We’re All Fortunato

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I thought things were going well with my roommate until he put a knife to my throat.

That was two years ago. I felt like a fool back then, in that moment; when my then-best friend and roommate held a knife to my throat and shrieked, „Why do I let you speak. Why?“

I won’t get into the details of what happened. He’s long since been expelled from this school and my life, but looking back I can still see the signs. The things I did that may have pissed him off and led him to that point. Before that, I had always felt….how do I put this…fortunate to have a friend like him. I won’t get into the details about why he put that knife to my throat, but looking back, I as I’ve said, in hindsight, I can see the signs signs leading up to the incident. The things I said, and how that fueled his downward spiral. It all seems so obvious in retrospect.

It’s a good thing he didn’t want to show me his Amontillado. I understand this now: I was Fortunato, and he was Montressor. We were in a real life version of The Cask of Amontillado.

We never know why Montressor, from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado wants to kill his self-proclaimed friend, outside of what he, the unreliable narrator, says are a collection of perceived slights (personally I assume it’s because of his wildly ironic name). What could he have done to warrant a death that horrific from someone you deem your friend? What did he do?

The answer, of course, depends on who you ask. Maybe there is no answer. Not definitive ones, at least. Montressor is an unreliable narrator, so you can’t trust him, which leaves you to come up with your own conclusions.

And that’s where the terror is. By the end of the story, you’re put exactly in Fortunato’s shoes (fetters?). Fortunato doesn’t know what he’s done wrong. The terror’s in what isn’t said. He travels down underground into a proverbial Hell getting progressively drunker along the way, thinking he was having fun with his friend.

As you, the reader, go along for the unfortunate duo’s ride, you become lost in Poe’s prose, his intensely gothic tone, and Montressor’s repeated reminders to himself to remember what he’s there for.

But you never know why he does it. By the end, when you realize Fortunato’s dead, you’re just as much of a fool as he was. Because neither of you knew why Montressor would do something like that. How could Fortunato’s slights could go unnoticed for so long? Surely Fortunato would have mentioned them when he realized the fate his friend had condemned him to. Why did the slights not ruin their friendship before he was killed? The whole thing boggles the mind.

Again, the terror lies in what you don’t know. The lack of information outside of what is happening in that moment of the story puts your firmly in the bells-and-motley of Fortunato. The fact that we must put the pieces together and in the end still have no definitive answer as to the why of the act is a testament to Poe’s mastery of his craft.

There are even layers of irony. Fortunato has an ironic name, as mentioned; he’s dressed up as a fool, he’s a drunk, and you don’t know much about him aside from he’s a connoisseur and has apparently slighted Montressor.

Then there’s the fact that you’re in Montressor’s head throughout the story, but you never learn too much of his motives beyond, „He’s insane.“ The injustice of Fortunato’s death only twists the knife.

I’m glad my then-roommate and then-friend didn’t do exactly that. If he had, I wouldn’t be here, writing this deliciously ironic analysis for all of you. I was Fortunato, in the end. And so are you. Since Montressor has no defined motive, you are free to imagine Montressor as anybody.

Which begs the question, if we are Fortunato, then who in our lives is Montressor? I know who mine was.

Do you?

Altogether Scoundrels (Legends of Steel and Straw #2)

Bodies of Steel and Straw

Trust your blade.

Steel is unlike Men

It will not lie to you

—Ancient Ükardhi proverb

Musa Em had won a hard-fought peace—one he could not afford to lose for the sake of one man.

If it were any other man, he wouldn’t’ve taken the risk.

Musa Em ruled his caste as its Emperion. He had dealt with years of border skirmishes between himself and the rival Emperion. Before he could even begin peace-talks. Let alone the time-consuming negotiations with the rival castes to form his confederation. Even during negotiations, the rival Emperion needed to vote on the new Emperion of their confederation would be. In the end, they had chosen Duad Ath. Duad the Dreaded, he’d be called while they warred.

Musa Em still remembered Duad’s smile when they chose him. As sharp and curved as his dagger.

This same dagger would soon be at Musa Em’s throat if he was not careful. He had seen the thing that had slinked out of Ath’s expanse late at night during their weeks of negotiations. The beast was massive, such that it had nearly torn the roof clear from the hut’s entrance.

And when he saw the thing lumbering forth, he decided he needed a killer. To his satisfaction, one had come to their newfound confederation scant days ago.

 * * *

Musa stole a visit to the man, shrouded in a cloak that blustered in the wind as he stomped through the tall yellow grass. He ran his fingers along the weavings that sealed the killer as came upon the entrance. With a mighty heave, Musa pushed the large stone aside, and moonlight flowed within.

He was upon the stranger. A man from Ükardhi, far south.

 

They had confiscated his ringmail shirt along with the double-edged sword that reminded Musa of the weapons the milkglass northmen. The prisoner had opened one of Duad Ath’s soldiers from waist to throat when he was caught sneaking into the confederation mere nights ago.

Presently, he was bound hand and foot by a length of iron fetters. When he saw Musa Em, he began to struggle, chains clanking He was a taut brown body of barely-sheathed muscle. Musa watched him struggle until, breathless, he relented and looked up at his captor. The two surveyed each other. His nose was curved sideways. Broken at least thrice, Musa guessed.

They’d let him keep his crimson cloak about his shoulders. Musa shuddered to look into the evil eye stitched onto the thing. Who could say what kind of evil that eye warded off? Who could say if this evil could be turned on others?

Musa hoped this was so. Smiling, he crouched over the prisoner. “Would you like to live, outlander?” Musa asked.

The prisoner grunted, newfound interest unveiling behind his eyes.

“It will cost you.”

The prisoner simply stared.

“I want you to kill a man for me.”

“Who?”

“Duad Ath. The Emperion of our new clan—and his creature.”

If the man was surprised, he did not show it. “I’ll need my blade,” he said. “And my shirt.”

Musa nodded. “It will be done.”

“When will I be free?”

“Within the hour. Anyone who can be bribed has been. And those who couldn’t—they were otherwise dealt with.”

“I’ll want my bonds removed now,” the Ükardhian growled. “And I’ll have some food, too. Good food. Not the wretched gruel I’ve been fed these past few days.”

“It will be arranged, outlander.”

“They call me Albarran.”

“It will be arranged.”

* * *

The blade had belonged to Albarran’s father. At times, it had been all that kept them alive in the white-heats upon the southron planes of Ükardhi.

Onde, when Albarran was young, he had found himself on death’s door. He remembered hearing his father praying to Kafmir, Lord of Duals and Duels. The God Kafmir had saved Albarran and woven him a cloak with an eye sewn onto it, sealed shut—it had since then felt welded to him by some primal instinct. Always was he aware of the forces clambering to break its protection.

Albarran stalked through the tall grass that reaching up to his waist, feeling this selfsame force. He pushed it to the back of his mind. He had a debt to repay.

His mail shirt rattled as he crept through the night toward Duad Ath’s hut. He had been told it would be the one with intricate patterns worked into the weavings. Some strange script that the man who saved him could not identify.

Still, all other huts were plain. This one had openings that seemed impractical. Most were crescent openings, with the occasional dash or complete circle, leading into more curves.

This seemed like the correct one.

Albarran stepped inside and saw that the moon filtering through the weaves in the hut had formed some kind of bizarre moon-formed letter, or rune. He’d never seen it’s like before.

He adjusted his cloak about his shoulders and pulled his two-sided blade free from his belt.

He stepped inside.

A lightning bolt flashed behind his eyes and pain seared his forehead. The world around him shattered like so much glass. Then the shattered shards fell into some sort of bright-burning Never beneath him. They fell until they were so small he could not see them falling. But he heard no crash.

He thought he would fall, too, until rock knitted its way between the Never and his feet, threading itself into spires of stone with a patchwork path interrupted by occasional tufts of grass and dirt. Some of it marked the edge of the spire, and he could see it falling like an open sandbag into the Never, yet it did not empty.

He followed the path, and heard the vestiges of voices—a conversation.

“…Should have taken my warning! Should have left with your clan while you were still an Emperion!” The voice came behind a bend of jagged stone.

“Your beast doesn’t frighten me,” said the voice of Musa Em. “My interests remain here, Ath!”

“That murderer gives you good company! Oh, don’t look so shocked. Of course I know. There are many things here—even secrets—that make themselves known to me. I know that the peace you so strived for was won more by daggers in the night and whispered threats. And yet I was named Emperion of our new caste. It seems the others fear my beast more than your steel. It must chafe, does it not?”

“I did not need to conjure some foul beast to secure my rule. I never exploited a caste for greed and ambition. Do not shame me with such words when you gather taloned beasts and damascened steel to silence those who might dissent.”

“At least the Ükardhian isn’t ashamed of to bring his murderous acts to bare!”

Albarran had heard enough of their arguing, and rounded the jagged rock to reveal himself. The two men stood at arm’s length of each other, both pointing curved daggers to the other. But when they saw him, they lowered their arms an inch.

“Then it is settled,” Albarran growled. “We three are altogether scoundrels.”

Duad Ath adjusted his the collar of his tunic and swallowed saliva. “What shall become of me, then? May I yet keep my life?”

Musa’s smile was as curved as the Ükardhian’s nose. “Perhaps,” he said. “If you swear never to summon your beast, and stay away from this evil realm.” He gestured to the void of Never surrounding the three of them.

Albarran laughed. “Since when does a leader keep his promises? Come, let me cut his throat and—”

“Silence,” Musa hissed. “I may yet end this without bloodshed. He stepped forward, but only just lowered his dagger. “Do we have a deal, Ath?”

“A cornered lion has few options,” Duad Ath muttered, staring at Albarran’s blade, then at Musa’s dagger. He smiled, which struck Albarran as unusual. Why would he smile in such a situation?

But then the outlander heard something straggling down the sheer rock spire. It was a horrid desecration somewhere between a bear and a man. Its eyes were gouged so that it was ever-sniffing. It made a grating snarl and leapt for Musa Em.

But the southron threw himself in front of the former Emperion. The beast collided with Albarran and the two tumbled and growled.

Musa watched in muted horror. “You put your life in front of mine?”

“I pay my debts,” Albarran managed to respond. His shoulders were throbbing, having taken the brunt of the collision. He could not let the beast touch him. It was a tikoloshe—a cursed gremlin called to do the bidding of malevolent men.

The beast pinned Albarran to the ground and they struggled for three heartbeats before the outlander tore himself free, cutting one of the beast’s hands off and rolling to the side as it wailed.

Albarran’s cloak was heavy on his shoulders. He could feel the eye fluttering, trying to open. It took all of his mental faculties to seal it as he fought. There was a great thrashing of limbs as Albarran tried to sneak his steel past the tikoloshe’s defenses. But even one-handed the beast was formidable, swinging in a storm of tooth and claw.

The two were in a battle-frenzy. They caught and slashed and swung at each other. They heaved labored breaths, shoulders rising and falling like grass in the wind. Once during their battle, the gremlin nearly backed Albarran off the edge of the rock and down into the light glowing downwards forever below them.

Breathless, Albarran thrust forward, buring his blade in the beast’s belly. The gremlin’s fur was matted with blood as it sank to one knee. Albarran circled the beast and with a heavy kick, smote the gremlin into the burning Never below.

Albarran turned to address the two men, but Musa Em had long since fled, and Duad Ath was on his knees, uttering pleas for mercy.

But the southron could not hear him. He was battered and his cloak held back hungry spirits that wished to enter this vile place. For a fraction of a splinter of a moment, he closed the eye.

It was all that was needed. By the time the eye opened once more, fingers of argent were whispering through the Never, snatching up foul pieces of it and carrying them off to even fouler places. Specters of moonlight sifted through the realm, until every piece was carried away, and Albarran was within Duad Ath’s expansive hut once more.

He had not seen Ath himself carried away by the specter, but he was not with him when he returned to the hut. Nor was Musa Em, and Albarran was unaware if the men could have exited while the strange letter was still filtered in the tent by moonlight.

He did not bother to ponder whether or not the two had been snatched up by the specters. They had no protection from them. And he could not find Ath within the hut. He resolved that he had paid his debt to Musa Em—even if Em was not around to enjoy it. He tired of their petty quarrels, elsewise. There were other places and other travels for a southron wanderer.

Into the Sand (Legends of Steel and Straw #1)

 Bodies of Steel and Straw 

The God of Duals and Duels

The God of Law and Chaos

The God of Life and Death

The God is powerless in the middle.

—Ancient Ükardhi proverb

 

The southron from Ükardhi did not mind the white-heats across the planes. He had been molded by it in youth, as the sword is molded by the forge-fires.

He came at length upon a briny smell, and he staggered at the new weight on his cloak. More spirits hereabouts, he guessed. Instinctively, he reached out to steady himself, focused on the distant sound of waves lapping on the shoreline. His hand closed around a wooden pole. The sand gave way to a wooden floor sprawling across a small village. It was slightly soft and overgrown with seaweed. It mushed under the Ükardhian’s feet as he stumbled across the threshold, laughing, and set off to explore the territory.

He found first a bald woman, bare breasted with a floral-patterned dress that reached her ankles. She wore a delicate scrap of linen over her head. A spear rested beside the tavern she leaned on like a comrade beside her. “Welcome, traveler,” she said, “to Plankytown. Have you business hereabout?”

“Not business,” huffed the man, “Just a drink. Please.”

“A drinker with a sword at his hip,” the woman said. The spear was resting beside her, and then in her hand, between blinds. It was pointed at his throat. “You’ll hurt yourself, old man.”

“Wary of strangers, I see.” He raised his hands as he approached. “Call me Albarran.” He extended it toward the woman.

“Khalee,” she said, shaking his hand.

“Is there anyone else here in Plankytown?”

“They’re hiding,” said Khalee. “We don’t chance strangers around here.”

Albarran bit back a smirk. “It’s a good thing, then, that I’ve given you my name. Can’t say we’re strangers, can we? Now, about that drink…”

* * *

The beer was a froth of corn and malt and yeast and water. Albarran savored the drink, his throat working as he finished it without pausing for breath; beads of foam slicking down his gullet.

He set the wooden cup down on the small round table. Khalee was watching him from across the tavern. He inspected the walls and found barnacles clustered onto them, grouped in sizes like white turtle shells, patching the wooden frame like quiltwork.

He looked to Khalee, a question etched onto his face. But before he could noise it, Khalee spoke.

“Two years ago a traveler angered the Restless Dead when he came to Plankytown. Drowned a man on the docks in a drunken scuffle, then tried to flee on a trading galley. The Restless Dead sank it off the coat before they returned to their Never.

Albarran wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “And?” He gestured to the ship’s hulls that now walled them in.

“And one year later a new traveler came, wearing a cloak with a single eye sewn onto the back—much like yours. She claimed to be a patron of Kafmir.”

“God of Duels and Duals,” Albarran finished. “Did he open the third eye?”

“The one on the cloak?”

“That is so.”

She did,” Khalee grinned. “She summoned the Restless Dead to scavenge the sea-floor for sunken vessels, and they built Plankytown as it is known today. I remember the sight of that murderer’s corpse being dragged into the Never the second time.” Khalee sat herself across from Albarran. She’d brought a pitcher of beer with her and refilled Albarran’s cup. “She didn’t stay long…will you?”

Albarran smiled gently. “No,” he said. “We patrons of Kafmir are cursed. Forces of Law and Chaos duel around us.”

“Duels and Duals,” Khalee muttered.

“That is so. I’m not adventurer looking for trouble. I’m a refugee, chased by it. I cannot abide friends or shelter.”

Khalee turned the cup in her hands, and then spat into it, a long, thin line of saliva falling into the froth. She handed the cup to Albarran. “I’ll be your friend,” she said.

“Khalee—”

“I never thanked Kafmir’s last patron for building our town, or avenging the man that was killed. I would amend that.”

Albarran nodded his assent and spit into the drink. He swallowed a mouthful, handed it back to Khalee, and she drank a gulp herself.

“We are kin now, Albarran. Go as you will, and know you will have one friend with you, always. Send my regards to the god Kafmir.

* * *

Albarran left Plankytown that night. The wind and sand chafed his flesh as he returned to the sand. The Ükardhian stumbled and fell to his knees. He did not get up, at first. Instead he wept. He wept for a long while, tears streaming, and the wind drying them on his cheeks.

Realistic Fantasy is an Oxymoron

This is a compilation and expansion on the original Realistic Fantasy, as well as The Problem with Serious Fiction

 

A few days ago, I was talking with a friend of mine who consumes fantasy novels at a rate I would not have guessed was possible had I not been witnessing it for twenty one years. This is the woman who read all fourteen Wheel of Time books in about three months.

“I want to write a story about Elves,” I said. She responded with a look that acted as something of a warning–the kind that made me as panicked as a sack of wet cats.

“You can’t do that,” she told me. When I asked why, she began a lecture on how such concepts are outdated and that fantasy has “evolved” past that. She took it so seriously, and so personally, that I felt I had to at least dig into this.

Anyone who has scoured the internet for even the slightest of genre advice knows that there is a lot of information regarding clichés and what to avoid and knowing what to do and what not to do in order to please their readers. Like, almost too much. Now, I’m an incredibly trope-conscious writer. However, I’ve consistently rejected the idea that tropes are inherently bad. Even ones as often-misused as the Chosen One or the Dark Lord.

With that in mind, it never even occurred to me that some people might think it so egregious to write a story about Elves. The subtitle of this article is an inversion of this, which is that prompted me to throw my hat in the ring regarding Grimdark Fantasy (Please note: Patrick Rothfuss was misquoted in this article. He has clarified, saying if you want to do them, be original.) as well as realism in the fantasy genre in general–because to imply that fantasy needs to move past gritty realism is just as ridiculous as the article links above saying it needs to move past Elves and Dragons.

But are the two styles of presenting the genre held to an equal standard?

Grimdark fantasy authors are commonly seen as the evolution of modern fantasy writing. They boast characters of gray morality and ambiguous sides. But what I have read seems little better than something in the vein of The Sword of Shannara or The Iron Tower trilogy. Except now, up-and-coming writers are using George R. R. Martin as their springboard instead of J.R.R Tolkien.

What separates Mark Lawrence from the often maligned Terry Brooks and his Lord of the Rings ripoff, The Sword of Shannara?

Aside from Lawrence’s superior command of the English language, that is.

Lawrence used George R. R. Martin as his jumping off point as much as Brooks used Tolkien. Both Lawrence and Brooks took the basic plot of the bestselling fantasy saga of their time (Lawrence took A Game of Thrones, Brooks took The Lord of the Rings), both simplified the core elements of the respective books and both of them used a post-apocalyptic setting to make it sufficiently different.

Both Lawrence and Martin use a struggle over a throne while telepaths twist the minds of rulers to their will, and all while a horde of the undead  is on the horizon. Granted, Lawrence makes the tale the story of one man, while Martin’s work spans an entire world. And while Prince of Thorns is  not as similar as The Sword of Shannara was to The Lord of the Rings, for some reason Lawrence praised for setting A Song of Ice and Fire in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust while Terry Brooks is lambasted and downright accused of plagiarism for giving The Lord of the Rings in a post-apocalyptic setting?

What sets Grimdark founder Joe Abercrombie apart from alleged Tolkien ripoff Dennis L. McKiernan? Both seem to take place in a Diet version of Westeros and Middle Earth respectively (Diet Fantasy! For when you want the refreshing flavor of the giants in the genre, with none of the original flavor or enjoyment!) Why is one lauded and the other condemned?

I will grant that with the invention of the internet, the Martin Clones are much savvier in finding ways to rehash George’s ideas and change it enough so that they can stand on their own. To their credit, they are better at it than Tolkien’s clones.

Admittedly, I am being tongue-in-cheek, here. Brooks infamously copied scenes wholesale for The Sword of Shannara and changed the mildest of details. Lawrence only borrows from Martin in broad swaths. I draw these comparisons only to further a point which will be illuminated below.

Because ultimately, them being better at hiding the fact that they are taking as much influence from Martin as they are that does not change the fact that these books are as much Martin Clones as any given book with Elves is a Tolkien Clone.

But the reason Martin Clones are taken so seriously while Tolkien Clones are not is because they write a much more serious form of fantasy. Some of the Martin Clones feature little to no humor because of how seriously everyone is taking themselves. Gone is the days where Elves sing songs and you can dance on tables after a great battle. Gone is the inherent silliness of the antics that show up in The Hobbit. With the amount of gore and grey morality these Martin Clones throw into their books, it’s easier to call it grown-up fiction. Serious fiction. Literature, even. Yet even the concept of grey morality is laughable in many of these ripoffs. These new fantasists despise the idea of black-and-white morality, but welcome black-and-blacker with open arms.

And many people praise Martin Clones because of their gore and how seriously they take themselves. No fun allowed, this is serious fantasy. It’s like in the early 2000s when every super hero film had to be extra dark because people still saw comic books as kids stuff.

Because of the R-rated fantasy world, the label grown-up fiction is proudly stamped onto their novels, as if that makes it inherently better. As if something being darker gives it a greater literary value. To quote Richard K. Morgan, “Tolkien’s general outlook on things is such that in this day and age you can’t really take it seriously as grown-up fiction. It’s full of enormously dodgy racial and cultural stereotyping, highly unlikely military tactics and ridiculously simplistic perceptions of good and evil.”

This is to say nothing of Michael Moorcock’s essay, The Epic Pooh. Tolkien approached his works with an aim to mythify a history for England. Read The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and come back to me about how seriously it takes its battle tactics. Most critics don’t seem to understand that Tolkien was not writing with realism in mind. But that doesn’t make it inherently lesser.

And many of the Martin Clones seem to echo that statement of Tolkien’s world being something to enjoy as a teenager that inspires you, but that you must grow out of. “Black and white morality is unrealistic!” say the authors who make a conceited effort to make all their characters despicable in some way. Because that is totally realistic. The Ned Starks of these novels who are fundamentally good people are seen as rarely as the grey morality of Gollums and Denethors of the Tolkien Clones. “Tolkien has a childish perception of good and evil,“ they cry.

To that, I would say that black-and-blacker morality is juvenile. Just as the 2003 version of Marvel comics‘ Daredevil was juvenile in how seriously it took itself, for example.

And now we come to the idea of the unrealism of Tolkien’s work. People are quick to critique Tolkien because for being unrealistic. They demand so much grit and realism from their works that many seem to forget that they’re writing (or reading) fantasy.

Of all genres, fantasy has the most potential. Fantasy is the genre in which you can do anything you want. And you’re demanding fantasy novels evolve towards realism? I have seen people put down a fantasy book because it promises Orcs and monsters and Elves and Dwarves. „It’s too unrealistic. Fantasy has moved past that.“

Have they forgotten that realistic fantasy is an oxymoron?

The Martin Clones and their most avid readers often love to poke fun at Tolkien Clones. The same people who deride them for being unoriginal refuse will unquestioningly accept a fantasy society in the mold of a High School understanding of Medieval England. And it is this juvenile hatred of anything Tolkienlike that leads to things like Elvish Fiction being outlawed.

Many will say that I’m being hypocritical. Or that I’m being too fair to Tolkien Clones.  What right do I have to say that these works are drivel or bad or similar by being even tangentially related to George R.R. Martin’s work? Why is a society based off of Medieval England such a bad thing? Even if it’s a High School understanding–it’s a made up world! All it has to be is consistent! There are clearly fantastic things being done in the context of these stories.

And that’s the problem with a lot of modern, lighter stories being labeled Tolkien Clones for surface elements. How similar is Wheel of Time to The Lord of the Rings, really? Or Lord Foul’s Bane or The Fionnavar Tapestry or any of the other Best Tolkien Clones? Hell, The Chronicles of Prydain was published only eleven years after The Lord of the Rings, which only became a cultural phenomenon in the seventies. How are any of these novels related to Tolkien, aside from having things like pseudo-medieval settings, Dark Lords, Chosen Ones, Elves, Dwarves or something superficially related to Tolkien’s work?

Therein lies the problem. Many novels labeled Tolkien Clones simply feature elements that Tolkien used in his work. And it is ridiculous that a story about Elves be labeled Tolkien Clone because somebody out there read the back cover. It is equivalent of saying watching movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and saying, „No, I want more movies like the 2003 Daredevil. Superheroes can’t be fun. They have to be serious.

Perhaps that’s the very reason Grimdark exists–to distance itself from the notion that fantasy is silly or fun–because the knee jerk reaction is to label that as childish. And so Tolkien is labeled as childish. The man’s shadow is so large that it extends into Grimdark in its own twisted, meta inversion of the very comparisons many authors seek to avoid.

Fantasy is a genre you can do anything in. Your Elves can be as powerful or weak or tiny or tall or nonexistent as you want. You can base your world off of England or create a nonsense world where the laws of physics go out the window. You can do a mix of both! (Just please, if you’re not writing Alice in Wonderland, stay consistent with the rules you establish.)

Don’t let the demand for grim, gritty and realistic fiction stop you from writing the story you want to tell. Don’t let the urge to go against what’s popular dissuade you, either. Nobody wanted Marvel to embrace the silliness of superhero comics until movies like Iron Man came along. Don’t let someone tell you that fiction has to be serious in order to be taken seriously.

 

A Practical Guide to Monsters #12

In Sight of Ravens (2)

Previously

The sun crested the horizon as the monk walked back through the abbey. He had taken a pair of deerskin slippers from Nottingham Castle. The bloodstains had dampened them. But it was enough to cover his tracks.

He could recall only glimpses of what happened. It had been a full moon. He had dined on the flesh of men. But when Baron Fitzwalter and his Squire came, they brought numbers with them. He could only fight back for so long. He’d mastered the beast, that night. This was not always the case. But when he did, he went after the Sheriff’s men.

Still, even with his mastery over the beast, Guy of Gisborn dealt him a savage blow. It was enough to send him retreating.

The monk limped back to the abbey. He would change again before the night was over. It was only a matter of time.

* * *

Robyn walked the length of the pews. A monk stood at the altar. He had left a trail of bloody footprints

“Heavenly father, I have sinned. I have used this power You have given me to do Your bidding. To wipe out the evil in the land. My Lord, why do you make the beast so hard to control I have been given power beyond that of mortal ken. And with it I have slaughtered innocents.” The monk crossed himself

Robyn ripped his sword from his scabbard, and the monk whirled around.

“Outlaw! Begone from this place, heretic. This is holy ground. You marked me once. Never again.”

Robyn continued forward. Marked him? He remembered the laceration he dealt the wolf a month earlier. “You have the Curse of the Moon. You are the Werewolf of Nottingham. This is no gift from the Lord. You must believe me.”

“It is a gift. A weapon to fight God’s enemies!” the monk’s eyes turned yellow.

“I can cure you—”

“I don’t want your cure! The Lord has given me a gift!” Fur shot through his flesh, which wept red tears as though the fur was sharp as needles. “I will use my gift!” He struck Robyn, who went sailing through the air and landed on his back. The outlaw came to his feet, sword at the ready.

The monk’s nails stretched into claws and it leapt for Robyn, who darted aside. He swung his sword in a downward arc, but the monk evaded it, sending the blade crashing into the altar.

“We are not enemies, Locksley!” the monk hissed. “I seek to bring down the Sheriff, same as you.” His teeth went sharp as he spoke, and he did not seem to notice he had bitten his own tongue.

“Yet you will allow innocents to die on the nights you cannot control it.”

“I work in the service of the Lord. Innocent lives are a sacrifice that must be made for the greater good.”

“There is no greater good. This power will only destroy you.” He paused, and the two of them heard a rumbling in the distance, like a storm, far off. “Do you hear that, Father? The Baron is on his way. It is over.”

The monk’s jaw dropped at this. “You dare—”

“I dare.” Robyn leapt forward, and the monk leapt back, crashing over candlesticks as he did so. Robyn tried for a laceration, missed, and caught a claw in his cheek.

He tackled the outlaw and sent his sword skittering from his hand. “You would have been wise to come to my cause, outlaw. Instead you shall share in the fate of the Sheriff.” The monk screamed as his visage restructured. Bones cracked into place, unnatural in his current half-human shape. Tears came as the transformation finished, and his scream turned to a howl as the beast took over.

The monk opened his jaw and bent to clamp down on Robyn’s neck. Robyn thrust out a free hand and seized the beast by the back of his head. He drove his knee into the beast’s underbelly and hoisted the wolf-man off of him.

When Robyn regained his sword, there were crossbow bolts spitting through the air. Guy of Gisborn led the attack on the abbey. There he is!” Guy said. “The werewolf and the outlaw!”

Robyn darted behind the pews as crossbow bolts hurled toward him. He crawled beneath them, the only sound the wails of dying men. The werewolf his attention to the soldiers turned on the soldiers. His only glimpse at the aisle allowed him the sight of a knight’s blood pooling across the floor.

When he reached the other end of the pews he glanced back to survey the battle. The knights were firing crossbow bolts from all directions. The monk had been riddled with them, yet fought on, toe to toe with Guy of Gisborn.

Robyn turned, only to find himself staring down the length of Lord Fitzwalter’s sword. The pattern of banding reminded him of flowing water. “Damascus steel,” Robyn said. “You don’t happen to have a spare blade, do you?”

The Baron cut him off. “You sent a messenger warning me of this. You said once that enemies in this. Do you speak truly, Locksley?”

Robyn nodded.

“Then take me to John Little.”

“Forgive me, my Lord,” Robyn said with a slight bow. He tilted his head to the wolf. “But that is not John Little. I’m afraid our friend has been framed. Your squire does battle with the true werewolf of Nottingham.”

The Baron scowled. “I gave an oath to kill the wolf and kill the outlaw. I make no distinction, If you will not hand him over, then we are enemies.”

“Little John is under my protection.”

Robyn did not remember Fitzwalter’s strike, and he only realized that he had struck after the bone-jarring clang of his deflection.

He backed away from the Baron’s swipe and smacked his thrust away with the flat of his blade. “I have no quarrel with you, my Lord!” Robyn pleaded. “You must believe me.”

“I hold the law above the word of an outlaw, Locksley.” The Baron said. “I wish it were not so.” He came at him with a frenzy of attacks. The man was quick, despite his old age, and was skilled in forms Robyn had not had the time to learn in his youth.

The outlaw leapt about the pews, evading the Baron’s blade, and diverting his attacks when he could. He does what he thinks is right, Robyn thought. I will not harm him.

Lord Fitzwalter leapt onto the same pew as Robyn, and the outlaw was staring down his swordpoint. He dove away from the Baron’s thrust, landing in the file between the pews and rolling back to escape harm. From his relative safety he chanced a glance at Guy of Gisborn and the monk. Still the two fought on. Neither were without their injuries. Yet this squire clearly had the advantage.

Robyn Hood resurfaced to face the Baron, who was ready for him. Robyn managed to awkwardly tur aside three cuts before the Baron twisted the flat of Robyn’s blade and turned it out of his hand.

He ducked beneath the Baron’s swipe and in desperation he charged and tackled the Lord. The Baron’s legs came out from under him and he slammed headlong into one of the pews. Robyn heard a sickening crunch as the two hit the ground. He jumped up at the ready, prepared for the next attack, yet when he looked down he saw Baron Fitzwalter staring off into space, a crown of blood running down his forehead in rivulets.

“No,” Robyn muttered, kneeling beside Lord Fitzwalter’s body. “No. Fitzwalter, this was not my intent. I’m sorry.” He felt rage burning within him. “Damn it all!” he cried. His voice echoed through the room. “This was not my intent. We were not enemies.”

Robyn’s mourning was cut short as a crossbow bolt shaved the side of his head. He took up the Baron’s sword and sheath. “Fitzwalter, forgive me.” He muttered. He slung his shield over his back as he made a dash for the exit, whereupon he found a team of horses. He mounted a mare and gave it a boot in the ribs, and led it galloping off to Sherwood Forest. “Forgive me, Fitzwalter,” he muttered.

Far and away, Robyn heard a wolf howl, and he knew that the werewolf of Nottingham would plague the shire no longer.

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