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NaNoWriMo Thoughts: Ideas & Inspirations

Inspiration can strike in the strangest ways. This is probably why most authors hate the inevitable “Where do you get your ideas from?” question.

 

This is my attempt to answer that question: I get my ideas from the world around me. I think everyone does to a certain extent, which is why one of the most common mantras is “write what you know,” though I do think that advice is a little misleading. After all, if I’m writing a period piece or so me far-flung space opera epic, then what I know as an English computer dude living in Delaware really isn’t applicable.

 

So what can inspire you? One source is dreams, which is why it’s a good idea to keep a pen and notepad on your bedside table to jot down the ideas as soon as you wake, because you WILL forget if you decide to wait until later, as I’ve learned to my cost. An infamous example of the dream as inspiration is the “Terminator” franchise. It began when James Cameron had a dream that consisted of a metal exoskeleton walking out of flames (Harlan Ellison might disagree on that form of inspiration and there’s legal reasons for Ellison’s credit on the first film, but Harlan is infamously cranky and litigious so who knows?). That dream became the finale of The Terminator and is, in my opinion, one of the best “holy crap” film moments of the 1980s.

 

Another obvious source of inspiration, and one partially alluded to in my Ellison aside above is whatever you might be reading. I know one of my earliest short stories was inspired by me reading Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon and thinking “I could do better than this!”

 

Thankfully, there are no extant copies of that story online as it was typical of a new, young writer in that it was terrible. That’s beside the point though. I read a lot of non-fiction, and listen to a couple of different history podcasts. And one of my most frequent thoughts are generally “what if this happened instead?” which leads to alternate history ideas or cross-pollination between disparate historical events and genres. What would the Roman Year of the Four Emperors look like through the lens of a fantasy world? I don’t know, but I might well find out by the end of National Novel Writing Month as that seems like fertile ground for at least fifty thousand words.

 

My current plan for the 2016 edition of that exercise revolves around an eighteenth century naval battle with a commander who was very much conflicted about whether he was even on the right side, which means I’m going to be hip-deep in geographical and historical research for the next couple of weeks. And that inspiration came from a single line in one of the “…for Dummies” series of books.

 

I also have dumber ideas inspired by mass media such as movies or television. Like most of the residents of the United States right now, I’m drowning in Presidential election coverage. Watching bits and pieces of the debates not long after finally succumbing and watching The Silence of the Lambs has lead me to a short story parody idea which so far involves Donald Trump looking in a mirror and asking “Would you vote me? I’d vote me so hard.” It’s very stupid, and I’m not sure I need the mental image of Donald Trump as Buffalo Bill, but since I inflicted it on myself, I figured I’d inflict it on my loyal readers, as few as you might be.

The last source of inspiration I’m going to consider is people watching. As I type this, I’m sat in a coffee shop facing a large window that opens to the street. This is both because I’m clearly a terrible cliché and because it’s a fantastic spot to observe the small section of the world that is my street. For example, about five minutes ago there was an African-American woman in a purple halter top engaged in an animated discussion with an older gentleman in a wheelchair. I don’t know what they were talking about, but judging by the wild gesticulations, it was clearly something both parties felt passionate about. I created a backstory in my head that it was the first meeting in around fifteen years between a school custodian and an infamous vandal who made his work a living hell. They’ve both long put such things behind them, but were reminiscing about old times in the way that people who aren’t quite friend sometimes do.

 

So, how do you get inspiration for your stories? I submit that the easiest way to do that is simply to keep your eyes and ears open.

 

Lightbulb stock photo by Kyryl Lakishyk

#NaNoWriMo revisited: January is #NowWhat Month

Well, I’m being technically correct in my goal of having at least one blog entry a week on here in 2014, as this is still (just barely) the second week of 2014, being 13 days in and this is my second blog entry of this young year.

And unsurprisingly, like so many of my prior blog entries, it’s about writing, even though i was going to be more generalized in my subject matter this year. Some of that is inevitable, as one of my goals for 2014 was to write 500 words a day on average for writing, (I may be close to that, not actually checked) so it’s an activity that has been occupying my thoughts a lot lately.

And since this started out as a mostly National Novel Writing Month related pursuit, it’s probably not a surprise that my impetus for writing comes from the fine folks at nanowrimo.org and this pledge that they mention for revising the manuscript from this past November.

Of course, because I’m a writer with what I’ve heard called Attention Deficit Creator Disorder and find it impossible to stick to one thing at a time when it comes to writing, I’m immediately breaking the letter, if not the spirit of that pledge by opting to finish and revise my 2012 NaNoWriMo project, a superhero/conspiracy/murder story saddled with the title “Cloaked” rather than the fantasy piece you’ve seen excerpted on earlier entries on this very blog.

Mostly this is because Cloaked has sat long enough that it’s no longer totally familiar to me,so I have the distance to look at it somewhat more dispassionately and strip away a lot of the crap that’s in it. After all, it’s far easier to “kill your darlings” if you can no longer recall why they are your darlings. Other reasons for this piece to get the focus include the fact that when I submitted the second chapter to the wonderful Richmond WriMos monthly critique group meeting for January, it got mostly positive results, other than the typical (for me) first/nano draft problems of sneaky passive voice, too many “to be” verbs, and a little on dialog tag punctuation. I ascribe some of that to translating between British and American and most of it to me being more interested in getting the words down rather than seeing if they make sense. The group also allowed me to get a better handle on one of the protagonist characters,where to trim the ensemble and a little more on just who the antagonist(s) might be.

The other reason is that I’ve been on a bit of a comic reading kick, so superheroes is a genre that’s fun to return to, and that using the Snowflake Method outline strategy that I’ve mentioned before is really much more helpful on second drafts as opposed to first drafts.

Of course, I’m still using it for first drafts on a couple of projects. One of those is provisionally titled “Operation: Pegasus” and is based loosely on expanding this short piece into a more fully rounded project. This may end up being one of my Camp NaNo projects for 2014 depending on how my outlining and brainstorming go. I’m also working out an outline to what I hope to be a series of semi-historical fiction that starts out with Caesar’s invasions of Britain and continues at least until the time of the Jacobite Rebellion. That’s a hugely ambitious time scale,so we’ll see if I can manage it.

I’m also going to try and finish up the 2013 fantasy NaNo, or at least tie it together into something coherent.

An then there’s my back-burnered King Arthur piece…

I have a lot of writing for 2014 to do, so that 500 word goal seems easily attainable right now. Of course there 351 days to see how apt that might be.

Until next time, where I swear the blog entry won’t be writing focused. It might be sports, Star Trek or politics related, or perhaps an update on the job hunt and other goals, I’ll sign off with my traditional question:

What do you want to see on this blog?

#NaNoWriMo: An overview

Well, I kind of got side tracked from keeping up with this blog, unfortunately. All I can offer for that is a mea culpa. I apologize for not keeping my loyal followers abreast of developments in my writing since my NaNoWriMo Day 11 post here.

As you might have gathered from the somewhat pessimistic tone of that entry, my motivation for pursuing further writing, at least as part of the National Novel Writing Month process, had waned considerably. In fact, it would be fair and accurate to say that the loss of those 3,130 words basically destroyed any desire to write I had. Given that, I felt that the inevitable wave of pessimistic “well, yet another 0 word day” posts (all with the “belated posts” tag) for days twelve through thirty of November would be nothing but a drag. Given that, I stopped updating this blog.

However, I forgot to allow for the effects and ego boosts of write-in events hosted by the wonderful Richmond WriMos group. Those people managed to pull me out of the drudgery and despair of NaNo hell most effectively. To prove it, take a look at this chart:

NaNoWriMo 2013 Final Graph

 

If you can’t read it clearly, that little purple bar reads “WINNER!” (Yes, with both capital letters and the exclamation point. It was kind of a big deal.) I managed to claw past the elusive 50,000 word mark (just barely) and make it to 50,258 words. That’s certainly my smallest total in the three years I’ve been attempting NaNoWriMo but it’s still a win, making me three for three.

The most striking thing about the graph for me is the level of inactivity it shows. After my motivation killing word loss on Day 11, I only wrote a grand total of thirty-eight words towards the novel by November 16th. On the 17th though, I managed to summon up the energy to attend a write in (mostly in the hope of wallowing in pity and commiseration, and because one of my fellow Richmond writers owed me a coffee, which I still haven’t redeemed at the time of writing). Of course, as everyone else was also concentrating on getting their word count back on pace, sympathy wasn’t all that available. What was available was a sounding board to bounce ideas off of, and so I suddenly found the motivation to get 1,289 words written. I also managed to “fantasy cast” the character of Erica Inibha thanks to some judicious usage of Google and IMDB. In my mind’s eye, Erica is now played by Galadriel Stineman.

After that brief flurry of activity, I had yet another 0 word week until the next meeting of the Richmond WriMos on the 24th November.

That one went spectacularly well and I suddenly had another 4,031 words written. That put me other the halfway point with just under 6 days to go. Out of sheer bloody-mindedness, I figured that, yes, I was going to do this and so my last week of November was one of frenzied writing and weird midnight typing. It turned out to be enough so that when I arrived at the group’s TGIO party, I was done.

Of course, the quality was terrible even by NaNoWriMo standards (there’s a reason there isn’t an excerpt in this post, I do have some standards…) But it was done.

I then resolved to basically turn my writing brain off for a month (which wasn’t supposed to include this blog, but so it goes) and here I am almost a month later with nothing writing-related going on but some brainstorms for a historical fiction series with a tentative title of “A Dynasty Of Rebellion.” Whether that goes further or not, I don’t yet know. If it does, there’s every chance this blog will delve into the process.

As for this blog, it’s became a writing blog, but that wasn’t ever the intention, it was always envisioned as a general purpose blog, and I’m planning to have a new entry at least weekly in 2014 (Hopefully more frequently than that, but the best laid plans never fully work)

Is there anything you would like to see my cover on here in 2014 and beyond?

#NaNoWriMo day 11

NaNo2013 Day 11

I am an idiot.

Je suis un idiot

Ich bin ein idiot

Soy un idiota.

You get the idea. I am a very foolish writer indeed. I ignored my own advice, and my own blog entry, and did not back up my writing for today. I had left my USB drive home whilst writing in a book store and could not connect to their wireless internet to send copies to Google drive. And then, thanks to the way Toshiba attach their power supply ports to their laptops, my laptop lost power. “No problem,” I think, “at least Word does the AutoSave thing, so I shouldn’t lose much.”

Apparently, the universe decided I was to be punished for such hubris, as Word didn’t AutoSave any of the 3,130 words I had written, leaving Veteran’s Day as a 0-word day, my 2nd of November 2013 even though I wrote plenty. Fortunately, I guess, I’m still just slightly ahead of par at 20,018 words, but it was demoralizing, to say the least. I just didn’t want to write, which is probably why this blog carries the “belated posts” tag and isn’t appearing until close to 9:00PM on the  12th (which is currently also shaping up to be a 0-word day, just can’t get re-energized enough to get the story done.) Still, have an excerpt from a scene I wrote on the 10th. It’s not a particularly happy section, which seems appropriate.

———

When he looked back, the first thing Nikolai would remember about that day was the emptiness. For what was ostensibly a public spectacle, there were very few people in the plaza. In truth, if it hadn’t been for duty, Nikolai wouldn’t have been here either. Anna would have understood his absence. There were more people on the raised dais participating than were there to watch. Nikolai took that to mean that the people had grown tired of such public displays of barbarism in the name of justice.

The chief justice read the charges aloud. Even now, having heard them a dozen times, Nikolai wasn’t sure exactly what Anna had been accused of. Everyone he had asked had told him the same thing. The charges were meaningless. Anna had incurred the wrath of the king by refusing to violate her oath of marriage and bed him. Nikolai loved her more for that one simple act of defiance. Neither one of them had thought that Egbert was as despotic as to order this.

As the justice finished up reading the litany of charges with a final “and conduct unbecoming of a subject of Egbert’s nation,” two guards, their faces hooded in navy shrouds marched Anna around the dais, before leading her to the block and placing her head upon it.

The executioner drew forth the great sword, and in accordance with the protocol of such affairs, brandished it skywards before bringing it across the whetstone three times. Anna did not resist her guards or turn to look upon the executioner’s blade. If anything, Nikolai judged her countenance to be a mixture of weariness and resignation. He would have done anything to rescue Anna from the fate that now befell her. Egbert and his household troops must have known this, for they had chained him to the great stone bench. All he could do was watch, and pray that Anna be reprieved.

Regardless of the reality of his predicament, Nikolai surged forwards as far as the chains would let him. He called out Anna’s name and was rewarded with the general murmur of the small crowd taking an angrier tone and condemning him to the same fate as his wife if it were up to them. Thankfully, Egbert was less bloodthirsty than his subjects nd w no need to add Nikolai’s name to the tally of the condemned.

Anna answered Nikolai’s cry by shouting his name “Nikolai! I will always, always love you.”

Nikolai wept. The executioner raised the great sword and brought it down on Anna’s neck in a single arcing stroke. The blade cut through sinew, flesh and bone and so, Anna’s severed head dropped from the block and bounced on the dais twice, leaving ugly claret blood stains wherever it touched the ground.

#NaNoWriMo Day 10

NaNo2013 Day 10

 

As you can (hopefully) see from the picture above, I achieved the goal I stated yesterday of breaking through the 20,000 word barrier, even if just barely. As you can probably imagine, I am absolutely delighted with that, and despite the lateness of the hour, it’s inspiring me to just keep on writing more this night. that should mean that tomorrow, I will at least have 1,667 words added to tonight’s total.

What surprised me about today’s word count was that it was nearly all based on flash back scenes, two of which I’m including as excerpts below. In the present, one character I had conceived as a lifelong singleton has been reminded of a lost love that I never knew he had. So, he’s taken to reminiscing about this relationship. I’m just writing what the characters tell me, not creating it at this point. Not entirely sure where these’ll fit in the structure of the novel, but that’s what December and editing is for…

—–

Excerpt 1

Nikolai had been young then, barely through his fourteenth summer. He had lived on the family farm with his mother. His father had been drafted into the king’s service as a militia man, and was fighting for an inconsequential strip of grassland that the king’s seers had deemed vital. That was the old king, Cenwalh, who had been the first to spread the Faith of Satiada beyond the great steppes of Harmel.

It had been early in the morning, and Nikolai was sent to the lower field to collect well water for the cook pot. As he drew the bucket from within the deep well , and transferred the pail to carry it forth, he had seen the girl leaning against the well, crying.

“What’s your name?” he asked her.

“Anna,” the girl answered.

“Well, Anna, this well belongs to the Milton farmstead. Why are you here?”

“I wanted to surprise my Momma. She’s very sick. I think she might die.”

“And you think water will help?”

“I don’t know. But she says she’s so thirsty, and I didn’t want to go to the river, that water’s filthy and muddy. The water in the well here is clean, and you can see through it.”

Nikolai knew he’d catch serious trouble from his own mother for what he did next, but he didn’t care. “Well, I can’t let your Momma go thirsty, Anna. Show me the way, and I’ll bring her the water.”

“Thank you, Mr-“

“Nikolai. My name is Nikolai.”

True to his word, Nikolai took the water to Anna’s mother, who lay abed. Her skin was grey and sickly, and her eyes had the glazed look of someone more than halfway into the next world. The woman burned to the touch, and was only able to croak, rather than speak. Still, when she heard Anna’s voice telling her that she had brought water, her mother’s ashen face broke out into a grin.

Nikolai filled a wooden cup by dipping it into the pail of water. He handed it to Anna, who gently poured the liquid between her mother’s lips. The older woman’s face transformed into a mask of tranquility, and she whispered “Thank you,” to Anna.

“Anything for you,” Anna said, softly.

“Who’s your friend?” her mother asked.

“Nikolai’s a boy who works at the Milton farm. He helped me bring you the water.”

“Actually, I’m the Milton’s son; it’ll be my farm one day,” Nikolai said.

“He seems nice,”  Anna’s mother said.

“He does,” Anna said, and flashed Nikolai a smile. Nikolai reddened and looked away.

“No need to start getting shy now, boy,” Anna said.

Nikolai stammered “I, I need to get back to my mother with water for the cook pot.”

“You do that. Oh, and Nikolai?”

“Yes?”

“Don’t be a stranger.”

Excerpt 2

Nikolai never knew how it started. He had snuck off to spend some time with Anna, and the two of them had spent a wonderful afternoon together. They had been doing that more and more lately, and Nikolai had felt a little guilty about neglecting his duties upon the farm. After giving Anna a farewell kiss, he jogged back towards the farmstead when he saw smoke.

It was a lot of smoke, more than would be produced from a fireplace. Nikolai picked up his pace and broke into a run. The thatched roof was aflame, and black smoke was billowing to the spring sky. The fire crackled loudly as Nikolai’s home burned. The fire had spread to the cornfields, and the dry stalks ignited instantly. The few animals that were on the farm were panicking, and running away from the flames. Nikolai ran to the well and quickly filled a bucket of water. He knew it was a futile effort, that his home was now gone, but he had to try and do something.

He threw the water at the fire, and there was a hiss of steam. The water did dampen some of the flame’s ardor, but it was barely enough to matter. All that Nikolai could do know, was pray that the fire burned itself out before spreading to neighboring building and fields. He was grateful that he had spent much of the last summer building stone walls to denote the boundaries of the Milton farm, rather than the dry, flammable bracken hedges that had served that purpose in year’s past.

The commotion and roaring flames had drawn the attention of the community, and a small cluster of townsfolk had watched as Nikolai’s life and livelihood blackened and crumbled to embers. They had half-heartedly started a bucket chain to quench the flames, but it was readily apparent to all present that such measures were not going to work.

One person Nikolai didn’t see in the knot of townsfolk was his mother. Nikolai looked at the smoking ruin that had been his family home, and could not bring himself to look. Fortunately, old Vlad Melburn, who claimed to have served several kings in battle, and had seen towns razed by marauding soldiery went and looked for Nikolai.

“Is she in there?” Nikolai asked Vlad.

The old man nodded.

“Did she suffer?” Nikolai asked.

“I’m sorry, lad,” was all Vlad would say. “So very sorry.”

Nikolai bit his tongue to keep from crying. He was almost a man now, and men did not cry, no matter how much they might want to. He surreptitiously ran a hand across his eyes to wipe away any tears before they had a chance to fall. The only person who seemed to notice was Anna, who came to him and squeezed his shoulders. She leaned in to whisper in his ear, and he felt her hot breath against the side of his neck and face. He never wanted it to go away.

“I’m sorry, Nik,” she said, “but you can stay with mother and me for now.”

“You don’t havea room for me.”

“You can share my room.”

Nikolai liked the sound of that. “Thank you so much,” he said. He embraced Anna and pulled her to him, and then he surprised himself by leaning down to kiss her. She surprised him more by kissing him back, her tongue parting his lips and her arms pulling them closer. Nikolai never wanted the moment to end, but it end it did.

“About bloody time,” Anna said, and flashed him the ever-so-slightly crooked smile that made his heart melt every time.

#NaNoWriMo Day 9

NaNo2013 Day 9

 

As I mentioned on day 2 of NaNoWriMo, Saturdays are typically my weakest days for word count, thanks to prior commitments, mostly of a church Sabbath service and travel related nature. The 9th of November proved to be of no exception to that trend, though I’m still ahead of the prescribed “par” pace. I did miss either of my goals for the day, failing to hit 1,667 daily words or a grand total of 18,333 words for the piece. I am just resolved to make my major goal for tomorrow to be breaking the 20,000 word barrier. I guess we’ll see how I did in tomorrow’s blog entry.

And while today’s output was the merest shade over 600 words, I did enjoy the scene below tremendously.

———

“Now?” the cleric said, “do you still wish to go through with the ceremony?”

“Yes. I fear that unless I purge my mind and purify my spirit then any return to Laurspoint would be a fool’s errand.”

“Very well. The first stage of the rite of exorcism is to scourge the body. Please disrobe yourself and kneel.”

Nikolai followed the instructions. As he knelt, he began mumbling a litany of benediction. The cleric disappeared into an alcove at the back of the chapel and returned brandishing a spiked censer half-filled with holy water, and a ceremonial dagger with an ivory hilt carved with the moon symbols of Satiada. The cleric sliced the tip of his thumb with the dagger and let nine drops of blood fall into the censer, where they mingled with the blessed liquid within. “The lifeblood of your servants and the power of your lunar spirit are stronger than any bonds forged by man” he intoned.

“Stronger than any bonds,” Nikolai said. He gritted his teeth; sure of what must come next.

The cleric swung the censer hard at Nikolai’s back. The spikes tore into the exposed flesh, drawing blood. Nikolai screamed at the force of the blow. Even as he did, he could feel the other presence within his mind shrivel up like a tortoise within its shell.

“As the essence of your adherent splashes upon this ground we consecrate to you, sainted Satiada, we ask that you allow the impurities within him to leave this fleshly vessel behind,” the cleric prayed. He swung the censer again, and once more the jagged spikes bit deep into Nikolai’s flesh. The cleric pulled the censer upwards, opening a series of dark red welts on the old knight’s back.

This time, Nikolai’s screams came through a series of thick, nasal sobs. He could still feel the dark presence within him, though his connection with it had started to fade. “Leave me!” he cried.

“As the pain purifies your follower’s body and purges his tainted blood, so let the way of your spirit purify his soul and purge the taint from within him,” the cleric said. He pulled the spiked censer from Nikolai’s back and poured the holy water and blood from inside it into a plain wooden goblet. “Drink in the blessing of Satiada, sir knight, so that the pain of this rite is but a memory.”

Nikolai drank deeply from the goblet. Curiously, the liquid inside had no taste, though it burned his throat as he swallowed it. While Nikolai greedily lapped up the concoction, tendrils of purple steam began billowing forth from the welts in his back and rising to the temple’s ceiling. As the smoke rose it began to coalesce into a humanoid shape. The smoke took the form of a human girl, no older than fifteen. The shape in the smoke was screaming, at first a single wailing note of frustration, but eventually Nikolai could hear words within the anguished cry.

“I was so close! Why couldn’t you have waited and let me see her die?” the smoke-girl said in her screams.

“I need my body for me,” Nikolai said.

“I was going to give it back when I was done,” the smoke-girl said. Her form rose to the ceiling of the chapel and then abruptly stopped. The smoke continued to rise, but the image of the girl started to fall. There was a soft thump against the floor, and where the smoke and blood had been, there was the girl made flesh. She was nude and she was crying great streams of tears.

“My name’s Erica,” the girl said, “and I think I used to be dead.”

#NaNoWrimo day 8

NaNo2013 Day 8

 

As you can (hopefully) see from the picture above, I managed to make up for yesterday’s cero-word effort with a vengeance today, and am back to being two full days above par. This was managed by splitting my writing time into three 90-minute sessions. Not much else to say there aside from the customary extract.

——–

Wychwood town market was in full force, with mobile vendors bustling up and down between the fixed stalls selling their wares. Most of what was for sale was produce, although there were a couple of darkened booths that trafficked in rather less savor items. Nikolai saw that Gytha’s was packed with younger women buying something that the old, toothless woman called “penny-royal preventatives.” Nikolai smirked at that, remembering the time twenty years ago when he’d availed himself of Gytha’s wares, and more… intimate services. He’d have to catch up with her after the market closed at sundown. If he did, he was going to make absolutely certain that Sofya wasn’t around. He didn’t need that story circulating at the Last Drop, or the less savory quarters in the Tower of Satiada.

The other darkened booth was a mystery to Nikolai, and the clientele didn’t provide any clues as to what the merchandise might be. It was mostly male, but there didn’t seem to be any particular age group or social status that comprised a majority. The old knight marked the location, and tried to identify the stallholder.  Such investigations would have to wait until later, though. As Nikolai’s priority was a horse. He headed to a stall, which was daubed in the yellow and red stripes that denoted a livery stable, figuring that if they didn’t have a horse, they could at least put him in contact with someone who could.

Sofya, in the meantime, had decided that the two of them needed accommodations for the night. Quite when he had agreed that the two of them were going to stay in Wychwood eluded him, but Sofya had kept reassuring him that it had been his decision. Nikolai had been shocked at the level of giddiness the serving maid brought out in him. She made him feel at least ten years younger and like he’d had a pint of fine ale every time she was around. He knew it was foolish, after all, it was part of her job as a serving girl to put the customers at their ease, and clearly Sofya was a natural at it.

The old knight snapped out of his reverie and headed to the livery stall. There were a couple of patrons ahead of him, a young woman buying a leather riding saddle that Nikolai was sure she couldn’t pay for and a man with the scent of wine-sinks clinging to him even more strongly than it clung to Nikolai. From the somewhat haphazard way this latter was negotiating with the stall holder, it seemed that he was dissatisfied with the horse he had purchased. The man kept complaining that the horse he had purchased only had four legs. Since this was the normal complement of limbs for such a beast in Nikolai’s experience, he began to understand the somewhat exasperated expression and voice the stallholder had.

After what seemed like an eternity, the stallholder gave up on explaining to her deluded patron that four was a fine number of legs for a filly and nodded almost imperceptibly to her left. On that signal, two burly enforcers clad in boiled leather armor and carrying bastard swords stepped forwards. Using these blades, they made it clear that the livery stall had a very strict “no returns” policy. As the enforcers dragged the unconscious man away, presumably to the pillory, Nikolai found himself face-to-face with the stallholder.

“What can I do you for, good sir knight?” the woman asked.

“I’m looking for a trained riding horse capable of great distances,” Nikolai said, and then though of Sofya, “actually, better make that two.”

The stallholder sucked in air through her teeth, the universal signal for something having a high price. “That’ll cost you, sir-“ she stared intently at Nikolai’s throat, “woodneck.” The stallholder signaled her enforcers, who returned and stood just far enough away from Nikolai to be respectful while still appearing imposing. Both men had their hands on their swords.

“I can pay,” Nikolai said.

The enforcers relaxed their grips slightly, and the taller of the two stepped back.

“Exile I may be,” Nikolai said, “but I am not yet destitute.”  He kept his voice low, aware that less scrupulous individuals about the market would view such a declaration as a challenge and set about to render it a falsehood. He plucked the large onyx gem from his surcoat, removing the window from the blue tower emblazoned thereon. “I believe this could pay for a half dozen mounts anywhere along the steppes. It’s yours if you find me but two.” He placed it on the wooden table in front of the stallholder.

Almost faster than Nikolai could follow, the woman had grabbed the gemstone. She placed it between her teeth and bit down upon it. This action caused a wooden tooth to crack, fall from her mouth and drop into the muddy ground with a wet splatter.

“It’s authentic,” Nikolai said. “I told you that I could pay.”

“You can. It will take some time for me to procure and ready the mounts that you seek. How long do you intend being here in Wychwood?”

Nikolai glanced over at Gytha’s shadowed booth. “At least one night, maybe more.”

“Then be at the Northwest gatehouse one hour after dawn tomorrow, and I shall have you horsed. Bring whoever your companion might be so that we can make them ready also.”

“We’ll be there.”

The stallholder spat into her hand and proffered it for shaking. Nikolai reluctantly clasped it and reciprocated.

“Pleasure doing business with you woodnec- sir knight.” She said.