Excerpt from Hard Luck

Saga of Menyoral #1: Hard Luck


M.A. Ray

For Chris. It’s always for Chris.

Rock of Ages

It was a fair night, the last, perfect night of summer, and the stars shone cleanly down from a sky of blue velvet; but Oda the moon hid His shifting face from the world. Six men stood in a fallow field. Four, swathed in black, had placed themselves within a great diagram scythed into the grass, one at each compass point around a great gray stone. Two wore tonsured heads and clean-shaven faces, carrying brass medallions around their necks; and two wore long beards and runes picked out on their heavy robes in thread of gold.

By their tonsures, the last two were monks also, but instead of habits, they wore black armor with their brass medallions. They stood away in the taller grass, watching, faces drawn and fearful in the hard radiance that came from the glassy, polished top of the stone. The tracery etched in the surface burned more brightly than a sunbeam glancing off the whitest snow. It looked almost as if it might be letters or runes, but from what language? What language, when written, would writhe so that when a man looked away, and then looked back upon it, it had changed?

A host of sourceless voices joined the chant as it built in volume. The shaggy grass all around the diagram began to ripple inward, as if touched by a strong wind, though the wind went unfelt; and when the final syllable resounded in those many voices, a silence fell, a silence so heavy it weighed on the shoulders, so utter that all the men heard the workings of their own bodies, the sounds of blood and bowel. Only a twinkling it lasted, but it was a silence to unsettle the soul, and for a moment the stone’s radiance dimmed.

Then the wind rushed in again. This time it raised goose pimples on exposed flesh and caught at hair and robes. It bore fell whispers just within hearing, just outside grasping, and the foul old stench of rotten blood. A bright crack, the width of a hair, no more, wormed its slow way out from the center of the stone, and one of the magi began to weep crimson tears into his beard. One of the monks in the circle fell to his knees, tearing at his face and uttering mad screams the like of which no man ought ever to hear, to say nothing of making.

In the bowing grass beyond, his armored fellow reached after his sword, meaning to run in and strike off his head to halt his agony, but it was pointless; instead of a hand, his arm ended in a tangle of spiders’ legs. “Brother!” he cried, and when he saw the other beside him, mouth wide with soundless keening, sprout tentacles beneath his chin, he groaned aloud to the Bright Lady. “Oh, Queen of Heaven! Oh, my Brother, what have you done?” All their flesh warped and warped again as the crack grew long and wide. Their shrieks tore across the field, until at last, their bodies slumped into impossible heaps, and the crack burst with a white dazzlement that blotted out the stars.

At dawn the next morning, the sun brushed over a fallow field with grass swirled in toward the huge, broken stone. Six nacreous lumps lay nearby, melting into the earth, and a thick, pearly tear gathered in the crack, oozing slowly toward the ground. And without sign or portent, all Rothganar was changed.

There were fairies, before that night.

They zipped over every pond in the summertime, like sparkling, rainbow stars, and left glittery dust on everything they touched. Unicorns stood sentinel in the glens, waiting unwearied for their true, untouched loves. The land’s brass-bold knights went questing, and found lovely maidens to rescue and monsters aplenty for the slaying: trolls and giants, manticores and griffins, cockatrices, and the sly, whispering ghosts of drowned girls. A dryad tended every oak, and dragons guarded the secret places in the earth. Of adventure there was no lack, if one only looked for it.

In the great cities – Dreamport, Brightwater, Oasis, Long Knife, Muscoda – there was work to spare for anyone with even a breath of magical talent: in the sewage treatment plants, the manufactories, and the research laboratories. In the wild places, magi closeted themselves in their towers and devoted themselves wholly to arts black and white. Priests contemplated the heavens and drew power from the divine. Closer to the ground, shamans shook their bone rattles and sang to the spirits of the world; deep beneath the surface, short, stocky Bearded Ones pounded spells into beautiful works of weapon smith’s craft. Over in Windish, the Ish sang fat salmon into their nets, and down in the scorched land of Oasis, the Trallins freshened and cooled even their humblest homes with magical breezes. All over their beautiful Homeland, the People who call themselves hitul lived their long lives and resented the humans who called them elf.

And oh! it was wonderful, back then, filled with things lovely enough to steal breath from anyone’s lungs, and the living was easy and clean. Expert healers visited even the tiniest village to give the touch that kept away disease from the smallest child, and with the aid of a draught from a wise-woman, a dream could show the loneliest where to find love.

That was Rothganar, but no more. The night of the Stone’s breaking, the People tossed and turned, insomniac in their tents and longhouses. Bearach High King at Shirith, mighty of sword and wizardly art, died headless, defending his People in vain. In the forges under the mountains, the hammers of the Bearded Ones fell utterly silent. The magi dreamed of twisted things from beyond the edge of reason; the priests writhed in the freezing grasp of Hell. Two miles from the place the Stone had been laid, a child kicked his way through the wall of his mother’s womb with the power of his unborn stretching. His mother had just enough breath left to name him before she died, and his father enough time to hear her whisper, “Vasily,” before his son blew out his eardrums uttering a first wail.

Every last fairy blew away in a wisp of glitter. Then the plagues came. Diseases that before the healers had been able to prevent with a single enchanted touch now felled people by the hundreds, by the thousands. In the cities, the manufactories ground to a halt as their devices all malfunctioned, every one. The sewage treatment plants in Brightwater and Muscoda, in Dreamport, in Oasis and Windish, failed spectacularly. There was panic in the streets, rioting, quests undertaken, and none of it was any good, because the magic that for so long everyone had used and taken for granted, the magic that fueled everyday life and gave Rothganar its glory, did not come at the casting. In a very little while, it began: the petty squabbling, and the pointing of fingers, and the hate.

And Rothganar fell into a darkness with no dawn.

Half Bad

forty-seven years later

Thundering Hills, Wealaia

Flickering torch-glow lit the forest just outside the village tonight. At the top of the tallest hill a stately, ancient oak stood alone, and the inhabitants of Thundering Hills clustered around it with their torches and their incomprehensible shouts. From the brush ringing the base of the hill, it looked and sounded like a festival, or maybe a party, but up close, it was anything but. Dingus Xavier, with his back to the tree, was closer than most.

Almost everybody he knew was here, but nobody from the village who’d help him. He’d thought Adair might’ve, but even the smith stood with the mob, thick arms folded over his chest. Grandpa definitely would’ve, or Grandma, but neither of them had come, and about Ma, the less said the better. She couldn’t get him out of this one with a few fake tears. He doubted even Grandma’s flashing rapier could get him out of it. Everywhere he looked, he saw someone carrying a torch, except for Curran the butcher with a stool, and Rogen the bailiff with a noose.

Putting it mildly, Dingus was screwed. One tiny, rational corner of his mind railed at him about how stupid it all was, but the rest of him clung to Moira’s bark, shaking as bad as any of her leaves and trying not to throw up or cry – or both. He didn’t want to do either, and he definitely did not want to die, but it looked like he was fixing to do all three. This can’t be happening, he thought. He’d had dreams like this. A rock hit him in the side of the head, making a familiar black bounce inside his skull, and when he touched the spot, his fingers came away bloody. Oh, it’s happening, all right.

“Please,” he said, and it came out small. He forced it out a little louder. “Please, don’t! I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to!” He never did mean to, either. He meant not to, at least ’til it came on him. It was just he wanted Aust to leave him alone for one single day, one single hour. Every time Aust laid eyes on Dingus, every day, seemed like from the time Dingus could walk, it was “half-breed” and turning his name (which was an awful name anyway, he knew that) into an insult. Crybaby, overgrown, big, dumb Dingus, and while Aust sang that unbearable song, “Dingus, Dingus, half-breed thingus,” he’d got to thinking about all the times Aust took from him, shoved him down in the mud, or beat the crap out of him. Then the red came, so fast he didn’t have time to even think about controlling himself; he’d just pushed Aust right over, sat on his chest, and punched – and punched – and punched his stupid, grinning face into mutton.

“I didn’t mean to!” he repeated, but nobody was paying attention to anything he had to say. He hoped it wasn’t because he’d killed Aust – he hoped he hadn’t killed Aust – but the sheer injustice of it made him mad all over again. Aust had beat him up a thousand times, and nobody ever told him to quit. Sure as hell they didn’t string him up. Dingus stood up for himself one time in his whole life and he was gonna die for it. The only reason he even stopped here was to get a good-bye kiss from Moira before he ran off. Here they came, though, closing in on him: people he’d known all his sixteen years and who knew him just as long, and he didn’t count one bit to them even so.

“We should’ve drowned you when you were whelped, you menace,” said Aust’s pa – Rogen – with his noose all ready for Dingus’s neck. Aust’s friend Edwin kicked Dingus’s satchel, scattering all the food Grandma packed him for his trip, and the others were glad enough to grind it all into the dirt as they came forward.

“I’m not one,” Dingus protested. He wasn’t a menace. He wasn’t even a pest. He barely even opened his mouth while he was in the village, or really ever, ’cause he was always trying to stay out of trouble – but it didn’t help. Being the only half-human within a hundred miles made Dingus stick out like a sore thumb, and that was before he counted the red hair and extra head of height. “I never even hit nobody before, sir – you know I didn’t! Please, I’m sorry, sir, I’m sorry…”

“You went mad! I saw it!” Edwin screamed, face sweaty, voice cracking. “You had murder in your eye!”

He opened his mouth to deny it, but he couldn’t. He hung his head. He did go mad and no wonder there’d been murder in his eye, ’cause his mind had been all filled up with it. Moira’s leaves whispered, “Climb up, Dingus.”

“Just let ’em have what they want,” he said quietly back, trying not to move his mouth so they wouldn’t notice, but he wasn’t sure how well it worked. “Don’t come out. They’ll burn you if they see you.”

“So I ought to let them use me to kill you? I think not!” He felt the bark shift behind him and jerked straight in horror. They’d be close enough to start hurting him in a couple of heartbeats, and he didn’t want them to see her. He didn’t want them to hurt her, too: his only-ever friend.

“No, Moira,” he said, but her powerful arms locked around his waist, and they started yelling about him being a half-breed berserker and a warlock besides, look how the tree’s growing round him, look at that. In their crazy eyes, he saw how they didn’t understand about Moira or about him either. He saw how they were scared of him, when he never meant for anything like today to happen, when all he ever wanted to do was leave. “Please don’t,” he begged one more time, holding out his rough hands for peace. “Please! I’m just trying to – ” And then Curran came toward him with the big cleaver he used on mutton bones. The torchlight glanced off the shiny blade, making it seem to burn like another brand, and Dingus screamed, short and wild: “Please!” Curran kept coming. Dingus squeezed his lids shut, and the tears stinging in his eyes stung his pride just as fierce. He’d never be a man to them but he wished he could’ve got the courage to die like one.

Curran grabbed under his jaw and forced his head up. “Boy,” he said, “whatever you’re doing, it won’t help you now.”

“I’m not,” he said, crying helplessly. “I’m not.” The butcher raised the cleaver. Dingus heard it bite into something hard, but he couldn’t feel it, and Moira hissed in his ear. “Stop!” he shouted, kicking out with one of his bare feet – his giant, dirty feet – and tagging Curran right in the eggs. Curran wheezed, squeaked, and fell over, covering his crotch. Dingus tugged at Moira’s arms. “Let go – let go!” They weren’t gonna hurt her on account of him, never.

She brushed a whispery, leaf-soft kiss on his cheek and let him go.  He stumbled forward a couple steps; he thought he heard “I love you” in the branches, but it could’ve been the breeze. He could’ve been hearing things; the shouts exploded again, so many he couldn’t understand what anybody was saying. They closed tight around him. He couldn’t even count all the hands grasping at him. For a guy who didn’t hardly get touched, it was scary like nothing else: the grabbing, groping, clutching hands that dragged him down.

Just let ’em, he kept telling himself, just let ’em get it over with, but his body wouldn’t listen. His skin jumped and twitched, and he felt hot from head to toe. His breath burned in and out of his chest. The back of his neck was pins and needles just like this afternoon. He reeled from grip to grip in the tightening ring of hands. Tears still ran down his face and he started to panic, trying to shove through before the red came and he did something real stupid. He was strong from busting his butt, but not stronger than about thirty men.

He tried to run too late. One minute he was fighting like crazy to get through, and the one after that, he slammed flat on his face in the dirt. Dingus knew what came next and he sure as hell knew how to take a beating. He got it in the head a couple times, the gut too, before he curled himself into the smallest ball he could, covering his neck with his hands and his head with his arms. “Dingus, Dingus, half-breed thingus” – it was so loud, the song and the time-keeping, painful thuds. He let the beat rock him back and forth; he knew not to stiffen up too much ’cause it would just hurt worse. All he could think about was Moira: how she used to talk to him when nobody else would, and hug him and play games with him. Starting a year back, they’d play other games – the kind that likely Ma would scream to find out about. She’d let him love her with everything he had, and never once called him any kind of thingus.

He must’ve blacked out for a while, thinking of Moira, because all of a sudden his hands were tied, real tight, behind him. The rope gnawed on his wrists. One eye had swelled up, he was pretty sure, when they pulled him up to his knees. His head hurt so bad he could barely see out of the other eye, and he was still crying besides, even though he wished he wasn’t. He blinked hard. There was a big old smear of snot and blood on the ground where he’d been lying. His face felt sticky with it: snot and blood and tears.

They dragged him over by the stool. Rogen had climbed Moira, and now he tried to fix the noose onto a branch. Dingus heard her rustling her limbs so that all the knots Rogen tied fell apart when Edwin tugged on the rope to test them. They cussed, and others yelled advice while they forced Dingus up on the stool. He didn’t want to be on it, but he didn’t want to fall off either. All that kicking made him so dizzy he couldn’t stay up. He fell off twice, and both times they let him hit the ground before they held his legs and waist to keep him up there. They couldn’t really reach any higher on his stretched-out, skinny body.

He’d always hated it, being so tall, and his hair so red, nobody could miss him when he walked by. He sniffled, or tried to, through his throbbing nose; he had a funny kind of peace on him now, and he wasn’t crying nearly so hard. “My face,” he pleaded, even though nobody could understand him through a nose full of stuff. “Please wipe my face.” It didn’t really matter, he guessed, since pretty soon it’d be purple and blue and twisted.  He just didn’t want to die with his face coated in slime.

“Any last requests, Thingus?” sneered Gareth, another one of Aust’s friends.

Dingus spat all the junk from his mouth, almost overbalancing as he aimed it at Gareth. He just couldn’t take it, here at the end of his rope, so to speak. He’d always hated Gareth most, sneaky, sniveling, carry-tale Gareth, who toadied around Aust and lied so that half the stuff they did got blamed on Dingus. “Pussy!” he said, making the most of his last chance. “Fucking pussy! I’d haunt you forever if it was worth sticking around here!” If his legs were free he’d have kicked Gareth in the head right now, just one parting shot. Gareth got the parting shot instead. He gave Dingus a solid uppercut, probably the only good punch he’d ever thrown, and it was just Dingus’s luck it landed in his ’nads. He gasped, lurching forward, and the mob propped him up again.

“Get a move on with that noose!” somebody yelled, and Rogen cussed long and loud.

“It’s not working! It’s his warlock enchantment on the tree!”

They don’t understand, he thought. They never would’ve. He started sort of laughing, sort of crying again – overall, kind of blubbering. It was just so ridiculous. There wasn’t any such thing as a warlock anymore, and he wouldn’t have known how to be one if there was. He wasn’t any berserker, either. Berserkers leapt around in Grandpa’s stories, reaving and fighting with foaming mouths gnawing on the edges of their shields, oblivious to friend, foe, or death. Dingus wasn’t none of that. Mostly he was miserable, so miserable that the inside of his head sounded like one endless, angry howl. When the red came on him everything slipped out of his control into the world. Like coming – but better, so good it scared him. He could’ve done it again right now and never mind how little it’d help him.

People shouted knot-tying advice to Rogen while Dingus watched like he was a hundred miles away instead of just underneath in a swarming mass of people he’d grown up knowing. Maybe he was a hundred miles away, or farther; he saw Rogen, clinging to one of Moira’s branches, and the mob, but he was also seeing his life go by. He saw himself growing from a chubby, solid kid into a too-tall, too-skinny, too-spotty guy with huge hands and feet. If the People had an awkward stage, Dingus never had seen it. Instead, all the awkward fell on his shoulders, and the injustice of it burned, that Aust’s face should stay perfect and smooth, without one blemish, all the days of Dingus’s life. From the first time Aust stuck out a foot so that Dingus landed face-first in a disgusting puddle and told him, “You’re where you belong, with the other shit,” Aust’s limbs stayed lean and strong, caught between child and adult. Dingus had been six then, and the taller he got, the worse it got, until he couldn’t escape the village without some kind of awfulness – literal shit, sometimes, like the day when he was ten they’d all caught him fishing. He’d tried to fight back at first, but they wrestled him down and the others held him while Aust pinched one off on his chest. He remembered lying there afterward, crying and hating perfect Aust, with the poison sneer no adult ever seemed to see. Dingus hadn’t told a soul what happened; next time would’ve been even more horrible if he had. He thought of Sassy, Ma’s prize black rooster, which he privately called Ass. Of hunting with Grandpa, hearing story after story over the campfire. Of kissing Moira in the cool leaf-shadow under her limbs, and of the slow realization that he never would be a man, that he’d always be an overgrown baby: no-good, no-account, dumb Dingus Xavier, the human bandit’s son. “Dingus, Dingus, half-breed thingus,” always and forever a Thing.

Moira’s tree creaked and lurched, like in a big gust of wind, except the night was calm. Rogen squawked like Ass and tumbled to the ground with a broken-bone crack. It made Dingus laugh long and hard, even though it hurt to laugh. One single, one solitary, one final victory in a whole sixteen years of nothing but losing; it wasn’t much, but it was sweet. They’d have to get their hands dirty. If they could’ve had Dingus deal with it, they would’ve. Kill yourself, boy, he could just hear them saying, and then put your dead self on a midden heap someplace out of the way, ‘cause we don’t want to be bothered.

Rogen lay groaning in a heap. Somebody, Dingus didn’t know who, said “What now?” in an exasperated voice.

“Get him off that stool!” Curran barked, or tried to – his voice still sounded kind of squeaky from Dingus tagging him in the eggs. Everybody holding him up let go, and Dingus fell forward into the dirt. Curran kicked him over onto his back and looked down at him like he wasn’t worth scraping off a boot. The torchlight caught on the cleaver’s blade. He swallowed hard.

“You never wanted me here,” he said, slurring it through his bloody, snotty, probably-broken nose, past his fat lip. Just once he wanted to say it, even though they probably wouldn’t understand the words, let alone what they meant. “But see, I never wanted to be here neither. I never asked to be born!”

“Shut up!” Curran snapped, and kicked him in his already-pounding head. Dingus moaned, but he let himself go slack. He’d said what he wanted to say. Whether or not they listened, he’d said it to them. He was done, and when they put the noose around his neck to strangle him he was way past fear. He was crying from relief.

There was a low, low sobbing in the oak tree, like a throbbing beat on a hollow log. He took in one last, full breath, thinking, Moira, Moira, and wishing she didn’t have to watch. The rough hemp scraped painfully on the sunburned back of Dingus’s neck, and pulled tight around his throat.

Want more? Saga of Menyoral begins December 13, 2013. Watch this space…

6 thoughts on “Excerpt from Hard Luck

  1. As one of your beta readers, I really really really enjoy what you have revised and feel like I can understand your amazing story a million times better 🙂 so excited for you! Keep going and don’t be afraid to kill your darlings!

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