September 26, 2011

A Shot in the Dark

An Excerpt from [Untitled Work of Fiction]

Rael was suddenly aware that he was being followed. He turned to look over his shoulder and barely ducked out of the way of a large object swinging toward his head. The blow caught his shoulder and sent him sprawling. He tucked his head and rolled, grabbing at his belt for the hunting knife as he sprung back to his feet. He could barely make out the shapes of his attackers lunging at him. Before he could unsheathe the small weapon he received another blow to the stomach, doubling him over. Fighting to maintain his balance, he threw a punch in the direction of one attacker, missing completely. A torch was lit, and Rael saw that he was surrounded.

Two men grabbed Rael by the arms and held them outstretched despite his desperate struggling. A third, armed with the torch and a wooden club, stepped in front of him, eying him like a stray dog. One of the others spat and muttered "We got him good and tight, boss. Give him the treatment!"

Rael shot back defiantly, "Let me loose and I'll show you a treatment, man to man! Then we'll see who's got who!"

Their leader brandished his club and scowled. "Stow your tongue, you snot-nosed whelp. This will not be a pleasant-"

The assailant barely had time to look down at the white-feathered arrow protruding from his neck before slumping to the ground in a lifeless heap. Raels' other two captors loosened their grasp momentarily as they spun towards the direction of the attack, giving Rael the chance to lash out at one with a strong kick to the knee, sending him down howling. The other faltered, caught between predator and prey. An instant later he too sprouted an arrow and fell with a grunt. Rael turned back to the first wounded man who was struggling back to his feet and delivered another vicious kick to the head, knocking him out cold. The whole struggle had lasted only seconds.

Rael turned in the direction of the arrows' origin, aware that there was little he could do if the invisible marksman chose him next. Warily, he called out. "Who's there?" For a moment nothing happened, then he made out a smallish shadowy form strolling silently towards him. The figure stopped just outside the dying glow of the embers from the torch, which lay nearly snuffed out on the ground. A low, hushed voice  accompanied the silhouette. It was rough but devoid of emotion and gave Rael the impression that it was disguised. "You picked a dangerous town to go wandering about in the dark, Sentinel."

Rael blinked, unsure how to respond. The stranger either was still shooting in the dark, or somehow knew more than Rael was comfortable admitting. He decided to ignore the accusation, hoping it was a bluff. "Who are you? Who were they?" he demanded, gesturing at his dead and wounded assailants sprawled at his feet.

The figure tensed, and the voice took on a slightly mocking tone. "I'd expect fewer questions and more gratitude from someone who was just saved from certain... unpleasant treatment."

Rael checked his attitude and bowed his head in respect. "I'm sorry. Thank you. It seems I owe you my life, and that I will not forget."

The stranger returned the bow, and though Rael could not make out the face he was sure it was grinning at him. "Consider it a debt repaid. My comrade told me of how you **SPOILERS** sprung him from prison in Zendar. He will not forget that, either."
Rael gasped. "Borcha! You're a friend of Borcha! But what do you mean- comrade? Who is he, really?" **SPOILERS**

The stranger nodded, but looked around before responding. "It's not safe to talk here. That much you must know. Follow me, and I'll answer all of your questions when and where we're safe." With that, the figure spun around and nearly disappeared into the night before Rael could set his feet into motion. Quickly the two wound their way noiselessly through the darkened city, leaving no sign of their passing.

After several minutes, just when Rael was sure they were both lost, the stranger stopped short in front of a rough wooden door set in a nondescript stone wall. From somewhere on the other side, Rael could hear conversation and mild revelry. It was some kind of inn or tavern. His new companion rapped sharply several times on the door, which opened to reveal another shadowy figure- this one large and imposing. The two nodded in greeting to each other, and Rael's guide whispered something and motioned at him. The doorman nodded again and stepped out of the way, allowing them both to pass.

The door was closed and bolted behind Rael, leaving him fumbling in almost complete darkness. The sounds of business were louder in here, but he could see no sign of their origin. He then heard the strike of flint on steel as the doorman lit a candle. As the flame cast out its feeble light, Rael took in his new surroundings.

The three stood in a small back room, a storage closet by the looks of it. Sacks and boxes were piled around on the floor, and the walls were covered in shelves containing all sorts of items. A stack of wine barrels rested in a corner.

The doorman was a tall, muscular man with a shaved head. Rael guessed his job was to keep trouble away, but he looked friendly enough towards the two visitors. Rael looked back to his new companion, hoping for some answers. Besides a bow and quiver, the mysterious marksman wore a simple leather jerkin and arm wrappings under a light cloak. The face was still hidden in shadows beneath a deep hood. Then the stranger drew back the hood, and Rael gasped. The marksman was no man at all- it was a young woman!

September 11, 2011

10 Years Later

Woke up to a brand new skyline
We licked our wounds and mourned the dead
Swallowed the story, hook and sinker
Is this what we meant, when we said
That we never would forget?
Those are the opening lines to "Broken Lungs" by Thrice, a mournful song reflecting on the damage inflicted on September 11, 2001 and our collective reaction. I've been thinking a lot lately about that day, but more about the days since.

I don't want to politicize tragedy, but as we commemorate the tenth anniversary of that terrible event we must consider why it happened and what we have done in response. On 9/11 we learned that America was not invulnerable. That we had enemies who could and would do us harm. That the reality of mass violence was not limited to third-world countries that we read about in the news. It happened here, and it happened to us. And we swore we'd never forget.

Now, a decade later, I have to wonder if we have forgotten. Not the attack itself, of course. We still recall where we were when we heard the news. The images of the collapsing towers and billowing smoke are forever etched in our memories. We remember the chaos. The shock. The terror. But have we forgotten what it meant?

Did we ever really know?

We were told that they hated us for our freedom. Are we more free?

We were told that we must must make the world safe for democracy. Are we safer?

That day shattered our innocence, but are we still naive? That day opened our eyes, but do we really see? A decade later, are we wiser than we were on September 10, 2001? Have we asked ourselves the hard questions about why this happened and what we can do- must do- to make things right?

Or are we fools and cowards all?

September 3, 2011

The Ascent: Part 1

An Excerpt from [Untitled Work of Fiction]

Rael woke before dawn to a strong hand gripping his shoulder. He opened his eyes and squinted, barely making out the stony face of Durran in the gloom. Durran motioned for him to rise, then turned and left the room without a word. Rael sat up, stretched, and rubbed his eyes. It had been a short night, but he slept soundly, more comfortable in a proper bed than he had been for weeks of travel. Now, after only a day in Camlin, he faced more traveling.

He quickly dressed and gathered up his small pack, pausing only to splash some water on his face from a bowl that had been left by the door. Before leaving he placed his unstrung bow and quiver into the long drawer beneath the mattress, but strapped his hunting knife to his belt and pocketed his sling. Both were small enough to carry without any burden, and it was better to have them on hand. Durran's insistence that they must slip out of the city before dawn had put Rael on edge, though he did not understand why.

Just as Rael made his way out of the room and into the dimly lit hallway, old Thanis appeared with the plump innkeeper in tow. Master Veer carried a candlestick in one hand and gestured with the other, halfway through an apology for breakfast not being ready at such an hour. Thanis cut him off, stating that the trio would eat on the road. As if to illustrate his point, he tossed an apple to the bleary-eyed Rael, who nearly dropped it. Rael fumbled with the fruit and tucked it into his shirt pocket. Thanis had turned back to the fussy innkeeper, assuring him that all was well and sending him off to attend to more demanding guests. Master Veer, seeing that his customers were content, nodded a quick farewell to both men and shuffled off in the direction of the kitchens.

Thanis motioned for Rael to follow as he turned down a side corridor and stepped outside into the pale pre-dawn. They stood in a narrow alleyway behind the inn, where Durran was waiting for them. The dirt-floored passage separated the back of the inn from another stout building, running from a road to the inn's storehouse where goods could be brought in out of the way of guests. The air was crisp and cool, and the ground was covered in dew. A slight sea breeze carried the smell of hay from the stables and the bustling sounds of morning preparations from the kitchens. The first sliver of sunlight already colored the eastern sky, providing enough light for them to find their way. The city would soon be coming to life as a new day dawned, and Durran had made it clear that they should be on their way without drawing attention to themselves.

The Sentinel was clad in his usual garb, but wore his cloak rolled into a small pack on his shoulder. None of the three men carried much with them, only what they would need for a day's march; additionally Durran carried his sword on his back, mostly concealed by the bundled cloak. Rael considered again their plan. They would spend the day hiking to the top of Mount Gibbeth, avoiding notice, and presumably come back down before nightfall if their sparse supplies were any indication. After a moment's thought he spoke up softly. "I don't understand, why are we going to such trouble just to climb this mountain? I'm eager to see the countryside, but what does it matter if anyone knows we're out for a walk?"

Durran and Thanis exchanged an impassive glance. Thanis grunted, then murmured, "Mind yourself, lad. All will be told in time. We'll talk on the trail, once we're clear of uninvited company." Without further explanation the eccentric Freelander gave Rael a gentle slap on the back and turned down the alleyway.

Durran had already set off toward the road, where he paused momentarily as the others caught up. His cold gray eyes swept briefly up and down the stone-paved street, watching for any who might notice their departure. Without another word they set off, moving quickly towards the northern city gate as the Sentinel led the way. They kept to side streets whenever possible, winding around major thoroughfares and squares where already early risers would be gathering, but never stopping to avoid detection. Their quick footsteps echoed down the cobblestone streets in the still quiet of the early morning, but Durran was more interested in haste than stealth. None of the few strangers they passed afforded them more than a passing glance. He seemed more wary of his surroundings than usual, but content that they would soon be forgotten by anyone who might have noticed them.

Dawn had fully broken when they turned onto the main road leading out of the city, just short of the north gateway. The gates were open and a cart or two were already making their way into Camlin. Pedestrians strode through the street, going about their early morning business. Without a pause, Durran led the small company out through the thick arched gateway. The two guards leaning on their spears at each side of the great wooden doors barely paid them any notice.

The Sentinel glanced cautiously back over his shoulder several times as the men departed from Camlin, checking for anyone who might be following. It was not until they were more than a league outside of the walls, and out of sight of any watchers, that Durran relaxed and slowed their pace. As if to indicate that they were now safe, he spoke for the first time since leaving the inn. "This road will take us north, along the foot of the mountain. From there we will turn to the west, and skirt the southern slope to the High Road. We should begin the ascent by midday."

Thanis nodded in approval and produced an apple from his pack, which he polished on his shirt and bit into. Rael counted the hours in his head. If they would not begin to climb the mountain until midday, it must be much farther away than it appeared- which meant, in turn, that it must be truly enormous. It dominated the skyline from Camlin, already seeming to dwarf any mountain that Rael had climbed back home in the borderland. He shook his head. Whatever secrets Mount Gibbeth held, he would just have to wait and see for himself. In the meantime, he had a long walk ahead of him.