A nice little short story from a fellow /r/fantasywriters denizen. Quite a mythic piece, this one — it made me think a bit.
I’ll let it speak for itself:
A nice little short story from a fellow /r/fantasywriters denizen. Quite a mythic piece, this one — it made me think a bit.
I’ll let it speak for itself:
A flash fiction prompt from /r/worldbuilding, this time, courtesy of their Weekly Challenge.
“You have been found guilty of committing grievous atrocities against your country, your fellow man, and your sovereign ruler. For your crimes, you have been sentenced to a fate many consider to be worse than death: exile. You will be escorted to the borders of the realm and then sent out into the wilderness to live or die at the gods’ whims.”
Let’s talk about “Exiles“. What terrible crimes can earn someone such a fate in your world? Where are exiles sent, and what are their chances of survival? What notorious figures have been exiled and what became of them?
My response comes from slightly further forward in the Nine Lives of Michal Piech series, from a book provisionally titled Points of the Compass. Squire Jerzy Zakowski receives a mysterious letter. It’s based on the historical concept of ‘blackbirding’, which involved the kidnap and shipment of indigenous peoples from Asia and Australasia overseas for forced labour.
Dear Madame Zakowska, the letter read.
“I received your letter of 15 Krasnia and apologise for the delay in response. This was due to a large number of enquiries since the beginning of the summer. Our programme has been unexpectedly popular, particularly in the wake of such extraordinary civil violence that we saw at the beginning of this year.
Jerzy Zakowski’s mother had evidently requested this information before the shoot had cemented Michal’s poor reputation in the village. The young squire shook his head and skimmed through the initial formalities swiftly.
We know how important it is to many institutions and estates that troublemakers are removed from circulation without the tedium or uncertainty of legal process. We take all comers; there is therefore no need to inquire whether the physical strength of the person in question will be suitable for our purposes, or whether we take the fairer sex. We have as much use for women as we have for men. Although their virtue may be put at risk due to communal living quarters and the presence of our troops, those who come to us have often already surrendered it, as you note Miss Osiatynska has. Some of them even rediscover their dignity.
She had obviously asked after a place for Kasia as well.
Many have found that after a certain period of settlement they have improved in health and vigour, and have discovered a fortitude and taste for honest work which modern life has failed to inculcate. There is every chance of rehabilitation and even prosperity for someone who comes to us. Even women have numbered amongst our hardest physical labourers. There is no fixed sentence; rather, a board will assess whether a person has earned their liberty, though passage back to Insula is not on offer under usual circumstances.
There are certain privations and necessary hardships in life in the colonies, and much infrastructure needing to be built in the short time we have before formal incorporation of Lenkija and Vesgale into the Empire. A uniform and closed barracks are the initial situation for the deportee, as might be expected from any penal institution on Imperial soil. Escape attempts are rare but punished severely. Runaways find no succour among the locals, because of the theft and violence that occurs when these people achieve the freedom they squandered over here.
Since this is often used to rehabilitate petty offenders, you need not make it a choice. As a landowner, you have the right to order Piasecki and Osiatynska to come with us, but I suggest you leave it to us to enforce your orders. We do not want anyone else getting hurt in the process.
I hope this satisfies your request for information.
I am, as always, your obedient servant,
Dr Arvid Chislenko, Mjr, Medical Corps, Krovt division, 18 Lipnia 1,986 IC.
Zakowski threw the letter on the floor and stalked out. “I will not be a part of this barbarity. Ever.”
This month’s /r/fantasywriters competition entry: the brief was to write a comic story about magic getting out of control from fellow WordPress blogger and fantasy author WordsWithSharpEdges:
I love me some serious, thoughtful fantasy… but sometimes it’s fun to let your characters go on a romp and do something ridiculous like undermine the fabric of reality to impress a date or accidentally unleash eldritch horrors on the world while researching where missing socks go. In 2,000 words or less, write a funny short story where magic goes horribly wrong (or horribly right).
It’s also another adventure featuring Zbigniew ‘Zbych’ Piech, the captain depicted in my short story, The Orderly, available free from Smashwords via the link above.
“Can’t let them get away with it, the murderous bastards.”
“What by Pierun the fleet was doing sailing away from Velikoryb at the time I don’t know.”
“Why you here then?”
“Well…s’appened now, ain’t it?”
“They’re evacuating Achava. Why aren’t they shipping us off? We’re closer than they are…”
“They’d ’ave to cross the Middle Mountains to get to us. They’d go for the Salvats first – the road’s wide open and Podhalensko’s just a coal-heap. Pile of slag’s not going to stop ’em if they’ve already got two cities of ours.”
Zbych passed through the outer office on his way into the receiving room. The first posters had gone up yesterday, the ink still wet from the printers; the first advertisements had been placed in the newspapers that day. The first refugees were arriving in Krovt, soaked to the bone with autumn rain.
And the first people were grousing about the Empire’s stupidity in moving that damn fleet back to Glasberg, even as they had come to volunteer to defend it.
As the clock struck nine hours, he was greeted by the press of bodies, and a queue that snaked all the way round the side of the Military Hospital in Krovt, several deep. Nothing like the thought that they were only a hundred and fifty versts away from the front to mobilise a city’s population.
“Here, guv’nor – you taking everyone?” a young man chirped as he gave the captain a playful shove.
“Most people, yes. If you can walk and hold a gun, you can fight. Stand aside.”
There was a little more to it than that, and this should have been done three months ago when the Lenks were first rattling their sabres. It could have been more orderly, and mobilisation might have discouraged them from landing on the dockside and attacking tenements full of ordinary people.
Zbych squeezed into the office where the recruiting sergeant was pushing back men from the table. “Any trouble, Vasya?”
At that point, one enthusiastic volunteer almost took the sergeant’s spectacles off with his copy of the illustrated journal Okno k Miru, Window on the World, a special edition with the army’s begging letter on its front cover.
Zbych shook his head and sat down, opening up another line. “Calm down,” he barked. “You’ll all get served.”
The room hushed.
The sergeant turned his eyes back to his own group of men. “You must be a wonder on the parade ground, captain,” he said as he handed the beetle-browed young man in front of him a card and told him to take himself to the medical officer. “You’re going to need it with this lot.” His lips had formed the word rabble, but he had thought better of it.
“It helps, Vasya.”
“You don’t sound too convinced,” the sergeant replied.
“I’m afraid you’re too old, sir,” Zbych said, looking up into the eyes of a besuited man with sagging cheeks, fiddling with his watch-chain. “We only take those under forty.”
“I’m thirty-nine,” the man asserted. “I’ve not yet turned forty and I was…” He tapped the pamphlet he carried. “Look here: ‘18-40 year olds’. You’ve got to let me join up. I was born in Syevirmetyevo. Those are my relatives, sir…It’ll be short! Over by Yule, they’re saying! The Empire can’t possibly allow the beasts to take two cities without repercussions.”
Zbych took the pamphlet. Normal recruitment was up to the age of 35, but with the enemy pouring onto Krovot and Salvat soil like ants, forty was permissible. There were some men who looked to be in their late thirties in the corridor pushing their snouts into the room in quiet anxiety that by the time they got their uniforms it would be over. Zbych fixed the man with a stare.
It hit him right before the eyes. The man had only just turned forty-one. In fact, Zbych could read his exact date and time of birth. It came to him in a flash of light and a whirling of calendar dates, like the spinning numbers on his desk back at the barracks. 13 Sierpien, 1,930th year of the Insulan Calendar; in other words, 13 Sickle, the eighth month of the year. This was the end of Vieriesien, Heather, the ninth month.
“You’ve been forty-one for six weeks, haven’t you?” Zbych said.
The man, who had been nervously fingering his watch-fob and had his eyes cast down, nodded.
“You do realise you’d have had to show your papers at some point,” the captain said. “No getting away with it.”
“But you said…”
“We’re also at the mercy of the doctors,” Zbych said, cursing his simplistic statement earlier on. “If they don’t pass you fit, you won’t be going. If you want to help, the war office will need people. A good reference from your employer and you can help fill a younger man’s place at the stavka. But I suggest you remain in your current position. If the Middle Mountains are crossed or Podhalensko falls, we’ll be reassessing the situation. For now, Krovt is safer than you think. The trains out are packed enough as it is.”
Zbych had known of his talent for ordering people about, and been wary about misusing it; no-one liked a bully. But this new ability seemed to have little consequence for his reputation. He checked everyone. He had to do it consciously, but for most people the dates fell in the right place and he waved people through. After a while, the vision of a spinning calendar disappeared, and he only saw the numerals.
Some he turned down pleaded that they were terrifically fit for forty, having followed this-or-that physical culture correspondence course. Some were old soldiers themselves, decorated the last time the Lenks had been restless and had to be put in their place, but Zbych noted that one man was even carrying a cane and trying to pass himself off as fit. He got a few pugnacious women try to pretend to be boys, but recommended that they seek employment in munitions factories further south if they could leave the city.
By the end of the day there were still people waiting, but he was permitted to clock off and hand over to another shift of officers. He walked down the line towards the entrance to the officers’ mess, looking at them through these new lenses and sending a few of the too-old and too-young packing. The sergeants were normally accommodated elsewhere, but he invited Vasya to the commissioned men’s refectory as a reward for his hard work. They sat down at a table, and Zbych produced a case of cigarillos. “Better than those papirosy.”
“Yup,” Vasya said.
Zbych lit a smoke, leaned back and relaxed. As his mind unravelled from the day’s stress, he suddenly blinked in surprise. Each person around him now wore their date of birth on their sleeve. The mess stewards. The orderly cleaning the floor and emptying the bins. A woman draped over the arm of her aristocratic lover, who was flouting the rules and had brought her in from outside, though no-one cared. Vasya himself.
He rubbed his eyes.
Then it seemed as if everything had a birth-date. The chairs and tablecloths, the food arriving on the table. The curtains delicately screening the continuing clamour of the new recruits from view.
The mess was plastered and painted in fresh colours, but he could see the date on which that paint was applied, not that long ago according the long string of numbers unfolding across the wall. The glass on the window beyond the curtains was etched with another date, and the ceilings bore their own stamp. He gripped the table as if the room was spinning.
Vasya had his hand on Zbych’s arm. “We need a glass of water,” the sergeant begged of the steward who had already brought them their meal.
“17 Travien,” Zbych said, nodding. He frowned.
“What? What has my birthday to do with anything?” Vasya asked.
“29 Sychen.” Cutting-month.
“Is that your birthday?”
Zbych shook his head and put his hand up to his mouth, as if he had just breathed fire.
Vasya chortled. “Come on, sir, enough of this. You’ve been doing this all day, telling people when they were born. Let it go.”
“Flower-month? What’s got into you?”
“25 Zhovtien!” Yellow-month.
“Knock it off, captain. You’ve had your joke.”
Zbych put his head in his hands and tried to articulate what he thought was happening, but each time he opened his mouth, a random date came out.
The sergeant stood up and called over a steward. “Get Doctor Chislenko. He knows magic when he sees it. Maybe he’ll know what’s going on.”
Zbych took a drink of water, hoping that this might solve the problem, but it didn’t. He stood up and ran out of the room.
Doctor Arvid Chislenko stood over Zbych in the private consulting room. “Bit of an embarrassing problem, eh, Piech?”
Zbych nodded, dumbly. He could still see all the dates on which everything was made; the room’s equipment was brand new, the bedlinen, the stethoscope, even Chislenko’s chair. The Osipovo hospital had recently been upgraded at vast expense. A couple of friends had complained that the money had gone to the army rather than the shabby public infirmary in Krasnaya Polyana. In amongst his fear at the runaway talent, he was curious as to what he’d see there if he dared look.
“Well, don’t worry about this being permanent,” the doctor said in his pinched voice. “You’re not mad. Just under the influence, so to speak, of what happens when we forget magic is a tool rather than a crutch.”
Zbych smirked and coughed.
“It’ll wear off overnight. I could put you out with valeriate if you want.”
The captain opened his mouth, and then realised what might happen if he spoke. So he reached for a scrap of paper on the doctor’s desk, manufactured on the 9 Sierpien the previous year. 4 Krasien 12 Bieriesien 6 Liutiy he wrote.
“Nice handwriting,” Chislenko observed.
Zbych flung the pencil across the room.
“Temper, temper. You’re a grown man, not a little boy. Nod for yes, shake your head for no. Now, would you like to go to sleep now? To save yourself from further humiliation?”
Doctor Chislenko gave a cold smile and mixed up a glass of sedative. “Go and get ready for bed, and for goodness sake don’t try and communicate with anyone. I’ll let the brass know what’s happened.”
“Will I be able to do that again?” Zbych asked the doctor a few days later, the next time they ran into each other in the mess. The recruitment surge continued, and men were awaiting dispatch to the front. The regular army was holding Podhalensko, but the Lenks had reached the Kila at Paszynsko in Salvatka, eighty versts from Krovt, where an artillery battalion had held the Krovot bank making use of an old fort and prevented the enemy from crossing the river.
“You mean determine someone’s age just from looking at them?”
Zbych nodded. As Chislenko had prophesied, the night’s sleep had done him good and he had been hoarse but speaking properly in the morning.
“You still have that ability, but a magician must keep control of his talents,” Chislenko said with a curt nod. “There’s a reason you don’t like to bark orders at people, isn’t there?”
“I want people to love and respect me. I read about how Bulovkin cultivated his regiment and gained their loyalty through kindness rather than fear.”
“But they won’t if you make a fool or a bully of yourself. Am I right?”
Zbych took a drink of his tea. “You’re right.”
“Good man,” Chislenko said, with a smile, warmer this time.
A short description of a stage magician from the Insulan Empire, performing a trick which might make Uri Geller slightly amused. Josh Greene makes an appearance in the third book in the Michal Piech series, tentatively titled Going Home. Originally posted to the /r/fantasywriters subreddit as a demonstration of how to write psychic telekinesis.
‘And now for my next trick,’ Joshua Greene announced to a packed house.
He held up a spoon, twirling it in his fingers, moving it faster and faster. He heard a murmur of delight ripple through the audience as the spoon moved from his fingers and hung suspended in the air. Greene could see very little through his creased brow and the bright stage lights, but he could feel the object in his mind. He kept his breathing deep, knowing that one false move would break the spell. Sweat poured off his brow, and he felt his make-up start to run.
‘Behold the power of the human mind!’ he managed to say through the haze.
He moved the spoon up and down, and then, knowing that he was reaching the outer limits of what his body and mind could handle, he visualised the spoon breaking in two. Sure enough, as he did so, the cheap tin utensil snapped, and clattered to the floor to a round of exuberant applause.
This month’s /r/fantasywriters writing competition wasn’t posted until yesterday, to give us writers the challenge of writing to a tight deadline (the submission thread goes up on 26 December) and to a very tight word limit – 300 words.
This is my submission, 300 words exactly.
Scouting through the delta swampland was something assigned to the lowest, most expendable grunts. Corporal Solinski knew that Lieutenant Staunton, back in his nice cabin in Putyanovka, was taking advantage of the peasants’ gratitude on being liberated, while he, his ne’er-do-well brother-in-law Kurak and several other under-enthusiastic miscreants were out here, shivering in the mud under the surveillance of Lenkish soldiers. They hadn’t found anything of consequence, and were about to go home in disgrace.
“Bloody w—- of a goddess!” Kurak yelled from the riverbank.
Solinski stalked over, angry at this unnecessary noise and expecting to find that Kurak had fallen in.
Branches snapped nearby, and the other men fell in behind him and took out their guns, just in case. He put his hand on his pistol – and his mouth fell open.
A mammoth, bark-brown creature stood before them in the river, dripping with moss and leaf-litter, with a nose like a dripping gutter-pipe and mis-shapen, green teeth in a partly-open mouth.
It waded towards them as if every step was painful.
Kurak was cowering on the bank, hiding his face. The creature, some sort of forest spirit but clearly visible to them all, stepped out of the river, reaching out its hands towards Kurak, each one big enough to grasp a man’s torso in its fist. Solinski heard a burst of gunfire, and instinctively fired his own pistol towards it, blinded by fear.
He heard his brother-in-law’s screams cut off with a thud and a whimper. A knot of enemy soldiers had launched themselves upon them as they had stood insensible with fear at the creature’s appearance.
The creature looked reproachfully at them and shambled onwards unhurt.
Solinski knew what the enemy would do to him if he didn’t run, so he took off back towards the road.
This 1906 illustration depicts a Russian leshy or lesnik, a forest spirit akin to an ent but a little more humanoid in form.
I write a lot of legal plots into my books – I seem to prefer characters going through due process (albeit warped by power relationships, bias, greed and so on), and my plots vary from the prosecution of a murderer to the pursuit of characters by the police and venal local magistrates. I am a law student between academic gigs (just sent off another application for PhD funding for next year) and so I guess my books reflect my interest in the law.
Also in my gaslamp pseudo-Victorian setting, with a more powerful bureaucracy, more advanced communications (telegraph and railway) and characters who have lived much of their life in town, escape is a less attractive proposition than it might be, say, in the average mediaeval fantasy where the response to pursuit by a constable of the watch seems to be jump on your horse and get the heck out of Rivendell.
There’s also the option of prison rather than execution. Mediaeval justice was very cut-and-dried, but by the 19th century, prisons held petty criminals and people got released. Conditions weren’t great, but at least people came out alive once reformers had got rid of the probability that someone would, e.g. succumb to typhus, once called ‘gaol-fever’ in reference to its spread within the prisons in existence up until the late 1700s/early 1800s (transportation was one response to a reduction in the actual numbers of people executed for minor crimes; the Bloody Code did make an inordinate number of crimes punishable by death, but juries were notorious for reclassifying felonies as misdemeanours to save a prisoner’s life – even by absurdity, such as revaluing the theft of 30 shillings as a value just below the felony threshold). So when Robert Jordan has two characters arrested by the Whitecloaks and taken to Caemlyn to face the gibbet, he has to have them rescued to avoid almost certain death. In more modern settings, in contrast, despite the obvious problem of propertied men passing judgement on the unpropertied, there’s a distinct possibility for a fair trial.
I’ve seen a number of sci-fi programmes (Blake’s 7 springs to mind) which have conjured up alternative legal systems based on technology we don’t have access to IRL, and so there’s also the possibility for a fantasy society to have a completely fantastic justice system, utilising divination and other magical tools.
In my case, magic was specifically barred from being a defence or prosecution, mainly because of a spate of witch-hunting several hundred years prior to the main story, and I recently formalised this explicitly in my books: magic could not be used as a reason to prosecute someone: i.e. sorcery and witchcraft were made legal and no-one could be brought before a court charged with putting a hex on someone that led to their injury, but in exchange, it also could not be used as a defence unless there were a reasonable number of eye-witnesses that saw a magical act. Additionally, the dead cannot testify without a medium present in court, so to protect a defendant or plaintiff from the interests of the shaman getting in the way, this evidence is disallowed.
In The Black Magician series, Trudi Canavan, however, had a complicated system of mind-reading the accuser to determine the truth of their complaints and seeing the situation through their eyes in order to determine whether or not the magicians subject to this system even had a case worth bringing. It works well with her various bullying plots where Sonea, her heroine, is subject to some real cruelty because of her humble background, and it’s how one of the magicians also finds out about another wizard’s misdeeds.
I wondered, I guess, who here has thought much about the subject and can answer these questions.
This challenge was to describe the magic system of the fantasy setting in which people write in 5-7 sentences, in character. Thanks to Dimanagul for the prompt and for help with critiquing what I’d written.
‘Magic is unreliable and unpredictable. There are those who can actively wield it, and those who only benefit from random psychic talents. Those that change their own form, and those that influence other forms. A priest or wise woman of the gods can heal by hand or sacrament, but cannot bring a person back from the dead. They work alongside the so-called ‘scientific’ doctors, who sometimes have these talents themselves(1). Spirits and ghosts can guide mortals, but their words are coloured by the motivations of the human they speak through. Because of this, never shall the words of the dead be used to judge the living. Angels guard the weak and powerless, but walk among us unaware of their real identity(2).
‘And destiny is like a mountain. We may be able to see the summit, but we must find the path to the top.’
— Biruta Berzina, priestess of Minerva and shaman, Achava, in a diary found after her arrest and death.
Editor’s Footnote (1) – the greatest surgeon and magical healer of the pre-revolutionary era was Dr Arvid Chislenko, who was also the supervisor at the military hospital in Kubice after the war.
Editor’s Footnote (2) – the warden of the Ludlin workhouse, Andrew Russell, was believed by scholars of philosophy and prophecy to be such a ‘valkyrie’, but the inmates there at the time of his stewardship believed the angel to be Deirdre the cook, who was always feeding people extra food from the master’s kitchen.