The Favored Son: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

The Second Recitation of Master Eidoron

Thus from that Void sprang Life and Invasion. Or using the terms of the Ancient Prophet: Creation and Destruction. And in them began the cycle of possibility and impossibility.

For Creation, or Life, cannot occur, unless there was first an absence of Creation. A space that was first dead or unformed must exist, so that there is room for the new Creation, or Life, to occupy.

And as the seeds of all Life thus find their roots in a place of death, so all Life has the tendency towards decay and death. That which we make comes of naught, and so must return to naught. And in its dead ashes we find again the space for new Life. Were it not so, all would be created, until there was space for Creation no more, and it would have defeated itself. Instead, inherent in Life is the force of destruction, the tendency to undo itself, the strife to unmake what has been made.

 

The Third Recitation of Master Eidoron

Thus any effort to prevent the Invasion is folly. Indeed the Invasion is encouraged by strife, thus any effort to prevent it is also strife, and to resist it is only to hasten its coming.

In the Realm of Theory only is it possible to prevent Invasion. And in that realm the Invasion could only be quelled by a life that was totally devoid of strife, which as we have seen, would be a force of Creation that was unrestrained until there was no longer any space for Creation, and all became motionless and dead. And in this paradox we see that the Invasion must be.

Of course this notion may naturally suggest despair to the mind. If the Invasion must be, then what is the value of effort? Why even attempt to maintain one’s independence from it?

   

The Fourth Recitation of Master Eidoron

The answer to this conundrum comes in retaining a clear distinction between the inevitability of the whole and the freedom of the individual. Yes, mankind as a whole will give rise to the Invasion time and time again. But just because that fate for mankind, as a whole, is predetermined, the fate of the single individual is not.

Thus entire societies may be lost within the Invasion-mind, yet a single individual within that society might escape. All about us may fall away, but it is not fated that we must fall away, too. This truth is made evident in the miraculous deliverances of Abji’Tolan, the Merchant of Azuyl, Popaiyoh and Seeve, and countless other stories in the Cryptics. All these examples show a great truth in common: We can concede the loss of the masses, yet still retain faith in the salvation of the individual.

  

The Fifth Recitation of Master Eidoron

In fact, not only can individuals prevail, they must. For if all were silenced within the Invasion, then all disparity would cease. All would be dead. All would be lost within one totality.

And if this were so, it would unmake the Invasion. For, by necessity, the Invasion requires there to be an entity outside of itself to oppose itself, otherwise there would be nothing to which it could perform its function of invasion. Thus all would be invaded until there was space for Invasion no more, and it would have defeated itself.

And so we have the greatest paradox of all. Life and Invasion, Creation and Destruction, each destroys the other, yet also depends on the other to exist. Each must try to prevail over the other, yet must also give ground to the other. And so conflict must continue forever.

  

Tharol sighed and lifted his eyes from the passage to look out the nearby archway. He was stirred by passages like these…but he could not claim to truly understand them. They seemed so full of contradictions, so impossible to resolve in the mind. No doubt Master Palthio would tell him to not try to resolve them in his mind, to simply let them be, but if he didn’t strive to understand them, then surely he would never understand them?

Strive. Even as he thought the word, it echoed to him from the passages of Master Eidoron. Was his “striving” to understand these passages only hastening the coming of the Invasion?

“Why do you read those if they distress you so?”

Tharol spun around, startled by the voice interrupting on his thoughts. Reis stood a mere arm’s length away, hands clasped behind his back, scrutinizing Tharol as he read.

“What?”

“I said why do you read those when they clearly upset you?”

“They don’t upset me.”

“Yes they do. I can see it on your face.”

“They–confound me, I don’t understand them–but I’m not upset about them.”

“Well even so, why read them then?”

“What would you have me do? We have to understand these, don’t we?”

Reis shrugged. “I don’t know. Master Abu’Tak says that he’s never been able to make any sense of them, and that hasn’t stopped him from being a part of the Order. I get the sense that each of the elders have their own personal doctrines that they are best attuned to, and their own blind spots that they can’t make sense of.”

“Interesting…Master Palthio said something similar to me just the other day.”

“We all have our own strengths Reis. That’s why we’re an Order and not a group of hermits, so that we can unite our different strengths.”

“Yes…I like that….But what then? Am I to just ignore the things I don’t understand? Not even try to better myself?”

“I would say put your strength when your strengths lie,” Reis said, now pacing back and forth like he was giving a lecture. “Why not put your energy where you get the best return on your investment? No one would deny that you do have other great talents.”

“Oh? And where exactly would you say that my strengths lie?”

“You’re a pursuer, Tharol. Once a thought arrests you, you chase it without relenting.”

“I suppose. So?”

“And we are in a dangerous time. As I was saying the other day, our Order is so close to changing hands, so close to being our own to run. And while that is exciting to all the other acolytes, I don’t mind telling you it makes me very nervous. It is a dangerous time, a time of uncertainty. If I were the Invasion-mind, this is the moment where I would attack.”

Tharol shifted uncomfortably. “You don’t trust the student body?”

“No. I know that I called them my friends there in the stone hedge. I had to win their trust, had to put on a face of confidence and try to unite them…but I have deep suspicions among them, don’t you?”

“I don’t–I don’t know. I think they all…mean well.”

Reis’s lips widened in a tight smile. “So you do see it. They ‘mean well?’ Yes, of course they do…but they’re fools, aren’t they?”

Tharol looked down.

“You don’t deny it. And you know as well as I do that fools who mean well can easily be made pawns for someone else. No, our peers aren’t malicious…but they are dangerous.”

“What is your point in all this? What does this have to do with my talents?”

“As I said, you’re a pursuer. And I trust your judgment. In our new Order I want you to be Master of Inspection.”

“What does that even mean?”

“You would be responsible for investigating the others, for identifying those who were suspicious and you would watch their comings and goings. There is no one I would trust more to find our traitors, to weed out our spies. No one I would trust more to protect the flock.” His broad grin made it clear that he felt he was offering Tharol a great honor. He extended a hand of friendship to Tharol.

Tharol’s eyes furrowed in intense thought. On the surface there was a great deal of truth in Reis’s words. Yes, their peers did seem susceptible to outside influence. They were vain and naïve. He always had felt bad that he saw that, worried what it said about him–that he was too judgmental?–yet he was sure it true even so. And yes, he could see how this was a dangerous time, one that required an extra dose of vigilance.

But spying on his peers? Perhaps Tharol struggled to understand the Cryptics, but even he could tell that this would be wrong. This would be acting under a motivation of fear, and by that fear he would be sowing doubt. This would be secrets and paranoia and division. This would be creating…strife. For a moment a smile crossed his face as part of Master Eidoron’s message finally made sense. This effort to control the Invasion could only hasten it.

He looked up to tell Reis as much, but as he looked into his friend’s face he realized the other half of what made him uneasy about the offer. Yes, their peers were susceptible. They were prone to follow a silk tongue, to sell themselves unwittingly to a devil. And as it was, the one who had them the wrapped around his finger most was…Reis.

Tharol closed his partially-opened mouth, and he did not take the offered hand of friendship. A deep scowl crawled across Reis’s face, and Tharol wondered how much the youth guessed of his private thoughts. Reis did not say anything, just stared back, summing Tharol up.

The tension of the moment was broken by the crashing of a cymbal. It was the summoning gong being rung from the inner sanctum of the abbey. They were being called by the elders.

“I–suppose we’d better go” Tharol said stiffly.

“I suppose we should.”

The two youth were nearly halfway to the amphitheater before Tharol realized he knew what they were being summoned for. Though he didn’t know why, somehow he could feel in his heart that they were about to begin the Trials.

The Trials were the culminating ritual for every generation of their Order, the crucible which would somehow see the old guard passing on and the new blood taking up the cause. Exactly how the old guard passed into the shadows had never been detailed to them, though. The way the elders spoke about it suggested that they did not simply take a back seat to the ruling of the new generation. Everything they said on the matter seemed to reinforce the idea that they would be permanently gone. But was that in exile?… Or in death?

The elders had never been forthcoming about how things were when they took over the Order, either. Indeed they never said a word about who their own mentors were. To the rising generation there was no other Order but the one maintained by their elders. The only clues they had of prior generations were the scriptures and recitations which their elders had chosen to preserve.

A stray thought crossed Tharol’s mind: was it possible that Master Palthio had personally known Master Eidoron? He did not know whether Master Eidoron wrote his recitations a single generation ago, or ten.

Tharol shook his head. He had far more pressing matters before him. Not only did he not know how the Trials brought in the end of an era, he didn’t even know what the Trials themselves were composed of! It was never spoken of in any greater context than its name. What was about to transpire between him and his other acolytes?

Tharol’s ruminations were interrupted as he and Reis stepped between the stone pillars and into the amphitheater proper. It was a wide, level circle open to the heavens above. The dirt was packed until it was hard as stone, with one side giving way to ascending seats. All the student body was in those seats, while the elders stood in a line at the center of the circle.

Reis and Tharol hurriedly took their seats, far apart from each other. All their fellow-acolytes looked forward in nervous anticipation, excitedly waiting to see what sort of tests they were about to be put to. They did not have long to wait, for Reis and Tharol were the last to arrive, and once they were seated Master Orish stepped forward to address the congregation.

“Pupils! Thank you for gathering here today. We welcome you to the End of Times. The Refining Scorch. The Trials! Today, we have brought you forward, that you may determine the future together. What that new horizon will be is yours to craft, and yours alone.”

There was no smile on his face. No light in his eyes. Though his words were impressive, Tharol could got the sense that this was not a moment of triumph. After a pause Master Orish continued.

“That future is not given to you, though. It must be claimed. And if it is not claimed…then it will not be. Some of you have assumed that your future is a free gift, that the Trials are merely a way to test yourselves against each other, to determine what role you will have in the new Order. But you are wrong. The Trial is to determine if you are even worthy to have your own Order. I give you a moment’s warning: defend yourselves.”

He turned his back and returned to the line of elders, each of whom stood motionless, heads bowed, eyes closed, hands clasped together and trembling. Tharol glanced sideways to his fellow acolytes, and saw on them all the same look of confusion and apprehension.

A bloodcurdling cry snapped the tension. It came from Master Foraou, who leaped past the line of elders, whipping a sword out of the folds of his tunic. He kicked off the banister at the edge of the field and flew through the air towards the mass of acolytes!

On Monday I spoke of stories that lead the reader to a particular frame of mind, and then, knowing what they are thinking, either affirm or subvert those expectations. In this section I attempted to setup a train of thought for the reader, and do both an affirmation and a subversion on it.

First I had the moment where Tharol because suspicious of Reis. In previous sections I have written Reis to be proud and insincere, and so I am leading the audience to suspect him of becoming the villain in this story. Thus they are already on the lookout for nefarious behavior from him, and his request of Tharol to spy on his friends is the affirmation of it.

Which affirmation is meant to create a moment of calm in the mind of the reader. They now know that they are in sync with the protagonist, that Tharol is pulling on the correct thread, that he isn’t missing anything that we think he should be picking up on. Thus there is danger, but Tharol is already alerted to it, and should therefore be able to handle it. And having thus created this sense of surety in the reader’s mind, I then subvert it with the horror of the elders unexpectedly attacking their own pupils.

You may find it interesting to know that I did not plan for this moment of surprise until the very moment I was writing it. It surprised me as much as I hope it surprised you! Originally the Trials were going to be something very different, and I had been trying to write the introduction to them without any success. The words just weren’t flowing, and I paused to ask myself what should be happening in this scene instead.

But we’re out of room here, and I want to look into this in greater detail. So come back Monday as we consider how an author can pause to consider what a scene needs, and go along with the answer, no matter how surprising it may be.

The Favored Son: Part Two

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Part One

“What do you mean?” Inol raised an eyebrow.

Reis clasped his hands and paced back and forth, as if giving a lecture. “There is a new era coming. We all know this. The mentors train up the next generation, then must pass on and leave things to the next. The Order becomes the sole possession of the new, and they are not to be anchored by the follies of the past generation. They reinstate what laws they find worthy and they abandon the ones that are now antiquated. I think we all know…that time is coming soon. The elders have made it very clear that the Trials are nearly upon us, and it would be wise for us to consider how we will make the transition after they have passed.”

“The elders are not gone yet,” Tharol frowned. “It doesn’t feel right to talk of sweeping away their laws even while we’re under them.”

“Of course I’m not suggesting an insurrection,” Reis rolled his eyes. “We will be nothing but loyal servants so long as they are our elders. But my concern is that we might fracture ourselves after they are gone. Suppose we haven’t already worked out our philosophies beforehand, here and now, when it’s all just theory. Today it would be nothing more than competing ideals, but after we come into power it might be civil war!”

Tharol’s eyes narrowed. “Why? Did you have something controversial to propose?”

Reis matched the narrowing of the eyes. “I would think that you of all people should see the need for reform. Aren’t you always coming on the wrong side of Master Palthio?”

Tharol shrugged. “I don’t see what that has to do with this.”

“I know that there are reforms that you’ve considered. Things that you would like to change about how we do things in the Order. Like have a more proactive defense against the Invasion.”

“Curious. Even I don’t know what I want.”

“But we all heard you in Master Valthyia’s instruction the other day…”

“I was asking questions. Perhaps there are flaws in our current system, I don’t know, but I also don’t know for sure what I would replace it with.”

Reis shook his head, realizing that he was quickly descending into yet another debate with Tharol, and that was not what he wanted here and now. This was supposed to be about him.

“Never mind all that,” he said. “The point is that now is the time for us to start raising our own banner. Of course we’re going to obey our elders,” he shot Tharol a dirty look, “but we can do that and start drawing lines for the future.”

“Like…lines of allegiance?” Bovik asked.

“Yes. Why not?”

“I don’t know,” Bovik looked sheepishly to the rest of his peers. “Aren’t we all on the same side already?”

“Of course we are,” Reis said shortly. “That’s the point. We’re already aligned to each other, and that gives us a solid foundation to formally unite under a common cause. Well why not make our pledge to that here and now? Why not give a solemn oath to continuing our cause and protecting our people?”

“Oh, well that’s alright then,” Bovik said with relief. “I thought you had meant electing a leader or something like that.”

“Bovik, I’m not sure that you’re bright enough to be here,” Reis let his irritation show. “Of course we would have a leader. Not a person, though, our leader would be our cause! However it may also be wise to elect one to safeguard that cause. Someone we could trust as a steward of its principles.”

“Well of course that would be you, Reis,” Marvi said sweetly. “And I’d be more than happy to give you my oath of loyalty right here and now!”

“Well how about it then?” Reis said to the others, leaping on top of a small, broken column. “Every order has its Senior Master, doesn’t it? The last thing I want to see is the elders pass on and we’re left with a mad scrabble for power. But if you’ll pledge your loyalty to me today, I’ll pledge my loyalty to governing rightly. Together we can make the future be what it should be.”

Marvi crowed her approval, and barely had she started than Inol echoed it, too. Bovik shouted his agreement quite loudly, no doubt to make up for any hesitancy he had shown earlier. One after another all of the youth shouted their assent.

Except for Tharol.

Reis pretended to not notice the one outlier, and leaped down to the ground, extending his hand, palm upwards.

“Let’s just make it official then, and after that I’ll be able to take you into my trust and show you another of Raystahn’s secrets.”

One-by-one the youth gathered in a circle, extending their hands to rest them, palm-downwards, on Reis’s. This time, Reis could not ignore the singular absence.

“Are you against us, then?” he shot viciously at Tharol.

Tharol shook his head. “It’s not like that Reis. It’s too early to be drawing lines for or against. We can have this conversation when the time is actually upon us, but this is premature.”

Reis opened his mouth, intending to shout something about how Tharol wasn’t welcome in this place anymore, but before he could the youth had already turned his back and started walking away.

“Hmm, never mind him,” Reis tried to shake off the slight to what was supposed to have been his unanimous coronation. “If the rest of you are ready…”

They all bowed their heads and recited in unison. “We place our strength upon you.” And then pressed slightly on his hand.

“I feel the weight of responsibility,” he replied, holding his own arm firm.

*

Tharol had barely stepped across the stone entryway of the monastery than Master Palthio approached him from an adjoining hallway.

“Ah, young Tharol, what a pleasant surprise,” the old man smiled. Tharol didn’t believe it for a moment. There was never any coincidence when it came to a meeting from Master Palthio, of this he was convinced.

“There is something you wanted to discuss with me?” he asked.

Master Palthio chuckled softly. “Ever the one for business, young Tharol. Walk with me.”

The two of them strode to the end of the entrance hall, then Master Palthio steered them towards the garden path.

“You truly are the most vigilant and attentive student I have ever seen, Tharol,” Master Palthio began.

Then why are you wasting time on opening pleasantries? Tharol thought to himself. He verbally said nothing. He found it was the best way to get people to move on to the actual purpose of their conversation.

“But I see you don’t care to discuss that,” Master Palthio nodded. “Tell me, Tharol, do you always feel a great impatience with the rest of us? That we take so long to come around to things of substance?”

It wasn’t the first time that Tharol wondered if Master Palthio was reading his thoughts, even though such was strictly forbidden.

“I just feel…” he paused, struggling to find the words. “I feel there isn’t enough time as it is already.”

“Mmm. You are weighed by a great deal, then. And afraid of what will be lost by our laxness?”

“Well…yes. I mean, I know that we ought to embrace the moment to its fullest, ought to be able to find the significance in all things.”

“You are just reciting canon now. You don’t believe these in your heart, do you?”

“Perhaps not. I think luxury and casual enjoyment are fine things…but we’re members of the Order, we’re the guard set to watch, aren’t we?”

“To watch what?”

“Why for the Invasion, of course?!”

“Mmm,” Master Palthio nodded, then continued in silence.

Tharol kept waiting for Master Palthio to resume speaking…but he did not. The old man just kept walking along as if he had no other intention than to enjoy this walk in silence with his pupil.

“Master, didn’t you–” Tharol finally ventured. “Surely, you had something else to talk to me about, Master?”

Master Palthio smiled softly. “You really don’t believe it possible that I just wanted to spend some time in your air, Tharol?”

“Well, I thought for sure you would be here to do something important.”

“And sharing your company could not have been what was important?” Master Palthio shook his head sadly. “When I speak of your vigilance and attentiveness, must that only be a segue to things of importance, and not the matter of importance itself? You are waiting for significance to come to this moment…and don’t consider that the moment itself was already significant.”

Tharol felt both touched and ashamed. He concerned himself with the study of his feet, not knowing what else he could possibly say to such a pronouncement.

“That is all the business I had Tharol. But if there is anything else that you wished to discuss with me, the rest of our walk is all yours.”

Tharol looked back up to his Master. An open invitation to discuss anything at all? One idea chased another through his mind. The strange creature growing in the maze, Reis trying to draw lines of loyalty among the students, Tharol’s struggle to find ‘the center inside him’ that his teachers spoke of, the impending Trials that the elders always spoke so gravely of. But above them all, there was one concern that arrested his mind more than all the others.

“Well…there is something, Master.”

Master Palthio smiled broadly. “I hardly assumed there wouldn’t be.”

“It’s a matter that I discussed briefly in Master Valthyia’s instruction the other day. Perhaps you heard of our conversation?”

“Even if I did, I would rather we speak freshly from your perspective, not from some other, biased, second-hand account.”

“Oh yes…well…the conversation happened to be around the Imminence of Invasion, of how futile it is to try and prevent it, because the nature of man is to relent to it sooner or later. He was teaching how any semblance of control must be surrendered, and simply vigilance maintained instead.”

“You don’t sound particularly favorable towards that notion?”

“Well the thought occurred to me, that if the Invasion is not withstood, if it is a sure thing to come in its cycles, then what is there to prevent it from breaking out among those that are supposed to be vigilant?”

“You mean what if it began within our own Order.”

“I just think that if I were the Corrupt Mind, our monastery is the very first place I would focus all my efforts. Especially if I knew that our Order will do nothing to prevent it.”

“Do we not train minds?”

“Yes…but–“

“But you see that as only a defense, and you would rather we take a more aggressive stance?”

“I know that is contrary to everything the Order stands for. But wars cannot be won by only defending, can they? At some time or another one must attack!”

“Hmm, you make an excellent point. I suppose the Order must be wrong.”

“What?!”

“I thought you’d be relieved. Don’t you feel a great burden lifted?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because–I don’t mean to destroy the Order. Obviously I wasn’t arguing for that!”

“What if the Order should be destroyed? What if it’s entirely wrong?”

“I can’t accept that.”

“Why not?”

“It’s–it’s the only foundation we have.”

“Mmm,” Master Palthio said again. “Quite a conundrum. Our Order is your foundation, but you find yourself at issue with some of its foundations.”

Tharol bit his lip uncomfortably.

“No, don’t feel that you must hide such misgivings. There is no shame in this. If each of the Masters was being honest with you, you would learn that we all have our difficulties with one of the Order’s precepts or another.”

“You have? Well…what do you do about that?”

“Oh dear, you have struck upon the question, now haven’t you? Let me see if I can provide a coherent answer. Give me a moment…”

They continued on in silence. An awkwardly long silence, one where Tharol began to wonder if Master Palthio had entirely forgotten their conversation. Just as Tharol was about to speak up Master Palthio answered.

"When I continue along my way
And I come across a rock that I can push
Then I push it
And continue along my way.

When I continue along my way
And come to a rock that I cannot push
Then I go around it
And continue along my way."

Whatever reaction Master Palthio expected, he evidently had not anticipated the utterly confounded look that Tharol now gave him. The old man’s face split into a wide grin and he laughed out loud.

“I’m sorry, I suppose that sounds like a riddle to you. But honestly I can’t think of a more complex answer that I can give to help you.”

“Complex?! I’m looking for something simple!”

“No, you’re not. You’re trying to tie yourself in a knot, connecting two competing beliefs together in one. You wanted me to give such a profoundly intricate solution that you could do just that. But I didn’t give you that. I gave you something too simple for you to abide. And I am sorry, but that it is still my answer. It is the only one I have to offer.”

“I–” Tharol shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “I can’t.”

“No, I see that. To be fair, there are few who can. And tell me, do you feel that this conversation has been fruitless?”

“I’m even more muddled than when we began!”

“I am not surprised. Forgive me for being so blunt, but you do not understand because you are not ready to. You have a notion in your head of what form the answers to your questions must take, and so long as you hold to those preconceptions, nothing that I can say to you will mean a thing. You will never find the words to make sense of a paradox.”

“Well what am I supposed to do then?” Tharol could not keep the frustration out of his voice.

“Stop being the paradox.”

And with that Master Palthio turned and walked away.

Part Three

On Monday I spoke about how some stories began with an extended introduction, before they get to their main arcs. I suggested that my previous section in The Favored Son was just such an introduction, where we became acquainted with the world and characters, but really don’t have a catalyst to drive them forward.

Today we started to tease at those main arcs, as we explored Tharol’s struggle to understand his Order’s dogma, which suggests an arc that will resolve his dilemma. And, ultimately, the story will, but not in the way that he anticipates.

But we’re not fully into the meat of the story even now. We still have our great inciting incident yet to come, which will occur when we reach the Trials that turn pupils into masters.

Before we get to that, though, I want to take a look at my characterization of Master Palthio. The elder is written to be kindly, even-keeled, and assured. Whether or not the audience is not able to make sense of what he is saying, my hope is that they will feel like they should agree with him. Because he seems good-natured, we naturally assume that he is right. Just as we tend to take the advice of real-life people when we perceive them as having our own interests at heart.

There is a particular trick that I used to give Master Palthio the voice of truth, though. He calls out Tharol’s status as being exactly what we, the audience, have likely determined ourselves: the boy likable but conflicted. By having Palthio speak aloud the same notion as is in the reader’s mind, we trust him as having sound judgment.

With my next post I’d like to further examine this technique of setting up the reader to think something, echoing that thought in your story, and how this builds a connection between reader and writer. Come back on Monday to see how that turns out.

The Favored Son: Part One

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“There’s no elders around to see,” Bovik rotated his head on a swivel. “Show us, Reis.”

“You think it’s a matter of being caught by the elders?” Reis frowned disapprovingly. “You don’t think anything of the principle of the matter?”

Bovik sighed. “Explain to him that it’s not like that,” he said to Marvi.

“Reis…no one wants you to do anything you shouldn’t,” Marvi purred softly. “We just–we just thought there was something that you could show us. Something without breaking any rules or anything like that.”

“There might be,” Reis mused, but then he turned and continued leading the group deeper through the stone-hedge. As he went the columns twisted and contorted, re-arranging their layout, opening a path before the gang of youth as they walked, then closing it behind them. Thus they could progress deeper into the maze, but could not be followed, and any of their number who hesitated, or failed to keep up, would also be shut out as unworthy.

Reis took a glance over his shoulder then began to charge forward aggressively. He made one quick turn after another, his gang of followers struggling to keep pace. After a particularly tight hairpin turn he raced up a steep incline and leaped out into the air, a leap of faith, trusting that the stone columns would bend to catch his feet from one step to the next. They did so, spiraling up from the ground to meet his feet with each bound, fifteen feet up in the air.

Marvi, who was directly behind him, followed in perfect sync. Reis could feel her presence without even looking. He unexpectedly paused on his current pedestal, one second longer than his prior steps, then leaped forward again. It was just enough of a change to his cadence to throw her off. She had anticipated his movement, already committed herself to the air, and now the stone pedestal would not leave his control and reform itself where she wanted it in time for her to land on it. She fell all the way to the mossy ground below.

Reis let himself descend back to the surface level and took another glance back at the few of his compatriots still in pursuit. He turned all the way around and locked eyes with Bovik and Talo, the two front-runners. Reis began spinning left and right erratically, side-stepping as he did. The stone walls on either side began fluctuating in response to his movements, rapidly thrusting out barricades and then receding them.

The two boys grit their teeth and tried to follow the dance. They watched Reis’s movements, anticipated the changing walls, and dashed forward or held back as appropriate. Or at least they did until an unexpected riser came sliding across the ground and took Bovik’s feet out from under him.

“Oof! That one was from you!” he snapped at Talo.

“Sorry,” Talo shrugged. It couldn’t be helped that the two boys’ movements were adding an extra complexity to the churning Reis had already started. “We’ve got to go one-at-a-time.”

And so he left his comrade and pressed on ahead, disappearing behind a particularly tricky spiral-turn. Bovik leaped to his feet and followed after, trying to stay far enough back to not be caught in Talo’s wake, but not so far back as to lose Reis entirely.

Fifteen seconds later he found Talo laying on his back, massaging his side.

“He hit me!” Talo told him indignantly. “And not with a wall, mind you! I had just finished dodging a sweeper and he actually, literally reached out and punched me!”

“He wanted to see if you were distracted,” Bovik shrugged, reaching down to pull his friend back up to his feet, “and I guess you were.”

“Well it was still a cheap move.”

“Ahh, don’t worry about it. This isn’t the real test anyway. Keep up with him isn’t what this is all about, now is it?”

Talo thought for a moment, then his eyes lit up as understanding set in. “Oh! Of course. We’re supposed to know where he’s headed and just meet him there.”

“The centrifuge!” they concluded together.

Farther ahead, Reis continued charging forward at a blistering pace. He could not see any of his compatriots over his shoulder any more, but he wanted to be absolutely sure that there weren’t any hangers-on before he made his way to the center of the maze.

Of course it wasn’t just about reaching the physical center of the maze. This was a living, morphing place after all. To truly find the center, you had to approach it in the right way. And that right way was different every time you tried to find it, and different depending on which direction you came at it from.

So at last Reis slowed his run, stopped churning the stone walls around him, and instead starting paying attention to the maze itself. How was it unfolding itself to him this day? What was the pattern–the rule–that naturally dictated its openings and closings?

He came to a full stop, breathed deeply, and took in all his surroundings. Then he took a single step forward and watched how the stone shuddered as a result. A step to the right. A step to the left. A quarter turn. Then ten paces forward in a straight line.

“Alright,” he said to himself as he walked. “Openings naturally on the right side, obstacles naturally on the left.” He continued walking down his current aisle until it came to a 90-degree turn then continued along the next chamber. “Openings still naturally on the right. So I’m circling round. Go a layer deeper.”

He stepped into one of those openings in the right-hand wall and came into a neighboring path. He continued his walk down it now.

“Openings on the left…obstacles on the right,” he frowned. It had flipped. The maze was trying to suggest that its center was in the opposite direction of where it had been just a moment ago. He stepped through a hole to the left…back to where he had been before…and again the openings were on the right, not the left. “So what? Back and forth between the two? A test of persistence?”

That didn’t feel right. Every time he stepped right the maze wanted him to go left, every time he stepped left the maze wanted him to go right. There was a puzzle here, and he was supposed to somehow use this mechanic to progress in only one direction. But that was impossible, wasn’t it?

Reis’s body was wandering as much as his mind now. He carelessly strode down the pathways, stepped through the openings, back and forth, just trying to let something  click. If he stepped through an opening to the left, then back to the right, did the path he came back into appear different from before? No. If he went through one opening, went around a right-hand turn, and then stepped through the opening back to the previous path had things changed…hmm, no, that didn’t seem to help anything.

Perhaps it had something to do with how one went through the opening? He tried stepping through very slowly, no change. Headfirst, no change. Backwards…wait! He had gone backwards through an opening to the right and the rule had flipped. Now the openings in the next pathway were still on the right-hand side!

“It’s not right or left!” he crowed. “It’s that the openings appear behind you as you step through.”

Grinning, Reis continued his retreat. He didn’t dare turn his head to see where he was going, for fear of breaking the effect. He just trusted the maze to guide him. Path by path he moved deeper and deeper, until at last he passed the carved stone pillars which he knew so well. He turned around and saw the centrifuge before him: a massive stone column fragmented into many pieces, each spinning at its own rate and in different directions.

And Tharol was standing before it.

“You’re here already?” Reis cocked an eyebrow.

“Didn’t waste time trying to keep up with you.”

“You understood right away?”

“Of course…you’re obsessed with this place.”

Reis grinned and paced leisurely around the central column. “And why not? It is an obsessive place.”

“Have you seen this?” Tharol, all business, gestured to a small, spindly something perched on the ground. It was as if a thousand tiny, black sticks had been fused to one another until they were roughly in the form of a four-legged, lanky creature.

“It’s still growing?”

“Well it’s never showed any signs of slowing, has it? Definitely some sort of creature.”

“But still no head on it.”

“The elders still don’t know what to make of it.”

Reis shrugged. “This is a place of mysteries. Be all the more unusual if there weren’t unusual things growing here.”

“Well I don’t like it.”

“Why?”

“Doesn’t it strike you as–I don’t know–like something from the old legends? Creatures springing out of the rocks sounds straight out of the Cryptics!”

“And nothing good ever game out of the Cryptics,” Reis repeated the well-known saying. “I don’t know. It’s not a creature springing out of rock, it’s the statue of a creature. It’s not as though this thing shows any sign of life.”

“Well I don’t like it.”

“So I’ve heard.”

There was the sound of crumbling rock behind them and they spun around to see Inol dashing through a tear in the wall. Then came the sound of rapid footsteps to the right, and they turned to see Bovik and Talo come bounding over the top of the wall there. Marvi entered next from the left, fixing Reis with a scowl, evidently none too pleased for having been dropped during the chase.

“Sorry,” he said. “I did make sure we were over the moss at least.”

One-by-one more of the youth arrived, until there were thirteen of them in all. Reis waited quietly as they came, seated on a crumbled pillar, until there was a period of five minutes without any new arrivals. Then he stood up and clicked his tongue.

“I guess everyone that is going to be here is here.”

“You’re going to show us the amulet now?” Bovik asked eagerly.

Reis frowned at him, not pleased at all with being interrupted.

“I will show you what I will show you. And what I show you will be what I already chose to show you…not because you asked to see it.”

Bovik looked down to his feet and took a step back.

“Now then…” Reis glanced around, as if to dare anyone to interrupt him again. “Master Palthio’s instructions were that I keep Raystahn private, but I interpret that as private between myself and close friends. I feel that I may share it as I see fit, so long as I do so with prudence and care. Each of you,” he nodded to the gathered congregation, “I consider worthy of seeing.”

Without any further explanation he reached into the folds of his tunic and drew out a golden amulet. All the youth leaned in closer. Even Tharol, who usually maintained a more aloof air about such artifacts, squinted at it curiously. It was golden disc, with many layers and sections and foil strands twisting from one edge to another.

“There’s some sort of markings between the arms,” Marvi observed. “But they look more like patterns than writing.”

“Patterns can convey knowledge as well,” Reis stated. “And they aren’t static, watch this.” He took a step towards Marvi, and as he did so the etchings rearranged themselves slightly. “They change based on their context.”

“A compass!” Talo exclaimed.

“A compass only tells you which way you’re headed,” Reis tutted. “But these, I believe, tell one where they are.”

“A map, then.”

“Something like that. Only I still need to figure out how to read the symbols properly.”

“Have you asked Master Palthio what he knows about it?” Bovik queried.

“No, of course not. An amulet is a very personal thing, not some everyday tool with a manual. You’re supposed to figure this out for yourself. In fact, from now on I’d better not lead you on with what I’ve already puzzled out. You may observe, but keep your thoughts and discoveries to yourself.”

Everyone was silent for a few minutes, craning their necks from side-to-side, taking in all the complexities and hidden compartments on the device.

Reis grinned at their fascination. “There is something else I could show you about it. I won’t say anything about what I think it means, but you would still find it fascinating.”

All the youth locked eyes with him eagerly. All except for Tharol.

“But…like I said. This is very personal. Really I’m the only one who should know all this stuff about Raystahn. If I’m going to share more with you…I need you to be a part of me,” his eyes flicked meaningfully from one youth to the next. “I’m going to need…an oath.”

Part Two
Part Three

 

On Monday I wrote about how we cast characters in certain ways, making them likable or unlikable to the reader, so that the reader will accept or reject them accordingly. But of course, the reader is not only accepting or rejecting the character, they are also accepting or rejecting all the character’s ideas and everything that they stand for. The character is the Trojan Horse, hiding the writer’s agenda within.

With today’s post I introduced characters only, and did not yet reveal their ideologies or beliefs. In this way I have the reader already drawing opinions on them, even before they really know them.

My belief, and my intention, is that readers will find Reis a pompous and insincere character, one who they dislike, and are prepared to reject the agenda of. Almost all the other youth I intend to be seen as simpering and weak-willed. Tharol is intended to come across as likable, but cautious, someone that the readers wish to be closer to. And as we will see in the story, all these feelings that the readers hold towards the characters will be perfectly aligned with the messages that the overall story communicates.

As I suggested on Monday, there is an undeniable element of manipulative design in all this. The onus is on me to remain honest and sincere in the messages that I put forth this way, which is part of the reason that I am writing these paragraphs down here in the first place. My intent is not truly to manipulate, if it were, I would not be pointing out how the manipulation is being done. My intent is to help us all be more discerning readers and more sensitive writers.

For now, though, I’d like to move on to examining another piece of this story. This opening segment, with the youth traversing the maze, is ultimately not a critical element of the story. It is to give a little flavor of the world, but as soon as it ends we’ll get going on the main thrust of the story.

This is not an uncommon approach to story-telling, where a sort of prologue piece gets the audience warmed up before the main tale goes forward in earnest. Let’s come back on Monday and reflect on a few examples of this, and why we use it in our stories. Then, on Thursday, we’ll really get going on The Favored Son.

The Changed Dog

Photo by Michael Nelms on Pexels.com

“Billy’s really sick, isn’t he?” Tommy’s eyes were wide and shining with unshed tears.

“Yes, you know he’s sick,” James said. “We’ve been talking about that for more than a week now, haven’t we?”

“But I mean really sick. Like…he might not get better,” Tommy barely whispered the last words.

James squirmed uncomfortably, the common dilemma of a father who doesn’t want to be forthcoming.

“Everything will be fine,” he finally promised. “Whatever happens…everything will be just fine.”

Tommy looked far from convinced, but there was something in his father’s tone that let him know the matter was concluded. And so they completed their night-time ritual and he was left to fall asleep. His mind was racing, though, and it was nearly an hour before his dreams finally took him.

Strange dreams they were, too, where he was running through a field, searching for his missing dog. He kept on thinking he saw it’s steel-gray flank before him, but upon nearing it always found something else. “Billy!” he called. “Billy!” But no one answered.

Downstairs in the house, James gave their Siberian Husky a long, hard stare. The dog was laying flat on its belly, jaw resting on the carpet, but eyes open and lazily regarding their master. There was a deep wistfulness in those eyes, and it seemed to understand where James’s thoughts were. It was the father who broke the gaze first. He turned his back to the pet and went to the phone on the wall.

As he hung up at the end of his call Susan stepped into the room.

“Did you tell Tommy? Before he went to bed?”

“No.”

“He’s going to be crushed.”

“He doesn’t need to know.”

*

The next morning Tommy came down the stairs and found the dog kennel empty.

“Billy?… Billy!” he called. “Billy!” He rushed from room to room, calling the dog’s name, but found nothing.

“Billy!”

He ran out the front door, frantically looking up and down the street. Had the dog wandered off, sick and confused? Had his parents taken it without telling him?

“BILLY!” he shouted, his bare feet pattering down the sidewalk. He called the dog’s name, but he knew in his heart that there wouldn’t be any answer. Slowly he came to a stop, and felt the tears forming in his eyes.

“Thomas?”

The boy spun around and saw his mother coming out from working in the backyard.

“Mom! Where’s Billy?!”

“Get over here, you’re still in your pajamas! Your father took Billy to the vet this morning.”

“To put him down?” hot tears splashed down Tommy’s cheeks.

“No. I don’t–your father said it’ll be alright. He said you wait and see when he comes home.”

“How? Billy’s too old for the vet to do anything for him.”

“You’ll just have to wait and see, but come indoors.”

That evening James came home…alone. As soon as he opened the door to the house he found himself face-to-face with his son, accusation etched over the boy’s eyes.

“You’ve killed him!” Tommy declared.

“What? Who?”

“You took Billy to be put down!” Tommy teetered on the edge of losing all composure.

“No,” James said firmly. “They’re seeing to him now. I thought he’d be ready to bring back this afternoon but he’s not. He’ll be back tomorrow.”

Tommy squinted suspiciously at his father, but there wasn’t anything concrete to justify his doubts, so he merely trudged away, shaking his head.

Susan looked up from peeling carrots after the boy had left.

“Don’t you think he’s old enough to know the truth?” she asked. “Putting it off for today is only going to make things worse when we do have to tell him.”

“Actually, it’s all been arranged. I’ve been in contact with a kennel in Springdale. ‘Billy’ will be vaccinated and ready for his new home tonight.”

Susan did not match his smug smile.

“I don’t know, dear,” she said slowly. “I honestly feel like that’s just going to be worse.”

“Well you never had any pets growing up, you don’t know what it’s like. Trust me, will you?”

The next morning was the weekend, so both James and Susan were waiting for Tommy as he came down the stairs and saw Billy back in his kennel.

“What?!” he said in awe.

The dog stood tall and alert, his fur coat full and shiny like it hadn’t been in months.

“I told you to count on your old man!” James crowed.

“But–how?” Tommy asked. “He was just old, I thought. What can a vet do for just being old? I was afraid he–“

“Well that’s just the problem!” James interjected. “Dogs can smell fear, can’t they? Old Billy could feel how afraid you were, and that was just a whole other stress for him to deal with. Had him worried sick. I think spending some time away from all our fretting was the best medicine he could get! But what are you waiting for, boy? Come say hello to your old buddy!”

The dog craned its head up to look at its master, regarding him with curious eyes. It heard a movement ahead and saw the small boy drawing near with hand outstretched. Instantly a growl resonated in its throat.

“Billy?” Tommy asked and the dog barked loudly.

Tommy frowned and side-stepped to the shelf of doggie treats and toys.

“Look boy, a biscuit!” he held the treat aloft, then lobbed it over. It feel between the dog’s paws, and it glanced down, then locked eyes with Tommy again.

Tommy picked a clicker off the shelf and clicked it two times.

Nothing.

He clicked it two times once more.

Nothing.

“What’s happened, dad? He doesn’t remember me or anything!”

“Well…” James’s eyes roved as he sought to explain. “Can you blame him? He’s been through so much lately, hasn’t he? Not to mentioned being out of practice for the past few weeks. So yeah, maybe he’s a bit muddled and confused, but he’s still our boy, isn’t he?”

“I suppose.”

“Just give him some time. He’s got to get used to being well again, but everything will be right as rain soon, you’ll see.”

James happened to catch the look of concern in his wife’s face.

“You’ll see,” he repeated.

But over the rest of the morning there was no denying that Billy simply did not like Tommy. Did not like him one bit. The boy couldn’t come near without the dog starting to growl and bare his teeth.

Later that day Susan had the dog lay on its side and she petted it soothingly, while Tommy offered the dog a treat. The dog only snarled until Tommy placed the treat on the ground and backed away, then it lapped the biscuit up. But as soon as the snack was down the dog went back to fixing the boy once more with an imperious glare.

“But he was my friend!” Tommy wailed. “How come he isn’t my friend anymore? I want my Billy back, not this bully!”

“Let’s try and find something the three of us can do together,” Susan suggested. “Something distracting. Billy always loved going for his walks, didn’t he?”

“Do you think he still would? He seems to hate everything that he used to love before.”

But Billy did enjoy the walk. He even let Tommy walk alongside him without any growls, as he was too distracted by all the new scents and sounds to be mean.

“Can I have the leash, Mom?”

“Better not.”

“Can I take him for his walk by myself tomorrow?”

“No, you’re too little.”

“But you always let me before. You said Billy could keep me safe.”

“Well…I think Billy still has to do some more getting used to you.”

James was present later that afternoon when Tommy tried to offer a treat to the dog again. Billy barked and Tommy dropped the treat in fright.

“No, Thomas,” James scolded as Billy lapped the treat up. “You’re teaching him that he can bully you and still get rewarded for it. We have to be tougher with him. If he doesn’t behave, he doesn’t get a treat. Grab another of those treats and let’s try this again.”

James crouched down by Billy, his arm across the dog’s back.

“Now bring that treat forward, and don’t act scared. He’ll never respect you if you act scared around him.”

“But he used to respect me.”

“Never mind what he used to do. This is how he is now. Bring the treat.”

Tommy started to extend the biscuit, and as expected Billy’s lips drew back over his lips and he started to growl. In a flash James had struck it across the nose, eliciting a small yelp.

“Don’t hit him!” Tommy cried.

“I know how to raise a dog. Now offer him the treat again.”

Another growl, another slap, another yelp.

“Again.”

This time James clamped his hand around Billy’s snout, forcing the dog to swallow his growl. The dog strained to leave, but James held him firmly in place, held him until the dog stopped straining.

“Good. Now pet him.”

“But he’ll–“

“He’ll do nothing. I have him under control. Pet him around his collar and leave the treat at his feet.”

Tommy did so, then took a step back so that his father could release the dog.

“Not too far,” James instructed. “He still has to understand he only gets his treat when he lets you be near.”

Then he released the dog. Billy whimpered at James, eyes downcast and ashamed.

“You brought it on yourself,” James said sternly. “Now take your treat.”

Billy sniffed idly at the biscuit, and gave it a little lick.

“You see, Thomas? That’s how it’s going to be. We’ll have him in his place in no time.”

“But I don’t want him ‘in his place.’ This is mean. He never had to be put ‘in his place’ before, he was just a good dog already.”

“You don’t approve? Then I guess I’d better take him back to the kennel now,” and having said so, James made to grab the leash off the rack.

“What?!” Tommy exclaimed. “You’re going to get rid of him?”

“Why not? You don’t want him anymore.”

“I didn’t mean that! Please daddy, no! I’ll make him respect me, I promise.”

“Doesn’t it sound too mean, though?”

“No, it’s fine! I’ll do it. I promise!”

“Hmm…well I guess I’ll wait on it for now then. Why don’t you go play?”

Tommy scampered off, and James turned around to meet his wife’s frown.

“What? That was actual progress!”

*

The next morning Tommy came downstairs early, before either of his parents had awoken. Billy was still asleep as well, and hadn’t fully roused before Tommy already had the leash hooked up to his collar.

“Come on, ” Tommy said officiously, “we’re going for our walk.”

Billy gave a little snarl, but was still too groggy to do anything more.

“None of that! You’re going to respect me now, boy.”

A dangling treat and a tug on the leash and Billy reluctantly rose to his feet and plodded with the boy down the stairs. Once the two of them were outside the cool morning air woke the dog up fully, and it started walking along at a brisk pace.

“Attaboy!” Tommy said brightly. “I don’t know how you’ve forgotten so much, but you and I are best friends. And you’re gonna remember it.”

They came to a street corner and Billy made to turn.

“No Billy, you know we’re not allowed down there. Daddy and Mommy don’t want us anywhere near the rail yard.” He tugged the leash to guide Billy back, but the dog whipped back with a snap of its teeth.

“Billy, no!” Tommy said firmly. “I don’t want to be tough on you…but I will be until you agree to be friends with me again.”

A deep growl started to reverberate in Billy’s throat. Tommy thought about letting go of the leash, but he knew he just had to be tough. Knew he just had to push on until he finally got through to his beloved friend. He lifted his hand and slapped the dog across the nose.

And that was that.

*

James and Susan came down from their bedroom less than hour later.

“Tommy? Are you down here? Tommy?”

They saw the empty kennel, saw the leash missing on the rack. They each fixed the other with the same look of horror, bolted out the front door, and streaked down different roads.

“Tommy!” they called. “Tommy!” But no one answered.

“TOMMY!” they shouted, their bare feet thundering down the sidewalk. They called their son’s name, but they knew in their hearts that there wouldn’t be any answer.

On Monday I spoke about stories that repeat the same messages, or even the exact same lines, in order to reinforce or evolve a central idea. The very end of this story, of course, ended with the two parents searching for the boy that they would not find, and I used the exact same phrasing as when I wrote about Tommy looking for the dog that he also would never find.

And my hope is that this symmetry will hammer home the main theme of my story: searching for that which is lost, searching for that which cannot be found. Even after “Billy” has been restored back to Tommy, Tommy is still searching for his old friend. There is a dog before him that answers to the same name as before, but it is just a facade, the relationship is still missing. Sadly, Tommy is too young and naive to understand that the old relationship cannot be regained, for the beloved dog he is looking for is already dead.

But it isn’t just the true Billy that has been lost, Tommy has been lost as well. And Tommy was lost even before he took the dog out that fateful morning. By the loss of his pet, and by being the victim of deceit, his innocence has been taken from him. His parents, particularly his father, had already arranged his demise. By trying to protect him, they doomed him.

Which, of course, was written with a specific message to convey. This story is a statement that not being allowed to mourn the wound only creates a greater wounding. Hiding pain only makes it become worse, just as telling lies only increases the sin. The immoral comfort of today only ensures retribution for tomorrow.

I tried to prepare readers for that take-away, by first making it clear that the father’s approach to the whole situation–buying a new dog to replace the second–was wrong. By knowing his behavior was wrong, they could start asking themselves why. But how did I tell the audience that the father’s behavior was wrong? By making him do unpleasant things, such as be condescending to his wife and pompous to his son. In this way I signaled to the readers what their feelings towards him and his philosophies should be, even before the outcome of them was seen.

Is that manipulative? Maybe…but I think that question requires a deeper analysis than we have time for here. Let’s come back on Monday and reflect on this common pattern in story-telling and whether it is fair for a writer to employ it or not. I’ll see you then.

Boat of Three: Part Five

person holding water
Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

“How could it be three days?” Captain Molley shook his head in disbelief. “I would have died.”

“I gave you water, I gave you what food I could…you couldn’t take much. You lived, though I thought for sure you wouldn’t. But…it has been three days.”

“Ohh,” Captain Molley’s head fell into his hands. “Three days without a proper heading…there’s no telling where we are now. Miles off course, no doubt, but no notion of  which way, and how to correct it.”

“I’ve tried to keep us straight as I can.”

“But we were rowing at a slant. And neither you nor I can recall if it was at a slant to the east or a slant to the west.”

“Well, I haven’t been able to row very quickly on my own. Probably best to think of it as only a single day’s rowing.”

“But not a single day’s being pushed by the current. Three days of that alone is too much.”

Julian’s eyes narrowed. “Too much for what?”

“Julian…I barely trusted my own navigational skills to find this phantom cove, and I certainly don’t trust any other man’s navigation in the least.”

“But…what are you saying?”

“Forget about the cove. We’re never going to find it.”p

“But–but–it’s all that we have!”

“It was always a very slim chance. Our best chance, I suppose, but very slim even so. Now its just too narrow of a mark, too uncertain of a starting point, there’s just no way to see us from here to there anymore.”

“But there isn’t anything else for us.”

“We will turn east. What we still have is the ability to find is the trade route. We will recognize it by where the current runs against us the strongest. We will surrender ourselves to its mercy…and see if it sends us any vessel for our rescue.”

“Captain you know that there isn’t any other ship coming. You know it.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Sometimes–well–don’t take offence, Captain, but sometimes while going up and down the rigging one hears the conversations going on below. I’ve never been one for eavesdropping, but sometimes it just happens and it can’t be helped, I’m sure you can understand that.”

Captain Molley waved his hand dismissively, showing he didn’t care. “And what was it you heard?”

“When those pirates first came bearing down on us you told First Mate Blythe ‘they’ve got the weather gage, the better guns, and there’s not any other ship due to pass this way for another two months!’ So there aren’t any other merchants vessels scheduled to come and you know it!”

Captain Molley sighed. “Nothing scheduled, that is correct. But there is the occasional unregistered vessel that passes through these waters. You know this.”

“What? More pirates?! Savages?! This is who you want to be rescued by?”

“I would take my chances with any vessel at this point.”

“Surrender ourselves to their mercy?”

“What would you have me do, Julian?” Captain Molley held out his palms in exasperation. “There are no good options remaining.”

“Keep things in our own control. Push on as best we can towards the pirate’s cove.”

“No. We’re not sure where exactly it is, we’re not sure where we ourselves are anymore. You can’t chart a course between two unknowns! But finding back the trade route, that much we can manage.”

“What if it wasn’t two unknowns? What if we still had a general idea of where we were now?”

“I don’t see what you mean.”

“You say three days of drifting is too long. Well what amount of drifting would you still be willing to navigate from? What if it had only been a single day?”

“But it was three days.”

“But if it had only been one?”

“What is the point of that question? Why does it matter how much I would have been willing to risk, I am not willing to risk things as they are right now.”

Julian gnawed the inside his cheek awkwardly. Captain did not read anything in it, but Bartholomew, who had been following the entire conversation from nearly-shut eyes did. He suppressed a smile and silently turned matters over in his mind.

“Listen Julian,” Captain Molley said in a calm, yet firm manner, “you are not convinced, so be it. But I am the only one in this boat that can navigate, and I’m telling you that I frankly refuse to take these odds. There’s no use in trying to persuade me. I won’t do it, and so there is nothing left but to return to the trade route.”

Bartholomew coughed on cue.

“What? He’s awake!” Julian cried.

“I–” Bartholomew’s voice was extremely strained and cracked. “I can–lead us…I can lead us in.”

Julian rushed the water flask to Bartholomew’s lips. The pirate seized on it with a strength that belied his weakened appearance. He gulped down four overflowing mouthfuls before Captain Molley wrenched it away.

“Easy there. We still have to ration what little we have!” He secured the stopper with a firm twist.

“What were you saying just now?” Julian pressed Bartholomew eagerly.

“I know a way to still get to the cove,” Bartholomew’s voice broke and he remained laying flat on his back, but he spoke on with persistence. “There are–signs in the water. Things to watch for when you know them. If we try our best, if we get within fifteen miles of it…I’ll see the signs and I’ll be able to lead us in. We don’t have to be too accurate…just within fifteen miles would be enough.”

“What signs?” Captain Molley demanded. “A color in the water? A scent in the air? A spawning ground of whales? How do you tell it?”

Bartholomew simply shook his head.

“You won’t tell us?”

“If I tell…you will kill me.”

“What? Don’t be daft, man.”

He will kill me,” Bartholomew managed to lift a single finger towards Julian.

“No. He lashed out in a moment of passion, but he didn’t kill you when he could have, when you and I were both unconscious.”

Bartholomew just shook his head.

“Out with it man! None of us can survive if we don’t do this together.”

“We–can’t all survive. One of us has to die…and it isn’t going to be me.”

“He’s delirious,” Captain Molley shook his head. “Never made any mention of signs in the water before. Get some rest, man. Julian give us the bag of food, he and I need our strength.”

Julian picked up the bag, but only held it halfway to the Captain. “But…we still don’t know if Bartholomew will make it…in which case it would be a waste.”

Captain Molley lurched forward and seized the bag out of Julian’s hands. “Well of course he won’t make it if we starve him! We’re not counting any one of us out just yet.” He clucked his tongue and started to reach into the bag. “Now he and I will take an extra portion or two, to get back our energy after not eating these past three days.”

Julian gnawed the inside of his cheek again.

“Not for me,” Bartholomew sighed. “We can’t survive if we all eat. It’s too far to the cove.”

“What? You’re so concerned about us killing you, but willing to starve to death instead?” Captain Molley sneered. “Eat your food, our lot will be the same.”

“He has a point, Captain,” Julian piped up.

Captain Molley’s eyes narrowed. “So let him die to preserve food for the two of us? And he’s the one man who claims he can still bring you in to your precious cove? Surely even you can see that that doesn’t work.”

Julian opened his mouth to answer, but then closed it. An eternity seemed to pass between Captain and sailor, as both silently came to the same conclusions.

“Julian…what are you thinking?” Captain Molley asked very slowly.

Julian simply stared.

“So it’s like that, is it? I don’t suppose you’ve even considered that Bartholomew could be lying?”

“I can’t accept that.”

“So it has to be you or I then? And somehow I don’t believe you’re volunteering yourself as a sacrifice. No. You’re much more the sort to hide in the rigging and let other men do the dying for you, aren’t you?”

Julian scowled deeply.

The anger was riled in Captain now, and he abandoned any restraint. “You’re too much a coward to throw in your lot and let fate decide, aren’t you? You can’t just let things be, and that makes you such a nervous, shiftless weasel.”

“I’m not a coward!”

“No? And here about to murder a wounded man?” Captain Molley shook his head derisively. “But go on then, take me if you think you can manage it. I would remind you that I’m still armed!”

So saying, Captain Molley pushed back his coat and reached to his side. There he felt the sheath that was bound there…but nothing else.

Julian drew the knife out from the back of his trousers.

“So…” Captain Molley breathed.

The boat nearly overturned, nearly threw all three sailors into their watery grave right then and there. But somehow it stayed aright through the moment of violent struggle. The two men clawed each other’s life as best they could, tore each other like animals. And all the while Bartholomew lay in the bottom of the boat, eyes fixed on the sky above, a grim smile across his lips. A life-rending cry and the deed was done. Captain Molley’s limp corpse was tumbled over the edge and into the water.

Julian leaned panting against the side of the boat for support, the bloodied knife pierced into the wood at his side. He trembled in exhaustion and horror, his eyes blinked furiously, trying to shed tears but too dehydrated to actually form any.

And then two hands clamped around his neck from behind.

Bartholomew’s wiry fingers grasped with hidden strength, his arms crushed with feverish power. Julian thrashed about, but the pirate was very skilled in the art of killing another man. He managed to pin Julian down with one arm, then reached out with the other to take the knife.

Two moments later and Julian’s dead body tumbled out of the boat as well. The sailor rejoined his Captain in the sea. The ocean swallowed them both, and all their sins were forgotten.

Alone in the boat, Bartholomew ravaged the sack of food. He ate as much as he could, drank as much as he could. Then he grabbed two oars and started rowing away from that place. Rowing, rowing feverishly as the waves rolled on.

On Monday I spoke of stories where characters are at odds with themselves. Julian was my example in this story of a man who undoes himself. He accomplishes this in several ways. Initially he wanted to kill off Bartholomew to better survive, then later Captain Molley. Thus his ever-shifting nature deprived him of any ally. He was so desperate to keep himself alive, that he failed to account for the need of retaining any friends to save him.

But even more than this, he kept undermining his own hopes for rescue. Things were already very strained for reaching the pirate’s cove, but then he was the one that knocked out their guide. He was the one that aggravated Captain Molley into collapse. He was the one that stole food so that they didn’t have enough for them all. He was the one that covered his sins with lies, which lies broke Captain Molley’s hope in their plan. At the end he found himself fighting with Captain Molley and Bartholomew, but they were fights that he had only brought on himself.

Or had he? To an extent he made his own choices…but also he was deeply manipulated by Bartholomew along the way. The pirate sowed discord in the man at every point possible, taunting him into attacking himself, putting into his head the notion that one of their crew needed to die, and leaving poor Julian to carry out Bartholomew’s own dirty work for him. Julian may have been a sinner, but Bartholomew was the devil driving him.

Which ties into my earlier blog post about characters who are harboring secrets. It was stated a few times that Bartholomew was closely watching his companions, and it was implied that he had manipulative intent towards them. But what exactly he was trying to do and how he meant to do it remained a mystery up until the very end. Clearly he wasn’t so weak as he pretended, only acting so until one of the other two men had evened the odds for him.

But even after that much is cleared up, Bartholomew still retains many secrets, and he keeps them clear until the end. Just how much of what he did and said was true? How much of it was just a fabrication to build up tension? And the story’s biggest secret of them all: was the pirate’s cove he spoke of even real or not? Was that just a story to get the other men to see him as essential for their survival? At the very end, as he takes the oars and starts rowing, I came very close to saying whether he kept north towards the promised cove, or if he turned east towards the trade route. I repressed that urge, though., for this is a story about deceit, and so it was only right to end on a note of uncertainty.

Though…to be fair…if you understand the character and the themes, you should be able to tell which of those two endings would be the right one.

Even earlier I wrote a blog post about tension between allies, characters who are momentarily aligned in purpose, but not friendly to one another in the least. Clearly this story had that in spades. And specifically it had it in the flavor of natural enemies who we knew were going to come to blows sooner or later, and the only question was when that conflict would actually break out.

Choosing where to have that payoff was an interesting process. Really at just about any time I could have said “okay, that’s this person’s tipping point. Things fall out now.” In fact Captain Molley already came to that point when Julian had taken his feud with Bartholomew too far. And Julian came to that point previously when he hit Bartholomew in the head with the oar. But I intervened in both of those moments and delayed the ultimate fallout, because I wanted something more when that moment came.

I didn’t want the tension to break out because Julian had done something wrong. And I didn’t want it to break out because Captain Molley lost his temper. I didn’t even want it to break out because Bartholomew was pulling the other men’s strings. I wanted it to be because of all three of those conditions at the very same time. In earlier scenes there was one or two of these factors, but I was using those moments to foreshadow the end when all three would come to bear at once. In the end we reach the point that every man indulges in their worse nature at one and the same time, and then there aren’t any restraints left to save them. Only then, at that climax of tension, was the story finally ready for its end.

Last of all, I started this whole story with the idea of tales that begin with a key premise and end with a key culmination. In Boat of Three we began with this idea of a naval captain, a nervous sailor, and a scheming pirate caught together in a boat. It was a simple idea, one that can literally be summed up in a single sentence, but which already suggested all manner of drama.

The story ended with a single idea, too. Right from the get-go I had in mind this scene of Julian being cajoled into killing Captain Molley, leaving the door wide open for him to be murdered in turn. I had a clear image of a snake-in-the-grass mastermind that lay motionless and smiling in the bottom of the boat as lives were destroyed around him. And so the pivotal ending derives directly from the pivotal beginning.

And as I mentioned, each of these men’s personal contribution to the ending was rehearsed in individual scenes beforehand. I showed something about each of them, and then I showed it again later. This is a key pattern of storytelling: saying something and then restating it. On Monday I’d like to look more closely at this notion of reinforced messages, and then we’ll be off with a new tale on Thursday.

Boat of Three: Part Four

blur boat close up paper
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

“What?!” Captain Molley shot out of his sleep and looked about wildly, trying to make sense of what was going on. His eyes settled on Bartholomew slumped in the bottom of the boat, a small amount of blood pooled under his head. “What have you done?” he cried, and reached down to check Bartholomew’s pulse.

Julian gnawed the inside of his cheek uncomfortably and lowered his oar back into the water. “He was–he was taunting me.”

“So you brained him?!”

“I–I didn’t mean to. It just–I lost my temper.”

“No, you’ve been itching to murder him ever since we brought him aboard. You just waited for me to go to sleep, then killed him because you can’t stand him, didn’t you?”

“Captain you don’t know how it is!” Julian snapped. “Every day he sits there behind me, and every minute I expect to feel a knife slipping between my ribs. You take your rest and I have no one to watch my back!”

“And so you tried to kill him…” Captain Molley concluded.

Julian blinked at that. “Tried? You mean? He’s–“

“Still alive…for now.”

Captain Molley drew back from Bartholomew and levelled Julian with a terrible stare. He was silent a very long time, and Julian fidgeted a great deal, coming to the cusp of speaking a several times, but backing down each time.

“What am I to do with you, Julian?” Captain Molley finally asked. “What am I to do?”

“I don’t think–“

“No, let me think! If these were normal circumstances I know exactly what I should do. You’d be locked in the brig until we made port and then tried for your crimes. But of course these are not normal circumstances. We have no brig, and no promise of ever making port. No…this is uncharted water we’re in, Julian, and it requires a different sort of law.” And as his mind settled on that thought he pushed back his coat and ran a finger along the knife at his side.

“Captain…no. Don’t do this! I’m for you, Captain! I couldn’t manage with that pirate, but there’s been any rift between you and I.”

“There is, Julian! There most certainly is a rift between us.”

“Only if you make it. I have no quarrel towards you. None!”

“And so you’d say do away with justice, I suppose? Never mind that you just tried to kill your own crew?”

“You were right, Captain, these are different waters, and we have to have different laws. But why not a more tolerable law? A kinder law! Why make it be more cruel? I’ve done wrong, I confess it, but let’s just wash it away and be shipmates.”

“Did you let Bartholomew’s wrongs wash away? Did you show a kinder law to him?” Captain Molley flicked the blade out of its sheath in a single, fluid motion.

“Please, Captain. Please!” Julian was on his knees, hands clasped over his breast, and sobbing.

“You’re not the messenger of a new gospel, Julian! You’re not here to give out grace and mercy! You’re just here to save your own, mean skin, and that’s all you’ve ever been about!”

“Help me, Captain. Oh help me!”

Captain Molley began rising to his feet. He was building up the hate in himself to carry out his wrathful justice. What would he do, he wondered. Kill the man, or only take a finger? But in his rising fervor he forgot his wound, and he carelessly let his weight fall onto the wrong side.

“Unngh!” Captain Molley cried, then collapsed backwards into the boat with a crash!

“Captain!”

Julian bounded over Bartholomew’s unconscious body and landed by his leader’s side. The boat rocked precariously, but did not tip over. Captain Molley tried to push the man away, but his strength failed him. His face was pale and heavy beads of sweat wreathed his brow. Julian had the wounded man’s jacket and shirt open in a flash and saw the infected gash there, three inches long and entirely untended.

“Captain you should have treated this!”

“Didn’t–want you to know.”

“I knew, you fool.”

Julian reached out of the boat, cupped some seawater in his hands, then scrubbed it against the wound.

“Ach!” Captain Molley moaned in pain. He looked like he might faint at any moment. “Stop it. It doesn’t matter.”

“It wasn’t that bad of a cut, but you haven’t let it heal. It’s been aggravated with all this rowing and it’s getting infected because you won’t let it close up.”

“I–have to–row.”

“No, Captain. You rest. Bartholomew and I can–” Julian came to his senses and stopped before he finished the sentence.

Even amidst his agony Captain Molley couldn’t help but smile at that irony. “You brained your last hope, Julian. Now you need his hope and you’re all alone.” Then he lost consciousness, and Julian was all alone.

Julian blinked nervously.

A few moments later and he cut the Captain’s jacket into strips and bound up his side, then left him to rest in the back. He bound up Bartholomew’s head as well, and laid him out to rest in the middle. Then he sat in the front of the boat, faced backwards, took an oar in each hand, and started to row. It was all to him now, and humbled by his guilt, he was determined to do his duty.

It was a very erratic sort of rowing that he did, though. The man didn’t know how to keep a straight heading. Of course he knew that the sun rose in the east and set in the west, but he couldn’t tell the difference between ten degrees and twenty, to say nothing of that zigzag pattern Captain had set them on. Had they been slanted a little east of their mark, or a little to the west? Julian couldn’t remember. Did he dare try to straighten out? What if he tried to guess but went even further the wrong way? Of course if Captain did recover, he would want to know how far they had progressed and in which directions, and Julian would not be able to provide that information.

As the sun started to set Julian realized it was time for his daily meal. He put up his oars and devoured his hard tack and salted meat in a single mouthful, then started to close up the bag. He paused before it was quite put away, though, and greedily eyed Captain Molley’s and Bartholomew’s portions. Would they ever be awake to eat them?

“Not now,” he shook his head. “Just not now. See what happens with them over the next day or two. If things don’t turn out well…there will be food enough then.”

He set the bag down, but he did not close it. And if one of them did die, which would be the better for him? Julian was ashamed that the thought occurred to him, and immediately pushed it from his mind.

Stroke. Stroke. Stroke.

But in all an empty ocean, with nothing else to distract him, it was impossible to keep the questions at bay. What were the pros and cons, then, if either man were to die?

It was difficult to say that either man was more valuable to him than the other. If they ever did make it to the cove and Bartholomew was still alive, then surely the pirate would try to kill him. The pirate’s long-term survival depended on not having Julian and Captain Molley around to turn him over to the authorities, to say nothing of the fact that Julian had just pounded him in the head!

Captain Molley, however, was no friend either. He had hated Julian from the moment they first entered this craft, and would not rest until justice had been served. And given their last conversation, Captain might not still be willing to wait until they made port to turn him over to the authorities for a trial. No, Captain Molley had a personal vendetta against him now, and Julian was very right to be afraid of him.

“I have no friends here. I only have me,” he muttered. He looked about him. Took in all the open, empty sea. “But only me isn’t enough. I can’t make it on my own. I don’t even have the strength to keep rowing like this any longer.”

The food bag was calling to him. He eyed it once more and licked his lips.

“It’s as much to their benefit as mine that I keep up my strength. If they were awake they’d tell me that I should eat. They’d say that I’m their only chance…. What will they know of it anyway? If they wake up and two days’ ration is missing, how would they know that they simply weren’t unconscious for that long.”

He seized the bag and reached inside. “Just one biscuit. No better make it two…. Well, if I’m taking a whole day’s ration of biscuits, it wouldn’t do to leave the meat, now would it?”

For a moment there wasn’t a sound but the crunching of the hardtack, the gnawing of the meet, and the slurp of him licking the crumbs off his fingers. Then the glug of the bottle as he washed his sins down.

“There. Far better. Now I can really work!” So saying he took the oars and began his strokes with greater fervor. He so continued for fifteen minutes, before he realized he had not revitalized himself nearly so far as he thought. He put his hands on his knees and panted, scared that he might pass out.

“It’s just–it’s just too heavy. One man rowing three? And in such a long boat? It just–it just isn’t feasible. And for what? They’re probably dead in a day anyway, and then I’ll have been carrying their weight for nothing!”

He looked over to the two bodies, but then shook his head. “Not now…give them a chance. A day. When they’re doing even worse in a day I can rid them with a clean conscience.”

But they were not dead, nor dying. Shortly before midnight Captain Molley stirred.

“What?” he asked no one in particular. “Who’s there?”

Julian had slumped forward in sleep, which he suddenly started from. “Oh, I’m here, I’m here. It’s Julian.”

“Oh…” Captain said slowly as his mind reclaimed its memories. “We’re…still on the boat?”

“Yes, of course we are.”

“Where are we?”

“Um–I’m not too sure.”

“Which way have we been going?”

“Mostly the same as before.”

“Which way was that?”

“You don’t know?”

“I–I can’t remember it just now. You don’t know?”

“I never knew. I just turned when you told me to turn.”

Captain Molley looked up to the stars, trying to make out the constellations. But his mind was still swimming, his vision was still blurry, and he couldn’t stop his pounding headache.

“I–can’t,” he sighed. “Get some sleep. We’ll talk in the morning.”

And the men went straight back to sleep.

Neither of them were stirred by the sunrise, it was nearly midday when Captain Molley slowly woke. He reached his hand out of the boat and cupped some water to splash on his face. His head still twinged from time to time, but at least he felt more alert now.

“You there,” he rasped out. His dry voice nearly failed him, but it was enough to awaken Julian at the front of the boat, who rubbed the sleep from his eyes and then handed Captain Molley the bottle. “Thank you,” Captain Molley said after his throat had been refreshed.

“How are you feeling?”

“Not so well.” Captain Molley took in his surroundings, noticed the cut-up jacket bound around his side, noticed the similar binding around Bartholomew’s head. Noticed the two oars at Julian’s end of the boat. “You took care of us while we slept.”

“Mmm.”

Captain Molley looked down guiltily. “I know that I am a proud man, Julian. It would be a lie to pretend otherwise. But I am not so proud that I can’t admit when I have done wrong. I lost myself for a moment there. I still say you did wrong to Bartholomew, but I was intending to do wrong as well. I thank God that He intervened in both of our behalf.”

Julian didn’t know what to say to all that.

“Right…well…best we figure things out now. For the life of me, I don’t remember a single thing that was said last night. What’s our heading?”

“I don’t know, I was just trying to follow the same line we had been going at as best I could.”

“And which way was–“

“I don’t know. I thought you would.”

Captain thought for a minute, blinking quickly as he sought for the memory in his mind. “Well I don’t know. As things are now I’d say we’re a little to the east. Would you say we’ve been going a little east this whole while, and never a little west?”

“How far over would a little west look?”

Captain pointed his right arm down the line of the boat, then raised his left arm to point at an angle to it.

“Can’t say. I might not have kept it straight enough that it didn’t stray a little that way or the other.”

“Or stray a lot?”

“I…hope not.”

Captain Molley sighed.

“I’m not a trained navigator!” Julian’s voice raised slightly. “I’m sorry Captain, but I did what I could. These were only estimates we had in the first place, weren’t they? So we’ll just have to estimate again.”

“Yes, we could, but with a wider zigzag to account for the even greater uncertainty. Much wider. And it takes more time to cover that wider arc, time that we already don’t have!”

“I did what I could!”

“But these are the facts all the same!”

Captain Molley’s head throbbed with his raising temper and he winced sharply. His hand flew to his brow, kneading it, trying to release the tension as he slowly calmed back down. “These are just the facts,” he said softly. Then, after another long pause, “And how long have I been unconscious?”

Julian was glad that Captain Molley’s head was in his hands, so that he couldn’t see how Julian chewed gnawed the inside of his cheek and braced himself for the lie. “It’s been three days.”

“Three days?!” Captain Molley looked up with incredulity, but by now Julian had molded his own face into an expression of complete sincerity.

“Yes,” Julian spoke like one telling of a great burden they have borne all alone. “Three days.”

Part Five

On Monday I spoke of characters that are sincerely good, characters that are sincerely evil, and characters that only put on a face good, willfully ignoring all the unscrupulous things that they do. In the case of this story Captain Molley is moral and strict and he owns it, Bartholomew is devious and wicked and he owns it, too. But Julian has claimed to be virtuous, while also trying to cheat and abandon his shipmates.

As I explained, the characters that an audience will respect are the ones who are honest about their true nature, and they will tend to dislike those that are two-faced. Julian is the most detestable character in this story, though not because he has done the most detestable things in his life.

With this section I tried to have him retain his petty self-delusions, but also become a more sympathetic character to the audience. Though I don’t intend for my reader to approve of his eating the other men’s food, I at least hope that they’ll appreciate how hard of a situation he is in. They don’t have to condone his behavior to still feel sorry for him.

But, of course, his situation is only getting harder now, and all because of his own deceit. Now that he has done something wrong, he must now tell lies about how long the men have been adrift at sea. And this lie will have unfortunate consequences that he has not accounted for. He is going to be caught between the horrible choice of coming forward with the truth, and being killed by his shipmates for it, or else maintaining the lie to his own destruction.

This idea of a character having painted themselves into a corner is a staple in literature. There is something fascinating about the karmic justice of a person that is impaled on their own sword. Come back on Monday as we explore this concept further, and then again on Thursday as we see how Julian falls into his own conundrum.

Boat of Three: Part Three

body of water and sand
Photo by Ion Ceban @ionelceban on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two

And so began the long tedium. Each man took his rest, the others continued rowing during the interim, and then all progressed forward as quickly as they could. Though each of them knew that the island could not possibly appear during these first days, still they could not help but gaze along the horizon, watching for any shadow where the sky met the sea.

And they saw nothing. Always nothing. Again, this was only to be expected, yet even so it began to weigh on their hearts like a stone. Every additional hour that the horizon remained stubbornly unchanging, the more impossible it seemed that it could ever be otherwise. Indeed one started to wonder whether such things as land and ports and the country of one’s childhood had ever truly existed. It almost seemed more likely that all their lives had been spent in this eternal sea, and they had only ever dreamed the existence of soil and grass and trees.

But then, a part of the mind would refuse that resignment. Then they would be taken by a flurry of fits, their limbs twitching violently, them pivoting about in their seats, and only barely stopping short of throwing themselves into the water.

“Calm down, man!” Captain Molley would shout.

“I can’t–I can’t help it!” Julian would cry. “It’s–it’s claustrophobia. I have to get it our or I’ll go mad!”

“Claustrophobia?” Bartholomew asked dryly. “Out here in the middle of the ocean?”

“It’s a claustrophobia within!”

And so it was. It was the part of the soul that dared hope feeling the grips of despair crowding around it, smothering it, burying it in the grave. And it would whimper and it would protest, and then, just when it was about to be extinguished, it would thrash about violently and refuse to go down.

“Laugh all you want, Briggs,” Julian shot back. “You don’t seem to think it so funny when the fits grab you!”

And so they did. At times they even came over Captain Molley, though usually he suppressed them to only a twitching of the eye or the trembling of the hand.

When the men weren’t having fits, they would sometimes suddenly leap to their feet, shield their eyes, and scan all the harder along the horizon. As if believing that if they could just stare hard enough, then they would will their refuge into existence.

Worst of all, on occasion they really did see something, and had a moment of pure joy, only to realize that they were mistaken.

“There! Over there!”

“It’s the shadow of that cloud.”

“But this! Over here!”

“A breaching whale.”

And so it continued until Julian finally saw a dark mark that could not be denied.

“It’s land!” he breathed. “As I live and breathe, I swear it! It really is land this time.”

“But–it can’t be, Bartholomew protested with a nervous lick of his lips. “We aren’t far enough.”

“You had it wrong. Hard to tell distances in a ship compared to rowing. We got there sooner that you thought.”

Captain Molley said slowly shielded his eyes, staring out at the dark spot in the distance. “I think it is land.”

His words went through the other two men like a bolt of lightning. He was, by far, the most grounded of them, and if even he could see the feature, then surely it wasn’t just another mirage!

“But it is very small,” he sighed. “Probably just a sandbar.”

“Bartholomew said it was a small island,” Julian suggested enthusiastically.

“Not that small,” Bartholomew shook his head. “No, that isn’t our cove, but it might be something else. Even if it is just a sandbar, then perhaps there’s a larger breach somewhere near by.”

“That’s our best chance,” Captain Molley agreed. “Just make sure you don’t run us into any shallow reefs. We haven’t the strength to be dragging this boat over shoals.”

Yet in this moment they found strength that they didn’t know they still had. All of them, even Captain Molley, began to row with a fervor.

Julian, in the front, leaned forward, eyes fixed unblinkingly on the distant mark. He watched for it to grow larger and larger, and his expression grew dourer and dourer as it did not. Rather it felt as if the closer they got, the smaller it became, and the hopes of finding trees and shade and food and fresh water began to be crushed in him.

Captain Molley, in the back, didn’t watch the nearing shore at all. He knew it would not be a place for refuge. Instead he looked beyond, scanning for any sign of a larger landmass yet to come. But he saw no birds taking wing, saw no dark smudge on the horizon, saw no change in the color of the water. He quietly resigned himself to the knowledge that there was nothing else here.

Bartholomew, meanwhile, was entirely absorbed with his two companions. His eyes flitted forward towards Julian, back to the Captain, trying to read their expressions. Were they dejected? Were they angry? He knew that he was still the odd one out in this crew, the one most likely to be targeted if violence broke out. And there was no telling what would break out when men grew desperate.

And then, at last, the ship scraped sand and Julian flung himself over the edge. Bartholomew and Captain Molley followed more reservedly.

The sandbar barely even lifted itself above the water level. Their feet splashed in the water, then squelched along the damp shoreline. Not a single plant grew in the eight feet of bare earth, and then everything gave way back to the water.

“There must be–somewhere else out there–” Julian pirouetted to look in every direction for another breach of land.

“There’s nothing,” Captain Molley said with finality.

“No,” Julian gasped, and clenched his fists while salty tears flowed to his scraggly beard.

“The pirate’s cove is so valuable a secret because it is the only one like it in the entire sector,” Bartholomew stressed. “That’s the one we have to watch out for, and when I see it, I will know it.”

Julian rounded on him like a wounded animal. “Is there really any cove?!”

“What? Of course! So because there wasn’t anything here…that has you thinking that I’m lying?”

Something about that answer stirred Captain Molley the wrong way. “Bartholomew,” he said slowly, “these are not uncharted waters, you know. The trade line is a profitable course, it has been sailed by many ships, at many variations. It seems a strange thing that this cove of yours would have escaped their net.”

“Aye, well, like I said, not worth the ink. Maybe it was seen–once or twice–but no one would have thought anything of it.”

“Not even if they saw one of your pirate ships docked against it?”

“It’s not like we stay there very long. And when we do dock we have a little inlet that we hide the boat in. You could barely make it out in the shadows.”

He said it all with such a refined clarity and confidence. His voice suggested that he was entirely unconcerned with this line of interrogation, yet his eyes shifted about from one man to the other, constantly calculating the situation.

“Let’s leave him here,” Julian moaned to Captain Molley. “You’ve said it yourself, you don’t trust him and I don’t either. Aren’t things bad enough as they are, without worrying about him taking us on some random goose chase?”

“Why would I being lying to you?!” Bartholomew protested. “It doesn’t do anything for me! If the cove didn’t exist it would have been in my own best interest to keep rowing up the trade route, too!”

“No, because you know we’d turn you in as a pirate, and they’d send you to the noose!”

“In which case I would still live longer and die more quickly than suffering out here at sea!”

“No one is being left behind,” Captain Molley stressed. “We’ve had to leave behind too many already.”

And he said nothing more on the matter, he just turned and made his way back to the boat. As he lifted himself into the vessel he gave a sudden groan, and his hand flew to his side. Almost immediately he righted himself, and glanced over his shoulder to see if the other two had noticed. Julian’s eyes were on him, but as soon as he saw Captain Molley noticing his gaze he looked away. Bartholomew was already staring off at a distant cloud, and seemed entirely oblivious to anything that had happened. Perhaps too oblivious to be believed.

The men pushed off and continued forward with their zigzag course. Julian and Captain Molley still did not trust Bartholomew, but they had no alternative path to follow. In the end, even a doubtful hope from him was their best hope.

A few hours later Captain Molley took his turn to rest, and Julian and Bartholomew were left rowing on their own.

“So…” Bartholomew ventured, after he was sure that the captain was no longer conscious. “Where were you hiding during our battle?”

“What?” Julian snapped.

“When me and my crew was fighting with yours. How’d you make it out alive? Where were you hiding?”

“I wasn’t hiding, I was in the rigging with my mates, getting up a bit of canvas that your grapeshot had snapped the lines of. The sail was just billowing about, messing up all of Captain’s maneuverings.”

“Ah, but why are you still here then, but your mates who were helping you in the rigging are not?”

“Their misfortune. Why? Where were you?”

“By the time our captain said to board I already knew the cause was lost. So when I found a moment, I ducked down with the barrels on our ship. Barely made it off in time before your Captain sunk her.”

“So you’re a coward.”

“That’s right. But at least I’m willing to admit it, unlike you.”

“Why I’ve never done anything yellow in my life! I’ve never even–never even–well I’ve never done anything cowardly at all, and that’s all there is to it!”

Bartholomew laughed coldly. “Let me give you some free advice, Julian. There’s a right way and a wrong way to tell lies. When you lied about desperately trying to save your ship up in the rigging, that was very good. But that bit about never doing anything cowardly? Please.”

“If you were smart, you’d just be quiet now!”

“And here’s the difference. A man can tell lies, but he has to know that he’s lying. He has to be honest enough with himself to know what he’s being dishonest about. You knew you were lying about why you were up in the rigging, and so you said it very carefully. Said it like you’ve been rehearsing it in your mind. But your testimony for never doing anything cowardly? You’ve convinced yourself that that’s actually true, so you try to speak from the heart…but the heart betrays you and chokes the words up.”

Julian looked daggers back at Bartholomew, then his eyes flicked past him to Captain Molley–only for an instant–and back again.

“Don’t worry, he’s still asleep,” Bartholomew smiled. “You know that he knows, don’t you? And that scares you. Well it should. You know he’s just keeping us alive now to finish his righteous duty, but if we ever make it ashore he’ll turn me over for being a pirate, and you for being a deserter.”

“Stop speaking…or I’ll kill you,” Julian turned his back on Bartholomew.

“So yes, Julian. I’m a coward and a liar, but at least I’m honestly and boldly so. You’re a coward and a liar, too, but you’re too yellow to be honest about it.”

Julian whipped back around, oar swinging through the air. It caught Bartholomew right in the head, and the pirate fell into the bottom of the boat with a sickening crack!

Part Four
Part Five

On Monday I spoke about characters who keep some of their information close to the chest, not even divulging their secrets to the reader. I mentioned that a major reason for this is to create suspense in the story, as the knowledge that there are untold secrets often builds anxiety in the reader.

In this story we have several layers of secrets. First there are secrets that characters are trying to maintain, but failing utterly to do so. Consider the fact that Captain Molley is trying to conceal his wound, not wanting to betray a weakness to the other men. The audience knows what he is doing and so do the other men, but the fact that no one is talking about it makes it an area of tension between them.

A slightly deeper secret has been what Julian was up to during the pirate’s attack. Bartholomew is accusing him of hiding while his own crew was murdered down below. This accusation may not have occurred to the audience before Bartholomew suggested it, but hopefully it provides a clarifying insight to Julian’s behavior. In any case, the audience should certainly be skeptical of him now.

And then, of course, is the secret of whether the pirate’s cove really does exist or not. Bartholomew is untrustworthy, which colors everything he says as suspect, but that doesn’t have to mean that everything he claims is false. What will become of this tenuous alliance if the men find it? What will become of them if they do not? By not letting the audience know whether the island can possibly be found or not, they can’t anticipate how things are going to fall out in the end. This is my pivotal secret meant to build up tension and uncertainty in the audience.

Something else I want to touch on is how Julian’s attack at the end of today’s piece has him firmly pinned down as the villain of this tale, if he wasn’t already. Even though he isn’t the pirate, he has been the most shiftless and toxic of all three characters. Yet Bartholomew is certainly not a “good man,” and has probably done even worse things than Julian.

With my next post I’d like to take into consideration what it is that makes a character likable or not, and how to win audiences over to the side you want them to support. We’ll see how I have implemented these patterns in Boat of Three on Monday. See you there!

Boat of Three: Part Two

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Part One

Julian shook his head firmly. “I don’t trust him, Captain. I don’t trust this man at all!”

“No, I don’t trust him, either,” Captain Molley sighed. “But frankly, that doesn’t have anything to do with it. Though I may not like it…he did surrender to us. Maritime law is very clear that he is now under our protection.”

“You can’t be serious!”

Captain ignored Julian, and spoke instead to the pirate. “Tell me, man, what is your name?”

“Bartholomew,” the pirate bowed his head. “Bartholomew Briggs. And…thank you Captain…for speaking up for me. I don’t know many that would.”

“Could you even speak up for yourself, Briggs?” Julian shot from behind. “What would you do if you were in our situation?”

“I am in your situation.”

“No. Me and Captain have been together for nearly a year now. We are two-of-a-kind. We’re crew! You’re something different.”

“I’m telling you, Julian,” Captain Molley strained, “Bartholomew is now a member of our crew as well.”

“Captain, no! There’s a difference in this boat, you must see that! What would you do, Briggs, if it was you and your captain in this boat, and you had come across one of us in the water?”

Bartholomew shrugged. “I’m a pirate…I suppose I would do what pirates do.”

“There, you see it, Captain?!” Julian exclaimed. “We can’t trust someone like this!”

“Like I said, trust has nothing to do with it.”

“Has nothing–?!” Julian’s words were lost in his incredulity.

Literally caught in the middle of the argument, Bartholomew suddenly gave out a wheezing laugh.

“What are you doing that for?” Julian snapped.

“Just the irony of it all.”

“What irony?”

“Oh, you say there’s a difference in this boat. Say that I don’t belong. Now I told you truly, if it had been be and my captain who came across you in the water, we would have cut your throat and been on our way.”

“Where’s the irony in that?”

“Why it’s the very same thing you want to do with me now, isn’t it? Seems you and I have a lot in common, Julian, quite a lot, indeed. In fact there is a difference in this crew, you’re right about that. But it’s that your Captain here is the only one of us who has any honor.”

“I’m nothing like you,” Julian spat. He stared darkly into the water for a time, then looked up to Captain Molley with deep anger. “Captain…I’ll never be able to forgive you for this.”

Captain Molley’s eyes narrowed, trying to discern the full weight of what Julian meant by that. He held the gaze for a few moments, then turned back to Bartholomew.

“What you have told us–about the pirate’s cove–this is true? You swear it?”

“What good would it do me to lie? I might as well die now, than deceive you and die later.”

“Do you swear it?”

“Yes, alright then. I swear it.”

“Well then, what is our bearing?”

Bartholomew craned around in his seat, his hands moving in front of his face, tracing lines on an invisible map.

“Well–I didn’t keep the charts myself,” he said nervously. “But–we’re about…a hundred miles southwest of Isla Barro? Yes?”

Captain Molley lowered his forehead to his hands and sighed heavily. Julian was far less reserved.

“You don’t know?! You really don’t know?! You’re planning to lead us back in with your best guess?!”

“I’m a sailor, not a navigator!” Bartholomew shot back. “You could do better, Julian?”

“Have you even seen a map of it?” Captain Molley asked pointedly.

“I’ve seen maps, and I know where it would be on the map, but obviously we don’t inscribe the mark where just anyone can see! Imagine if that canvas fell into the wrong hands! No, we keep it in our heads.”

Captain Molley reached into his coat and pulled a damp piece of parchment from one of his pockets.

“Show me that you know where we are.”

“Without a pen?”

“I have no pen. But trace things out with your finger, and I’ll follow along. To answer your question, we are two hundred miles south-by-southwest of Isla Barro. So what would that look like?”

Bartholomew swallowed and hovered his finger over the paper for a long while.

“It’s–it’s like–so, Isla Barro would be here, of course, in this corner. And we would be here…he drew a line down and slightly to the left.”

“Well at least he knows how a compass works,” Julian remarked sarcastically.

“Now the surrounding area,” Captain Molley urged.

“And–so– Venezuela is down here…a way’s. And Tartina is a bit up here, between us and Isla Barro. And Isla Veo is here, a bit before that.”

He rattled off a few more ports, common ones, in sequence heading back from where they were now, moving north-by-northeast, until he got back to Isla Barrow.

“And what is down here?” Captain Molley asked, prodding the paper further south-by-southwest.

“That’s–um–that’s Mina Terna? Or else Port Stephens?”

Captain Molley was dejected. “Because those were the two next ports that you heard your captain discussing berthing in.”

Bartholomew frowned and blinked quickly, as if he didn’t understand the accusation.

“You don’t know where you are, and you don’t know where you were headed. You only know where you’ve been, the line of ports your crew stopped in from Isla Barro to here.” Captain Molley traced his finger over the few places that Bartholomew had made mention of. “You don’t know the broader waters at all!”

“I do!”

“Can you tell me one thing that isn’t on this main line here? Anything that isn’t just reciting the last three weeks of your course?”

Bartholomew paused for a long while again. “Venezuela is…down this way,” he offered sheepishly.

“Useless.”

“No!” he cried. “Not useless. That cove I was telling you about, it’s back along the way we’ve come. We spied it on our way here, just a few days ago. I can get us back that far!”

“A needle in a haystack!” Julian spat.

“Well what would you prefer?” Bartholomew looked angrily back and forth at his companions. “I wish that I had a perfect tattoo of the map on my thigh, but I don’t! But what I do have is better than anything else either of you have to offer!”

Captain Molley and Julian quieted down at that. It was true. A needle in the haystack was still better chances than trying to move forward or back along their route, hoping for the odd merchant vessel to happen across their way.

Captain Molley sighed once more. “You just have to be honest with us, Bartholomew,” he said heavily. “We each have our part to play in this if we’re to survive, and we can’t afford to be holding secrets from each other. You have to be honest.”

Bartholomew nodded and tapped his finger back on the paper. “If we’re here, and Tartina was here, then the cove is…here.”

“Nearly straight north.”

“Nearly.”

“If your scale is right, seventy miles, against the current. How large is the island?”

“Maybe half-a-mile across? Small.”

“Alright. We move North, but in a narrow zigzag. Widen it out the further we go…cover a larger and larger area the closer we get.”

“But won’t that take quite a lot longer?” Julian asked with a tremor in his voice.

“Yes it will. You can be sure, we’re all going to get quite thinner over these next two weeks. But this is the best way forward.”

“Why better than moving for it in a straight line, then searching about if we happen to be a little off?” Bartholomew asked and Julian nodded.

“We will be off,” Captain Molley stressed. “Seventy miles? Without proper instruments? We’re blindfolded and throwing the dart backwards over our shoulder. I guarantee you we won’t hit a bulls-eye. And how would we know that we had now reached seventy miles and not sixty-five? Or eighty? And when we got there and saw no island, what direction then? Madly row due east, hoping it was there? And then when it wasn’t madly rowing back all the way back and continuing west? Spiraling in and out like dogs chasing their tails? No. We aren’t going to try and stick a perfect jab that’s sure to fail. We’re going to feel our way to it.”

Neither Julian nor Bartholomew appeared entirely convinced, but also neither of them could come up with as impressive of a speech as the Captain’s to counter his opinion. And so they lowered their eyes and made themselves ready for orders.

“Our heading…” Captain Molley pointed one arm towards the setting sun and moved the other in an arc from it until it was at a right angle, “is that direction. I’ll try to estimate our speed, and the amount of time we continue in this direction. When the stars get up we’ll correct course as needed, but for now we row straight.”

So saying, each man took hold of an oar and began their journey forward. As they did, the sun continued to sink in the sky, eventually extinguishing its flame in the eternal ocean, its last traces of light streaking out of the East, giving way to the encroaching night. Still the men rowed forward as dusk settled in, and stars began too peep out, and the onset of night fell on them. Still they worked. They worked, and they worked in total silence. Having no common ground for discussion, each was left to somberly reflect on how poor their chances were.

But though they did not vocally discuss how dire the situation was, each knew that that was where they other’s thoughts were. And every continuing moment of silence only reaffirmed to each man that the others were similarly being weighed by the poor chances of their situation. Indeed they communicated much of helplessness and resignation in their mutual silence.

What was there to be done, though? There might be a time for panic, a time for despair, a time for venting anger, but it was not now. Now was the time for waiting and watching.

It was Captain Molley who finally broke the tension. He pulled up his oar and set it across his lap. The other two men felt the greater burden of rowing the boat by themselves and looked back to him.

“We’ll need to conserve our strength,” he said to them. “We have to keep moving forward, but we have to have the energy to do that. We’re going to ration our food and sleep in shifts. One man rests while the other two continue rowing. Always two of us will be rowing. At the very least we have to prevent the current from undoing all our progress.”

The other two nodded.

“We’ll rest in two hour shifts. At the end of each cycle all three of us will row for six hours.”

Julian’s eyes narrowed. “Two hours of rest a day each?”

“Four. And twenty of rowing. Our bodies are going to break down over time. We will have to reassess that as we go along. But now, while we have our energy, we must do as much as we can. Make no mistake, this is no marathon. We must sprint if we are to survive.”

“A twenty hour sprint!”

“What would you have us do, Julian?”

Julian had no answer for that.

“We’ll let Bartholomew rest first–“

“Why him?”

“Everyone will get the same rest, Julian. It doesn’t matter who goes first.”

“Let him go first,” Bartholomew gestured to Julian. “I don’t mind. I’ll go last. And I don’t need two full hours. Maybe one.”

I’ll go last,” Captain Molley avowed.

“And when you do, Captain, might I suggest you move one seat further, to the very back of the boat. The better to feel if either of us was approaching.”

Julian and Captain Molley both narrowed their eyes and looked at Bartholomew suspiciously.

“And what exactly do you mean by that?” Captain Molley asked.

“What? You don’t think–? Well I’m sorry if I made you both uncomfortable, I’m just stating the facts here. Like I said before, Captain you are a man of integrity, one willing to endanger himself to save another. Julian–Mister Holstead, is it?–and I are made of blacker cloth. So when I’m sleeping and you’re awake Captain, I already know you won’t let any harm come to me. And when Julian sleeps he already knows you won’t let any harm come to him, either. But as there isn’t a man of honor to watch while you sleep, so best you should put yourself snug. Back where you could feel even the stealthiest of approaches. Is that–is that wrong?”

“Now you listen to me,” Julian breathed out darkly. “My wanting to rid the world of a murderer and a thief like you is one thing, but to suggest that I would ever do harm to a true shipmate?! There’s a world of difference in that! How dare you!”

But Captain Molley only looked down in contemplation. He did not share what it was he reflected on, but after a moment he quietly said. “No harm in taking all the possible precautions, though. I will sleep in the back.”

Julian’s eyes widened in hurt.

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

On Monday I discussed how many stories feature a sense of hostility between protagonists, where they must work together, but do not like each other. In many cases, they don’t even trust each other.

That is certainly the case with my current story, and nowhere is that more clear than in the last exchange of this section. Bartholomew wears his cynical views on his sleeve, Julian is very vocal of his distrust of Bartholomew and his disagreement with the Captain Molley’s every decision, and with companions like these, who can blame Captain Molley and his own statement of doubt in them at the end.

But of course, by affirming his distrust in the other men, Captain Molley weakens their ability to trust him as well. Now they know what he thinks: that they might kill him for their own gain. And knowing that he thinks that, it doesn’t take much to start wondering how his own sense of loyalty to them is being eroded. What if he were to decide the only to way to be safe from their betrayal was to betray them first?

There is a significant moment in this final exchange, the part where Captain Molley sits in silent contemplation before announcing that he will indeed sleep in the back of the boat. I actually knew full well what he was thinking about, that moment where Julian suggested he wouldn’t rescue a third sailor, even if it was a proper shipmate. I went back and forth about whether I should share that part of his thought-process with the reader or not. In the end I chose not to, and I would like to consider the power in leaving elements of your character shrouded. On Monday I would like to explore this concept more, and then we will continue our voyage of distrust with the third section of Boat of Three next Thursday.

Boat of Three: Part One

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“Come to, man! I say, come to!”

A slap across the face and Julian snapped awake with a gasp of horror. In his mind’s eye he still saw the ship’s mainmast falling for him and his hands quaked in front of his face to protect himself from that phantom.

“Row, you fool!” Captain Molley snapped, throwing an oar grip into Julian’s trembling fingers.

Julian shook his head head and sat upright. All the world bobbed around him, and he came to the realization that he was in a lifeboat. Not on the ship, then? No. Evidently not. For there was the ship twenty feet behind them, mast broken and engulfed in flames!

“Row!”

Julian snapped around and plunged his oar into the water. He moved lazily, though, as if in a daze while comprehension still set in.

“Row, man!” the Captain shrieked from the back of the lifeboat, plunging his own oar earnestly on the starboard side.

Julian looked back. There was a chorus of cracking sounds as the ship’s wood, weakened by the fire, started collapsing under its own weight. The whole thing began folding inwards, and water was spewing out the portholes. It was sinking! And…Julian and Captain Molley were still so near to it that they would be dragged under in its vacuum!

“Captain–?” Julian asked in terror.

“ROOOOW!!!”

Finally Julian dug his oar into the water with earnest. The two men carved the water in a fervor, flailing back whole gallons of the stuff with each stroke. Their small craft lurched precipitously, bounding sideways through current of the ocean, threatening to tip into the drink any minute.

But they did not dare slow down. All the while they continued to hear the sounds of cracking and burning and spewing, all the while they tasted smoke and flecks of ash, all the while they imagined a chain about their ankles, pulling them back to the watery deep.

Then it happened. They heard a deafening roar of a frothing foment behind them, their oars skidded over the water as if it was glass, and their little craft lurched violently backwards. Both men lost their balance and slammed their faces into their knees. Never mind that, they simply sat right back up and scrabbled their oars madly in the sea, hoping against hope to feel friction again.

There came a loud popping sound, the water swelled back where the vacuum had been, and a long, tall wave lifted the men and their boat high into the air. Their hands gripped the edges of their vessel and tried to stay balance as they were rushed forward to safety. Death had refused their admittance today.

At last they came to a halt, and they rested their hands and panted heavily. Only after they had regained some composure did they turn around to see what remained of their ship and crew: naught but splintered beams and oil glossing the surface of the water.

“What–what happened?” Julian asked. “The last thing I remember was the mainmast falling towards me.”

“Yes, it hit you,” Captain Molley said simply, “and knocked you unconscious. Fortunately for you, you fell next to the lifeboat. I threw you in just before shoving off.”

“But–the rest of the crew?”

“All dead before I pushed off. If it hadn’t been necessary to save you…I would have stayed on the boat to go do with the rest.”

Julian shook his head in sorrow. He had been up above deck when things had started to go wrong on the ship, working the rigging while his mates had fought with the pirates down below.

“And the marauders?” he asked.

“It would seem that they did all go down with the ship.”

Captain Molley had managed to sink the corsair’s frigate, but not before the scoundrels had boarded his own ship, the Equinox. The pirate invaders, seeing that they had lost their own vessel, fought with a terrifying ferocity, desperate to take the Equinox for their very own. Somewhere in that chaos, a fire had broken out on their ship. It was that fire which had brought Julian down to the deck, just in time for the mast to collapse on him.

“Well we don’t have map or compass on us,” Captain Molley took stock of their situation, glancing about the tranquil water, as if half hoping to see his cabin chest ascending from the depths. But, of course, there was nothing. “We might as well accept the reality that this is a–delicate situation.”

The color drained from Julian’s face. “Just how far are we from land?”

“But I still have our heading,” Captain Molley continued confidently. “I know where we are, I know which way we’re pointed, and I know what we will do. We’re going to set ourselves that way,” he pointed northeast, “and we’re going to row back along the shipping route. If fortune continues to smile on us, we’ll find some merchant coming along the way.”

“So we’ll be rowing back towards…Port Smith?”

“Yes.”

“Which port we left seven weeks ago?”

“Yes.”

“We’re not any closer to the next port instead?”

“No.”

“How much farther is it?”

“Farther.”

“We can’t last seven weeks!”

“No. I did instruct First Mate Blythe to store a supply of food in each lifeboat, but what we have would barely last us a week. So we will hope to pass a merchant along our way. Or a naval ship. Or anything that we can hope for.”

Hope?!

“We will do what we can do. I have given you our course, now start row–” Captain Molley’s faced winced sharply and his hand instinctively flew to his side.

“Captain?” Julian asked in concern.

“No,” Captain Molley stated firmly and rose himself back to his full height. “Just a stray blow from one of those pirates, but I’m fine.”

To prove the point he took oar in hand and began rowing again. Only the slightest flicker in his eyes betrayed the pain that the action caused him. Julian saw it, but did not say any more on the matter. He simply turned and continued rowing.

They only went a few more feet when their attention was arrested by a flurry of splashes to port. A frantic voice rang across the water to them: “You! You there! Please help!”

“There’s a man there!” Captain Molley observed. “Turn to port!”

They turn their little vessel and quickly closed the distance. Just before they reached the sailor though, Julian slammed his oar into the water to halt them.

“Take no note of him, Captain, it’s a pirate!”

“No!” the floundering man cried. “You must help me! I can’t–I can’t–“

His head started bobbing beneath the rolling current.

“Let’s turn, Captain, he won’t be able to reach us if we row just a little farther.”

“Hold on a moment,” Captain Molley muttered.

“Captain!” Julian said incredulously. “You can’t be considering–“

“I haven’t decided. But this is a delicate…Pull him up. That’s it, pull him up. At the very least we’ll give him a quick death.”

“But sir!”

“Pull him up!”

Looking like he would rather grab hold of a shark, Julian reached down and seized the man under the shoulders while Captain Molley leaned to the other side to balance out the shifting weight. A heave and a drag and the man was laid at the bottom of their lifeboat, in the middle, between the two other men. He rolled onto his belly and coughed water out onto the floor. Even after his lungs were clear he remained prostrate on the floor, limbs trembling for fear, half expecting to feel a knife between his shoulders at any moment.

“Look at me, pirate!” Captain Molley said sternly.

The man turned just enough to look at the captain out of the corners of his eyes. “Please sir, I surrender.”

“We’re hardly in a position to take on prisoners,” Captain Molley shook his head.

The pirate turned more fully to face the Captain and clasped his hands at his breast. Behind him, Julian was reaching for the rope coiled at the front of the boat.

“I am unarmed!” the pirate protested. “There’s just the one of me, and two of you!”

Captain Molley didn’t appear swayed.

“But more than that, I’m your shipmate now! Truly! You think I have any sort of loyalty to those back-stabbing pirates? I curse them!” He spat over the side of the boat.

“I’m far more concerned about your loyalty to your own skin. As soon as it was in your best interests, you’d cut our throats while we slept.”

“No sir! You can’t brand me the same as all them! Yes I’ve been wicked, to a degree, but  never so cruel as that. I’m loyal! And here, you two are the only ones to be loyal to anymore. There’s no one else, it’s just us.” He gestured to Captain Molley, himself, and back towards Julian. As he did so he saw the length of rope Julian was wrapping around his hands. His eyes went wide with terror and he snapped back to Captain Molley. “We three are the crew now! We have to work together! You need me and I need you!”

“Not a lot of good you do us,” Captain Molley said darkly. “If anything, having more mouths is a problem.”

“I–I won’t eat. I won’t, you keep it all. I surrender, sir. I surrender to you! You have to protect me.”

The Captain’s brow furrowed, and it was clear that he was a man divided. All of his arguments against sparing the pirate went contrary to his sense of honor. With each pleading word his conscience was slowly being won over.

“Captain,” Julian raised his voice from behind, “this has gone on long enough. If he eats, we run out of food. If he doesn’t eat, he won’t have strength to row…. Honestly, even let out the fact that he’s a pirate. We couldn’t keep him even if he was another crewman!”

Captain Molley’s eyes flashed at that, and Julian realized immediately that he had said the wrong thing.

“Even if he was another crewman?!” he spat. “If you’d rather we make it two, then why not make it one?!”

“What–?”

“Go on, that’s the obvious next conclusion, isn’t it? Throw our prisoner overboard, then kill me off and keep all that’s left for yourself!”

“Sir, I never said any such thing! I would never attack you!”

“No, of course not,” Captain Molley said sarcastically. “Never even crossed your mind, I’m sure. Not that it would do you much good.” He pushed back the side of his coat and exposed the large knife held at his waist. Both Julian and the pirate leaned back. “You make me very nervous being my crew Mister Holstead. Very nervous indeed.”

All this while the pirate’s eyes had been darting about, weighing his two companions, one thought after another racing through his mind. At last he seemed to come to a final determination, and when he saw the opportunity to speak up he did so.

“Captain…I may actually be able to provide a solution. A way to save us all. I can see that it’s time to lay all my cards on the table….. So…you wouldn’t know it, but there’s actually a pirate’s cove quite near to here.”

“What?”

“A pirate cove, a hideout for when we need to get away from patrols, or bunker down in a storm. It wouldn’t be on any of your maps. It’s a very small rock, not worth the ink, but bounteous in hidden supplies and refuge. We’re about–” he seemed to be doing some figuring in his head, “well, seeing that we’d be rowing, we’re about two weeks away.”

“And you know how to get there?”

“Aye,” the pirate nodded. “I do.”

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

On Monday we spoke about stories that are built around a single, critical idea. They either begin with a compelling premise, or they build up to a single lynch-pin finale. In some cases they do both.

Wait Until Dark, for example, opens with a very strong premise. A blind woman has unwittingly come into possession of a doll smuggled with drugs. A trio of criminals descend on her home, intent upon getting it from her by any means possible. This sharp imbalance of power makes the story fascinating to us, right from the get-go. It is a strong foundation, one which amply supports all the twists and turns that follow.

But then, all those twists and turns are actually working towards a penultimate finale. Everything that has come before is setting up for the final confrontation between that woman and the lead villain, after he has decided enough of all the games, he’s just going to hurt her until she gives him what he wants. They face each other down in a battle of wits, in which the woman proves that she has been severely underestimated by these men.

The premise suggests a great imbalance, where the poor woman is helpless. The payoff rejects that notion of helplessness, and changes all character and audience perceptions in a single stroke.

In this first section of this story we see how I am trying to start things off with my own compelling premise. The idea is very simple: a noble captain, a surly sailor, and a cutthroat pirate are alone in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, tied together under the most tenuous of stalemates. The pirate claims to know the location of the only refuge for miles, which is the crux of the bond between them. This, I feel, is a very promising premise, it is a foundation sown with intrigue, strong enough to support all manner of twisting threads, character drama, and rising tension.

These men are going to have to work together, but they certainly aren’t going to trust one another. And that friction is going to continue building up until it breaks out in our pivotal finale. Hopefully this will result in a story that, like Wait Until Dark, has two all-important lynch-pins. One at the very beginning and one at the very end, with a rich and engrossing story laid out in between.

But before we see it through, I want to say a little bit about that tension and friction between my main characters. It turns out that this sense of a fragile alliances is a staple of story-telling. There has long been a tradition of characters being bound together by need, but also harboring deep mistrust for one another. The friction of having to be together, but not wanting to be, is a place we love to experience as an audience. Let’s take a closer look at why that is with our next post, and then we’ll see how I maintain that tension in the next section of Boat of Three.

Raise the Black Sun: Part Eleven

 

burning coal
Photo by Eric Sanman on Pexels.com

 

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten

I never did see the sun with my actual eyes. How could I? There was no light in that place at all, the sun emanated darkness. And yet, I was intensely aware of everything about it. I could easily tell you how it appeared, what its volume was, and how many tons filled it. It pervaded every empty nodule of my mind, and then pressed forcefully through the fibers into my every thought and memory. And so it was that I seemed to see and know the Black Sun everywhere. It had scorched the backs of us Treksmen all the journey here. It had pulled me with its gravity all through my youth. It had darkened my face as it stood over my infant cradle.

It was a perfect sphere, cracked and broken all about its surface, pitch black, and emanating a dark heat such as I had never felt from our old, gray sun. That old sun was no more. I could feel the surety of that fact without the slightest doubt. It was not merely hidden, it had been consumed in an instant, just like the rest of us.

Only now does a slight understanding come over me. That pulsing that pervaded everything, it was a resonance. And the wavelength of that resonance was attuned to all the universe. When the Black Sun vibrated all nearby matter was shaken loose, all color was disassembled, all light was disconnected. My atoms were no longer my own. They floated, near to each other, but no longer able to associate together. I hovered, sensing my own thoughts slowing towards nothing. My synapses still fired, but their neighbors could no longer receive the signal. I had a sense of having a million separate thoughts all at once.

And then a new rhythm began.

The Black Sun’s first wave had liberated us from all our ties, but now it would establish new ones. A massive crack, a single blade of light, vertical and extending to eternity. It barreled into our place and in an instant every person and every thing was blasted into the finest of grains, exploded out into a perfectly distributed cloud of matter.

Except for me. Where the Black Sun began reordering things, I was left as a phantom in the midst. I was not aware of body, I was not aware of my senses, I was only aware of self, and the streaming flow of matter and light all about. My conscience was an island in the midst of coursing chaos, watching as that chaos began to funnel and divide, reform, and give new inventions that had never been conceived of before.

There were great beasts in that moment. Massive titans with many heads and many arms, able to redistribute their mass as they saw fit. They congealed into corporeal form for a moment, and then burst outwards, scaling themselves out so far that entire nations lie between each of their atoms. And today no one knows of them, no one believes in them, but if you could scale yourself out to the cosmos you would see that they do exist, and that you have lived within them forever.

After the beasts came the forces. And I had a sense that the forces were the descendants of the beasts, come to fill the vacuum left by those progenitors. There were forces to draw together, forces to pull apart, forces to spin, and forces to arrest all motion whatsoever. Around each force spun the matter that had been turned to powder by the blade of light. Whirlpools of the elements, that spun at great speed until they became molten. And these whirlpools expanded and expanded until they intersected with each other. And where two whirlpools’ molten matter intersected there flew out sharp sparks and flashes of light as large as mountains. And in those sparks came torrents of black soil, fine as sand, rushing forth as a new landscape which slid under my feet and sprung up on every side. Black sand became all the ground, mounds of it became like hills and mountains, tumbling streams of it became like rivers.

And as those whirling cyclones continued to spit out more and more of that black powder they began to be buried beneath the mass, becoming hidden away, until they were sunk deep down to the world’s core. But though they are out of sight, still they spin, still they reach tendrils of new creation through the crust and onto the surface, but we see the evidence of it much more slowly now. And so it is today that the black powder will on occasion burst out of the ground without warning, spilling about in every direction as if it were flowing water, an incredible, pent-up mass that overruns an entire city and its countryside in a single moment. And where it covers, that which had once been is found no more. If you dig through the black powder you do not find the old creation beneath, for it has been dissolved in the new resonance. Many the explorer has searched that sand, only to disintegrate themselves in it.

These outbursts happen now about once every decade, but they do still happen. Each comes more slowly than the last, each comes with a greater rush of pent up matter. And so these upheavals will continue until the entire world has been remade in this new creation’s fashion. It may take millennia, but I have absolutely no doubt that it will be. For these forces, though slowed by their thick surroundings, are unending.

At the moment I have been discussing, though, that of the Black Sun’s first rising, the entire landscape surrounding me had already been changed in a single instant. Looking to the East I could make out the tidal wave of black sand rushing outwards, until it had consumed everything as far as the eye could see.

And then I looked back to my more immediate surroundings. I say I looked, but of course, there was no light anymore, nor did I possess eyes anymore. But all this new matter was interconnected, a shared consciousness, and so I saw them in my mind in just the same way as I saw the Black Sun. And all about me nothing appeared like how it had when my companions and I had first arrived. There were no people, indeed no form of life at all. There was no Coventry. There were no blackened trees with invisibly thin leaves. There were no caravan wagons or scrying sticks or roads. There was not even a void anymore. There was no Mira.

Or was she everywhere?

There was the Black Sun hanging over me, massive and very, very low in the sky, like a great weight about to fall upon my head at any moment. And an ocean of sand about my feet…or at least what would have been my feet if I yet had had a body. No doubt the material of what had once been my body was now a part of these black grains blasted all about.

Then the Black Sun acknowledged me. It flexed and the black soil in my area began to snake up over my space. It covered over me and rippled through many forms before settling on something that resembled a tall-legged man with no face.

Then all the ocean of granules began to raise and lower in waves. Everywhere they were trying to congeal together in strange shapes and mounds, then collapsed back into flatness. Then tried to congeal together again. Pulling together, releasing, over and over, like a pot being stirred until the batter grows thick.

And it did grow thick. Over the years the bonds between the grains became stronger. They slowly became more reluctant to falling apart, and they held their forms with more intricate detail. They were many layered, interwoven, creating a tumbling landscape that defied any I had seen before for intricacy.

And across these landforms other compacted soil-mounds crawled, meandering and climbing and falling and splitting and merging like some sort of artificial life. Or perhaps authentic life, but in the basest of forms.

And this was when I wondered if Mira was all about me. For just as she had spoken of the nothingness of the Void, and how it compensated for that non-existence by projecting life and exuberance through her, now I saw how this black sand of nothingness was actually the atomic material for everything. And given enough time I was sure it would become all possible forms. And as that thought occurred to me, I realized that I was witnessing a great chaos of life that was just starting to burst forth from this place in slow motion.

And with that thought my consciousness slipped into the future and I had a vision of a world where living beings and the elements of nature were one and the same. They resonated at different frequencies for a moment, projected different colors for a moment, appeared as disparate beings for a moment…but then always collapsed back into each other, back into the black dust, and from that formed new individualities.

But while they stood as individual, they appeared as all imaginable things. Yes, mountains and grass and water and fire and creatures and a form of people…but also sentient geometric patterns, volumes of light and color, masses in constant fluctuation, forces of gravity that possessed consciousness, veils that defined entirely new realities when passed through, adjacent regions of land that flowed in different directions of time, entities that had slowed in time until they only existed one moment every hundred years, galaxies in miniature scale upon a speck of dust, which galaxies held within them the entire world that the speck of dust resided in. These things and many more, existing and unexisting in turn.

I beheld them only for a moment, then the vision ended and I found myself back at the present. I knew that the future of chaos I had witnessed was still many eternities off, but the rumbling mass of sand I saw now was the foundation of it. It will come, and I will be there when it does.

For I am a consciousness apart of this world now. I am enclothed in black dust, but I am not that dust. When the dust loses its bond and falls away from me, I simply take on a new shroud, and continue wandering this world forever.

I can take the form of anything that I wish. I now take the form of you, my once-fellow mortals. I hear you speak of the destruction that happened eons ago in the Damocile Region. I hear you proclaim that the place has been covered in dead sand for its sins. You think of that event as past and done.

Fools. It was not a limited cataclysm that rang out once and then went cold. That first explosion is still churning, still rippling through the earth, and soon it will consume you as well.

This is not your world anymore. Indeed, it never was.

 

And now, at long last, we have concluded Raise the Black Sun. My stories have been getting quite long of late. Raise the Black Sun represents the end of a series that started with the first post of The Soldier’s Last Sleep, back on January 23, almost 6 months ago! It does make me wonder if it is worth continuing to make “series” of stories, or if I should just let each story stand by itself without a link to the next.

In any case, I do want to recall what the original ideas which got me to write this story were, and consider how I implemented them in the final work.

 

A Fitting End)

First off, I preceded this story by discussing elements that give a story its sense of closure. I talked about endings that have a sense of transaction, where the movements that make up the body of the story directly result in an opposite movement at the very end. I tried to replicate that in Raise the Black Sun by having its themes of gloom and destruction then make way for chaotic creation at the end. The somber march towards the finale suddenly takes up a rapid dash when it finally arrives at the end. Everything changes…but hopefully it feels fitting, like a sudden outburst from the long-building tension.

I also talked about stories ending with a new invention. We want the conclusion to be the high point of the story, and so it needs to show us something that we haven’t seen elsewhere in the story. This is why it works so well to have that long-bottled tension suddenly rush out in cathartic release. It ensures that the story will reach new heights, while not feeling out-of-sync with the rest of the tale.

Obviously there was a literal sense of new creation here at the end of Raise the Black Sun, too. Throughout the story I’ve had episodes to explore novel ideas, such as the Treksmen surrendering their bodies to automation, the Scrayer with his strange weapon, the witch with her mind invasion, and the Coventry with its mind-synced subjects; but here at the end I tried to introduce as many new ideas as all the previous ones combined. Graye’s vision of the far-distant future was meant to throw out ideas that could be an entire story themselves, all crammed into just a few isolated sentences for a huge climatic flourish.

I also spoke about stories that end with anticipation and surprise, where the reader both sees the end coming from a long ways off, yet somehow is also surprised when it comes. If your story is going end on a dour note, it is good to prepare the audience for it with a sense of dread. They don’t have to know what the exact fulfillment of that dread is going to look like, but they will be expecting there to be something waiting for them at the end.

And that was my number one objective when I began writing Raise the Black Sun. I wanted to start the whole work by tipping my hand, and stating that we were going to witness the end of the world, and then continue cultivating a sense of doom throughout the rest of the tale. As such, the audience would be extremely well prepared for a cataclysmic finish.

But then, my hope is that this ending was still surprising in its own way. I hope that the actual culmination of the sacrifices and the summoning of the Black Sun was different from what anyone had imagined. But beyond that, I also wanted it to feel like a twist that the cataclysmic destruction was also the flourishing of a new beginning. Yes it is an end of the world as we know it, but also the birth of a world we do not know.

Transaction, invention, anticipation, yet surprise. I’m pretty proud with the story I came up with, and how it answers to all of the points I had originally intended. As I suggested on Monday, I do see several ways that I would improve the story in a second draft, but there’s definitely a good foundation to work on. I have no immediate plans to do start that second craft, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I walk the caravan road to the Coventry again one day.