The Long Retreat No. 80

The camp covered more ground than it had seemed from below. It was a rounded rectangle, twice as long as it was wide, and he had approached from the narrow end. Centered within the wall was a large tent, almost half the width of the camp—fifty yards long from end to end. Man-sized bonfires blazed in the spaces between each edge of the tent and the walls, around which dozens of ontr clustered. Banners hung all along the tent’s length, bearing insignia—ontligr coats of arms, perhaps? One, a black zigzag on a reg background, seemed especially prominent, featured at all four corners of the tent.

At the south end of the camp, farthest from Falthejn, a gaggle of ontr worked to assemble stacks of cut logs into—something. Surely not a siege machine? Ontr weren’t that bright.

The north end of the camp was given over to rest; a few hundred ontr, from the very smallest to some of the larger ones Falthejn had seen, slept in small tents, under blankets, or right on the ground. It seemed to depend on what they could defend from their peers.

A commotion around one of the bonfires drew Falthejn’s eye. From somewhere out of sight, drums boomed, and the largest ontling Falthejn had ever seen stepped forward from the central tent. It wore armor of some sort Falthejn could not identify, and over that, a red tabard bearing the same black zigzag.

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The Long Retreat No. 79

Falthejn inked the last few lines to form the last rune on a scrap of paper, corked his ink bottle, and put his writing supplies into his pack. He set the note on his cloak as he stood, buckling his sword belt around his waist and checking for the various pouches and vials hanging from it, each holding something to help focus his magic. Each was in its place.

He turned. His charges slept peacefully. He fervently hoped it would not be the last time. Fifty yards out of the camp, he made sure to snap a stick with a step—it would wake Alfhilde. He paused. Should he turn back? No. It was decided.

He struck out to the south. As he walked, he considered his next move. His job was to distract the ontr. To do that, he had to draw them away from the road. If he pulled the ontligr army to the northwest tomorrow, instead of due north, he would be taking them further from his group, and bringing himself nearer the army. The army was probably his best shot at survival, and survival seemed to him as good a secondary goal as any.

He slowed. Ahead, a red-orange light flickered through the trees. He doubted there were any humans this far south. He had been walking for a good half-hour; it seemed unlikely that the ontr would stumble across his charges overnight, if this was their camp and if they had patrols out. It seemed quite a large camp, though, and if he could see the fire this far off, they could be up to something. Ignoring the growing pain from his wounded side, he moved closer. He saw a rough stockade formed from felled trees. Ontlig sentries watched from, for lack of a better word, the battlements. When he was a hundred yards from the foot of the wall, he found a tree with a low branch and swung himself up into it. A minute or two of climbing brought him near its top, hidden from the ontlig camp by its trunk. He leaned around the tree to get a better look.

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Commentary, The Long Retreat No. 79

Some flashback fun.

I’m midway through my second-to-last editing pass on We Sail Off To War. I hope to catch most of the remaining errors in grammar and usage this time around, and in the final pass, I’ll edit for thematic consistency. The special bonus material for the back of the book is nearly finished, and after that, all I’ll have to do is put it all together. We’ll see how it goes—I have to learn how to use Sigil, the e-book typesetting took, to assemble everything.

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The Long Retreat No. 78

The journey wasn’t as bad as Hrothgar had expected. Alongside the river, the ground was flat, and a bed of evergreen needles kept the undergrowth to a manageable level. To their right, a hedge of shrubs and small trees, feeding off the fertile ground at the river’s edge, hid the river from easy view. Even so, their pace was slow. Almost an hour had passed by the time they drew near to the fort, and the sun was on the cusp of setting.

“We’ll see if we can’t catch someone’s eye,” Alfhilde said, holding up a hand to call them to a halt. She slipped her pack off, undid the cinch at its top, and pulled out the cloak stashed inside. She gave it an experimental wave, then turned toward the hedge.

Before she could go any further, a terrible noise reached his ears: war-cries, ontr by the thousands, their shrieks and howls easily carrying the half-league from the bridge to the place where Hrothgar stood. Men roared in reply, and then there came the confused noises of battle: metal on metal, cries of pain, trumpets, and the odd thunderclap Hrothgar gathered might be magic.

Alfhilde listened for a moment. Hrothgar saw her shoulders stiffen and the set of her jaw grow more determined. “We haven’t a moment to lose,” she said, and turned to push through the hedge toward the river.

Then, all at once, four things happened.

First, a group of ontr appeared over the rise away from the river, small ones, but numerous. The beasts caught sight of them, screeched at each other, and ran toward them.

Second, Sif made a strangled noise; her eyes rolled back into her head, and she slumped to the ground, a puppet with all her strings cut.

Third, an ontling—the largest Hrothgar had ever seen—followed the small ones over the hill. The creature stood three yards tall, if not more, and wore patchwork armor, constructed from bits and pieces of leather and steel: trophies from its past victories, debris from the places it had destroyed, anything it could get its claws on.

At the top of the hill, the ontling paused, sweeping an imperious glare across them. It showed bloodstained tusks in a terrible imitation of a grin, then bellowed at its underlings. They redoubled their charge.

Fourth, and finally, as Hrothgar was putting Jakob down next to Sif and drawing the hatchet at his belt, Falthejn Arnarsson crashed through the hedge a dozen yards upriver, answered the ontr chief with a bellow of his own, and ran at the foe, sword drawn.

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Weekend update

It’s 2:00pm on April 23rd, and I have finished The Long Retreat! I’ll be typing it over the next few days, and running the concluding 3500 words or so over the next month or two.

In the interim, I’ll be working on We Sail Off To War: final edits for publication, e-book creation, and perhaps some sort of release date fun. That should be mid-to-late May.

Following that, I’ll be spending some time on a secret writing project, before kicking off the third Nathaniel Cannon story, which will premier after the end of The Long Retreat.

Following that, I want to revisit Sam Hill and Amber Brighton, detectives extraordinaire. Armed with the kenning of several more mysteries since the last one I wrote, as well as a much better understanding of forensic psychology and related fields and a much better mental idea of the structure of the Investigative Arm and the Upside dome in the City of Nexus, I think the new take on them ought to be better than the old.

Exciting times ahead. Watch this space for news about publication!

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The Long Retreat No. 77

At the very top of the bend, just before the headland, an arch of stone crossed the river. If Alfhilde squinted, she could just make out human figures crossing it. “When did they build that?”

Hrothgar frowned, thought for a moment, and said, “Just now.”

“How do you figure?”

“The diviner told us where to go—to go here, to the ford. If he had known of a bridge, he would have led us to it,” Hrothgar replied.

Sif stood and said, “He told me that the army had other magiker, besides diviners. Maybe one of them knows how to make a bridge.”

Alfhilde shrugged. Sif supposed it wasn’t important, given the situation. “Well,” she said, “Our men did too good a job clearing the far bank. Nowhere to to lodge a rope for a crossing.” She looked upriver again. “We’ll have to go on foot. We’ll wave at the fort as we go by. They’ll never hear us over this din,” she continued, the river’s roar underlining her point, “but if fate is on our side, they’ll see us.”

Hrothgar’s customary frown deepened as he surveyed the intervening terrain. “Will we make it in time?”

Alfhilde turned her gaze on Sif. “Can you make a bridge? Are you able to, I mean to say. If you can, don’t.”

Meekly, Sif held up her hands. “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

Alfhilde nodded. “As I expected. We walk—and we had better get moving now.”

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The Long Retreat No. 76

It developed that she had good reason not to. They crested a shallow rise, and suddenly the river lay before them, down the slope a few dozen yards, roaring rapids swirling past. The road ran through a clearing, man-made and surrounded by hedges, then plunged straight into the deluge, not reappearing for another fifty yards.

“This isn’t right,” Alfhilde said. “I’ve been this way before, in the army. By this time of year, the Syderskogflod ought to be a little brook, not… this.” She threw her hand out at it.

Hrothgar shrugged. “What next?”

“I don’t know.”

Sif walked down to the water’s edge, drawn by something in the way it moved. She crouched, stuck her finger in, and watched the water flow around it. “It isn’t natural,” she announced.

Alfhilde turned toward her. “What do you mean?”

Sif looked over her shoulder, brow knitted. “I don’t know.” She frowned more deeply. “I think it’s magic.”

“The water?” Hrothgar said.

Alfhilde tapped her chin. “It would explain the flood.”

Sif looked back toward the water, but something upstream caught her eye. “Why didn’t we take the bridge?” she asked.

“There is no bridge,” Alfhilde replied.

Sif pointed. “Then what’s that?”

Alfhilde hurried down to the water’s edge to join Sif, and followed the line of her arm. Upriver, to the west, the river curved away toward the north in a great arc, before doubling back around a headland to the south and out of sight, a league or so distant. No trees grew on the opposite bank; the men in the fort—Flodsvadgard—probably kept it clear. The fort, wooden walls and a central stone-build fastness, sat on the opposite bank, midway along the great bend, set back from the river’s edge a hundred yards or so.

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The Long Retreat No. 75

She sighed, and the real world came back into focus. Alfhilde had only just finished a sentence, and was looking at her curiously. Sif said, “He’s really gone?”

Alfhilde nodded. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I know you liked him.”

“He has reasons,” Sif replied, but her heart wasn’t in it. “I don’t know what to do now—what to do with myself, and with magic.” Alfhilde raised her eyebrows, but Sif shook her head. “I don’t want to talk about it right now.” She looked up at Alfhilde with a quiet pleading in her eyes. “Are we going to make it?”

Alfhilde sat back heavily. Her face turned careworn, more so than Sif had ever seen. “I hope so.”

 

They kept to a faster pace than they had before. Alfhilde led the way, carrying with her Hrothgar’s axe. Hrothgar followed with Jakob, the hatchet hanging at his belt, and Sif struggled to keep up.

They started as the sun was rising, and didn’t stop once through the whole day. Every noise in the undergrowth sparked its own little moment of panic. Had the ontr caught them? Was Falthejn coming back?

The sun was on its way to the horizon when they first heard the river. “Do you see it?” Sif asked Alfhilde.

Alfhilde stood on her tiptoes and shook her head. “Not yet.”

“Why is it so loud?” Sif asked.

Alfhilde pressed on. “I do not like it.”

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The Long Retreat No. 74

Sif sat, shellshocked. Alfhilde kept talking, probably saying something comforting, but Sif remained stuck on the news that Falthejn had just left.

How could he? She had stood up for him when Alfhilde looked down on him. She didn’t want to be wrong about him—she wanted him to be a good man, but she couldn’t be sure that he was, not anymore.

She could see where he might think he was doing the right thing, if his note was true, but it stung. How could he expect to survive better on his own? Alfhilde knew how to fight, and Sif could at least try magic, in a pinch. Maybe he could move faster on his own, but if he was turning back toward the ontr…

And where did it leave her? Particularly high and dry. He had given her a reason to hope for the future, for the first time she could remember. With him gone—if Alfhilde and Hrothgar hadn’t agreed to take her in, she would have had nothing. Even so: her magic would put them in danger, and he’d left her no choice but to hide it. Her only other option put her family in danger.

That thought—her family!—brightened her mood considerably, for a few moments.

She was back to bad choices on that front. Never work magic again? She doubted if she had that kind of willpower. Go to the guilds? It was ten times as long again as the journey they were on, and she doubted Alfhilde and Hrothgar would agree to that. Worse, the guilds would not look generously on a street urchin turning up from nowhere, and they would put her somewhere she didn’t want to go, as like as not. Without Falthejn, without someone to vouch for her, she could not go to the guilds as an equal, only as an unknown, a dangerous, probably-criminal beggar.

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Weekend update

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these! A few items of interest for you:

1. Parvusimperator and I recorded a new episode of Crossbox last night, which should be coming out sometime this coming week. I do believe this is the first time we’ve hit a monthly episode cycle, which would be a cool thing to maintain, going forward. Keep an eye on the Soapbox, slash on weekend updates.

2. OpenTafl has seen some major updates in the past week or two. Read about ’em here1. The v0.2.x release cycle is winding down, and we have a bunch of new features since the v0.1.x stable releases: replays, saved games, commentaries, tablut variants, and in-game rules, to name a few.

3. I’m three scenes and an epilogue away from finishing The Long Retreat, a short story which ended up being half a novel. (It along with Secret of the Dutchman’s Cross would make a good double feature paperback, I think. Maybe throw in some essays and nonfiction to bulk it out to 250 pages or so, say.) I hope to make some serious progress on that front tonight.

4. Once The Long Retreat is in the books, I’ll be working on two things before I start my next story: first, I’m finally going to get We Sail Off To War into print (well, e-print). Second, I’m going to spend a week or two pounding away at a writing project for another friend of mine. (You’ve read about it in these pages before, but I’ll leave it to be a surprise.) After that, I’ll be diving into a Nathaniel Cannon project; after that, I haven’t decided. I may jump into a Sam Hill story, or I may stick with Cannon. I have good ideas for both.

5. Fishbreath Recommends: Zootopia, a good animated movie, where ‘good’ attaches directly to ‘movie’, rather than qualifying ‘animated’2. The story of fresh-faced beat cop Judy Hopps as she leaves her small-town roots and heads to the big city to make a difference, only to stumble onto a series of mysterious disappearances, and the larger story behind them all, it’s a solid buddy cop movie3. Also, in case you’ve been living under a rock, the characters are all adorable anthropomorphized animals. J. K. Simmons has a voice role, too; he’s one of my favorite actors/voice talents these days, so go support his career.

6. Fishbreath Also Recommends: Harebrained Schemes’ Shadowrun games. CRPGs in the classic mold, set in the Shadowrun universe. I’m in the middle of the first one, and like most Shadowrun material, it’s a cyberpunk urban fantasy film noir extravaganza. Give it a try if any of those words sounds good to you.

1. I heard from a friend of mine this week that ’em as a contraction for ‘them’ is not, in fact, a contraction of ‘them’. Rather, it’s a contraction of Middle English ‘hem’, which comes from Old English ‘hoem’, or them, in the dative case. It’s related to the Dutch ‘hun’ and the German ‘ihnen’. You learn something new every day.
2. This is a little unfair to animated movies, which I generally enjoy; then again, I suppose I seek out the ones for which the footnoted sentence holds true.
3. After the podcast last night, parvusimperator asked, “Put it on a scale of 1 to Lethal Weapon.” I said 6, solidly above average. It hits your traditional story beats: optimistic newcomer meets cynical local embedded in the system; fish out of water adapts to life on the force in a big city; mismatched partners forced to work together distrust each other at first, then form a strong bond. Although there’s a good mystery going on in the background, none of it feels forced—the mystery and the character arcs feed off of and drive one another. The end result is a deeply enjoyable 1:48 in a lovingly-crafted world realized beautifully on-screen. I would watch a sequel. Or, indeed, I would watch this one again.

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