The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

“Alright, and that just leaves the fabric, firewood and mangos. Which do you want to get?” Tharol glanced up from the list of needed supplies.

“Fabric,” Bovik said first.

“Mangos,” Beesk smiled. “Of course.”

“That’s fine,” Tharol shrugged. “I don’t mind carrying the wood.”

“Alright, well I’ll meet you back here in half an hour,” Beesk grinned and started to walk away.

“Wait! Aren’t you forgetting something?”

Beesk narrowed his eyes, unsure of what Tharol meant.

“The money?” Tharol reached into his side-pocket and drew out the cloth bag that Master Palthio had also entrusted to them.

“Oh…right…no, don’t worry about it Tharol. I’m alright.”

“But…you have to pay…”

“Yes, I know. I have my own means.”

“From where? We don’t have an allowance or anything.”

“You know, you’re right. And I’ve never liked that, have you?” He looked sympathetically to Tharol, then to Bovik.

“I guess I never really thought about that,” Bovik shrugged.

“The other guard posts pay their acolytes, you know.”

“They do?”

“Yes. And tell you what,” Beesk clapped each of the others on the shoulder like a considerate, big brother, “you let me take care of the mangos and you go pay for the wood. Then you can keep the rest of the money for yourselves. If anyone deserves it, it’s you two.”

Tharol and Bovik were stunned into silence, which gave Beesk just enough opportunity to slip away through the crowds.

“Well what was that all about?” Tharol asked incredulously.

“I don’t know,” Bovik shook his head. “And since when does Beesk talk like that?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like–it was like he was talking down to us!”

That was unusual for Beesk. He was both one of the youngest in the order, and also one of its biggest fools. Generally he was a hapless follower, not a condescending master.

“Oh well,” Bovik shook his head. “I guess we can worry about it later. I’ll take my money, Tharol.”

“Of course,” Tharol brought himself back to the matter at hand. “Just enough for the fabric, you understand?”

“I know!” Bovik shot back indignantly. He took the money and walked off in a huff.

Tharol stared after him, feeling guilty for having said that, wondering if he should call out an apology. And it was that moment of distraction which made it all too easy for a young pickpocket to reach up, snatch the dangling money purse out of Tharol’s hands, and dash for the nearest alley!

“Hey!” Tharol cried, and immediately snapped himself out of his reverie to give chase!

He pitched himself forward, so far forward that he nearly fell on his face! His legs made up for it by accelerating to their maximum speed as quickly as possible. Tharol kept his eyes locked on the thief’s curly, brown hair bobbing through the crowd up ahead, never losing his focus on it as he wove around the mass of bodies with practiced skill, inch-by-inch gaining on his quarry.

The youth turned into a nearby alley and Tharol thundered right behind. His stamping feet echoed loudly off the nearby walls, alerting the thief to how near the pursuit was.

The thief gave a single look over his shoulder as he reached the end of the alley, then made a sharp right turn onto the next.

He looked back to see if he had time to hide after making that turn Tharol thought to himself. He’s hoping I’ll go barreling down the next alley and pass him by.

And so Tharol wasn’t surprised when he took the same sharp right turn found no curly, brown head running ahead of him. Tharol slowed to a stop, and instead regarded the sacks stacked against the nearby wall. They appeared to be filled with grain, and stood over four feet tall, more than enough to cover a crouching youth.

He took a careful step careful towards them, but kept his legs on tight springs, ready to give chase once more if the thief suddenly darted out. He took another step. He reached the nearest pile of sacks, and rocked back and forth on his toes, as if preparing to spring up and look over the top of them to the other side.

But in the air he changed it up, tucked his knees to his chest, and kicked out against the wall of grain. He connected with a heavy impact and the whole wall started to collapse backwards! There came a shout of surprise from the other side and the brown, curly-haired thief emerged.

It was a boy about two years younger than Tharol, with a roving, slightly manic look in his eyes. He fixed his unblinking eyes on Tharol, stolen moneybag clutched tightly in fist.

“Give it over,” Tharol demanded. “And I’ll let things go this time.”

The boy lunged at him, swinging the bag of money like a small mace. Tharol flinched backwards, dodging out of the way, then gave a push to the boy’s wrist as it passed him by. The combined momentum spun the boy round and Tharol gave the back a firm kick so that the boy was went sprawling into the toppled sacks of grain.

“I said–” Tharol began authoritatively, but in an instant the boy was on his feet, facing back the right direction, and charging into the fray once more! This time he swung out with his other hand, and Tharol saw a flash of metal in the boy’s grip. A knife!

“Oh, come on–” Tharol sighed.

The boy swung the blade wildly back and forth with no technique at all. Tharol waited patiently, watched for the next time that the boy lashed outwards, leaving his front entirely unguarded. Then Tharol casually stepped into that space and gave a slight punch to the throat. The boy recoiled in shock, hands clasped to his neck.

“Now see here,” Tharol took a step forward, but the boy jabbed out yet again with the knife. Tharol easily grabbed the limb between his hands and gave it a sharp twist. The boy gave a sharp cry of pain and dropped the weapon, though Tharol had been careful not to dislocate the shoulder.

The boy was sprawled out in submission now, and Tharol easily grabbed the money bag and yanked it free. Finally he released the thief, who started to scuttle away, muttering dark oaths under his breath.

“Not so fast,” Tharol said, reaching into the money bag and quickly counting out the coins that had been meant for purchasing the mangos. “Take these.” He threw the gold out onto the ground.

The boy hesitated, as if expecting a trap.

“Go on, take it! And maybe think to ask for help next time, instead of stealing!”

The boy hesitated a few moments more, eyes still locked on Tharol in distrust. But all at once he scrabbled in the dirt, picked up each coin, then ran down the alley, disappearing into its murky shadows.

Tharol watched the dark corner that the boy had disappeared into for a few moments more, shaking his head back and forth. He took a deep breath, turned, and started to make his way back to the market. He hadn’t gone more than five steps, though, when he heard a voice tsk-tsking behind him.

Startled, he spun around and saw a tall, lanky man nestled into the corner where the two alleys ran together. There was no other entrance by which he could have entered without Tharol seeing, so…

“You’ve been there the whole time?” Tharol demanded incredulously.

The man shrugged. “Found a nice corner for my afternoon nap…’til you two come along and noisy the place up.”

Tharol slid his money bag back into his side pocket, uncomfortable with the notion that a stranger had just seen him throwing a handful of gold around.

“That was a mighty strange thing you just did there,” the man squinted, “giving that boy half of your money after working him over!”

“I don’t care if it was strange,” Tharol huffed, not in the mood for idle conversation. “Anyway, it’s none of your business and I’ll be off now.” And so saying he turned to go sulk down the alley.

“Especially strange for a guardsman I would say.”

“Well why did you say that now?” Tharol spun right back around.

“Oh, hello again. I thought you were heading off.”

“I am. Just tell me what you meant by that,” Tharol demanded.

“I don’t think I meant anything by that. Don’t be so touchy.”

“Because it sounded like there was a derision in it, and if there was one you might as well say it plainly to my face.”

“No derision at all! Believe me, I can understand the desire as much as anyone else to get ahead. Your sort have a lot on your plate ‘protecting’ all the rest of us. So I suppose you’ve earned the right to–shall we say–flex your advantage now and again. No one says you’ve done wrong.”

Tharol legitimately had no clue what the man was saying, but was still pretty sure there was a lot of insinuation in it all.

“Do you mean–do you mean to say that guardsmen are being dishonest? Taking advantage of their station somehow?”

“Ehhhh…now this is getting curious. If you don’t mind my asking, are you new to your order?”

“Two years in.”

“Ah. And you haven’t noticed–well, never mind, forget I said anything.”

“No! That’s it, isn’t it? You’re saying you know guardsmen that are somehow using their office for gain, aren’t you? What is it, then?”

“You really don’t know? You’re really that innocent and naïve? You’ve really been two years in your order and haven’t already seen?… Haven’t taken any of the opportunities yourself?” With that last question the man raised a single eyebrow in a highly skeptical manner.

“No! Of course not! How dare you! Why–not that it’s any concern of yours–but the reason I gave those coins to that boy was because they were meant as a bribe and I wanted nothing to do with that!”

“So you say you haven’t seen anything suspicious at your order…but here you were carrying bribe money?”

The man had a point. Indeed, this was a large part of why Tharol was feeling so agitated. The man was hitting directly on the discomfort he had already been feeling from Beesk’s behavior.

Five minutes later and Tharol was hidden in the upper alcoves of the marketplace, watching Beesk joking around with the merchants. They talked like old friends as Beesk helped himself to their wares without ever a coin exchanged between them. He not only filled his satchel with the assigned mangos, but also selected a fine quill, a brass button, and a fried pastry, securing these prizes in his cloak’s inner pocket.

“They know each other,” Tharol observed. “This isn’t him exercising some advantage over them it’s…an arrangement.”

“That’s right,” the slender stranger nodded next to Tharol. “And you really didn’t know?”

“I had no idea. But what is the arrangement?”

“Think, boy. What’s the only thing a guardsman has to offer?”

Tharol frowned in confusion. Guardsmen had no valuable possessions, no influence or power. All they dealt with was watching the gates and keeping them…closed.

“These are outsiders?!” Tharol said so loudly that the thin man frantically moved his finger to his lips. “Sorry,” Tharol hushed his voice. “The other guardsmen are letting outsider merchants in?”

“The market is so weak outside of the City, barely any more than crude bartering. There simply has not been any sovereignty that has prevailed long enough to bring stability to the economy.”

“So bribe a guardsman? Tell him that he can have free wares if he’ll let you pass into the city?”

“A mutually beneficial arrangement, wouldn’t you say?”

“But what about the risk of invasion? It’s rumored that there are still enemies to the city out there!”

The thin man laughed. “Oh it is not merely rumors. Trust me. There are many enemies. Why that is the one banner that the outside hordes can still rally behind. And you can be sure there have are a number of spies that have slipped in among the merchants.”

Tharol stared down at Beesk in shock. How could the youth be so selfish? So willing to advance himself at the expense of the entire populace? Well, Beesk would be held accountable for it, that much was sure! Just wait until the other boys–

Tharol’s eyes went wide with a revelation. “But…none of us guardsmen watch the gate alone. We always watch in groups of three or four.”

“Yeah…so?”

So were they all in on it? Was there not a single honest guardsman at their post? At any post?

“And what of the Masters over the towers? Surely they should have started detecting what was going on by now?”

“Um…yeah,” the thin man said as if this was obvious. “You think it’s only the acolytes that do this?”

Then…perhaps even Master Palthio?

Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine

On Monday I spoke of timing in a story, particularly during a scene of action. I recommended using short, direct sentences, which can be read in the same amount of time as the moment they describe would take to transpire in real life. In addition I mentioned that the brevity of these scenes does not mean that they should lose their expressive, evocative tone.

With today’s section I experimented on these methods during the fight between Tharol and the thief. It is only a short scene, but for a quick, alleyway brawl that was exactly what it should be, just a few, decisive blows that take about as long to read as it would take to watch.

And as for descriptive prose, I made sure to use adjectives that conveyed the technique and attitude of each boy during their scuffle. Consider the following lines:

Tharol waited patiently, watched for the next time that the boy lashed outwards, leaving his front entirely unguarded. Then Tharol casually stepped into that space and gave a slight punch to the throat.

Tharol is described with phrases like “waited patiently,” “casually stepped,” and “gave a slight punch to the throat.” It is clear to the reader that he is calm, collected, and precise. The boy, meanwhile, “lashed outwards” and left “his front entirely unguarded.” He is untrained, blustering, and prone to error. I don’t have to delve into technical jargon or complicated mental diagrams to get the reader to picture this fight accurately and expressively.

All in all I was quite pleased with the turnout, but then I ran into some trouble immediately after. For this scene quickly transitions to Tharol’s conversation with the thin stranger, and I found it difficult to make that change smoothly.

As I reflected on the reason why, it was because I was still in a mode of writing the sentences in a short, abrupt manner, which was now at odds with the more leisurely cadence of a conversation. Like Tharol, I was still a bit flushed from the rush of combat, and needed to calm myself down.

There was an important lesson for me in this, all about how to not just throw away a bad piece of writing, but to examine it and understand why I wrote it the way you did. That way I can be more purposeful in my next attempt, rather than randomly scribbling things out in the hope that one of these iterations will happen to feel right.

I’ll take some time to examine this in greater detail with my next post, and also share the specifics on how smoothed out the transition of the two scenes in this chapter. Come back on Monday to read about that.

The Toymaker: Part Three

antique armor black and white chrome
Photo by Mike on Pexels.com

 

Part One
Part Two

But what a life!

Much to the drummer’s surprise, he did manage to prolong it minute-by-minute. It seemed that he had broken a spell by having successfully hurled that lump of coal into the furnace; now he found that he could do it again and again. Sometimes he still missed, and then he had to jab with the pole while the foreman screamed at him from behind, but those failures were quickly becoming more and more infrequent.

And despite his fear that the mountain of coal would never be exhausted, it did in fact grow smaller and smaller until it was no more. It took a very long time, but it happened. And then the second mountain diminished until it, too, was no more. The team was sent back to their barracks to rest. The drummer hung his head down sadly. He had barely survived that one work session, and was sure he would not be able to make it through another.

And yet he did. It was still a back-breaking, nerve-wrenching ordeal, but he did come out alive after the second workload many hours later. And he made it past the third. And the fourth.

And the more he survived, the more his nerves began to be numbed. It wasn’t a calm tranquility that he had found, far from it! It was that as each of his nerves fired in rapid succession, eventually they scorched out so that he couldn’t register them anymore.

And though there were no mirrors for him to see himself, somehow he knew that his face must be becoming more gaunt and hollow, just like that of all the other workers. He was wearing the same lifeless mask that had so troubled him when first he came into this place.

He tried to repeat to himself the reason for it all: to raise money to buy the dancer’s freedom. All of this would be worth it when he was free and she was free, and then they would get back to things just as they had been before. To raise money. To buy the dancer’s freedom.

After what seemed like an eternity he did get paid. Two small discs, as promised. All of the other toys took their pay to a murky corner of factory housing for pleasures the drummer did not understand. None of that for him, though, he simply stowed both discs under the cot in his room. After a second eternity he was able to add another two discs. After a third another two.

And then, after an eternity of eternities, he had lined the entire underside of his bed. Surely he must have enough money to buy the dancer’s freedom now? But how to go about this whole process of “buying?” Thus far he had avoided speaking to the vacant souls around him, but it couldn’t be avoided now.

“You wanna do what?” the ventriloquist dummy asked with one eye closed and a cocked head.

“I want to free another toy. A dancer.”

“Sure…only you say you don’t know where she is, or who to pay, and what exactly to pay them to do…just that you want ‘them’ to help you somehow. Did I get all that right?”

“I…well I thought so, but…really I don’t know anything about anything, I’m afraid.”

“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.”

“Can you tell me what I should be doing to fix this?”

“Sure, easy. Forget about her.”

“Oh I don’t think I know how to do that. I think about her all the time.”

“Listen, kid. All my life I used to say you should only worry about yourself, anything more is just an anchor on your soul. Then I came to this place, and you know what, worrying about yourself is too much, even. So now I say let go of everything. You and I might die tomorrow and that’s just it. Might as well die without worries.”

“I’d rather die thinking about her.”

The dummy sighed and kneaded his brow. “You know what, I’m not going to worry about it. Your money, you do with it as you please. If I find you a contact, someone who can help you out with your problem, then you’ll let me be?”

“Oh yes, I promise!” the drummer nodded enthusiastically. “You really mean it? You promise you’ll help me?”

“I don’t do worries, and I don’t do promises. But I’ll try and find someone. Give me two days.”

And that was the last the drummer ever saw of the dummy. And the last he saw of his money. When he came back from his next work shift both were long gone.

“Have you seen a ventriloquist dummy around here?” he asked the knight who stood guard at the factory exit.

“Sure, he came through here just a bit ago. Lucky bloke had enough to buy his passage.”

“His passage?”

“You know, his freedom. The freedom they tell all of us we can buy if we save up enough for it. Course it isn’t but one-in-a-thousand that actually can.”

“Our freedom for what?”

“You know. To leave.”

“What? I can’t leave?”

“Are you serious?! You really don’t know? Of course you can’t leave. You’re a slave! All of us are.”

“You too?”

“Me more than any other! Because I’m the slave that keeps the rest of you trapped. If it weren’t for me standing guard here you’d all be escaped already.”

“Why do you stand there then?”

“You mean why not take a bribe, let some of you out, and then run for it myself? Oh I’ve thought about it. Any guard who tells you otherwise is a liar, and some of them have even tried it…” The knight lowered his voice and leaned in very close. “But then I saw what happened to them after they were caught–and believe me, all of them were caught. So maybe one day when my plastic’s all rubbed off and I can’t feel anything I’ll cash in and take that final ride, have my fun and then pay my last dues. But that day isn’t today.”

The knight nodded in a carefree manner, but after a moment looked down despondently. “Oh, who am I kidding?” he asked. “I wouldn’t even know what to do with a ‘final ride’ anyway. When you’ve been here as long as I have, there’s nothing waiting for you out there anymore. That’s the real reason I don’t ever run.”

“If you were out there, you could help me find the dancer and get her free again. I think you’d be a lot better at that than I’ll be by my myself.”

The knight perked up at that. “A quest, eh? It’s been a long time since I looked for one those. And with another military man, even! I say, that would be a dream!”

“You needn’t run away for it, though. I can save up enough money for both of us to get out.”

The knight scoffed. “Well, I’ll believe that when I see it.”

“And when I do, you’ll come with me? You promise?”

The knight’s helmed head shifted about awkwardly. He didn’t want to raise any false hopes, least of all in himself…yet he was unable to deny the thrill of its call.

“Listen, sir,” he said firmly. “I feel obligated to tell you that I don’t believe you will succeed. I’m sorry, that’s just how it is. But who knows, maybe you have a force of will like I have never seen in this place. And if you do, and if you manage to save up enough discs…well then yes, I do promise. I would gladly pledge my sword to one that had such self control as that! I would not rest until we had won your woman’s freedom.”

“Oh good. I’d much rather have your help than anyone else. There is one thing, I’m afraid if I save up that many discs people will just keep taking it from me. Do you have a place I could leave them.”

“You would trust me with them?”

“Yes. You promised.”

And that was that. Every week, when the drummer got his pay, he brought it straight to the knight, who in turn led him to a quiet aisle lined with lock boxes. The knight had a key to one of them, and disc-by-disc the drummer built a small mound of wealth within. It was, of course, a very long and slow process, but the drummer remained as committed as ever. To him it didn’t matter how long anything took, so long as it was the thing he had to do.

A few months later, after the drummer had saved up about a quarter of the total funds needed, the mound seemed to start growing of its own accord. Each time the drummer came to make his deposit, he could swear that the pile was larger than when he had last seen it. At first it only grew by an extra disc or two, but each week the rate of growth increased. Not only with the same small sized discs that the drummer was paid with, either. Now and again there were medium sized ones, and even one or two larges!

“Where do you think these are coming from?” the drummer asked the knight one day.

“Not a clue,” the knight said quickly. “I guess you’re just lucky.”

Eventually the mysterious additions outnumbered those made by the drummer, so that there was enough to buy both his and the knight’s freedom, and in half the time he had anticipated.

And then, one quiet day, the two of them were standing before “the accountant” holding sacks bulging with their fortune.

“And you attest that you came by all of these funds honestly? The ordinary accrual of your assigned work wages?” the accountant asked.

“Yes, all of it,” the knight said. “Of course you can look up our pay rates and how long we’ve been here to verify that the sum checks out.”

“Oh, I already have,” the accountant said silkily. “And yes, it is…conceivable.”

“I don’t even know how to come by funds that aren’t ‘honestly,'” the drummer offered.

“That is true,” the knight vouched. “He doesn’t.”

“Hmm, well I suppose I have no reason to deny your purchase. Though I am authorized to double your rates if you wanted to open new contracts…”

“Not a chance,” the knight said. The drummer took his cue and shook his head emphatically.

“Suit yourselves,” the accountant pulled two pieces of paper over to him, scribbled at their bottom, then pounded them with a large, rubber stamp. “Show these to the guards at the gates and they will let you through. I assume you know the way?”

“Of course I do,” the knight said.

And so they returned back to the knight’s old post, where his fellow guards stood in wait. There was a strange look between them as they saw their old comrade pass through the open doors. A sort of wishful longing, a stirring of things long since repressed.

The knight also paused a moment in the doorway, and looked back at his home of many years: a wide, empty chasm stretching eternally like a void. He had no love for it…but it was a part of him, and he would feel its absence.

Not the drummer, though. He gleefully strode out into the sun, squinting up at the blinding orb. It hurt him to see it, but it was a hurt that felt good. Yes he was still in this dreary town, and yes he still missed the dancer terribly. But he was getting closer to her now. Closer to being back on the right way. He reached down to his sides and pulled up his long-forgotten batons. They were blackened by soot and chipped all around, but they would still serve him. He pounded out a marching rhythm, and at once the knight snapped out of his reverie and hastened to follow the beat.

Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven

 

After some unfortunate missteps our hero is back on track again. I mentioned in my last post that I expected audiences to be made uncomfortable by the drummer’s naivete. He has continually made mistakes that were painfully obvious to the rest of us, and he continued to do so today as he confided in the ventriloquist dummy.

But I wanted to pair those moments with a more positive take on ignorance. I expect readers will find charming his youthful wonder at the pile of discs “magically” increasing of their own accord, and also how he does not understand the meaning of dishonestly obtaining money. The fact that he is so unassuming and so innocent makes him endearing.

This whole sequence within the factory was a side detour in our hero’s journey. Detours such as this are quite common in stories, though some of them are handled better than others. With my next post I would like to examine what the function of such straying is, and how it can be utilized without having the story entirely lose its way. Come back next Monday for that, and then on Thursday we’ll pick things back up with the drummer and the knight.