7x7x7 Challenge Again

Nominated by the lovely @madeleine_deste (give her a follow or check out her blog: https://madeleinedeste.wordpress.com/) this time. I’ve already done this for my current WIP, so here are seven lines from page seven of Happily Ever After.

The Usurper stands, King Reynald’s crown perched on his head at a disrespectfully jaunty angle. My hatred seethes like boiling oil. I signal for the others with me to stop. This is my moment. This is what I have been waiting for. His jet-black armour clanks and creaks as he steps down towards me, and I examine it, looking for weaknesses.

He sweeps me a low bow.

“Welcome. I have been waiting for you,” he says in a soft voice that carries through the carnage of the throne room.

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We’ve just Met, and this is Crazy, but here’s Trauma, so Read my Story?

Someone once told me I was very good at torturing my characters. I take this as a compliment. (My characters are currently hiding behind the couch, quivering and wondering what fresh hell I have planned for them.) It’s important to worry about characters. If things come too easily for them, then we stop caring as much. It’s a dark kind of fun, at times, too.

But there’s a time and a place.

I’ve never read Harry Potter. It wasn’t the plot, or the writing that put me off picking it up. It was the room under the stairs. It was too much, too soon. How could I care about the suffering of a character I know nothing about? It felt like instead of presenting me with a rounded character, I was being offered a series of escalating bad events in place that was supposed to endear me.

It didn’t work.

Harry Potter isn’t the only example, by a long way.  And maybe other people feel differently. But for me, I’m much more likely to want to follow a character if I see something positive first. Captain Mal Reynolds won my heart through the way he handled a hostage situation in the first episode of Firefly. (The fact he’s played by Nathan Fillion didn’t hurt, though.)

I think this was one of the issues with the opening of Happily Ever After. While I didn’t pile on Lavie’s backstory, there wasn’t much of a chance to see her as a person, either. So I’ve returned to an earlier scene that was cut, giving a moment before the heat of battle and a chance for the reader to get acquainted with the three protagonists before things go to hell. There’s the entire rest of the book for that.

What are your views? Do you suck up protagonists who have lost both parents, been kidnapped by monsters, and had their puppy killed before the story gets going, or do prefer to get to know the character before the author starts beating on your feelings?

Pantsed Myself Right into a Corner

At the beginning of the year, I set myself a word count of 150,000 new words to be written over the year. Editing didn’t count; they had to be part of a first draft. I did it the year before – not easily, perhaps – so I thought I’d do it again this year. I’ve not managed to write half that yet, and it’s December.

There have been a few external pressures that have contributed to high stress levels this year. That hasn’t helped. And I have done huge amounts of editing. So it’s not like I haven’t been busy writing, querying, editing and so on. I don’t feel too bad for the most part.

What’s bugging me is chapter eighteen. I’ve sat down to write this and every time I’ve barely managed to get a handful of words down. I think I might have pantsed myself into a corner with this one. Not in terms of plot, just in the sense that I don’t have a clear enough idea of what I want to happen. Once I get over this hump, I’ll probably be okay. But it is driving me nuts.

I love this story. It’s not particularly big or clever, but the characters are so much fun. I’ve got a nervous wizard with a weak stomach who wants to do the right thing, but is way over his head; an Amazonian side-kick who can roll men into little balls of broken limbs and turns into a kitten during the full moon; and Byran, who has a lax attitude to personal property, a wit drier than a Saharan summer, and unfortunate case of claustrophobia. I even have ideas for writing more with them once this one is done. And I never get serious about sequels.

I know where the story is going to end up, but that’s in the wrap-up, last chapter. I’m not sure about the climax, let alone how they’re going to get there. The only things I’m reasonably confident about are things I don’t want to reveal because I want to save them for later stories. I pantsed my way through Happily Ever After when it became clear early on that my original version wasn’t going to work (thanks, Squeak!), but that seemed to just flow. This one is being more of a pain.

I’ve just got to take it one line at a time. So if I seem to be hanging out on Twitter to much, give me a kick and tell me to go and write another one.

Extract from my Current Project

Please note this is part of a first draft. Any and all words are subject to change!

We approached from the back. The road leading to the house was already lined with coaches. I pulled my self up onto the wall and peered over. Ornamental gardens sprawled in front of me. There was a lake, with a small stream winding from its shores, and a round, faux-temple type structure with pillars and a statue inside. I didn’t see any dogs, or house-guards.

I turned back to Darius.

“Looks good. Let’s go.”

“How am I supposed to get up there?” he called.

I rolled my eyes. “Can’t you magic your way up here?”

“I told you, it doesn’t work like that.”

“Then do it like a normal person.” I reached my hand down. Why did I agree to this?

Eventually, with much awkward scrabbling, and several near falls on my part, he was sitting, panting on top of the wall. I didn’t waste a moment waiting for him and dropped down in to a flowerbed. There was a thud beside me.

“Bend your knees,” I said. “If you break your legs I’m leaving you here.”

I knelt behind a large flowering bush. There was a expanse of lawn leading down to a lake, a couple of beds of ornamental shrubs around the water, and a set of pillars with a domed roof that looked like a tiny temple. After that, there wasn’t much cover until we got to the steps that led up to the house. Orlando said there was a door to the cellars under the steps.

“Ready?” I asked Darius. “Try to keep up. Oh, and by the way, if I get the slightest hint of betrayal out of you, I’ll not only leave you behind, I’ll pay your family a visit, too.”

Darius looked wounded. “What’s it going to take for you to drop that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe complete elimination of my memory?”

Before he could answer back, I set off, keeping as low as possible, ducking behind whatever cover I could find. Darius, to his credit, was only just behind me the whole way, though I could hear him panting and puffing.

We reached the door, and I tried the knob. It opened with a rattle and we slipped into the cool darkness. I paused for a moment, letting my eyes adjust to the gloom.

“Where do we go from here?” Darius asked. I put my finger to my lips.

“Hush. We don’t know who else is down here.”

“Oh right.”

I rolled my eyes again. Did Belle feel this way about me? I was always provoking the same reaction, but I didn’t think I was anywhere near as annoying. I hoped I wasn’t, certainly.

I didn’t risk lighting a flame. Licking a finger, I could feel the air was flowing directly from ahead to behind, so there didn’t seem to be any other exits nearby. I put my hand on the wall and started walking, hoping Darius was following.

The darkness was that all-pervasive sort that makes you wonder if you are stepping through air or treacle. Darkness shouldn’t make it harder to move, but it does. It was a relief when lantern light revealed we had reached more heavily visited areas.

“If you see anyone, ignore them,” I said over my shoulder. “Whatever you do, leave any talking to me.”

My nose told me the kitchens were to the right of intersection we had reached. Up ahead got murky again, which suited me more.

“Hey, you!”

I could feel the waves of panic rolling of Darius as the voice rang down the corridor after us. I turned slowly to see a panting servant leaning against the wall.

“Cook sent me to get some more of the little…what d’ya call ‘ems,” I said, trying to send ‘calm down’ eye-signals to the wizard.

“Kumquats?” he asked and I nodded as if I knew what a kumquat was. “She wants another bag of flour too. Apparently they’re out of the asparagus canapés already. I bloody hate parties.”

I gave him a grin. “Don’t worry, I’ll grab it for you.”

“Thanks. Those cellars give me the creeps.” He turned to leave, then stopped. “What’s his story?”

“Him? He’s hopeless.” I put a hand on Darius’s shoulder. “Cook’s nearly thrown him out three times today already. His poor mother would surely die if her son lost another job. So I’m keeping him out of Cook’s way.” Without waiting to see if he bought it, I pushed Darius down the passage.

“You enjoyed that, didn’t you?” he said when we were out of earshot.

“I did indeed. I hope I get the opportunity to spin the tale out a bit more. We’ll make you a legend in this place before the night is out.”

“Please don’t.”

There was a strange smell in the air, metallic, but not like blood.

“You smell that?”

Darius nodded. In the dim light I could see his hair was standing up. That didn’t bode well. I crept forwards, my hand against the wall. The corridor came to an abrupt end, presenting us with three doors, all identical.

“Which one?” I asked Darius.

“I’m not picking. You’ll blame me for whatever we find in there.”

Great. A wizard with a persecution complex. Closer investigation showed that the doors on the left and right were not locked, but the one ahead was, so that made my decision easier. I pulled out my picks, then paused.

“Can you see if there’s any magic on the lock?”

Darius nodded. “They took my stuff, but I should be able to improvise.” He reached up and plucked a hair from his head, and tied this onto a small button he pulled out of his pocket. Muttering over the make-shift pendulum, he held it near the lock. It remained resolutely still.

“Looks safe,” Darius said.

I bent down to pick the lock, and a revolting smell wafted out of the keyhole.

“Ugh, smells like something died down there.”

“Maybe we should look elsewhere. There are probably rats.”

There was a sharp click as the lock gave, and I pushed the door open. The smell was far worse now. Darius retched.

“Keep it down,” I said. “I don’t need you attracting attention by puking.”

Darius clapped a handkerchief over his mouth, struggling not to gag. I couldn’t blame him for being queasy. I’d probably be the same if there was anything in mine. I pinched my nose shut and made my way down the steps.

There were more than I was expecting. We’d descended more than two stories by my estimation when we reached another door. This one wasn’t locked, and from the way the wood was damp and warped, it wouldn’t have taken more than a kick to break through.

On the other side of the door was a large chamber. It looked natural, like a cave, rather than a cellar. A crack in the ceiling let moonlight through, washing everything in a silvery light.

The smell was better here, which made me wonder what I’d missed in the darkness of the steps.

“This looks promising, don’t you think?” I asked Darius.

“If by promising you mean distinctly eerie,” he replied. “At least it doesn’t smell like dead rat quite so much.”

The chamber was large, about twenty feet across, and roughly circular. The stone walls formed a rugged dome, glistening with moisture. There was nothing else in here, but footprints in the dust lead to the back of the chamber.

Darius pulled out his make-shift pendulum. It twitched slightly over his palm.

“There’s magic nearby.”

“Then we haven’t come all this way for nothing.”

I walked to the back of the chamber and stopped. There was a triangular gap, wide enough for both of us to walk through side by side. Which was fine, but I could see as it went further back through the rock that it got narrower and shorter until I’d be almost crawling.

“What are you waiting for?” Darius asked as I stared into the deep black, my palms sweating.

I cleared my throat. “There’s magic, right? You should go first.”

Darius looked at me. “Didn’t have you pegged as a coward, Byran.”

“I’m not. I just happen to like this shape, so I want you to go ahead and trigger any magic traps that might turn me into a toad.”

He put a hand to his chin, one finger tapping at his cheek. “You can’t be scared of the dark, and you wouldn’t get that close to Finn if you really were bothered by magic. Enclosed spaces? That’s it, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “Get down there.”

To my dismay, he patted my shoulder. “It will be fine.”

Great. Rejected in the morning and now patronised by Darius. My life had hit a new low.

“It’s not too bad,” he called from the darkness. “It’s only about fifteen feet and if you stoop, you shouldn’t need to crawl.”

I took a deep breath, regretted it due to the lingering smell, and forced myself into the passage. As the rock pushed in on me, forcing my back lower, all the air seemed to get squeezed out. My heart was loud in my ears already, and only got louder the more I was forced to duck.

Darius was right: it probably was only about fifteen feet from end to end, but it felt like I’d done about fifty when I popped out, wheezing, at the other end.

Darius offered me a hand. “Are you all right?”

I ignored it out of spite, gripping the damp wall as I pulled myself to my feet.

“N-not a word to anyone.” Though Belle already knew and I doubted Finn gave damn.

I looked around while my heart settled down. It was another roundish cave-room, but this one had tiles on the wall and a drain running round the edge. The smell was back again.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this place,” Darius muttered.

“You don’t say.” There was a lantern on the wall and I lit it with Darius’s tinderbox. Brown stains on the wall snapped into focus. “Well, that’s not good.”

“We should go,” he said, backing away. “There can’t be anything good down here.”

“You don’t know that. There might be books. If we find any, I’ll let you keep them.”

I started off towards the door – a proper, normal-looking door thankfully – and he sighed, then followed. When I opened this one, I was hit with that same smell from the steps. It was that cloying, almost sweet smell of something rotting.

It was enough that I almost agreed with Darius about leaving.

The room looked like something out of one my father’s sermons. He particularly enjoyed the ones about the underworld, and how everyone was a whisker away from condemning themselves to it. There would be pain and torment beyond imagination, he would tell us gleefully. Sadistic old goat.

There was a table in the centre of the room, grooves round the edge and a drain underneath it. Cages, some big enough for a person, stood against one wall, while a variety of tools lined the other. They ranged from the precise to the proverbial walnut-mangling hammer.

I took a step back, my heart pounding in my ears. It was taking every ounce of self-control to override my survival instincts to run. There was a reason we were down here and I needed to follow through.

I turned to Darius. The wizard’s face gleamed like a pale moon in the darkness. His hands trembled at his sides as he looked around, trying to keep his gaze falling too long on any one thing. Couldn’t blame him this time.

“Darius.” I had to snap my fingers twice before he would look at me. “Is there magic?”

“I…I don’t know.”

“Then find out. I want to get out of here as much as you, but we can’t leave unless we’re sure this has nothing to do with Finn.”

He stared, eyes unfocused, at my chest – probably the only safe thing in the room – and I prepared to slap him. I wouldn’t have even taken any pleasure in it. Then he blinked and took out the button pendulum. It swung wildly over his palm.

“I’ll take that as a yes then.”

He nodded and moved his hand around in a circle. It didn’t surprise me to see it reacting more as he got closer to the central table.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” he muttered. “It doesn’t mean it’s connected.”

It was my turn to put a hand on his shoulders. The muscles were tense under my fingers, like an animal at the point of flight.

“Stay by the door,” I told him. “I’ll take a look around.”

He nodded again, gratefully this time, and backed away. I walked down the row of cages, my stomach churning like the sea in a storm. Bile made the back of my throat burn. I hoped Finn appreciated the lengths I was going to for him.

Most of the cages were empty, apart from traces of blood and other things I wasn’t going to look at too closely. On the far side of the room, in one of the smaller ones, movement caught my eye.

“Byran,” Darius called, in a croaky whisper. I ignored him and carried on.

There was a rat in the last cage, lying on its side. Its little paws twitched and clenched as if the animal suffered some sort of palsy. There were gashes and scars all over its body. As I stepped closer, it opened its eyes and I knew we’d found what we were looking for: they were the same blue as flaming alcohol.

“Byran,” Darius said again, more urgently.

“Shut up. Get over here.”

The rat was dying. Its sides heaved like bellows and its eyes rolled in their sockets. I hoped this was the result of its injuries, rather than something to do with its magical nature. I didn’t want to see Finn like that.

The wizard hadn’t come over to join me. I looked up and realised I should have been paying him more attention. He was pointing urgently through the door, back the way we had come and now I understood why. There were footsteps approaching.

There was nowhere to hide in the other two chambers. The only cover between here and the upper cellars was the stone table next to me. I gestured at Darius. He gaped at me, I made a more pointed hand signal, and he got the hint. We scurried behind the big stone plinth and ducked down. The smell here was foul, but it wasn’t going to lock us in a cage and torture us until our eyes glowed at least.

The footsteps were half-drowned by my heart. I itched to peer round, get a glimpse of the person who must have been at the door by now. It could have been another servant, curious now the locked door was open. But my luck had never been that good.

“Gentlemen.” The voice rang out across the room with the confidence of a man with a very large stick. Or a bag of magic rats to back him up. “You’ve been seen coming down here. There’s no sense in hiding. I suggest you come out and explain yourselves. It will go easier for you.”

I ignored Darius tugging frantically at my sleeve and stood up. There was a single man standing at the door, his arms folded like a disgruntled parent. He didn’t look terrible threatening, but then neither did I. A fact many men had learned to their dismay.

I gave him a disarming smile. “Would you believe we were looking for kumquats?”

Five Reasons Why I think Contests are a Good Idea

I’ve entered a few contests this year, starting with #Nestpitch in the spring and finishing with #pitchslam this week. Some I was selected for, some not. Some I got requests, others I did not.

Many contests run on a roughly similar format. A pre-selection period, where you hone the required materials, pitch, query, first 250 words etc. Then the section period where you wait and bite your nails, hoping to be selected. There may be a mentoring phase, where writers and editor help improve your selected materials, and this may be a couple of days or longer. Finally, an agent round, where your materials are displayed for agents to make requests. Throughout, there is generally a hashtag for the community to build up on Twitter.

I think every contest was worth my time. Here’s why:

Reason five: Agents. It can be daunting to know where to start when you begin querying. Having agents who you know are interested in your work gives you are starting place. You should always research agents before submitting, but it gives you a much smaller pool to start with, and then you can widen your search.

Reason four: An opportunity for feedback. For contests with mentoring, this will come from those who have already been through the querying process, or who are editors who help writers get there. They know their queries inside out, and can help you get that dreaded synopsis down to a page. Even if there’s no mentoring, it’s easy to get feedback from other competitors in the pre-selection phase. A show me yours and I’ll show you mine attitude gets fresh eyes on your work and fresh friends on your list.

Reason three: It can help identify if you’re ready. It’s almost impossible to know if you’re at the right point to be querying just on your own. Getting an opportunity to see how your work compares with others, and the feedback you will get, can help you place yourself. Maybe you’ll enter and find out you’re not in the right place to publish. #Nestpitch ultimately taught me that. Maybe you’re not ready to query yet. But if you learn that in a contest, you can revise and still go on to query agents you want to work with, whereas if you’d jumped into querying, you might have lost your chance with that manuscript.

Reason two: It teaches you how to deal with rejection. You won’t get picked for all contests. And you won’t get requests from all the ones you do. We’ve all got to deal with rejection, and this is a more comfortable way of doing it. There will be lots of others who didn’t get in, and you can commiserate and console each other, then work together to build yourselves back up. And you can enter the same contest when it runs next, whereas you can’t generally re-query a rejected project to an agent.

The number one reason I think you should enter contests is for the people you meet. Writing can be a lonely, stressful business. Non-writer friends can be supportive, but they don’t necessarily have the insight other writers do. Having people who know what you’re going through is wonderful. Then there’s the opportunity to meet people who can help build up your skills. Published writers and experienced editors. Your betas and your critique partners. As mentioned in #pitchslam, these are the people who will end up in your acknowledgements when your book is published. A good CP is worth their weight in gold and not easy to come across. Contests are a great way to meet them.

Convinced? Check out this list:
http://carissa-taylor.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/contest-madness.html

#Pitch Slam

If anyone is passing and fancies it, I’d love to get some feedback on my pitch and 250 words before the contest deadline tomorrow at 11.59 EST (4.59 BST)

Pitch: The usurper’s surrender was supposed to mean “happily ever after.” But the battle’s not over. Lavie must choose between a new life, a new king, or her old friend before she loses all three.

Or:

An expected surrender should mean happily ever after, but knight Lavie is left battling PTSD and doubts about the new king. Lavie must hold the kingdom, and herself, together or lose home, friends and self.

250: 

Today, I kill a man. Today, I take back my home. Today, everything ends.
The sea-warped gate in the bailey opens with a squeal, dusting me in flakes of rust. I cringe, hoping the keening seagulls cover the screech. Salt in the wind mixes with the scent of blood as I slip into the narrow space between the inner and outer wall, then signal my team to follow me.

“…Lavie?”

I start at the sound of my name, and curse under my breath. One of my soldiers points past me to a dim entranceway. Footsteps echo from the stairs ahead.

“Sir,” I correct the man as I draw my sword. “Wait here.”

I press my back against the wall by the steps. The footsteps grow louder, and my fingers twitch on my hilt. As the figure emerges, I drive my sword into his gut.

Our eyes meet in the gloom and I taste bile in the back of my throat. He’s not a soldier, just a runner. He’s also barely more than a boy. His pale hands clutch at his stomach, as if trying to push the blood back, a gurgling cry spilling from his lips. I give him mercy and put my sword through his heart. He doesn’t even make a sigh as he falls, eyes glassy, to the ground.
I choke down fury. Another life destroyed by the Usurper. There’s no time to mourn or rage, and all we can do with the body is lay it out the way by the sea-gate.

7X7X7X7 Challenge

I’ve been challenged to do this by a few people on Twitter. It’s a simple exercise – starting from the seventh line, post seven consecutive lines from page seven of your current work in progress. So, here is a section from what is currently titled Lock Stock and Two Smoking Goblins:

Great. I rolled over to find myself staring into a pair of amber eyes. On a small, buttermilk-coloured kitten.
“That’s how you’re going, Belle?”
The kitten made a soft chirruping sound.
“Fat lot of good you’re going to be if a fight breaks out.”
Somehow her expression managed to convey the fact that she had chosen that shape for exactly that reason.

Pitchwars Mentee Bio

A little bit about me:

I live in the beautiful city of Bath, in the UK. Being British means I was able to queue about the time I learned to walk and was fluent in sarcasm by the time I went to school. Yes, I do drink tea, especially while writing, but it’s usual green tea. I have about two dozen types in the house at any one time. I’m dyslexic, which in writing means I tend to leave words out. I love autocorrect with all my heart.

I met my partner at university. He’s my first boyfriend and we’re still together thirteen years later. I believe in the power of love.

I changed my name by deed poll, mostly because everyone kept spelling my original name wrong.

By day, I work in IT. By the way, printers are powered by demons and will do everything in their power to mess with you. Never tell one you have a deadline. I’m one of two women in the office, and I’m the one making the “that’s what she said” jokes. (I think I was fluent in innuendo by the time I hit secondary school). I can speak a bit of Japanese, less French and say take the first road on the left in German.

A man once offered my mother two camels and half a bar for me in Cyprus. She said no. True story.

I like cheese more than chocolate, and being a west country girl my favourite drink is cider. I’m partial to rum as well; Kraken is my preference.

I collect plushie animals. My latest addition is a honeycomb moray eel. If anyone finds me a plushie pangolin I will love you for ever.This is my collection:

IMG_20150807_233037_1

I’ve been writing since I was five. I’ve been writing well for the last four or five years. Apparently I’m good at torturing my characters.  I write fantasy and horror, usually featuring m/m romance. While I love a decent scary story in any medium, but I’m a terrible coward and suck at any kind of horror computer game. I write because I love my characters (even the ones I hurt) and I want others to love them too. Getting fan-art would make my life complete.

My pitchwars entry is an adult fantasy novel, following heroes after they have achieved their quest. It will appeal to any mentor who likes strong female characters (no damsels in this book), m/m romance, platonic love that’s as strong as romance, well crafted action, and the power of hope and innocence. Oh, and dick jokes. I’m told there are a few of them.

Find more lovely #Pitchwars writers here:
http://christopherkeelty.com/pitchwars-2015-pimpmybio-contestant-blog-hop/

July 2015 Query Blog-Hop

When I had just finished Happily Ever After, I did one of these and got some great feedback. I’ve done two more drafts and worked on the query, so I’m hoping to get that final polish in time for #Pitchwars. If you’d like to join in, see this post on the lovely Michelle Hauck’s blog: http://michelle4laughs.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/july-2015-critique-blog-hop.html

Genre: Fantasy, adult, lgbt+

Wordcount: 103,000

Query:

Dear [Agent]

Lavie Streaver has many identities: noblewoman, knight, and now hero. With a long war over, Lavie and her childhood friend have set the rightful heir to the throne, but, while the kingdom is at peace, she’s not. Too highborn to remain with the soldiers, and too scarred by her experiences to be comfortable with the nobility, she searches for a purpose to her life amid worries the new reign she risked her life for will be short-lived.

When the new king is torn between his duty to the throne and the man he loves, Lavie finds must choose between what’s right for the kingdom, and what’s right for her oldest friend. As cracks appear in the peace, and their friendships, Lavie finds herself continually drawn to an unlikely source – the man she worked so hard to defeat.

Starting where most fantasy novels would finish, Happily Ever After is an adult fantasy of 103,000 words featuring a strong LGBT+ cast.

Yours sincerely,

First 250 words:

The sea-warped gate in the bailey opens with a squeal, dusting me in flakes of rust. I cringe at the sound, hoping the keening seagulls cover it. Sea-salt on the wind mixes with the smell of blood and anticipation in the air as I slip into the narrow space between the inner and outer wall and signal my team to follow me.

Today, I take back my home. Today, I kill a man and end the reign of a tyrant. The idea of it makes my body tingle. Everything ends today. Either we defeat the Usurper and set the prince on the throne where he belongs, or we fail and nothing matters anymore.

“…Lavie?”

The voice makes me start and I curse under my breath. One of the soldiers accompanying me points ahead and I hear something else. Footsteps.

“Sir,” I correct the man sharply as I draw my sword. “Wait here.”

I slip into the inner bailey and press my back against the wall by the steps. The unseen figure is almost at the bottom and my fingers twitch on my hilt. As he emerges, I step out and drive my sword into his belly.

Our eyes meet in the gloom. He’s not a soldier, just a runner. He’s also barely more than a boy, fifteen at most. His pale hands clutch at his stomach, as if he’s trying to push the blood back, and a gurgling cry spills from his lips. I give him mercy and put my sword through his heart.