One of the most common metrics people use when deciding the quality of a story is how it makes them feel. A story that makes one feel more is considered better than a story that makes one feel less. Interestingly, we even appreciate the stories that make us feel deeply negative emotions. A tale that ends in tragedy instantly seems to have an air of greater maturity and significance about it.
Obviously the most efficient way to bring great sadness to a story is through the death of a main character. This can give your readers quite the shock as well, because stories often reflect life the way we feel it is “supposed to be.” The two lovers come together, evil is defeated, and peace reigns supreme. So when a wrench gets thrown into this happy formula and a main character leaves their artificial world prematurely, we feel pretty shaken up.
When dealing with such powerful elements, though, authors need to exercise the utmost of care. Any craftsman can tell you that a very powerful tool can accomplish very powerful things, but only when it is used in the right way.
In my opinion our core emotions, such as fear, love, joy, and grief are powerful, sacred things. Because of their power it is easy for us to get addicted to them, and we may start looking for artificial ways to produce them. Authors should not be so profane as to take advantage of such readers.
Authors should instead take great care that they do not activate these core emotions without meaningful intent. It is fine for a story to evoke powerful feelings if it has a worthy point to communicate in the process, otherwise the story is disrespecting the sanctity of these feelings, likely to make a quick buck.
Meaningful Character Death)
Therefore it is important that if a character is to die that it feels appropriate. A big frustration of mine is when a tale shoehorns in a character death simply to try and give itself an importance that has not been earned.
The 1950 film Cheaper by the Dozen features the antics of a family with twelve children. That family is quirky, to say the least, and much of the drama is based around their simultaneous love and embarrassment of one another. It’s a charming film, sprinkled with little provincial wisdoms throughout. “No person with inner dignity is ever embarrassed.” And then, at the end, the father suddenly dies.
Nothing in the film has been leading to this moment and nothing significant is obtained by it. Really it just feels like the story didn’t know how to end and figured a gut-punch was as good an option as any. Rather than landing with the intended gravity it instead just gives the film a disjointed experience.
An important writing rule you should live by is to never pen a plot point for the sole purpose of eliciting a specific emotion. You should never kill a character only to make the reader sad. When a character dies it should happen because it is fitting, because it is right for their arc, because it brings a satisfying closure to the whole.
Of course, for every rule there is also an exception. Consider the most classic sad story of them all: Romeo and Juliet. This story doubles the ante on most tragic endings by closing with the death of not just one, but two main characters! When we look for the narrative meaning to their deaths, though, we come up short. Their deaths seem senseless, the result of a mistake, and devoid of any point. And that, ironically, is the point. These deaths should not have happened, and that is the great tragedy of the story. When hatred kills love there is no closure or satisfaction to be found. Thus we are sad, but we are sad meaningfully.
If there is any plot device that can elicit a more powerful reaction than a tragic death, it must be the death that is also a sacrifice for some greater good. Sacrifice affects us on a level so deep that it seems to be sacred. We are moved by it, even if we do not fully understand why.
Once again, though, with such potent power there also comes a great risk of horrible misuse. The absolute worst way to employ sacrifice is to dilute it with overuse and cheap manipulation. Consider the stories that repeatedly pretend they are going to sacrifice a character so that the audience feels sad, only to flip the script at the last moment so that now the audience feels relieved at the character’s survival. It’s tawdry and manipulative.
Sadly, there are many stories that do exactly this. You need not look any further than comic book plots or old cowboy serials to find a deluge of this trick. The hero “dies” for their cause and everyone feels very, very sad. Then, suddenly, the hero comes back, and they were never dead at all. They were too tough to die, or too wily, or maybe just too lucky. As I said in my last post, this gimmick is one of my greatest pet peeves in stories. You might be forgiven for trying this once or twice, but stories ceaselessly repeat this stunt in a way that insults the intelligence of their audience.
This isn’t to say that a doomed character cannot be saved in a way that doesn’t feel cheap. A week ago I mentioned the Disney animated film Hercules for its portrayal of a hero fighting an uphill battle. This also happens to be a story where the main character intends to sacrifice himself but is saved by divine intervention, all while still respecting its audience’s intelligence.
You see Hercules only survives because he is sacrificing himself. His great dream is to be reinstated as a god, but is told that he cannot until he achieves the status of a “true hero.” Unsure of what that means, he continues along his way and ultimately comes to love a woman who dies and is taken to the underworld. He makes a deal with Hades to exchange his life for hers, fully intending to carry through with the bargain. It is that act of sacrifice, one which carries on right to the moment that the fates cut his thread of life, that defines him as a true hero. He becomes a god in the very moment of his demise and survives his own death. Not because he is tough, or wily, or lucky, but because he was willing to give his all for what is right.
Perhaps one of the greatest tales of sacrifice though is the one story I’ve mentioned more than any other on this blog. In A Tale of Two Cities Sydney Carton is hardly the character one would expect to be a martyr, he is a drunk and a cynic, a man of great potential that has squandered it all in purchase of misery and regret.
In the last chapters, though, he sees his chance to trade his life for that of the man he envies most, the man he feels he could have been. By carrying through with this sacrifice and bearing that man’s death it as though he has also earned his life. He becomes calm, confident, and content, and wishes for no more. In return for paying the ultimate price he reclaims not one, but two lives that day.
That idea of reclamation is truly at the heart of sacrifice, and stories can provide a duality of emotions by it. If a martyr wins the hearts of others through their own death then there can be triumph through defeat, and happiness in the same moment as sadness. That makes for a very fascinating narrative experience, and I’m going to try and capture it with my next short story. This Thursday I will post the first part of that story. That first portion will not include the actual act of sacrifice, but it will introduce us to the character that has been consigned to die for the greater good.
Khalil spun around in surprise and found Paki peering into the hut, his eyes locked on Urafiki.
“Yes,” Khalil grinned. “It is soothed, well fed, and resting. It will not eat you today.”
“I am grateful” Paki laughed back as he stepped fully into the home. “Am I disturbing you now?”
“No, Paki, in fact I’ve wanted to speak with you.”
“About the challenge?”
Paki shook his head. “I do not see why you are so hesitant about it. Who else would you have stand with you? I am the finest warrior in all of the camp, everyone says so.”
“I would say so, too,” Khalil sighed. “But I would also say that one man against two makes for difficult odds. By that I mean no slight to you.”
Paki waved dismissively. “Did you not hear how I fought two Oroko at once in their last raid?” He folded his arms impressively and assumed the boastful stance he always used when recounting battlefield glories. “I used my disadvantage to my advantage. You see, I let one of them–”
“Stab you in the arm so that you could reel him in with your other hand,” Khalil finished. “And then you could dispatch of the other in one-on-one combat. Yes, I know the story, Paki…. Everyone in the camp knows the story, just as everyone in the camp knows how you fight. Abasi has even sparred with you!”
“And I have sparred with him!” Paki added forcefully, frowning at the stings to his pride. “You really believe that I could not defend you?”
“You would protect me too well! Even if it cost you your own life.”
Paki nodded slowly, his frown turning into contemplation. “I see now. And you are right, there is a great risk in this.” He nodded his head in deep thought, then spoke with conviction. “But…this is also what is right. You being our chief is right. Protecting my friend is right. This is the honorable fight for me, and it is the natural order of things that that which is honorable comes with great risk. All the more glory that follows it as well.” This last part he added with a broad smile. “I do wish to earn my calling as head warrior after all.”
Khalil grimaced and shook his head. “Is it right for me to be chief, though? Suppose you could defeat Abasi and whomever he chooses for his companion, what would happen then? Abasi has raised great support these past months, and his death would not be taken well. It could mean civil war for our tribe.”
“And what of us who support you? If you were to fall we would rebel against this coup.” Paki made a spitting noise, but did not actually desecrate the floor of his friend’s hut.
“If you did then you would be rebelling against me, as well!” Khalil snapped and fully spat on the ground. “I am going to ask–I am going to order–all those loyal to me to accept what I have already accepted. We must choose the better compromise here, and the better is that I die quickly and the tribe loses neither its best warrior nor its unity.”
“And serve Abasi? The man is a fool!” Tears were forming in Paki’s eyes. It was impossible to tell if they were of sorrow or anger.
“He will need all of the help you can provide,” Khalil admitted, “I need you to be there for him.”
Paki did not respond, he only hung his head downwards with his eyes closed, tears seeping from them.
“Paki I am now a chief, and though my legacy may be short, let me at least have this one choice to do what is right for the tribe. And for you.” He stepped forward and raised his hand to place it on Paki’s shoulder. But Paki heaved backwards and out of reach, staring up at Khalil with a deep wound. He held the gaze for a moment and sniffed angrily, then stormed out of the hut without another word.
Khalil’s hand was still suspended in the air, but slowly he closed the fingers into a fist and turned back. He was surprised to see Urafiki awake, watching him from the basket. Urafiki was making a low growl in its throat, and its eyes were narrowed. Those eyes were not on Khalil, though, but on Paki’s retreating back.
The moon had already begun waning when Paki and Khalil returned to the camp, and now it seemed to shrink more quickly than usual with every passing day. Khalil had tried to catch Abasi’s eye a few times to see what lurked within, but the warrior was steadfastly avoiding him at all times. Khalil supposed that was gracious of Abasi, better to be ignored by him than to be publicly taunted.
More unpleasant was the fact that Paki was now avoiding him, too. When they had their feasts Paki would come for food and then carry it back to his hut. When they held their councils Paki would stare ceaselessly at the ground and never speak a word. The thought had occurred to Khalil that as chief he could demand Paki and Abasi to acknowledge his presence, but what would be the point of that? To satiate his pride? He would be gone before long anyway.
As promised, Khalil held a private meeting with the elders and warriors he knew to be most sympathetic to his cause. He thanked them for their support and then ordered them to respect the rituals and traditions of the tribe. If he was to fall, then preserving the community was what mattered most. Some of them tried to argue, but he merely held up his hand and revealed his intention to face the challenge unaided. The significance of that was clear. He would die, and if Khalil was no longer around for them to rally behind, then it would be hard to justify any rebellion.
Those supporters now avoided making eye contact with Khalil as well. Pleasantries would have sounded too hollow, so numb silence prevailed instead. When Khalil felt the loneliness become overwhelming him he would go back to his hut and be with Urafiki. Though their time together had been short, they had already developed a close bond. Khalil made a collar-restraint so that the creature would not be able to bite him when applying the poultice to its wounds. When it came time for the next application of the salve, though, he found himself hesitating to put the restraint on his friend.
Urafiki’s biting him was not unjustified from the creature’s perspective. How could it understand that he meant it goodwill with the stinging cure? If anything Urafiki was being quite forgiving, and it felt wrong to therefore suppress it. And so Khalil tossed the wood and string contraption to the side and administered the poultice to Urafiki’s hurt while bracing for the bite. It didn’t come. Urafiki raised itself up and hissed, but never latched onto Khalil’s arm as before. All following treatments followed this same pattern and soon Urafiki’s condition was markedly improved.
After a week the creature began to move around the floor of the hut, crawling on four legs like a dog. With the finger-like claws on its hands it could climb up onto Khalil’s table and cot, and at times would also raise up on its back legs. It could stretch up to three times its regular height, and in doing so revealed a long, spindly body beneath the bat-like wings that stretched between its joints.
Khalil had found the creature to be playful, its favorite activity being play-fighting with him. Generally this was initiated as he was ambling about the hut and Urafiki would bowl into his legs from behind, knocking him to the ground. In a flash Urafiki would move up to his chest and neck and hiss menacingly, pausing to let him grip it and throw it to the side. Then it would circle about and make another lunge.
Khalil was grateful that the creature did not try to venture out of his hut, any camp members who had caught a glimpse of Urafiki in his home had all hurried away, disturbed by its strange and somewhat sinister appearance. As such Khalil knew that the creature would have to return to the wild, and so it was that on the afternoon preceding the new moon he lifted Urafiki into his arms and hobbled out of the camp’s clearing, looking for a quiet clump of trees to meditate under.
“You won’t be able to stay here anymore,” he said while stroking Urafiki. “You have your strength back and now you must leave. I hope things go better for you than before?”
Khalil found a quiet corner of the jungle, and knelt down to meditate and pray. As he did, Urafiki paced around him like a sentinel. Khalil quieted his mind and connected with his core. As he did so, he was unsurprised to find a well of fear and sorrow bursting out over him. He had done well in repressing it these past days, but this consignment to death went too strongly against all his basic instincts. Khalil did not try to fight the torrent of tears and shaking, letting them roll over him in one successive wave after another. With each one he collapsed more and more until he was laying prone on the ground, fatigued by the surging emotions. The did not engulf him, though, rather they expressed themselves and then moved on. As their ripples slowly diminished he at last felt the quiet peace of their absence. There simply was not any capacity to grieve left in him.
The beating of the drum back at camp signaled that the sun had just begun to dip between the horizon. All challenges to the chief were to be made before it had set completely, and it was Khalil’s duty to be there to receive them. Wiping his face with the back of his hand he rose to his feet and staggered back towards camp.
Urafiki instinctively followed but Khalil shook his hand at it with a loud “Shah!” and it halted. It did not retreat though, only paused and transfixed with eyes of confusion.
“Live a long and happy life, my friend,” Khalil bowed, then continued his walk to the center of camp.
Here the beginnings of a bonfire were crackling and the tribe members were trickling one-by-one into the circle of its glow. Khalil nodded to the priest beating on the drum, and stood at attention on the circular rug at the head of the gathering. Already he could see a ripple moving through the crowd and Abasi emerged from their depths to approach him. Khalil closed his eyes, breathed in deeply, then looked to the man and nodded.
“Great chief,” Abasi saluted him, bowing low and then rising. “Though your rule has been brief it has been gracious. I want it to be known that I have no disrespect for your character.”
Khalil nodded blandly. Abasi meant no offense but he was come to kill him? What was he supposed to say to that?
“Even so,” Abasi continued, “may all the tribe bear witness that I come to deliver a challenge to Khalil, son of Kibali…”
“…on behalf of Paki, son of Jomo.”
There was another stir in the crowd as a second figure emerged from their midst. Paki was covered in full war paints and carrying two war clubs on his shoulder. On one end of them was the heavy cudgel, the other end was whittled down to a vicious point. Paki strode up to Khalil, meeting his gaze for the first time in days with harshly intent eyes. He held out one of the clubs to Abasi and gave only the shallowest of nods to Khalil.
“I challenge your right as ruler of this tribe,” he murmured in a low whisper.
Khalil was taken aback, but kept the surprise from his face. “Is this an honorable fight, too, Paki?” he asked coolly.
“We’re past that now.”
“Paki, son of Jomo,” the priest with the drum chimed in. “You have challenged our chief, and so there must be a blood duel. You cannot withdraw until one of you lies dead. You understand?”
“And you have chosen Abasi as your companion in this challenge?”
“Khalil, son of Kibali, you have been challenged. Who will fight as your companion?”
Khalil shook his head. “None stand with me.”
The priest sighed. “So be it.” He waved to the other priests and they spaced themselves out, pressing the crowd back to form an open circle with the bonfire at its center. Paki and Abasi backed away to one side of the circle and Khalil turned to another of the priest’s who had retrieved a war club for him.
“When I strike the drum the challenge will begin,” the first priest announced.
Khalil looked to Paki first, and then Abasi. Abasi must have known that the tribe would more willingly fall into line behind Paki, and he would still receive a promotion for his loyalty, probably be made head warrior. It made sense. And yet…. though it was a clever and rational betrayal on Paki’s part…it was still a betrayal.
Abasi and Paki advanced at him from either direction, Abasi hanging back slightly to allow Paki the honor of the kill. Khalil stood motionless, letting them advance. As Paki’s figure loomed nearer though he found himself gripping the handle of the club he had been given.
Paki stepped into a charge and raised his war club high. Khalil’s heart skipped a beat. Not out of fear, but of anger. He moved so suddenly he caught himself by surprise, swinging up in answer to Paki’s challenge. Paki was caught off guard by the motion and barely managed to transition his own attack into a block. He did not fully deflect Khalil’s blow, instead diverting it to his shoulder, where it connected with a cracking thud.
Paki roared in anger, easily ducked under Khalil’s next swing, and then swept Khalil’s legs out from under him. The world turned on its side and Khalil fell onto his back, hard. He was winded and dazed, and unable to hold onto his club as Abasi kicked it out of his grasp. Above him Paki was turning his own club over, pointing the sharp end down towards Khalil’s heart. Paki looked upwards, giving a war cry as he plunged the weapon downwards.
It never connected. To Khalil’s surprise a white blur streaked through the air and wrapped itself around Paki’s head. The warrior shrieked in surprise and lurched backwards, trying to grapple the blanket that had secured itself to his face. Suddenly he stopped his struggling, instead raising himself higher and higher, clear up onto his tiptoes, his hands limp at his side. It seemed as though he were in a trance, then suddenly the spell was broken and he collapsed down to the ground, dead. The white “something” spun off from Paki’s face and revealed itself to be Urafiki.
Khalil staggered back up to his feet as Urafiki slowly raised up onto its back legs, its arms dangling a few inches off the ground. It was hissing menacingly, with ears flattened back against the skull and mandibles were drawn back to reveal its gaping mouth. Its eyes were wide and bloodshot, staring intently as Abasi.
Abasi was clearly unnerved, backing away as Urafiki sidled side-to-side before lunging forward at him.
“No!” Khalil cried, lurching to the side just in time to intercept the creature. He wrapped his arms around the beast, but it was manic, scrabbling up and over his shoulder. Khalil fumbled at his waist, pulling out a knife and stabbing the creature in the side. Urafiki cried in pain and dug a claw into Khalil’s arm.
“Just stop!” Khalil ordered, but the creature was filled with the bloodlust and continued to writhe after Abasi. Khalil drew out the knife and plunged it again, rewarded with another gouge from the creature’s claw, this time in the side of his neck.
Urafiki gave a confused cry, but lurched once more for Abasi.
“I’m sorry,” Khalil gasped, finally burying the knife in Urafiki’s heart. The creature seized up in his arms, going rigid and then slowly limp. Khalil looked into its eyes, wild and wondering, then fading into emptiness.
As I mentioned in an earlier post about communication, it is essential for the audience to feel connected to the character so that they may share in the emotions they are feeling. I would imagine, and intend, that most readers will feel sorrier for Urafiki’s loss than Paki’s. In the bigger scheme of things that might seem unbalanced, given that Khalil and Paki have shared an entire life together, but the audience did not personally experience that history. Instead our window has spent more time on Khalil and Urafiki’s relationship and it has been a more positive one as well. Therefore I am able to steer the reader to giving that loss the far greater weight.
On Monday I also wrote about the concept of characters and plotlines subverting the reader’s expectations with a surprising reveal. I suggested in that post that usually a character’s actions are telegraphed well in advance so that their shifts and turns are expected. Paki’s betrayal would fall under that category, as I first show him being greatly distressed and then removed from Khalil.
Urafiki’s sudden involvement may not have come as too much of a surprise either, most readers probably assumed that the creature was going to get involved in the ending somehow. My hope, though, was that Khalil then slaying Urafiki would come as a shock. Urafiki was his friend and Abasi was his enemy, so it seems counterintuitive for him to do that. However I have tried to establish a trait that Khalil honors duty above friendship, and so hopefully it will still feel honest.
I also hope that Khalil’s surviving the challenge feels earned. Obviously I set him up as the underdog, and therefore needed him to come out of the ordeal by more unconventional means. That’s a common theme to stories, the hero who somehow manages to best the insurmountable challenge. I’d like to spend some time exploring that idea this next Monday.
Then, on Thursday, we’ll have the third and final piece of The Heart of Something Wild I’ve been working on this story right up to the final minute, and still felt that the closing segment needs to feel less rushed. Come back in a week to read that conclusion.
Robert remembered the moment he first met Lord William Gray distinctly. Lenny had just finished shoving the man into the mud and then stomped away, ordering Robert to lift him back out. William had fallen in face first, and with his hands bound behind his back he started to kick wildly for fear of drowning in the filth. Robert gripped him around the shoulders, pulled him up to a kneeling position, then helped support him as he rose to a stand.
After spitting enough mud to the side that he could speak again William gurgled out a “Thank you, sir.”
“You ought not talk back to the guards like that,” Robert gruffly reprimanded as he brushed the mud from William’s eyes and nose. He gave a glance to the guards in question, but for the time being the three of them were huddled around a map a few dozen feet distant. No doubt they were trying to determine which district of Cotswolds their party was lost in now.
“Thank you, again,” William repeated as at last his face was clear enough that he could open his eyes. He was tall, with golden locks that fell to his shoulders. He held himself in an upright and dignified manner, one that did not fit with his dirty station. “It was a matter of principle, you see. They don’t have the right to speak to me that way.”
“You’re a slave,” Robert shrugged. “You don’t have any rights.”
“Well, in the first case, even a slave has the common rights of all men, and in the second case, I’m not properly a slave either, you see I am–“
“Lord William Gray, I know. I heard. You were being quite emphatic on that point when they brought you in.”
“Hm,” William pursed his lips. “And what about your name, sir?”
“Please don’t call me ‘sir’ anymore, I don’t want them thinking I need a shove in the mud as well. I’m simply Robert.”
“And what is your surname?”
“I’m simply Robert.”
“Well, Robert, I am indebted to you. I won’t forget this, and I will repay.”
“I’m sure you will,” Robert said dryly. Then stepped back as the guards came back from their huddle to the line. They were called Lenny, Harry, and Bartholomew, and each of them bore the scowling mark of a man that maintained a constant hatred. This hatred was as necessary to sustaining them in their work as food and drink, for without it they would never be able to keep their consciences at bay.
“Now you listen,” Lenny spat as he grabbed William by the shoulder and cut the rope off of his wrists with a rusted knife. “I’ll have no more of your backtalk. You’re in a rough bind, I know, but I’ve bought you fair and square.” He pulled William’s hands round to the front where he tied them again, and then fastened the cord to a long rope. This rope ran the full length of thirteen slaves and held them in their line. “You see that I spare you the irons, at least until night? I make things as nice for you as I reasonably can. So don’t give me your guff. Save it for the master I sell you to!” He gave the knot he was tying one more tug, then turned and mounted his nearby horse, the one to whom the line of slaves was secured.
Robert was fastened to the rope directly behind William, and could see from the way his shoulders were rolling back that he was inhaling deeply, no doubt preparing to call a reply to Lenny.
“Don’t say it!” Robert hissed and William froze. “You’re part of the line now, and that means all the rest of us are liable to pay for whatever trouble you stir. I hate Lenny, but what he says is true. If you must fight back, wait until you’re sold off on your own and none of us will be harmed for it.”
William was still for a moment, clearly giving Robert’s words sincere consideration. “I understand,” he finally replied, keeping his voice low so they would not be overheard. “I do not intend to subject myself to these injustices, but you’re right that I have to consider all of you. You’re my brethren now, and I mustn’t do anything until I’ve convinced each of you to fight alongside me.”
Robert was spared coming up with a response to this strange declaration as Lenny urged the horse into a trot and the whole line of sorry souls lurched forward into their march. They moved at a pace somewhere between a walk and a jog, passing over one rolling hill after another. As far as the eye could see in each direction was nothing but long, green grass with the occasional sprinkling of bare, gray rocks to break up the pattern. Above them the sky was overcast by a multitude of thin, wispy clouds, diffusing the sunlight into a universal ambience. It might have been an lovely scene, were it being viewed by less dismal souls.
When Robert had first joined Lenny’s party there had only been three others, wretches whose masters had sold them off to cover debts, just as Robert’s had done. As they took a winding course through the hill-lands, their numbers had increased one-by-one until they now marched thirteen long. They were destined for the auction houses in one of the main cities, where Lenny, Harry, and Bartholomew would sell them at a decent profit.
Until this William fellow, all the slaves in their party had come in quietly. Years of servitude had long conditioned them to the rough manner in which they were treated, and the prospect of leaving one master for another was a familiar passage. But William was different. From the first moment Lenny brought him he had shown the signs of an unbroken spirit. He had proudly explained that he was in actuality a royal lord, waylaid on the road by a band of highwaymen, mistaken by them for a rich servant, and then sold into slavery at their hand.
Everyone in the party, slave and slaver alike, dismissed his story out of hand. The general consensus was that the poor man was insane, and likely it was for this condition that his prior master had chosen to sell him away. Where many of their band considered this a great source of fun and teased William for his sincerity of delusion, Robert could only shake his head in pity. He knew there must come a time where this dreamer would be forced back to his cruel realities, and Robert could not wish that crushing on anyone.
If Robert was honest with himself, though, it was not pity alone that he felt for the man. He could not help having a wonder and a fascination for him, too. At the close of each day, as they sat around their evening fire, one of their crew would invariably ask William for stories of his home and prior life. At first they had done this to mock him, but he spoke with such a fervor and richness of detail that it was impossible to not be captivated by the visions he spun. Night-by-night, the slaves’ faces became less cynical and mean, changing into something softer and longing. For a blissful hour they would forget their pitiful lives and saw the world of William as if in a trance.
They seemed to feel the summer wind blowing, fluttering out the red and yellow banner of his ancestors above their heads. They saw its emblem, that of a lion holding a long flower in its mouth. They lowered their eyes from its billowing form and found themselves on the parapet of a strong and imposing fortress. With William they passed the attendants and soldiers on either side, each bowing or saluting in turn. They followed him up the spiral staircase to the lord’s chambers at the peak of the tallest tower. They heard the din of workers below and the singing of the birds above. They smelled the perfumes and the salts from the bath, the starch and the dye from the laundry. They saw the wardrobe filled with rich and colorful garments, the complexity of design stitched into the thick rugs covering the floor. They felt the soft warmth of the feather pillows, the cold hardness of the his fine suit of armor’s steel.
Only one of the slaves remained immune to William’s magic. Jules had enjoyed listening to the stories at first, but after a time said it made him frustrated to hear dreams that could never be real. Fantasy made his reality unbearable, and so he would always excuse himself from the rest of the party when the tales began and brood elsewhere on his own.
It wasn’t as though William only offered intangibles to his fellow slaves, though. He was just as gracious with his daily food portions as he was with his words. He explained that the other slaves had not been properly nourished through life as he had, and so they needed the food more. Each time he would look them firmly in the eye and assure them that they would make it out alright. No one doubted that he truly believed it, and that he truly intended to share his better life with them all. Perhaps they were still not ready to believe William’s tales, but they did come to believe in him.
Though the three slave-traders heard bits and pieces of William’s lordly stories, they didn’t harass him any further than to occasionally make fun of his madness. William had kept his word and refrained from giving them any more trouble. That proud defiance never dimmed in his eye, but he held his tongue at their jeering. In fact he seemed to be saddened that they chose to be his enemies rather than his friends.
William’s intended rebellion never came to fruition either. Although William had gained the slaves’ appreciation, he was not any closer to winning their fighting spirit. A failing he admitted to Robert one night after all the others had fallen asleep. At night the line lay on the bare ground in their marching order, still tethered to the line though now with iron fetters. As William and Robert were neighbors in the line they would often hold whispered conversations as the others drifted out of consciousness.
“I know I have to take this next step alone,” William was saying. “For a while there I had an ambition of us all raising up together and overpowering our captors. We outnumber them by ten, after all, but I have come to see that this isn’t in your nature to do.”
“Well of course not!” Robert shook his head. “We may outnumber them, but they’re still armed and we are not. Even if we were to overpower them, some of us would die in the effort.”
“Yes,” William nodded solemnly, “and I would be the first. But I would do it.”
Robert scoffed. “Then your escape attempt wouldn’t do you any good, would it?”
“Would I not be free then?” William smiled. “And my people would be free, too.”
“Who?… Oh, you mean us?”
“Of course. As I said before, you are my brethren. You are all of you of the House of Gray now.”
Robert just smiled and shook his head. “I must admit that being of the House of Gray still feels pretty drab right now.”
“You joke tonight, but soon you will see. The time of our liberation is soon upon us.”
“Oh?” Robert asked in amusement. “How soon?”
William grinned, raised his iron shackles up to where Robert could see them, gave a tug and the lock sprang open! Robert started, and snapped his gaze over to the fire around which the slave traders spent their nights. All three were still asleep. “What are you doing?” he hissed.
“I had a moment alone with the fetters the other day and stuffed mine full of grass. The lock can’t catch properly.”
Robert stared at this revelation. “But what are you doing?”
“As fortune would have it, I know these lands. These brutes have been leading us straight towards my very home, the one I’ve told you all about. It isn’t even a full day’s journey ahead. If our overlords see it as I have described and realize that I have been telling the truth I’m sure they will be very moved, though probably not towards doing me any kindness! My only chance is to get away tonight.”
Robert grimaced. “William, please don’t do this. You’re just going to die out there on your own.”
“I know you don’t believe me, Robert. I forgive you for that. But I’ll be restored to power within twenty-four hours and come back for you all! I’ve been gone long enough that the servants have likely abandoned the homestead, but there are enough hidden treasures in the place that I can immediately hire mercenaries and free you. Then all of us will live in my halls and we’ll build the House of Gray anew!” There was a joyful fire in William’s eyes, an excitement to at least be at his moment of action.
But Robert could not match his enthusiasm. “William, in spite of my better senses I really do like you. And honestly I do want to believe in your tales. Even without the promise of being a part of your court, I just like to imagine that such a place as you describe is really out there somewhere…. But dreams only have a place in us when we don’t get lost in them.”
William smiled in pity. “So you assume I am mad and off to my doom. What of it? Let me go, then. It is my choice.”
Robert nodded. “I suppose you have that right.”
William grinned broadly. “A slave has ‘rights’ do you say? Perhaps I’ve made a change in you yet! And that’s why I trust you with what I must ask next Robert. Listen to me close. I make a new man of you, I have that right as well. No longer are you to be ‘simply Robert,’ I pronounce you Robert Gray.” William lightly touched each of Robert’s shoulders. It would have been comical were his face not so sincere. “And I am entrusting you with these people until I return. Take care of them and follow the example I’ve set for you. You are my steward until I return.”
In spite of his doubts, Robert’s eyes grew tearful. Whether it was madness or not, something long too still in his heart stirred at the calling.
“Now see to this, I have born your shackles and I have broken them,” William proceeded. He reached down and pulled Robert’s wrists up to eye level. “By which I mean: I stuffed grass into your fetters as well.”
“Just in case. Don’t worry, they won’t notice, you can’t even tell there’s anything different until you give them a sharp tug.”
Robert turned the lock towards him and saw a few telling blades of dead grass poking out from the metal.
“But listen,” William continued. “I must leave now. Will you take this charge to care of the others?”
“Alright, William, that much I can manage.” He nodded. “And who knows? You’re a crazy fool, perhaps, but you also also seem to have luck on your side. You may survive yet!”
“I intend to.” With that William gave him a wink, then began crawling away from the line. He moved as stealthily as he could muster, making for the declining slope at the edge of the plateau where the party currently slept. Robert watched the retreating form, and for a brief moment a part of him entertained the idea that maybe the man really was a lord. Whether crazy or honest, one thing was certain. William simply didn’t belong with a crew as wretched as the rest of them.
“MAN ESCAPING!” A shrill voice split the silent dark. Down at the end of the line Jules had risen to his feet and pointed accusingly at William’s retreating shadow.
“No!” Robert roared, but the damage was already done.
Lenny, Harry, and Bartholomew were on their feet in an instant, and had fully apprised the situation after another. Lenny barked at the other two to remain with the line as he sprinted towards the nearest of their horses.
William didn’t even glance backwards, but upon hearing the cry rose to his feet and sprinted full speed, now disappearing down the edge of the plateau.
Lenny threw his leg over the horse, and reached down to its side, pulling out a sword that flashed in the moonlight. He dug his heels deep into the horse’s sides, eliciting a whinny of protest, but then the beast obediently charged forward.
By now all of the slaves were on their feet, motionless as they watched horse and rider drive past them and down the same slope William had gone over. After a moment William returned to their view, a dark form streaking across the large valley that extended ahead. It was a field, open and bare, with nowhere to hide. Though his situation was hopeless, William continued to run, leading further and further away from the camp as now the horse came into view and quickly closed the distance.
As Lenny charged past the fugitive his arm could be made out swinging, catching the form of William with the shining sword and felling him to the ground. William’s body lay still on the ground for a moment as Lenny hauled back on the reins, drawing the horse to a stop. As Lenny dismounted, the prone figure began to lift and fall, haltingly trying and failing to push itself back upright. Lenny advanced purposefully, raised the sword, plunged it down, and stilled the body forever. There was no cry, no flash of lightning to herald the moment, yet all the slaves felt a tremor within and bowed their heads mournfully. All but the traitor at their end.
It was certainly not my intention to publish half of a short story this week, after all on Monday I already examined the series as a whole and meant for today to wrap it all up with a nice bow. The more I tried to cram the full tale of The Noble into a single post, though, the more it became apparent that it needed more space to breathe.
However I see in this an opportunity. I think this idea of feeling out the needs of a story, whether it needs to move along at a snappy pace or whether it needs to simmer, is something we ought to look at in greater detail. As such, I will examine this idea in greater detail on Monday, and then a week from now provide the second half of The Noble and really conclude this series.
The wall’s entire surface was covered by a nest of cables and wires, some as thick as a thumb, others as thin as a strand of hair. Each of them was drawn towards the center and then inwards to some hidden destination.
“Hello,” he said again, and at his voice all of the fibers began to unfurl, sliding over one another to clear a way for their inner core to pass through their midst. Leading with her silver face, Ayla emerged from the center, her eyes blank and empty as her memory banks rebooted. She was fashioned of finest chrome, each piece custom-fit together in stark contrast to Kael’s eclectic construction of spare parts. All along her back, from her head to her foot, the immense web of cables and wires ran into her, leaving a flowing train behind at all times. Her hands were thin, with fingers so narrow they might be broken off at the slightest pressure. The grace she moved with was not required by her function, it was merely a serendipitous fluke in her intricate design.
Her memory banks finished replenishing themselves and she acknowledged the stranger before her. “Well hello there,” she said with a cheerfulness that, again, was not required by her station, it was simply a side-effect of who she chose to be. “What can I do for you?”
He cocked his head curiously at the question. “Well I don’t really know. What can you do for me?”
“Oh… you didn’t come to access the annals? No I suppose not,” she laughed kindly at the uncertainty on his face. Her face then took on a somewhat bland smile as she recited what was clearly a memorized definition. “Well, I’m the terminal to access all data that has been stored in the universal data registry. It is constantly updated both with information captured by surveillance sensors in each region, as well as manual entries into its library of Observation and Extrapolation… But if that’s not what you came for, what was it that brought you to my access point?”
He shrugged. “It just—somehow seemed familiar.”
“Familiar in a good way?”
“Well…” he considered, “yes, I would say so.”
“I’m glad,” she truly looked it. “I guess we’re friends, then.”
“Just like that?”
He thought for a moment, but it couldn’t find any reason. “Friends then!” he chirped excitedly.
She beamed at him. “Do you have a name, friend? I’m Ayla.”
“Ayla” he repeated, a strange recognition seeming to pass through his circuits. “And I am Kael.”
“Pleased to meet you Kael…this is our first time meeting, isn’t it?”
“I think so, at least on this plane anyway?”
“On this plane?”
His eyes contracted as if seeing something far in the distance. “I don’t know why, but I do believe there are other levels of existence, and cycles of time and experience.”
“Oh?” she said enthusiastically, apparently not perturbed by the strange admission at all. “That’s a belief that calls from within you?”
“Yes,” he said, focusing his eyes back on her. “You defined that quite well, actually.”
She nodded. “It’s because I have one like that, too.”
“A belief in another world?”
“Well—that’s one I had never thought of before, though I do like the sound of it—what I had meant though was that I believe in a second heart.”
“A heart vessel that is. I have one of my own, though I don’t know why. I’ve read my schematics and there’s no call for it, yet I have it all the same. It really is wonderful, it helps me to feel and enjoy so much more of this world than most automata are capable of.”
Kael considered this pensively. “I think I would like to feel more.”
“Oh, but you could. That’s what I mean about my belief that a second heart is out there. I can feel my own sending out a calling signal, and I can’t see why it would do so if there weren’t another to answer it one day. Maybe when I find the other it could be yours and we would both have one.”
“What would we do then?”
“Whatever makes us happy together. Like this,” she held out her hand and wrapped her fingers around his.
“What is this?” he stared at the gesture awkwardly.
“Touching. Isn’t it nice? Try curling your fingers around mine now. That’s right.”
He stood for a moment in silence, a bashful smile spreading across his face. “I don’t know” he said awkwardly and let go of her hand. Although he had not perceived anything special in the experience while it lasted, he couldn’t help but notice a sense of disappointment as it ended. “How about we try it again sometime?”
“Of course, Kael,” she laughed. “Whenever you’d like.”
“Ayla, why do you know how to build all of these things?” Kael asked as she instructed him where to solder the new husk they were working on.
“I’m connected to a whole library knowledge of information, aren’t I?” she stroked one of the cables running from her neck. “Sometimes I just spend hours perusing it and learn all sorts of things. There hasn’t been much else for me to do after all.”
“I suppose so. I’m sorry I haven’t been around all the time.”
“It’s alright, I know you have your own functions to fulfill. We all do.”
“But I would rather my functions kept me here.”
“You would?” she said gratefully.
“Of course, I like it better when I’m here.”
“I’m glad, Kael, I like it better, too. And one of the wonderful things about a heart vessel, it lets you define your own functions.”
“Oh, that’s good,” Kael said awkwardly, the same awkwardness he had each time she mentioned the possibility of him getting another heart vessel. Of late she had wondered whether he had become disenchanted with the idea, but if so he never outright expressed it. “Of course,” he said slowly, still developing an idea in his mind, “you could have more company already if we were able to activate all these automata.”
“Well yes, I thought that was the idea.”
“I mean, even before we have that second heart vessel available. Perhaps we could get them activated now.”
“Well, you know to build so many things, perhaps you could build some sort of network linker. Something that could let one being power all similar others as an extension of itself. Then only a single root activating stimuli would be necessary”
She was puzzled at the specificity of his idea, it seemed as though he must have been developing this idea for a while, but here he was trying to play it off as a new thought. Instead, though, she simply asked “And what would that similar attribute be?”
“We would find one.”
“Hmm, so all of these husks would come to life as drones?”
“Essentially, and they could be with you when I can’t.”
Ayla paused for a moment. “But I’m not looking for others to be with me. I want you to be with me, Kael.”
He smiled and reached out to take her hand. “As you said, perhaps when I have control of a heart vessel I’ll be able to redefine myself that way. But for now, could you look into whether that device is possible?”
“You’re really serious about it?”
“I’ll look into it, then.”
“Look, I made us a new friend!” Kael beamed enthusiastically, his hands on the shoulders of an automaton.
“You made this?” Ayla said with a mixture of awe and confusion.
“Well this was one of the husks that we built together, you remember, but I got it self-actuating.”
“I found another animating stimulus. I’ll tell you about it later, but it does have its limitation, as I think you’ll quickly see.”
“Can he speak?”
“Yes, mostly. Go ahead Cee.”
“You are Ayla?” Cee piped up.
She smiled warmly to him. “That’s correct.”
“And you possess the heart vessel?”
“Yes,” she said slowly, a little confused that that would be its second question.
“I am Cee,” he pointed to himself.
“So I see. And what is your purpose?”
“He’s here to keep you company,” Kael spoke in quickly, “and assist you with your work. He doesn’t have to go anywhere, so whenever I’m not around he’ll be able to stay and help you.”
“You needn’t make him my servant,” Ayla laughed. “Tell me, Cee,” she craned her head down to look him directly in the eye. “What would you choose your purpose to be?”
“What would I choose?”
“To follow a preference, that is to choose something,” Kael explained.
“Such as to prefer not to be reverted back to a lifeless husk?”
“I suppose so, though that’s a very somber thought!” Ayla exclaimed. “But you can choose more than to just continue existing, Cee. You can choose things to make you feel happy. Choose things that you like.”
“But—what do I like?” Cee wondered aloud.
“That’s for you to choose.”
Cee’s eye began to contract and Kael realized he was following another recursive loop. “Stop! Stop!” He cautioned, “That’s a non-terminating cycle again.”
Cee shook his head lightly. “I do not believe such cycles are logical.”
“You might be surprised,” Ayla smiled, “but you have time to figure it out.” Then, turning her attention to Kael, “He certainly has a unique way of speaking doesn’t he?”
“Yes, as I said, he has some limitations. It’s possible he may learn nuances with time.”
“And you’ll learn what you like in time, too,” she turned back to Cee. “I’ll help you to find it.”
“I can stay with you?”
“Yes, if you want.”
Cee looked to Kael who nodded, and then he walked over to join Ayla.
“There is another in this one, too,” Cee announced, turning the open chassis so that she could see the parasite larva nestled inside.
“None of the first generation, over half of the second, and almost all of the third,” Ayla recited aloud. “I wonder how they got in.”
“Got in?” Cee queried. “That phrasing would suggest they were the active entity in being placed within the husks.”
“Well of course. How would you phrase it?”
Ayla paused as the meaning and its attending extra meaning sunk in. “But I didn’t put them in,” she said quietly.
“Of course not, seeing as you were unaware of them.”
“Kael must have.”
“Why would he?”
“That is unclear,” Cee closed the chestplate of the husk he had been examining. “Though the only reason to do something in secret would be to deceive.”
“How dare you!” she suddenly shouted. “Kael’s not a liar!”
Cee’s gears spun, trying to make sense of the spike in emotion from her. “What is wrong in my logic?”
She glared, but slowly her face softened. “I’m sorry, Cee, it isn’t your fault. Your mind works differently from mine.”
“How does mine work?”
“Coldly,” she said, though without bitterness.
“Is that worse?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is it better?”
“Cee, I don’t know!”
A pause, then “How can I help you to be less distressed right now, Ayla?”
She smiled at his stilted attempt at thoughtfulness. “That’s alright, Cee, it’s not for you to solve these things.”
“Frankly? You don’t have what I need.”
“Perhaps. One day.”
Cee thought about this. He had been parsing her reactions and understood that she probably did not want to continue this conversation. Still, he decided it was appropriate to pursue one last matter.
“Kael does have it, though?”
She considered before answering. “He’s closer.”
“And that is why it is so hard to hear me make accusations of him? I am sorry, I had not considered that. I will be more careful in the future.”
“It is hard, but you don’t need to censor what you say to me, Cee. It’s up to me to receive what you say fairly… Just for now, though, why don’t we talk about something else?”
Cee watched as she lowered the device into the center of the beacon’s concave underside.
“How close would it need to be?” she asked.
“It will draw power from the beacon once it has been activated,” he responded, “and should be able to fly out as far as an arm span.”
She nodded grimly. There were no worries with range then. She slid the outer panels along the frame’s grooves, snapping them into place and bringing the device to its completion. During this construction she had had the dexterity of the work to keep her mind occupied, but now that they trap lay in front of her the magnitude of what she had done crashed over her like a wave.
“This is wrong,” she shook her head.
“If the alternative is that he destroys you—”
“Then maybe I should let him!” she interrupted fiercely.
“Let him?” Cee repeated in utter bewilderment.
“I don’t know how to explain it to you, Cee,” she shook her head. “It’s something I don’t think you can grasp. But—we made a promise to sustain and even give our lives to one another. I made that promise because I love him, and I still do!” She clenched her fists and dug her nails tightly into her palms to disseminate some of the tension mounting in her. “If he wants to collect on that promise, I don’t know that I have the hate to break it.”
“If he comes to collect,” Cee began slowly, “he has already broken his end of the promise. Has he not?”
She buried her face in her hands and trembled a little. “What if we’ve read it all wrong anyway? What if we’ve just misunderstood him? He shouldn’t lie, but what if the lie is for something irrelevant?”
“If you would rather I be the one to administer the device to him, I completely understand.”
Her had snapped out over the device and it rapidly disassembled itself into her arm receptacles. “Only I have the right,” she strained firmly.
Cee nodded. “Perhaps you are right and we have misread him,” he offered hopefully. “And then he may never even come asking for the device. All will be as it has been before.”
She smiled grimly. “I’ve built it, Cee. That’s enough. Things will never be as they have been.”
Cee didn’t understand, but he knew it helped her when he nodded anyway, so he did so.
Ayla watched Kael’s retreating form for as long as she could. A slight twitch began in her hand and as he distanced farther her every chrome plate began to vibrate and shake. She was quaking as she stood, her motors spinning forward and back simultaneously from conflicting commands. There was a voice raging within her that she must call out to him and save him. It insisted that if he meant to wrong her, yet she could not do him any wrong. It would be better to seal her love with her own death than to save herself by destroying him. Him over her, that had been her promise, hadn’t it?
Of course another part of her had long since concluded that this was nothing more than him falling upon his own sword, a sword by which he meant to do destroying of his own. It would be his own choice to wield it, and his own folly that push him onto it. If that was what he chose, well he deserved all that followed that decision. Even now he had the freedom to recant if only he would decided to do so.
But as the two raged within her something cracked and from that a third voice arose. Her trembling quieted into perfect stillness as she realized it did not matter. She simply didn’t care anymore. Her diminishing had begun and she wasn’t going to be around for either resolution. Things were broken, and her heart could no longer send its signal in search of its other. She finally exhaled. No shrieks of anguish, no explosion to rip the air. No thunderous bell to ring in the end of the world. Life didn’t end in the crash, it ended in the silence of an engine stalled.
On Monday I shared a post which included a section about the role of a love interest in a story. In that post I suggested that generally a love interest is meant to represent the complement to the hero, all the good things that the hero is not, and that this is based off of our natural perception of being flawed, incomplete human beings. In this short piece I attempted to emphasize that idea with designing both Kael and Ayla as incomplete characters, ones that possess the attributes that the other needs to be whole. Kael lacks the passion and the will that Ayla holds, while Ayla craves a relationship where she can both love and be loved, a need that can only be answered in Kael. Of course, in this short piece, that fundamental incompleteness is to tragic effect, as the complementing union that these characters require can’t seem to connect, and thus frustrates them in all of their purposes and breaks Ayla’s heart.
At this point we have taken some time to cultivate each of our characters in the story of Revelate. We have seen examples of a villain, a hero, a mentor and now a love interest. Each of these has their own unique function and their own miniature story. With all of these arcs and functions defined, it is then the task of the author to take all of these threads and weave them into one great whole. That will be the focus of my next post on Monday, and then on Thursday we’ll undertake that exercise by compositing together a completed version of this Revelate story. I’ll see you there.