Sunday, January 24, 2016

Book, Beast, Burglar, a story

The Book, the Beast and the Burglar

a short-story by Stephen Brooke ©2016

In a red leather book — what? No, I don't know what beast supplied the leather — as I said, in a red leather book in the loftiest tower of Hirstel, a city of lofty towers, were written the names of all the demon of the lower planes. There, well-warded, it lay in the highest room of that tower, rising above the palace of Piras Tindeval, Prince-Sorcerer. 

Hirstel, where all men are wizards, and all the cats, and most of the dogs, as well, was ruled over by Tindeval. His book of power had much to do with that. He kept it in a casket of silver, with the sign of Sebuchax thereon in gold. When the book was needed, the prince climbed the long stair of his tower and coming into the room — with due propitiation to the demon Qu'orthseth — he took it from its casket and read the names therein. Thus did he remain sovereign in the City of Sorcerers.

There was a young beggar, Im, who owned only castoff and broken spells. He was undoubtedly the weakest wizard within the five city walls of Hirstel, unless one counts some of the dogs and several of the rats. Rodents have never taken well to magic, yet some must attempt it.

His poverty was no fault of his own, but could be traced to his father, who had lost his only truly valuable enchantment gambling with a small and treacherous feline. There is little doubt that a cheating spell was employed in their game of three-penny, but it was impossible to prove. Moreover, the corrupt judges of Hirstel ever favored the winner, however he came by his success. So, the unfortunate man lost his post as garbage collector, as he no longer had a demon helper to carry any and all refuse to the far side of the moon, and passed away soon after, leaving his son without inheritance nor means of livelihood.

But Im was a bright lad, and an ambitious one. He meant to go to the top.

And looking up, one evening, he saw the top — the high tower room of Piras Tindeval. What did he have to lose? He would only starve if he remained without magic in a city of magic, and about Hirstel lay the empty sands of the desert, vast and reputably impassable.

What wards might lie above, what dangers? He and all of Hirstel knew the high chamber of the Prince-Sorcerer had its guardian. Yet Im began ascending, finding easy hand and footholds on the deeply carved shaft, decorated with the forms of the thousand and fourteen Demons of Droga. Now and again, Im found himself face to face with the horrifying visage of one of these, carved in the lustrous black marble, or was forced to place his hand on some repulsive element of their anatomy. Above blazed the bright stars of ever-clear skies. He could see the silvered dunes that surrounded the city walls from this vantage. What lay beyond?

And then he pulled himself stealthily through a narrow but unbarred window. There was no guard to be seen, nothing but a plain table of some dark, polished wood and, on that table, a silver chest. Carefully, quietly, he approached it and removed the book bound in red leather that he found within.

Im had but opened it when he felt a massive hand on his shoulder. “Hold,” came a deep groan of a voice. The creature — a demon, obviously — stood a head taller than the tallest man he had ever seen, and was allover red, a deep wine-red. He turned to face it. What else was there to do?

Its naked body was smooth, featureless, with no obvious musculature nor reproductive organs. Where a man might have a face, was a flat, blank expanse of shining red. Somewhat like a well-polished shield, he thought. “I am Qu'orthseth.” The words came like the wind-driven sand. “I regret that I must slay you, young man.”

Im considered leaping from the window. Surely dashing his brains out on the cobblestones far below would be preferable to being dismembered by this demon. He had heard tales of bits and pieces of would-be thieves being scattered about the base of the tower.

“You couldn't look the other way and let me slip out, could you?” It didn't hurt to ask.

Qu'orthseth slowly shook his head. “I may not. The duty laid upon me is to destroy all those who enter this tower room of Piras Tindeval. To do otherwise is to break my oath.”

“O, mighty Demon,” said Im, “slay me if you must. First, though,” he inquired, “will you answer my questions? If you do intend to take my life, then surely you are fulfilling your promise. You don't think I can escape you?”

“This is true. Of course I can kill you anytime so there is no hurry. I must admit, conversation is somewhat lacking in this room. The boss rarely comes up here and when he does, he doesn't have time to talk.”

“How,” wondered the youngster, “did he get you here in the first place?”

The monstrous form hung its head. Having no face, its expressions were limited. “He rescued me from prison,” Qu'orthseth admitted, “and demon prison is a very bad place indeed. Far worse than being stuck in a lonely tower room for a couple centuries. As long as I fulfill my oath here, I can remain. The moment I might break it —” Fortunately, the demon had shoulders, so it added to its repertoire of expressions by shrugging. “Well, I'll be immediately whisked back to torment in my native hell.”

“Ah. And your oath is to protect the book?” Im had hopes of finding a loophole.

“Not exactly. The wording in these contracts must be quite precise in laying out what is expected on each side. For himself, Piras promises to keep me free from my prison as long as I follow my own vow of slaying anyone — and the wording makes it clear that 'anyone' includes small animals — who enters this room. Other than the prince himself, naturally.
“I have had to knock off a few cats over the years,” the great red creature admitted, with definite regret in his impossibly deep voice. “And I like cats. People, not so much.”

Yes, yes, they were cat burglars. May we get back to the story?

Hmm, that idea wouldn't work, then. If only Qu'orthseth were tied to the book rather than the tower, he might have come up with a trick to earn his freedom. Im looked again to the window.

The demon caught his intention. “Don't think of leaping. I could catch you before you reached the ground and then I would take you apart, piece by piece, without further delay. With luck, I could make it last a while to relieve my boredom.

“But,” he rumbled on, “conversing with you is preferable. Behave and I shall break your neck quickly, dismembering you later as a warning to others.”

Im shrugged, in apparent resignation. “Would it hurt if I looked into the book?” he asked. “I might as well know what it is I am dying for.”

“It is permitted,” spoke the demon. “Be aware that no spells in the book of my master would work against me. I can not be destroyed nor turned from my duty, even by the most powerful magic of this world.” But maybe of his own world, thought Im. That wouldn't do him any good. Unless he could call up a demon of greater power?

The grimoire still lay on the dark slab before him. Im leafed through it, not hurrying. He was relieved to see it was written in straight-forward Zikem, which he and everyone else in Hirstel could readily read. “Are there many powerful demons in your realm?” he asked of Qu'orthseth.

Was that low rhythmic sound, something alike to distant thunder over the desert , a chuckle? “Very many. Know that they may not harm me nor prevent my actions as long as I am bound here by my geas.”

That made sense. Otherwise, the demon police would have come and swept him back to his cell. Or wherever they kept their prisoners. But demons could do other things. Hmm, there was named Sebuchax, the mighty archfiend who had built this tower for the Prince-Sorcerer. What could be built could be —

Destroyed! He put his mind around the proper spell, getting it well fixed, and then called out, “Sebuchax —” Well, I won't give you the rest of the words for fear of blasting your souls. Then who would listen to my stories? The words of the spell, of course, were only for focus; it is the mind that really does the work and Im had a mind that was up to the task.

He tucked the thick book under his arm and waited. If he were dashed to death as the edifice fell, so be it, but Im expected a different outcome. Surely enough, the great red demon caught him up and carried him to a nearby roof. Im was not quite certain how Qu'orthseth accomplished this, as he had no wings, but was willing to let that question wait.

“That was unexpected,” rumbled his companion.

“The tower no longer stands, nor does the room you guarded exist. Your duty there is ended.”

“But I am still obligated to destroy you, boy.” As Im had assumed and expected.

“And what will happen when you do?”

This query Qu'orthseth pondered for a few moments. He then slowly answered, “I would be instantly whisked back to my own world and prison.”

“Then you must keep me alive, mustn't you? It is your only way to remain in this world.”

What was the creature thinking? wondered Im, as its blank visage regarded him for a rather long time. “I could blast your mind and store you away somewhere,” it stated, at last, “leaving that grimoire behind.” He looked at the book Im held. “My master would be less likely to seek me then. He cares only for the safety of his spell-book.”

Im guessed at the reason for the demon's apparent reluctance. “And how long could you keep me alive?”

“Not long enough. That sort of thing can go wrong, too, and then I would be — elsewhere.”

“Ah. With this,” Im held up the leather-bound volume, “I could do much for both of us. And,” he went on, “prolong my life greatly.” Wasn't Piras supposedly well over a thousand?

Qu'orthseth nodded. “The book means nothing to me. I was to guard the room, not what was in it.” From their high perch, he looked out over the desert. “Does that sand go on forever?” he asked. “I know little of your world, in truth.”

“There's only one way to find out,” replied Im. “So let us put as much distance between ourselves and the prince as quickly as we can.”
“Agreed,” said the demon, grasping the young burglar and rising into the air. “Westward?” he asked.

“As good a direction as any,” said Im.

A little story that sat mainly as an idea in my notes for a long time. Sat down and finished it off today --- not a finished, polished piece, of course, but a decent draft. I think it could be one of the "Tales of Borm" that I mention in the Donzalo's Destiny books and may tuck it into a future novel. Oh, and I'm not in love with that title!

Addendum: Only a day later, this tale---which I admitted was early draft-y---has been fairly extensively edited and polished. Much closer to a finished work now but, of course, I won't post that!

Count, a poem


I'm at the age where I forget my age
and have to count from my birth date
if I can remember what year this is.
No one dwells here to remind me,

no differences appear from one day to
another. Only the mirror tells me
I have changed. It whispers, Look away,
old man. Go find old photos, gray

and faded, gray and faded as you. They once
told a truth of sorts, but posed
on yesterday's stage, a story I could not
believe, even as I told it.

I'm at the age where there is much still to be
done but none of it really matters.
All I can do is shrug, pretending not
to notice. Maybe it never did.

Tomorrow is a little closer each day,
and all these photos are undated,
their age forgotten. I'll not count the years.
None will look at them again.

Stephen Brooke ©2016

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Autopsy, a poem


Dissect this gurney of words
before they decay; clues
hide in every bone
scraped clean of my flesh.

Who left this body lying
unmarked in the margins?
Another causal victim
without identity,

without meaning, awaits
its moment's attention
before a pauper's grave.
The crime remains unsolved.

Stephen Brooke ©2016

Friday, January 22, 2016

Winding Down, Winding Up

I am now in the process of getting my fully edited and formatted files for HERO FROM THE SEA uploaded. My proof copy of the print version should come to me in a few days; once that is approved, it should become available everywhere in a few weeks. Ideally, by the 'official' release date of March 12.

But it will become available at the Arachis Press site immediately. The same is true of the ebook versions — I should finish getting all those files up shortly.

In the mean time, possibly getting into the writing of the next novel. That is, I've written a few passages, made some notes, did some very rudimentary outlining. Whether I'll buckle down to it or switch to some other project, I do not know. It is not the book I thought I would be writing next!

But it is an idea I jotted down ages ago, a story set in the same places, more or less, as the Donzalo tales, but approximately 1,400 years earlier. That means a very different political situation and a very different level of technology — one more like Late Antiquity. It should not be anything very ambitious, a fairly straight-forward 'quest' story without a lot of philosophical baggage to carry. No tormented soul-searchers in this one.

No title yet (other than a 'working title' of THE FOUR JEWELS — that almost certainly will be replaced). I'll think of something appropriate in time. Also, back to a third person narrative here. I've done enough writing in the first person for a while. So, I might keep working on this, or I might get interested in another idea, or I might just go do something else a while. We'll see.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Stars, a poem

The Stars

I know how far it is to the stars.
They put that sort of thing in books
and I can say that point of light
that shines over there is such a distance
and that one is a little more,
a trillion miles or so. A trifle.

What is a star but light? That light
is with us now, each star set in
tonight's vast sky, their distance the same,
each casting faint star-shadows on
our world. Forget what books might say;
we hold the stars. We always have.

Stephen Brooke ©2016

More an idea than a finished poem, I think. Whether worth finishing, I do not know.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Useful Still, a poem

Useful Still

I am the word unspoken,
found only in old books.
Remember me when you
play Scrabble or fill in
the Sunday crossword. I
am useful still, you see.

And now and then, if you
might say my name aloud,
for old times' sake, you know,
just sound me out for ears
that do not know me, I
would feel useful still.

Stephen Brooke ©2016

One might read all sorts of stuff into this. That, of course, is ones prerogative.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Defintions, a poem


Existence is in definitions.
Tell me who I am, what I am,
or I am nothing. Name me.
Know me. The sun has a name

as does the moon. It is the start
of understanding them. Ten-thousand
names later we shall know more.
Name me ten-thousand times and I

begin to know who I am. Define
wings and I shall fly, lest I
fall toward the void, nameless.
Nameless and without meaning,

I am the priest, elevating
my own body at mass.
Define my presence, my substance,
in your soaring sacrifice.

Mystery is in definitions.
I carry ten-thousand names
in my heart, and each
is me. Understand and be.

Stephen Brooke ©2016

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Poems, serious and silly

Winter Complaints

Swollen, stiff, and sore —
my hands can't take any more!
I need a tropical shore
where the temperatures soar

and I can't see my breath.
This weather will be my death!

It chills me to my core,
It's all that I abhor!
Impossible to ignore!
So I ask as I've asked before

and all I ask is, please,
some place where I don't freeze.

Stephen Brooke ©2016


Sing praises of a dying god;
the candles flicker to mark his passage,
the Dow rises and bows in homage,
and his name is lauded all the louder

by the true believer. They all die,
each nation, each god, each comforting
belief, but the dead husks are yet
worshiped for a season or two.

Let the priests hold their noses;
we'll paint lifelike colors on decaying
faces, so they might stare down
with vacant eye upon humanity.

We stare up with no more comprehension.
Everything must go in this final
sale; do not the signs tell us so?
Everything must go and be forgotten.

Stephen Brooke ©2016

Two poems, one silly, one sort of serious...which is which?

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Of Green Walls

One does not say, ”The wall was green.” One leans against the green wall, one is reminded of the green walls of some hospital, one even becomes nauseated by the bilious color of the walls.

One does not say, “Her eyes were dark and piercing.” One gazes into those eyes, those eyes flash at one. Those eyes need to be alive.

Not always, of course. At times, a bit of straight-forward description is okay. At times, it even serves the narrative. For example, in Roger Zelazny's “Nine Princes in Amber,” the protagonist awakens with amnesia. For the first couple chapters we find him describing everything about him, in considerable detail. Why? Because he is trying to figure things out, recognize something familiar.

And at times, we simply need to move along and can't spend time for more than a brief description. But we should ask ourselves, then, if it is truly necessary. Does it serve the story?

I find a lot of over-writing among beginning and/or self-published writers (and some more experienced ones, as well). I may be guilty of many things in my own efforts, but rarely that! Maybe being a songwriter for so much of my life has something to do with that, and I don't mean a long-winded so-called folk singer — I reckon if it can't be said in two to three minutes, it probably shouldn't be said. More tends to be self-indulgence.

My three Malvern novels were written to a pretty strict format, in an attempt to make them fast-paced adventures. There is little extraneous writing in them. Perhaps, I went a little further than necessary there, but it was an useful exercise (and I'm pretty well pleased with them). Other novels have called for a more relaxed approach, but I doubt anyone would characterize them as 'wordy.'

Speaking of the Malvern novels, the third and final, “Hero from the Sea,” is scheduled for an official March 12 release. The three books together come to around 180,000 words, making the series only slightly shorter than the “Donzalo's Destiny” books. Those four, however, make up more of a continuous story where as each of these stands well on its own.

I'm casting about for a compelling central plot element to hang my next novel (or series) on — I have loads of characters and events in mind, enough for a number of books and directions, but these need to be tied together. Yes, some folks would just sit down, write, and see where it goes. I need to map out my journey first!

Hero Quote

I mostly write novels so I can dispense these gems of wisdom! :D
Coming March 12

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Mist, a poem


Paintings of mist and songs of regret
always find an audience,
seeking, straining, to decipher
the whispers of the morning, dreams
that dissipate before the sun.

I can not tell what hides within
the shifting colors of my dawn,
but each brush stroke, every word,
assures me there are truths obscured,
secrets we misplaced last night.

Are those best forgotten, left
shapeless in the fog? The tunes
can still be hummed, those to which
we danced that yesterday, and each
daub of gray holds yet some color.

Stephen Brooke ©2016

Probably tried to hard to keep it to a form, but such exercises are worthwhile even if the poems aren't

Name, a poem


I name myself 'poet.' It is
as good as any other word,
even one a poet might use.

Another might say 'bad poet.'
Qualifiers will be forgotten,
in time. People will murmur,

'He was a poet, you know,
years ago' and 'I wonder
if anyone reads him now.'

But I'll have the name.

Stephen Brooke ©2016

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Visualizing Characters

The characters I created for the Donzalo books are not based on real people. Not really — one can not say 'this character is that real-life individual' or anything of that sort. This is not to say that certain characteristics are not borrowed from public figures, historical personages, even characters from fiction, and, occasionally, actual acquaintances.

The ambassador Lord Doufan, for example, started out with a bit of Henry Kissinger in him (though he is certainly much better with a sword!). Along the way, I think a smidgen of Red Reddington got into the mix. That would be more as a 'type' than an individual.

But it brings me to something else, the physical appearance of the characters. I do find it useful to be able to visualize them and choose pictures that help me with this. Doufan does look rather like James Spader in my mind. Similarly, the minstrel/spy Guesare resembles Kenneth Branagh. For that matter, Princess Lomela would look much like Branagh's ex-wife, Emma Thompson. Both of these would be when they were somewhat younger!

Similarly, I envisioned celebrity cook Nigella Lawson for the evil sorceress Nosana. I am sure Nigella does not cast spells and poison lovers, but it gave me an image. Others were not celebrities at all, but random people I found online. Lady Fachalana draws her looks from a Latina porn actress who shall remain nameless (a bit ironic for the rather uptight and virginal swordswoman).

And some, inevitably, did draw from people I know personally. Prince Modareth resembles a poet with whom I am acquainted; his wife, a former girlfriend of mine.

And Donzalo himself? Well, I went to my art history background for that:

The picture is by Piombo and is from the same more-or-less Late Renaissance milieu as the stories (Lama somewhat resembles Sixteenth Century Central Europe). I considered using this image for the cover of an omnibus of the four novels. I might yet.

I have done this to some extent for all my fiction, not just the Donzalo novels. I very much know what Ted's girlfriend looks like in 'Shaper.' Images exist for many of the Polynesians in the Malvern books. If they are not exactly how I envisioned the characters when I first created them, they give me a starting point for picturing them in my head.

Is this an odd way to work? I don't know, but it helps me. I am a visual person, most definitely. I do 'see' the scenes in my books as movies of a sort. That sometimes leads me to be sparse on description, forgetting that others don't see the settings as do I! A fair amount of my rewriting involves adding that in, to support the dialogue (though I've gotten better at doing that as I go along).

So I shall certainly keep doing it, just as I must draw maps and sketch pictures of castles and so on. I see what I write and I write what I see.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Hero Update Four

I have finished writing the narrative on my current novel-in-progress, HERO FROM THE SEA. It came out pretty much as planned, 60 chapters divided into four nearly equal sections, a bit over 60,000 words total (almost 64,000 actually, only a tad longer than the first two Malvern novels). As I tend to go back and rewrite a lot as I work (it helps keep things fresh in my head), there will not be a huge amount of editing now. Some, of course.

So we can expect a release in the near future. March, most likely. Although it should be ready by the beginning of that month, I do not wish to follow VALLEY OF VISIONS too closely with it, so more likely it will be mid-month.

This does finish the Malvern trilogy. Michael Malvern, known as Marareta to the Mora among whom he dwells, will not star in any more novels, I am pretty sure. However, there is an infant son and various interesting supporting characters. I might ask them for their stories one of these days.

One of the choices I debated some in the writing of HftS was the death of a major supporting character. Until fairly late, I was undecided between two possibilities (I killed of some others earlier, but they were doomed from the start). Eventually, the direction of the narrative told me which should go. However, I do not intend to let you in on it — read the book!

And a VERY major character goes in the last chapters. I hate killing off these people; I know them so well by the time I've finished a book. Was it a good choice? Would a happily ever after ending been better? Who knows? This was the story I had and I told it.

What next? I have definite ideas for more Lama books (the world of Donzalo's Destiny). Or maybe something contemporary and sort of literary.


Writing a novel to an outline is rather like improvising a guitar solo over a chord sequence. You know where you are going but might surprise yourself along the way! Every note is a decision that leads to another; so it is with the words we write down, the resolutions we reach.

In both instances, practice makes us better. At the same time, there is a tendency to fall into patterns, to repeat ourselves rather than reach for the 'outside' note, the choice that changes all that follows.

I recall some guitarist of renown or another saying that he followed the 'fifty-fifty' rule of soloing. That is, any note has a fifty-fifty chance of being 'right.' The thing is that all one needs do is slide one fret up or down and it becomes right — it is resolved. What follows it is what matters, what makes it work. This requires the player to use his ears as much as or more than his hands, not just be mechanically good.

One might say that each note is a question to be answered. So it is with writing. Think about the questions constantly being raised and do not be afraid to find answers or make new decisions. What if this followed instead of that? Where might this choice lead? If one plows ahead without asking, both the writing and the music will plod, not soar.

If your song structure is good, your outline valid, you will in time end up on that final chord.

Stephen Brooke ©2016

Saturday, January 02, 2016

It's You, a poem

It's You

Where you have known but slender twigs,
I shall bring you a tree;
where all the others left you thirsting,
I'll fill you with a sea.
When your door needs be unlocked
It's I who holds the key;
when you tire of prattling fools,
your answers come from me.

Who knows the needs within your heart,
your every unvoiced plea?
Who but I would know such things
and, knowing, have them be?
While you fear now to loose my bonds,
it's I shall set you free;
While others whisper soft of love,
it's you will whisper to me.

Stephen Brooke ©2016

First of the year. I would hope it is evident that this is not a serious personal poem but something written from a specific "point of view" for possible inclusion in a fantasy novel down the line. A lot of my stuff is really from a POV other than my own, really --- a poem is no different from a story in this respect.

The title is purely a placeholder.

Friday, January 01, 2016

New Year and All That

Okay, perhaps I am not quite perfect, but at 65 years of age I weigh what I did in my early twenties but have more muscle. I am turning out a couple novels a year and poetry that at least a few folks like. I think I'm finally getting the hang of things!

Still have my hair and good looks too but that's Gods doing, not mine. :)

So, tomorrow is the official launch of VALLEY OF VISIONS, the second of my Malvern novels. It has been available here and there for a while already so the release date is sort of meaningless, just there so that there IS a date. I continue to churn through the writing of its sequel, HERO FROM THE SEA, after taking a few days off to recharge. 52,000 words in, i.e. about five-sixths of the way if all continues according to plan. Expect it to show up sometime this spring, depending on rewrites and edits. Maybe in March. Here's a preview of the cover:

Then on to something else. Maybe another Lama book (sequel to the Donzalo stuff?) or another contemporary novel. We shall see.