Where do Characters come from and what do they want?

Where do Characters come from and what do they want?

Interesting, complex characters are the most important element of any novel. I will tolerate the most cliched of settings and plots if I love the characters. When writing my own fantasy novel, (which involves the very cliched plot of a kidnapped princess) I sought to create a team of fun characters that I wanted to spend time with and see embark on future adventures. Knee-deep into draft three of my novel, Ghets, I’m not thrilled with my word choices (seriously Matt, you’re using ‘luckily’ again?), but I absolutely love my Ghets team. They feel rounded and interesting and play off each other well.

Creating characters is lot like creating worlds to me. There’s a long germination period where I play around with an idea in my head. I usually have some sort of framework to start with when I sit down to write, and generally can’t track the character’s inception point. Reez, my lead, started with some questions like why not make the lead an orc? Why not an orc woman? and grew from there. Elise the Coward’s backstory was a direct reaction to the macho-mythologizing of the Spartans. But other characters, like Jaques, seemed to emerge ex nihilo. I can’t even remember a time when I was work-shopping them.

Characters follow a truth that has become something of mantra for me and writing: everything is perfect, until it’s real. Meaning, when you’re doing the necessary, fun and frantic work of constructing a character in your head they seem dynamic and stuffed with potential. But then when you start arranging them on the page, you realize you don’t know what they’ll say or how they’ll react. No matter how much time you spend thinking about your characters, you don’t know them until you start writing them.

Writing is a process of creation, re-examination, and change (yes, I couldn’t think of a third ‘tion word), characters follow the same process. They start out one way in the early drafts, and then slowly evolve the more time we spend with them, shaping them, coming to understand them. I would even argue that it’s a good idea to just start with a scene, something you never intend to include in your novel, that’s just your characters doing something together or sitting around talking.

I’m a dialogue guy, so I do a lot of scenes of just talking. But when I first started writing I noticed that a lot of my characters sound alike. To try to find their voice I would play with dialogue, create lists of words they could or couldn’t use, tried to reach outside of my own vocabulary and vocal meter. I tend to ramble, so a lot of my characters did too. I tried to reign that in, create characters that said little or nothing and communicated with expressions and gestures or characters that spoke very precisely.

Character voice is important, it’s one of the few things that can help differentiate characters on the page. Ideally you want each character’s voice to be so unique that the reader can tell who’s speaking by voice alone. But what’s even more important than a character’s voice is a character’s desire.

If you want compelling characters you need to know what they want, and what’s keeping them from getting what they want. A lot of times what your character wants is something immaterial: respect, connection, etc. And also, a lot of times the character themselves might not realize, or be resistant to, their own desire. Ideally as the writer, you should know what your characters are after. Good scenes and good character moments are created when we let characters and their desires drive the plot.

If you get your character’s right they will help you understand your own story better, they’ll guide you as much as you guide them. Readers too will stick through a tough or detailed book if they love the cast. So take your time, play around with them, ask them questions. Figure out how they talk and think and most of all what they really want. It’ll help you figure out what you want from them.

Why an Orc?

Why an Orc?

As I wrote last post there are problem with Orcs. But despite those problems I still wanted to include orcs in my fantasy world and even make my protagonist one. Orcs are fun! Their dumb and violent tendencies can make them mischievous, even endearing if presented in a certain light. And as the ‘evil minion’ race of hundreds of fantasy novels orcs feel like the underdogs. Maybe they’re just misunderstood? Maybe what is so often seen as barbaric in orcs is just a different point of view?

Like any longstanding antagonist orcs have gone through several revisions and become heroes. Stan Nicholls novel Orcs: First Blood, tells a story of human orc warfare from the orcs’ point of view, taking a traditional band of orc warriors and making them the protagonists. Terry Pratchett’s orcs are near extinct and suffering from a case of bad propaganda. And then there’s the Warcraft games.

Warcraft started out with a traditional Tolkien set up. There was an evil army of orcs vs. an alliance of humans, dwarves and elves. The first two Warcraft games had the orcs invading from a dark portal led by evil wizards and hell bent on conquering and killing everything in sight. But with the third Warcraft game Blizzard (the game studio behind the Warcraft series) decided to do something different.

Blizzard deconstructed its orcs and the very idea of orcs as the ‘barbarian other’. They took inspiration from what happened to historical ‘barbarian’ or ‘savage’ peoples after they were conquered. The orcs of Warcraft III start off enslaved or kept on hemmed in reservations. Their story becomes a fight for freedom and once they achieve that freedom they desire to go back to their traditional ways. The orcs are still violent, a warrior culture, but one that is more complex and less aggressive than the conquers they used to be. They even finally defeat the demon overlords that led them astray in the first place.

The orcs of Warcraft moved from mindless evil to at worse worthy antagonists, all while keeping the things people loved about them. They’re still big and green and mean. They still have pointy armor and say funny made up words like ‘zug-zug’, but they’re given their own needs and desires. They now do stuff outside of fighting.

When coming up with my own orcs I took inspiration from Warcraft, as well as Wahammer, Tolkien and all the others. The orcs of Ghets like to fight, drink and eat meat. They have green skin (as well as purple, orange, and pretty much any color). They’re a proud warrior society, that fights in ‘hordes’. And they’re the underdogs, despised by both Aphetrria the land of Order, and Neradoom the land of Chaos. But in Ghets, the orc’s ruling body, the ‘Okkore’ is the closest thing there is to a medieval UN.

The orcs of Ghets were created by the god Kor to act as border guards, to prevent Aphetrria and Neradoom from killing each other. They take their mandate seriously, and even went so far as to conquer both lands to put an end to the millennia long war. It didn’t work, and by the time the novel begins the Orcs are trying to learn from their past mistakes.

I don’t spend too much time with the Okkore in Ghets, I’ve got more planned there for another novel. Reez is the orc that readers get to know the best, since she’s the lead. Reez is all the stuff I love about orcs with none of the baggage. She’s a carefree adventurer that’s always cursing in funny made up words: guck, gunking guckers. She loves to fight and get into trouble, but she’s not mean or even mercenary in her thinking or actions. She’s clever without being condescending and most of all she doesn’t take herself seriously.

Reez would find the abject barbarism of orcs like those in the Shadow of Mordor series to be comically over the top. Like the people she comes from, Reez is down to earth, an orc that’s good at fighting, but is into other things than just conquest and plunder. She’s got her bones in the old greenskin trope, but she’s grown out of them into her own character. I really like spending time with her and I hope you will too!

 

Ghets Chapter 3

Ghets Chapter 3

You can find Chapters 1 and 2 here


Chapter

Sir Markus started at the charred remains of Early Gregory’s Gate House. The damage looked no better in the daylight. He knelt to feel the soot between his fingers, to remind himself that yes, it had happened. Demons from the other side of the world had come and taken Princess Arilune, his love.

Markus winced at the thought of the Princess. He remembered lying next to her just the other night. Her deep green eyes, the bright freckles that dotted her face like a mask, her wild red hair. He remembered the feeling of Arilune’s slender shoulders against his chest, how they rose and fell with her faint breathing. He would stare at her, this perfect, blessed girl that somehow loved him. He always thought she would leave him, but he never considered that she would be stolen away.

The thought made Markus’s jaw clench and he kicked the burnt rubble around him. It had always been Markus’s duty to protect Arilune. Even before they met, Markus was a young palace guard, the lowliest knight in the kingdom having just earned his nobility thanks to his performance in the Westgate tourney and the patronage of his mentor, the Grand Sir Roland. Back then, Markus spent every day in heavy armor, silent and still in the royal audience chamber.

Arilune made no appearance for the first few months of Markus’s time in the palace. Everyone said that she was ill, suffering from a weak heart and rarely rose from bed. When Arilune finally attended court, Markus was ordered to wait on her. He assumed the work would be tedious, helping the frail Princess in and out of her chair, fetching her water throughout the day. But then Markus met her.

Arilune’s beauty was well reported and many in court found it beguiling, but it was not the Princess’s looks that startled Markus, it was Arilune’s eyes. Arlinue had the fiercest look of any knight or beast Markus had ever met. She challenged everyone with her gaze, constantly searching for a fight, for a reason to prove herself. She pushed away Markus’s hand and scared off her ladies in waiting. When in the audience chamber, she debated every noble that sought to silence her, even her own father. The king became so frustrated that he ordered Arilune to leave when they started discussing war with the Lords of the Roor valley, but she refused.

“Would you get her out!” King Baldwin commanded Markus, flicking a meaty finger at his daughter.

Markus bowed and cautiously approached Arilune, thankful for his visor so he didn’t need to meet Arilune’s impossibly sharp gaze.

Arilune shot him a glance that pierced right through his helmet. “Don’t you dare, touch me.” She said, before turning towards the king. “Father, war would be expensive, almost certainly disastrous, and worse of all, wasteful. We can obtain the riverports of Utherinburg through diplomacy.”

“Don’t be foolish, Arilune!” King Baldwin said waving her off, “The Roor are too stubborn to listen to reason. If we march over the border this summer we can have Utherinburg by winter”

“Yes father, and by spring you will have united all the Lords of the Roor Valley against you. Meanwhile Chancellor Edwin’s daughter needs a suitable husband and Fredrik Vunoff of Roorland just had his marriage annulled. A marriage between the two would be a good start, from there we can squeeze them on the salt trade and form an alliance with Sphettra to intimidate them.” Arilune looked around the audience chamber, “You,” She said pointing to a poor scribe, “Get me some ink and paper and any information we have on the Vunoff linage and lands, with a foothold and proper pressure we could make a claim on Utherinburg itself.”

The ling grumbled, but Arilune pushed on, her advance implacable. She wrote up plans, drafted treaties, dug up ledgers. She slew the arguments of battle hungry barons with tax reports and census accounts. She routed the opposition of tariff weary merchants with plans for expanding the timber and horse trade. After a grueling six hours of debate and planning there was no one left standing in opposition, it was as total and uncompromising a victory as Markus had ever witnessed.

Arilune glared out over the stunned audience chamber, a general surveying a battlefield, making sure none of the enemy was left standing. Satisfied, the Princess took her leave. Markus followed, silent and stiff. It was only when then they were deep into the palace, in a secluded hallway, that Arilune unclenched her fists and started to sway. She collapsed against a wall, breathing heavily. Markus went to aid her.

“I told you…not to…touch me.” Arilune said between beleaguered breaths, her red hair falling over her face, obscuring one of her terrible eyes. Markus paused, but only for a moment. He lifted Arilune’s arm over his shoulder.

“I can’t do that, your highness,” He said, “You need help.”

“I…need no one’s…help” Arilune said coughing, blood splattered the cobble stones.

“I’m afraid you do,” Markus said helping to steady the girl. He added softly, mostly to himself. “But don’t worry, I’m still terrified of you.”

Arilune shifted her gaze to him, her eyes a little less fierce, a thin smile on her lips. “What is your name, knight?”

“Markus of Wayfeild,” Markus said

“Very well Markus, if you’re going to force this indignity on me, you might as well carry me.” Arilune said, “I can’t make it very far right now.”

Markus bowed, scooping Arilune into his arms. After that day Markus was always beside her. Arilune was stubborn and impetuous, but she warmed to Markus. The Princess even made Markus her personal guard and took him with her when she went to make the alliance with the elves of Sphettra.

The elven city was the most intimidating place Markus had ever been. Its streets smelled of sweat and cypress, it’s marble buildings all gleaming white in the hot sun. Statues of Anudica, Goddess of war, lined the road to the city center. Each statue was of a different avatar of Anudica. One was a dwarf with a massive hammer and an eyepatch. Another was a tall, muscular woman with one arm, brandishing a long scimitar. A third one, was a sleek archer, posed as if she was leaping in the air, her robes wafting around her as she drew her curved bow, her face marred by scars. There were dozens of avatars, all different, but all warriors.

The elves of the city were just as impressive as their statues. They were all different sizes and skin color, but each somehow perfect, somehow more real, more alive, than Markus could ever hope to be. Schools dedicated to the many martial disciplines lined the streets. Elves wrestled in the dirt courtyards of some, the ground shaking with the push and pull of their bodies. They practiced spear drills in others, a dozen elves in silver plate moving with a speed Markus could barely track, all in perfect unison. In yet other courtyards they dueled with board swords, their sharp blades flashing like a dance, their movements graceful and precise.

Markus and Arilune’s elven guide led them to the Temple of the Spear, Anudica’s holy armory were all her fabled weapons were stored including her favorite, the spear Baulador. The spear was massive, standing wrapped in scared red binding behind the temple’s alter. A new Scared Sisterhood was swearing themselves to the spear when Arilune and Markus entered. They were led to the back, to wait and speak with Sphettra’s High General, who acted as both leader and chief priestess.

The High General was a board shouldered woman in polished ceremonial armor, her face obscured by a tall helm with braided red and white tassels. Her voice was guttural and sloid, each word of the oath she led, a blow that rung through the domed temple. She paused when she saw Arilune take a seat in back. She held up a hand, silencing the sisterhood.

“You” She said pointing at Arilune, “Step forward.”

Arilune wavered for a moment. As ferocious as she was, Arilune was human, the High General was an elf, the descent of gods. But when Arilune stepped out onto the mosaic floor all her hesitation was gone and her eyes sought the High Generals, looking to stare her down just as Arilune stared down everyone that challenged her.

“I am Arilune, Princess of Haskal, I have come to seek an alliance with mighty Sphettra.” Arilune said, lifting her voice so it would carry through the Temple.

The High General stared back at Arilune, her eyes obscured by her massive helm. Slowly, she took off her helmet. She was ancient, Markus could tell even though no lines graced her face. She was old the way a stone is, hard and smooth. The High General said nothing, but went to one knee, all the other elves in the temple following her.

“Praise Arilune,” The High General said, her voice echoing, “Avatar of Anudica.”

The temple went silent.

“Ready?” A friendly voice asked behind Markus, shaking him from his stupor and bringing him back to the burned gatehouse and his stolen Princess.

“Yes!” Markus said more hotly than he intended, turning around to face his old mentor sir Roland. Markus hadn’t slept all night after losing Arilune in the chaos of the fire, he would have raced off to Sphettra himself if Roland hadn’t insisted oncoming.

Roland padded Markus on the shoulder, his voice calm and soft in his ear. It was the same gesture he used to couch Markus when he was frustrated squire. “I know you’re angry, we’ll get her back, focus on what’s in front of you.”

Markus said nothing, he was more than angry, he was furious, and humiliated, and terrified of what the demons would do to Arilune.

No one had ever believed that Arilune was truly Anudica’s avatar. Arilune herself doubted it in private, she thought maybe the elves were being overly generous, giving her the title to turn Haskal into vassal of Sphettra. Arilune saw no other explanation, she was some weak human girl. She didn’t know how to fight, she couldn’t imagine her statue up there in Sphettra lining the way to the Temple of the Spear.

Markus though, never doubted the High General’s decree. He saw the way the ancient warriors of Sphettra, elves who had been fighting the Dianomachy longer than Haskal had been a kingdom, knelt before Arilune. And Markus had seen the way Arilune fought in the audience chamber in the palace. Arilune may not have had any marshal training, but she was a masterful warrior for certain, and to Markus, a goddess.

Markus did everything he could to be worthy of Arilune and to prove her divine status. He trained with the warriors of Sphettra to master the sword. He rode off on quests in Arilune’s name, slaying ogres and battling orcs. He pledged himself to her and protected her from elven fanatics who doubted her claim and assassins from rival human kingdoms jealous of her title. Markus was always there for Arilune, always, until last night.

“Sphettra will rally the East, maybe even beyond.” Roland said, “The dwarves of the north will come, they have always been our allies, even the Enteral Empire will surely act. Arilune was an avatar of one of the Seven! This was an attack on all of Aphetrria.”

“Will they raise an army to march through Korragorra and the Divide?” Markus asked, fearing he already knew the answer.

Sir Roland cleared his throat, taking a moment. “The Eternal Empire is not what it used to be.” Roland offered, “And well, Spehtrra is just one city, even if it is made up of the world’s most feared warriors. It’s a long march to Neradoom and the orcs will throw everything they have at any force attempting to cross the Divide. And after that well, there’s all of Neradoom and the Demon Pit Lords…”

“She’s a god!” Markus said, stamping his foot.

“Yes, but she’s also—“

“Human,” Markus added, grinding his teeth.

Roland tried his soft smile again, “They’ll send a Fellowship for sure, a small team of heroes will have an easier time sneaking into Neradoom over an army anyway. And the Orcs tend to look the other way when it comes to Fellowships, especially if they’ve got some ghets with them.”

Markus let out a deep breath. It was an insult; taking Arilune was justification enough to restart the Dienomachy. But Markus could live with a Fellowship as long as he was a member.

“Have you ever been part of a Fellowship before?” Markus asked

Roland laughed, “No, no I’ve never left the East, let alone travel into Neradoom. I fought a war or two Markus, but the truth is I’ve seen less battle than you.”

Markus looked at his mentor. Roland was once the greatest knight Markus had ever known, but now he looked old and tired; gray stubble lined his dark jaw, and his body was so small in all that heavy armor. Markus knew his next question was unfair, but he had to ask it.

“Will you come with me on this Fellowship?”

“Yes, of course Markus!” Roland said emphatically, before hesitating again. “But they may not take us. These Fellowships, well, they can be a tad political.”

“They will take us.” Markus said mounting his steed. “They have to. I need to save her, Roland,” Markus clenched his teeth, “I need to save her and slay whatever demon monstrosity took her. I need to know he’s dead.”

Roland gave his former squire a troubled look but said nothing. Markus spurred his horse on, steering them east towards the sun, towards Holy Sphetrra, and on towards cursed Neradoom.

………..

Read more Ghets here

Ghets Chapter 2

Ghets Chapter 2

If you want to read Chapter 1 please check out my Ghets Preview page where I’ll be storing all the chapters I post.

Thanks!


Chapter

In the beginning, there was no Dienomachy. There were no gods. There was only the Ether.

From the Ether two gods emerged. Apherria, goddess of Order and Neradogtha, goddess of Chaos. They were each other’s opposite and should have hated one another other; but did not. They felt a deep need for the other. They embraced and blended and all of existence was them, a swirl. The light chasing the dark, the dark chasing the light. The churn of creation.

In the churn the goddess came to understand themselves and each other, and love emerged. The first emotion, the most vital. Apherria and Neradogtha loved one another. They were still opposites, they would bicker and argue and fight, but they didn’t war. Instead their conflict helped them to grow and create. Apherria created the sun, but Neradogtha grew bored with it and kicked it across the sky creating night. Neradogtha made fire, but it was too hungry and wouldn’t stop eating so Apherria created water to douse it.

The sisters, the lovers, the first gods, worked like this. Creation was a game they played together, a language which expressed their love. They created the old gods, their first children, gods of stone and mountains, gods of wind, gods of moon, and many more. They raised their children together and taught them the language of creation.

But unbeknownst to Neradogtha or Apherria, a third god had emerged from the ether. This third god lived alone, lost, unaware that there was anything like him in the universe. This god, Kor, the wandering god, traveled the vast nothingness of the ether, searching for a home. He eventually found the world. And found the goddesses.

No one knows who Kor met first, Apherria or Neradogtha. But he met them separately, Apherria during the day and Neradogtha during the night. And for reasons only the gods know, both fell in love with Kor. The goddesses didn’t tell each other about this new god either. It was their first betrayal. Kor was different, something neither had created and that intrigued them and made them covet him. It is said the goddesses felt ashamed about their secret, and knew it was wrong, but they kept seeing Kor. Apherria during the day and Neradogtha at night. And Kor never revealed that he met another god either, for he was foolish and only wanted only to be loved and feared returning to the lonely ether.

The old gods, Apherria and Neradogtha’s first children, grew alarmed at these rendezvous and conspired to reveal the truth to their mothers. Moon and Sun entered the same sky, creating the first eclipse. Apherria and Neradogtha both came out to meet Kor. And he revealed himself to both, not sure if it was night or day. The sisters were confused to see each other, but then realized what had happened. The love that they coveted was not theirs alone, their sister had stolen it.

Apherria and Neradogtha were angry and aghast at each other and themselves and most of all at Kor. They banished the wandering god to the sky and they both retreated to opposite corners of the world. If it all ended there then maybe they could have reconciled, as they had done in times past. Maybe they could have even forgiven Kor and all three gods could have lived in peace and love. But it did not end there.

For Neradogtha and Apherria were both pregnant with Kor’s children. And the birth of those children would lead to the first atrocity and from that would bloom a hundred upon hundred more. The world would be rent in two, with each god taking half, turning it into their own lands.

Apherria founded Aphetrria and gave birth to seven daughters, the Elfraye, goddess of civilization, whose descendants would become the Elves. Neradogatha founded Neradoom and gave birth to Zaevas, a son who would live nine lives. In his first life Zaevas molded the Dairkkul out of living Doomcotta.

Ever since their creation, the elves of Aphetrria and the Dairkkul of Neradoom have been at war. It has lasted since the world was remade and it will last until the world ends. The Deinomachy is the way of things.

…………..

For more chapters check out my Ghets Preview

Sir Namington of Somewhereshire: My struggles with coming up with Fantasy Names

Sir Namington of Somewhereshire: My struggles with coming up with Fantasy Names

After years of toiling on two drafts of Ghets, my latest novel, I proudly declared on Facebook that I was looking for beta-readers. Friends and family immediately requested copies, showering me with support. I felt loved and ready to share…but then had to stall. There was just one little problem with the latest draft of Ghets, about half the things in it were missing names.

I love worldbuilding: creating towns and creatures, different legends and cultures, but I absolutely hate naming them. It’s not that I can’t think of names, it’s more that I want to get the name absolutely right and nothing will gum up your writing flow quicker than trying to come up with a name on the fly.

My practice for name generation is to brute force it. Open a fresh word doc and start writing down ever name, sound and spelling that comes to mind. I start with existing names and words to build my new name out of, like Elisette, Odvid and the Uldritch Pit Lords. Maelator, my chief antagonist, I got from chopping a bunch of different words up and mashing them together. I was going for a name that sounded like the big bad from a Saturday morning cartoon and I think I nailed it.

Once I created one new name, it led to others. It make sense that people from the same group would sound have similar sounding names. The chief god of my orcs is named ‘Kor’ so there’s a lot of ‘kors’ and ‘or’s in their naming scheme (maybe too many) there’s the fortress of Korragorra, and Kaikor Reez and her brother Kalighor.

My biggest stumbling block to name creation turned out to be Google. I would come up with the perfect name only to google it and find out it was already the name of a small village in India or the last name of some guy in Uruguay or was in use on the World of Warcraft forums (or all three).

It got to the point where I would spend my writing time for that day playing with different names or tweaking the spelling to create something un-google-able. Finally, I had enough. When I came to a person, place or thing that needed a proper name I just wrote ‘BLANK’ in all caps. It was a revolution.

I was back to writing, back to creating. My writing flow was coursing again uninterrupted. The Angular fish people of the Dark Sea were the BLANK, as were the lizard-like citizens of the Underraod who they fought and raided with the help of the BLANK pit lords. Markus’s magic sword BLANK clashed against Maelator’s magic sword the Jaws of BLANK. And then there was the time BLANK grabbed BLANK’s BLANK and bashed BLANK into the walls of BLANK cathedral.

After I finished Draft II I reread the novel and realized that it was unreadable to anyone, but myself. By some miracle I had remembered what all the BLANKs referred too, but it was a mess. I spent several days creating random fantasy names and waded back into the novel replacing BLANKS with names from my list or giving them more generic ones. I’m still at it even now. I have a hundred pages still to go, hunting down the BLANKs.

But I don’t regret the decision to BLANK myself. When creating drafts, especially rough ones, nothing is more important than just writing. What I do regret is not going with a name more often, no matter how bad or just using one that’s already taken. Everything is already a name, it’s not like Jose Duomarco from Uruguay is every going to read my novel and realize that I used his last name for a port city.

Readers will forgive a good character with a bad name. Besides, it’s only draft II, names can change! And speaking off, anyone have ideas on how to make really good fantasy names? I still have more BLANKS to fill.

Ghets Chapter 1

Ghets Chapter 1

A wall.

A month-long job, involving a journey of close to seven hundred miles, (most of which they had to walk, the closest gate was gucking Valenbrook), bribes, forged documents, trips through secret passages, a fight with bandits in the Raskul woods, Trolls when they tried to cross the Roor river, numerous close calls, and one of the most twisted supply networks Reez ever had to fashion and it was all going to end up a big fat failure because of a wall.

Reez the Orc, Ghets captain, and sore loser, was standing on a hill next to the get-a-way wagons. She was staring at a ridiculously long wall that encircled a manor house and its accompanying farm and pasture lands. The manor house, by the way, had a far more appropriate sized gate around it too.

Elise the elf, one of Reez’s Ghets, and a friend, was leaning on her spear sighing. “See the wall? Guess, we’re like not getting that return bonus, or whatever.”

              “How can anyone not see that gucking wall?” Reez grumbled, “Who puts a wall like that all around their place? It must of cost more than their gucking house! Those gatehouses are huge!”

Elise shrug, “Yeah, sucks”

Reez tapped her foot. She felt her sword, Kiki, warm on her back. Reez was getting anxious and thinking about doing gunk she knew she shouldn’t. Reez was a Ghets, her job was to guide fellowships from Neradoom, the land of Chaos, or Aphetrria, the land of Order, across the border to where they wanted to go. But what they did once they got there was supposed to be their own business. It was important that Ghets remained neutral, that’s what allowed them to function and prevented Reez’s home, Ghetshaven, from being obliterated by some angry Dairkkul Pit Lord or Elven Emperor.

There was no doubt that the Dairkkul which Reez had guided on this journey were up to some shady doings. The Dairkkul came with three big pit fiends, each close to seven feet tall with all black skin, padded feet and big sharp claws. The fiends were designed with piercing yellow eyes that granted them excellent night vision, but no mouths. It was a look that screamed assassin.

Their Dairkkul handlers had been modified too, they’re legs bent back and twisted to give them more power to leap and scale walls. Their leader was old with white hair twirling around her long antelope like horns. She went by ‘Crow’ an obvious code name, but it suited her. She had a crow’s cackle and sense of humor. When Reez pointed out that Crow was a funny name for a Dairkkul since there weren’t any crows in the Dairkkul’s home of Neradoom, the old woman laughed and said that’s why they had chartered Reez and her Ghets to lead them into Aphetrria, to go bird spotting.

              Crow’s two other Dairkkul campions were a lot younger. Apprentices, if Reez had to guess, based on the way they shadowed Crow and followed her orders. One was named ‘Nightingale’ and the other ‘Hummingbird’. ‘Hummingbird’ was kinda a guck up, (not that it was any of Reez’s business, but the orc was horrible gossip). Hummingbird got spooked easy, and let information slip, like how they were working for a big time Pit Lord named Maelator. Crow had a fit when she heard him say that.

Whatever this group of spies and assassins were up to it was bad, but not too bad. The Ghets had strict codes and contracts which had to be signed before any job could start. Crow had personally assured Reez that they weren’t going to kill anyone…well, unless they had to, which was only fair.

The shadowy bunch where probably going to steal something. Both sides made a big deal out of these Fellowships: fancy quests, dire language about the fate of the world, all that gunk. But Reez knew it was just a big game. Stuff like this had been happening forever.

Some Aphetrrian Fellowship might be sent across the broader to destroy a Dairkkul magic ring, to boost morale back home. The Pit Lords would retaliate by sending their own fellowship across and steal a magic sword some gunk pulled from a stone. This gave the Aphetrrians an excuse to send another fellowship over to get the sword back. And on and on it would go until the stupid war between both lands was over. And that was never going to happen ‘cause the whole mess was started by the Goddess in the first place.

As long as neither Neradoom or Aphetrria sent an army over the border and restarted the Deinomachy or ‘Gods’ War’ everyone was happy with the game. Powers in Aphetrria and Neradoom got to do symbolic quests to distract the masses and appease their respective churches and the Ghets got to make some decent coin. Fellowships paid more than your standard merchants or pilgrims. It was good work, when there weren’t gucking walls ruining everything.

Reez left Elise to watch the wagons and headed down from the hill. Reez’s second in command, Odvid, was sitting by the road reading. Odvid had hung a lantern by a sign post as a signal to the Dairkkul when, or if, they made it back from the manor house. Odvid’s cover was supposed to be that of a beggar, the type you didn’t want anything to do with. His gray skin, hunched back and odd proportions, made it easy to believe he had some sort of incurable disease, like super leprosy or inverted gigantism. He closed his book when he heard Reez.

 “I take it this is about the wall?” He asked.

“Yes! Did you see that gucking wall?!” Reez said.

“I did. It’s hard to miss. I read that it was installed by the third Earl, Gregory of Lunderbik. He raced horses and wanted the wall to incorporate his training track.”

“So, he could train horses while under siege!?” Reez said crossing her arms.

“It’s good to have hobbies.” Odvid offered.

Reez rolled her eyes. “Where’s Jaques? I want to talk to him.”

Odvid motioned towards the woods. “Up a tree keeping an eye on their progress.” Odvid said, before turning all serious “But Reez don’t do anything. We’re already more involved than we should be. The contract was just to lead them to Paluentok and meet them back there once the ‘quest’ was complete. Now we’re their get- away?”

“I know Odd, I know.” Reez said,

“Plausible deniability.” Odvid lectured.

‘Plausible Deniability’ was the creed every Ghets swore by. Ghetshaven was neutral in the Deinomachy, siding with neither the Dairkkul of Neradoom or the Elves of Aphetrria. It was the only place in the whole world were peoples of all species and lands where welcomed. Anyone could come to trade or hire Ghets for guides, extra muscle, or to lead your Fellowship to go pester the ancient enemy like Crow did.

Reez frowned. She knew she was making trouble again, going above and beyond for some fellowship. The Ghets would be paid if the fellowship’s quest succeeded or failed. It wasn’t supposed to matter to her.

“But they’re helpless Odd!” Reez pleaded, “Did you see Hummingbird this morning? He almost left his pack behind! And their original plan was to have a fiend watch the horses? Do fiends even know what horses are?” Reez asked,

 “Not these ones, probably,” Odvid said thinking about it. “But—“

“But what? You know what’s going to happen if they get caught? Torture and execution. Odd you’re a healer, you wouldn’t leave them behind if they got sick, torture’s no different,” Reez said.

Odvid looked down at the cracked pages of his book. “I understand Reez. I don’t always like these jobs, but there is danger in helping them too much.”

Reez punched Odvid in the arm. “Promise I won’t go off and burn down the gatehouse or nothing.”

“Please don’t” Odvid pleaded.

Reez gave him her big orc grin, the one that showed off her neat rows of sharp teeth. And went to find Jaques.

Jaques was Reez’s scout and what she liked to call a ‘Fur’. A ‘Fur’ wasn’t any one type of thing, but rather a mixture of furry peoples all blended together. Jaques looked most like a weasel. He had a long neck, and slender body, but also pointed ears on the top of his head like a jackal’s. Being a mixed blood mutt from a bunch of different fur covered people gave Jaques some keen senses. His hearing was sharper than any creature Reez had ever stumbled upon. And his eyesight and sense of smell weren’t so bad neither.

“Why are you creating a racket in the woods mad orc? You’re supposed to be by the wagons.” Jaques hissed. Jaques had a bit of accent, a smooth growl that gave his voice a dark edge and made his ‘R’s rumble. It might have been attractive, if he wasn’t such a butt-spider. He had a stupid gucking nickname for everyone on the team. Reez’s was ‘mad orc’.

Reez squinted in the dark. Jaques’s jet black fur made him hard to spot at night. He rattled the branches of the tree he was sitting in and Reez came to its trunk.

“You see them? Did they make it in yet? Any alarms? Did you see that crazy gucking wall they got?”

“I don’t know why I agree to these gigs; you micro-manage.” Jaques grumbled.

“Just tell me already you gunker” Reez said

“They’ve begun their robbery.” Jaques said, “Hummingbird slipped on the walls, but one of the fiends caught him. They made it to the gate of the manor. I didn’t see them go in yet. I think they are looking for an entrance; doesn’t matter.” Jaquesed growled. “They won’t be coming out.”

“What do you mean?” Reez asked, punching the tree’s trunk.

“Hmph” Jaques snorted. “They picked a bad night. There’s some party going on; carriages, guests and more guards at the manor. Guards everywhere, and if an alarm goes up they’ll be trapped by that wall.” Jaques gave a low groan. “We should leave soon. Once they catch the Dairkkul they’ll sweep the woods.”

“They’re not catching anyone, quit being a cynic.” Reez said, getting more anxious. Why did she bother talking to Jaques or Elise or Odvid for that matter, they were all a bunch of moody grumps. Reez was in dire need of an optimist on her team.

Jaques gave a growly laugh, “You don’t know anything orc. There’s guards out now with lanterns. They’re searching for something. No alarm yet, but their movements are too random for patrols.”

Reez didn’t like that. She could see Hummingbird messing up, maybe dropping something that arose suspicion. “Can you see the gatehouses? The farthest one from us? They got horses there?”

Jaques paused for a moment. “Yes. Inside the wall close to the gate, there’s a small stable.”

 “Good” Reez said leaving.

Jaques shouted after her. “Mad Orc what are you doing?”

“You’ll see!” Reez shouted back. “Stay up there and get ready to move when you see my signal. You won’t miss it.” Reez grinned. She knew Jaques couldn’t see it in the night and that Odvid would murder her afterwards, but at least this would be fun.

Reez could hear bells ringing and shouts of alarm in both Loir’ve and Common by the time she made it to the gatehouse. She had to work fast. She wrapped her scarf around her mouth and forced her red dreadlocks into her hood. She couldn’t risk letting the guards see her face.

She checked to make sure she had enough ‘green stuff’ for a truly fantastic fire and then unsheathed Kiki. Reez could feel the sword’s excitement, little glowing embers spotted her blade.

“No killing tonight” She whispered to Kiki as she secured the sword to her back and started to climb. Reez felt Kiki sizzle in response. Reez shook her head; that was the problem with magic swords, so demanding. “Don’t worry girl we’re still getting into trouble. Gotta take some blood to get a nice fire going.”

Reez found her trouble quick. Guards raced up and down the gatehouse steps, chainmail banging against their undercoats, pole-arms gleaming in the moonlight. They swarmed without direction or reason like buzzing wasps spilling from a recently poked nest. The second Reez was on the wall she crashed into a pair of them. There was some fighting, some cutting, mean words were exchanged. Reez’s bloodlust started to pump through her veins and threatened to turn her into a crazed orc woman, burning and slashing until the guards overwhelmed her. Luckily, she got it under control and escaped the battered pair with only a thin slice along her forehead.

She kicked open the door to the gatehouse’s top floor and dumped the green stuff. She then whispered to Kiki and a small fire ignited along the sword’s blade. Reez thrusted Kiki through the wooden floorboards making sure her fire caught before getting the guck out of there. Reez and Kiki rushed the stables stealing a horse and riding as hard as they could into the night. Reez didn’t want to be anywhere near the gatehouse when the fire reached the ‘green stuff.’

There was an explosion. Even on horseback thundering away from the wall Reez could feel the heat of it. Embers and smoke chased after Reez into the night. She looked back to see the south gatehouse blazing like a bonfire. Reez hoped it created enough of a distraction to keep Crow and her people from getting caught. At the very least Reez had ruined Earl Gregory’s stupid gucking wall, so that was something to smile about.

Odvid was not smiling when Reez road back up to the wagons on the hill.

“So not burning down the gatehouse?” Odvid said as he took the reins of Reez’s stolen horse.

“Did they make it back?” Reez said ignoring him. They were going to have plenty of time to fight about this on the journey home.

“They’re in the wagons. Jaques’s pulling the covers over them now. You’ll need to drive the big one.” Odvid said reverting to business as usual, but not losing any ‘huff’ in his voice.

“I thought you were driving?”

“I was, but then you burned down the gatehouse you specifically told me you weren’t going to.” Odvid said heading to the lead wagon with Elise.

“Now you’re just being petty!” Reez shouted after him. She hated driving wagons. She wasn’t any good at steering animals and she didn’t like looking at horse butt all day. Plus, she was sorta hoping to take a nap in the back, starting fires took a lot out of her.

Crow was waiting for Reez. She was sitting on the driver’s bench and covered in a mess of rags. Reez frowned, if they got stopped and someone noticed Crow’s horns or purple skin then Reez was going to be in a mess of trouble.

“Get in the back” Reez said as she pulled herself onto the bench. “Whole point of this was to hide you in the wagons.”

“Not enough room.” Crow said.

Reez peeked back there. Nightingale was crammed in the wagon next to one of the fiends. The fiend was bent over with its knees pulled to its mouthless face. By the fiend’s feet was a large bundled rug. It was new, must have been what Crow was after. Reez was disappointed. The rug looked fancy, but hardly seemed like it was worth all the trouble of coming to Aphetrria for. But what did Reez know? Rugs could be magic, she’d heard of flying ones.

The rug moved.

Reez squinted and saw a mess of red hair wiggling at the end of the bundled rug. A head slowly emerged its mouth bound and eyes terrified. The wagon was moving. Crow had taken the reins. Reez shot around ready to act.

“Don’t” The old Dairkkul said, her eyes fixed on the road ahead. “Nightingale will puncture your lungs before you can reach your sword.” Reez felt something sharp poke her side. It was probably Nightingale’s knife. Reez didn’t bother to look.

“Kidnaping wasn’t part of the deal.” Reez said.

“No. It was. You just didn’t know about it.” Crow said, “Helping us with that fire, that wasn’t part of the deal and for that we’ll double the return bonus.”

“Who said we were bringing you back?” Reez asked. Kiki flashed hot ready for a fight. Reez could be quick, maybe quicker than some Dairkkul assassin.

Crow laughed, that cackle of hers was sharper than the knife pressed to Reez’s side. “Stop acting like you have principles. You knew we were going to steal something.”

“Something not some—“

“Don’t say it.” Crow smirked more vicious than amused. “Plausible deniability”

“I’m not so great at that part, did you see the gatehouse?” Reez asked.

Another cackle, “Fine.” Crow said, “If it’ll help, know that ‘whatever’ we took, it will be well taken care of. It will be treated like a royal guest and it will be returned unharmed.”

Reez hated this. But fighting now was just going to create more trouble, maybe get her and the girl in back killed. Besides hadn’t she broken contract enough? As Odvid said some parts of the job she didn’t have to like.

“Tell your girl to take her blade out of my ribs.” Reez said

Crow didn’t say anything but, the knife disappeared. Reez crossed her arms. “You really returning her?”

“It” Crow said less amused, “And yes, in a year or two after the Black Spire has a new owner.”

So, the girl was just another token, an offering to Neradogtha to show how righteous this Maelator guy was. It was petty, but that was politics for you.  “Why’d you go take ‘it’, if all you were going to do is return it?”

“Haven’t done much work for Pit Lords have you?” Crow said

“Done enough.” Reez said annoyed.

“Then you know that they take political hostages all the time. There’s nothing better as a bargaining chip.” Crow said. “Besides ‘it’ might be ‘holy’”

Reez didn’t like how Crow said ‘holy’. She couldn’t see the Dairkkul treating someone sacred to the elves with anything but hostility.

“In Aphetrria they usually exchange hostages or there’s a war and one’s taken, guck like that.” Reez said, “Stealing them out of their beds at night—“

“Isn’t any worse.” Crow said, “Now quiet. I lost good fiends and a decent man tonight. You want your coin you’ll stop with the moralizing.”

Reez frowned, she thought maybe Hummingbird and the other fiends had taken the second wagon, not died in the attack.

 “Sorry,” Reez offered.

Crow’s face was hard to read. Old lines, skin like ripe grapes, yellow eyes the color of lantern oil. “It happens. We’re at war with the other pit lords, they died saving lives and bringing peace.”

Reez lent back and didn’t say anything. She didn’t know what Crow was talking about. It probably had to do with the Dairkkul succession cycle. Neradoom was going through a whole host of civil wars. Reez just hoped the old spy was right and that stealing the girl stopped a war, ‘cause to Reez it looked like they had just started a whole new one instead.

………..

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