Tooth and Blade: Chapter 1

Salvete!

Guess what? The first Tooth and Blade novella is now live world-wide on Kindle! To celebrate, I thought I would share the first chapter… More than that, I wanted to share an amazing illustration inspired by the story. It was created by my friend and former colleague, Dr Yvette Hunt. Enjoy!

Chapter 1: Teeth

“They aren’t like our kind, Dóta. They are beasts.”

My mother’s warning echoed through my head, but it would not stop me. I tiptoed through our cave, my path lit by glowing mushrooms which clung to the walls. Módor’s wrath would be great if she caught me near her treasure hoard. She was afraid of what I would find there, the truth of what I was. I pressed my lips together and shook off my fear. No matter the risk, I had to know.

Points of rock jutted from the floor like razors as I edged along the passage. Icy droplets fell from the ceiling and ran down the back of my neck. I shuddered as they crawled down my spine and pulled my sheepskin tighter.

I’m not sure how old I was when I figured out I wasn’t like Módor. Perhaps it was the day I stumbled and cut my palm on a rock. My blood had run hot and dripped to the ground. Módor had stroked my face to comfort me and for the first time I realized her touch gave me shivers. Then she traced her long nail over the wound and licked it. For an instant her eyes glowed like coals. “There now,” she had said. “Nothing to fear, my girl.” And Módor had smiled with pointed teeth.

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I pressed my way through the jagged gap in the wall which led to Módor’s treasure chamber. Módor had chosen a special chamber for her spoils, lit by a spear-shaft of sunlight from a hole in the ceiling far overhead. The light stabbed at my eyes and I squeezed them shut for a moment. When they had grown used to the light, I blinked and looked about. The piled gold shone bright and the gems winked like stars. I ignored the silver cauldrons, coins and fire-stones, for glittering trinkets could tell me nothing. In the corner of the chamber I spied what I was after. A pile of tarnished chain mail and bones, all that was left of the man foolish enough to challenge my mother. Time had picked the skeleton clean long ago; only a few slivers of decayed flesh remained. The dead warrior still clutched a great sword. A rusted helm protected his skull.

Hands trembling, I picked up the skull and held it up to the light. Flakes of rust fell away from the helmet to show boar-shapes etched into the metal. The head. It was the head I needed to see, not some rusted bit of iron. I pulled the helmet off and threw it aside. A thrill of fear passed through me as it clanked to the ground. My brother’s ears were delicate. Even the smallest noise would make Grethor bawl for Módor.

Moments passed, but nothing happened. Telling myself it was safe, I peered closer at the skull. The empty sockets stared back at me. I traced my thumb over the teeth and ran my tongue over my own. The warrior’s teeth were rounded.

Like mine.

My fears became truth. A beast, that’s what I was. A child of men.

I set the skull down upon the floor, bent to study the body. To judge by the length of the man’s leg-bones, he was taller than most, though he was a dwarf compared to Módor and Grethor. Would I grow to that height? At sixteen, I sensed my growing was done but couldn’t be sure. Another reason to learn more about my kind. The warrior’s mail was crusted with brown and rotted tatters of linen still clung to the skeleton. Clothing, I knew. Grethor had told me once how the creatures of the world above wore a kind of second hide as I wore my sheepskin.

The sunlight caught on something shiny beside the corpse. Without thinking I reached for it and held it up to the light. It was a small disc of polished amber hanging from a rotted leather cord, some kind of amulet. No mere trinket, this. Men must have crafted it in another age, so the gods would protect them. Some of the grime fell away as I rubbed the amulet between my fingers and light shot through veins of yellow in the amber. It was as though the amulet held the sun, waiting to escape. A pretty thing. Perhaps I should put it back? Some instinct told me no; it belonged to me. I slipped it inside my sheepskin. The amulet lay warm against my chest. The feeling was delicious in the coldness of the cave. It had lain hidden under the corpse so long, nobody would miss it. I hoped.

“Well. Hello, Dóta.”

I whirled to find Grethor’s yellow-green eyes staring down at me. His mottled skin flushed dark and his bitter smell filled the cavern. Under his arm Grethor carried his old leather sack. He hissed. “What are you up to?”

“Nothing.” The guilt pressed down upon my shoulders, but I forced myself to stand tall. Had he seen me take the amulet?

“Nothing, eh?” Big Brother’s forked tongue flicked from the corner of his mouth. “Thought you’d peek at Módor’s hoard, I guess. Ought to be more careful. You know how fiercely Módor guards her gold.” He pointed at the scars on his cheek and smirked.

My eyes flicked to the skeleton. “Humans like it too.” The words spilled from my mouth without thought.

His pointed ears pricked up. “And what do you know of humans?”

I tried not to cringe, held my shoulders square. My brother could be cruel as Loki and rough as Thor when the mood took him, but I would not quake. “Nothing,” I said.

Smugness filled his face. “Tell Módor, I should. Not right to go poking through her things. One shout from me and she’ll peel the hide from your bones.” Grethor rasped with laughter. “She could sew me a new bag from it.” He thrust the sack at me.

I caught it. “No. Don’t tell her.”

“And what’ll you give me if I keep my tongue still?”

My hands curled into fists. “What do I have to give, Grethor?” The only thing I owned was my sheepskin—and now the amulet. And my brother wasn’t getting them.

He scratched his chin with one of his claws. “A song, sweet sister.”

I released a slow breath. “A song.”

“Just like when we were little.”

“You were never little.”

He shrugged. “Young, then. The bad dreams plague me now as they did then.”

I blinked. “Still?”

Grethor flinched. “Dreams of fire and flashing swords and the man who grips like iron. He comes to rip and tear. One of his kind.” He glanced at the warrior’s skeleton and shuddered. “Every night he comes, since you stopped singing me to sleep. Remember how we’d cuddle?”

I did remember. The earliest thing I could recall was Grethor curled up next to me in the night. It had been nice, when we were children. But as he grew and his muscles thickened, Grethor would squeeze me like a toy until my bones would crack. I would wake to find bruises and that was not so nice. “I can’t, Grethor. Not anymore. You need to learn to sleep on your own.”

Grethor lowered his head. “Such a pretty voice you have. Soft. And I don’t want you to get into trouble with Módor…”

Breath caught in my chest. It was hard to say no to Grethor. “All right. If you want.”

Grethor’s face split into a grin and his teeth were like needles. “Good. Walk with me, Dóta. My belly’s gurgling. I’m going above to get me some meat.” He pulled the sack from my hands. As we left the chamber, I glanced at the corpse one last time. The dead man’s smile was not so fearsome now.

In silence we wound through the passageways. Grethor twisted left and right to squeeze through the narrow gaps in the rock. He was massive as a frost giant, but could press himself through fine cracks. We made our way down to the chamber where he could enter the underground river. Big Brother leapt over the rocks while I stumbled. His eyes were made for the gloom.

The sound of rushing water filled my ears and the rock floor grew slick under my feet. Beneath the river’s surface I could just see the entrance to the underwater tunnel which would take Grethor to the world above.

He laid his clawed hands on my shoulders and they were clammy. “Be good to old Módor and I might bring you back a nice new hide to warm you. And more than that. I’ll bring you back more tales of the world above. Of the sky, trees, animals.” He leaned close, murmured in my ear. “Of humans, even.”

My heartbeat grew faster. “When will you be back?”

He shrugged. “When I’m back.” Grethor drew me to him and sniffed my hair. It was something he’d done ever since he was a child, though I’d never felt the urge to mimic him. Was it because we were not the same kind? Grethor slid into the river, treaded water for a moment. He opened his eyes wide and green fire kindled in them. The light on the water cast shimmers upon the roof of the hollow and then he dived and took the light with him.

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Foundling, the first Tooth and Blade novella, is now available world-wide on Kindle!

$0.99 USD or free on Kindle Unlimited.

Step into a world of haunted meres, iron and magic.

 

Tooth and Blade: The Origin of the Story

Salvete, readers!

Right now I’m thrilled that my first Tooth and Blade novella, Foundling, is going live on Amazon this week. Keep your eyes peeled as I will soon share Chapter 1!

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Here is the blurb:

They call me Peace-weaver. Warmaker. Beast.

My name is Dóta, and I am alone among my clan. The blood runs hot through my veins, though my mother’s touch gives me shivers. The gods of Asgard whisper to me in the night. I am a child of men, a monster unto monsters.

Sixteen years I have dwelled in the shadows beneath the earth. To discover my heritage, I must take up my bone knife and step into the light above. Secrets await me there—beauty, terror, the truth of who I am. Soon I must make an impossible choice, or the nine worlds will be devoured in fire and war.

A monster sheds no tears.

I was first inspired to write Tooth and Blade when I encountered Beowulf as a teen, stepping into the world of heroes and demons, mead halls and monsters. Sharp-eyed readers will recognize many similarities between Tooth and Blade and the epic. I’d consider the villain Grethor a blood relative of Grendel, though my story stands apart as an original creation. I’ve always loved stories told from the viewpoint of an outsider and that appealed to me much more than the idea of a straightforward adaptation.

Though my education is much more in Greco-Roman history than that of medieval Scandinavia, I have done my best to capture the spirit of the age, language and culture, diving deep into the primary sources. In my choice of language, I tried to stick with words of Old English, Germanic or Old Norse roots as much as possible, though I have often used words from Romance languages for the sake of clarity. You may notice that Dóta spins the tale using kennings, one of the favorite tools of a skald.

Though I strive to be authentic in my depiction of the Norse world, I have sought to give Tooth and Blade the timeless quality of myth rather than confine it to any specific region or century. It is enough to know the adventure takes place in a world of haunted meres, iron and magic.

Looking forward to sharing more about Tooth and Blade soon!

Julian

Writing lessons from the Epic of Gilgamesh

Salvete, readers!

I recently finished the first draft of The Black Unicorn, a middle-grade fantasy. The first draft will be up on Wattpad until the end of March, 2018. At this point, I’ll take it down and give it a good polish before I start submitting to publishers. In the meantime, I thought I’d let you in on a little secret. Though the story is heavily influenced by medieval and classical traditions, I actually went a lot further back for inspiration—all the way to ancient Sumer. In this blog post, I share how studying The Epic of Gilgamesh helped me to develop as a fantasy writer.

For a fantastic overview of the ancient poem and its relevance for modern readers, check out Louise Pryke’s excellent essay on The Conversation.

The Black Unicorn is the fifth book I’ve written, but only the second since completing Book 1 of the Ashes of Olympus trilogy, which is scheduled for publication in July. Writing a middle grade novel was simultaneously easier and more difficult. On the one hand, I feel a lot more confident in my craft and I think I have a stronger grasp on structure, dialogue, and world-building. I’m a lot more conscious about how and when to use different techniques. On the other hand, this was my first attempt at a heroic fantasy for middle grade readers, and that brought its own challenges. When you write middle grade fiction, you have only the most primal elements of story-telling in your tool kit. You don’t have the space to gloss any shortcomings of substance with style. I decided to embrace the primal elements of story-telling in The Black Unicorn by going back to The Epic of Gilgamesh for inspiration regarding the themes.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first recorded story in human history, so I figured it was a good blueprint for an archetypal narrative. The themes of the epic are as relevant today as they were millennia ago—relationships between humanity and the divine, the nature of mortality, the tension between nature and civilisation, and above all friendship. These themes pervade all my stories, but in The Black Unicorn I wanted to explore them through the eyes of a twelve-year-old girl. I see no reason the heroic archetype of the youthful warrior can’t be made to fit a female character, and honestly, I think we need more heroines in the world. At the heart of my story, as in Gilgamesh, is a relationship between two characters who start out as rivals and through a series of shared trials become friends. Though it takes place against a backdrop with a massive scope, that’s the essence of the novel.

Brevity is another virtue of Gilgamesh. The poem comprises only about 60 pages in the Penguin translation. But in that space our heroes travel across the world and learn lessons about life and death. Likewise, middle grade books are short. The Black Unicorn is only about 40,000 words. There’s no time for navel-gazing. The characters develop through actions and reactions to changes in their situation. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for character development of course. Heck, I would argue that growth and development are integral to any narrative focused on children. It just means there is very little time for introspection or excessive narration. The characters show us who they are and who they are becoming through their decisions. Dynamism is the key.

The Epic of Gilgamesh also embodies one of the core principles of world-building: show, don’t tell. If you read it, you’re plonked into another universe. Though it’s easy to sympathise with the characters, there is no point denying that the poem is the product of an alien world. It’s a dark, frightening place where existence is precarious and world-ending catastrophes are always just around the corner. But the text never stops to explain how its world works. The narrator takes it as a given that readers can pick up the story and run with it. Four thousand years ago, the reader needed no more explanation of the mechanics of sacrifice than we do on how to send a text message. For modern readers, though, the trick is to immerse yourself in the world and drink it in. And once you get the hang of the internal logic, the story makes perfect sense. This is an excellent principle, I think, for writing fantasy, particularly in a middle-grade novel where there is little room to pause for info-dump.

There’s a lot more I could say, and I’d love to revisit the question of what story-tellers can learn from the classics. But for now, my kids are tugging on my sleeve demanding I take them to the library.

Until next time,

Valete