Color_Comp_1

Chapter 1

Genre: Historical. 

Target Publication Date: July 1, 2013. 

 

I stood between two trees in the semi-dark of the night, the lifeless branches above me casting barely any shadow beneath the swollen moon.

From this hidden place, I watched my son Reed deliver the first blow.

A moonbeam sparkled on his silver armband as he pushed his opponent with the dull end of his sword. The man gave out a muffled yell and fell into the shadows under the wall of his house.

My son’s companions, three young warriors wearing only breechcloths, and four pleasure girls dressed in long tunics to mimic nobility, laughed and resumed their music of flutes and rattles.

Reed walked past the fallen man and punched the wall of his dwelling with a fist. Even in the moonlight I saw a dent he left on the fragile surface.

We were at the end of the Maize and Bean festival dedicated to the God of Rain, the Earthy One, which had been as much without the beans as it was without maize. It had been that way the previous year, and the year before that, and the year before that.

But the traditions still dictated that our young warriors and their escort of marketplace whores go out and demand bowlfuls of the delicious corn porridge sweetened with scraps of fruits and drops of honey. To refuse them was to invite violent mischief. The implied threat of retaliation had always existed, even during the years of plenty, only now it was no longer just a threat.

Before the drought, when the harvests were rich, this festival celebrated the joy of abundance. It was the ultimate display of my power and skill as the town’s elected leader. My name had spread far and wide as a man who did what was necessary to bring prosperity to his people.

But that was before I lost the favor of the gods, in what way I never knew. The granaries became empty, and the rich went as hungry as the poor. Birds no longer filled the forest with sweet sound, fish didn’t sparkle in rivers, which were now barren and depleted by the sun. Even the insects had dried up.

I watched Reed repeatedly strike the wall of the rickety house with his sword.

An attack against a person’s property was bad enough, festival or not. But my son wasn’t attacking because the owner had nothing to give. He was attacking because of my failure to provide for the town. My own blood had turned against me.

I had stumbled upon the scene during my nightly walk. I used to strike a path through verdant green fields, but they had long ago dried up. Now I walked through desert, and what I thought about was barrenness.

I was beyond caring about my son’s insult to me, but I had to protect the man’s house.

“Reed,” I called, stepping out into the moonlight. “People here don’t have much food.”

The whole band swung around to look at me, and the cacophony of their music stopped.

“Lord Old Hand!” cried the dwelling’s owner, invisible in the shadow under his wall. “Oh, thanks be to all the gods, Lord Old Hand is here.”

I touched my left eyebrow to control the tick that had developed there lately. Other than that, my face expressed nothing. This was’t an act. Long ago I had stopped feeling emotions about things one meets in life. It wasn’t because I achieved any level of enlightened understanding of how life worked, like some priests and shamans did. The burden of my people’s suffering had left no space in my heart for anything else.

I walked through the skeletal figures of my son’s warrior companions. With habitual bows of respect, they stepped aside to make way.

Reed watched me approach, his expression obscured by a thick layer of black face paint. The traditional black circles drawn around his eyes gave him a soulless, hollow look.

When I was a few paces away, he struck the wall again with the flat of his sword, spraying bits of clay of all directions. A piece of obsidian dislodged from the weapon’s edge and shimmered for a second before hitting the ground. Cries came from within the house.

Reed was sixteen, and he was as tall as me. His head was crowned with a shock of hair, indicating his lack of experience in battle and giving both of us shame. A man of his age was expected to have captured at least one enemy in a hand-to-hand duel, ideally with a well-matched, noble opponent from the many enemy clans that surrounded us. The failing wasn’t his, however. It was I who refused to lead our nation to war during the famine.

Reed’s face froze into a tight-lipped mask. He set his feet wide in a pathetic attempt to appear in control.

No one spoke. My son glared at me with unblinking eyes. I held my silence, knowing he’d break before me.

“Why are you following me, Father?” he finally said.

I looked around. Houses just like this one, built of sticks and clay, stretched left and right. Their inhabitants clustered at the entrances, watching us in silence. A group of children, the oldest no more than five, was standing behind their parents, supporting their protruding bellies with cradled arms as if they were pregnant. I considered that resemblance for a moment and sighed—nothing was fertile in this blasted land. The moon was a bloated empty belly, giving off just enough dull light to display ragged and torn garments resting upon their limbs.

I turned to face Reed again. “Why are you in this neighborhood?”

He swung his sword in a broad ark and slammed it into the wall. This time, he broke through. A woman shrieked inside.

“Why are you in this neighborhood?” I repeated.

Reed was too young to cause me any discomfort; I held his glare without a blink. I had learned to deal with him through my silence, which I knew he found oppressive, and at times even frightening. He was still trying to understand that silence. In the old days, when the rain used to come to us, I had shown him my rage. As he got older, he began to feed off of it. My anger made him stronger. He knew I had changed; but he had not yet understood what I had become.

Soon I heard a soft sigh, and a young man on my right spoke up. “Lord,” he said. I recognized the voice of Smoke, a fellow of my son’s from the temple school. “We heard talk of a deer.”

“A deer?” I asked.

“Yes. Some peasants went hunting. People say they killed a deer.”

“But there’s no deer,” the shanty’s owner said. He emerged from the shadows and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand with a measured, dignified gesture. Without any expression, he looked at his damaged wall, then at my son.

The shanty’s owner was the shortest among us, dressed in rags, but he behaved as if he were equal. That was how I wanted my townspeople to behave. Although I was their leader, I wished no one to bow his head before another man, not even me.

I turned away from him and untied my belt. My fingers dug within it until they found a battered golden pendant. I placed it into the man’s hand.

“This will pay for your repairs.”

He studied the pendant, turning it this way and that in the moonlight. “This is too much,” he said. “My house is of clay, not of beautiful stone like your palace.”

“Buy some stone,” I said. “When the warriors come next year, they’ll break their swords against your wall.”

The man bowed, and brought dust to his lips as a gesture of respect.

I saw a flicker of indecisiveness in Reed’s eyes, which he tried to conceal behind a scowl. I understood his dilemma. After this night, people would talk; people would ridicule. A dignified way out wasn’t apparent for him.

I felt more comfortable, but I was also on my guard. Without any apparent way to save face, Reed could become desperate, and desperate men were unpredictable.

Something had grown inside Reed over the last few years, something that I did not understand. He was departing from me, becoming more unrecognizable. He had a look of hunger in his eyes that had nothing to do with the famine.

After a while, he raised a hand. “You there, girls! Give your rattles a good shake. Friends! Play your flutes.”

I relaxed. The music resumed. Reed dropped the sword, letting it hang on a wristband, and clapped. Ignoring me, he sang the traditional song of the festival.

“When I come,” he sang, “when I come. . . .”

The harlots and the boys joined him, their voices uncertain, “Give me a little of your sweet porridge.”

Reed danced a slow circle around me, and sang alone again, “Because if you don’t, because if you don’t. . . .”

His friends sang louder this time, “I shall break a hole into your house!”

“Why don’t you join us, Father?” Reed asked and made a broad gesture with a hand. “So much food to try, so many walls to break!”

One of his friends pushed a sword into my hand. “Here you are, Lord.”

I declined the weapon. “You do not belong in this part of the city, Reed. Head back toward our house.”

“Yes,” he said. “I was going there next.”

I turned to the shanty’s owner. “What’s your name, friend?”

“Ant, my Lord,” he said.

“So, Ant, what of that deer?”

The man looked around, as if calling all his neighbors witness. “There are no deer in the forests. In what’s left of the forests.”

“When was the last time you went out for a look?”

“Just today, Lord. We caught a quail or two, but saw not even a turd from a deer. If we had a deer, the whole town would be rejoicing now. We all would be eating stews. I’d be celebrating my victory, not hiding my kill. Such is the way of honor. We have no deer, Lord.”

I looked into his eyes. He held my gaze with ease. I perceived nothing but tiredness in that man.

He jerked his head toward the hole in his house. “Check all you want. How can I hide a deer in a house this small?”

“I believe you,” I said and turned away from him. Without a glance back, I walked toward the temple district where the town’s elders, priests, and noble warriors lived. Reed and his band of troublemakers followed me.

All the way through that quarter, I sensed the impatient, hungry, accusing eyes of my people on me.

We passed several small bands of warriors, stumbling from house to house with their laughing retinues of whores. Seeing me among Reed’s friends, they all reacted in the same way: they broke off their boisterous screaming, and become silent and tense.

I had grown accustomed to this. The drought seemed to have brought as much fear as hunger to our town. Before the gods had decided to disavow us, these same men would have rushed to me and pulled me into their joyful dances.

Reed walked with his head raised high. When the third group of warriors passed us, he sneered.

“Peasants,” he said. “They have food. I know they do.”

I said nothing.

Reed continued, “No deer? Liars. They have piles of food. All you need to do is break into their home. They have secret chambers between walls, hidden dugouts in their floors. You need only know where to look.”

“Some of the fools have more meat on their bones than the nobility,” added Smoke. “Why, just the other day—”

I turned to Smoke, and he stopped talking. He quickly lowered his head to stare at the ground.

We reached the foot of the hill on which our quarters lay. The path here was narrow, winding its way between the shacks of my palace guards. Despite its forsaken appearance, the area was cleanly swept.

No bands of youngsters roamed the streets here. The area appeared deserted but for a girl no older than six or seven, who sat near a wall, watching our approach.

She was almost bald, and two deep sores ran across her forehead. Her stomach was round enough to have been one of the oversized rubber balls we used in our games.

“A warrior’s child,” Reed said, his voice suddenly sinister. “Have you seen a child this hungry among the peasants back there?”

I didn’t answer.

 

====

 

What do you folks think? Please be brutal in your feedback, I can take it.

What do you think should happen next?

  • O.D. Trebor

    I liked it, Austin. It’s a good start, makes me want to read more.

    • http://www.austinbriggs.com Austin Briggs

      Thanks O.D. Appreciate your support on this one. It’s funny how some encouragement makes one want to write more! :)

  • http://www.ami-diabetic.com Stuart Wimbles

    I totally agree! I found the opening very interesting and would like to read more to see how the story actually spans out. More please.

    • http://www.austinbriggs.com Austin Briggs

      Wow, thanks Stuart! I’m off to write the second piece.

  • http://www.aztecelements.net Philip Dickinson

    Hi Austin,

    I’ve seen your 90 day challenge and come here to sample the first chapter, as invited. I wish you strength and luck to help you with that challenge. It sounds really, really tough. Still, it looks like a strong start. I’ll check in now and then. My target is a rather pathetic 500 words per day!

    Good luck!
    Phil

    • http://www.austinbriggs.com Austin Briggs

      Hi Phil, thanks for stopping by and reading the chapter – as you know, I admire your work and your feedback is important for me.

      500 words per day is great!

  • Mark Brown

    Yes Austin! Very promising opening. I you don’t mind, I would like to suggest a path and apologies if you have already considered it. There is a violent quarrel between Old hand and his son Reed which results in Reed losing a hand and being banished. Meanwhile Old Hand adopts the warrior child who has lost both parents to war. The child is feral and moves through the villages uncovering their secrets. When Old Hand finds that Reed was right and his banishment unjustified, he embarks on a search to find him and seek forgiveness. But Reed is ready for war…against the villagers and his father.

    • http://www.austinbriggs.com Austin Briggs

      Hi Mark, thanks a lot!

      This is a very intriguing thought. A stand between the father and son is such a productive theme: it’s immediately gripping, emotional and dramatic.

      Incidentally, I just finish watching (again!) Kirosawa’s Ran where this theme is played very well.

      Sadly for this book, I’ve already written most of it since publishing this first chapter … But what you describe above is a wonderful plot for another book.

  • Debi Swim

    Historical fiction is not my usual genre though this really kept my interest and engaged my emotions in the two main characters. I am not a writer but a reader so with that said you can take my comments for what they’re worth. I don’t think I agree with Mark Brown about the next move, though I do like his idea about the little girl.
    I’m conflicted about the relationship between the father and son and think I’d rather they come together somehow. I think I see the father becoming less important or even dying and this becoming Reed’s story.
    I like it very much so far, Austin.

    • Mark Brown

      Debi, I must disagree. I have read your flash stories – you are not just a reader, you are a writer and someone who knows how words work. So there! As far as my ideas go, I am just trying to offer encouragement. I’m sure Austin has a set path, sometimes it’s fun to try and second guess!

      • Debi Swim

        Well. thank you, Mark. It is fun to second guess and I’m sure Austin already has this all worked out in his head, but like you, I like to think what might be next. Interested in chapter two : )

      • http://www.austinbriggs.com Austin Briggs

        Well, I set out without a path … Thinking maybe some ideas would come from the discussion here. But I ended up writing faster than I thought.

        I had great experience in the past writing a collaborative online story. Maybe will try out something in the future.

        I guess the learning is that we need to collect a team “before” one of us begins writing!

    • http://www.austinbriggs.com Austin Briggs

      Hi Debi, I agree with Mark, it’s not true that you’re not a writer. Your stories are excellent and worthy of publication.

      I’ve now written to the point when one of these two characters indeed dies. At this point I’d prefer not to say which one …

      The whole book is taking on the theme of reconciliation, coming together, making choices.

      Thanks for your thoughts, I really like your approach.

  • Mark Brown

    Hey Austin! Are we ever going to see Chapter 2? I think you may have raced ahead and finished the damn thing! Put me out of my misery here.

    • http://www.austinbriggs.com Austin Briggs

      Hi Mark, thanks for your comment!

      Indeed, I simply decided not to keep posting the chapters. My original idea was to engage into some dialogue, but I’ve been writing so much that it turned out impossible. The book is almost complete.

      I’m focusing on my other book now, a 110,000-word monster that I wrote in parallel. Will publish that one first…