Do The Good Go To Hell? – A Story

Once upon a time, during a particularly difficult economic down turn, the president of the land of Make Believe decided to use his own money to help his people.

“I’ll build an industrial plant,” he told his economic adviser, “a huge complex, big enough to employ anyone who needs work. First we’ll hire people to do the construction. All kinds of people. No experience necessary. What they don’t know, we’ll train them to do.”

His adviser consulted with the necessary PR personnel and soon word spread: anyone who wanted a job could begin to report to the designated location, effective immediately.

People came slowly at first, hardly believing the president really meant what he said, and some stayed away, convinced the offer was a sham, or worse—a trick to bilk the people of the little they still had.

Eventually, however, as those first folk went home tired each night after a full day of hard labor, gold coins clinking in their pockets, more and more people decided to sign on for a job too.

One day, a nicely dressed young man named Warren Wingate showed up at the application center.

“Would you like to apply for a job?” the receptionist asked him.

“Oh, no, no. I don’t need a job,” Warren said. “In fact, I’m here to help out.”

“Help out? In what way?”

“I have money, lots of money, more than I can ever spend in my lifetime. I want to give it away.”

“To everyone?”

“Well, I could do that, but the amount would be so small, it might not make much of a difference.”

“So you plan to divide your wealth with just a few people? How will you decide which will receive your gift and which won’t?”

“I’ll figure something out—maybe based on need. You know, the poorest of the poor.”

So Warren set up a table and sat with his checkbook open. Whenever a poor man with a torn shirt or holes in his shoes came to the application center, Warren called him over, wrote a check, and sent him home.

“Warren,” the receptionist said, “you should be sending those poor people in to sign up for their job.”

“They don’t need it any more. I gave them enough to last a lifetime.”

“You don’t know that. What happens if inflation rises or our currency is devalued? These people need jobs. It’s the only way they can have a secure future.”

“That’s certainly a narrow-minded perspective. Look at me. I invested wisely, and I’m wealthy beyond measure. I don’t need a job, and in fact I can help shoulder the burden for all these other folk.”

With that Warren passed out checks to the next one hundred people who showed up at the application center, regardless of need. Each person was so happy, they shook Warren’s hand, said how grateful they were, how much they owed him, and headed back home.

The next day, all the people with checks hurried out to the bank. But instead of open doors and a lighted building, the shades were drawn and the doors were locked.

“What’s this about?” one person asked.

“Haven’t you heard?” a man on his way to work said. “The bank closed its doors yesterday. Those checks you have aren’t going to buy your groceries.”

“But Mr. Wingate said he had more than enough money for us all.”

“I’m sure he thought he had plenty. But he’s not buying groceries either, not unless he has some gold. And the only place I know where you can get gold is from the president. You all should come with me and put in your job application. They’re taking anyone willing to work.”

As the worker hurried toward the plant, a few folk trailed after him though most stayed in front of the bank.

“It’s a misunderstanding,” one man said. “They’ll open the bank in an hour or so, you’ll see.”

When those who went with the worker arrived at the application center, who did they see but Warren Wingate, handing out more checks to the poor.

One of those who had just left the bank, stepped forward. “What are you doing, Mr. Wingate? The bank is closed, and we can’t cash the checks you gave us.”

“Well, isn’t that sad. Would you like another? I can make this one for a good deal more if you like.”

“That won’t help. We need to buy groceries for our families and we need money, not a check we can’t cash. You need money, too. They say the only place to get any is here at the president’s industrial complex, so we’re going to apply for a job. You should too.”

“Me?” Warren said. “Why would I need a job? I have plenty of money. Take a look at my last bank statement.”

“But the bank is closed.”

“I’ll simply show this statement at the grocery story. I’m sure they’ll give me the food I need. You can show them your checks too. They’re bound to give you the food once they see how rich you are.”

– – –

So what do you think? Did the kind man giving out checks to the poor get the food he needed?

This story is an edited version of one first published here in October, 2010.

Published in: on October 16, 2018 at 5:00 pm  Comments Off on Do The Good Go To Hell? – A Story  
Tags: ,

“Warning Issued” – A Story

Below is a story I thought you might enjoy. It’s one I wrote earlier this year for a contest, and there is no connection to the short series I’ve been doing about grumbling. 😀

By the way, please don’t forget to vote for the August CSFF Top Tour Blogger.

– – – – –

Gustavo shielded his mouth with the flimsy sleeve of his sleep shirt as he skittered around another pile of ash. The worn soles of his canvas shoes would be no match for any live chunks of lava hiding in the drifts.

Run to the village and tell them to sound the alarm, Papa had said. And so Gustavo pulled on his pants and shoes and ran into the smoky gray of early dawn. The sputtering fire from Tematíl had urged him to go his fastest.

If only he could maintain that pace. How many houses scattered throughout the countryside would the lava pouring down the mountain bury? The people sound asleep in their own beds — his friends and neighbors — needed to be warned.

Again he swerved around a heap of ash blocking the trail. A gust of wind swirled the hot chunks and powder-fine particles into a miniature cyclone, and he ducked his head behind his arm to keep his eyes, nose, and mouth clear.

Through the trees on the left a pinprick of light pierced the darkness. A distant whistle sounded — the long, low moaning of a train steaming through the village on its way to Tematíl and the coast beyond.

Gustavo hesitated. He had been on that train more than once with Grandfather. Most of the passengers were workers traveling from their homes in the city during the dark hours of the fading night to arrive at their jobs at the start of the day. How many people were hurtling toward the growing lava field — two hundred, maybe three? Men like Pietro who lived with his wife and baby daughter and four growing sons, all a little younger than Gustavo, in a small house next to Grandfather’s.

Would Pietro, or any of the other fathers and husbands, survive when the train met the lava flow? Were children and wives on board, traveling to the seaside town for a special holiday or for a visit to the open-air market?

If Gustavo left the path to his village, he could reach the trestle bridging the river and flag the train.

But who then would tell the alderman to sound the alarm for the countryside? His father had entrusted him with the job, and his neighbors’ lives depended on him completing the task. He couldn’t let down Signora Bonelli, his friend Sandro, the egg lady living near the copse of birch trees, or the carpenter and his family in the pasture on the far side.

No, he needed to reach the village as fast as possible, or all his neighbors would die . . . As would the passengers on the train if he didn’t warn them to stop. How could he let hundreds race to their deaths? But how could he fail his neighbors?

The train whistle moaned again, louder than before, nearer. What if . . . No time to question. He had to act now.

Leaving the trail, Gustavo plunged through the woods toward the river. When he reached the bluff overlooking the water, he stripped off his sleep shirt and climbed onto the trestle. Now he could hear the clackety, clackety of the train wheels on the tracks.

A ray of sunlight squeezed through the haze, beaming onto the far end of the bridge. He sprinted to it. With light bathing him, he faced the oncoming train. At last it chugged into sight. He splayed his legs to make himself as big as possible, raised his shirt, and waved it up and down. Up and down. The brakes screeched, but the train continued to hurtle toward him. The high-pitched squeal persisted as the engine reached the edge of the trestle. And slowed. Up and down he waved his shirt. Still the train crawled toward him. He held his ground. The brakes squealed louder, and at last the train churned to a stop.

The conductor leaned his head out the door behind the engine. “What is it, boy?”

Gustavo lowered his arms. “Tematíl is erupting.”

“Thank God you stopped us!”

“But now I need your help.”

“What can we do?”

“I was supposed to go to the village and tell them to sound the alarm.”

“You want us to take you back?”

“I don’t think there’s time.”

“Then what?”

“Your train whistle.”

The conductor ducked his head inside. “Hear that, Emilio?”

The engineer waved through the cab window and reached for a long cord dangling by his head. As he pulled down, a whistle blast echoed over the river canyon. He pulled again and again, sending one urgent, bleating sound after another into the gray morning — a warning signal none of Gustavo’s neighbors could sleep through and none could ignore.

Published in: on September 2, 2011 at 6:16 pm  Comments (5)  
Tags: ,

CSFF Blog Tour – Residential Aliens, Day 3

Part 1 of Jeff Chapman's story in Residential Aliens

In my last post, I mentioned my plans, in conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour of the zine Residential Aliens, to do a review, but left the subject of such, up in the air. For a moment I was tempted to turn the table and review the blog participants! 😀 Now that could have resulted in some interesting discussion, don’t you think?

I also considered doing a review of one of the stories, but Bruce Hennigan, Jeff Chapman, and our newest member, Dean Hardy, among others, gave excellent reviews in their posts.

I considered giving a review of editor extraordinaire Lyn Perry himself, but Fred Warren beat me to that one and did a much better job than I could have, by far.

Well, there’s the obvious — a review Residential Aliens as a whole. Yep, you guessed it: on Monday Sarah Sawyer posted an article taking a critical look at the site.

So here’s what I decided after reading Shannon McDermott‘s post giving a thorough overview of Residential Aliens: I’m going to review the short story. Not a short story — the genre, short story.

Early in my writing career, I read that learning to write the short story was so unique and different from writing a novel that it required its own set of skills. That was enough to scare me off. I had my hands full trying to learn what I needed for my novel.

Then along came a little short story contest held by World Magazine. They wanted stories written from a Christian worldview, and they posted the submissions on line, allowing others to comment or critique.

Well, that was interesting. The upshot was, I decided writing short stories looked like a lot more fun than I’d imagined. And doable.

Not long after, Bethany House editor Dave Long began to hold short story contests which I entered. And I had the bug.

I’m not sure if it was the short story bug or the contest bug (probably the latter), but one thing I discovered — short stories afforded me the opportunity to experiment with voice, point of view, story structure, and whatever else I wanted to play with. In short, I discovered that short stories are a great boon to a writer.

Not only did they help me learn my craft, I actually sold a couple stories and had some modest success in a couple contests. That feedback was encouraging.

Now I’d recommend to any writer starting out to begin with short stories.

But what about for readers? I rarely read short stories these days. And yet, I find myself eighty pages into an anthology of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, and I love them.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized that I don’t shy away from short stories as much as they shy away from me. Magazines don’t carry them any more (even Writer’s Digest which used to publish the winner of their Short, Short Story Competition, now puts it online, not in their magazine). I don’t get a Sunday school paper as I used to — those were always good for a story or two. And I’m no longer subscribed to the one or two magazines that may still carry short stories.

I have to say, I’m not fond of reading stories on the computer. I tend to think of reading as a chance to settle back and enjoy, not sit at a desk. Consequently free ezines hold less appeal to me than novels.

But then I see that Residential Aliens has multiple formats available, and I think, here’s an editor/publisher who understands the transitional world in which we live. One day, I suspect, everyone except the rare book collector will be reading from eReaders of some sort. But today we are in flux, and the more formats offered, the better the chance that readers of one stripe or another will find the stories.

May that be true of those Residential Aliens has published.

Writing Inspirational Stories

I decided to try it. Writer’s Digest holds semi-annual writing competition, and one of the categories is Inspirational. For years I’ve received the promo material for this contest and never entered this category. I wrote a couple stories for the Genre Fiction category, but Inspirational had me stumped.

A friend of mine even told me a few years ago that she finished in the top 100, I think it was. What exactly was the “Inspirational” category, I asked her. Oh, anything, she said. Stories? Yes, she said, her entry was a story.

So last year, I decided to try it. Except, what exactly was an Inspirational story? I didn’t have a clue, and wasn’t sure I really wanted to figure it out.

Here it is, a year later, and there was that Inspirational category staring me in the face again.

So what is an Inspirational story?

Too late, I saw this year that Writer’s Digest did a good job answering that question. These stories have explicit religious messages. Here’s the pertinent paragraph:

Inspirational: An article, essay or story with an explicitly religious, spiritual or otherwise inspirational focus. An article that’s suitable for Guideposts or St. Anthony Messenger, for example, would be inspirational. An essay on how the power of Christ, (or Buddha, or Allah or Vashti) touched your life would be inspirational. A story about the power of religion, the power of prayer, or the power of the universe would be inspirational.

That would have helped, but I don’t think I was too far off. I figured an Inspirational story should be one that showed change, inspirational change.

OK, I was struggling. Was it like a Hallmark feel-good story that brought you to tears or gave you a warm feeling or a heavy sigh?

This was definitely a challenge, one I didn’t know if I was able to figure out.

For that matter, I’m not sure I’ve got short stories figured out.

A few years ago, Writer’s Digest carried an article about writing the shorter kinds of stories. This came out some time before their Short, Short Story Competition. Anyway, the gist of the article was that voice was the all-important component for the shortest of stories. So that’s what I worked on.

But this year, in one of the recent issues of the magazine there were a couple articles about crafting short stories. One was “Letting Plot Guide Your Narrative.” (Oh, it’s not all about voice, then, at least if the short story isn’t of the 1500 word kind. I wonder about the 2500 word Inspirational kind). The other was “Broadening Your Story’s Scope” (in 2500 words? In the Inspirational category?)

OK, I concluded, this is definitely harder than it looks. But try, I decided to do. And did. Turned it in this afternoon, just before the deadline (midnight tonight) before the deadline (May 20, if you pay a late fee).

Now I’m wondering how inspirational Inspirational stories need to be. 🙄

– – –

Time still to vote in the CSFF Top Tour Blogger Award Poll and in the What do you read poll. Also, have you passed the links along to others in your circle asking them to vote? If you do, you’ll win … my undying gratitude. But maybe I need to hold a book drawing. Hmmm, now that might just happen.

Published in: on May 2, 2011 at 7:49 pm  Comments (4)  
Tags: ,

Are Stories Getting Shorter?

In this day of the Tweet and the Facebook status update, of texting and email, are we programming ourselves for “short”?

On one hand there seems to be some evidence that this might be the case. Short Youtube videos are as popular as TV shows. In the written media, I’ve seen more novellas in the last five years than perhaps the previous ten combined.

These intermediate stories — either a very long short story, or a very short novel — once were the stuff of collections. Now they have begun to appear as digital offerings, a way, perhaps, for an author to test the water of self-publishing without risking a more time-consuming project.

Is this a trend or an anomaly?

Perhaps it’s a replacement.

None have been seen since 1959

Short stories seem to be going the way of the Pallid beach mouse. Once populating Florida, the little creature hasn’t been seen in more than half a century.

Certainly short story collections have a hard time finding a publishing home. And magazines that carry short stories are a dying breed.

Yes, there is hope for short stories on the Internet. Online webzines continue to crop up from time to time, but fewer of these are paying markets, which means writers may as well publish their short stories on their own site, as I have from time to time, where their regular readers are more apt to find them.

Could it be, however, that short stories, rather than disappearing, are expanding? That the novella trend is not a replacement of the novel at all but a void filler for the absent short stories?

Publishing, the new Wild West

I suppose there’s no way to know. As one industry professional recently describe publishing, it’s currently the wild, Wild West.

Self-reliance was the most important ingredient for survivors in the days of land-grabs and cattle rustlers.

Or was it?

When there was no lawman in town, no doctor, and often no preacher or teacher, people learned to rely on themselves or to bond together and rely on their community. Guess which ones thrived the most.

So in the structural vacuum of publishing, with its fenceless expanses and ever increasing numbers of charlatans offering a helping hand to the wannabe writer hoping for a bargain price on choice publishing real estate, who’s to say if short will win out or die out?

Some believe the reader will finally get the say. So, what do you like to read — short stories, novellas, or novels? (Is it time for another poll, before the previous one is not even half way to completion? 🙄 )

Published in: on April 28, 2011 at 6:30 pm  Comments (6)  
Tags: , , ,

Membership Required – A Short Story

I’m a reasonable man, and fair-minded, so I’m told. My employees know they can count on a holiday bonus regardless of their political and religious affiliations, or their disaffiliations. I promote women through the ranks as often as I promote men. And I donate liberally to Preserve the Planet—my part of “packing out” what we humans “pack in.”

You can understand, then, why I’m outraged by what just happened.

On the surface the invitation appeared to be for the kind of event I usually attend: very exclusive. This one was to be held across the country at an out-of-the-way little estate near the coast. Ideal for mixing a lot of pleasure with a little business.

A quick phone call verified that the guest list included a significant number of my colleagues and competitors. Perfect!

I gave my personal assistant the okay to RSVP in the affirmative.

“One problem, your lordship,” he said, studying a sheaf of papers, “the invitation states you must be a member of the host association.”

“Let me see that.”

I snatched the top sheet from his hand—a piece of parchment folded in half and embossed with gold lettering. There at the bottom in bold block letters was the simple statement: Membership required.

“It’s got to be a mistake. A foul-up at the printers.”

My assistant held up the other pages. “They included a list of locations—hundreds within a few miles of us—where you can apply for membership, sir.”

“A formality, I’m sure, not really a requirement. They wouldn’t send me an invitation unless I could attend. That would be absurd.”

Any reasonable person would know I was right, but I had yet to learn who I was dealing with.

I rearranged my schedule and set the plans in motion to attend what I expected to be the event of the year.

Everything went like clockwork. The flight was routine and my jet landed on time. As arranged, a limo met me at the gate. The short drive to the event site took me past a stretch of pristine sand that walled off the white-capped breakers tumbling from the cyan water. The limo sped through a quaint village and finally into a eucalyptus forest with ivy-covered walls lining the road. The place exuded wealth—the studied-casual kind, and I knew I belonged.

The driver turned into a private road leading to the estate, but a gate with wrought-iron detail barred the way.

An owlish man, dressed like a maître d’ and holding a computer tablet, stepped from the gatehouse. “And you are …?”

I lowered my window, thankful that my hosts were taking such precautions against party crashers. “Baron Mikal Kolmakov.”

The underling’s wide eyes scanned the screen in his hand. He punched a key, then another. “I’m sorry, sir, you don’t seem to be on the guest list. Could you be under another name?”

“I’ve got to be there. I gave my personal assistant explicit instructions to accept the invitation.”

The man stooped and peered through the window. “Perhaps if you have your membership card, I can scan it in and put you on the list.”

“No, you don’t understand.” I slowed my speech so he could be sure to follow what I was about to explain. “I received an invitation.”

“Of course, Mr. Kolmakov—”


“Excuse me?”

“Baron Kolmakov. I paid good money for that title.”

He straightened. “Of course, Baron Kolmakov. All the guests received invitations, but membership in the Association is still required.”

“I’m sure my personal assistant took care of the matter. I just don’t happen to have the card.” I never expected an underling to call me on that lie.

Owl Eyes tapped a few more keys, looked at me, then to the tablet screen and back at me. “Unfortunately, sir, membership must be obtained in person. Your assistant—a Mr. Suesov?—would not have been able to sign you up. He could only apply for his own membership.”

I suppressed a sneer. “I guarantee you my assistant did not receive an invitation.”

“Begging your pardon, Baron, but I have his RSVP in front of me.” He touched his finger to the screen. “A ‘no,’ I fear.”

“Well, then.” I adjusted the sleeves of my jacket. “But you must also have my RSVP—a ‘yes,’ is it not?”

“It is. However, your name was not included on the guest list since we have no record of your joining the Association.”

I massaged my temple. “I flew thousands of miles to attend this affair, and now you tell me I’m not on the guest list? That’s unacceptable. You’ll simply have to waive the membership requirement.”

“I’m sorry, Baron, but that is quite impossible.”

“Anything is possible, my good man.” I reach inside my coat for my leather wallet. “How much?”

“Excuse me?”

Apparently the man thought playing the fool would stretch my generosity. “How much compensation do you need to waive the membership requirement?”

He took a step back. “Sir, even if I wanted to, without the necessary card to scan into the computer, I couldn’t add your name for any price.”

I shoved my wallet back in place. “This is ridiculous. I want to talk with your superior.”

“Certainly sir.” Owl Eyes tapped the keys of his tablet. “Would you like to fill out the membership form while you wait for her to join us?”

“You mean you can sign me up right now? Here?”

“I can.” He reached into the guardhouse and grabbed a clipboard. “I just need you to fill out the application and I can process you through.”

“Then why can’t you process that gate open and let me join the party?”

He extended the clipboard toward me. “I’ll be happy to do so, Baron, as soon as your membership clears.”

I moved to the edge of my seat. “Are you suggesting I might get turned down?”

“Not if you’re in agreement with the Association’s core values.”

Who talks about core values in this era of enlightenment? “What kind of organization is this? Don’t you have any respect for other people?”

The gatekeeper stiffened, almost like he was military. “On the contrary, Baron. Respect for all people is one of our values.”

“Then you should respect my decision not to become a member of your association.”

“We do.”

“So … stop quibbling and open the gate!”

“I’m sorry, sir. Members only.”

“This … you’re … You just said you respect my choice not to join.”

“Our respect does not negate the association’s charter, Baron.”

I flung open the limo door and stormed toward Mr. Maître d’ until I towered over him. “Is this because of my nationality?”

He held his ground. “I can assure you, your cultural heritage or nationality has no relevance on your admission into the estate. You simply must become a member of the Association.”

“But only certain people can join.”

“The Association is open to all like-minded men and women.”

“Well, there you have it. Your precious Association won’t let someone like me join who opposes your idea of core values. How tolerant of you.” I injected as much sarcasm as I could into that last line.

“Baron, I wish I could help you.”

“Oh, but you’ve helped a great deal.” I pulled out my smart phone and pushed record. “You’re giving me all the information I need to haul every one of you prejudiced bigots into court.”

“Sir, you yourself said you received an invitation, and I offered to process your membership right now. How do you see this as bigoted?”

I let slip a smirk. “To attend this function, you say I must be a member, but only ‘like-minded’ people can be members—your term, not mine. That’s the definition of intolerant.”

“Sir, you were not excluded. You were invited. Perhaps if you examined the Associations list of core values—”

“Stop! Don’t try foisting those on me.” I retreated to the limo and slammed the door. Through the window, I said, “You cannot force me to believe something in contradiction to who I am. Inform your superiors that my lawyers will be in contact. I’m shutting you down.”

And I will, too. They think they can turn me away at the gate, but I’m not letting them get away with such discrimination. I’ve got friends in law enforcement, in government, in the media. We can do boycotts and lawsuits and smear campaigns.

As the limo backs out of the driveway, I tap the number for my personal assistant into my smart phone. When he picks up, I order him to get all the dirt he can on the Association because we’re going to war. There’s no reasoning with such intolerant people. My only choice is to bring them down.

Published in: on April 13, 2011 at 6:52 pm  Comments (9)  
Tags: ,

Short Story – The Stones Cry Out, Part 3

Summary: Because of Kor’s ability to hear stones prophesy, the governor of Cepea appoints him to become a watchman. After years of training, Kor finally takes his place on the wall. That first night he learns the other watchmen are lax about their job, presumably because they feel no enemy would consider attacking a berg protected by watchmen at one with the stones.

A week later, however, Kor hears the sounds of a great force marching toward the city. He signals the alarm for defensive measures. When the governor questions him, he admits he saw nothing. The governor then brings in the other watchmen. He is in the process of questioning Pran, a watchman who returned to his station drunk.

And now the conclusion:

Straightening, Pran wiped a hand over his mouth. “I saw the captain astride a white charger.”

Kor spun toward Pran. What was the drunken watchman saying? Surely, if there had been a white charger, its hooves would have clanged on the stony road—a sound Kor couldn’t have missed, even if somehow he overlooked a white warhorse prancing toward the city!

The governor slid next to Pran and latched onto the wall with both hands. “A single horse, then?”

“At the head of a column. I could not see how far reaching it was.”

Governor Hadan motioned to his page. “To Commander Jart. Tell him to prepare level five defenses.”

The governor strutted to the ladder, but turned back to the three watchmen. “You’ve done well. Your city is in your debt. Especially to you, Watchman Pran.”

Rays of light brightened the sky, and soon after, the sun climbed above the edge of the world. Commander Jart sent his scouts out to ascertain the accuracy of the information the watchmen provided. Upon returning, each patrol reported they saw no evidence of an approaching army, no evidence of an entrenched force, and no evidence one had retreated. In fact, there was no evidence of an army of any kind.

Kor swallowed his shame. You’ve done well, the governor had said, but the words clanked in his mind like a cracked signal bell. Most likely Marshal Tong had been asleep and didn’t really hear the marching. Watchman Pran, certainly drunk at the time, imagined or invented his white charger, and undoubtedly heard nothing.

By midmorning, the rest of the city knew who rang the first warning bell and forgot who the governor had especially praised. The newest watchman panicked, the soldiers said. He thought he heard marching, but it was only the hammering of his fearful heart. The jeers, intermingling with surly scowls, continued for days, all aimed at Kor, as if he alone bore the responsibility for the false signal.

Except, the tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp had not been false.

On the night of the Second Approach, when the sound again reverberated through the darkness, Kor knew with certainty the marching was real.

As before, he had just finished his final pass along the city wall and settled in his chair to fill out the log. The distant tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp spurred him from his seat. His heart thudded against his rib cage in time with the quick-stepping march.

Again? But how could he strike the warning signal after his recent humiliation?

He sprang to the parapet and peered toward the River Road. Nothing. Yet the thud of boots on stone grew louder. And nearer. He strained to see even the faint outline of an enemy soldier, but darkness canvassed the road weaving down the gradual incline separating Cepae from the river.

Pressing his ear to the wall, Kor waited. The stones would tell him what to do. He just had to be patient. That was the problem last time. He acted in haste, maybe in fear.

But the stones remained silent. The cadenced tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp grew louder, accompanied now by a low-pitched hum.

Kor clambered up the ladder to the top of the battlement. More rhythmic stamping. From how many soldiers? A squad? A platoon? A division? If only he could see them. He squinted into the darkness. Nothing.

Were they invisible? Cepae’s enemies would seek any advantage, any means of conquering the city protected by her stones.

Kor leaped down the ladder and sprinted to his alcove. His hand shook as he clutched the bell cord and clanged out the warning signal.

At once the marching died away. Silence. Then the answering clatter from the other watchmen and from the gatekeepers. More slowly, the armed soldiers stumbled from the garrison and milled around the square.

No signal fire appeared in the citadel tower, and Master Iba instead of Governor Hadan climbed to the rampart.

“What did you see, Watchman?”

“I heard marching, Master. A large force.”

“Did Marshal Tong confirm this?”

“He only signaled a response.”

“So on this occasion, you alone heard this supposed enemy army.”

“I think I understand now, Master. The enemy has learned some manner of shrouding their presence, but they can’t hide the sound of their approach.”

“I don’t hear anything, Watchman.”

“It … it has stopped now, Master.”

“So, this invisible army that can’t cover the sound of its approach is silent in its retreat?”

“I know it doesn’t make sense, Master, but I heard the marching.”

“Though none of the others on the River Wall heard a thing?”

Kor swallowed his desire to tell his master how incompetent Marshal Tong was as a watchman, how drunk Pran was night after night. Such accusations would appear to be feeble efforts to justify his own ineptitude. He pushed aside a pebble with his foot and gave a half shrug.

“What did the stones tell you, Watchman?”

“They were silent.”

“Then why didn’t you listen?” Master Iba spun away from Kor and ordered Commander Jart to cancel the alert.

Kor sagged against the wall. Why hadn’t he listened to the stones? That, after all, was why he was a watchman. He’d bent to hear what the stones had to say but stopped listening so he could look for the unseen army when the wall remained silent. As it was now. As it always was when Cepae was safe.

Had he imagined the marching then? Or had he neglected to explore the last possibility for its cause?

The Third Approach came a week later. As before, Kor left his alcove and positioned himself on the battlement, but instead of staring down the road, he pressed his ear against the stones and waited. The tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp resounded against the wall. Louder and louder. He held his ear firmly in place.

And then he heard the low hum, a melodious counterpoint to the steady beat of the approaching force. The stones vibrated, tickling his lobe, and he drew back. No matter. The melody was clear now, without his head resting against the wall.

Answering music floated to him from the River Road. The tune pierced his heart. It was promise, and fulfillment; anticipation, and satisfaction; hope, and completion. He wanted to laugh and weep, together. The beauty of the song required celebration, yet he mourned its inevitable loss.

“Not loss.” The stone beneath Kor’s hand shouted the words. The watchman yanked his hand away. From out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Song crest the hill toward Cepae.

In actuality, he saw a man dressed in the simple garments of a traveling minstrel. But from the wall, the stones sang a welcome, an announcement, a celebration of the Song. In return, the minstrel sang in pleasure and oneness with the stones he ruled.

That’s when Kor knew for certain. The marching had never been from an invading army. He bounded down the ladder and raced to his alcove. Seizing the bell cord, he clanged the special welcoming signal. Loudly his bell clattered into the night, a lone percussion from within the city, the required answer to the Song.

Kor straightened. Where were the bells responding to his signal? The squads of soldiers to escort the champion into the citadel?

Master Iba poked his head into Kor’s alcove. “What is it this time, Watchman?”

“You were right, Master. All I needed to do was listen.”

“And what did you think you heard?”

“The Song, Master. I hear the Song.”

But as he spoke, the music of the stones died away. The tramping ceased. The melody from the minstrel lingered a moment, then it too faded into the fading night.

“He’s gone.”

“No one was ever there, Kor. And clearly we made a mistake putting you in this position. You’re a danger to the city. We can’t have you pretending to hear armies that aren’t there.”

“I was wrong about the armies.”

“And you’re wrong now. There is no music, no song.”

“It died away.”

“It didn’t exist.” Master Iba beckoned him toward the ladder. “Come with me.”

“I haven’t finished my report.”

“Only watchmen make reports, Kor, and you are no longer a watchman.”

Master Iba prodded Kor off the rampart and across the square toward the citadel. Soldiers poked their heads from the garrison, growling curses. As Master Iba shoved Kor through the entrance, Governor Hadan appeared holding a cudgel.

He thrust his face near Kor’s and jammed the stick against his neck. “What kind of a scheme are you up to?”

Master Iba slammed the door.

As he did, the stones cried out, in imitation of the welcoming signal, and once again the tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp reverberated against the walls.


Published in: on June 12, 2009 at 10:51 am  Comments (12)  

Short Story – The Stones Cry Out, Part 2

Continued from Short Story – The Stones Cry Out, Part 1 (with one line repeated to bring you back into the flow of the story. 😉 )

Because of Master Iba’s persistent drilling, Kor left the shelter of his station and peered into the dark toward the unexpected tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp.

Steady. Repeated. Louder. A sizable force, if he could trust his ears. As yet, no one appeared out of the dark, but the marching floated up from the River Road.

Kor climbed to the battlement and leaned over the wall, straining his tired eyes to catch a glimpse of whatever force approached, marching in such a disciplined, rhythmic pattern. Tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp. Not herdsmen driving their cattle to market. Not wandering tradesmen looking to snatch the best corner of the square, the shady spot nearest the road. Only two choices remained, for no one else would travel through the night to arrive at the city before dawn. The force bearing down on Cepae had to be the entourage of a visiting dignitary … or an invading army.

But where were the signal fires from the nearby towns? Why hadn’t Cepae been notified … or warned?

Kor glanced toward Marshal Tong’s alcove. Was his sluggish supervisor aware of the approaching force? He wasn’t on the rampart. Was he even awake?

No need to look for Watchman Pran. The way he staggered into his station, in all likelihood, he sat passed out in the chair behind his desk.

Pressing his ear against the wall, Kor listened, but the stones remained silent. Or was the tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp so loud he couldn’t distinguish what they were saying?
He brushed bits of dirt from his earlobe. What should he do?

In the training exercises the other watchmen always confirmed his decisions. Or ridiculed them. Now he was alone. The judgment was his.

After each of Kor’s early failures, Marshal Iba beat into him the watchmen’s fundamental principle—trust no one you cannot identify with certitude. So he should signal the city to prepare its defense.

And still Kor hesitated. Because the stones remained silent? Or because he feared the wrath of the city leaders and the jeers of the garrisoned soldiers if he was wrong?

Again he peered into the dark but saw no one. Yet the sounds of marching increased. He couldn’t postpone the decision any longer.

Whoever was advancing toward Cepae must be considered a threat.

Kor sprang from the parapet onto the walkway leading to his alcove. Once inside, he seized the pull string dangling from his signal bell and yanked again and again until the clapper banged out the warning.

Lights flared from the windows in a row of huts next to the wall. The guard at the River Road gate answered the alarm with his own distinct clattery-clang. Kor left his alcove and climbed back to the rampart. Two watchmen from the opposite side of the city rang out their answering signals. The guards at the other three gates responded too. Marshal Tong added his warning, and finally Pran’s bell pealed into the graying dawn.

Someone in the citadel ignited the signal fire atop the tower. Light flitted over the city square, throwing shadows onto the stucco-walled buildings. Kor shielded his eyes with his hands as he’d been taught and stared down the River Road. The enemy army should be visible any moment.

Not that he could still hear them marching toward Cepae. Like an explosion, the city’s own soldiers burst from their garrison, swathed in armor and clutching their weapons. Their curses and commands obliterated any noise outside the walls.

Governor Hadan reached the public square and demanded to know where the threat came from and who had signaled for defensive measures. Master Iba made inquires, then informed His Excellency the first bell came from the River Road Wall. In moments the governor reached the walkway below Kor’s position.

“River Road Watchman Three, what can you tell me about this threat?” Governor Hadan tugged his chain mail toward his chin.

Kor saluted, then turned back toward the road. “I heard marching, Excellency. A sizable force by the sound of it.”

“How sizable?”

“I cannot say, Excellency.”

The governor raised his voice—louder than necessary to be heard over the tumult in the square. “Explain yourself.”

Kor shifted his weight until he could see the governor without turning around. “I haven’t seen the enemy, Excellency.”

“But they showed a light or you saw movement.”

“I only heard their marching, Excellency. My training compelled me to alert the city since I cannot trust those I cannot see.”

“Of course, Watchman. You did the right thing, I’m sure. But now we must learn just what kind of force we’re up against. Perhaps one of the others saw something more.” Governor Hadan flicked a hand. His page stepped from the shadows and scampered toward Marshal Tong’s alcove.

Kor’s racing heart stumbled. If only he had something concrete to tell the governor. The resulting reputation he would gain as a vigilant watchman would secure him the gratitude of the whole city, but now Marshal Tong, too slow or too inattentive to strike the signal himself, had the chance to win acclaim.

So be it. Kor might lose the recognition he was due, but the governor would learn the details needed to organized the best defense. Should they build the siege mound around the citadel? Should they begin storing water from the public pool? How many platoons should they ready for the counterattack? Should they send a runner through the Pasture Gate to bring the villagers within the safety of Cepae’s walls?

All these questions and more hinged on knowing details about the converging force. And Kor couldn’t supply a single answer. Not the number of the army. Not even their nationality and certainly not the strength of their armaments or how they were deployed.

Marshal Tong huffed up the walkway from his alcove. “How may I serve, Excellency?”

Governor Hadan’s shoulders relaxed. “You signaled the approach of the enemy?”

Placing a meaty hand on Kor’s shoulder, Marshal Tong puffed out his chest like a strutting kakati. “Young Kor here was the first.”

Kor nodded his thanks to his superior.

Governor Hadan’s back stiffened. “But you did signal.”

Keeping his eyes focused on the governor, Kor’s supervisor dropped his hand to his side. “I-I did, of course.”

“What did you see?”

Marshal Tong’s gaze drifted toward the city square. “The same as Watchman Kor, I’m sure.”

“Nothing?” The governor’s voice spiked. “You, too, saw nothing?”

“I … that is to say … I had the same reason to believe a threat was eminent.” Marshal Tong shifted his weight from left to right.

“You believed a threat was eminent. I can’t send troops against an assumed enemy. How are we to deploy? Where are we to station the citadel guard?”

“I’m only a watchman, Excellency.”

“A watchman who saw nothing!”

Kor thumbed away moisture collecting on his upper lip. “We may not have seen the enemy, Excellency, but without a doubt we heard them.”

Before the governor could respond, Watchman Pran topped the ladder, both hands gripping the railing. “You sent for me, Excellency?”

“What did you see, Pran?”

“I …” The unsteady watchman shifted his unfocused gaze in Marshal Tong’s direction.

“You signaled the threat, did you not?”

“Of course, Excellency.” Pran pronounced each word with exaggerated precision as he hauled himself atop the rampart.

“Then give us details, man. How many are there? How are they deployed?”

Pran leaned over the wall as if to stare down the River Road. Through the commotion from below, he mumbled, “I … the darkness of the night, Excellency. It prevented me from seeing the entire army.”

With a bound, the governor closed on Pran. “But you saw a portion of their force?”

Straightening, Pran wiped a hand over his mouth. “I saw the captain astride a white charger.”

Published in: on June 11, 2009 at 10:22 am  Comments (1)  

A Short Story – The Stones Cry Out, Part 1

So I thought I’d do something different. Since this site is about fiction, here’s a bit of fiction. I’ll post the story over the next few days so there isn’t anything too long to read. Uh, as you might expect, this is fantasy.

– – –

Kor’s mother, Lara noc-Jodan, a merchant with an upstanding reputation in the City of Stones, first reported her youngest son’s aptitude to the authorities four winters ago. Governor Hadan himself hurried to the family’s modest dugout, bringing with him the officer in charge of Cepae’s watchmen.

At the entrance to the simple home, the governor made his pronouncement. “We have need of a new watchman. Young Kor, present yourself for examination.”

Straight-backed, Kor climbed the narrow stairs to the rock garden. His parents eased through the trapdoor behind him.

“If your mother has lied, boy, Master Iba will know immediately.” The robust governor exchanged a smirk with the watchman instructor, then beckoned Kor toward the road. “The examination is simple enough. Listen to the stones and tell us what you hear.”

Kor peeked over his shoulder. His parents nodded, so he bent his wooly black head beside Master Iba’s bald one, his ear brushing the topmost stone in a mound of marble and rose quartz.

The governor turned his smirk on Kor.

Moments passed, but at last Kor straightened. “The stones announce the coming of a champion.”

“Well?” Governor Hadan’s gaze darted to his subordinate.

Master Iba rubbed the back of his neck. “As he said.”

“Ah, we’re to have a new festival champion during the harvest celebration.”

“They didn’t mention the festival,” Kor mumbled.

Without responding to the comment, Governor Hadan designated Kor for immediate training. Master Iba escorted him to the instruction center for his first lesson.

If the young man’s heart had not been one with the City of Stones, Kor might never have completed the requirements. Day upon day, before the companion star sank below the horizon, he scurried through the pre-dawn cold to meet Master Iba for lessons. Night upon night, he climbed and re-climbed the narrow scaffolding braced against the city’s outer wall—in order to strengthen his body, his instructor said.

Then when his muscles twitched with overuse and his eyes teared because of sleeplessness, Master Iba put him through the watchmen’s hammer and chisel. From out of the night shadows, a band of black-hooded strangers crept toward the city. Were they enemy invaders or wandering tradesmen at journey’s end? Should he signal for the governor to initiate defensive measures or for the gatekeeper to raise the portcullis? The responsibility was his. The safety of the city depended on him making the right choice.

As Kor’s training advanced, the tests came at all hours. In the glare of noonday light, he had to determine if he beheld a shimmering mirage or approaching horsemen. As the sun faded behind the Ykal Mountains, he needed to discern whether a band of advancing figures consisted of children returning home after a day of nutting or members of the dwarf army from Kalandu.

In these trials, Kor’s performance was as marred as chipped masonry.

Governor Hadan stormed into the training center after Kor’s third failure. “Examine him again. Anyone with the ability to hear the stones should not make so many mistakes.”

Master Iba parted his entwined hands and shrugged. “If you insist, Governor, but I’ve already tested him more than once.”

“Then explain to me his dismal performance.”

Tapping the tips of his fingers together, Master Iba shook his head. “I wish I could.”

Gradually Kor improved. Very gradually. One winter passed. Then two. Three. At long last, when the fourth winter melted away and the early cybl blooms pushed their white heads between the wall cracks, Master Iba declared Kor ready to take his position among the watchmen.

True to Cepaen custom, Kor’s father, Jodan noc-Lara, invited all their neighbors to a feast celebrating Kor’s placement. Lara, her two sisters, their daughters, and Jodan’s sister—seven in all—prepared food for three days. Jodan cleared away debris from the field beyond the rock garden, hung lighting, and replenished their cold room with barrels of the city’s finest ale. The merriment lasted another three days, and then it was time for Kor to go to work.

The young watchman was nervous that first night, feeling the burden of the city’s safety upon his shoulders. And rightly so. But as he became familiar with the routine, his tension evaporated.

At the completion of Kor’s third circuit, the last merchant locked his door and snuffed out his light. Quiet engulfed Cepae. Her trusting citizens now tucked scratchy homespun wool blankets around recently scrubbed sons and yeasty-smelling daughters, then retired, knowing their watchmen patrolled the ramparts.

With practiced ease, Kor scaled the scaffolding and walked his route, alone for the first time. Periodically he bent his head to the wall, listening to the stones, or rather to the silence of the stones. If all was as it should be, the legends said, music would pour from the rocks. The melodies of celebration to honor the Song himself. But those were ancient stories and no one believed them any more.

When it had come time for Master Iba to teach Kor the welcoming signal required to bring the Song into the city, he almost passed it over. “After all,” his instructor said, “it’s been so long since I taught this, the other watchmen most likely don’t remember the peculiar chiming sequence.”

Yearning to receive all that the others had received, Kor begged. In the end, Master Iba relented, but he had made it clear that Kor should not expect to use the signal. Instead, if all was as it should be, he would know by the silence of the stones.

And they were silent now. Cepae was at peace. Why shouldn’t it be? An enemy would be foolish to invade a fortified burg with trained watchmen, at one with the city they patrolled. A sense of invulnerability swirled through Kor. Intoxicating. As if the power of the city was his power. As if his mere presence atop the wall was enough to chase away legions of enemy soldiers.

The stones, after all, had chosen him. From dozens of other men, newly come of age, they chose him. How long had it been since a new watchman patrolled the ramparts? Five winters? Six? More perhaps. But when the council least expected it, the stones selected their man. The power, the privilege, the greatness that marked the watchmen now belonged to Kor.

Or so his thinking progressed, despite Master Iba’s cautions against self-importance. Later that night, when Kor passed Marshall Tong’s station, and the burly supervisor sat dozing with his polished boots propped on his signal bell, the newest watchman realized the others shared his sense of invincibility. As a result, he was only mildly surprised at the end of his shift when Watchman Pran, smelling more than a little pickled, weaved away from Madam Tru’s door toward his station.

Kor himself might have fallen into such lax behavior if many more uneventful nights had passed. But the First Approach came not more than a week into his service.

As the moon set, the youth completed his circuit and returned to his station to log his report. A muffled tramp filtered through the commonplace morning sounds—the premature gawk-a-gawk-a-doo of a rooster, the trickle of water filling the communal pond, Pran’s drunken shuffle as he made his way to his alcove.

Because of Master Iba’s persistent drilling, Kor left the shelter of his station and peered into the dark toward the unexpected tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp.

To be continued.

Published in: on June 10, 2009 at 12:11 pm  Comments (2)  

Fantasy Friday – Tidbits

Lo and behold, the latter part of this week, the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance featured Donita Paul and DragonLight. How cool is that! Back-to-back tours. Now that’s the way to keep the buzz going.

My name isn’t listed at the CFBA blog as one participating on the tour because I didn’t order a book through them. Nevertheless I want to mention Donita and her work again—partly because she is one of the pioneers in the Christian fantasy resurgence, partly because I enjoy her writing, partly because I think she has a wonderful Web site with lots to explore, including some games to play and art to enjoy, and partly because she has a new blog.

Then there’s the upcoming Motiv8 Fantasy Tour coming to the West Coast in a few short months when I’ll actually get to meet Donita and several others I’ve only had the pleasure of corresponding with on line.

Lastly, there is the t-shirt I just received—a very cool blue on gray that says, “Look wise, say nothing, and eat only those who annoy you.” 😉 In small print below it says, “I read DragonKeeper Chronicles,” which I do. 😀

Turning the corner to another piece of fantasy news some of you may be interested in, Michael Warden, author of Gideon’s Dawn, a … substantial first volume of the Pearlsong Refounding series, has self-published the second book, Waymaker.

The first volume was an echo of Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant trilogy. Since I credit those novels with providing me the impetus to write fantasy, I have followed Warden somewhat, and am pleased that he’s making an effort to finish what he started.

No doubt about it, epic fantasy is a challenge. Happily, it appears he has every intention of seeing the story through to the end. Good for him. Good for Christian fantasy.

Then the third piece of news. Jeff Gerke of posted an interview with me which you can read here. He also posted one of my short stories, a piece entitled “Swallow and Beyond” which I wrote for a Writer’s Digest contest. I hope you take a moment or two to stop by either pages some time this weekend.

%d bloggers like this: