Children at Play

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The Universal Play)

When I was young my siblings and I loved playing pretend. Obviously we were far from the only children to do this, playing pretend is something that every child seems to come up with entirely on their own. In fact it is the most universal form of play I know of. Across all cultures and all periods of time, children just gravitate to it naturally and independently

I believe that part of the reason why pretend comes so naturally to children is because they still half-believe in it all. Half of the time they aren’t trying to invent anything new, they are just processing what they think might actually be.

I remember in one of our games I was shot by the bad-guys and I appropriately collapsed dead to the ground. I waited a few moments, then promptly rose back to my feet, explaining that I had been “good enough” that I couldn’t actually die. And I wasn’t trying to make something up…I genuinely believed that if one did enough good things then they became immortal in real life. I don’t know where I got that idea. Perhaps from the story of Jesus Christ’s resurrection, perhaps from films where the hero is never as dead as he appears, but the point is that when I was younger life seemed more fantastic. Anything might actually exist out there if you went looking in the right place. In another of our escapades I wanted to play a character named Cordinial Fasmuch. That was a strange name, so I decided he was from Spain. Because, you know, Spain was so far away that who even knew what sort of names they might have over there?

It is a sad irony that our curiosity so often propels us to gain a volume of information, until eventually we stop believing that there are things we still don’t know. And once we stop wondering what is out there our imagination plummets.

Anything’s Possible)

Playing pretend also leads into some incredibly original material. I remember with my siblings how we mashed up genres and ideas in ways that I still haven’t seen anywhere elsewhere. I’m reminded of one piece we did in a medieval setting with a small robot that helped thwart an evil wizard until it vanished at the end. Everyone was sad, but the robot had to go away because it was time for him to be born as the princess’s new baby.

You know, as medieval robots are wont to do.

Like I said, the world was a strange and mysterious place where anything was conceivable. There were no boundaries on logic or genre and there weren’t any rules against reincarnating robots in a medieval setting. Similarly there weren’t any rules on plot structure. We didn’t waste any time worrying about whether our playtime constituted a “good story” or not, we just played.

I remember a western we did where an outlaw came to settle a score with the sheriff in town. Eventually the revelation was made that the outlaw was actually a former sheriff himself, and the sheriff was once a former outlaw. And that former-outlaw had killed the family of the former-sheriff, sending the grieving man into a quest for vengeance, resorting to any measures to exact his revenge, even breaking all the laws he had once worked to uphold. And the former-outlaw was made so afraid by this specter of retribution that he had hidden himself in the most unlikely of places imaginable: law-keeping. Thus the two had completely traded sides.

Today I would say that the plot was preposterous, with character shifts that were completely unbelievable. But at the time I never considered it. It was an interesting idea, so who cared how much suspension of disbelief was required to make it work? Back then plots were weightless, all you had to do was think of them and that was enough.

Our Landing)

Eventually our “plays” started to shift. They were still imaginative, but they starting to be inspired more and more by the imagination of others. We adhered more closely to the genre boundaries of our favorite books and movies. We still played as knights and robots, but not in the same story. We still wielded the power of magic and science, but not at the same time. Characters that died didn’t just pop back up if they had done enough good deeds in their life. Plots were expected to adhere to a three act structure, with believable character transitions throughout.

At this point we discovered a new reason for creating stories: to help process other ones that we already enjoyed. Whenever an intriguing new book or movie came along the experience wasn’t complete until we had invented our own narrative in that same world. Harry Potter and Star Wars and Lord of the Rings were cool to watch and read about, but that wasn’t enough. We wanted to be inserted into those worlds. We wanted to experience them and make them our own. Thus our imagination was spent in crafting branches on other peoples’ trees more than in planting new trees of our own.

And this pattern generally continues for us as we grow older. We become more dependent upon the structures of others until we hardly know how to play pretend without them. A craving for that old playtime develops, though, and entire entertainment industries and cultures now cater to that desire. Video games, board games, and tabletop games. Fan conventions, cosplay, and live-action-role-play. Theme parks, and movie theaters, and historic recreations. All of these try in their own way to insert us into a different world, but they are merely crutches, still structured for us to experience someone else’s creativity and not to create our own. As adults we push buttons, roll dice, and change our speech patterns to imitate other characters, but when we were children we actually became the things we pretended.

Back to Pooh Corner)

It is a commonly asked question whether we can ever find our way back to that state of free-flowing creativity. Can adults ever relearn how to play as a child, or is their wealth of knowledge too great an obstacle to overcome? Kenny Loggins sung about this conundrum in his song Return to Pooh Corner and Robin Williams faced the same problem in the movie Hook.

In my experience it is possible to return to the land of pure pretend, but it isn’t always easy. You might be at a disadvantage, but that just means it takes extra effort. With regular exercise one really does get better and better at starting the flow of imagination. One of the best methods for easing back in is to join small children in their own games. With children you can blurt out the first idea that comes to mind, like a medieval robot being reincarnated as a baby, and they accept it without judgment. With children you can stop worrying about if you’re doing it right and just do it.

In any case, we should take comfort in the fact that creativity is a fundamental part of us. It may ebb and flow, but it never truly dies.

With my next piece I’m going to try and recapture the magic of children just playing pretend. I want to write a story that is as free and uninhibited as real children at play. Come back on Thursday to see how it goes!

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Sixteen

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen
Part Fifteen

“They’re going to cut us off from behind!” Tharol announced. “But if we move now I think we can get through the tower before they do it.” It was the the boys’ only option. Not would this keep them from being sandwiched between two walls of enemies, there was also a second staircase down to the courtyard on the other side of the tower. The only problems were…

“But that’s away from Master Palthio!” Avro said.

” And they’ll cut us down as soon as our backs are turned!” Bovik added.

“I don’t think Master Palthio is coming with us,” Tharol addressed Avro’s concern. The man was reinforcing the gates to give the boys more time…but even he wouldn’t be holding back the tide for long. The enemies would break through before long, and then they would be right upon him and he would have nowhere to run. Palthio had known that when he went there.

More serious was the second concern. Even now a set of crossbowmen was mounting the ladders behind the armored soldiers. They weren’t firing on Tharol and the other boys because they were too enmeshed with the soldiers. But soon the assaulting forces would be called back, clearing the way for the arrows to cut the boys down.

“Go!” Janeao shouted, panting from the physical demands of being the bulwark of their little army. “You all get out of here. I’ll hold them back.”

“We didn’t come save you lot just to leave you behind!” Tharol returned hotly.

“Well I didn’t come up here to be saved, Tharol! I came here to take care of what needs to be taken care of.”

“But you can’t–“

“I can hold this, Tharol. Trust me for once.”

And with that Janeao gave a great cry then surged forward. He dropped his sword and wrapped his arms around the nearest soldiers, tackling them down to the ground. Further behind the crossbowmen raised their eyes in surprise, then scrambled to load their weapons.

“Everyone go!” Tharol shouted. He gave one parting glance at Janeao down on the ground, punching and throwing with all his might, then turned around and darted after the others towards the tower!

There was a shout from behind as the soldiers tried to push past Janeao, around the boys crossbow bolts ricocheted wildly, ahead of them soldiers climbed the ladder, sneaking into the tower window above. Danger lurked on every side.

*

Down below, the stone soldiers had started creeping cautiously back towards the gate. The shockwaves from Master Palthio had ceased streaming through the holes, now suppressed by the magical aura of the statue lady. Her right hand still rested on the massive, stone bricks of the wall, and she was muttering something under her breath as the rock began to glow and quiver.

One of the stone soldiers came up to her side and pressed his hand against the wall-block nearest to him. It quivered even more rapidly, then all at once it turned in its recess. The soldier continued stepping forward and the separate stones of his arm began similarly rotating and folding, rearranging themselves to fill the cavity left by the rotated wall-block. He kept on pushing forward, and the sections of the wall and the sections of his body continued rotating, sliding, folding, reassembling. Eventually his entirety had passed into the churning knot of rocks, like the pieces of a puzzle tumbling together.

And now the churning continued on the other side of the wall, on the inside of the keep. The blocks there shifted and turned and rearranged until a stone arm started to emerge from their folds, then a head and a chest.

Master Palthio’s eyes shot sideways to the intruder. Sweat beaded his brow, but he pulled one hand away from the crumbled gate and sent a fresh shockwave to the side, blasting that stone warrior into dust. Then he turned his head to the other side. Two other stone soldiers were already emerging out of the wall over there!

*

An arrow sliced through the air and lodged itself in Avro’s shoulder. The force of it spun him around and he fell to the ground. Tharol was bringing up the rear and reached down and pulled the boy back to his feet without so much as a break in his stride.

“Unnngh!” Avro moaned as Tharol hadn’t had the time to be sensitive to the wounded shoulder. Together the two of them kept racing forward after the other boys.

Golu was in the lead and had just reached the door to the tower. He burst through it, raising his sword to be ready for whatever lay on the other side. It was a single, round room, with a spiral staircase in the center ascending to the next floor. Already the enemy peasants were filing down that staircase, coming to cut off the boys’ exit.

Golu sprang forward with a cry and swung his sword with practiced precision. Each of his blows was efficient and lethal. While he held the horde at bay the other boys scrambled around the staircase and out the other door.

“Come on, Golu!” Tharol shouted after all the others had exited.

Golu sprang after Tharol and through the opening. Tharol slammed the door closed and Golu thrust his sword into the gap between door and frame, wedging it as tightly between the two as he could. It would take the soldier’s a moment to break through that bond. In a line the boys rushed down the staircase at the other end of the tower and into the courtyard. Tharol could hardly believe that they had made it this far!

Then there came a shout from above and Tharol saw the crossbowmen standing in a line on top of the ramparts. They had realized the boys’ game, and had simply moved to a position where they would have an excellent view of the entire courtyard. Tharol and the other boys might dodge and weave as best they could, but there was no way they could avoid all of the bolts that were about to rain down on them!

The leader of the crossbowmen stood at the center of their firing line. He raised his arm and shouted “Aim!” All of the snipers raised their weapons to their cheeks. “Fire!”

“NO!” came a shout from down below. A wave of light streaked across the courtyard, intercepting the volley of arrows and bursting them into dust.

Master Palthio drew his hands away from the gate, finally letting its splinters crumble to the ground. It didn’t matter anyway. Though he had tried to cut down the stone soldiers pressing through the wall, he hadn’t been able to keep up in his weakened state. Slowly their numbers had grown until they were now crowding around him a dozen strong, spears lowered for the killing blow.

There was only one thing left to do.

Even as the weapons pierced through his body Master Palthio lifted his hands wide and sent a final shockwave right into the epicenter of the wall. The stones nearest to him disintegrated into dust, ripples of force rocked to the left and right as if the wall had been made of water, and then the entire line began cascading inwards like a line of dominos! Master Palthio had obliterated the central support, and now gravity would do the rest.

The eyes of the crossbowmen and armored soldiers went wide as the ramparts fell out from beneath them. They fell all the way to the fields below, joining the cascading rock and metal and wood that poured into the front lines of the army still waiting to enter the keep.

“MOVE!” Tharol shouted, lunging forward and physically pushing the other boys in front of him. Master Palthio may have just cleared the line, but there was still rank upon rank of soldiers who now had no barrier to slow their advance!

And at the front of that army there still stood the statue lady. Having been at the epicenter of Master Palthio’s blast, all the cobblestone had been reduced to harmless dust around her. Now she strode angrily over the shambles of the gate. She glanced down to the ground where Master Palthio gave out his last breath, surrounded by the pebbles that had moments before been his killers.

“Who were you?” she whispered curiously.

“What was that, Madam?” her bodyguard, who was also her Lieutenant, stepped to her side.

“Never mind.” She brought herself back to the matters at hand and pointed her arm out to Tharol and the others’ retreating forms. “Shoot them!”

“Crossbows!” the Lieutenant called and four nearby archers hurried forward and raised weapons alongside of him.

The boys were nearly to the end of the courtyard, nearly through the arch and onto the main street that led towards the district marketplace.

“Fire!” the Lieutenant called, and four bolts whistled through the air.

Up ahead the boys moved single file to the the narrow arch. And at their back was Tharol. The whole way he had deliberately remained in the rear, urging the other boys on ahead of him.

Without warning all four of the bolts struck Tharol, each between the shoulder blades. Their combined force lifted him into the air and threw him to the ground. He gave a cry of surprise, then slammed into the dirt. The other boys turned in shock, eyes shifting from their fallen comrade to the crossbowmen hurriedly reloading their weapons in the distance.

“Don’t worry about it, just go,” Tharol grunted as he pushed back up to his feet and continued dashing forward. The boys stared at him in bewilderment, but he gave them a shove and they continued their escape. All of them made it out the arch before the crossbowmen could fire again, and once they were clear Tharol tore off his outer tunic and shrugged off the shield he had strapped to his back. He had thought it a prudent addition for the unknown dangers of the night, and had put it on when he had left Master Palthio’s quarters.

Back at the gate the statue lady scoffed at her inability to have anything go according to plan this night.

“Arcuse, set aside a medical unit and get all the wounded there as quickly as possible,” she directed her Lieutenant. “Have everyone else ready to march at a moment’s notice.”

“Yes, Lady Sawk. And apparently they’ve found the boy.”

“The boy?”

“The spy that was here. Reis.”

“Ah. Reis Antine. Where is he?”

She was led to a section of the courtyard where several soldiers were tending to the poisoned lad. He had crawled his way off of the ramparts before they had fallen to pieces, but had not made it much further before the soldiers found him.

Lady Sawk kneeled at his side and turned his face to look at her.

“You failed,” she pronounced.

“My Lady,” Reis wheezed faintly. “I’m sorry. I was tricked. They poisoned me.”

“They weren’t supposed to know that you needed poisoning. You were elected because of your ability to remain subtle.”

“I tried. I did my best. I don’t know how–“

“I do. You tried to be clever. That’s always been your weakness, Reis. You can’t ever just finish the job, you have to make it a masterpiece. And with complexity comes mistakes.”

“I’m–I’m sorry.”

“All you had to do was kill them in their sleep. Nothing more. You toyed with them, didn’t you.”

Reis’s silence was answer enough.

“And now your blunder has cost us time. And in that time Lord Amathur will have heard about the forces we brought today. He will know that he’s been tricked and what it is we are really here for. And that means he’ll be shut up in his castle and we’re only going to have him out of there through a great deal of trouble and blood.”

The woman paused and cocked her head as she regarded a thought.

“Well, that’s not entirely your fault, is it? I assume you did not know the master of this keep was an Old Guardian, did you?”

“No,” Reis shook his head slowly.

“No, none of us did. Very curious. Well he would have given us trouble regardless then. I wonder how he came to hide at such a lowly station…. What was his name?”

“Palthio.”

“Never heard of him.”

Reis was thoroughly exhausted from the strain of crawling down from the wall, the chaos of the battle, and the fear of Lady Sawk’s disapproval. He face was pale and shining with sweat and he was having a harder and harder time getting each word out of his throat. Even so, he balled his fists and forced himself to push through the next sentences.

“There was a boy with Palthio, too. The one commanding the others. He might know more about the master.”

“So?”

“I will hunt him down. I will bring him to you. Please, my Lady, I know that I let you down, but I will atone for it. Let me find him!”

“What, did you think I was going to kill you?”

No answer.

“Oh dear,” she shook her head and tutted. “Just what sort of tales are they telling about me?”

With that she concluded Reis’s audience, raised back to her feet, and turned to her bodyguard.

“Alright, Arcuse. Have him taken with the rest of the wounded and give the order to move forward.”

She found herself momentarily alone and she took the opportunity to stare into the dark in quiet repose. She touched a hand to her hard, cold face, and tipped her head upwards to the sky. Cloudless, star-scattered, and bathed in a full moon. A perfect night for conquest. A perfect night for turning fate. A perfect night to raise the New Order!

And there, at long last, is the end to The Favored Son. I really do need to reconsider calling this short stories if they keep running this long, though. At 34,500 words, The Favored Son: Alternate is half the length of a full-blown novel!

Not for the first time I’ve wondered whether I should just go ahead and do a full-length novel here on the blog. It wouldn’t be publish-ready with my tight time constraints, it would be a first draft only. I’ll keep that idea stewing in the background and decide later. For now I’m just happy to have this one completed. It was a satisfying piece to write, I enjoyed being able to better capture the original vision behind the tale and I discovered many new and pleasant ideas along the way.

Come back on Monday as we leave these shores and venture towards uncharted water. The vessel we launch on will be slightly familiar, though. One theme of this story has been the concept of children at play, whose little pretend-wars finally become literal. And as a segue into my next short story I want to examine this notion of children at play. This is, after all, where each of us first began our journey into the world of crafting stories. Come back on Monday as we dive into that, and from there to fresher grounds.

Taking a Look Back: Part Two

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Here we are with just more section left in The Favored Son: Alternate! This Thursday I’ll post the conclusion, then be ready to move on to something new. A week ago I took a look at half of the lessons I learned during this long process, today we’ll be looking at the rest. Without further ado, let’s dive right in.

Relationship Stuff)

The story opened with a group of boys who, if not the best of friends, still felt the kinship of being in the same order. Obviously things did not remain that way, though. I always knew that betrayal and drawing lines in the sand was going to a major component of this tale, and I recently wrote about that very concept. With this story I specifically wanted to focus on Tharol’s reaction to being betrayed, and how pre-emptively strikes against the coming treason. On the one hand I wanted his actions to feel clever and resourceful, while on the other I wanted to question the morality of resorting to the same sort of underhanded tactics as his foes. Even if we feel Reis deserved what he got, I think it is still a pitiable moment when he realizes what his friend has done to him.

I also talked about the hero’s relationship to him- or herself. Many tales remove one support from the protagonist after another, until at last they stand alone. By the end of the story Tharol has discovered that half of the boys in the order are traitors, and the other half have mistaken him for being a traitor himself! Not only this, but as we learned last week, even his mentor was trying to cast him off from the order for his own good. Tharol needed to be made alone so that he wouldn’t be dragged down with the ship. I think that is a very compelling notion, and if I ever expand on this narrative that would be an ongoing theme in the plot that followed.

I also spoke about a story’s relationship to the audience, and how it strives to be relatable to us in our everyday lives, or else in our private fantasies. Tharol is experiencing a situation that not many readers will be able to directly identify with, but my hope is that he reacts to the events in the same way that the reader would if in that same situation. If I managed to pull it off, then he becomes a vehicle for the audience to feel like they went through the experiences with Tharol.

Forms of Communication)

Storytelling is a form of communication. And having had many years to explore the possibilities of story-communication, humanity has developed some very nuanced techniques. I dedicated one of my posts to consider protagonists that say one thing but imply another, who have jumbled feelings on the same matter, and who have to deal with multiple relationships intersecting with each other.

I tried to include elements of this in my story as well. I think one of my best implementations of this was after Master Palthio had been poisoned and Tharol was left alone in the room with Beesk, Inol, and Reis. Each of the other boys turns and makes meaningful eye contact with him, all without seeing that the others are doing the same thing. At this moment the audience is aware that each of them is believing a different reality. Beesk and Inol think Tharol is afraid that a boy accidentally brought poisoned wine to the dinner, and Reis thinks that Tharol suspects Beesk and Inol of trying to pull a fast one on him. But in reality Tharol knows that Reis is the guilty party, and now he must carefully play all the different sides so that no ones becomes suspicious of how much he really knows.

I spent another of my blog posts discussing communication through forms other than dialogue. Specifically I called out how a story can use scenes of action to drive plot and character development. Laced through The Favored Son were a number of competitions and fights, and I tried to lace each of these with special meaning. The scuffle between Tharol and the pickpocket in the marketplace showed the expertise Master Palthio was weaving into his boys, the standoff between Lord Amathur and the rebels showed how little Tharol understands about the politics around him, and the several practice duels reinforced the growing rifts between the boys. And at the end of the story we are seeing all of the separate lines become lethal as competing ideologies are proved by the sword.

And the Others)

Finally there were two other one-off lessons that I explored while writing this story. The first had to do with the flow of character development, and how it can be a steady arc, or it can be a fluctuating river, or it can be a firm stillness. Tharol’s development has the most natural progression of all the characters. Sometimes his growth accelerates and sometimes it plateaus, but overall it is consistent from start to finish. For Reis there is a certain ambiguity during half of the story, as we really aren’t sure what he is all about. Then, as we reveal him to be a traitor, his development suddenly spikes rapidly. And Master Palthio is a constant throughout the whole story, never really changing, yet suddenly seen in a far clearer light at the end.

Finally I spoke about the use of suspense in a story. It is used when the audience is waiting for some unknown fallout, whether negative or positive. If negative it generates anxiety, if positive it generates anticipation.

There is a lot of waiting in my story. We know things are going to go down, but we don’t know what. A grave, yet nebulous, threat hangs over the entire story, giving us anxiety. At the same time, we see Tharol setting wheels in motion with the poisoned wine in an attempt to counter whatever is coming, and this gives us a sense of anticipation. I tried to build up both halves of suspense in equal measure, then let both of them crash out in the climatic finale. This is meant to provide an ending that is both positive and negative, and hopefully extremely satisfying in each.

Having done all this, all that remains is to wrap up all the loose ends of the story. Come back this Thursday when I post the final chapter of The Favored Son: Alternate, and let’s see if I can put a bow on everything that I’ve learned along the way!

Update on My Novel: Month 22

black pen near white printer paper
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FEBRUARY STATS

Days Writing: 12
New Words: 2867
New Chapters: .75

Total Word-count: 69,756
Total Chapters: 18.75

I consider February to be a more successful month than January. Not just because I was able to actually work on new material, but because my mind was more dedicated to the work…sometimes.

The fact is my performance for February was still very low. I seem to have found my way into the doldrums lately, and I’m having a hard time getting back out of it.

Of late I’ve had the goal to just write something every day. As you can see, I still missed on that very lax requirement for more than half of the days this last month. And on the days that I did write, I didn’t strive to do more than the bare minimum. My average wordcount on the days that I wrote was just shy of 240, hardly anything at all

I’ve tried a few different ways to get out of this slump, and frankly none of them have lasted more than a month. That’s alright. I’ll keep trying new ideas until either I find something that sticks or I get this novel out the long way.

So for March my goal will be to double down on that “write something each day.” All I’m looking for is consistency. I want to find a routine that I can become dependent on every day, even if it only churns out 20 words each time. I will measure my success in number of days and repetition, not in final wordcount. Once I’ve got that, then I’ll look for ways to expand on it.

Come back April 1st to hear how it went. In the meantime here is the piece I have selected to share from my work this month. Enjoy!

It is a very heavy blow to William, it hits even harder than the worm infestation. The first loss had softened him, so now this one is able to strike deep and truly wound.

“I’m sorry, William,” Eleanor can see the heartbreak in her husband’s eyes. “Will we still have enough crops to make enough of a profit back on the mainland?”

“Who’s to know? And even if we do now, then what about after the next problem comes up? Or the next after that?”

Eleanor nods sympathetically. “Things seemed to go much more smoothly during the trial season, didn’t it? Of course we were growing much less, then.”

“Yes, there seems to be much more that can go wrong when there is an entire community of crops.”

“Yes, there is,” Eleanor nods. “I know your original plan was to earn one-fifth of what we initially spent to come out here. If we bring in one-tenth, instead, is that so much worse?”

“Ten years to be successful in our investment?!”

“But we’d still be able to hire at least one or two new hands and expand on the foundation we’ve already set. Why the next year we’d be able to double things up to that one-fifth level. The next year even further. Accelerate the growth, just as you had been saying.”

William nods, but Eleanor can see he isn’t too encouraged.

“But today is still a disappointment, and I certainly wouldn’t sweep that under the rug. I’m truly sorry, darling.” Eleanor rests her hand on her husband’s sunburned arms. “You’ve worked very hard, and you’re not wrong to want to see the fruit of that. I’m sorry.”

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Fifteen

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen

Tharol heard the scream ringing from the barracks and stood up with a start. After a moment he realized what it was and he looked down somberly.

“Well maybe you couldn’t do anything about all these plots, but I did,” he told Master Palthio defiantly. “That’s the sound of Reis’s schemes being snuffed out. I did it myself because no one else was going to lift a finger to stop him!”

Master Palthio smiled sadly. “I applaud your initiative, Tharol, but you haven’t stopped anything. Reis was but the tip of an iceberg.”

*

Inol frantically backed away from Reis’s twitching form, spun around, and leaned for support against the rampart railing.

“ATTACK! ATTACK!” he shouted in the direction of the barracks. “THERE’S AN ARMY OUTSIDE THE GATES!”

Beesk came racing up the staircase and onto the ramparts.

“What do you think you’re doing? Do you want everyone to–” he stopped speaking as he came into view of the army approaching below. They were near enough now to see them in detail. They were a strangely cobbled force, a mixture of elite soldiers in armor, peasants bearing wooden clubs, and a third class that was…made of stone! Some had only a rocky or head, while others were entirely composed of rock except for a single patch of flesh. They hobbled forward awkwardly on their heavy joints, shaking the ramparts with the collective force of their boulder feet.

“Seventeenth Gate!” the woman at the forefront of the army called. “Why are your doors not open?”

“It’s her,” Beesk mumbled to Inol, stepping back from the ramparts’ edge in fear. “It’s the statue lady…. This was all a trap!”

“I know!”

“Seventeenth Gate!” the statue lady called again. “Is anyone there? Answer me or face the consequences!”

Reis turned on his side and retched violently. The chills washed over his body in waves and he fell back to the rampart trembling uncontrollably. Even though he didn’t have the strength to even raise himself his eyes were steeling with anger and resolve. He knew what had happened to him and he knew who had done it. He wasn’t sure how, but Tharol had known more than he had let on, and he had poisoned Reis with a lethal dose. But Reis hadn’t been killed. Not yet. And now Tharol would have to deal with the consequences of that fact!

*

“What do you mean you did your part to resist what’s coming?” Tharol demanded of Master Palthio. “You say you couldn’t put a stop to Beesk, or Inol, or Reis, or any of the things they represent, so what were you doing? What was the point?!”

“What I was doing was teaching,” Master Palthio said simply. “I’ve been training the lot of you, hoping to instill some sense of duty and principle in you all. Preparing your minds and bodies for the coming fight. Teaching you how to operate as individuals and as a group. Yes I knew we had corruptors in our bunch, but the rest of you I tried to keep apart from all that.”

Teaching?!

“Yes, and Tharol you were the brightest of them all, and the most capable. I saw that if there was going to be any hope for these boys it would be through you. And that’s why I have been pushing you so hard of late.”

“Felt more like you were trying to get rid of me!”

“Well, in a sense, yes, but for your own good. I was trying to take away the order as your crutch. Trying to wean you off of this sick, decaying body. There’s no future for you here. Your destiny needs to be apart from the city, the order, and Gate Seventeen.”

“A destiny for what? To hear you go on there isn’t anything left for us to save!”

“Just each other.”

Tharol blinked.

“Avro, Janeao, Bovik, Golu, and others like them,” Master Palthio continued. “Maybe those like Beesk and Inol after their schemes have fallen to pieces and they’re humbled. But don’t waste any time trying to save our order or nation. Just take care of the individuals who still have their spark of duty. Do it by your own means. Take your own counsel. Don’t rely on any part of our dead system, not even on me.”

Tharol paused to take it in. He had just had his whole world disrupted and he felt like he needed to sit down and think it over for a long while. But, of course, there was no time for that.

“I really do need to go,” he said softly, stepping towards the door.

“Yes, you do,” Master Palthio waved his hand and the door was unfastened. “And I have my final work to do as well.”

*

All the other boys had rushed out into the courtyard now and were halfway up the stairs to the ramparts.

“What’s going on?” Avro demanded.

“We’re doomed!” Inol came down to meet them, face ashen. Beesk followed behind, trembling like a leaf. “Reis betrayed us. They’re going to kill us!”

The pronouncement was immediately followed by the sound of death shouts off in the distance. Inol and Beesk cowered even lower behind the wall, but Avro poked his head up high enough to see where the noises were coming from. He looked to Gate Eighteen to the right and Gate Sixteen to the left. There the great doors had been opened from within and the army was filing through uncontested. And no sooner had the army been admitted into the keep than they had apparently begun murdering the gatekeepers there!

“Never mind,” the statue lady scoffed in disgust down on the plains. It was clear to her that their accomplice wouldn’t be opening the gate for them. “Break this door down!”

Her stone soldiers had only been waiting for the order! Like dogs freed from the leash they gave a shout and charged forward at full speed, built up their momentum, then flung their bodies against the gate like a hundred different battering rams! The entire keep shook from the impact, the wood of the doors splintered, and the iron lattice bent inwards. Meanwhile the peasant soldiers picked up their ladders, sprinted to place them against the walls, and began their ascent. Several of the armored soldiers lifted crossbows and fired them along the ramparts in case any guards were concealed in the dark.

The boys inside flung themselves to the ground, faces looking to one another in horror. For a moment they were paralyzed into inaction, but then Golu broke the silence with a sudden thought.

“The breaching charges!” he said, then rose to his feet and began crawling back up the stairs to the ramparts, careful to keep his head beneath the bolts sailing overhead. Avro and Janeao followed behind, while the other boys dashed to the weapon rack and grabbed their swords and bows and arrows. The three boys up top crawled across the ramparts, lighting the fuses that ran along the top of the wall as they went.

What they were lighting was a series of explosives that had been mixed into the rock all along the top of the wall. No sooner did the first of the peasants reach the top of the wall than the explosives went off, spraying fire and rocky shrapnel, slaying the first of the offenders and blasting their ladders backwards off the wall!

Of course Golu, Avro, and Janeao had not been able to reach all the sections of the wall, and so in other places the peasant soldiers mounted the ramparts unscathed. But these were met by the arrows of the other boys down below. Bovik, Beesk, and Inol fired with practiced skill, cutting the infiltrators down easily, due to their lack of proper armor.

“We’ve got to fall back!” Inol roared as the stone warriors flung themselves once again the at the gate, buckling it to the point that wide gaps were starting to appear. One more dash and they would have the whole thing down.

“They’ll just chase us down,” Bovik shook his head sadly.

“No, they’ve got bigger matters to attend to,” Inol offered hopefully. “They probably don’t even care about us.”

“Up above!” Beesk pointed to a wave of armored soldiers that had just mounted the ladders. The boys fired a fresh volley, but only half of the arrows were able to find weak parts in the armor, such as around the joints, while the rest clattered harmlessly off the plate. The surviving men charged undeterred towards Golu, Avro, and Janeao, while yet another wave of armored soldiers mounted the ladders behind them.

“We’ve got to go!” Inol repeated, then turned and ran, not waiting to see if the others followed him.

“We can’t just leave the other boys!” Bovik protested. But also Beesk turned and ran, proving that he most certainly could!

“Let’s go get them, Bovik.”

Bovik turned back and saw Tharol quickly approaching.

“But–” Bovik’s misgivings towards Tharol were clear on his face.

“I just want to help you,” Tharol said earnestly, pulling sword and shield from the weapon rack then coming back to his ally. “Let’s go get them.”

Bovik exhaled deeply, gave a nod, and the two boys began sprinting for the staircase. Along the way they passed by the gate, just as it shook from a third battering by the stone warriors. The hinges ripped out of the stone and the entire door fell inwards! The boys instinctively lifted their arms to protect themselves from the crashing rubble…but it never hit them.

Master Palthio stepped forward, hands outstretched to the broken door, magically keeping it pinned to its proper place. His eyes shone brightly and he sent out a great shockwave. It coursed through the wide gaps that had been broken in the door, breaking into the stone soldiers on the other side, and bursting them into pebbles! The remaining stone warriors pulled back in surprise.

“Well…” the statue lady mused from behind, “that’s interesting. While the last of the retreating stone soldiers passed by her she strode forward confidently, closing on the door with her own arms stretched out wide. “I don’t know who you are,” she panted as she felt the full force of Palthio’s powers bearing down. “But these walls are mine.” She matched the words my placing her outstretched hands on the stone barrier that framed the door, closed her eyes, and imbued her powers into the lifeless rock.

Meanwhile, Tharol and Bovik mounted the staircase up above and bowled into the front-most ranks of the armored soldiers, flinging them right over the ramparts and off the wall! Then the two boys spun on the spot and met the next line of enemies with swords flashing. They lunged at the foes with an aggressiveness that belied their inferior numbers.

There were too many of the soldiers to keep them permanently at bay, but the two boys made a controlled retreat backwards until Golu, Avro, and Janeao were able to join the fray. Then the retreat slowed and came to a standstill. Though they were still fewer than their foes, and not nearly so well armored, the boys had far greater synergy as a team. Each armored soldier was trained only as an individual, occasionally stumbling over each other as they all sought their own best line forward. The boys, however, naturally fell into a shared rhythm.

To begin with Janeao took the front, using his greater size to shield the other boys and swinging his sword like a windmill, clearing enough room for the others to operate within. Golu was to Janeao’s side and slightly behind, watching for the openings that Janeao’s blustering opened up and then used his superior techniques to administer one finishing blow after another. He was the surgical precision behind Janeao’s thundering hammer. Avro and Bovik meanwhile filled in all the gaps. As efficient as Janeao and Golu were, they couldn’t cover everything at once. So Avro and Bovik drove their swords like spears through the openings, sometimes to counter a missed attack, sometimes to increase their own side’s aggression.

Tharol helped Avro and Bovik in that work as well, but his primary contribution was at the back, directing their troupe in its lethal dance.

“Bovik, on the right!” he shouted. “Six more behind this set, boys, pace yourselves. Perhaps Mora-Long? Was that a cut on you, Janeao?”

“I’m fine!”

“Avro, two steps to the right, I need to move that body!” He pulled the corpse back and flung it over the edge, clearing up the ground for Golu’s footing.

“Watch that sword, Avro, don’t tangle it in Janeao’s swings. Golu, watch the ground, he’s getting back up!”

Every now and then Tharol swept his eyes around the area, making sure that he was ever aware of their surroundings. They had managed to hold their ground thus far, and on occasion had even advanced a foot or two forward. But they were still twelve feet back from the top of the stairs, which was the nearest exit out of this place.

There was a sound of clattering behind them and Tharol turned to see an extra-long ladder being placed against the Northern Tower. The peasants had bound two of their shorter ladders together in order to reach the lowest window of that tower, and were now ascending to enter it. They were going to come into the tower on its second floor, race down its staircase, onto the ramparts from behind, and hit the boys from the rear!

“Alright, we’ve got trouble!” Tharol announced.

Part Sixteen

This was an exciting, fun piece to write! But even amidst all the action I’ve tried to imbue a sense of character development. Consider the moment here at the end where the boys fight the attacking horde together. Throughout the story there have been scenes of them dueling against one another, jockeying for rank, and carving divisions between them. This moment here is the first time that we’ve really seen them work together, the payoff for all that Master Palthio has been trying to instill in them.

Compare how I portray them here to their performance in the first of their competitions, the one where Janeao was trying to hold up the wooden tower as the opposing side broke it down. That was at the very beginning of the story, and the boys were trying to operate as a team, but were largely ineffective. Their focus was on trying to beat the other team, not protect their own. They were flushed in conquest and competition, all at the expense of collaboration and contribution.

It’s been a long and difficult journey for them to this all-important night, full of drama and shifting loyalties, but through it all they have broken down the old relationships that weren’t working, and learned how to genuinely rely on one another instead.

The story is almost done, just one more post to wrap it up. Before we get to that, though, I am going to finish reviewing all the lessons that I have learned in my next post on Monday. Come back then to read about that, and then again on Thursday to see the final words in The Favored Son: Alternate!

Taking a Look Back: Part One

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Here we are approaching the end of The Favored Son: Alternate. It’s been a long road, and there’s been a great deal learned along the way. I want to pause and do a review on those lessons, because while it is important for me to practice my writing, my improvement accelerates when I then critique that practice and learn from it. There’s a lot to go over, so I’m going to have to split this review into two posts: this one today and another in a week. Now let’s get started.

Big Changes)

The whole thing began with a post about the struggle of humanity’s reach exceeding their grasp. Like Frankenstein I wanted to try an experiment that I had never attempted before: to take the same foundation from an earlier story and construct an entirely different experience on top it.

Last week I took a look at what I’ve written so far and decided that the answer to that question was yes. The two versions of The Favored Son are very different from one another, not only in the events that occur within them, but in style, themes, and message. As I shared before, this second version of the story hews much more closely to my original vision. In fact, the title “The Favored Son” really makes a lot more sense in this second take than it ever did in the first attempt.

That being said, I found myself starting to drift again during the writing of this second tale, too. Towards the center of it I had Tharol uncovering Reis’s plot in a way that was weak and unimaginative. This revelation was supposed to be a hinge of the entire tale, but it just came off as a cheap coincidence. I struggled for a little while to find a better way forward, but eventually an idea suggested itself to me, which improved the rest of the story. Things transpire much more organically now, and that has meant the final product is much lengthier than I had expected, but it is also more complete.

Little Changes)

There were smaller course corrections as well. Early on I mentioned that I was feeling bored when writing a certain piece, and realized that the audience would probably be bored when reading it as well. I saw an opportunity to introduce a small bit of inventiveness to the tale, which led me to create the “statue lady” who is trying to buy her way through the city gate.

While she has not been featured very much in the tale, she is absolutely essential to the entire thing, and I’ve realized that taking the time to give her distinctive qualities should have always been my plan. We’re about to see a lot more of her in these final two chapters, and I’ve realized that her stone nature is going to be a prominent piece in how the final action plays out. I sure am glad I acted on my boredom and breathed this new life into the tale!

Shortly after that sequence I came to yet another trouble area. My initial action scene felt a bit lacking, and given that I intended to write several more of those over the course of the story I figured I ought to do some research on the form. Ever since then I have tried to incorporate the lessons I learned of rapid, yet evocative sentences for every scene of combat. Some of these have come out better than others, but overall I am quite pleased with the result.

But while I was improving my technique in writing action scenes, I then stumbled into another issue of how to transition from them into more conversational pieces. I paused to examine the awkwardness in those scene changes, identified the conditions that led to them, and found a way to do smooth them over.

Last of all, I was dissatisfied with a sequence that showed the leader of the district as a clichéd villain. I wrote about why it is so easy to slip into using tired clichés rather than come up with more thoughtful solutions to our stories. Fortunately I paused and found a more creative way to vilify Lord Amathur, a way that will lead into the broader theme I intend to conclude this story with. In these last posts I am trying to make clear that Tharol exists in a much larger world than he realized, one that has politics and ideologies that he was unaware of, one that is torn between competing ideas and agendas that he doesn’t know his own side of.

This theme of uncovering a broader world was not part of my original vision for this story. It was an element I only discovered while writing out the first version of The Favored Son. It has become the binding theme between the two of them.

One way I will emphasize this theme is in my use of the “statue lady.” In my next post she and her forces will be presented in an extremely antagonistic light. But in the post following that we will see signs that she may not be as evil as we have thus far assumed. In a larger tale she might even have even become the hero.

Come and see this idea in play on Thursday, and then again next Monday where I will cover all the other lessons learned from writing The Favored Son: Alternate.

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Fourteen

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen

Tharol tried vainly to communicate to the other boys.

“Stop,” he mumbled, still half-dazed. “It’s a trap– it’s all a trap…. You have to stop Reis–I don’t know what he’s doing…but you have to stop him–“

Either they couldn’t understand his fragmented speech or they just didn’t care. They didn’t respond to him the whole way to Master Palthio’s quarters, and Tharol was nearly back to his full senses when they knocked on the Master’s door.

The door opened and Master Palthio’s voice came out weakly from the darkness. “Yes?”

“Sorry, Master,” Bovik said. “We know you need your rest, but we found out who poisoned you. We thought you’d want to know.”

“Oh…of course. Come in.”

They shuffled into the room as Master Palthio lit his lamps.

“What is this?” Master Palthio said in surprise as they placed Tharol in the middle of the room, wrists still firmly tied together.

“It was Tharol,” Bovik declared. “Tharol poisoned your dinner.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well for one thing he cooked dinner,” Golu spoke up. “He demanded to do it. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but it gave him the perfect opportunity to poison your plate.”

“I see.”

Tharol kicked himself inwardly. Once again he was his own worst enemy, making himself look suspicious to the boys that should have been his friends. Why did he keep doing that?

“But that’s not all,” Avro added. “Yesterday Tharol came to dinner late, said he had to patch a hole in his tunic or something. But Golu and I passed him rushing toward the cellar right before.”

Of course, Tharol thought, right after I saw the note about the wine being sabotaged. Avro wasn’t finished laying out evidence though.

“And last week when we did the combat practice Tharol was last to come to dinner again. Bovik, Reis, and I had just left the barracks and I looked back and saw him still inside, standing on a chest and looking at something over the door.”

This one took Tharol a moment to recollect. Then he realized Avro was talking about when he had investigated how Reis beat Golu in their duel. “I was just looking at the shield over the doorway,” he explained.

“That’s right,” Bovik said. “And guess where we found the wine?”

Ah, Tharol thought, so that was where Reis had planted it. He assumed Avro must have said something to Bovik and Reis on that day about seeing Tharol mess around with the shield, so Reis had known that hiding the bottle there would get Avro to connect it with him.

“And last time we brought in wine was when Tharol went to market,” Janeao chimed in.

“Hmm,” Master Palthio nodded thoughtfully. “Well that’s certainly quite the array of evidence. In fact it seems to me that you’ve all been keeping an unusually close eye on Tharol these past few weeks…”

“Yeah, Reis told us he thought something was up,” Janeao answered. “Told us we should keep tabs on him whenever we could. And clearly he was right.”

“Clearly,” Master Palthio repeated. “And where is young Reis now?”

“He took over the evening watch so the rest of us could bring Tharol to you,” Bovik explained.

“Yes, very sensible. Well alright, you all run along. I’ll take things from here.”

“What? Leave you alone with him?” Avro said in bewilderment.

“Yes.”

“But he’s dangerous!”

“And I am a Master of the Order. Don’t fret yourselves, I really am feeling much better now. Our district needs you out there. Go now.”

There was a finality to his tone that quelled the unspoken protests in the boys’ eyes. Reluctantly they all shuffled out of the room and Master Palthio closed the door behind them.

“Master I know this doesn’t look good, but you’ve got to believe me!” Tharol blurted out. He still didn’t know whether Palthio was to be trusted, but frankly he didn’t have any other choice but to take his chances. “Reis is a traitor and he’s planning something very dangerous!”

Tharol braced himself for one of two reactions. Would Master Palthio be completely shocked, aghast that Tharol could make such a claim against his best student? Or would he round on Tharol in a rage, furious with him for having figured out his and Reis’s scheme?

The one reaction Tharol did not expect from Master Palthio, though, was annoyed indifference.

“Yes, yes, of course he is,” Palthio waved his hand dismissively, turning to his desk and rummaging through its drawers. “He has been since the first day he joined our order.”

Tharol’s mouth dropped. Was Master Palthio making fun of him?

“I’m serious!” he said hotly.

“So am I,” Master Palthio looked sharply up and Tharol could see that he meant it. “And I was serious when I told you to stop playing other peoples’ games, too. But you’ve gone and got yourself really mixed up in it now.”

He drew a long dagger from the drawers and came towards Tharol.

“Forgive me, but my extremities don’t have all their feeling back. I wouldn’t be able to untie that knot.” So saying he gripped Tharol’s wrists and quickly sawed through the rope. It fell to the ground and Tharol was free.

“You know?!” Tharol could still hardly believe it. “You’ve always known? Well come on then, we’ve got to go stop him.” He bounded for the door, but Master Palthio raised his hand behind Tharol and the door locked itself fast.

“Tharol…there is no stopping him,” Master Palthio said sadly. “Don’t you think that I would have already done something about it if there was?”

Tharol turned around, confusion etched all across his face. “You’ve got to let me out, Master. I have a plan. Reis isn’t going to get his way tonight.”

“Reis is the least of your problems, Tharol. Please take a seat,” Master Palthio gestured to the seat behind his desk. Tharol didn’t budge. “Tharol, I am going to let you out of here…but not until you hear what I have to tell you. Take. A. Seat.”

It was the last thing Tharol felt like doing, but there wasn’t any other choice. He marched over to the chair and perched on the corner of it, foot tapping impatiently.

“Thank you,” Master Palthio said, lowering himself into a seated position on his bed. “I’ll try to be brief.”

*

The sun had seemed to set extra quickly that evening, what with all the commotion that had occurred.

“Maybe we should stay up with you,” Avro offered Reis when it was time for the Night Watch to begin. “None of us are going to get much sleep anyway.”

“No, no,” Reis said. “We’ve had a ruffle, but we’ll carry on as we had intended, business as usual. Best way forward is to stick to our duties.”

Reluctantly the other boys retired to their barracks, leaving Reis alone on the wall. With hands on the ramparts he eagerly watched the sun fading behind the rolling hills, waiting for his moment of triumph. Already the first stars were appearing up above, and soon the moon would take over the realm. How fitting a symbol, Reis thought, for the power changes that were about to take place.

*

“Tharol, this district has been dying for a long while now,” Master Palthio began his explanation. “There was still the shadow of honor when Lord Oraliah–that’s Lord Amathur’s father–reigned over the district. There was still a great deal of corruption all around him, but he was mighty enough to keep it at bay. Then, once he died, he left a vacuum that was immediately filled by all those opportunistic, unprincipled vultures! The only reason we didn’t have a civil war was because his own son was the worst of the lot, willing to make every concession to keep the dukes and senators happy. I won’t go into all of the politics of it, but I believe even you have seen the effects of it. Order and decorum are a joke, scheming and underhanded deals are the norm, and no one has any sense of duty. All they care about is their own agenda.”

Tharol stopped tapping his foot so impatiently. He nodded sadly, but then added, “Well not all of us have lost our sense of duty.”

Master Palthio smiled. “No, you are correct. Forgive my cynicism. That, of course, is the other sickness that has pervaded our streets. A sense of hopelessness, a belief that we are beyond repair. That cynicism has been my own vice, and I have not fought against it as well as I ought to have. It has compromised me as much as if I had been another of the selfish opportunists. That cynicism has paved the way for even more dangerous enemies to the city.”

*

Reis heard a noise behind him and turned to see Inol mounting the stairs, large cup in hand.

“What’s this?” he asked in pretend surprise.

“Master Palthio’s orders,” Inol smiled. “The Night Watchman is to have a chalice of wine to keep him company through the night!”

Reis met the smile and took the cup. “Well that’s very thoughtful! Thank you, Inol.”

Inol nodded and stepped backwards, but his face fell slightly as Reis placed the cup down on the wall.

“You’re not going to take a drink from it?” he asked.

“No, not yet. I’ll save it.”

“Well…at the very least I had thought we should toast your commission.”

“Thank you, Inol, that’s very thoughtful. Wait here a moment and I will.”

*

“Reis is cynical, isn’t he?” Tharol asked.

“Yes. Extremely so. He hates the opportunists, the Beesks and Inols of this city. He wants to burn them to the ground and build a stronger, stricter order on top of it all. And he is not the only one that does. There has been a growing tide both within our walls and without that want to destroy this city for its weakness. And these revolutionaries know that they can manipulate the opportunistic fools into opening the doors for them. Offer them something that they value and they’ll let you get close enough to drive a dagger through their hearts.”

“But…you knew all about this and haven’t done anything?!”

Master Palthio sighed and looked downward heavily. “Tharol…I have tried. In quiet ways, I admit, but I really have tried. Maybe I could have done more, I don’t know, but I have tried. You have no idea how outnumbered we honest folk are. Every gate has been compromised. Every district. The very city core! Speaking up for principle has become a dangerous vocation. Sounding alarms that no one wants to hear gets you stifled. I know what Reis was came to our order for. I know what Beesk and Inol are doing behind our backs. But if I removed any of them there would just be more cynics and opportunists to take their place. If I kept weeding out the likes of Beesk and Inol Lord Amathur would have had me removed for cutting into his side ventures. If I kept weeding out the likes of Reis I would be assassinated! You can try to fight the inevitable but it will happen anyway. There is no stopping the coming tide.”

*

Inol shifted uncomfortably next to Reis. The statue lady was supposed to show up any moment now and the boy still hadn’t taken his drink. Inol would have to think of something fast or Reis would see her approaching!

“Well…I should really be getting to bed,” he said. “Why don’t we do that toast now and then I’ll get my rest.”

“Very soon, Inol. Very soon.” The last of the daylight had faded, leaving the sky a murky, navy blue. Reis kept his eyes fixated on the horizon, trying to still make out the line of hills in the dark. Suddenly he became aware of a thousand pinpricks of fire lining the most distant ridge. “Oh,” he breathed excitedly. “Come over here, Inol, I think the time for that toast has come!”

Reis’s back and arms were tensed in excitement. He didn’t turn a single degree as Inol stepped beside him and followed his gaze out to the rolling hills beyond. At first Inol couldn’t make out anything in the moonlight. The only movement was the tall grass waving in the wind upon the distant hills. But then, with a shock, Inol remembered that grass didn’t even grow on those rocky crests. And there was no wind. What he actually saw was a mass of people, an entire army silently marching towards the city wall. With a gasp he looked left and right, and he saw that the line continued as far as he could see in each direction. Thousands upon thousands quickly approaching, billowing out to meet each of the district’s gates!

And in all that empty air there was not a single sound of warning. No alerting bugle. No clash of swords. All the other gates must be seeing the approaching horde just as he did…but none of them were doing anything to stop it!

“Drink with me, Inol,” Reis smiled broadly. He lifted the goblet and looked over its rim in a salute to the coming masses. “My triumph has arrived!” Then he raised the cup to lips and took a long and deep draught. He was so flushed with success he didn’t even notice the unusual warmth of the liquid, the bitterness that was mingled with its rich flavor. “What’s the matter, Inol?” he said with a laugh at his comrade’s wide stare. “Aren’t you feeling well?”

Then, without warning, Reis’s whole body trembled violently. His eyes expanded in shock and he flung the goblet to the ground, clutching to the nearest brazier for support. He convulsed again, and fell the rest of the way to the ground, fingers scrabbling madly against the wood. He opened his mouth in agony and let out a single, long scream!

Part Fifteen
Part Sixteen

On Monday I compared my current version of The Favored Son to my first attempt at writing the story and I considered the elements that were stronger in each. From my freshman effort I specifically called out the greater creativity and heightened drama, and I stated that I would attempt to incorporate some of those elements here at the climax of my second version.

We got the first example of that in this highly dramatic scene of the army approaching and Reis being poisoned. The tension of that moment was built up more than any other scene in the story. It felt more on the level of that dramatic moment in the first story when the teachers suddenly assaulted their own students.

Here at the climax of this story it feels particularly fitting to cut loose in a loud moment of catharsis. Reis has been smugly pulling the strings on all the other boys for the entirety of the story. Now we finally get to see his mastery of the situation burst into pieces, and it works well for it to be a highly dramatic moment. With the next chapter of the story we will also see more magic coming to bear.

It’s certainly been a long time getting to this finale. There’s still two more chapters left to go, making this the longest tale I’ve published by a significant margin. We are finally coming to the end, though, and that means it’s time to take a step back and review all the lessons we’ve been learning along the way. Come back on Monday as we look back at it all, and then come on Thursday to see how the story continues.

A Tale of Two Tales

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Quick Summary)

During September and October I published a story which was titled The Favored Son. It was not the same as the story I am currently writing now, though, which is titled The Favored Son: Alternate.

Both of these stories began in a very similar manner. Both featured a group of students in an order, which eventually was overrun by an invasion. Both of them featured a battle of wills between the different students as each tried to champion their own way forward.

But as I mentioned at the time, my first take on this story strayed a great deal from my original vision. About halfway through it evolved into an entirely different beast from what I had pictured in my head.

If you have been reading the second version you can certainly see that the style and plot have many drastic differences from the first. So now let me answer whether this second attempt has hewed more closely to my original idea or not.

It has. Like a lot. This new incarnation is very much in the vein of my original concept. Yes, a few things have changed as I’ve gone along, but not any more than is to be expected whenever a vague concept is written into a hard reality. So if you have read the first version of The Favored Son, now you should be able to understand why I felt there were several ideas being left on the table!

Is it Better This Way?)

Now that I have both the free-flowing-exploration-into-the-unknown version and the more stick-to-the-plan version, the natural question is which am I happier with the result of. The answer to that is a bit mixed.

On one hand, they really are just very different tales that do different things well. There are things that I appreciate about both and I wouldn’t want to be without either. On the other hand, I can’t help but appreciate that this newer attempt was more successful at capturing my intended vision. Yes, the other one took me into fresh material that I value, but I feel more competent as a writer with the second attempt because it was a better execution of being what I wanted it to be.

Technically speaking, I would also say that my second attempt is more complex. There are more characters, more relationships, more arcs, and I am pleased with how they are all being given full expression.

Imaginatively speaking, though, I would say the first version had the more exciting ideas.

Obviously I mean this in terms of having a more involved magic system and a more surprising world to explore, but also in having more dramatic ideas, such as the order’s ritualistic self-destruction and characters being literally taken over by despair. There was a lot of creativity crammed into that tale.

But given all that bursting creativity is it any wonder that the plot went off track?

Lost in the Details)

I really do think it was all this deluge of ideas that caused me to lose the thread of my plot in the first version of The Favored Son. I came up with one imaginative idea after another. I included them without a second thought, and in the process of exploring their implications I realized that I had built a foundation that the original story wouldn’t fit on anymore.

It has to be appreciated that this is a package deal. How can you fully explore a new concept unless you are willing to surrender some control for where things are going to go with it? There is a trade-off in writing between discovering something new and meeting your original expectation.

On the one hand, by focusing on plot and character first and foremost in my second version of The Favored Son I had a more solid foundation, a better story at its core. And having that foundation I could now dress it up with all manner of rich world-building that I please. I could take all of the more magical elements of the first version and easily apply them throughout.

But on the other hand…how would I even know about those magical elements if I hadn’t allowed myself to get lost first?

Clearly there is a benefit to both approaches. I’m actually very glad that I decided to write both versions, if only to have discovered this fact. You can have freedom in your writing or you can have structure. Or, if you allow for each separately, then you can combine them together and have both. You can make an excursion into the unknown and discover all manner of raw, creative material, and then you can set down at the desk and compile it into a deliberate, crafted plot.

If it weren’t for the fact that I have already spent months on these stories and am ready for a change of scenery, I would consider now writing a third version of The Favored Son, one that marries the two previous attempts in the way I have described. I may still try it at some later date.

Here’s what I will do for now, though. I am about to write the climax of my second version, and I will try to inject into it some of the magic from my first attempt. Keep your eye out for that on Thursday!

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Thirteen

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

After finishing he finished the preparations for dinner, Tharol returned the poisoned bottle of wine, seal firmly reattached, back to the cellar. Then he carried the pots and pans out of the kitchen and to the scullery to help Golu finish with the cleaning.

The hardest thing to do now was keep a calm demeanor. He had to act as if today was just like any other. He couldn’t start acting jittery, that would make Inol and Beesk suspcious, and Reis, and Master Palthio. He had to pretend that he was totally duped, completely unaware of all the other threads being pulled around him.

Fortunately, cleaning the pots was a good way for him to get his anxieties out in a not-so-obvious way. He scrubbed at them as vigorously as he could, letting the jitters work out through his fingers as he went. In no time at all he and Golu had the task done and made their way up to the main hall to ring the bell for dinner.

A few minutes later and all of the boys were gathered together at the table. As before, Tharol avoided making eye contact with anyone, too afraid of what he might betray if his gaze was held for too long.

“Golu, I hope you don’t mind my saying, but this dinner is beneath your usual standard,” Master Palthio said as he took a bite with his fork and a little sip of wine. Tharol tried to hide his anxiety deep down. “I’m not sure what it is,” Master Palthio continued, “just everything is a little off-taste.”

“Oh…” Golu said blankly. “Sorry.”

Tharol breathed an inward sigh of relief. He didn’t want Reis to hear that he had swapped chores. That would be unusual for Tharol, and the last thing he wanted was for Reis to know he had been behaving unusually.

Master Palthio shrugged. “Just an observation, Golu. Don’t worry too much about it.”

He then turned to address the boys as a whole. “Well, I suppose we had better get things ready for the evening, don’t you? Golu, Bovik, you’re on evening watch, go relieve Janeao and Avro so that they may have their meal. Then we’ll–“

A strange expression fluttered over Master Palthio’s face and he leaned back again. He looked up to the ceiling, as if waiting for something to pass. Then small spasms started to pass over his face, symptoms of an irritating, recurring pain.

“Master?” Bovik asked, concern in his voice. “Is everything alright?”

“I–well–I’m not so sure.” Master Palthio brought his head downwards and kneaded his brow with his hands. “I have these strange spasms coming over me. I thought they would pass after a moment, but–” he winced sharply as the pain spiked.

“Master!” several of the boys cried as they leaped to their feet.

Palthio’s quivering hands clutched at his stomach and his face contorted into a painful grimace.

“Golu, you’ve given him food poisoning!” Bovik cried.

“But I didn’t even–“

“Don’t be stupid, Bovik!” Tharol sharply interjected. “We’ve all been having the same meal. This looks worse than food poisoning to me. We need to get a doctor!”

“No, I–” Master Palthio began, then suddenly lurched his head back away from the table and retched violently onto the floor.

“Get him a bucket!” Reis cried.

A few more heaves and Master Palthio had deposited his entire meal on the floor. He slumped back in his chair, exhausted, but he looked like he finally had some reprieve from the pain.

“I’m alright, boys,” he said faintly. “I’m alright. I’m just going to–going to need some rest. If a couple of you could support me back to my chambers I think I’ll turn in.”

All the boys moved forward to help, but Bovik and Golu reached him first. Each of them took an arm around their shoulders and the three of them ambled towards the Southern Wing where Master Palthio’s chambers waited.

Tharol turned to the remaining boys: Beesk, Inol, and Reis. The very last people he wanted to be alone in a room with right now. Inol and Beesk were nearest to him, and the two of them turned to face him, each bearing the same stupefied stare. Behind them Reis also made eye contact with Tharol, silently gesturing to the other boys with a cocked eyebrow.

Tharol would have liked nothing more than to lunge at him. Now he knew exactly what Reis had done with the wine he stole!

“Reis, did you want to clean up the mess,” he said, his voice came out strangely high-pitched from the anger he was trying to suppress. “Why don’t the rest of us circle round? Do a sweep of the area and make sure everything is secure? We can’t afford to have any vulnerabilities while our Master is unwell.”

It was a thin excuse, but everyone present saw it as a cover-up for different reasons. Reis would assume that Tharol was suspicious of Beesk and Inol and wanted a moment alone with them to get to the bottom of things. Beesk and Inol would assume Tharol wanted to check whether anyone had accidentally brought their poisoned wine to the table. As such, everyone nodded in agreement and Tharol, Beesk, and Inol made their way out to the courtyard.

“To the cellar,” Inol hissed as soon as they were out of earshot of Reis.

The three of them took the long way around the barracks, and soon they were crouched down among the bottles, swinging lamps overhead.

“Look at this!” Beesk exclaimed. “One of the bottles is broken. The other’s still here though.”

“Have the seals been tampered with?” Inol asked.

“Let me see…no…they’re both still secure.”

Each of them looked quizzically back to Tharol to see what he thought.

He paused for a fraction of a second, debating whether he should play this off as if he were relieved. He could just say that whatever had happened to Master Palthio…it didn’t look like it could be related to their poisoned wine. But no, he decided. That was not what they would expect from him.

“So what if the seals aren’t broken?” he demanded. “All that proves is that no one else used the wine. So it had to be one of us! And why’s that one bottle broken? Someone poured out a glass and then shattered it to hide the fact it was running low?!”

“Now you hang on just a second!” Inol fired back. “Are you trying to suggest one of us poisoned Master Palthio?!”

“Perhaps I am!”

“Why would we do that?” Beesk protested. “That doesn’t help us at all.”

“Makes him that much less likely to get involved in things tonight, doesn’t it?”

Inol sighed. “Alright…I see your point Tharol. But I don’t know what to tell you. I didn’t poison it, I trust that you two didn’t, so what else is there to say?”

“Yeah,” Beesk chimed in. “I thought you were more trusting than this Tharol.”

Tharol sighed and made as if he were taking their arguments in. That was good enough. “Alright,” he finally said. “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway. What’s done is done…I’m just going saying there better not be any more surprises tonight!”

“We’re all on the same page there,” Inol reassured.

“We should get back before Reis starts getting suspicious,” Beesk said. The other two agreed and they quickly returned to the main hall. Reis wasn’t there, though, and Tharol didn’t like that. He hadn’t considered when he left with Beesk and Inol that he was leaving Reis alone to do whatever he pleased yet again.

“Well…you two make sure everything’s ready for tonight,” Tharol said. “I’m going to check on Master Palthio.”

As soon as he was apart from the other two Tharol started sweeping the grounds, glancing through each window and round ever corner for any sign of Reis. He scolded himself for having not realized that Reis would have had some nefarious intent for the poisoned wine he stole. He wondered if there were any other poisonings likely to occur. At first he thought no, because no one else at the table had become sick, but maybe Reis had figured that would look too suspicious. Maybe Reis had other traps meant for all the rest of the order. One thing was for sure, Tharol wouldn’t be taking a drink of anything for the rest of the night, nor indeed leaving himself alone in a corner.

With that thought Tharol took in his current surroundings and realized he had already done exactly that! During his search he had ambled into the corner where the barracks met the storage. He turned himself around, just as the barracks door flung open in front of him and Avro, Bovik, and Janeao came storming out.

“There he is!” Bovik cried and the other two boys spread out so that the three of them could move at him in a pincer movement.

“Hey, what is this?!” Tharol exclaimed.

“Come with us,” Avro ordered. As he spoke each of the boys drew knives out of their cloaks. “Just come with us and you won’t come to any harm.”

Tharol backed up until he hit the wall. “Are you guys crazy! Put those knives away!”

“It’s alright, Tharol,” Bovik soothed. “We don’t want to use them. We will if we have to, but we don’t want to.” He turned to Janeao. “Throw him the rope.”

The three boys halted their advance, but remained in an alert, defensive stance. Janeao stowed his blade, reached into his tunic, pulled out a length of rope, and flung it through the air to Tharol’s feet.

“Tie your hands,” Bovik instructed. “We won’t come any closer while you do. After that we’ll put away the knives and all go to Master Palthio. Nice and simple, see?”

Tharol picked up the rope. It was coarse and rough.

“What is this, Bovik?” he asked quietly. “What’s going on?”

“We know what you did, Tharol,” Bovik sad softly, even sadly. “The game’s over, alright? We know all about the poison.”

For the first time Tharol noticed the jug of wine fastened to Avro’s belt. He wasn’t near enough to see the broken wax seal, but he was sure it was the one Reis had taken, the one that had been used to poison Master Palthio. No doubt it had been planted somewhere that would incriminate Tharol.

Reis was taking care of two birds with one stone.

“Alright,” he said, then twisted his hand around the end of the rope and swung it out like whip! The other boys ducked to the ground just in time to dodge the flail, and while they were down Tharol surged forward, leaped over Bovik’s crouched form, and sprinted for the courtyard.

Just as he passed the edge of the barracks a dark blur rushed at him. Golu slammed in from the side and threw Tharol to the ground! For a moment Tharol lost consciousness, then awareness came back slowly. He remained dazed for a few minutes, only vaguely aware of the other boys binding his wrists with the rope and carrying him off to Master Palthio. He was in for it now!

Part Fourteen
Part Fifteen
Part Sixteen

On Monday I spoke about the use of suspense in a story, and how it is brought about by letting the audience anticipate a dramatic fallout that the characters, themselves, are oblivious to.

Thus at the end of my last chapter I had Tharol increase the toxicity of the wine to a point that it might be lethal for Reis. I realize that today’s chapter might feel like it then distracts from that element of suspense by focusing more on Reis’s schemes, and how he is removing Master Palthio and Tharol out of the picture, but I have a specific reason for having spent some time here.

In the next section Tharol will remain incapacitated. He is the only one that can prevent Reis from drinking that poisoned wine and now he will be physically incapable of doing so. The wheel has been set in motion and the only one that can call out a warning has been removed. I believe that this will accentuate the tension in the moment where Reis finally does take that wine, but setting up for it required me to briefly shift the focus elsewhere.

In the next section I will ramp the tension back up around the poisoned cup, by pausing around his moment of actually drinking it, making the audience wonder if he will go through with it or not.

I promise that we’ll get to this moment of catharsis soon. This story has extended much longer than I had originally anticipated, but now I am down to the last three chapters. At this point I would say I am close enough to the end to compare it to the original version of The Favored Son, the version that strayed into a different path than I had originally intended. I want to share how well this current attempt has done at meeting my original vision, and how I feel about the two stories compared against one another. I also want to identify why I feel the first one went off into such different waters to begin with.

Come back on Monday as we dig into all of that, and then again of Thursday to finally see the fuse reach the bomb in The Favored Son!

Keeping You In Suspense

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The Fuse)

Last summer was the first time my son appreciated holiday fireworks. Before then the suddenness and the loudness of them were just too overwhelming. During those earlier years I noticed that there was a particular part of setting off a firework that filled him with the most dread, and it was not the explosion at the end. It was the fuse fizzling before the boom.

Once the actual eruption occurred he was usually fine. Then he could see that it was only a small shower of sparks coming out, and he knew there wouldn’t be anything too overwhelming. But before that moment of realization, to his young mind anything might come out of that small cardboard tube. No matter how many assurances we gave him that we had only bought “small ones,” he remained unconvinced until he could see it for himself. Thus at the lighting of the fuse he wasn’t yet sure that he was safe and now it was too late to halt the process!

The master of suspense in cinema, Alfred Hitchcock, hit on this very same point. He once said “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” There is an excellent example of this in his movie Rear Window. In this film’s nearly two-hour runtime there is almost no action from beginning to end. But there is plenty of burning fuse.

Our main character, Jeff, is stuck at home with a broken leg, snooping on the neighbors in the apartment across the courtyard. A certain one of those neighbors starts showing a series of suspicious behaviors, leading Jeff to believe that the man has killed his wife. At one point he sees an opportunity to uncover incriminating evidence, but as he is stuck at home with a broken leg his girlfriend (Lisa) decides to carry out the mission for him. The fuse is lit.

Jeff makes an anonymous call to the neighbor, telling him he knows what he did and organizes a blackmail meeting. Jeff has no intention of actually meeting the man, but it gets him out of the house while Lisa breaks into his apartment and finds a damning piece of evidence. But of course she discovers it just as the man returns back home!

The fuse is very hot now. We’re all anxious for the explosion that is about to follow. At this moment that fallout might hold anything, including a second murder. We watch helplessly as Lisa hides, the man finds her handbag, searches for, and finds her! He starts drilling her with questions and she tries to make a break for it, but he grabs her and turns off the lights! All the way to this moment nothing decisive has happened, but we are withering at the burning of the fuse! As before, so long as it continues to burn, any gruesome outburst is still on the table.

But then the explosion doesn’t happen. Jeff called the police at the first sign of the man returning home and they arrive just before Lisa can meet a violent end. At this point violence didn’t really have anything more to add to the film. The terror had already been maximized by the long suspense.

I have tried to implement this same idea of the burning fuse with the most recent post of my story. In it we already know that Reis is planning to betray the order, but we are left wondering as to how. Any outcome is possible right now, and we have to wait to see it.

How To Wait)

Alfred Hitchcock also said that “suspense is when the spectator knows more than the characters in the movie.” And this is true of that same scene in Rear Window, for we see the man coming up the stairs to his apartment before Lisa knows that he has returned home. That, in fact, is the moment where the suspense burns the brightest, even more so than when he is actually having his altercation with her. She is ignorantly wasting her last possible seconds for escape because she doesn’t know what’s about to come through that door and we don’t have any way to warn her.

But how to include this ingredient of suspense in The Favored Som? The most obvious choice would be to reveal Reis’s plot to the audience before Tharol uncovers it. Then Tharol could ignorantly walk into the snare, all while the audience squirms in anticipation. But I didn’t want to go that route. Thus far Tharol and the audience have uncovered each piece of the truth together, and I didn’t want to break that balance.

What I realized I could do, though, was invert the element of suspense in this story. Instead of the audience knowing about Reis’s trap, and Tharol being oblivious, I could make the audience aware of Tharol’s trap, and Reis would be oblivious. And thus I wrote the scene of Tharol increasing the dose of poison in the wine.

At this point Reis doesn’t believe that there is any poisoned wine remaining. He has no reason not to drink the cup that Beesk and Inol will bring to him. And as he toys with that cup I think the audience will enjoy a sense of anticipation for what it about to follow.

Because anticipation is the positive counterpart to suspense. Where my son used to see the fuse burn and was filled with dread of the unknown, now he bounces excitedly, anticipating that same unknown. It’s the same basic idea, it’s just inverted from fear to excitement.

Suspense is a powerful tool in how it keeps the audience on the edge of their seat. It works best by suggesting to the audience that something dramatic will happen, something that the characters involved are unaware of, but while still leaving an air of mystery as to what exactly the coming fallout will look like.

With my next post I won’t get to payoff for all this suspense, though. First I’m going to ratchet up the tension with a twist that will be as surprising to the audience as it is to Tharol. My hope is that this will make the anticipation of the poisoned cup raise even higher in the chapter after that. Come back on Thursday to see what you think.