Laziness, Tropes, and Fantasy

 

 

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The Iron Tower Trilogy, one of the quintessential examples of Diet Tolkien

With the work of George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss and the like, fantasy is slowly becoming a respectable genre again. (At least as much a genre can be respected.) It’s even gaining the praise usually reserved for science fiction. Many of these fantasists frequently mention the Diet-Tolkien of the 70s, 80s and 90s. Fantasy needs to move past Elves, Dwarves and Dragons, they say.

But does it?

Laziness can be one of the greatest factors in creating a world, provided your worldbuilding is thorough. I know this may seem like a contradiction, but bear with me here.

I’ll be the first to say that Elves, Dwarves and Dragons are overused. But I think the word people miss from that critique is “Tolkienian”. Any new changes to these races is minimal. They are still distinctly Tolkien’s creations used by a different author. But through effective worldbuilding, these tropes can become something new and exciting.

What do I mean by effective worldbuilding? Look no further than the idea of castles and dragons. Say you live in a world where giant fire breathing reptiles are in abundance. They’re often known to attack cities and towns. Why then, would someone’s first line of strategic defense be to build a tower? Building a castle in a world full of dragons makes all the sense of a man in full armor climbing to the highest peak in the land in the midst of a lightning storm to scream curses at the gods.

Think through your worldbuilding. What are the natural repercussions of such a thing? What does an immortal race do with its time? How many times can they see Men ruin everything before deciding “We’ll take it from here.” But it gets simpler than that. Ask yourselves how these people might deal with the idea of mortality. They’ve just gone outside their own Kingdom, for example, and they see just how often everything else dies. What does that do to an Elf? The outside world is simply so full of mortality, and if all they’ve slain is Orcs for the past couple hundred years, their journey to the outside world would be less than pleasant. And are you telling me creatures that have lived that long haven’t thought of using gunpowder? At least make an excuse as to why they haven’t. Maybe their religion is based on fire and ice, where fire is bad and gunpowder would be the work of Evil.

Which brings me to the next point: religion. Many people will use the trope of single god vs. dieties. Tolkien could get away with this because many creatures interacted with the gods of Middle Earth (The Valar) and so they all knew that this religion was legitimate. But if you’re going to have three races, you can’t give them all one religion. (Or one Kingdom, but that’ll come in later). To use Elves again: things that have been alive for so long may even become godlike in brainpower themselves? (And you’d think at least one of them would have thought to impersonate a deity during early-human ages)  Do they need a god? How many religions have risen and fallen? What does this say about Elves? Also, if they’re so long lived, give them more than swords at least. Be creative, dammit. You’re writing fantasy. You needn’t adhere to historical weapons. Make up your own. Give these things a if they’ve been using swords for two thousand years, I’m sure you can invent a reason why they haven’t progressed in your world. And I bet you can make it interesting and relevant to your plot.

Let’s move on to being lazy with character. I’ll stick with one archetype, like I stuck with Elves above.

Your character is a barbarian? Then use that. Don’t just make him into the same loincloth-wearing Conan ripoff seen everywhere else around the fantasy bookshelf. You’re using someone who’s never been in a civilized society. Do they have a Barbarian’s Guide to Civilized Society? What makes a civilized society? There are so many different things to be explored here. So much social commentary so ripe for the picking. Yet so many make their barbarians into simple brutes who can fight their way out of any situation. What if he keeps asking questions through not understanding, the the point where the antagonists can’t even deal with him anymore.

It would be so easy to make a barbarian character, wandering the world, and learning the ways of civilized people. It’s worldbuilding through the story. You can have him (or her. This blog does not discriminate against your barbarian archetypes. Unless you use chain mail bikinis, because fuck that.) be a gigantic brawler, but explore the implications that would have on your world. Are their countries that admire this person? Surely there are some civilized nations that can make such a man into a human weapon for conquest. What about toxic masculinity? Look no further than George R. R. Martin’s character of Victarion Greyjoy to see an example of the fantasy barbarian portrayed as an example of toxic masculinity.

This man/woman doesn’t know what civilization is. That makes him very easy to use. There are a million different ways you can throw a wrench into a trope just by thinking out the natural repercussions of this trope on the world you’ve created. Trope(x)World= An interesting twist. It’s spectacularly easy, provided you’re willing to think of ways to do this. It’s–dare I say it–lazy. And that’s not a bad thing.

Another more popular way of making a new spin on a character is inverting the tropes. George R.R. Martin did that with the Night’s Watch–criminals who are ugly and wear black are some of the most honorable characters, whereas the beautiful knights in shining armor can be some of the most despicable.

To carry this over to the barbarian: what if he were a coward? How could he be a barbarian? Is his worst fear being found out to be a coward so he’s brave when he’s got a crowd of spectators? Is that what gave him his reputation? Like I said, think of what you can do with this trope, and play it out through your world. What happens if the other barbarians find out he’s a coward? Why doesn’t he want people to know? Is there a place in this world where his cowardice is rewarded? To what extent does it go.

Lastly, we have maps. I’ll use one example on why being lazy can pay off here. You just need to ask yourself a simple question: why? Why do you need to draw a map for your world? Is it because every fantasy novel has one? Because you think you have to? Do you think you can’t show through words where everything is in relation to each other?

Now, to add a personal note: I hate drawing maps. I have only one map at my disposal and that was one I did a twenty minute sketch for and then commissioned a friend to make it look more professional. I’ve reused it a million times in a million stories for the purpose of figuring out where things lie in relation to each other. But I’ve never felt the need to show it.

But before I had that first map, I wanted desperately to avoid that. How could I avoid drawing a map? And then it hit me. Make the land fucking move like a living, breathing thing and put those goddamn mapmakers out of a job.
I would write a story where the land itself changes. Mountains crumbled and rose up in new spots. It’s something that could not be mapped, because a babbling brook in a forest could be a basin in the midst of a desert surrounded by cacti.

I called it In the Caverns of the Rock Lord. One of the first good fantasy stories I wrote.

The Avoidance of Diet Tolkien

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This week I’m moving back into college. Considering I’ll be busy with that adjustment, I’ve left some articles to keep my readers busy in the interim.

Today I wanted to delve into the idea of expectations, and how it pertains to writing a good story. Considering I’ve written mostly fantasy in the past four years, I thought I’d write an on-the-spot breaking down of six tropes from the fantasy genre and a suggested inversion. The inversions of these tropes are demonstrations and I have no plans on making them into a story. If you like them, feel free to steal them. The tropes are listed as an exercise in worldbuilding via cliché inversion.

1.The Chosen One—Yeah, we all know this one. A young farm boy with aspirations of greatness is greeted by a wise old mentor who keeps important plot points from him because Terry Brooks can’t think of a better way to make his Wizard –ahem– Druid mysterious. He tells him he’s destined to save the world from the all powerful ruler of nothing-in-particular-but-still wants to conquer the world despite this gigantic setback. The hero goes off, instantly within the timespan of 50 pages he becomes so friggin’ amazing that he’s able to beat characters who have trained for forty years or more. Even Elves who, mathematically, should be better than everyone else on the planet. Enter, The Visitor.. They have no age, gender, ethnicity or anything, because people see the Visitor how they imagine the messiah to look like. Some may see a man, some a woman. They could be rich in one person’s eyes, and poor in another. They see themself as a figure in a faded black cloak, and they can never see their face. They’re called the Visitor because they’re constantly being reborn every time someone wants to destroy the world. This one killed the evil Dark Lord—Lord Vile (because fuck subtlety, am I right?), by sucking his essence into him. The ritual also placed a curse on the land—The Dead Shall Rise as All Light Dies. The Visitor travels the world looking for their former teacher, Thavian Qorik, disputably immortal wizard, to help him. He goes to Eldeglast, Thavian’s home city and the place the Visitor goes to in welcome every time they’re reborn. The Visitor has a problem—they now have Lord Vile living inside them. Lord Vile keeps trying to taint his mind and taunts him in the form of an apparition. The Visitor must either live his days with evil incarnate inside him or let him loose upon the world to end the curse. They’re traumatized. They came from nothing, found out they had powers beyond even Elven imagination, and was forced to fight in a war that they didn’t want to be in. People flocked to them just because they’re the Visitor. And now, because of him, all but a handful of the world is dead. What does that do to a person? Well such ideas will be explored in his short story, to be written in the days to come.

Now there’s a problem with our friend, Thavian.

2.THE WISE OLD WIZARD—Stop me if you’ve heard this one before—he’s a wise old man who has magical powers—the limits of which are quite ambiguous and may or may not change depending on the needs of the plot. He’s got a flowing beard and robes that hide his figure. Maybe he has a pointy hat, a staff and gray robes? Everyone looks to him for guidance? Most of what I just said is Thavian Qorik. Or at least, was. Enter the inversion of expectations: the man who claims to be Thavian Qorik is a fake. He has no magic, no power, but he’s convinced the world he’s a powerful, immortal wizard. This is an elaborate hoax that has been going on for years. In truth, there was once a wise old wizard named Thavian Qorik, who welcomed The Visitor into Eldeglast each time he was reborn. That was thousands of years ago, when the first War of Light and Dark (Because again,fuck subtlety) was fought with makeshift spears and tomahawks. Nobody knows what became of the real Thavian Qorik—some say he was an angel that returned to heaven—others say he died in the final battle. To the current Qorik, it doesn’t matter. This man was chosen from an early age to replace the former Thavian when that one grew too old. The former Thavian would be given a pension and shipped off to an island where no one would believe his story of pretending to be a legendary magician. (Though this secret order has had to kill a few Thavians over the years). This Thavian Qorik has spent years building, meeting, and earning connections all around the world. He’s more of a scientist than he is a wizard. He’s learned in the ways of magic and did teach The Visitor, but he cannot perform magic on his own. During one battle, he had a few of his connections plant fireworks beneath the battlefield. He stood on a hilltop and shouted some hocus pocus he made up on the spot. The fireworks went off and BOOM! FEAR MY POWER! Presently, in this post-apocalyptic fantasy society, he’s taken refuge in Eldeglast. His connections are slowly disappearing, dying off, or he can’t reach them because of the curse, which he has coined the DEAD NIGHT. His job is to keep up the act he’s been putting on for decades—that he’s an all powerful wizard, while his illusions are slowly fading. And it’s getting harder and harder when people are asking him why he doesn’t just conjure up some magical bullshit to keep the dead stay in their graves…

3.THE BADASS WARRIOR CHICK—This chick is the one who picks her teeth with Orc bones—she’s so much more powerful than you pathetic men and she’s not afraid to show it. You can practically hear her calling every man she meets a “Wool headed idiot.” You see her all the time getting in fights with people twice her size. She gets the sexy wounds. She’s spouting out one liners like, “You fight like a girl!” Get it? Cause she’s a girl? She has the sexy, form fitting armor complete with boob holes and nipples on the breastplate. Every attack she does is performed for male titillation. When this resident badass chick gets hurt, she doesn’t cry out in pain, she moans. She moans sexily. (Which is apparently a legitimate adverb). She’s probably had sex with, like, every guy in her platoon/infantry/whatever term it is because apparently that makes her better than women that don’t fight. She’s a strong, independent woman who don’t take no shit from no man–Okay, that part’s true. Especially because despite all the soldiers telling each other this shit about her, she doesn’t give a damn. She just keeps on going because reflecting on it will only lead to failure. Her name is Evangeline Hallow. In this Fellowship, she had disguised herself as a man on several occasions. Joining the Visitor’s Fellowship was the first time she could be a woman openly. Every time she’s been discovered she lost something. It’s implied that she killed her brother in order to serve in her army. She was caught three times before. She’s missing half her hand—thanks to a “benevolent” King who thought it would be a kindness to spare her. The time before that, she lost an eye—a man found out she was a woman and as a result he gouged out her eye. Her captain thought that was punishment enough, given her performance. The first time she lost half her foot—. In this post-world war landscape where the dead arise, she is accompanied by—

4.THE RESIDENT BADASS—This is the guy who can take three arrows to the chest and still keep fighting. He’s a tank in human form, and he won’t rest until he’s killed every motherfucker he’s laid eyes on. This guy can carry a sword that’s three times his own already-massive size. He’s got women dying for him (in more ways than one). If he’s got angst it’s male angst and manly tears. Don’t you dare think this guy has any capacity to be sensitive. This is the guy who will kill you if you look at him funny. He files his nails with a giant dirk every time he sits down for a keg of ale He’s probably the greatest warrior in his entire kingdom–which means he’ll die later on in the story–probably very soon after it’s established how much of a complete badass he is. You will not be shocked. The only tears you will cry will be out of wasted potential. His death only serves to show the main characters that shit just got real–because this dude is the best warrior on the planet and he will personally travel the world to disembowel anyone who says otherwise….at least that’s his reputation. The guy’s name is Berrik Aggraylia. He was raised in the Mountain City of Barad Yuen. His father was one of his Lord’s chief of knights, and he raised his son to fight. The problem is, his son is more like Fezzik from Princess Bride than Conan the Barbarian. He never wanted to fight—and he still doesn’t. He’s got a few daddy issues because of this. He has broad shoulders and arms the size of tree trunks. He’s bald with skin as black as ink. He carries a broadsword and a wooden shield because he’s just that cool. But he doesn’t want to fight. He’s a pacifist, for the most part, and he plays the generic role of stupid barbarian to throw people off. He’s actually quite clever. He usually uses his/his father’s reputation to force people to back down without a fight. He’s also unusually tall, which he uses to intimidate people. He’s a kind caring teddy bear who will warn anyone against joining their country’s army.

5.      THE ELF ARCHER—Oh, boy, if you hear those words and don’t picture Orlando Bloom, then I’m not sure why you’re reading this. This guy is perfect—he can shoot a bow with the accuracy of a sniper rifle. He can pick off Wargs and Orcs from a distance that defies all laws of physics—pretty much everything he does in a battle defies the laws of physics, for that matter. But who cares? He’s badass! He can surfboard a shield into an Orc’s neck, kill dozens of cannon fodder without breaking a sweat. He’ll climb an elephant and take it down single handedly just because he’s bored. He’ll be a total badass and won’t even ruin his hair in the process. Seriously? Does that guy ever get a scratch on him? He just came out of a week long siege of a fortress and his cheeks are still soft as a baby’s bottom! Yeah. This guy’s perfect at everything. But where’s the fun in that? Please remember, Elves are immortal, they’ve had a long time to think and plan for any eventual outcome. Hell, the Dark Lord should be using these fuckers to take over the land! Okay, I’ve rambled about the cliche enough. Onto my rebuttal-character. He’s an elf archer by the name of Azoc Dulu. The Elvish name their children after how they will train them. Bardag’s name translated to Battle Follower. (Yes, I’ve made up my own Elvish language. Don’t praise me for coming up with it, and don’t get angry with me for “copying Tolkien. Deal with it.) He’s been trained for centuries in using all kinds of bows and crossbows. So much so that without it, he’s pretty much inept. He’s adequate with other weapons, but his father made the mistake of focusing too much effort on one weapon. He put all the eggs in one basket. Azoc thoroughly disfigured from centuries of on and off battle. So much so that he wears an Elvish cloak that is designed to bring shadows close, so no one can see his face. During the Dead Night, he’s trying to get to Eldeglast for protection, like the rest of the Fellowship, they agreed to meet up there should anything go awry. Though he has to make a pit stop along the way–to return the body of his dwarf friend to his family. Azoc, like most Elves, are awkward among other races. He’s accustomed to long periods of silence. He takes his time with everything because of his lifespan. No time is time wasted. He sometimes forgets that humans or dwarves or other races have weaknesses that he doesn’t. The most disturbing thing is probably when he goes for extended periods of time forgetting to blink.

6. DOUR DWARF–This guy has been in everything. You know the guy I’m talking about. He might as well go through the lands of Generica wearing a T Shirt that reads SHORT AND PROUD OF IT! You’ll never see him without his axe–and sometimes one or five trusty extras. Don’t be confused by his size, though. This guy’s a tough fighter. He’s a brawler. And he hates Elves. As a matter of fact, his whole race hates Elves. Why? who knows? Probably because of some dispute that happened three thousand years ago that nobody seems to be able to get over or find peace–they won’t break into all out war, though. No, they’re too civilized for that. He’s also kinda funny. He’s the comic relief. He tells the puns. He keeps everyone’s spirits up.Next to the Chosen One, he’s tied with the wise old wizard for most overused. And nobody will shut up about this shit in front of him–and that really fucking pisses him off. His name was Averon Bael. He doesn’t carry an axe, but he’s the best dwarf to ever wield a spear. His race split half a century ago between stone masons and hunters. He’s a hunter.. They’re nearly the world monopoly on meat. Because of this, they live in the forest and since they’re not built for stealth, rely on mass attacks. Averon was a master planner, though you don’t always have much time to make plans when the dead close in around you every night. Azoc had been distracted with his own dead to keep at bay that he didn’t have time to save Averon. Currently deceased, Azoc is presently taking him to his people to give him a proper burial. As Averon was a close friend of Azoc, this is his first real encounter with mortality. Sure he saw people die all the wars of this-and-that over the years, but never a friend. And any of the other friends that have died in wars he’s probably long since forgotten over the centuries. So now, as a reminder, he’s carrying his friend’s body across the countryside to deliver it back to the Dwarves.

A Practical Guide to Monsters #10

In Sight of Ravens (2)

Previously

The monk walked the abbey, bare feet whispering against the cobblestones. The Latin singing of his brothers was far off to him. He was shrouded in his own thoughts.

He came at once upon a large door and heaved the bolt back. The door moaned as it opened, and the monk snatched a torch off the wall. Before him were rows and rows of blank parchment and ink bottles. He passed the other work benches where his brothers did their translating. He hung his torch on the back wall and took a seat.

His old bones protested to such movements. Even the act of sitting down was enough to pain him, if only mildly. From there, he dipped his quill into the inkpot and unlatched a large book. Dust sprayed the air as he thumbed through the pages. He had been deciphering it for weeks, yet only now was he truly beginning to understand its lexicon.

He had received the book from an Earl. William de Roumare, his name was. There was talk all through the abbey that he had died quite recently.

The monk said no prayers for him. The Lord had, charged a hefty sum for the tome, yet refused to say where he had obtained it.

His price was too much for the monk, but he had to have it. Even if he had to pilfer a few coins here and there.

Since the Earl sold him the book, and he had spent almost every waking hour henceforth pouring over it; deciphering its contents while no one was looking.

He drew his quill from the inkpot and scratched the first three words of the latest page onto his parchment. He squinted at the text. His old eyes made reading difficult, and near impossible by candlelight.

Time became lost to him. All that mattered were the words. He needed to translate this book. The thought compelled him like an insect drawn to light. Nothing else mattered. Only the Earl’s book.

The monk thought he heard a howl in the distance, far and away. Or was it close? His eyes were not the only thing failing him in his old age.

He shrugged it off and continued his translations.

* * *

Robyn ran through Sherwood Forest, acutely aware of the blood running down his calf. The wolf had broken his yew bow in half with a single clamp of its jaws, then set its claws on him. He had only his sword left, and he could hear its ragged snarls behind him.

He leaped over a branch, but his bad leg landed first, and he stumbled, hands braced as the forest floor reached up to meet him. A moment later, he sprang back to his feet and hurdled through Sherwood.

The fall had only delayed him by a heartbeat, but this was more than enough for the wolf to close the distance between them. Robyn ran three long strides before the wolf pounced and brought him to the ground.

Robyn pulled a dirk from his belt and slammed it into the wolf’s paw, giving him time to snake out from underneath the beast. He drew his sword and levelled it at the wolf.

It let out a low growl from deep in its stomach. Robyn could feel the palpitations of his own heart pounding against his entire being.

The wolf growled. It fell back on its haunches when Robyn lashed out, opening the wolf at the shoulder. He pressed the attack before it could recover, but the beast withdrew, yelping as it padded into the darkness.

Robyn fell to his knees. “Are you a werewolf, John Little?” he asked himself. “Are you truly framed?”

* * *

Baron Fitzwalter led his squire through the courtyard of Nottingham Castle. He watched as his men-at-arms drilled with wooden swords. He was beginning to regret offering his services. For weeks he had been hunting the wolf, and for weeks he had found nothing. He was trapped in Nottingham under his own word.

“My Lord,” his squire said, “Why do these men drill so late?”

“They are conscripts from Nottingham,” Baron Fitzwalter answered. “They must learn to fight before we go off to the Holy Land.”

They reached the stables, and the squire rushed to fetch the Baron’s saddle and fasten it to his horse.

“Good,” the Baron said. “You’re learning, Gisborn.”

“Thank you, my Lord,” Gisborn replied. “If I may ask a question?”

“You may.”

“Why do we stay here in search of the wolf? We were on our way to the Holy Land. Why do we tarry with talk of wolves and other perilous creatures?”

The Baron frowned at that and gave his squire a look fixed Gisborn in place. “We need all the men we can muster against Saladin. Richard is captured, and now his Lords must come to his aid. How will it look if someone like Balian of Ibelin came to the Holy Land with more men than I? Whosoever has the most men at his disposal shall display the most effectiveness in battle. And the most effectiveness shall be rewarded.”

“And you now have these conscripts—”

“In exchange for my services, yes. I mean to find and kill the wolf that plagues Nottingham.”

“The wolf?”

“Yes, the wolf,” Fitzwalter said. “Spare me your superstitions, Gisborn. We all know of the false charge laid on John Little. If the man has any sense he’ll stay far away from Nottingham. If not—well, I’ve offered my services.”

“And how shall you do that? Kill the wolf I mean.”

“How do you think?” The Baron slapped his scabbard and without another word he swung onto his saddle and led his horse through the postern gate.

He rode his horse through the sunset, drawing his cloak about himself as a snow began to fall. Autumn was creeping away from the land, and now winter was coming. He across the shire of Nottingham, until he chanced upon an abbey. He reined his horse to a halt and it stood there, hoofprints fresh in the snow. He swung down from his saddle, tied his horse and entered.

He passed monks and friars singing their holy songs, and meandered about the twisting courtyards until he came to a church. The double doors boomed open, echoing through the room. He walked between the pews as he readied himself for confession. He had sinned a great deal. And he hoped that cleansing himself of all ties to such sins would help him in his quest in the Holy Land. There were few nights of late he had not confessed in some way.

He came upon the altar when he spotted another man leaving the confessional. He knew that face. Yet the memory of it eluded him.

It was only when he saw the man’s stature that he put a name to it. “Halt!” he cried, voice echoing through the abbey. “John Little!”

The man took to his heels, and the Baron chased him, back through the winding alleys and twisting roads until the man ducked out of the abbey. And when the Baron went to follow him, the man was gone. He had been ten seconds behind at best, yet the goliath had disappeared. Did he know some back road that the Baron didn’t?

“It’s not possible…” Fitzwalter said to himself. “It can’t be possible.”

He drew his sword, and pulled his shield off his back. He circled about, ready for the outlaw to attack.

It was only when he came upon his horse that he realized the gravity of the situation.

His mount lay utterly rent. The flesh of its neck had been riven from the bone. Blood stained the snow red and the pooled in streams between the cobblestones. As he knelt to inspect the wounds, he noticed it had not been a blade that had done this. There were teeth marks.

“Shit.”

With a growl the beast was upon him. Only the Baron’s instinctive shield-raise saved his life, as the wolf’s claws tore the paint off his coat of arms.

The Baron cut the wolf across the cheek in retaliation.

A full moon lit up the sky as the wolf and the Baron faced each other. Fitzwalter’s shoulders rose and sank with each heavy breath. He drew his shield close and held his sword out, ready for the wolf’s next attack. It was a large wolf. Nearly the size of his horse.

He did not expect it to pounce.

Once again, Fitzwalter raised his shield, which took the brunt of the impact. Pain exploded in the arm behind it. And the force of the wolf’s attack knocked him back, where the treacherous ground took his legs out from under him.

When he recovered, the wolf’s paw landed on his shield, trapping one arm. Desperately, he thrusted with his sword arm to take the creature through the heart, but the wolf pawed down his sword-arm and sank its teeth into his mail.

It had just worked its way past his mail when the Baron heard a squeal, and the wolf shrank back. Something whispered through the air and landed heavily in the wolf’s back.

The wolf shrank into the shadows, whining, The Baron saw four arrows lain in its back before it ran off.

Lord Fitzwalter rose to his feet, rivulets of blood running down his mail. The bowman had saved his arm, if not his life. He looked around for his savior, but saw not a soul around the abbey.

And then he heard a voice from the rooftops. “We are not enemies in this, you and I,” said the bowman. “We share a common goal. Therefore I beseech you—stay out of Sherwood!”

“Robyn Hood!” Baron Fitzwalter shouted, “Come out of the shadows, outlaw! Face me like a man! Face the justice you deserve!”

“There are worse things than me hiding in the shadows, my Lord” said Robyn, and Baron Robert Fitzwalter was left on the steps of the abbey to ponder what had transpired.

Next

A Practical Guide to Monsters #9

In Sight of Ravens (2)

Previously

When he awoke, Robyn was slumped against a large Blackwood. His heart throbbed in his temples and as he came to he saw that the large man was crouched across from him. His clothes were wet and clinging to him tight as a lover. His makeshift quarterstaff rested between them. “You’re him, aren’t you?” the man said. “Robyn Hood, I mean.”

Robyn’s attempted to speak, but only managed to muster a sound like steel scraping an anvil. He nodded in affirmation. His lips moved, but not a sound escaped them. How did you know?

“How’d I know?” the man said, “They tell tales of you all over Nottingham—you’re a legend in the making, and your fighting is something to be rivaled.”

Robyn managed a terse reply. “I should be saying that of you.” He sputtered out coughs.

“You’d beat me on level ground, I’m sure of it. One battle does not a victor decide.”

“Wise words.” Robyn grunted to his feet and held out a calloused hand. “Shall we try again?”

The man swatted his hand away. “Save your strength, Robyn Hood. I have a feeling you’ll need it. The Sheriff’s men are not done looking for me.”

“So that’s why you saved me.” Robyn’s voice was coming back.

“What?”

“You want refuge from the Sheriff and his men.”

The giant shook his head. Droplets of water scattered through the air. “I’ll not deny it,” he said. “But think on this—why would I save you after you accused me of lycanthropy?”

Robyn opened his mouth to speak, but no words came to him. “You want to join me?”

“Indeed.”

“Then kneel. Don’t stand there gawking. I won’t be taking your head off your shoulders.”

Hesitantly, the man knelt. Robyn grasped a branch and hauled himself to his feet and over to a patch of grass where his swordbelt lay. The leathers were of no use anymore. But this bandit had taken his sword from the sheath. He’s smart, Robyn thought. He smiled, despite himself.

Robyn grasped his sword and stalked over to where the man knelt. He leveled the sword, and said, “State your name and title.”

“John Little of…of…I have no title, sir.”

“It matters not,” Robyn said. “I Christen you Little John of Sherwood Forest, and of Robyn Hood’s Merry Men.” He grinned. “The tales usually omit this next part from the knighting ceremony.” He smacked John across the face with the flat of his blade. “Let that be the last blow you take and do not return in kind. You may rise.

“Little John?” the man echoed, “Is that what you’ll call me?  It seems a jest.”

“It is,” Robyn laughed. “Take it in good faith. Come, I will bring you to my hideaway. There are many you have not met.”

Little John raised an eyebrow. “You don’t think me a werewolf?”

“Aye.”

“You trust me?”

“Aye,” Robyn said. “I trust you.”

* * *

Night fell over Sherwood Forest, leaving only moonlight to glitter through the treetops. Robyn crept to his feet. The men in his camp did not stir—and the outlaw was cautious not to wake John Little.

He stole away through the dead of night. He was surefooted, moving like a carefully chosen word. He trained his eye on a Birchwood on the horizon. With every step, his movements grew slower as if walking through tar. The world blurred around him like wet paint. His stomach somersaulted.

He wished he could say it was his first time the sensation came over him.

It was the price he paid to visit his mentor.

The world crumbled around him. His heart pounded like in his chest. He fell to his knees.

Everything slowed and came back into focus when he saw the familiar fire. The old one sat with his back to him, shrouded in his fur cloak. His face obscured by the wolf’s-head hood. He had copper skin—stretched so thin it looked like mere sleeves for his bones. He rocked front to back so much so that Robyn often wondered if he would one day fall into the fire and set himself ablaze. Though the place and the fire were warm, the old one never seemed to find comfort.

“This place is always cold.” he would say “but it is still my place”

“Christian?” the old one asked as Robyn approached. He hacked a gob of saliva into his fire.

“I told you to call me Robyn,” the outlaw said.

The old one clicked his tongue. He took up a stick and prodded the fire. “Ah, but I cannot do that. Names are powerful things, and there are beings who may yet hear us even here, where time and place are nothing.”

Robyn sat across from the old one. “Do you know why I’m here?”

“Have you been practicing your spells?” the old one asked as if he did not hear Robyn. “You must learn incantations. It can save your life.”

“That is not why I came.”

“I know.”

“You haven’t answered my question.”

“And you, mine.” The old one smirked.

Robyn pressed his lips together. “I have,” he muttered. “But nothing works. There’s not enough power behind the incantations.”

“Then you have not the willpower to master your command.”

“Why do you ask this of me?” Robyn cried, extending his arm towards the old one. “There are more pressing matters all throughout Nottingham, and you would have me go off in secret practicing spells and enchantments—”

Anger flared in the old one and his fire roared skyward. “Robyn of Locksley!” he bellowed, “I did not save you from Shai’da to hear your petty complaints. Men and more have died without knowing the words to an enchantment that could save their life! I chose you to fight off darkness while your race fights its holy war—and it is not a decision I have taken lightly.”

The fire dwindled to its normal proportions and the old one smiled, not unkindly. “I expect better of you.”

Robyn stared unblinking, chest heaving with each breath. Sweat dampened his forehead and soot littered his raiment. “I will learn your spells,” Robyn swore. “On my honor.”

“The honor of an outlaw,” the old one mocked.

“The honor of a Christian,” Robyn countered.

“Very well,” the old one croaked, “Then I will have to be sure you are truly doing so. If you succeed, I will grant you a gift.”

“Succeed?” asked the outlaw. “Succeed at what?”

“Freeing Nottingham of its infestation.” the old one said.

Robyn raised an eyebrow. “Infestation?”

The old one spat another gob into the fire. “What else do you call a werewolf? Do not get too close to it, or you’ll catch it yourself.”

“Catch it?”

The old one sighed. He closed his eyes, ready to bequeath his knowledge to the outlaw. “Lycanthropy,” he said, “Is a disease found in Shai’da. To them, it is nothing more than what you might call a cold. But if a human shares too much physical contact with a creature with the virus, it will infect them quite differently. They become half man, half monster.”

“And how do you cure it?”

“You don’t. It will work its way out of the system in time. In a week, a month, years, decades—it varies. Find the werewolf, Christian, and keep him from all others.”

“And if I cure Nottingham of this threat? What then? You’ve promised me a reward.”

The old one smirked. “I promise no one shall find your encampment who you do not desire to set foot there.”

Robyn chuckled. “I see now why you tell me to practice enchantments.” Robyn stood, and made to leave.

“It would be wise to follow my instructions,” the old one said. His realm crumbled around Robyn and he was on his knees again in Sherwood Forest, moonlight glittering through the trees.

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A Practical Guide to Monsters #8

In Sight of Ravens (2)

Previously

The large man lumbered through Sherwood Forest, wreathed in the dark of a moonless night. Red tears ran down the claw marks on his arm. He had left the two yeomen behind. One had torn the other’s throat out.

He had killed him for that.

Lanterns and disembodied voices chased him, snapping the foliage behind him. He heard chainmail rattling and swords clattering in their scabbards.

The Sheriff’s men pursued him.

He pressed through wave after wave of tangled roots and thorn bushes. The resounding accusations of his pursuers were drowned out by his own conflicted thoughts. The man knew the tales of Sherwood Forest. It was said to be haunted by men and more.

He was not sure if he should trust a hope that one might come to his aid.

The chuckle of a nearby stream alerted the goliath to a path of escape. He adjusted his course to carry him subtly towards it.

He was not prepared for the drop.

The hillside was treacherous—fallen branches and twigs lashed and lacerated him. He lost all sense of space until he managed to stumble to his feet.

He clung to the hillside, the sound of the stream underfoot drowned his bootsteps.

One of the Sheriff’s men barked orders from above. “Find him!” shouted the gravelly voice that belonged to Guy of Gisborn. He was still a squire to Baron Fitzwalter, but his had been a swift ascent through the Lord’s ranks.

“Find him! Find the werewolf!” The wind sang on the squire’s unsheathed blade.

For half a moment, the man considered scaling the hillside to combat the squire. But another thought stayed his hand. He needed safety and shelter first.

His throat burned and it took all that was within him to stay his hand from the stream. It could make him sick. Kill him, even.

The stream carried him around a bend and he stalked off through Sherwood Forest, voices fading to distant whispers.

He stopped only a moment, to snatch a fallen tree branch. He unsheathed a dirk and shoddily stripped it down to size. It was not the best quarterstaff he’d made, but it would do.

He wandered off into the night.

* * *

The next morning, in a separate part of the forest entirely, an outlaw awoke. He heard the twitter of birds in the air, felt the breeze on his face, and saw the old hag lying next to him, dead, on the forest floor.

Robyn of Locksley grunted to his feet, his movements bringing back the pain—and the memories—of the night before.

This was the first creature to seek him out—part of him hoped it wasn’t the last. It had cried for vengeance for the murder of its kith. Robyn Hood had yet to learn how to defend against a hag’s magic. He had been beaten and his death seemed a certainty.

Until someone had cried “Find the werewolf!”

That drew the hag’s attention. But Robyn Hood steeled himself toward his cause, and shot an arrow through the hag’s heart before her mind could return to him.

Presently, Robyn buckled his swordbelt, threw his bow over his shoulder and set off. He wandered on for some time without meeting anyone. And then he came to a river. It was wide and deep, swollen by last of winter rains. It was crossed by a slender, shaky bridge a shoulder’s breadth across.

Robyn began to cross the bridge before he noticed that a great, tall man was crossing from the other side.

“Go back and wait till I have come over,” he called out to the stranger.

The stranger laughed, though the merriment did not touch his eyes. “I have as good a right to the bridge as you. Wait your turn, for I am in a hurry.”

Find the werewolf, someone had shouted last night. The words rang through Robyn’s head. The outlaw smiled. “Pray tell—what cause have you that bids you cross in such a hurry? Why can’t you afford to tarry?”

“I cannot,” said the stranger. His knuckled went white on his quarterstaff. “I must make haste.”

Robyn squared his shoulders. “Tell me more.”

The stranger groped at empty air for the words he needed. “I—I have angered the sheriff,” he said, “And so his men hunt me unjustly.”

Find the werewolf. “Were you the man accused of lycanthropy?”

“It is a false charge, I assure you.”

Robyn drew an arrow from his quiver. He stroked the goose feathers as he notched it to his bowstring. “And how would you assure me?”

“I spoke out against the sheriff’s taxes, and in return he has laid this false charge on me.”

“And what of the deaths back in Nottingham?” Robyn questioned. “Mere wolf attacks?”

“Or the sheriff’s own doing. I care not. Why do you concern yourself with the deaths in Nottingham?”

Robyn drew the arrow to his cheek and started forward. “Go back,” he said, levelly. “Go back or I will shoot.”

The large man wrung his hands around the quarterstaff as though he wished it were Robyn’s throat. “That I cannot do.”

“My arm grows tired. I will not ask you again.”

“Nor will I.”

Robyn did not see the man start across the bridge, for it only took him three large steps, and when he realized what befell him, the stranger had smacked his bow out of the way. His arrow hissed through the brambles off the path.

Robyn met the stranger with a thrust from his bow.

The two fought swaying backwards and forwards in an attempt to keep their balance. With every stroke the bridge bent and trembled beneath them as if it would break. Robyn smacked the stranger in the chest and he keeled over.

As Robyn raised his bow to strike again, the man drove his quarterstaff into Robyn’s gut with such force that he spilled the contents of his last meal into the river below.

“What you give me, I return twice over,” the large man grumbled. He smacked Robyn across the jaw. The outlaw stumbled. He wrestled to regain his footing, yet when he stepped forward he felt only empty air.

Then something wet.

He slammed into the stream and an explosion of pain rocketed through his head. The world went white, and wisps of blood curled about the stream. He saw the goliath of a man lumbering towards him. Please, God. Don’t let it end like this…

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