Epic fantasy is enveloping, enjoyable and hair-pullingly frustrating to write. In order to do it well you need to be able to draw the reader in without losing them into whatever web you are weaving. This means being able to maintain your characterizations, keep the narrative consistent with regard to your story as well as the logic of whatever world and the physics of the magic system you have created. The longer the word count the more difficult continuity becomes. Writers such as Robert Jordon, JK Rowling, Ann McCaffrey, and George R. R. Martin, are proven masters of the genre. I have left J. R. R. Tolkein out of that list because the Lord of the Rings stands alone as the genesis of the form.
My own epic, The Milward Chronicles has received very good reviews, but very little in the way of exposure. Back when I was still writing the second volume, book one, Birthright managed to make it all the way to the number one slot on the Barnes and Noble Fictionwise ebook store fantasy page, and the Fictionwise site lost market. Royalties trickled away.
Good old Amazon to the rescue; seeing how the market was changing, they began putting in place tools for authors to market their works. The latest one is what I wrote about in the previous column, Author Central. And so it begins.
This past summer I finally completed the Milward Chronicles, an epic of five thick volumes with a total word count approaching one million. The last book is entitled, The Witch of Angbar, and here is the first chapter for your reading pleasure:
In the land of the Maraggar, Dral-ne’talnisan, the Suldakhar holds power just below that of Tettuwain, his peoples’ deity; the Pfaldam, the living reach of his words, and the Suldam, the living reach of his hands. From the day of his birth, he was raised to rule and to expect his every word to be obeyed as if it came directly from the mouth of Tettuwain.
Dral-ne’talnisan’s mother was, on the day of her marriage to Dral’s father, the Suldakhar-tet, the greatest beauty the Pfaldam could find. The Suldakhar-tet resembled the best of the Suldam lineage and it was a near certainty that their progeny would exemplify those traits.
A dark-skinned people with silver hair, the Maraggar hold a deep love of orderliness. Their society reflected that love to the point where two different body types developed over the centuries to fit the niche into which they were born. The Pfaldam or Administrators, were typically fat to the point of obesity, their sedentary lifestyle lending much to this physique. The Suldam were the Maraggar military. Towering statues of ebony perfection, each Suldam resembled the other as each pea does its neighbor.
Maraggar architecture reflected its people’s culture in its massive size, clean blocky lines, thick walls, and meticulously maintained streets. The primary building material was white granite quarried from the central plateau. The huge buildings crouched next to the streets in ranks, as if they were an occupying force.
Melanchthon, the capital city overlooked the eastern escarpment. From the palace one could see the Channel Islands, and beyond them, the distant peak of Angbar as it jutted through the ever-present clouds of the eastern sea. Nine tiers, the holy number of Tettuwain, comprised the city proper, giving it the look of a truncated pyramid. The first tier connected to an umbilicus of sorts that ran south along the escarpment to a series of switchbacks that led down to the harbor at the escarpments base. Tall ships covered in jewels called the Eyes of Tettuwain lined the harbor. The top tier contained the palace and the Suldakhar’s living quarters. In obedience to tradition, the first tier contained the temple and all other religious offices, placing the people of the city rightfully between their deity and their Emperor.
Dral-ne’talnisan stood with his hands clasped behind his back as he looked out toward the east. Thoughts moved through his mind like Suldam on parade. The new temple in that barbarian city called Southpointe should be nearing completion. It always amazed him how little wealth it took to convince the pales to work against their own interests. A smile crossed his face as to the chagrin they would experience when the gold stopped flowing and the whips came out. The timing of the war seemed almost supernatural and that part disturbed him. He distrusted magik and those who used it. The Pfaldam and Suldam were more to his liking, efficient tools, easily controlled and understandable.
He dropped his gaze to the harbor below. The new ships were ready to sail. They lined the docks by the hundreds, their masts like reeds along a watercourse. Soon the command would be given and the age of Maraggar dominion over all the peoples of the world would begin. He smiled to himself. Even she would not be able to refuse him then.
¨ ¨ ¨
“How dare you? Oh, it’s you,” Baxtr-Kin sat back into his desk chair and, with an effort, set his features into a look of relaxed indifference. It was a bit more difficult this time. The start he had been given by the sudden appearance of a cloaked figure in his supposedly locked and guarded study had caused him to spill a few drops of an extremely rare vintage. He groused, “What do you want, Mallien?”
The cause of the start smiled broadly in an expression that would have horrified children and pushed back the deep hood of his robe. Magister Mallien pulled over one of the chairs that bracketed the window in Baxtr-Kin’s study and sat down. Mallien stared at the Ortian Councilman from behind steepled fingers. Sweat began forming on the council member’s brow. The smiled broadened. “So sorry to not knock, Baxtr,” Mallien purposely left off the honorific Kin, “but apparition was necessary to ensure privacy.”
Baxtr-Kin scowled as he glanced briefly at the golden bell on his desk. One ring would bring the guardsmen stationed outside his door, but he doubted their ability to deal with one such as the Magister.
Mallien’s grin flashed once, briefly, “Very good Baxtr, it appears you do have the ability to develop wisdom after all. I suppose you have heard something of the news from the north?”
Baxtr-Kin scowled, “Must you be so insulting?”
“Must you be such an easy target?” Mallien scowled back. “Now answer my question.” The fingers of his left hand tapped the arm of the chair.
“What news are you talking about?”
“Don’t be thick, Baxtr-Kin,” Mallien chided, “You know exactly the news I’m speaking of. You were deeply involved in our plans as far as the south was concerned.”
Baxtr-Kin’s mouth twitched in a grimace, “Oh, that.” He moved in his chair uncomfortably. “Yes, I heard. It seems your plans worked out just about as well as mine did.” He lifted the snifter to his lips. “That young fool Gerold-Lyrd and his meddling wizard ruined several of mine. Cost me several thousand golds as well,” he finished in a mutter.
“Perhaps you would be interested in satisfying your thirst for revenge, hmm?” Mallien rubbed his chin.
Baxtr-kin tossed back the rest of his brandy. He did not even consider offering any to the Magister. “Of course I’m interested. What do you suggest?”
Mallien re-steepled his fingers and sighed, “Oh, a bit of this and a bit of that. You are I am sure, aware of the upcoming trial of the deposed Duke of Grisham?”
“Who isn’t? There has been nothing else as far as gossip is concerned since the day they brought that raving manic into the capital.” Baxtr-Kin chuckled, “The trial should be fun to watch from what I hear.”
“Yes,” Mallien answered dryly, “it should.” He stood and began pacing. “I propose to add some additional spice to the entertainment. In addition to the fun of listening to a madman, what would you say to the possibility of watching your young tormentor being led from the council chamber in chains after being accused of the assassination of the emperor?”
Baxtr-Kin leaned forward, an evil glint blossoming in his eyes. “Say on,” he murmured.
Mallien nodded, “First, tell me if you have any of your counterfeit gold marks left.”
“That was an outrageous lie!” Baxtr-Kin blustered. “Counterfeiting is a capital offense and only a total fool would…”
Mallien held up a hand. “Please, do not bore me with false protests of innocence, Councilmember. I am not concerned with your little…extracurricular enterprises. I am, however very interested as to whether or not you have any of those sham marks for our use.”
Baxtr-Kin’s eyebrows rose, “Our use?”
Mallien approached the desk and placed both hands onto the polished wood. He leaned forward and hissed, “What would the authorities say if they discovered several thousand marks worth of counterfeit gold in your nemesis’ vault? How would they react to also finding proof that those marks were payment for slipping a very deadly, but tasteless poison into the Emperor’s symbolic flagon of water at the Duke’s trial?”
Baxtr-Kin’s mouth worked as he ran this scene through his mind. His eyebrows narrowed and he slammed a fist onto the top of his desk. “Yes! Scrood the bastard for a pullet, I’ll do it!”
Mallien glanced at the door leading to the study. Apparently, the guards were used to outbursts from the fat councilmember; the door remained securely shut. “Very good, Councilmember, now this is what we shall do…”
¨ ¨ ¨
“Alford the twenty-third, Emperor of the Southern lands, scion of the house of Galtihedrion,” Duke Bilardi breathed the words out as if they formed the foulest curse he could imagine. “What ill fortune brings you to my humble office?” He giggled on the word, office. The brittle edge of madness lay in the sound.
“Please leave us Cremer,” Alford said quietly.
The Emperor’s aide balked. “…Sire, I…”
“I will be quite safe, Sobret,” Alford interrupted, using his aide’s informal name, “the bars are protection enough.”
Cremer bowed and, casting a look of distaste toward the prisoner, left the cells.
Duke Bilardi called after the departing Cremer, “Yes, leave us Sobret. You don’t want to be found in the presence of fools and madmen now, do you?” He giggled again, grasping the bars of his cell tightly enough to whiten the knuckles on his hands.
Alford looked at the Duke. In spite of efforts to allow the man every amenity, including a bath, soap and clean clothes, Bilardi refused to make use of any of them. The guards said he even refused to sleep on the mattress he had been given, choosing rather the stones of the floor. Alford’s glance passed over the rumpled blanket lying next to the bed, the pillow off to the side against the wall.
Duke Bilardi was filthy and his beard had begun to mat. Only his nose and the skin around his eyes showed from behind the wild black thatch of his hair. The eyes gleamed too brightly and the teeth, white when the Duke was delivered to the prison, were nearly buried beneath a thick layer of brownish tarter. His odor was less than pleasing.
Bilardi grinned at the Emperor through the bars. “Does my beauty please His Excellency?”
Alford ignored the taunt. “I am here on a duty, Your Grace,” he said. “I bring news of your son.”
“I have no son!” Spittle sprayed with the force of the Duke’s scream.
“Nevertheless,” Alford replied calmly, “the duty must be fulfilled.” Bilardi began screaming inarticulately as he danced around his cell, overriding the Emperor’s words. Alford carried on and passed on the information regarding the Duke’s son, Bilardi and the coming betrothal to the Lady Charity.
When he finished, Alford left the raving Duke and walked tiredly back up the stairs to where his aide waited.
Cremer held his Emperor’s cloak outward with both hands and placed it across Alford’s shoulders and said, “A distasteful duty, My Lord.”
Alford sighed, “Yes, but one that had to be done. Now all that remains is his trial”
“One doubts the Duke will ever regain his sanity in time, my Lord,” Cremer murmured.
“An opinion, Cremer?” Alford looked at his aide in surprise.
“An observation, my Lord,” Cremer demurred. “General Jarl-Tysyn awaits, my Lord.”
“Ah yes,” Alford replied, “matters of state.” He smiled, “I’m not sure which duty is the more distasteful.”
Cremer followed Alford as the Emperor made his way up the several flights of stairs from the dungeon to the Royal offices. Jarl-Tysyn stood before the Emperor’s desk as stiffly erect as if a rod had been affixed to his back. The white bristle of his hair gleamed with fresh oil. The nickel and bronze of his breastplate had been polished to a mirror-like sheen.
The Emperor shook his head and then composed his expression into one of seriousness as he rounded the desk and sat down. “Sire General, so good of you to come by. I expect you have your report ready to deliver?”
“I do, Your Majesty,” Jarl-Tysyn replied as stiffly as he stood.
Alford had been rifling through papers as he asked the last question. The tone in his General’s voice caused him to look up. “What’s going on?” He asked.
The twitches of Jarl-Tyson’s face attempting to maintain composure told Alford most of what he wanted to know. He held up the sheaf of papers in his left hand as he gestured with his right toward the armchair positioned before the desk. “Sit General, that is a royal command by the way, and tell me what is eating at you before you explode all over my palace.”
Jarl-Tysyn hesitated only for the briefest moment before sitting into the chair. He managed to give the impression of still being at attention while seated. “It’s…about that lad up north, Your Majesty,” the words came out slowly, as if they were forced.
Alford sat back in his chair and asked, “Lad? Which lad? From what I understand, a few million people live up north. Which one of them concerns you?”
“This one carries a certain sword, Your Majesty.”
Alford smiled. “Well that narrows it down a bit. Can you add a few more specifics?”
Jarl-Tysyn glared as he ground out, “I saw the skrudding thing, Majesty. It was Labad’s and it was strapped to the hip of the boy who opened a bloody great skrudding pit with a wave of his hand. Later on, he closed it with the help of that bloody Wizard. That’s the lad I’m talking about…Your Majesty,” he finished in a more subdued tone.
Alford nodded. “Ah, I see. And the fact that this…lad is wearing a sword you identified as being the sword of Labad and that he is also capable of magik, such as that self same Ortian Emperor, leads you to the conclusion that he is a danger to my throne.”
Jarl-Tysyn shrugged, “It has been preying on my mind a bit, Your Majesty.”
“You spoke with this…lad?” Alford asked.
“Yes Your Majesty.”
“He has a name, I suppose?”
“That’s all, just…Adam? You heard no surname, no hint of family lineage? Alford shook his head. “For a potential threat to my throne that sounds like very little to base a case upon. Swords can be made and the Wizard Milward has proven the existence of magik beyond all doubt.”
Jarl-Tysyn surged to his feet and slammed his fist against his breastplate. “I saw the skrudding thing! I know the difference between a flicking copy and the real thing. I saw what this boy can do and I saw his effect on the people around him. If he isn’t Labad’s heir, I’m a Maraggar doxie. Besides that, he has the Dragons at his beck and call.”
“Dragons,” Alford mused, “I would have loved to see that.” He looked at Jarl-Tysyn through lidded eyes, “What do you propose I do with this news General?” He asked quietly.
Jarl-Tysyn had no answer. He looked at Alford helplessly. After a long uncomfortable silence, he spread his hands. “I…I don’t know. I like the boy…when it comes down to it. I’d even trust my granddaughter to his care with no reservations. You should have seen it, Your Majesty. He’s as humble as a monk but somehow manages to shape the people around him into…I don’t know, believing in him, I guess. Folks just want to please him and because of that, they try harder.” The General’s voice became more animated as he spoke.
Alford’s smile grew. “Perhaps I should abdicate.”
“What about going to war then? He is a threat, as you say…after all.”
“We just fought a skrudding war! You signed onto the flicking accord!”
“Yes, there is that.” Alford stood and moved out from behind his desk. He walked over to where he looked into the General’s pale blue eyes. “I signed onto the accord. I wasn’t there, but you were, as my extension. My signing it after the fact is no less binding under Ortian law than if I had been there and witnessed the marvels you had the good fortune to see for yourself. I will not break our law, General. Will you council me to do so? This Adam, from what you tell me seems a good sort. Someday I might even have the ability to meet him. If, as you say he is associated with the Wizard Milward, I probably will. Perhaps we could even become friends.”
Jarl-Tysyn nodded, remaining silent.
Alford went on, “Now, enough of that. Let’s move on to these accords I mentioned. I signed them, but I wasn’t there. What hidden concessions did I agree to without knowing it?”
Back in more familiar territory, the General relaxed, muttering, “None, your Majesty.”
“What? I find that hard to believe. You were there, Jarl-Tysyn. What did you hear?”
Jarl-Tysyn related with impeccable accuracy the context of the meeting between himself, Derric-Hess, the current Duke Bilardi and Adam. He ran through the text of the accord verbatim, including the punctuation marks. When he was done, Alford shook his head. “Unbelievable. You do realize, General that this is the first time in recorded history that neither we nor our treaty partner has not tried to pull a fast one?”
Jarl-Tysyn’s face settled into mask-like stiffness. “I would not presume to say so Your Majesty.”
“No, I suppose not,” Alford said, and then broke into a grin. “I can just imagine the look on Gephard-Pries’ face when he was excluded from being a signatory on the accord.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” the mask relaxed into the briefest of smiles.
“Yes…” Alford moved back to his chair. “Now,” he said, resting his forearms onto the desk, “on to future matters, the upcoming trial of our mad Duke.”
“Ortian law requires that the accused be present during the proceedings, Sire, even if he is not competent to be a participant.” Jarl-Tysyn added.
“Not competent,” Alford repeated. “Now there is an understatement of vast proportions.”
“The guards have made preparations to prevent disruption, Your Majesty.”
“He cannot be bound or gagged General. The law doesn’t allow that, not during a trial.”
Jarl-Tysyn shook his head. “This is going to be a flicking circus.”
“Not if we can help it, General. Cremer!”
Cremer appeared in the foyer leading to the Emperor’s rooms and asked, “Sire?”
Alford pointed a finger at his aide. “Have the legal staff search the regulations, rights, policies and statutes in regard to the treatment of the accused on trial. I want to know if there is anything we can do to curtail the ability of Duke Bilardi to disrupt his trial.”
Cremer bowed, “At once sire,” and left the room.
“By Bardoc I hope this works,” Jarl-Tysyn said under his breath.
“So do I General,” replied Alford, surprising Jarl –Tysyn with the acuity of his hearing. Now, what can you tell me about the situation in Southpointe?”
Jarl-Tysyn looked quizzical. “Situation, Your Majesty?”
“Ah, it appears word hasn’t reached you.” He reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a sheaf of papers sealed with a burgundy ribbon. “While you were enjoying yourself up north, an old acquaintance of mine paid me a visit. Do you know a ship’s Captain by the name of Larl-Brin?”
Jarl-Tysyn had said the last syllable of the captain’s name along with his Emperor, but he said it with considerably less aplomb. “Yes, Your Majesty, I know the man.”
Alford smiled. “I see you do,” he said, tapping the papers against the desk. “The good captain has done a few favors for me over the years. While you were up north, he brought a couple from Southpointe to me. The tale they related was quite disturbing. If their story was to be taken at face value we are being invaded.”
“Invaded?” Jarl-Tysyn’s voice rose in pitch, “By whom? Where? When?”
“Yes, we don’t know yet, Southpointe and apparently it started right about the time the bulk of our armed forces were camped outside of Grisham,” Alford replied matter-of-factly.
“Well…” Jarl-Tysyn ground out, “We have to do something. The army must be re-mustered. The navy refitted and sent on the next tide. This invasion has to be driven out at once!”
“Or,” Alford said, sliding the papers across the desk toward the General, “We can let our spies do their work and find out what sort of force we are going to be dealing with and then plan accordingly. Read these. Some of the descriptions seem familiar to me, but so far I haven’t found out why.”
Jarl-Tysyn ran his eyes over the top page, lifting the ribbon with a forefinger. “I’ll want to talk to this couple, Bal and Doreen,” he murmured, “Are they still in the city?”
“They are being put up in one of the inns in the first ring, near the wharf. I offered them a room in the palace but they said they would prefer more humble surroundings.”
“Sounds like a nice couple,” Jarl-Tysyn murmured.
¨ ¨ ¨