Quarterly Update – Barbarians and the Blacksmith

Well, this basically sums up everything that needs to be known re: Meljean Brook, because I’m going to sleep until this movie comes out.

Okay, maybe not really. But DAAAAAMMMMNNNNNNN. And Aquaman is coming, too. *weeps with joy*

Okay but what about the stories, Meljean????

Ah! Okay, so I’m halfway through VENGEANCE, my Milla Vane barbarian story. I’m also finishing up a small project and then diving into the Blacksmith. So the next quarterly update I have, I expect to be well into that book.

Hmm, let’s see. What else is there? Not much. So here is something I posted to Facebook — I cut this out of the barbarian story because I decided to start it at a later point, but I guess it can be read as a wordy prologue? (You might see some of it re-used in the revised version, but basically this is gone from the story.)

 

Dawn was a distant gleam upon the jagged teeth of the Fallen Mountains when the Parsatheans mounted their horses and struck hard for home. The riders carried nothing but what was necessary for the journey. In the encampment overlooking the river Lave, whose pebbled banks were still stained by the blood of Farian savages slain in recent battle, they left behind wagons and livestock, coldstone caches filled with coarse grain and dried meat, and the heavy armor that would fold even a Parsathean steed’s mighty legs if forced to bear the weight across unforgiving terrain day after day, through two full turns of the moon.

North the grim-faced warriors raced, unburdened but for the grief in their hearts—for the previous eve had brought news that their queen and king were dead.

That grave burden lay heaviest upon the heart of the warrior who led the long column of riders. Maddek, he was called.

The queen and king of Parsathe had called him their son.

Four abreast, the riders climbed forested hills that gave way to treeless flats. For seven mornings, sullen clouds spilled torrents of lukewarm rain that steamed into a crawling mist beneath the midday sun. Thousands of pounding hooves trampled tender shoots of grass, and their thundering passage stamped a muddied road into the earth.

A tennight into their journey, the full moon rose over green plains teeming with herds that ranged from horizon to horizon. The warriors pierced the bestial mass in tight formation, like an arrow of straining horseflesh and shining steel, with Maddek the razor-tipped head. Around them, armorbacks snorted and squatted over dirt-mounded nests. Shaggy bison calves kicked their heels and danced between the column-like legs of dappled trumpeters. At the deep, resounding call from one of those great beasts, hundreds more raised long elegant necks, their plumed heads turning to watch the riders pass.

The warriors did not pause to hunt for meat or furs. Their mounts were their dining halls, the cold ground their beds. But although even battle-hardened muscles ached, no complaint issued from their lips.

Laughter did, as the days passed and the moon waned. Grief softened and song returned to their tongues, ballads that spoke of lusty warriors and legendary rulers—and of the goddess Temra, who had broken through the vault of the sky and reshaped the world with the pounding of her fist, forcing life to sprout from the earth’s barren face. Temra, whose loving arms welcomed the souls of the dead back into her eternal embrace.

Though sorrow lay like stone upon Maddek’s features, even his granite mouth smiled when the warriors told their ribald jokes. Though his deep voice did not lift in song, he felt the rhythm through his blood like the beat of war drums. But his grief did not soften; instead it hardened around his heart like steel.

Silver-fingered Rani had carried his parents into Temra’s arms too early.

Nothing had been left unsaid between mother and father and son. Every Parsathean warrior knew life was too uncertain to leave important words unspoken. But when Maddek had last seen them, his queen and king spoke of finding him a bride and of strengthening the alliance between Parsathe and the southern city-states. Nothing was left unsaid, but there was much left undone.

So Maddek would see it finished in their stead.

\* \* \*

Two days’ ride beyond the sluggish waters of the Ageras, the white stone walls of Ephorn became visible in the distance. Maddek had heard soldiers from the city claim that glimpsing Ephorn from across the meadowlands was akin to gazing upon a shining mountain.

Maddek agreed. It looked like a mountain—a pale squatting one, built upon a hill of its own dung.

Walls should not swell a soldier’s breast with pride. Walls symbolized not strength but fear. Ephorn and the nearby sovereignties—Toleh, Syssia, Rugus, and Goge—had built their walls because they feared each other and feared their common enemies: the Parsatheans to the north and the Farians to the south. Yet for generations, their rulers still conspired and warred amongst themselves, the riders still invaded and raided their cities, and the savages still raped and slaughtered their citizens.

And thirty years ago, Anumith the Destroyer had broken through their walls as easily as he’d torn through Parsathean hunting camps.

Hoofbeats quickened behind Maddek as his first captain urged her mount to pull even with his.

Her gaze was fixed ahead. “Ephorn sends a welcome.”

Maddek had seen the approaching riders, but Enox had likely seen more. Though the gray in her braids had overtaken the black, her dark eyes were keen—keener than his own. “Under whose banner?”

“The council’s.”

The council to the alliance that had formed between Parsathe and the southern city-states after the Destroyer had marched through these lands. An alliance created not to stand against the Destroyer—it had been too late for that—but to stand against the warlords and sorcerers who sought to conquer the shattered remains the Destroyer left in his wake. An alliance in which each member had an equal voice and whose council ministers spoke on behalf of their home.

Former enemies and rivals, bound together to a common purpose—an alliance, but often an uneasy one. Their voices were equal but their contributions to the alliance’s defenses could not be. Unlike Parsathe, where every citizen was taught to ride and hunt and fight, in the southern city-states only a small number became soldiers. So each member of the alliance contributed what the council deemed was of equal value. Swords from Rugus, grain from Goge…warriors from Parsathe.

A life, deemed equal to a few barrels of mead or a length of steel. But it mattered not. Maddek knew his own worth and the worth of every warrior who rode behind him.

The sun gleaming dully on their brass helms, the council guard approached. Though the guard was made up of men and women from each member of the alliance, in their armor they were indistinguishable from soldiers in any of the other city-states. Maddek could only recognize the Parsatheans by the strength of their mounts and the silver upon their fingers. When a warrior returned home after serving on the council guard, sometimes they spoke of Ephorn’s riches—but mostly they spoke of how they sweltered.

The southerners did not just wrap themselves in walls. Their soldiers wrapped their bodies in heavy armor, even when they were not in combat, as if delivering a message were as dangerous as heading into battle. The citizens wrapped themselves in cloth from neck to ankle, even on days when they did not need protection from the cold or wind. An entire life they spent wrapped as if for a funeral pyre.

The day was warm and Maddek didn’t anticipate a fight, so his own chest was bare, aside from the leather baldric slung across his shoulder to carry his sword. He wore no black paint over his brow. The only silver upon his fingers was the family crest circling the base of his thumb; he’d tucked away the razor-tipped claws that would drip with blood by the end of a battle.

Dressed to ride, not to make war—yet he still saw the wariness that darkened the captain of the guard’s eyes.

Many southerners within the alliance still believed the Parsatheans were little better than the savages. The riders were still called raiders and thieves—and uncivilized.

Maddek had never known the raid. By the time he’d been old enough to ride his first horse, the alliance between Parsathe and the southern city-states had been firmly established, and the silver and steel the Parsatheans had once taken was freely given in exchange for their warriors’ strength. But if civilization meant cowering behind walls, then Maddek preferred to be a barbarian.

And in a god’s age, when their civilized walls were crumbling to dust, when the names of their civilized cities were forgotten, Parsathean seed would still grow strong amid the ruins.

A few paces ahead, the captain of the guard abruptly reined in his mount. Maddek’s jaw tensed. If a Parsathean warrior had drawn so hard on his horse’s mouth, he’d have found himself marching on foot for a sennight.

“Greetings, Commander Maddek!” Despite his heavy hands and wary eyes, he sat easy in his saddle. His face was shaven in the manner of Gogean men, chin bare and jaw full-bearded. “The Council of the Great Alliance bids you welcome and requests your presence at the citadel.”

To ask for an accounting of the savages’ heads, no doubt. Maddek intended to ask for an accounting of his own. “I will come shortly.”

“I will let them know to expect you, commander.” The captain’s gaze swept the long column of riders behind him. “Lady Pylla adds that the resources of Ephorn are at your disposal.”

And Maddek would use them. A full turn of the moon had passed since the Parsatheans had left the Lave encampment, and it would be another full turn before they reached home. Their horses needed rest and his warriors needed to replenish their stores.

He looked to Enox. “Lead them to the northern flat.” Where there was fresh water and grazing for the horses, yet the riders would be near enough to the city to enjoy the pleasures of it. “We will make camp for three days.”

Wry amusement curved Enox’s mouth. “And ride out fat and drunk on the fourth day,” she said before turning to eye the grinning rider behind her. “Kelir, you and your five will accompany Ran Maddek to the citadel and serve as his Hand.”

_Ran Maddek. _It was the first time any of the warriors had called him by the title that had belonged to Maddek’s mother and father. But it was not his title yet. And wouldn’t be, unless all of Parsathe claimed his voice as theirs.

Enox met his grim look with a lift of her chin. She had probably not liked hearing the captain of the guard call him ‘commander’—that was the alliance’s title for him, not a Parsathean’s. “Please give greetings to my old father and tell him I expect a great feast delivered to our camp tomorrow.”

Her father, Nayil, who sat on the council as Parsathe’s minister.

“I will,” Maddek said. There was much he would be asking Nayil for. A feast for her.

Answers for him.

***

(Okay and maybe the next part won’t be deleted and I didn’t post it to Facebook yet.)

 

Beneath the shadow cast by the wall, sallow-cheeked children played between mudbrick houses that only saw the sun at midday. No breeze stirred the stale air but for the wind created by Maddek and the six Parsathean warriors who followed him, their mounts’ hooves clattering on the cobblestone road.

Visible beyond the clay-tiled roofs rose the shining blue spires of the citadel. The fortress at the city’s center had served as home to Ephron’s king until Anumith the Destroyer had slaughtered the royal bloodline. Afterward, no one had taken the king’s place on the throne, though many nobles still lived. Instead the city had come under the protection of the Court of Muda—the goddess of law.

Before the Destroyer left the region, his warlords had razed every temple except for those belonging to the sun god, but Muda’s court had not claimed the king’s citadel for its own when they took over rule of Ephorn. Instead they rebuilt their temple—square and unadorned—at the foot of the royal fortress, which became the seat of the alliance.

And it was at the citadel where all the splendor of Ephorn was put on display. In the great courtyard beyond the fortress’s outer gates, lush gardens breathed their perfume into the air. Fountains splashed into gleaming marble basins. Market stalls boasted pots full of colorful spices and hung a dazzling array of silks. At the open tables, mead flowed like rivers to wash down mountains of roasted meats.

It was the city that never hungered or thirsted. Some said it was because Muda herself favored Ephorn, so its fields always yielded a bounty and its wells always ran clear.

Maddek could not claim to know whether the goddess of law cared for crops and water. But he thought her favor had been helped along by Ephorn’s location. Centered as it was between the four other city-states, in the past it had not been raided or attacked as often as the cities on the borders. And most roads—along with all the trade they brought—took a central route through the region instead of crossing through Parsathean and Farian territory, so the merchants of Ephorn often bought from foreign traders on the cheap and sold their wares to the other city-states at a profit.

But perhaps they called that the goddess’s favor, too.

Maddek passed through the inner gates and dismounted at the base of the Tower of the Moon—the tallest of the four great towers within the citadel. With sheer walls of seamless white marble topped by a sapphire spire that pierced the sky, it had once served as the royal keep. Now it was home to the alliance council.

He glanced over at Kelir, still on his horse. The big warrior’s head was tilted far back as he took in the height of the tower.

A mournful expression passed over Kelir’s scarred face when he saw Maddek’s gaze upon him. “All of my life, I have held the tales of Ran Bantik close to my heart. I would have told them to my own children. Now I know them all to be false. ”

Tales of the legendary thief-king of Parsathe, who had long ago united the tribes that rode the Burning Plains. “Why?”

“No one could have scaled _those_ walls to steal the pearl from Ephorn’s crown. Easier to scale a wall of greased steel.”

So it would be. But a man did not become a legend by only doing what others believed to be possible.

Maddek did not think that argument would sway Kelir, though. “Is the feat not as impressive if he climbed the stairs?”

“How can it be? Shall I tell my children how Ran Bantik gasped for breath when he reached the top? Shall I say how he must have clutched his burning chest as he stole the pearl?”

“If Ran Maddek were to race to the upper chambers, he would not be gasping for breath—and neither would I.” This came from Ardyl, who had also dismounted and now looked up at Kelir with a frown creasing her black-painted brow. “Perhaps if you more often ran beside your horse instead of always sitting on him, you could also reach the top unwinded.”

Kelir looked to Maddek as if for help, but Maddek had none to give the other warrior, not while he was laughing his agreement.

“When I see the keep, I do not think of Ran Bantik,” Ardyl added as she took Maddek’s reins. The warriors would not accompany him inside but remain in the courtyard with the horses. “Instead I wonder what sort of fools the royal family must have been to build a majestic tower that honors the moon goddess, though it is by Muda’s favor that they all prosper.”

“What insult could that be?” Kelir frowned at her. “Vela gave birth to Law. What daughter would not see her mother honored?”

Ardyl’s response was a pointed glance at the silent warrior mounted a few paces behind him. Danoh’s feud with her mother was almost as legendary as any thief-king; many Parsatheans claimed the only time they’d ever heard her speak was when she yelled at the older woman.

With a laugh, Kelir bowed his head to acknowledge his defeat.

Movement on the tower steps drew Maddek’s attention. A seneschal in blue robes was coming to greet him, a wiry Tolehi man with shaved head and pursed lips. Omer. Maddek knew him well. He’d first met the seneschal as a boy, visiting the tower while his parents spoke to the council, and he’d spent a full morning in an antechamber with the seneschal watching him as an antelope watches a drepa—with trembling limbs and pounding heart, fearing the raptor’s sickle claw that would spill its innards to the ground.

Though a sickle claw from his first drepa hunt had already hung from the leather thong around his throat, Maddek hadn’t spilled the man’s innards. Instead he’d eaten his way through a platter of roasted boa. He had pleasant memories of that morning, even if the seneschal did not.

“Commander Maddek.” Omer imperiously swept his hand toward the tower entrance. “The council is ready to receive you, if you are ready to be received.”

The doubt in his tone suggested that Maddek was not. “I am.”

The older man sniffed as Maddek joined him. “If you wish, I will escort you to the bathing chambers first.”

Grinning his amusement, Maddek climbed the steps. “I do not wish.”

There was no shame in carrying the odor of horse and sweat, or in wearing the grime of travel and camp on his skin. That was what it meant to serve the alliance. He would not pretend a warrior could remain clean while doing it.

As it was, they should be grateful he always washed away the blood, or he would have faced them dripping an ocean of it.

With a sword’s worth of steel in his spine, Omer tipped back his head to meet Maddek’s gaze. “I would offer a robe so that you could clothe yourself before meeting the ministers, but we do not have any large enough to cover your mountainous expanse of flesh. But did I not see a mammoth’s pelt rolled up and tied to your beast of a horse?”

Not a mammoth’s but a bison’s—and it was too warm for furs. Maddek no longer used his except to sleep on.

He said simply, “I am already dressed.”

In red linen folded over a wide belt. The inner length of cloth hung to his knees. When it was raining or cold, he could draw up the longer outer length and drape it over his shoulders, but now it fell almost to the ground, all but concealing the soft leather boots that protected his feet and hugged his calves. The outer length of linen was split to allow for ease of movement, but unless he was riding or fighting, it covered him as well as a robe—from the waist down.

Omer gave his bare chest a despairing glance before sighing and continuing across the marble floor inside the tower’s entrance. In silence they walked, until they reached the anteroom outside the council’s chamber.

There the seneschal quietly said, “It was with great sorrow that I learned what befell Ran Ashev and Ran Marek. Your queen and king were always the most welcome of the council’s visitors. Of those who knew them, there can be not one who does not grieve for them now.”

Maddek inclined his head but made no other response, except to draw the red cloth up over his shoulder and drape it across his chest.

AND THAT’S ALL THE NEWS FROM MELJEAN UNTIL THIS STORY IS OUT.