their hair was silver or gold or midnight and fell down as low as the ground. Their feet were bare. Their gowns shimmered like moonlight. They wore swords that did the same. When the first one spoke, her voice was like it was spoken in bells.

“Who comes before us?” the voice said. Tamyn winced. The sound wasn’t painful, but it rang in her ears and echoed for long moments after.

“I am Sylvel, Daughter of Reigyl.” Tamyn’s mother said. “And I bring my daughter, Tamyn.”

“Let us see her,” the voice said.

Sylvel let go of her daughter’s hand and Tamyn knew what to do next. She stepped forward onto the wet, cold forest floor. It was like stepping onto frozen grass. It crunched as she put down her feet. But it was still green. And when she lifted her foot, the grass resumed its shape as if no one had ever stepped there for a thousand years.

Tamyn stepped until the voice said, “Stop.” She did as the voice commanded. Even now, she doesn’t remember how long she stood in that spot, but it seemed like a dream. An eternity stretched into a single moment. She stood still until the voice said, “Go back to your mother.”

The voice ran through her like a cold wind cutting through her bones. Tamyn turned on her heel and ran back as quickly as she could. She put herself against her mother’s side.

“Why did you bring this to us?” the voice asked. The bells were deeper, darker. Tamyn covered her ears, but she could still hear it echoing in her head. She felt her heart pounding against her chest, her belly quaking.

Sylvel said, “She is my daughter. My blood.”

“She is a man child,” the voice said. “Her father’s blood.”

Sylvel shook her head. “No. He is not her father. She has no father. He does not know her.”

“You were reckless with your seed,” the voice said.

Tamyn felt her mother’s fear turn to something else. She felt her mother’s muscles stiffen. Felt her breath get short. She could almost hear Sylvel clench her teeth.

“She is my daughter,” Sylvel said. “And you will not speak of her in that way.”

Laughter then. All around them. Tamyn’s knees shook.

“You dare to speak to the Council of Trees with a threat in your voice?”

“The Council of Trees…” Sylvel said the word with plain and pure contempt. “…does not represent me. My lineage isn’t pure enough.”

“Take your thing back to the Reign of Men,” the voice said. “Take it back to where corruption thrives.”

Tamyn looked up at Sylvel. “Mother?” she asked.

“Do not listen to them,” Tamyn’s mother said. She did not look down at her daughter, only at the circle of elves. “They do not know you. They cannot see what I see.”

Sylvel put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder and walked away from the circle of trees. A voice called after them.

“You are no longer welcome here, Sylvel, Daughter of Reigyl. Do not come back until you have cleansed yourself of the filth in your blood.”

Sylvel stopped. She turned to look at the elves and the trees. She shouted.

“One day, you will regret your foolish aristocracy. And you will pay for it.” Then, she turned away, leading her daughter from the forest. Laughter followed them until they hit sunlight.

#

They camped at the base of a mountain, the start of the long and twisting road leading up to the City of Tamerclimb. A city in the Reign of Men.

“It will be a long way up,” Sylvel told her daughter. “But we will find shelter there.”

Tamyn nodded and stoked the fire. She built a small wood structure to hold their pot above the flames. The water boiled and Sylvel dropped herbs she crushed into it. Tamyn wanted to ask about the Council of Trees, but knew it would upset her mother, so she said nothing.

A little while later, a young man approached them, walking along the stone road. He stopped. Tamyn saw his fine, dark hair falling over blue eyes. She thought he looked handsome. He looked at the stew and said, “I have carrots.”

Sylvel gestured for the man to sit. He opened his pack and retrieved three carrots. He offered them to Sylvel and she broke them into pieces, tossing them into the stew.

The man extended his hand. “Oliver,” he said.

“Sylvel,” she said, then gestured to her daughter. “This is Tamyn.”

“Hello!” Tamyn said.

Oliver touched his fingers to his brow. “Pleased to meet you.”

Tamyn kept stirring the pot, making sure the water did not boil over. They all sat quietly until Oliver said, “Going to Tamerclimb, then?”

Sylvel nodded. “We are.”

Oliver sighed. “Not my place to say so, but…” he paused. Tamyn saw his face turn to concern. “There are plenty in Tamerclimb who would give you grief.”

Sylvel looked confused. “I thought Tamerclimb was the home of the palatines?”

Oliver nodded. “That’s true.” He took a flask from his pouch and sipped from it. Tamyn smelled something awful from the other side of the fire. She made a face. Oliver saw it. He smiled and raised the flask. “Whiskey,” he said. “Not for little girls.”

“Smells like it isn’t for anyone,” Tamyn said.

That made Oliver laugh. “Probably true, little one.”

Sylvel said, “Why shouldn’t we go to Tamerclimb? The palatines are sworn to protect the Reign.”

“Exactly,” Oliver said. “Protect the Reign…from elves and dwarves and orks and the rest of the non-human peoples.”

Sylvel shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

Oliver took another swig of his whiskey. “You see, the Reign isn’t exactly friendly to elves. Or orks. Or anything that isn’t human.”

Sylvel nodded. “I’ve noticed. But I thought Tamerclimb would be different.”

Oliver frowned. “It is. In a way. You may find a few who aren’t…you know…”

Sylvel nodded. “I do.”

“But they’ll be few and far between. Most of Tamerclimb hates elves.”

Sylvel shook her head, throwing her stirring spoon into the pot. “Then where are we to go? The elves won’t take us! The Reign won’t take us! Where? Where?” Sylvel tucked her head down and put her hands over her face.

Slowly, and carefully, Oliver put his hand on her shoulder. “I don’t know what to tell you. I’m sorry. But Tamerclimb…I don’t think it’s the right place for you.”

Sylvel lifted her head, her eyes red and ready for tears. “Where then? Where can we go? To the orks, maybe?”

Oliver shook his head. “No. Absolutely not. But…maybe…”

Sylvel looked at him. “Yes? Tell me. Please.”

Tamyn saw him thinking. Considering what he would say next. Finally, he spoke. “Jinix,” he said. But he said it, jinx. Something Tamyn would remember.

Sylvel shook her head. “What? Why? The city…”

“City of thieves,” Oliver said. “Yes. That’s what the other Cities call us.”

Sylvel tilted her head. “Us? You are from there?”

Oliver nodded. “I am. Born and raised there.”

Tamyn saw her mother look at the hand on her shoulder, then quickly look down to check her belt pouch.

“Relax,” Oliver said. “I’m not here for that. Besides, I took a vow. Rob no widow or orphan.”

Sylvel did relax, but only a little. “How do you know I’m a widow?”

He took his hand away and reached into the pot, quickly grabbing at the wooden spoon. Took him two tries, but he got it. He wiped his hands on his trousers, hissing through his teeth. “Why else would an elf and her daughter be on the road alone?”

Sylvel shook her head. “All I have learned of the people of the Reign is to not trust them.”

Oliver nodded. “That makes sense. But I hope I have earned a little trust?”

Sylvel looked at him for a long time. Finally, she said, “A little.”

He smiled. “Good. Let me tell you why I’m here. Perhaps some honesty will earn a little more.” He stirred the spoon, preventing the soup from boiling over. “I’m here to pick up something and bring it back to Jinix.”

“What is that?” Syvlel asked.

“My nephew, Shyver.” He stirred a bit more, then he said, “I think it’s ready.” He tasted the stew from the spoon and nodded. “It is.”

Oliver served it out and they sat together and ate. Tamyn listened as he spoke.

“He came here with his sister. But it isn’t working out. She asked me to come get him.”

“She’s giving her son to you?” Sylvel asked.

Oliver nodded. “Seems he’s ‘not appropriate’ for Tamerclimb.” He sipped the stew and made a warm sound with his throat. “This is good.”

“The herbs make the soup,” Sylvel said.

Oliver sipped more. Then, he put down the bowl and reached into his jacket. He pulled out a letter, handed it to Sylvel. “This is from her.”

Sylvel took the letter and read it. Tamyn watched her eyes move over the page. She knew how to read the language of the elves, but not the Reign. Not yet. Her mother folded the note and gave it back to him.

“I understand,” she said.

Oliver put the note back in his jacket then took the bowl back into his hands. “I’m picking him up. Bringing him back to Jinix. Raise him there.”

Sylvel almost laughed. “You’re taking him from Tamerclimb to raise him in Jinix?”

“Yeah,” he said, laughing. “It’s a funny story.” He pointed at Sylvel with his spoon. “Come with me. We’ll travel together. Better to travel like that.”

Sylvel considered it.

“I thought I’d have to make the whole trip on my own,” he said. “It’d be good to have company.”

Tamyn watched her mother. Finally, Sylvel smiled and nodded. “Yes. We will.”

“Good,” Oliver said. “Let’s finish the stew. I have some whiskey, if you want it.”

“We have a tent,” Tamyn said, her sudden enthusiasm startling her.

Oliver looked at Sylvel. “I wouldn’t presume.”

“It is big enough for all of us,” Sylvel said. “And your nephew.”

Oliver nodded. “All right then. It’s a deal.”

They all ate together until the stew was gone. Sylvel sipped some of the whiskey and made a sour face. Oliver laughed. “Told you. Not for young women.”

“I am no woman,” Sylvel said. “I am an elf.”

“Not for elves, either.” He lit a pipe and laid back, his hand on his belly. Tamyn washed the pot in the nearby river, using sand and water to get it clean. When she returned, Oliver and her mother were speaking. They stopped as soon as she could hear their voices. Oliver began telling stories. Tamyn spent all night listening until she couldn’t keep her eyes open. She felt her mother putting her into the tent.

Later that night, she heard the both of them talking again, outside the tent by the fire. But her eyes were heavy and she fell asleep.

 

Cthulhu and the Wreck of the Sloop John B

(This is from a spelling I performed on my 50th birthday and part of a roleplaying game called “Secret: A Little Game about Magic,” which will be the last RPG I ever publish.)

Thursday November 15, 2018

Spent all day listening to different versions of the Sloop John B. All day.

The Kingston Trio version invokes the original language of Nassau. “Well, I feel so broke up, I want to go home.” Every song a sailor sings is about going home.

When I first heard Brian Wilson’s poppy, happy, melancholy chimes and perfect chorus, I thought the music undermined the lyrics. It wants me to feel happy, but sad. But then I learned more about Wilson, and it made sense.

His depression. Hearing voices. Seeing visions. And I hear the song differently now. Just a little knowledge, and my whole impression changes.

When one of the Beach Boys, Al Jardine, brought the song to Wilson, he originally rejected it. “I don’t like folk music.” But Jardine changed the chord structure to better fit a Beach Boys song and re-presented it. He left the studio, and the next morning, Wilson phoned him to come back in. He had re-arranged and recorded the song in less than 24 hours. That kind of obsession only comes coupled with a crippling depression that makes a man never want to leave his home. When the Barenaked Ladies sing “Lyin’ in bed, just like Brian Wilson did,” that’s the Brian Wilson they’re singing about.

I listen now and I hear the boppy music and the melancholy lyrics and it feels like the song was his own Voice of Depression thrown at a mixing board.

When I was a boy, my depression was a ghost hovering over my shoulder, constantly reminding me of ways to kill myself.

“You could do it now. Just jump off the bridge.”

“You could do it now. Just swerve the car into traffic.”

“You could do it now. Eat all the pills in the medicine cabinet.”

And the only time I felt good was in the shower. Just standing under hot water pelting my naked body. That made me feel good. I felt warm and safe. I’d take fifteen minute showers. Thirty minute showers. Just standing there in the hot water. My thoughts would turn to anything other than suicide. In fact, hurting myself was never an option in that place. My best ideas come from standing in the shower, just thinking.

Making music must have been the same way for Wilson. Imagine him, sitting behind the mixing board, focused on the harmonies and chord changes, his mind completely devoted to his work. Thoughts of razors and pills and traffic long gone, kept away behind the locked studio door.

When he says, “Why don’t you let me go home?” I know exactly which voice he’s talking to.

Twenty-four hours. And he made a song that people still sing. Almost as if he had no choice in the matter. As if it was protecting him from something.

I’m only thirteen years old when I find Call of Cthulhu in the Spencer’s Gifts. Walking in with ten dollars from mowing lawns, I planned on spending that money at the arcade next door, but I stopped here first. The people at Spencer’s Gifts have no idea what it is and have marked it down to ten bucks. They don’t even charge me tax for it. “Just take it, kid.”

I have no idea what this thing is. But I know the names “Lovecraft” and “Cthulhu.” But it’s a game, too? Like Monopoly or Clue.

I open the box. The sweet smell of freshly printed paper rushes up to greet me. I have my first roleplaying game. Within 24 hours, I have friends over to try it.

I don’t need thirty minute showers anymore. I have something else. I can tell stories.

More than thirty years later, I’m running Pendragon for my friends. The game begins with Uther becoming the King of England and ends with Arthur being taken away to Avalon. It’s a long haul. Sometimes as long as two years of real time.

Six months into the game, my friend Rob writes this:

 

 

And I remember why I run games. I love movies. Nobody can say that about movies. I love books. Nobody can say that about books. Nobody can say that about plays or comics or television shows.

RPGs are a unique medium that has unique effects on the audience. Performs a unique kind of magic. Alchemy. The art of telling the story that transforms the audience and the artist.

Greg Stafford wrote about this in Runequest. In his world of Glorantha, you can accompany a shaman into the Hero Realm and undergo an adventure, reliving a hero’s experience in his eyes, walking in his footsteps. Returning to the world, you are transformed by the experience. Whether he knew it or not—and I like to think he did—Greg made a roleplaying game about the roleplaying game experience: the Game Master helps you enter the world of heroes and gods, where you walk in a hero’s footsteps, seeing through her eyes, and then return to the world, transformed by the experience. By taking you on that journey, the shaman, or the GM, also cannot help but be transformed.

A true magic trick indeed.

And now, all of that rushes up into my head, all at once. A full throttle firehose blast of information. Sailing on the Sloop John B with Cthulhu off the starboard side and Greg in his captain’s hat just smiles and says, “We’ve got this.” He puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “It’s gonna be okay. I’m gonna get you home.”

Unreview: 1917

 

Unreview Rules:

  1. I must pay for it.
  2. I must like it.
  3. I try my best to use E-Prime

 

The only thing that eclipses my hatred of war is my admiration for soldiers.

— J. Berek

 

My favorite war movies are are about soldiers, not battles.

I lived for five years in Georgia. Before that, I lived in Minnesota and a little while in Iowa. While I lived there, I heard the Southern version of what happened during “The War of Northern Aggression” in history class. In the middle of 10th grade, I moved back to Minnesota, just in time to learn about “The Civil War.” Also just in time was the Ken Burns epic miniseries, and I watched every minute of that in rapt awe. It was then that I learned the best way to study a war is not going over battle plans, but reading the letters soldiers sent home. That’s when you learn what a war is “about.” Memorizing details about battles, tactics and strategies is fine—I’ve done my share of that, too—but if you want a first-hand account of what really happened, you read it from the hands and minds of the soldiers who fought it. When you do, you learn what war is really like. That’s why the Christian concept of Hell never frightened me. I’ve read about it in letters written in terrified hands, hoping someday all this horror will end.

If you don’t know already, 1917 tells the story of two soldiers in the middle of WWI’s No Man’s Land, racing to deliver a message before 1,600 British soldiers walk into a trap. Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deacon paint a great and terrible landscape for them to navigate. Ruins and corpses cover the beautiful French countryside, and oftentimes, the soldiers have to crawl over them both. WWI stands as a prime example of what happens in war: the armies fight using tactics and strategies from the last war, while technology has advanced far enough to make those tactics and strategies useless. Every war has this rule. Every war. The side who eventually wins usually realizes this first and starts fighting with the technology of today. The War to End All Wars had no answer for the accuracy of the firearms they used, for mustard gas, for armored militia, for aircraft, for anything. And because of that, millions of people died. For those who have no idea how humans burned through their own population, this movie will show you.

The only people who want to go to war don’t know what it is or how it works and the people who get stuck fighting it often wonder why they’re fighting. All through this film, the soldiers ask themselves and each other what they’re doing there. Nobody knows. Sure, they know what they’ve been told, but why are they really there? The soldiers reminded me of an old phrase from the American Civil War: “Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” That line didn’t start in America, and it’s been true for a lot longer than we’ve been around.

And yes, let me spend one moment talking about the gimmick: the story starts with the camera on the soldiers and it doesn’t leave them. From the moment they’re given the orders, the camera follows them. Using clever editing and CGI (both of which are seamless), there are no cuts. We’re with them the whole way. And it’s an endurance contest. It’s a marathon. Going at top speed, hoping to reach their destination in time to deliver the order that will save 1,600 souls, we follow every step. I spent the whole movie glued to the screen, afraid to blink.

The audience laughed. They gasped. Some of them turned their heads. Some of them covered their eyes. Nearly all of us cried. I didn’t until I was in the car, but once I was there, it came like water works.

I would see this movie again in a heartbeat. I may go to the matinee tomorrow. I loved this movie. What’s more, I think we all need to see this movie. If, for no other reason, we should all be reminded what we ask—no, what we order soldiers to do when rich men decide to go to war.

Unreview: Knives Out

Unreview Rules

  • I have to like it
  • I have to pay for it
  • I do my best to use E-Prime

NO SPOILERS

I grew up with Sherlock Holmes. He taught me the value of reason and logic (even if he did mix up “induction” and “deduction”). The quirky detective with all his faults and foibles served as one of my first heroes. Later, I learned of Hercule Poirot through The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Even later, Dashiell Hammett introduced me to the Continental Op and Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler gave me Philip Marlowe. But my favorite—my all time favorite—has got to be Columbo and his “anti-mysteries.” If you aren’t familiar, the structure of a Columbo movie (they were all TV movies) showed you the crime right up front, making the criminal the main character, and the suspense was wondering how Columbo would solve it. And that’s only half the fun. The other half is watching a seemingly bumbling, clumsy, rumpled police detective wander around from scene to scene. I say “seemingly” because behind that cigar and under that coat was a brilliant mind with a trickster’s smile.

So yeah, I got some game in this market. I sat down in the theater with my small bag of popcorn and watched the seats slowly fill up. For the first time in many months (I go to the movies a lot) someone sat in nearly every seat. I couldn’t remember a theater being that full.

Waiting for the movie to start, I’m thinking about the director, Rian Johnson. I love his work. He has this skill for taking the tropes of a genre and twisting them up. You’ve got expectations, he’ll dash them while maintaining true to the tropes themselves. It’s a bit of a juggling act, and he always pulls it off magnificently.

And this film takes the classic, old fashioned murder mystery (what Neil Simon calls “murder poo!” in his play Murder by Death) and plays that juggling act with the kind of expertise and clever plotting that he used in Brick.

(And if you haven’t seen Brick, you should. Like, right now.)

The audience around me visibly reacted to the movie. They laughed, they gasped, they inched to the edge of their seats and I was right there with them. And as I sat there in the dark, enamored with what I watched, I thought to myself, “This is what going to the movies is all about.” Getting a visceral reaction from the audience.

Benoit Blanc, as played by Daniel Craig, has quickly jumped up in my estimation of private detectives. Taking a little of Holmes, Poirot and Columbo, Johnson created a character I honestly hope to see again on the silver screen. I know sequels are traps, but I honestly love this character. And he’s not the only one. The entire cast chews on the scenery and has a blast doing it. And like Richard Levinson and William Link (the two gentlemen who created Columbo), he’s created a brand new way to tell a murder mystery. I won’t say anything else other than it amused me to no end.

A friend of mine recently said, “Rian Johnson is dead to me for what he did” to The Last Jedi. And while I felt that was probably his weakest film (I still liked it), I feel sorry for him because he won’t see this movie. I’m going back this weekend to see it again and I’d pay for his ticket.