Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Why you should write fanfiction

Fanfiction used to be a guilty pleasure for me. On the one hand, I was so engrossed I couldn't stop doing it; on the other hand, hadn't I better work on my original projects (of which there were usually several lined up)? Weren't my beloved fanfics a waste of time?

Well, looking back, I think the answer is no.

Writing fanfiction is beneficial for a budding author for several reason. The first is that anything that whets your appetite for creative writing is by necessity a good thing. I remember the fervor with which I delved into Severus Snape's character in my Harry Potter fanfiction, and the utter absorption in Unwilling Protector, which is based on my all-time favorite cartoon, The Gargoyles.

I do believe I emerged a better writer out of those fanfics, readier to tackle a novel of my own.

It's easier to write fanfiction because the setting and characters are already there, laid out for you - and all you need to add is plot and dialogues, which are both very enjoyable and very important to practice when you're just starting out, a lot easier than creating a world of your own, especially in fantasy.

Then there's the ready-made fan base awaiting you if you produce anything of better quality than tacky smut written by 13-year-old girls: I was astonished at the response that followed the tentative publishing of my very first Sansa/Tyrion fic, Make Me a Lion. There was a whole crowd of shippers looking for good fanfics and clamoring for just what I had unwittingly written. The people's positive feedback and varied comments really helped me to grow as a writer. Also, people who get to know you and follow you as a fanfic writer are a lot more likely to give your original work a chance.

Though the characters and setting of the original work belongs to the original author, the plots, dialogues, relationships, etc, belong to you - and nobody stops you from being inspired by them or even re-cycling them in your original work.

The important thing, of course, is to graduate to writing your own thing in time. Fanfiction is great as a playground and workshop for developing your writing skills, but it's only your original work that turns you into a real author. 

Monday, 21 December 2015

Working on several projects at a time: pros and cons

Neither I, nor anyone else can tell you how or when to write, or how to organize your schedule. It's something each writer eventually works out on his or her own.

Perhaps you're one of those super-organized, aim-driven people who likes to start a project and finish it - one of those writers who will dedicate every spare moment to a single novel, until it's finished and polished. I confess I'm not one of those people. Though starting something, working on it and it alone, and finishing it may seem logical and efficient, it just doesn't work for me.

Whichever way you look at it, a novel is a long haul. Though with my 1,000 words a day schedule it's possible to turn out a first draft of a 100K-word novel in 5 months, usually novels take longer, up to several years - don't forget the editing process. And I really need that creative lift that comes from pure, unadulterated first-draft writing - you know, the kind when you don't worry about the turn of a sentence because you're so busy flying on the wings of inspiration. 

So, what I usually (almost unconsciously) choose to do is the following: write the first draft of something, start editing/proofreading, and begin a new project at the same time. It does provide a distraction and slows down the editing of the first novel, but I find that if I try to stick to working on just one thing at a time, I'm a lot more likely to encounter writer's block.

Right now I have two such projects on the go: Wild Children, which is my very first sci-fi dystopia, is in the process of being edited. At the same time, I'm writing Stronger Than Blood, which is a Quest of the Messenger spin-off. Each one could perhaps be finished more quickly if I devoted a chunk of several weeks/months to working on it separately. But since I'm only human, and since I need to enjoy writing to keep doing it, I will stick to my way.

I do believe there are definite pros to working on several projects at a time, too. It enables you to step back a bit, get your mind busy with something else, then come back later and view your work with a more objective, critical eye - like staring down from the hilltop. I've had some really good ideas after stepping away from something, doing something else, then going back to the first thing.

But ultimately, again, I'm doing this the way I enjoy most, because writing is my primary creative outlet and I can't allow it to become a tedious chore. 

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Warriors of the Realm now on Amazon!

I have the pleasure to announce that Warriors of the Realm, the second book in the Quest of the Messenger saga, is now available for purchase on Amazon Kindle.


I thank my family, my friends and my readers for making this possible - and the awesome Alexalmighty from Wattpad for the cover design. 

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The everlasting journey

It has been a long time since I updated this blog, and I've certainly managed to accomplish a lot during this period. I finished proofreading and editing Warriors of the Realm, part 2 of the Quest of the Messenger saga, and Guardians of the Gates, the third and final part of the trilogy. I plan to make Warriors of the Realm available on Amazon soon, and I've already started serializing it on Wattpad.

So is the epic saga at its end? Yes, but to me, the journey to the world of Tilir will never end. I have begun working on a spin-off novel called Stronger Than Blood. It takes place right after the events depicted in Paths of the Shadow, and features Dankar Gindur, one of the most controversial heroes of the book. Its events do not happen in Tilir, but in a new and fascinating setting of a wild and beautiful land.

Here is an excerpt from Stronger Than Blood:

They reached a clearing, which was made by felling trees. Some of the trunks still lay there, discarded. Bright sunlight poured in from above, and for a moment Dankar was dazzled by the sun. He squinted. “The path ends here,” he remarked, none too pleased.

"It does,” said the scribe. “Raenir's men have never dared to go further into the Blue Forest... or else they were stopped by the savages.”

"So this is where our work begins,” said Dankar, leaping down lightly and rubbing his hands together. “We'll have a bite to eat, and then tether the horses and go on by foot – riding is impossible, of course, but the growth shouldn't be too dense for walking.”

The scribe looked uncomfortable. “We might... meet someone,” he said in a low voice.

"That was the point of our journey here, isn't that so?” Dankar observed briskly. “To meet the savages and parley with them, so that passage through the Blue Forest won't always carry a death risk. Do you know where the Xavans set their camps?”

"Those people are nomads, and the Blue Forest is vast,” said the scribe. “However, I do believe I can guess the general direction of - “

He never finished his phrase. His face had gone chalk white, and he opened and closed his mouth and opened it again, like a fish thrown upon the sand. Dankar whipped around.

A man stood in front of him. His skin was the color of bronze and covered in intricate patterns – whether paint or tattoos, it was hard to tell. His face was painted white and red and black, and framed by two curtains or straight, sleek black hair. He wore nothing but a loincloth and his feet were bare, and in his hands he held a slender spear which was pointing straight at Dankar's heart.

This was not the worst of it, though. The man was not alone. Quiet as shadows, silent as ghosts, more men like him were stepping out from among the trees, all tall and fit, bronze-skinned and black-haired. Some had rough smudges of black paint on their faces, other sported complicated designs which made them look like wild birds or beasts. There was at least a dozen of them, and their black eyes showed no mercy.

There was nothing to it. Dankar allowed his sword to fall to the ground and raised his arms in a gesture of surrender. It was not only that they were outnumbered – he had often fought against a greater number of enemies in battle – but they were caught completely by surprise. A minute ago, he could have sworn the forest around them was empty for many miles around. Now, he was at the mercy of savages who owned this land and did not feel like sharing it.

The man pointing his spear at Dankar growled something. It took two or three attempts to understand, but finally the scribe pitched in. “You come here, I think he says,” he suggested in a trembling voice. The Xavan man nodded. Dankar, remembering the purpose of his mission, tried to assume as pleasant and unperturbed an expression as possible.

"That is right,” he said in his best Sambearan. “We come here, to talk. Talk, do you understand? Not fight,” he glanced at his sword, which lay on the ground, and gave a small shake of the head.

The man looked unimpressed. He barked something else, and this time, Dankar understood.

"You come,” the savage said, “or you die.”

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Preparing to launch Warriors of the Realm

I'm nearly done serializing Paths of the Shadow on Wattpad. The novel is only a couple of chapters away from its epic conclusion. Soon, I plan to begin serializing the second novel of the trilogy, Warriors of the Realm. It will also soon be made available on Amazon.

For those who are just now getting introduced to the series, it is entirely possible to jump straight into Warriors of the Realm, without reading Paths of the Shadow first. Warriors of the Realm was originally written as a stand-alone novel, with plenty of past references out of which Paths of the Shadow was eventually developed. An unorthodox way to write a series, I know! I started at the middle, went on to the beginning, and finally proceeded to write Guardians of the Gates, the final volume of the trilogy.


A teaser from the upcoming novel:

Talvi was slumped on the thin straw mattress, looking up at the conical ceiling of the grass hut with something that could be described as numbing despair. Nevertheless, although her body was still, her eyes kept darting back and forth, and her keen, vigorous mind was endlessly suggesting, processing and discarding ideas of escape.

Yet despite herself, she was growing close to admitting defeat. The small, round-shaped hut was bare but for the pallet she slept on, and the chamber pot that was emptied once a day. The grass weave of the walls could probably be cut through, but she had no weapon; she was not even permitted a blunt knife for cutting her food, which was brought to her by silent, impassive servants morning, noon and night. She had tried talking to them, but for all the good it did, she might have been just another lump of straw on the floor. They took no notice of her conversation; most likely they did not understand Tilirian at all.

She knew she could not be far from the border, and this knowledge drove her mad. If only she could somehow, anyhow convince her captors to let her out of the hut for a while! A bath; she needed a bath, and a change of clothes – her own were torn from the fight with Bardaz, and reeking with sweat. Not that it's likely they will oblige, she reminded herself bitterly. Certainly not after what happened yesterday – driven to reckless daring by her despair, Talvi had tried to smash into the wizened crone who entered with the supper tray, and fly out of the door. It was a foolish move; the camp was large and teeming with people, and at least six pairs of hands were pulling at her that very instant. She had been pushed into the hut again, and had not seen the light of day since, save for the thin strip coming through the opening at the top of the conical roof.

They cannot keep me here forever, she consoled herself. If that savage, Bardaz, wanted to take her for one of his wives – Talvi shuddered at the thought – or more likely, his concubine, it didn't make sense to keep her in perpetual captivity. She would have to convince them that her spirit is broken, and then she would, perhaps, obtain a degree of freedom that would enable her to operate. She tried not to contemplate the details of what she might have to do to make it happen; it made her sick to her stomach.

She had no doubt that her friends are beside themselves with worry about her. However, she was also well aware of the fact that Korian did not have the authority to lead his people across the border to rescue her; any effort in that direction would have to be conducted through diplomatic means, and that route could be long, slow and futile. She was just one person, after all, and someone in the top ranks could decide that she didn't justify further strain in the Tilir-Malvia relations. Then she would be simply abandoned to her fate. My father will not let this happen, Talvi thought, clinging desperately to hope.

There was a noise, and Talvi sat bolt upright before she even realized what it was. Then the door of her hut was opened, and a woman came in, carrying an armful of clothes and towels. She was wearing the usual shapeless coarse-woven sack and lumpy headdress Malvian women traditionally wore outside the confines of their homes, and her face was wan and tired, yet there was something pleasing about it all the same; it was a sad, dejected face, but a kind one. Talvi did not recall ever seeing this woman before.

"You are to undress," the woman told her, and Talvi started with surprise. This was the first time someone spoke to her since the beginning of her captivity. "A bath will be brought in shortly, and I have fresh garb for you here."

The woman was soon followed by five others, who carried in a large copper tub and many pails of steaming hot water. I can drown myself in that tub if I try hard enough, Talvi thought ironically. In all likelihood I will be doing myself a favor. Yet her strong spirit could not accept such a possibility; no matter what, she must always hope. She allowed her torn, stained clothing to slide down to the earth floor and climbed into the tub. She permitted the serving women to sluice hot water over her head and scrub her clean. The sponges they used were of a plant origin, coarse and scratchy, and the cleansing solution slippery and sharp-smelling; yet it left her feeling clean, and that was a refreshing change.

The clothes that were brought for her were in Malvian style – a loose-fitting dress with wide sleeves, too large by far, yet it was clean, dry and whole, and she slipped it on almost gratefully. Perhaps Bardaz won't find me so appealing now that I’m wearing this sack.

Then the women who brought the tub and water shifted out, carrying her old clothing with them. Talvi watched it go almost mournfully. It was as though a part of herself was gone, and she didn't know whether it would ever come back again.

To her surprise, the woman who entered first remained. "I will help you brush and braid your hair," she said. It was no easy task. Her hair, usually sleek and shiny, was matted and tangled, and the woman worked on it, using several brushes and combs until it was like black silk again. After braiding it, she straightened up and looked at Talvi with fathomless expression. Talvi stared back intently, and decided that the deep lines on the woman's face were deceitful – something in her air told that she was worn out not by age, but… by what, Talvi hardly dared to imagine.

"You had better not try to escape again," the woman advised her softly.

A jolt of overwhelming realization coursed through Talvi's brain. "You are Tilirian," she stated. She must have known from the first; the way this woman spoke had nothing to do with the crude Tilirian of the savages. Although she didn't say much, every word had the fluency of a native speaker.

The woman shook her head. "I was once," she whispered. "Not anymore."

"What is your name?"

"I was once called Shyla."

"How did you end up here?" demanded Talvi in an urgent whisper. "How long have you been staying with the savages?"

"The last time I saw my home was probably before you were even born, child," the woman said. She looked terrified for having said even that much.

"Listen," Talvi said firmly, lowering her voice, "we can help each other. The border isn't far, and an entire division of Tilirian soldiers is staying there. If we can make it across the border to them, we are safe."

But Shyla shook her head dejectedly. "I have children. They belong here. I could not take them with me, and my heart would break if I left them. Neither do I dare to help you. Forgive me, child, but that would only get us both killed."

"Then what do you suggest I should do?" asked Talvi, annoyed but not defeated.

Pity fluttered momentarily from beneath Shyla's downcast eyelids. "Bardaz is a harsh man, but he does not treat his wives with unneeded cruelty. He is besotted by your beauty, and intends to marry you rather than make you one of his concubines – the rights over a female slave may be disputed, but a wife is a man's lifelong rightful property. For as long as you keep your head down and aim to please him, you should not come to harm."

Talvi lifted her chin in quite a warlike manner. "It's him who should be afraid," she declared with confidence she did not feel. "If he attempts to marry me, I will geld him on the wedding night."

Shyla looked sorrowful. "You know nothing, child," she said solemnly, "and I can only pray you will learn fast enough."

For a fleeting moment, her bony hand rested on Talvi's shoulder; then she went out in swift, soft strides. And the door was barred again.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Rewriting and editing Wild Children

I sent the first draft of Wild Children to a friend who is really worth her weight in gold when it comes to reading through and offering good advice, and she helped me re-focus and re-define my goals for the novel. The truth is, I approached this project - my first major sci-fi/dystopia writing project - with a great deal of enthusiasm. But by the end of the first draft, I was burnt out. I wanted to pull all the loose threads in as quickly and efficiently as possible, and this hurt the plot arc. The end was rushed and anti-climatic, because I set my heart on a one-book project and I was unwilling to shift my perspective. I wanted to put it all together too badly to see that the allotment of 100K, or even 120K words wasn't enough for what I tried to do.

So, instead of artificially rushing the ending, I will purposefully leave some loose threads and make room for a sequel - which, I must be honest, I haven't even outlined yet and have only vague ideas about. The inspiration and ideas will depend in part on the readers' feedback when the first part of Wild Children comes out. Whether I will end up with a two-book project, a trilogy, or a longer series, remains foggy right now. So far, all I can see clearly is that the plot cannot be wrapped up in one book.

I am happy to say I am now regaining my excitement about, and satisfaction in the project. I'm opening new possibilities, adding new characters - in particularly more charismatic villains - and exploring new areas. Here is an excerpt:

"The Van Wullens were an old, numerous, prosperous clan. Obviously, they now held only a fraction of the assets they had before the War, but by the current standards they were still fabulously rich – perhaps even more so, in comparison, than before. They owned factories, offices, enterprises and, above all, land - an exceedingly precious resource, with the United States reduced to a small group of Islands within the Boundary. Most of the citizens lived in cramped little dwellings in functional apartment blocks, but the Van Wullens still owned landed property. Most of the houses were concentrated in two small Country Islands owned exclusively by the family. Silver Oaks, one of the mansions, passed by inheritance to Eleanor, and it was there that the President and the First Lady spent most of their weekends and holidays.

Tea was just being served on the shady verandah when the black car stopped at the gate. President Dahl stepped out and walked up the neat walk, gravel crunching under his feet.

His wife got up from her chair to greet him. “This is a surprise, my dear,” she said, “We weren’t expecting you until a bit later.”

As always, Eleanor Dahl looked impeccable. She was wearing a sleeveless knee-length linen beige dress, with a light white cardigan casually thrown over it. Silk stockings accentuated her shapely calves, and her feet were clad in white leather boat shoes. Mrs. Dahl was a very handsome woman.

Alexander Dahl bent to kiss her on the cheek. “Where are Stephanie and Priscilla?” he asked.

“They will be here in a moment. They are just finishing a game of tennis. Come and say hello to Glenda.”

Dahl arranged his face into a polite smile, resigning himself to his fate. He wasn’t very fond of his brother-in-law’s wife, and he suspected she knew that. Glenda Van Wullen, however, greeted him with every appearance of delight.

“Alexander!” she trilled, leaping up from her chair and planting an airy kiss on his cheek. “You look tired. I am rather surprised, I confess, that you have managed to escape the clutches of the White Tower this weekend.”

“Did you think I wouldn’t come?” Dahl said. Glenda laughed, showing perfectly bleached white teeth. She looked as fashionable as her sister-in-law Eleanor, but it was a different kind of elegance. She was dressed in a blue pantsuit which was just perfect for showing off her tall, lean figure. Her hair, light brown with a tinge of red and some reddish highlights, just touched her shoulders. She sat back in her chair, took out a slender cigarette and lit it. A wisp of menthol-scented smoke rose up in the air, and Dahl wrinkled his nose as he, too, sat down in one of the white garden chairs.

“Sorry, Alexander,” Glenda said wryly, “I keep forgetting that you hate my cigarettes.”

Dahl was perfectly sure she didn’t forget. “I don’t mind,” he assured her stiffly. He was beginning to wonder whether staying back at the White Tower wouldn’t have made for a more peaceful weekend."

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Warriors of the Realm


Coming soon... the second book in the Quest of the Messenger epic saga!

Cover by the awesome Alexalmighty from Wattpad.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Updates

I'm very glad to tell that the first draft of Wild Children, my YA dystopian novel, is complete at 96K words. With my 1,000 words a day work method, you can easily calculate it took 96 (say, a 100) days of sitting down and writing 1K words. Since I take weekends off, let's say it's 20 work days a month, and a round 5 months of completing the first draft. I did take a few months off, first because of home renovations, then because we added a new baby to our family. All things considered, I believe one year to complete a first draft is a very reasonable period at my time of life.

Obviously, now we come to editing. The novel has 25 chapters; if I edit one chapter a day, weekends off, it would mean just over a month until it's done. Let's say two months, because some chapters are longer than others and I'm also working on other projects.

Speaking of which, I'm now actively editing Warriors of the Realm, the sequel to Paths of the Shadow. The book will be available for sale on Amazon Kindle soon, and it will also, like the first part of the trilogy, be serialized on Wattpad. I'm not sure which will happen first.

Warriors of the Realm is different from Paths of the Shadow in many ways. It is less dark and more adventurous and, though not a vampire novel in the classical sense, I'd define it as epic fantasy with vampire touches.

Here is just a taste from one of the first chapters:

***

"Your father told my mother to give me fresh chicken blood," said Lily in a tone of forced calm, though she couldn't keep a quiver out of her voice.

Septimus looked at her, not knowing whether he is supposed to laugh. Lily's face, however, was deadly serious, an expression that instantly became mirrored on his own face.

"Chicken blood?" he repeated, not knowing what else to say. "Why would you want chicken blood?"

"To drink it," said Lily.

He looked at her as though he didn't know whether he ought to believe his ears, whether this isn't some sort of very unfortunate joke. "To drink it?"

"I felt better when I did," said Lily.

All of a sudden, Septimus thought he knew where this was going, but this was so ludicrous, so unbelievable, surely she couldn't mean

"I'm a vampire, Septimus," she finally said and burst into tears. She cried for a long time, while he started into space, dumbstruck, not knowing what to say. When she finally looked at him again, her face was glazed with tears, and something painful was obscuring Septimus's throat.

A vampire. Hoping against hope, he wondered whether this cannot be some kind of grotesque prank. He knew his father was deadly serious about different sorts of medieval tales, and often pointed out to his wife and children how many things in the folklore could not be satisfactorily explained by modern science. And then there was this experience his father had many years ago, the evidence he presented to Septimus when he first told him about it – but it didn't matter right now, not when Lily

"This cannot be," he shook his head. "This… Lily, I can't believe this, there must be some other explanation…"

"I said so too, at first," Lily told him, "I told Professor Swift I can't believe something so – so far-fetched. But the fact remained that I had all the symptoms he told me vampires have, and even though now I can eat, you know, normal food, my hunger and thirst can't be really quenched by anything other than blood.

"So what is going to happen now?" asked Septimus in a hushed voice, finally realizing this isn't a joke.

"Well, obviously, I won't go back to school," said Lily in a matter-of-fact voice, and from how she said it, Septimus knew she probably recited it numerous times as she prepared to tell him, "I will always feel the need for fresh blood, I would be a danger to the other students. So I'm going to stay home."

"But…" Septimus's voice trailed off as he realized, with a horrible sinking feeling, that she is right – if – if this unbelievable hypothesis is correct. "Alright, forget about school. What is going to happen to you, Lily? Is there no cure?"


"There is no cure that we know of," said Lily, "though Professor Swift promised he would put his best efforts into searching old scrolls and books, our hopes aren't high. We know, however, that I can be kept alive and well by drinking very fresh human blood. I refused to do that, of course," she hastily added when Septimus looked at her in horror, "I will never harm others, even if it means I'm going to die."

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Choosing between different types of social media

I truly marvel at the energetic writers who really know how to put themselves out there - they have a Facebook account and a Twitter account, a YouTube channel where they update v-logs and trailers, a blog and a website, and they are actively networking with all these resources. They also hang out a lot on writers' forums and on Wattpad, check out other writers' works and review them, and participate in contests. 

I admit that I only do a fraction of all that, and if I tried to do more I would probably end up with no time to do any actual writing. So far, I haven't been able to get a lot of exposure - but from what I've been able to judge, a relatively high percentage of those who started reading Paths of the Shadow like the book, which is encouraging.

What do you do if you have only a little time to invest in social media, and you're trying to make the most of it?

My answer is simple: choose what you like and what doesn't feel like a chore to keep up with. For me, right now, it's primarily:

- this blog
- Wattpad's forums
- Inkitt

I do have to say I really love Inkitt. The discussions there are really insightful and intelligent - I feel I'm growing personally and professionally just by setting aside a few minutes each day to catch up with what's going on in the groups. Wattpad, on the other hand, has a lot of ridiculous threads that look as though they had been started by bored teenagers ("i wanna write a story but dunno what to write, PLS HELP!).

***

On another note: I'm happy to tell that my latest novel, Wild Children, is really coming together and the first draft will probably be completed next week with a little under 100K words. I'm also progressing with editing book 2 in the Quest of the Messenger series, Warriors of the Realm.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

"Paths of the Shadow" now available on Kindle

I am very pleased to announce that Paths of the Shadow is now available on Amazon Kindle. I'm still figuring out how to do some of the minor editing stuff on there (for some reason, the photographer's name appeared at the Contributors list, while mine did not - I've just fixed that), but anyhow, it is possible to purchase a full, newly edited version now. I will keep posting updates if and when I do any further editing.

Now, onward to working on editing the second volume of the series - Warriors of the Realm.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

So much to do, so little time

Here's what I'm up to recently:

- Finished editing "Paths of the Shadow";
- Looking for a mapmaker to improve the map of Tilir I've made;
- Learning the intricacies of Amazon Kindle;
- Getting ready to start an in-depth edit of the next book in the series;

This means there are a lot of things to distract me from working on my most recent project, "Wild Children". Furthermore, as I've mentioned before, we hire no maids or nannies here. It requires a lot of focus and self-discipline to still stick to my 1,000 words a day (of creative, new, invested writing for my new project).

I do hope that for "Wild Children", I will be able to land a traditional publishing deal - one that will enable me to focus on writing without worrying about promotion, networking and design. With today's market, the chances are slim, but one can dream, right?

Also, starting from today you can also find me on Facebook. There isn't much on my page yet, but hopefully there will be soon. 

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

What I've been working on

I realize this isn't exactly a fair comparison, but for me, blogging to writing is like fast food to gourmet meals: when I don't have the patience, energy or inspiration to cook (write) anything that would require true dedication and commitment, I dive into the freezer for a pack of goat cheese ravioli, quickly whip up some butter-and-garlic sauce, and serve.

Not to say that ravioli with butter-and-garlic sauce isn't good. It's actually something that is usually met with cheers around here. A lot better than sweating for hours, concocting some elaborate dish, only to have my kids turn up their noses at it.

What am I getting at? When I'm not blogging, you can be pretty sure I'm hacking madly at the keyboard, working on a plot twist of my latest novel. Or changing a diaper. 

Recently I've been busy working on my latest project, a YA futuristic dystopia called Wild Children. True to my system, I'm putting out a 1,000 words a day. It's a stretch, even with weekends off, but so far I'm pretty happy with that and hope to finish the first draft shortly. The book is planned as a single novel of about 100K words. Some excerpts will hopefully be published soon. 

I'm also doing revisions and editing on Paths of the Shadow. Of course, this doesn't leave much time for blogging, catching up with friends on Facebook, answering my emails or breathing.

Wild Children is a challenge because it's a change of genre. Many times, I've heard this bit of advice to beginning authors: choose your genre, preferably your sub-genre, and stick with it, so that when readers see your name, they know right away what to expect ("John R. R. Smith? That's epic medieval-styled fantasy"), but I find that terribly limiting. So, though I've spent many years in the land of Tilir and am most comfortable there, once a good but different idea grabbed me, I went with it.

Writing science fiction is more difficult than writing fantasy, first and foremost because there is more research. I need to stop, think and check facts often, unless I want to make a fool of myself in even the most basic things (such as, what if a particular kind of plant doesn't grow in North America?) Also, the language, especially the dialogue, is by necessity different in a modern setting. 

I do not mean to say I'm leaving Tilir and its world forever. The Quest of the Messenger trilogy has a spin-off which I have currently put on hold, because there is only so much one can do at a time, but which will be eventually completed. More projects might come in the future. 

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Where's the villain?

So, I've been asked, who is the villain in Paths of the Shadow? Is it Dankar, the charming and manipulative wife-murderer? Or is it Jadine, who meddles with dangerous sorcery and runs out on her husband and children because of some lofty ideas?

I've thought about this and reached the conclusion that, in contrary to the tradition of epic fantasy, Paths of the Shadow does not have a clearly defined villain such as Sauron, Lord Voldemort, or other evil ones we love to hate. It has some dark forces which cannot be called completely evil, either - depends on how they are used. 

It also has complex characters with complex motivations. I find I prefer this style of fantasy these days, ASoIaF-style. Of course, there is also something enchanting in the pure moral simplicity of Lord of the Rings, say. But I have this problem. I become attached to my bad guys (and girls). I often think of their motivations and excuse their actions in my mind. From there, it's one short step to making them not-so-bad guys!

You can't love Lord Voldemort. He's not human enough for that (although we do get some of his background and motivations in The Half-Blood Prince). But you can understand, justify and even pity Cersei Lannister. I think the key here is telling the story from the character's POV. The switching of POVs helps the reader get into each character's mind in return. I find this bewitching and use this a lot in my writing. 

Sunday, 5 July 2015

I have a cover!

This was made by @acousticguitars from Wattpad, who did, I think, an amazing job. She managed to capture the precise essence and atmosphere of the story. If I knew anything about design, that's just the type of cover I would have made. I'm simply thrilled about it. 

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The secret attraction of fantasy

I've often thought about this - what is it, exactly, that makes fantasy such a popular genre? I realize there's more than one answer, but for me, it's the fact that fantasy has no limits. Everything is possible. You can get lost in any world, with any set of rules. And this is an adventure I personally will never tire of.

I remember a game I played with two good friends of mine when we were children. Each one of us had her own world, for which she had drawn unique maps and made the rudiments of a language. We created characters that traveled between the worlds - a family from my friend's world could "emigrate" into mine, so to speak. It was a delightful game that took us away from all the tedium of school, chores and our everyday life.

Today, two decades later, I'm still playing the game. I'm still the little dark-haired girl with the braids in her hair and eyes shining with curiosity. I'm still creating unique worlds and tapestries of events, characters and plots. I'm still doing hand-drawn illustrations for my books, sometimes together with my children.

I don't write fantasy alone. Some of my works are deeply grounded in realism, with no mystical elements whatsoever. My most recent project (currently I have about 200 pages of a first draft) is actually a YA dystopia, and I'm pretty excited about it. But fantasy will always be close to my heart, both as something to read and something to write.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

The greatest challenge

My current biggest challenge as a writer is not finding time for writing - this I somehow manage to squeeze in - but finding time for reading. I wish I could spend hours absorbed in my favorite Jane Austen novels; I wish I could spend hours reading other people's work on Wattpad and Inkitt - so many great stories out there, and all of it free (my favorite part). However, with such a full, busy life taking care of my home and my little children - yes, I know I mention it a lot - it just doesn't happen very often. I always feel pangs of guilt when someone reads and rates my work and I skim theirs and wish I had time to really read it.

On the other hand, having small children gives me the perfect excuse for guiltless immersion in all my favorite classics, such as Winnie the Pooh and Pippi Longstocking

My mother never read out to me as a child. She confessed she did this on purpose, so I "would learn to read on my own sooner". Whenever I think about this, I feel sad. I do just the opposite with my children. I don't care when they learn to read on their own, as long as it's all within the range of normal. They will read... actually my oldest is just starting to. Besides, I believe that the more good stories children hear, the higher their motivation to learn to read will eventually be. 

I still love being read to. My husband and I read out to each other often - interesting excerpts from books, articles, anything. Even the baby is soothed by the rhythmic lull of a voice when poetry is read out. Do read to your children if you have them. It will bring you closer together - especially if you, like me, aren't much for rowdy games and running around - and it's time well spent you'll never regret.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Why I'm not afraid someone will steal my ideas

I know young authors often worry about copyright infringement and ask, “but what if someone steals my book/idea/title/characters?”

At some point I used to worry about this too, but I don’t anymore. With some maturity, some experience and some confidence, I am no longer concerned someone will snatch my brilliant plot and turn it into a bestseller series and a blockbuster movie and I’ll be left bitter and frustrated for not protecting my rights better.

Why?

1 1.   Humility, humility, humility. There are so many great books and talented authors out there. So many fantastic stories are online, just begging for readers. The chances someone will zero in on my specific plot/story and steal them are basically nil. I mean, yes, I hope I have enough talent to pursue writing as a potentially profitable venue, and I am striving to improve, but it’s not like I’m the female version of Stephen King. Many, many writers out there are a lot more talented than I am.

2 2.       I have more ideas for potentially brilliant plots and sketches of engaging characters than I can develop in a lifetime, and the same is generally true for any moderately talented author. Gifted authors will have too many of their own ideas to choose from to care about mine. And if an idea is taken? Why, I'll just go with another one. 

3 3. Yours (and everyone’s) unique voice:  few plots are truly original. It’s a lot more about execution than about the general idea, so unless someone actually steals my whole book and publishes it as their own (which would be pretty easy to prove), I don’t care. Consider books about World War II, an inexhaustible theme. There are so many stories about the Russian village boy gone off to join the guerilla war against the Germans, or the Jewish girl hiding in a Christian home under a false identity. It isn’t an original story but, with a gifted delivery, it will never grow old. People can copy your ideas, but they can never copy your unique voice and the details and sub-plots and characters that make a book truly worth reading.

Imagine J.K. Rowling telling someone about her book idea sometime back in 1991, and this someone (without enough creativity to think of their own plot) says, “hey, I like this. I think I’ll sit down and write a book about a public school for wizards.” Most likely he’d have written something mediocre nobody would read. J.K. Rowling, with her brilliant realistic twists, wealth of detail and unique humor, created the work of a genius.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Why not write as much as you can

I've mentioned before that I like writing at a steady pace of a 1,000 words a day - this includes just pure creative writing, not editing, emailing, blogging, commenting, hanging out on forums, etc. A concentrated effort of about 1K words takes me around one hour to complete (without revisions). It doesn't sound like very much, and indeed there have been times when I churned out 2,000-3,000 words per day.

So why don't I usually write more than 1,000 words a day?

Three reasons:

1. Avoid burnout - a 1,000 words a day, weekends off, is 5,000 words a week, 20,000 words a months, and a complete first draft of a 100,000-word novel in 5 months. Another month for revisions/editing, and theoretically you can have a complete novel in 6 months. That's a very good pace. Much better than writing in 3,000-word spurts that, after a week, leave me so wrung out I need a month-long break from my novel.

2. Leave time for real life - I have a husband, three children, a dog and a bunch of chickens, and no maid, nanny, cook or gardener. Need I say more? I need to prioritize very carefully if I want to incorporate writing into my life without neglecting other things.

3. More and faster isn't always better - I often find that the best ideas and most creative plot twists actually come upon me at times when I'm doing something not remotely connected with writing, such as washing the dishes or making Lego constructions with my kids. These lulls in writing are just as important as sitting down to my computer and plowing on.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The secret to a great fantasy book: a rich background

I remember a very good piece of advice I've read: if you have to research a certain topic for your novel (navigation, local topography of a certain area, a specific historical period, etc), make sure you know more than what you strictly need. It's a lot of work, true, but broader knowledge makes for a stronger, more confident voice that will come out in your writing. 

With fantasy novels, it's not so much about research as about imagination, of course, but the same principle applies: your background has to be broader and richer than what you actually let onto the pages. Consider how you feel when reading Lord of the Rings. You can just feel there's a whole magical world in the background of the story, just waiting to be explored. Tolkien had spent a lifetime creating his world, complete with mythology, history, geography and even a whole new language.

Similarly, you ought to invest time in your world. Live in your world. Create history and geography, draw maps and illustrate your novel (even if you can't really draw and don't intend your drawings to be published). Draw your characters. Perhaps write a collection of vignettes/short stories before sitting down to the actual epic masterpiece. I've spent years developing my world before I started writing Quest of the Messenger, and there's a lot of material which didn't find its way into the novels. Still, it's anything but worthless. The spirit of depth, richness, of a whole exciting world is there between the lines.

Here's a poem that did make it into Paths of the Shadow. It's called Upon A Stony Shore, and tells of a legendary queen named Thasiella:

One night, when waves were rolling in
And moonlight was no more
She wept, the lovely golden queen
Upon a stony shore.

"My love is gone," she cried in pain,
"My husband and my king,
But I shall walk with him again
Upon the fields of spring."

A cup she filled with bitter brew,
"Leave me," she gave command.
But there was one with her who knew,
And dared to thwart her hand.

"My queen, if you would take your life,
Than mine shall go with yours."
And out she took a silv'ry knife,
This maid of no remorse.

"Your love shall wait, a golden crown
Like sunlight on his hair;
In Lands of Everlasting Dawn
He dwells, he goes nowhere.

Your people need you, my fair queen,
'Twon't do to lose you both.
Unbar the doors, let people in,
Tell them they have your oath."

The poisoned cup fell from her hand,
She thought of death no more –
And thus did Thasiella stand
Above a stony shore.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Map of Tilir

OK, so this is a very simple, schematic hand-drawn map - it looks like a child's scribble compared to some gorgeous maps of fantasy worlds I've seen out there - but I figured it would still be useful to upload this, for those who are following "Paths of the Shadow" and want to keep track on the protagonists' movements across the country. 

Here you can see the relative placement of all the main locations in Tilir, such as Rhasket-Tharsanae, Aldon-Sur, the Emerald Mountains and more. Some new locations will appear on the map in the second book.

Of course, I'd love to figure out how to turn this primitive map into something more detailed and impressive, but this will probably have to wait because I'm not really a technology-oriented person. 

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

A mistake (IMO) historical fiction authors make

Here is what I mean: when writing about famous historical characters, many authors, instead of writing directly about those characters and giving us an insight into their thoughts, motivations, desires and weaknesses – in short, instead of making them human – give us an observer’s POV. That is, they create a fictional (and often weak) character, whose only role is being present there to give us a peek on what Alexander the Great/Caligula/Napoleon were doing.
Example: last week I read a novel based on the events in the Book of Esther. If I were the author, I’d write directly from Queen Esther’s point of view, tell the readers how she felt about having to hide the fact that she’s Jewish, how she feared for the fate of her people, how she missed the home she was forcibly taken from. Instead, what I got is a story written entirely from the POV of some servant who gives us her observations about how “The Queen looked sad when she was taken to the King”. And some rather weak dialogues between the MC and Queen Esther. What a waste.
Or there’s Meadowland, by Thomas Holt. He takes these fantastic characters like Erik the Red, Leif Erikson, Freydis Eriksdottir, and instead of digging straight into their minds, he gives us the POV of some two old geezers nobody cares for.
In part, I can understand why it’s easier to work this way. When you’re writing about someone really famous, almost mythical, it can be intimidating to try and make them fully human. But in my opinion, it is a challenge that, if properly executed, makes for a really, really good read. It can make the difference between a mediocre historical fiction novel, and a really good one. Take for example Merlin’s character in Mary Stewart’s novels. We get Merlin’s direct POV, which I think is fabulous. Having the story told from the POV of Merlin’s servant would weaken and dilute the experience, IMHO.
What do you think?

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Characters we love to hate

Here is something I received in a private message from someone on Wattpad: "I hate Dankar. I would poison him if I could!"

This made me really pleased, because if people feel this way, it means I've accomplished something big: creating a character readers love to hate. This is just as important, and a lot more difficult, than writing about someone who gives you the warm fuzzies.

Dankar is doubtless one of the most controversial characters in Paths of the Shadow. He is gay, and in order to hide this, he looks for a wife that would basically serve as a painted screen. When his first two wives threaten to let things out into the open, he murders them and looks for someone more tractable. That's how he ends up marrying sweet, innocent Kelena, a provincial girl whose parents have high ambitions for their daughters to marry well.

So yes, Dankar does come off as a really rotten person at first. He's a manipulator and a murderer. He treats his wife as a social commodity. He has absolutely no scruples. However, consider the following:

1. Dankar lives in a gay-intolerant, medieval-styled society. All gays are firmly locked in the closet.

2. He isn't just any person. He is a nobleman and quite well-known - pretty much a celebrity. If the truth about his sexual orientation comes out, his whole clan will be put to shame - and Dankar is loyal to his clan.

3. If you've only read up to the point of Dankar's marrying Kelena, please refrain from passing judgment just yet. Give him another chance. This is a spoiler, but I promise he will redeem himself - at least partially - in subsequent chapters.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Writing: plans, goals, discipline

I remember many summers locked in my bedroom, writing deep into the night, scribbling on page after page in a notebook (yes, I was a pretty geeky kid). It was a thrill. I loved just letting out the words onto paper. However, I ended up with a lot of great beginnings, a lot fewer middles, and almost no endings.

Why? I got stuck. I had no idea what to write next. Because I had no plan.

As much as I adore inspiration and creativity, over the years I have come to be convinced that in order to write, write well, write consistently – to complete a full-length novel at a steady pace – you ought to have a chapter-by-chapter plan. It’s OK to digress, it’s OK to go off on some sub-plots, it’s OK to weave in more detail, but if you have no plan at all you’re a lot more likely to end up with more loose ends than you can neatly wrap up.  

So:

1) Have a chapter-by-chapter plan, and a broader book-by-book plan if writing a series.

2) Keep a list on hand with some details you know you're likely to forget, like the age and appearance of various characters, historical details, places, stuff like that. It's important if you write long books with lots of characters and background. Silly as it is, you can forget what you wrote yourself. Mistakes happen all the time - not long ago, in a book by a serious, professional author that was actually printed by a good publishing house, I spotted that the main character has green eyes in one chapter and brown eyes in another. Obviously the editor had been sloppy. 

3) Have a number-of-words-per-sitting writing goal. For me this means the following: if I sit down to write, and have no interruptions (and with three young kids, you can bet I get interrupted a lot), I aim to have written a 1,000 words by the time I get up. No less, and preferably no more - I can churn out 2K words in one sitting if inspiration hits, but I've found this is a pretty fast way to burnout. Once I've done my 1,000 words a day, I'm free to dedicate time to other things, like reading out a chapter of Winnie the Pooh or looking up recipes for homemade ice-cream. 

4) Discipline. While writing, don't let yourself be tempted to slack off to check your email "for just a second", give someone a Like on Facebook, etc. Such things throw you off course and it's a lot harder to get in pace later. 

Let's sum it up: have a plan; have a consistent day-to-day working goal; stick to it until you're done. 

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Writer's integrity, reader's integrity

What I'm going to say isn't a recipe for success or popularity, but this is what I do, and this is what feels right to me.

I'm a firm believer in writer's and reader's integrity. That is to say, I won't write a flattering review on a sub-par work just because its author is popular. Similarly, I won't flatter someone just because they wrote a positive review on my work. I will, of course, be nice and friendly and appreciative, but I won't say something I don't believe.

On the other hand, I will go out of my way to read what really interests/impresses me. I'll even go as far as reading in Spanish, Italian or French, languages I'm not exactly fluent in, if a translation isn't available.

I hope people read what I write and comment on my work because they enjoy and appreciate it, not because they expect me to read and review their work in return. It comes down to this: I'd like to gain readers who find my writings enjoyable, fun, worth reading without any ulterior motive. Just like any good book. And such readers are truly precious to me.

About writers' contests: I generally don't participate in them. Or rather, I only participate in those where I can give a sample (chapter, paragraph, favorite quotes) of what I've already written. I do not have the time or energy to dedicate to "write a fun story about an important figure in your life" challenges.

Not to say such contests are necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, they can be fun. But currently I'm operating on a very, very tight schedule. On any given day, the number of diapers I've changed will usually be higher than the number of pages I've written. So I have to concentrate on some serious writing and reading of the good stuff I really, really want to read. Otherwise, I'll find that another day has passed without any productivity on my part.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

How to keep social media from taking over your life

There's a lot of talk among indie authors about how important it is to be active on social media, get on Facebook, Twitter, Wattpad, etc - but in my opinion, it's vital to keep the following in mind: what makes us writers isn't Tweets, or Facebook updates, or participating in "write 10,000 words about X" contests. What makes a writer is writing. Actually sitting down and working on a serious, ambitious writing project for a portion - even a small portion - of every day.

It's easy to get swamped in the social media. Perhaps, if you have plenty of leisure, it's OK with you. For people who are busy, however - people who work full time at day jobs, or people who, like me, are full-time caretakers of small children - this can a disaster. I get on Facebook and give about fifty likes to people. I get on Wattpad and there are a dozen threads on the forums I'd like to extensively comment upon. And then the baby wakes up, and it's time to make lunch, then fold the laundry, then make dinner... and another day has drawn to a close and, though I've definitely typed away quite a bit,  I haven't added a single new line to my novel.

So what do I do?

1. I've decided on the One Login A Day policy. I'm allowed to login once to Wattpad, post/edit what I need, respond to comments, briefly check the forums and respond to one or two threads, and log off. That's it. No more "just one little peek" that day, or I get sucked in again and am unable to stop. Same goes for Facebook - one login a day, check on 3 friends each day (I make a rotation), log off. Same thing for my emails. I'm not allowed to check on my emails 10 times a day, even if I'm waiting for a response from a literary agent or whatever.

2. Cut down on the sources of social media. I know of authors who have a YouTube account, Facebook and Twitter pages, Wattpad, Instagram, their website/blog, and more, all dedicated to promoting their writing. I, however, know I won't be able to handle this much, and handle it well (with regular updates, etc). So for now I've decided not to open a Twitter account. Because if I stop writing, I will soon run out of anything to promote.

3. I read very little these days. I know this is a real drawback. To advance as a writer, ideally you should read a lot. A lot of good stuff, some mediocre, and even some lame stuff - to realize more clearly what you shouldn't do. Also, it's good to review people's work so they'll review your work in return. All that is true. But I am literally starved for time. I cram in the basic things, such as eating, writing and an occasional shower, and there's very little left over. So I read a bit on my phone while breastfeeding the baby, or pick up one of my favorite classics. At this season of my life, it will have to do.

Again: social media is good, but if it draws you in so much that you have no time left for writing, you are losing your actual purpose.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Paths of the Shadow - Chapter 2

Several years prior to the landing of Nicholas Swift on shores that were unknown to him, a young man stood in the very same place, a place he had known all his life.
He made a striking figure against the pale blue sky, just now lightening in sight of the new day. The unruly brown waves of his hair rippled in the wind behind him. The early morning chill would have made anyone retreat, but he only wrapped his cloak more tightly around him.

He could not quite say what made him get out of his warm bed before the first streak of dawn was seen outside his window. But all of a sudden he was wide awake, and knew there was no point trying to fall asleep again. He got up, full of vigorous energy and anticipation – of what, he could not quite tell if he were asked, or perhaps would not.

Today was to be the day of the annual fair. As in the beginning of each summer, a giant makeshift marketplace would be spread on the shores beside Rhasket-Tharsanae, not far from the place where he was standing now. In the quiet of the early morning, he could hear the salesmen already beginning to work, setting up trestle tables, hauling merchandise, squabbling for the best places. Some of the voices were familiar to him, others bore the accent of other parts of the country. This annual event traditionally made the people of north and south, east and west of Tilir flock to the small port town that was his home.

The voices fell in strange harmony with the stillness of the morning, interspersed by the sound of waves and the trill of birds. Thadorn – for that was the man's name – knew he ought to be heading back home, where he would be expected at breakfast. He was not usually one to wander off without explaining himself. As a rule, in his life every deed and every word had a purpose.

With a last glance towards the sea in which the sunrise was reflected pink and gold, Thadorn started in the direction of the town walls, his home, and the day which felt as though he carried some fateful purpose with it.
He loved this town. It was built in the finest Tilirian tradition, well before King Alvadon the First united the scattered clans of Tilir into a single people. The walls and streets were rounded, and so were most of the houses, at least those belonging to the more respectable town inhabitants. No harsh paints were permitted on the house walls, the doors, the shutters or the signposts; the favored colors were delicate blue and green. The overall effect was of gently rippling waves, and the smell of sea was never far. Salty and invigorating, it penetrated one's lungs in healthy sharpness. Thadorn never tired of breathing it, or of feeling sorry for the people who had to live inland.

Most of the town still slept, but here and there bakeries already began to open their doors, and the enticing smell of fresh bread drifted out onto the street. "Bread and buns," chanted a stout woman with a clear voice, "rolls and cakes, tarts and pies!"
A sudden rumble of his stomach reminded Thadorn that he has been up for a while, but did not break his fast yet. For a moment he was tempted to stop and buy himself a hot pie fresh out of the oven, but then he remembered he took no coin with him, nor anything else for that matter, when he quietly slipped out of the house. He just pulled on his boots and cloak, thinking he is going for a quick stroll. He did not expect to be gone for hours.

Without a thought on the direction in which he was going, his feet carried him in the direction of his family's house, an old, finely built manse that could accommodate many people, but was now home to only three: Andorn, leader of the Tionae, his wife Faelle, and Thadorn, their only son. There was also a maid, a young timid girl who did the washing and cleaning, but she came and went. Faelle took it with as good a grace as she could, even though her frail health would benefit from a live-in servant. She never hinted at it to her husband. The Tionae were an ancient clan, proud and esteemed and excellently connected, but their purses were never heavy.

The walk back home took a longer time than he thought it would. His mother and father were already sitting at the breakfast table when Thadorn walked in. Murmuring an indistinct greeting, he shed his cloak, wet with dew, and proceeded towards his seat.

"Great Spirit, Thadorn," his mother admonished him, "where have you gone to? We didn't know what to think." Faelle was a wispy little woman, yet she could command a stern voice.

"I fancied a walk," said Thadorn, patiently. With his mother, he was ever patient. He knew that, as the Great Spirit did not choose to bless Faelle with more than one child, he was the only outlet to her generous, protective love.

"You could have left a note," she said.

"Leave him be," intervened Andorn, who was as solid as his wife was ethereal. Not too tall and wide, but of a compact muscular build, he was strong and agile, and even though his hair was well-salted pepper, he possessed the lineless face and smooth movements of a much younger man. "Thadorn is three-and-twenty, for a long time now a man grown. He can take perfectly good care of himself, Faelle."

"I never said he cannot," his mother said defensively. "It just seems as though he hadn’t slept at all."

"Of course I have," Thadorn replied in his mildest manner, reaching for the pot of steaming hot porridge. He ladled some into his bowl and poured honey over it. "I just woke early, that's all."

"So have I," said Andorn. "And we had better not dally over this meal too long. If we want to take a stroll around the fair, it is best to do that before noon, when the crowds become insufferable."

"Some say the crowds are what makes the fair so attractive," observed Thadorn, "Everyone is going to be there."

There was no particular reason for his parents to exchange a meaningful glance, but it seemed to Thadorn they did just that. To cover up his embarrassment, he spooned some porridge and blew on it long after it cooled.

What he said was true. Upon going to the fair, you could be certain to see the whole town pouring down towards the sea… and furthermore, the air was more fraternal than at any other time throughout the year, except perhaps the Spring Equinox.

The town of Rhasket-Tharsanae was founded by three ancient seafaring clans: the Tionae, the Kamtesir and the Kotsar. At first each clan kept to itself, seeking only safety in numbers. But naturally, after a while the clans began to mingle, and there was also some intermarriage, although this did not become frequent before the Union. Prior to that, there was also strife, some of it bloody, over the position of highest power along the dwellers of the northern shore. The Kotsar were ever the rivals of the Tionae, while the Kamtesir wisely kept out of the conflict. The Union put an end to this circle of intrigue, struggle and revenge, but one cannot force love between people who have mistrusted and oftentimes feared each other for so long.

A knock sounded on the door. It was too energetic and vigorous to be the maid, a little mousey girl of fourteen. "I'll get it, Father," said Thadorn, and was at the door in three long strides. He opened it, and found himself greeted by a smiling face.

It was Rogell, his cousin and friend. The two young men were of an age, and did everything together, as far back as they could remember. The fraternity of children's play, of swinging from apple trees in the orchard, of sledding in winter and diving into the salty waves of the sea by summer, forged a bond of friendship that only increased as the years went by. Thadorn Tionae now occupied the honorable and responsible post of Commander of the Sea Guard, a fleet of swift boats that patrolled the waters around the harbor of Rhasket. Rogell was an officer under his command, and his right hand. Some evil tongues called Rogell a shadow, a sidekick, but they couldn’t be further from the truth. Rogell was a man of high intelligence, but his nature was milder, softer than that of Thadorn. For the latter, Rogell was the brother he never had, and for Andorn and Faelle, almost like a second son.

"Come in, Rogell, and sit with us," Andorn called. "We're just having breakfast. How does my good-brother fare today? Does he think he might venture out to take a look at the festivities?"

Rogell was the son of Faelle's brother. The fate played a cruel jape on his parents; his father, sadly as frail and wispy as his entire family, married a good-natured, good-looking, stout girl whose ample hips made the promise of a dozen sons. But alas, she died in the very first year of their marriage, giving birth to Rogell – while the man continued to live on and on, with his weak heart and weak limbs and seasonal coughs and sniffles. Fortunately, Rogell took after his mother and, while not as tall and powerful as his cousin Thadorn, grew up to be a strong young man, and handsome besides. He had eyes the color of the sea, and hair like jet, and was quick to smile and laugh and sing. His manner was much livelier than that of Thadorn, and did much to brighten up the latter's rather stern nature.

"My thanks," said Rogell, sitting at the table. He took a slice of bread and let some honey drip on it. "Father sends his greetings, but says he isn't certain yet of whether he will be able to venture out today or not. He spent a rough night, he says. Coughed through half of it. He bid me to go forward and enjoy myself, though."

"I thought you must already be down at the fair," said Faelle, looking fondly at her nephew, who now reached for a succulent early pear and bit into it.

"We arranged to go together," explained Thadorn. "There will be so many people down there that finding each other might be a tough task."

"Too true," his mother nodded. "With all the new arrivals, the town has been buzzing like a beehive this past week. For those of us who don't sleep very soundly, the noise is a source of irritation."

"It will feel empty soon enough," promised Rogell. "After today, the visitors will be gone… and some of the residents as well," he added, with a quick sly glance in the direction of his friend.

"What do you mean?" Andorn sounded curious.

"Rohir Kotsar is taking his family to Aldon-Sur, to participate in the festivities in honor of the royal wedding," explained Rogell. "My father mentioned it to me just this morning."

Thadorn looked none too pleased. He didn't say a word, but brooded over his clay cup of herb tea, which was getting steadily cooler. No one, however, seemed to notice his darkened expression.

"Have they been invited to the king's wedding, then?" Faelle asked incredulously. "Why, it doesn't seem possible, when we ourselves – "

"I don't think so," Rogell shook his head, and Faelle visibly relaxed. To have the Kotsar leader invited to the royal wedding when she and her husband got no invitation would have been a hard blow to her pride. "But the king's bride is arriving soon, you know, and it will be a splendid sight, and there will be a great tourney and festivities all over the capital. Those who wish to show themselves in Aldon-Sur will have no better chance."

"That is just so," nodded Faelle, "there is no limit to the vanity of the Kotsar."

She seemed ready to go forward in this venue, but Andorn chilled her with a look. "What does it have to do with vanity?" he asked reasonably. "I daresay young Kohir will want to enter the lists, and I have no doubt of him doing well. Of course, you two could easily outdo him," he looked plaintively at Thadorn and Rogell, "if you decided to go."

Rogell looked tempted by the notion, but Thadorn knitted his brows together and said, "I don't think it will be possible. We can hardly be spared from the Sea Guard."

His mother's relief was visible, but he was too busy spearing a slice of goat cheese on his fork to notice. "I know I can always count on your good sense, my son," she said. "Especially now, with the roads so perilous, going on such a journey would be unwise. As a matter of fact, in the place of Rohir Kotsar, I would not dare take the children with me. Kohir and Jadine are all grown up now, to be sure, but Kelena is scarcely sixteen, and Nog just turned twelve. It would be both safer and more profitable for them to stay behind with their mother."

"Hinassi Kotsar wouldn't miss such a trip for the world," said Andorn, "but what dangers are you talking of, wife? It's high summer, and the road is full of travelers. People from all over the west and east will come to Aldon-Sur for the tourney."

"But my dear, with the south all in uproar again – "

"The riots in the south, I am sorry to say, have become a matter of course," Andorn said patiently. "It should not have an effect on the road between here and the capital, though."

"Oh, well," sighed Faelle, "what does it signify? If at least some of the Kotsar are going, and my boys are staying, I am content."

Rogell swallowed the last of his bread and honey, licked his fingers, swigged down his herb infusion, and cheerfully got up from the table. "Aunt, Uncle, we had better get going," he urged them. "The fair has already begun, I can hear it by the noise."

"You go forward, boys," Andorn urged them. "Faelle and I will never keep up with you." He, of course, could easily stride along his son and nephew, but with his wife leaning on his arm, his walk was bound to be slow. Thadorn and Rogell weren't difficult to persuade. They walked out into the brilliance of the morning, their light cloaks thrown open to the warm wafts of summer air.

Thadorn couldn't help but notice that his friend put an unusual effort into his appearance that morning. "Is that a new tunic?" he asked with a knowing look.

"Not quite," replied Rogell off-handedly, but Thadorn wasn't fooled. Sparing his friend's feelings, he suppressed a smirk.

The annual fair was a jolly event, as always. Tables, stands, tents and pavilions were erected underneath a bright blue sky, streaked with light feathery clouds. Countless merchants were calling and haggling, singing praise to their bounty and inventing bawdy mocking tunes about their rivals. Pyramids of fruit and colorful bolts of silk, fine leather sandals and cages upon cages of live fowl, dangerously glittering steel of knives, swords and armor, rows of sweets and barrels of beer and wine, fresh pastries and newly-caught fish, necklaces made of shell and coral, copper jugs and intricately woven baskets and mats – anything one wanted to buy at today's market, it was there for the taking – for those who had the coin.

Later on, there would also be games and contests, with handsome prizes for the winners. It was not the king's tourney, to be sure, but it was always fun. Mummers and singers and pipers and fiddlers came as well, to collect the coins of those more generous, and a jumble of tunes rose into the air from several corners, mingling with many excited voices.

Thadorn and Rogell were milling around, enjoying the sight of unfamiliar faces and colorful clothes, not in a particular hurry to do anything. The coolness of the early hours was dispersing rapidly, to be followed by cloying heat, and although the hour was not even close to midmorning yet, a mug of iced beer was beginning to seem very appealing. The friends were just debating which of the beer sellers they should go to, when Thadorn gave his cousin a light nudge in the ribs.

"What?" asked Rogell, looking in the direction Thadorn pointed.  

"Look who's here," said Thadorn in a wholly unconvincing tone of surprise. "I had no idea Lya had already returned from the visit to her aunt."

Rogell turned faintly pink and absent-mindedly tugged at the sleeve of his new tunic, while mumbling something about not expecting Lya to be home for at least another week.

"Come on," Thadorn said decidedly, "I know she will be happy to see you." He marched ahead, and Rogell had no choice but to follow.

Lya Tionae was of their clan, therefore a relation of theirs – though in her case the kinship was so distant it could hardly be traced. Perhaps she was the daughter of a third cousin, or a niece by marriage, or something of the sort, but it didn't signify much. What mattered more was that seventeen-year-old Lya was fair of face, with shiny dark hair and big soft brown eyes, with a slim waist and a willowy grace. She was gentle-natured and kind-hearted too, and as a child was much in awe of Thadorn and Rogell, who then seemed all grown-up and terribly strong and wise to her. Much has changed in recent years, and now Rogell, as Thadorn well knew, gazed at Lya with more than abstract wistfulness.

"Good to see you, cousins," she said with a warm smile, looking from Rogell to Thadorn. "Oh, I am glad I was able to get home in time for the fair. The Pearl Islands are dull at this time of year."

Thadorn, who privately thought the Pearl Islands were dull at any time of year, came up with some sort of inconsequential reply, while Rogell shuffled his feet and looked down, seemingly at a loss for words.

"Have you put your names down for the bowmen contest?" asked Lya.

"Rogell has," said Thadorn.

"You should give it a try as well, Lya," said Rogell, finding his voice at last.

"Truly?" she sounded surprised.

"I have seen you shoot. You have a good eye and a steady hand."

"But not the strength to wield a bow like those heavy ones they keep for the competition," said Lya with a wry smile. "I prefer to watch it all from the stands. What about you, Thadorn? Surely you can outshoot them all."

"I have the strength, perhaps, but not the aim," he said. "I know my capabilities, and archer I am not. I will take part in the wrestling match, though."

"Which means that the rest of the participants won't be from around here," Rogell chimed in. "None of the locals would dare to face Thadorn."

"That is true," nodded Lya, looking swiftly and furtively at Thadorn's massive chest and muscular arms. "But the competitions don't begin until noon, do they? We have plenty of time still. Let's have a look around."

And so they walked slowly, Thadorn and Rogell flanking Lya on both sides. At times they stopped to greet someone and exchange a few words, or to watch a juggler, or to listen to a singer improvising a new song about the beach of Rhasket, and toss him a few coppers. They walked through the fabric rows with Lya, then toured along the fruit stands and bought some juicy plums and grapes to refresh themselves. And all the while, from time to time Thadorn's glance wandered astray, above the crowd – for he was exceptionally tall – as if he was looking for something, but didn't want it to be noticed. And every time he didn't find it, the crease between his eyebrows deepened. He didn't notice it was mirrored on Lya's face as well.

Finally, after they went around the place thrice and he was disappointed in his search, he thought he might as well leave Rogell alone with Lya and take a break from the suffocating crowd, which made the heat of the day near unbearable. When he made his excuses, the look on Rogell's face was part excitement, part fear.

"Come back soon, won't you?" his friend called after him. He waved and nodded and walked off, and didn't stop until he reached a small cliff a little way ahead. The merriment of the fair sounded muffled here, and the waves were making a soothing sound as they licked the wet sand. Thadorn stood there for a while, his lungs expanding with fresh salty air, deep in contemplation.

But then, although the soft sand swallowed any footsteps, he felt that he is no longer alone. Something compelled him to turn around, and once he had, he stood rooted to the spot.

A woman stood in front of him, her hair a wave of fire, her eyes the color of the sea on that impossibly vivid border between blue and green on a sunny day. A few summer freckles spattered the delicate skin of her face, enhancing its fine paleness against the colorful silky wisps she was wearing. Her lips, although soft and full and made for kissing, were now pressed together.  

"What are you doing here?" she demanded, as if the place belonged to her. Jadine Kotsar always acted as if any place belonged to her. Unknowingly, she chose just the right way to embolden Thadorn, who never acted quite as composed as when he was attacked.

"What am I doing here?" he replied. "Why, the same thing as you, it appears. Taking a break from the noise and mess, and preparing for the midday games. You will enter as well, will you not? Into the shooting competition at least."

"Why do you think I would?" demanded Jadine with narrowed eyes.

"You always do," he said simply, and in the vast stillness around them, his heart began to hammer. Jadine's look betrayed the shadow of surprise.

"I did every year," she said, "but this time I did not enter my name. I did not have time enough to prepare. I was… busy with other things," she concluded with the air of someone who almost said too much. Thadorn nodded.

"You are going to the capital soon, I have heard," he said. He wondered where the sudden ease of his words had come from. He had known Jadine since the day she was born, of course – it could hardly have been otherwise between three ancient clans in so small a town – but this was the first time he had actually talked to her without anyone else present. "You are looking forward to that, I daresay."

"Looking forward," Jadine repeated, "yes, you could say so."

"Aldon-Sur will soon hold many attractions. The arrival of the royal bride, the great tourney… it will be a splendid sight, people say."

"All that is a matter of fascination and awe for my little sister, Kelena," said Jadine with the faintest hint of disdain. "As for me, though… well, those things will be amusing, no doubt. But there are other attractions in the capital as well," she stopped, hesitating, as if wondering how much she should say in his presence. "Aldon-Sur is a place of learning," she said, "it is also the source of Stormstone, the magical substance that can, as the learned ones say, be fashioned into gates between our world and The-World-Beyond. And there is other knowledge too, more secret perhaps… but you do not believe it, I can see that," she snapped suddenly, and was silent. Thadorn sensed she had half a mind to turn around and walk away, and hastened to speak.

"It's not that I don't believe that," he said, "I just feel we have more than enough work to be done in our own world."

"I would have loved to meet someone from The-World-Beyond, though," Jadine said staunchly. "Wouldn't you?"

"I don't know," Thadorn admitted, lowering his voice one notch. "Everyone I love is right here."

There was a tinkle of bells, and Jadine turned her head abruptly. But it was only a flock of goats, hastening ahead of the old goatherd – a grey-haired stooped man who belonged to no clan. No one knew exactly who he was, or why and when he came to Rhasket-Tharsanae. He lived in a small seaside cave just off the beach, and came into town once a week to sell his milk and cheeses.

"See?" said Thadorn, gesturing towards the goatherd, who passed by at some distance from them. "There's a mystery for you, if you like one. Who is this man? Where did he come from? Does he have no family? So long he has been here, since before you or I were born, and yet what do we know of him? Nothing. So why go far in search of the unknown?"

Jadine made a mocking sound. "This man's name is Lafgar, he was born in Opi-Kir and ran away from home because of a strife with his brother. He took nothing with him but a she-goat and a buck, and with diligent care made a herd of them in the course of the years. He loved a woman once, but she went north beyond the sea, so he stays here and looks out, waiting for her to return all this time. Or perhaps he has already forgotten why he is here. The quiet life suits him, and he feels no particular need to see people."

Thadorn gaped at her, open-mouthed. She spoke assuredly, and it didn't sound like she is just making this up. "How..?" he said.

"I followed him once, a few years ago, just out of curiosity. When I peered into his cave he heard me and grabbed his walking stick and I thought he was going to hit me, but when he saw who I was he asked me in and gave me some cheese. I have been visiting him from time to time ever since. I learned more from him than of all these prudish books my father made me read," she added, and again she turned in the direction which the goatherd came from. "And what are you doing here?" she asked sharply.

A slender brown-haired girl of about ten stood sheepishly in front of them, accompanied by a heavily freckled boy with hair the color of rust. The girl looked faintly embarrassed, and the boy shuffled his feet awkwardly. "We're looking for tracks of gulls," she finally supplied, with all the air of innocence.

"Well, off with you then, Jada," Jadine waved her off imperiously. "My cousin," she explained to Thadorn when the girl and her companion got farther away. "And her friend, a boy of the Kamtesir… Ned, I think he is called."

Thadorn looked after the boy and the girl, shielding his eyes from the sun. They stood just at the edge of water, and he could see the tracks of their bare feet in the wet sand. "Those two will end up married, you'll see," Jadine went on. "And none in my clan will be too happy about it. The Kotsar still look down on the Kamtesir, remembering they had to pay tribute to us once, before the Union."

"That is foolish," Thadorn blurted out. "Tilir is now united, and no clan pays tribute to another." He was afraid of insulting her, prickly as she was, but Jadine calmly nodded her assent.

"I agree with you. Those petty squabbles from within are the last thing we need when we are facing so many dangers from without."

"To be sure," said Thadorn, letting down his guard a little. "There's always the southern threat."

"At least you acknowledge the always. The savages are pressing in on us from all borders, and the Malvians – whatever someone else may say – condone this, because it means less trouble for them, and because our defeat is always their triumph. The Malvians themselves may be more civilized than their wild tribes, but it doesn't mean they bear us more love. If a time comes when we are standing at the brink, you may be certain they will give us a shove."

"You have obviously given this a lot of thought," said Thadorn. To his surprise, Jadine's eyes instantly became cold and hard as a frozen shore in the dead of winter.

"You sound surprised," she said, "did you think someone of my age and position spares no thought but to dress, company, and eligible men?"

"No," he hastened to say, "no, I only – " Great Spirit, I feel as though I must defend myself. And yet Jadine remained standing in front of him, feet planted firmly in the ground.

"I am only a woman," she said mockingly, "yet the blood of the Kotsar flows strongly in me. For better or worse, the Kotsar have refrained from taking brides of other clans, and only rarely and reluctantly gave their daughters away to strangers – even if those were just the clans of Rhasket, with whom we share a blood bond anyway. You know that, Thadorn, do you not?"

He did. Although unquestionably loyal to the throne now, the Kotsar withstood the Union for as long as they could – and when it became unwise to do so openly, they went into mute opposition. Even within the last century, there were instances of brother and sister marrying in that clan – a practice that had been declared an abomination by people of faith. Yet he was stricken by something else now, something that send a sudden warm jolt all through his body – the fact that she said his name.

"Anyway," Jadine went on, apparently oblivious to his struggle. "Let us put our unruly neighbors aside for a moment. What do you say about this royal bride, the foreign princess who would be our queen?"

"What do I say?" Never in his life had Thadorn felt so stupid. "I know the princess Maviel of Adrinor is a maid of seventeen, fair of face and gentle of spirit. Or at least this is what I heard people say."

"That is all I heard as well… which means, to put it simply, that we know nothing. But how many realize this is the first time a prince or king of Tilir takes a bride who isn't the daughter of our local nobility?"

"I have heard that when the portrait of the princess Maviel was brought before the king, His Grace instantly fell in love with her image and sent envoys for her hand."
Jadine looked contemptuous. "What can be said of a king that acts upon such a whim?" she threw a question into the air. "Let us rather say that His Grace saw a chance to form a valuable alliance, and seized it… without considering the price, perhaps. There are at least three noble clans who hoped to wed their daughters to the king. Had he chosen either of them, all would be content. But King Alvadon chose a bride from across the sea, and so his local allies see it as a slight."

"There may have been matters of state unknown to the likes of you and me," Thadorn said reasonably. 
Jadine shrugged. "Perhaps. I am curious to look upon the face of this Princess Maviel, though. And soon this wish will be granted."

She turned to walk away, but Thadorn called after her.

"And then what?"

She looked across her shoulder at him. "We shall see," she said.

With light, surefooted steps she began to walk back towards the fair, where the games were already assembling. Thadorn stood rooted to the spot for a long time, looking after her. Vaguely, he felt that they had dueled with words, and that Jadine won. And her last phrase nagged at his mind. We shall see. What could she possibly mean?

Only after a minute or two did he recall that he put his name in for the wrestling match, and thus should be heading back as well.

When he arrived, the crowd was already assembled, and Peyr Kamtesir was reading out the names of the contesters in his booming voice. Hastily, Thadorn took off his tunic and went forward to the stand where the wrestlers anointed themselves with the traditional oils. Within minutes his body shone, smooth and powerful, and he felt strength surging into his limbs, such as he had never known before. He clumsily tied his shaggy hair at a knot at the back of his head, then looked for a place to hang up his tunic, but Rogell pushed himself through the crowd and took it from him. Just behind his shoulder, Lya was standing. "Good luck," she said breathlessly, but Thadorn could only manage a vague nod. He was wholly focused on the smooth arena of polished stone, and did not even notice the fiery head that appeared at the back of the stands. He went into a tent where all the contesters were waiting, and sat there, half-dazed, oblivious to the jokes and wagers made all around him. He reacted to nothing until he heard the blow of a horn, followed by his name. "Thadorn, son of Andorn, of the Tionae." Then the name of the man who will oppose him. An unfamiliar name. For all he knew, his opponent could be a mountain of a man, a fearsome mass of muscle and sinew. It made no difference, though; without false modesty, at that moment Thadorn knew he was invincible.

He didn't see his opponent's face, did not hear the crowd cheering, did not feel the bruises that blossomed on his arms, his back, the side of his face. Agile and powerful as a young panther, sleek of body and quick of limb despite his menacing size, Thadorn viewed the man facing him as simply a foreign entity to be overpowered, tossed aside, and forgotten. And so he did, time and time again, until he stood there, all alone, victorious, his chest heaving, and the smug-looking Peyr Kamtesir (who doubtless wagered more than a handful of silvers on his victory) took him by the hand and proclaimed him the wrestling champion of the day. He was given a leather pouch full of coins, but he did not even bother to open it. He thrust it into Rogell's hands as he took his clothing back from his friend and put it on. Rogell weighed the pouch in his hand, a frown of concern upon his face.

"Is anything the matter, Thadorn?" he finally asked, as Thadorn splashed water upon his face from the washing basin that was placed near the oil stands.

"Nothing," Thadorn replied curtly.

"You look dead on your feet," said Lya, whose congratulations froze on your lips. "Were you very badly hurt? That looks nasty," she pointed at a sore red stripe, courtesy of an unevenly clipped fingernail.   
"That?" Thadorn looked at the red scratch that ran from his arm to the inside of his elbow. At several places, blood seeped through the broken skin. "This is nothing. No, I… I'm fine. Just tired. I think I will go home and rest."

"You won't stay for the archery competition?" Rogell said in disappointment. "Oh, well. I suppose you are exhausted, and to be sure, I won't pull off as splendid a performance as you."

Thadorn nodded, too tired to speak, raised a hand in farewell and began walking off. Within seconds, Rogell caught up with him and thrust the leather pouch into his hand. "Don't forget your winnings," he said.

"You'll stop by later, and tell me how you've done, won't you?" Thadorn asked, and without waiting for the answer, continued to walk. Rogell glanced after him once or twice, then hurried to fetch his bow and quiver. When he surveyed the crowd, he was disappointed to see Lya wasn't there. She seemed to have gone, too.

At first Thadorn thought to go straight into town again, but on an impulse, decided to pass by the beach once more. And he wasn't very surprised to see Jadine again, this time standing just at the edge of the waves, her intricately woven leather strip sandals held in one hand.

"Well fought," she said when he approached.

He acknowledged her words with a nod. For some reason, this victory did not taste as sweet as he thought it would. "What of the rest of the games? Won't you watch them?"

She hesitated. "Won't you?"

He shook his head. "I'm going home. As far as I remember, we still have a box of ice in the cold storage. I need to apply some to these bruises, or by tomorrow I will become impossible to recognize."

"Oh, no," Jadine said slyly, after a pause, "you can hardly be confused with anyone else, Thadorn Tionae. But you know what? I think I will go and watch the archers after all." And just like that, she leapt lightly on her feet, turned away from him, and made to go.

"Wait," Thadorn surprised himself by calling out. And once more, she was looking at him across her shoulders.

"What?" she asked.

"When are you going to Aldon-Sur?"

"A week from now," Jadine said, and was gone.

That night, Thadorn and his parents ate alone, as they did so often, and supper was a silent affair. Halfway through his chicken leg, Thadorn laid aside his fork and knife and said quietly:

"I think I will go to the king's tourney after all."

His father looked up at him in surprise. "Will you? I thought you decided against that, son."

"I changed my mind. I believe it will be… interesting."

"To be sure. But if you go, you will be absent for weeks. Who will command the Sea Guard while you are gone?"

"Rogell," said Thadorn. "He will manage very well."

"Of that, I have no doubt. But won't Rogell wish to go as well?"

To tell the truth, Thadorn hadn't thought of that. They have always done everything together, he and Rogell, and this tourney promised to be a splendid event. Something told him, however, that Rogell will want to remain close to Lya. "We can't both go," he told his father. "One of us will have to stay here, for the Sea Guard, and Rogell is the only one I would trust to leave in my stead."

"On that I agree with you," said Andorn. "Many good men of the City Watch have begged leave to go to the capital as well. All this will leave Rhasket-Tharsanae rather poorly protected, I fear."

Thadorn gave him a sharp look. "Why? Do we fear an assault?"

"No," his father said mildly, "nothing in particular, at least. But… oh well, I suppose at least half of the men will remain on duty. And there's Fort Sand as well, just a little way to the south. A port must ever be protected. It is too precious to be loosely guarded."

"A few more words like that," said Thadorn, "and you will convince me I must remain, Father."

"Oh, no," Andorn said hastily. "No, this wasn't my intention, not in the least bit. You go, son, and you enjoy yourself, and bring honor and glory to the clan of Tionae."

Pleasure and honor and glory. Those things hold great value in the eyes of young men, yet they didn't come close to Thadorn's true purpose.

After the meal was over, his parents retired early, and Thadorn went into the study – a cozy, carpeted round room, its walls lined by bookshelves filled by row upon row of leather-bound tomes and ancient scrolls. He seated himself in one of the low armchairs by the fire and attempted to amuse himself with a book, but it was no good. Restless, he laid the book away and closed his eyes. Jadine's face appeared vividly before him, her hair a cascade of fiery copper, her eyes at one moment green, at another blue, and ever unpredictable. Today was the first time he ever spoke to her in earnest, and he didn't know whether he should feel more or less hopeful for that conversation. Her words echoed in his head. The Kotsar have refrained from taking brides of other clans, and only rarely and reluctantly gave their daughters away to strangers. Was there a message hidden just for him, and was it meant to discourage him, or the other way around?

The door creaked, and Thadorn turned abruptly, interrupted in his musings. His mother stood in the doorway, wispy and frail in her thick embroidered sleeping robe, her hair falling in one thinning braid across a thin shoulder. She was holding a candle, and a draft of air from the corridor made its light gutter. Without waiting for an invitation, Faelle Tionae entered the room and almost furtively closed the door behind her.

"Mother," Thadorn said, rising. He noticed she looked troubled; she looked troubled all through supper, now that he came to think of it.

"My son, do not go," she said abruptly.

He did not expect this. "I'm sorry?" he asked, confused. "Do you mean – "

"If you love me even the least bit, do not go to Aldon-Sur. Your place is here, and you know that very well."

"I know my duties," said Thadorn. "With proper arrangements, the town can spare me for a couple of weeks, I trust."

"I…" his mother hesitated, considering her words. "Yes, to be sure, but on this occasion I wish you to stay."

"But why?" Thadorn didn't understand. "Why now?"

"Because," Faelle said forcefully, "this girl will be the death of you."

Thadorn gaped at her, open-mouthed, and blushed like a child caught with his fingers in the honey-pot. This was very unlike his mother's usual mild and timid manner.

"I'm afraid I don't understand…" he began, but his mother cut him off.

"Please, Thadorn. It would be useless to deny it. I understand you better than you think… there are some things a mother knows. Some things a mother always knows."

He took a deep breath. "Well, then," he said, "if it is honesty you want, Mother, I see no reason to conceal my intentions from you. Yes, I intend to ask for Jadine's hand."

He saw her mouth constrict itself into a thin, grim line; she looked like a person whose worst suspicions were confirmed.

"I know it is probably useless, but I beg you to reconsider," she said.

The quiet, commanding tone of those words angered Thadorn. Being an only son, he often felt as though he has to walk on eggshells, step around truths, guard his every word. So much was expected of him, so much depended on him. But he was no crown prince, after all. He had the right to a private life.

"There is nothing to consider," he told his mother, "I will follow Jadine to Aldon-Sur, and will try to win her favor at the tourney. If I succeed, I intend to marry her. If I succeed," he repeated, "which is by no means certain."

Faelle placed her candle upon a low table of smooth polished wood. She approached him and laid a gentle hand on his sleeve. "My son," she said softly, "you are a man grown, and there is no denying you are in want of a wife. But Jadine Kotsar is not for you. Look about you, and you'll see that all you need is quite near at hand. Lya would make you a far more suitable bride."

Thadorn shook his head. "Lya belongs to Rogell," he said. "I love her, but we have always been like brother and sister."

His mother sighed. "If you would be blind, so be it. I know that if you asked her to marry you tomorrow, she would accept, and gladly, and would make you a happy man. But I see it is no use. All I'm asking is that you keep your eyes open. There is something queer about that Jadine – and no, I'm not saying this just because she is of the Kotsar," she talked across him as he opened his mouth to protest. "She is not like other young maids. She is…" she struggled for words. "Willful? Rebellious? Self-satisfied? But no, you know all that. There is more. I have heard disturbing things about her. She disappears for days on end, and no one knows where she goes. She speaks languages, and no one knows where she learned them. She can call to animals…"

Thadorn silenced her with a gesture of his hand; a tired gesture it was, yet there was no mistaking its finality. "As to where she disappears," he said, "I believe I can satisfy your curiosity on that account, Mother. She visits that old goatherd you often see outside the city walls. The man's name is Lafgar. She told me so today."

His mother sniffed disapprovingly, wrapped herself more tightly in her robe, and picked up her candle again. "Do not imagine your father will be very pleased to hear this," she warned, turning away. Her soft slippers made no noise against the carpet, and there was only a faint thud when the door closed behind her again, and Thadorn was left alone once more.

The morning after, quite early, he knocked on Rogell's door, and the friends took a long, slow circuit on foot around town. The expression of puzzlement didn't leave Rogell's face, which was a relief to Thadorn. He didn't think he could bear it – not yet, at least – if his cousin would read into his intentions as clearly and easily as his mother had done. 
"You look troubled," he was forced to observe.

"No, it's just…" Rogell rubbed his forehead with a knuckle. "I suppose I will be able to stand in your stead while you are gone…" he sounded uncertain, though, and looked at Thadorn questioningly.

"Of course you will," said Thadorn firmly. "I trust you completely. Otherwise, I would never have thought of going."
"Right," Rogell nodded, looking slightly more cheerful. "What will you apply for in the tourney, though? I mean, we have been more on the decks of ships than on horseback, you and I. You won't joust, then, or am I mistaken?"

"No," said Thadorn. "I would only make a fool of myself. I will have to enter the melee."

Rogell shook his head ever so slightly. "You are as good a blade as I have ever known," he said, "but please be careful, Thadorn. I know the edges of tourney swords are blunted, but still, many a man had walked in whole and walked out a cripple. It would not do to get yourself injured – or worse – all for the sake of a game."

Thadorn gave him a sharp look. "I thought you knew me better than that," he said.

"I thought I did, too," nodded Rogell. "I know you as a man whose decisions don't shift easily. A week ago, you said quite firmly that nothing in the world will induce you to go to Aldon-Sur. Now you are all set out and ready to leave. So, as a friend and brother, I am asking you – what has changed?"

Thadorn's look made it quite plain that a stone wall could be questioned with better success. 
A few days later, from the deck of one of the patrol ships, Thadorn watched the departure of the Kotsar people in the direction of the capital. Many of Rohir's kin were going with him, so they formed a loud and jolly column of riders. Rohir's wife, Hinassi, was seated on her mare sideways, in a lady's fashion, and so was her daughter Kelena, a maid of sixteen so fair and shy it was hard to believe her Kotsar blood was undiluted. But Jadine was mounted like a man, and rode beside her father and her brother Kohir, gaily shaking her fiery curls and wearing her plain riding clothes as if they were a queen's mantle. Her younger brother, twelve-year-old Nog, did his best to keep up, but it was plain this was the first time for him on a full-sized horse. Little Jada ran after the procession as far as her skinny legs would carry her, vexed beyond words at being left behind. Only when the riders disappeared in a column of dust did she stop, and stood looking after them for a long time, laughing and calling out and crying, and waving to those who could no longer see her. Her friend Ned caught up with her and stood by her side, and later they turned around and made their slow walk back into town.

Thadorn stood motionless, looking after the two children, his hair rippling in the sea wind. Now that the Kotsar were gone, it was time for him to leave – keeping a safe distance behind them, so that they would not meet him on the road to the capital. He did not mean to be seen until he reached Aldon-Sur. He would pack his things tonight, he thought. It should not take very long. He didn't have more than his sword and shield, his plain mail and leather and helm – and all that, as a lonely rider, he would be prudent enough to wear on the road. Other than that, he didn't have much. Nothing to distinguish him, apart from his determination to win.