The Augurwraith by Craig Comer – Part III

Saja winced, but instead of a death blow, the thief stepped back and allowed the other guildsmen to regain their companion. They did so with wary eyes that never left their assailant, gathering the tanner between them, and backing away.

Once they had fled the alley, the thief turned to Saja. Run! a voice shouted within her, but her feet remained still. His face was fair, except for a scar that ran along his nose like a dividing line between his cheeks. Dark locks fell almost to his shoulders, and the black trousers he wore were for a much larger man.

He smiled at her. “I suppose asking for a kiss as reward would defeat the whole noble gesture,” he said. “But perhaps you would give me your name? Such a detail will make for a better tale, when I tell my friends of your rescue.”

Saja started. The anger she’d felt earlier welled up again. “Rescue? After what you’ve done, no guildsman will show me kindness! No proper work! No food!” She knew she sounded ridiculous and ungrateful, but she was tired of men pretending to be her savior only to leave her desperate and alone.

“They wouldn’t have helped you before. Their kind is… let’s say, less than honorable.” The thief glanced at his bloodied dagger. He quickly wiped it clean and tucked it into his boot.

“I am called Lucendes,” he said. At Saja’s reaction, he added, “I am from the southern march of Maeldon, though I’ve lived in the Immortal City for many years.”

“My father trades with the Maeldonese. He says they are desert rats of impure blood, who scurry about hoping for the Sultan’s favor.”

“Then I can see he knows them well,” said Lucendes, widening his grin. Saja huffed and turned to leave, but Lucendes fell in beside her. “A moment, Saja,” he said, placing a hand upon her arm. “I did not just chance upon you. I have come to add my blade and wits to your formidable quest.”

Blinking, Saja stammered, “You know my name?”

“You wish to save your father, but the Tanner’s Guild won’t help you. So you are caught in the winds, without friend or family.”

“You knew? But then why did you ask?”

Lucendes shrugged sheepishly. “I may have overhead some of your argument with the guildsmen. Your voice held such misery, I could not rip my ears away. It is a fault of mine, this burden of altruism.”

“I didn’t see you,” said Saja. She frowned, trying to recollect the thief’s face from earlier, then shook her head. It didn’t matter. “But you are mistaken. I have no quest, only a need for food and work.” She swiped his hand from her arm and added, “Honest work.”

This time it was Lucendes who frowned, if only for a fleeting moment. She had caught him off-guard. Good, she thought.

“But what of your father?” he asked. “Wouldn’t his freedom answer all of your problems?”

Saja shook her head. “He’s a drunk, and he owes money to many people. He could be a captive of the Sect of Raast or the Horned Man, or perhaps dead.”

“To have such debts, he must’ve been a mighty man once. And maybe not so long ago? Tell me of him, and I will find you a warm meal.”

“Why?” Saja asked.

“Perhaps I like to help people. Perhaps your father owes me money, too.” Lucendes’ knowing grin returned. “Perhaps I desire you. Does it really matter why?”

Saja stared at the thief. Of course it mattered. But she couldn’t ignore her stomach for another passing of the sun, and the thought of food for so simple a price was too tempting. She didn’t care if it meant soiling her father’s name further. He’d vanished only a few days ago, but he’d disappeared long before.

…to be continued

Originally published in Pulp Empire Volume IV.

© Craig Comer

The Augurwraith by Craig Comer – Part II

As she spoke, two other men emerged from the guildhall. They wore the simple vests of craftsmen, and the mark of the Tanner’s Guild emblazoned their arms in red ink—a scraping blade resting upon a stretched rawhide. The first tanner mumbled some rude comment, and the others laughed.

Saja seethed. She silently cursed her father again, and the Tanner’s Guild, and the Sultan, who allowed lechers to prey upon the desperate. She felt a chunk of sandstone under her palm and grasped it, eyeing the three men. She pictured the tanner clutching his nose and howling in pain, but then thought better of hurling the stone. She could perhaps outrun two, but three certainly pressed her luck. Besides, she still held a small hope the guild would take her in. Maybe if she came again later and spoke with someone else.

The tanner saw the stone as she dropped it, and his eyes went cold. Saja did her best to ignore him. Rising, she scraped off the silt and muck that clung to her dress. In the Tanner’s District, buckets were kept to collect the leavings from animal and man alike, for use in the tanning process, but the slop of refuse still soiled the ground. And in the air, baking under the noonday sun, the stench of the vats hung thick.

As Saja strode away from the guildhall, she passed a few peddlers hawking pottery and craftsmen’s tools from the backs of their carts, while wagons of fresh skins and rawhides trundled along. She dodged one of the wagons and almost collided with a beggar who shuffled by with his arms tucked into his robes, mumbling to himself. She heard giggling from a shadowed corner between two squat buildings, and spied a pair of harlots watching her. They wore sheer linen dresses, with paint caked upon their eyes and cheeks. They know, Saja thought with a shiver. They can see I will soon be one of them. The notion plunged her heart into her gut, and her eyes welled.

A year ago, she’d been in love with Tarim, her father’s apprentice. A year ago, she thought she’d never dream of another man. Her entire life lay before her, scripted like the sweet tales from a mummer’s stage. But then the winds had changed, and her father stole her future.

One of the harlots stepped forward, but the other caught her arm and flicked her gaze at something behind Saja. The first altered her step into a graceful pivot, so that her back faced the street. Saja frowned. She peered over her shoulder and gasped. The tanner and craftsmen followed her, trailing only a few dozen paces away.

For a moment, she only stared. An icy hand of fear gripped her spine and wouldn’t let go. Then, with a gasp, her knees buckled and she lurched forward. Weaving through the street, she quickened her pace, her mind racing with what the men would do to her if they reached her. When she glanced backward again, the tanner gave her a mocking grin.

She stumbled in a wagon rut and heard the two craftsmen laugh. She was only sport to them, she told herself, something to pass the afternoon. Soon they would tire of their chase. She just needed to keep moving.

But she felt them edging closer. The hot sun melded with the imagined heat of their breath upon her neck. The gentle breeze was their fingers reaching out to clutch her dress.

The street forked, and Saja darted down an alley pressed between a salting house and a dyer’s shack. The footsteps slapping the dirt behind her echoed louder, coming closer until they seemed like they were her own.

As she broke into a run, a shadow flittered across the corner of her vision. Only it was higher than it should’ve been, as if a giant hawk had suddenly swooped down beside her. A loud grunt sounded, followed by a thud.

Saja heard the tanner curse, then the shriek of another man. She stopped and spun around, shocked at what she found. A lithe man in a shirt of green silk had his back toward her, blocking the alley. He balanced on his toes like a dancer, with a dagger held in one hand. Even Saja could tell the man was dangerous.

One of the craftsmen clutched at his arm, blood weeping through his fingers. The other was crumpled upon the ground, moaning softly.

The tanner sneered and brought his hands up in fists. “This is unwise, thief,” he said. “We are guildsmen. We are protected. The Horned Man will hear of this and string you from your toes!”

The silk-shirted man shifted his dagger so it pointed toward the ground but remained silent. The tanner lunged at him. To Saja, the punch was as quick as an asp’s strike, but the thief danced to one side and brought the butt of his dagger into the man’s temple. The tanner grunted and was struck again. This time he fell to his knees.

…to be continued

Originally published in Pulp Empire Volume IV.

© Craig Comer

The Augurwraith by Craig Comer – Part I

Saja gagged as the tanner’s breath washed over her in warm huffs that reeked of fish and ale. The man leaned forward from his perch upon the stoop of the guildhall, and pulled her close, his hands fumbling along her waist and rump.

She considered for a moment to let him have his way. Her father had left her with few choices, and almost all ended with her lying upon her back. She cursed her father for the thousandth time that day, wishing him dead, and at the same time wondering if he still lived. She hadn’t seen him for three days, since the Feast of Raast, where the denizens of Kuthahaar had celebrated those of the Sultan’s royal blood, the Kitame, the Children of Light.

blog_treeThe tanner forced his mouth to her neck, and its warmth broke her from her stupor. She shoved at the man’s chest. He raised a hand to strike her, and she quickly lowered her head, staring at his sandaled feet in meek submission.

“Please,” she said. “My father’s always been loyal to the guild. It is said you protect your own.”

The tanner smirked, revealing rotted teeth that pointed like daggers. “But your father’s not in the guild, no more than the boys who collect dung for the vats.”

“He sells you oak bark and lye, gathered from across the Seas of Abthinar. You need him!”

“Phaw, forget that doddering fool. There are a dozen others who would give us as fair a price for their bark and lye, and they wouldn’t squander it all in cups at the taverns.” The tanner rose. His eyes roamed her body. “Come inside, and we’ll find work for you.”

He grabbed her arm, and she slapped it away. Staring up at his leering face, she knew whatever work the tanner would offer, it was his bed he wanted her in. She took a step back, and his smile dropped.

Jerking forward, he snatched her close again. His fingers dug into her shoulders; his chin crushed down on the top of her head. She shrieked and tried to bat him away. He growled and threw her to the ground.

“Leave, then!” he barked.

Saja glanced about, but though the street was busy, no one stared at her. No one cared. The Immortal City of Kuthahaar was never kind to those without wealth or power, and less so to those without family or guild to protect them. Despair bubbled in her gut again, but she pushed it down. Her father had always taught her that panic during a negotiation produced only two effects: a spoiled stomach and an empty purse.

She settled her shoulders and drew her face blank. “I will find him,” she said, though the words brought little comfort.

…to be continued

Originally published in Pulp Empire Volume IV.

© Craig Comer

A Slice of the Author – Creating Setting

HWP_000It’s long been argued that all fictional characters contain some facet of the author. To what extent remains a debate, but what about setting? After all, in fantasy and science fiction, the where can be more important than the who or the what. Who is Robb Stark without the cold north of Westeros? Or Katniss Everdeen without Panem and the Hunger Games arena? But does that mean that without living through a Chicago winter, George R.R. Martin couldn’t have envisioned the lands beyond the Wall? Of course not. Yet it’s interesting that he has attributed the creation of his Wall to a trip to Hadrian’s Wall in England. His version is just a bit larger and colder.

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I have also hiked along Hadrian’s Wall. In fact, I have hiked it from start to finish—all 84 miles of it—and believe me, there is no end to the amount of stories to be found there. From the amazing views to the castles and fortresses, every mile is ripe with details fit for a story.

And I think that is where an author creates a setting. It’s by taking details of places they know and adjusting them to create something new. Whether it’s from something they’ve seen, watched, or read about, every scrap becomes a thread that can be rewoven into a new tapestry. Or to extend the common forest and tree metaphor, creating setting is like taking the trees you know and rearranging them into a forest of wonder that no one has ever yet beheld.

Garrett Calcaterra, author of the novel, Dreamwielder, has never lived in a labyrinth of ice caves, but he drew upon his experiences hiking around Lake Chelan, in the Cascades, and around Scotland. As he explains, “I got to experience Edinburgh and do a little spelunking in search of Sawney Beane’s secret lair. These experiences melded together with images I’d seen in documentaries about cliff dwelling indigenous tribes and the earth-shaping powers of glaciers. I came up with this sprawling ice cavern [for Dreamwielder] where an ancient race of humans built a city into the living rocks of the mountain and lived beneath the azure hue of the glacier above them.”

“The Dream Thief of Kuthahaar,” my story in the October 2012 issue of Bards & Sages Quarterly, grew in the telling, as the saying goes. Only in this case, the telling was of another story altogether, my first in the setting of the Immortal City of Kuthahaar, “The Kultar’s Lost Hand.” For that story I created a place with palaces and bazaars, a congested city teeming with guilds and a harsh ruling class, where the dregs of society found solace only below ground, in deep caverns the rich considered fit only for the dead.

But why Sultans and robes and sandals? Why not trousers and frock coats and timber-framed lodges? I didn’t set out to write an “Arabian themed” tale. In fact, I don’t consider the story Arabian at all. The idea for the story spawned from a movie I grew up with, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Yes, that one. Laugh or groan all you like, I was fourteen and it was the coolest thing ever, next to Willow. And it was the scene at the start of the film, where the thief has his hand lopped off that left an impression with me and started the story. I wondered: what did the man do afterward? Did all society shun him? Had he been a villain before? Or had he been respected, maybe even someone of importance? So the man grew a back story and a personality, and all the time the dwellings and clothes and scents and sounds around him stuck in shades of sandstone, with oils and incense covering the stench created by a glaring sun and too many poor toiling in crowded streets.

It wasn’t difficult to fill in the details. A trip to the local farmer’s market may not yield the same foods, but the feeling of congestion is the same. There are any number of candle and incense shops out there, and as for the desert, Southern California is a great stand in for hot and dry! And so each scene was filled in as I needed it, with details summoned from a wide range of memories. I just needed to pick and place them in a context that made sense for this new society.

As the details were drawn in, other stories sprouted from the nooks and crannies. “The Dream Thief of Kuthahaar,” began as I started to wonder who these Seers were who watched the city (a group of sorcerers mentioned briefly in the first story.) They worked for the Sultan, but how did he win their loyalty? If they had such power, why did they not use it for their own aims? As I wondered, not only did new characters spring up, but new parts of the city as well. A temple, parts of the Sultan’s palace, the lands about the city, all became a part of the setting as young Akil, the protagonist, wandered toward his destiny.

Other stories followed full of assassins and heroines, desperate men and cunning scoundrels. Hopefully, many more will come. All will be a fabrication, holding the merest slices of the author, scrambled and contorted, fried and blended, until the place exists only in the imagination.

For those interested, here is a link to the Hadrian’s Wall National Trail site: http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/HadriansWall/index.asp.

This post originally appeared on Tales From the Sith Witch, the blog of Julie Ann Dawson.