Friday, 15 January 2010

A Short Story

Just over a year ago I told you that I'd written a short story, in response to a challenge from a local writing group. After blogging about it (and getting some helpful words from others in my writing group) I duly threw the PDF up on my website, and haven't looked at it since.

I'd like to dust it off and make it better (did I ever mention leaving things for a while before editing them? This is what I mean....), and probably a little longer since I'm no longer constrained by 1500 words. This has had a very quick once-over since I wrote it, and I'll be looking at it seriously over the next couple of weeks... if anyone has any thoughts on how it could be improved, please tell me. Short is not my strength; I need your help!

Suggestions for titles also encouraged - the current title was the prompt given by the writing group.

Cold Snap

Mart cursed as he lost his footing on the frozen ground for the fourth time that morning, and couldn't suppress a yelp of pain as his tailbone slammed into the ice.

"This is a fool's errand," he muttered as he got to his feet. "Remind me again why I agreed to this?"

"Because if we can't sort it out, Charan's just going to keep ordering more men to come and die up here," Anton replied somewhat brusquely. They'd had this conversation before, in many forms, and the ever-increasing cold wasn't improving either of their moods.

Mart sighed. "We've allied ourselves with an idiot."

They trudged on in silence, making their way gradually higher into the mountains. Their pace slowed as they reached a patch of fresh snow, sinking almost to the waist with every step.

"At least we're dressed for it," Anton said, bending to lace his knee-length boots more tightly against leaks. "Better than the advance party."

"Because that young upstart has no idea how to equip an army, how to look after his men, how to plan an expedition... In fact, I'm not convinced he could find a flagon in an ale-house."

"Maybe." In the privacy of the forest, far away form home, Anton could admit to thoughts he'd never voice in Conclave. "But he's got most of the archipelago behind him. Flying Rock holds a good enough position against haphazard marauders, but Charan's playing a different game. Best to get in on this at the beginning."

"Even if it means coming on this kind of halfwit mission." Mart had never learnt to dampen his cynicism even for show; he certainly wasn't about to moderate himself when he was alone with an old friend. "And what if it doesn't work - what then?"

"Charan keeps sending ill-equipped armies up here until he wipes out these people one by one, or-"

"You misunderstand," Mart interrupted. "I mean this whole 'Empire' undertaking. What if it fails?"

Anton shrugged. "Then I suppose we go back to how we were."

"Might be no bad thing." Mart longed for the good old days, like his teenage years when his only job was to load the catapult while Anton held it tensioned ready for the next shot. Easy days, none of this responsibility sitting heavy on his shoulders. He'd never asked for this.

They stopped for lunch as a new flurry of snowflakes began to drift down; they found a fallen tree to sit on, pulled their fox-fur cloaks tightly around their shoulders and shared out half of the day's allotted rations. They'd been walking for three days since the path had become too steep and too icy for horses; reports from the few survivors of previous missions suggested that they had another day and a half ahead of them before they reached whatever passed for civilisation in this part of the world. This time tomorrow they'd have to slow down and concentrate on moving quietly as they approached the settlement, trying to keep the element of surprise on their side as long as possible. The others had underestimated these wild mountain men, but Mart and Anton were among the finest of the battalion which guarded Flying Rock Island - and of Venncastle, the school being founded within the walls of the Keep. They were determined not to make such elementary mistakes.

They ate quickly, getting little enjoyment from their food; the rations were starting to feel monotonous. The dry bread and heavily salted meat made them thirsty, and they scooped up handfuls of snow to supplement the water from their flasks.

As they got to their feet the ground seemed to shift around them and a dozen blonde-haired, well-built men appeared as if from nowhere, dressed in cloaks of white fur which had camoflaged them against the snow. They formed a circle surrounding their captives, a loaded crossbow in every man's grip.

Mart reached instinctively for his knife, but Anton extended a hand to stop him just short of drawing the blade - a move which could well have been suicide.

"We mean you no harm," Anton said quickly, wondering how the mountain men had crept up on them so silently even through the snow and undergrowth of the forest. Skills like that could be valuable back home. "May I speak with your leader?"

One of the strangers leaned in towards his neighbour and whispered something, then turned back towards the others and snapped, "Bind them!"

Four men stepped out of formation and the others moved up to fill the gaps in the circle, spaced slightly more widely now but still presenting a wall which looked all but impenetrable. The four slung their bows across their backs, and brought out lengths of thick rope from beneath their cloaks.

Mart glanced at Anton, questioning. They were unlikely to survive a fight, but allowing themselves to be tied like slaves went against all his military instincts - better to face certain death than to surrender like this.

Anton had no trouble understanding the plea behind his old friend's meaningful look -- this was distasteful to him, too -- but responded with a very slight shake of his head. With darts they might manage to take down half of their captors before they were riddled with crossbow bolts, but no more, and there was no chance they'd survive the experience. Their deaths would serve no-one.

They allowed their wrists and ankles to be lashed tightly, ropes cutting into their skin, then one of the mountain men patted them down and removed their weapons before they were lifted and hauled up the hill like animal carcasses.

The party spent the night in a small cave which was obviously used as a regular staging post, complete with a supply of firewood and furs to sleep under. They stopped just as darkness fell, and moved off again at first light the next morning, Mart and Anton still being carried by their captors.

"If you free our feet, we can walk," Anton said.

"You'd only slow us down - you don't know how to move through the snow."

Anton was insulted by the suggestion that he'd slow the group down more by walking than by being a burden on one of their backs, but he said nothing. He didn't want to upset anyone, and although it was an uncomfortable way to be carried he could at least conserve his energy for later. He forced his muscles to relax, allowing himself to be moved as a dead weight.

They came to the village shortly after midday, and Mart and Anton were deposited unceremoniously in a small wooden cabin and left alone.

Mart shuffled himself into an awkward sitting position, leaning against the wall of the cabin. "What now?"

"Now we wait," Anton said. "I don't like this any more than you do, but if we're going to get through to these people we'll have to play it their way."

"Bound up like slaves," Mart muttered. "Not a whit of dignity left. How can we expect them to take us seriously?"

His monologue was interrupted by the entrance of another tall, blonde native.

"Why are you here?" the man asked. Like the others, he was carrying a crossbow; like the others, he held the bolt ready to fire. "Have we not made it clear that we wish no dealings with your so-called Empire?"

"We've come to negotiate," Anton said. "Charan's been stupid, sending armies up here as if he could conquer the mountains. But there are things we could teach one another, food supplies from the plains that could be brought up here, jobs you might enjoy down in the cities - a better quality of life for every one of your men."

"You think our lives lack quality?"

"The Empire holds variety you could only dream of," Anton said, getting into his stride now. "No-one would force you to move, but you'd have the choice, you'd have options that you don't have now."

The man loosed his bolt straight towards Anton's heart, reloaded his weapon, and turned his attention to Mart. "And you?"

Mart watched the blood seeping from his friend's chest. Where had all the smart talking got poor Anton?

"I didn't want to come," he said flatly. "I've told them enough times it's bloody madness - you can't force folks to agree when they don't. And for me, I'd have taken a man's death when your men popped up from the snow, not this humiliation. I don't care if you shoot me, but at least let me stand on my own two feet."

"You don't share your colleague's commitment to bring us into the Empire?"

"Not really. Wouldn't be part of it myself if there'd been a choice, but our island couldn't have withstood a lengthy campaign - they'd just have sieged us. Up here, though - you've the weather on your side, and the higher ground, and apparently a good set of watch-men. Why would you give in?"

The blonde man studied Mart for a long moment, then set down his bow and pulled out a knife.

"We're simple hunters here," he said. "We would use your knowledge in the fight to come. I can offer you my sanctuary, if you'll teach us your skills."

Mart nodded, and the man sliced the ropes that held his hands and feet. The Empire was nothing but folly anyway; when it fell under the weight of its own stupidity he could return to his fellows at the Keep of Flying Rock. For now, there were worse places to be.


Anonymous said...

Since I am a very wordy person, I have nothing but praise to offer you in regards to the feat of having composed a short story that reads so well. The only critique I have is that the pace is much faster than that of your other writings -- like as if the sentences were a tad bit too short -- but seeing how you were under the pressure of a word limit, I really cannot blame you. As I said, all I have to offer is praise. :)

Steve & Sarah Travel the Long Way Round said...

This is great, I love the world-building, setting, and quick way we engage with the characters.

Some thoughts:
- Take the discussion of the politics out of the beginning and either move to the end or drop. It pulls us away from the narrative and gives us too many details to grasp that early. Let the action grab us and move us through the story before giving too much context.
- More showing and less telling in some spots. "they scooped up handfuls of snow to supplement the water from their flasks" becomes "they scooped up handfuls and snow and let the melting water run off their fingertips to refill their flasks."
- A few of the details seem like they wouldn't work - if they are walking through deep snowdrifts, then men wouldn't be able to carry them without sinking in further, a sled is a more likely option. Also, the snow is up to their waist? It would seem impossible to walk through this and likely that they would have snowshoes or something.

Those are just a few thoughts, I look forward to hearing the longer version!

Tabor said...

I certainly can only comment as a reader and not a skilled writer. I was hooked all the way through, but I felt the ending came too fast. The blonde mountain man gave in under too little persuasion. See, I would end up making your story even longer!

Debbie said...

I will defer to your other commentors on the suggestions. I liked it but will admit to you that short stories are not on the top of my genre list. I really like a longer novel I can sink my teeth into.

Jamie said...

Happy Saturday Sharefest!

BLOGitse said...

I read this later,

please tell your mom to join WO*IMA - new picture published!
and you too
but NOT a short story, only WOrds! :)

Anonymous said...

I'll leave the comments to real writers. But I found this interesting and I'd like to read more about Mart and the blonde people.

Dave King said...

I'm with Tabor. I thought the blond guy caved in too easily. I'm with him, too, in having been hooked all the way through.

Jeanne said...

Good stuff!

I don't have mcuh to add that others haven't already mentioned a couple of credibility gaps (walking in waist-high snow, carrying as opposed to sleigh or travois), and the times you tell us stuff we could figure out for ourselves, e.g. -- "a move which could well have been suicide."

But it reads like the wind (as it should) and leaves me hungry for the larger story, despite being complete within itself.

Chef E said...

I agree with several comments, I do think you should move the narrative down further with more explanation of where they are, that would lengthen the story...

Nice job though, as I am also working on my story again...

Did you get a chance to read 'Spiders Ball'? I never heard...

Serendipity said...

I'm visiting from SITS today - and didn't expect such a treat! This is an intriguing short story. I like that the native made an agreement with Matt but I would have liked to hear more of their conversation. You write very nicely, I'm looking forward to reading more!

Shirley said...

This is pretty good! I wish it was longer!

Jess @ Frugal with a Flourish said...

I am not a writer, but I love to read books and I was immediately sucked into the story which was good. I was also disappointed when it ended because I wanted to read more about this struggle. You might have yourself something here that could transition well into a longer piece. :)

Anonymous said...

Looks like you've got some great suggestions from others. I enjoyed reading it. Sorry I don't have any suggestions.

A Cuban In London said...

Loved it. Maybe it's the snow we've just had but you took me there. The moods, the description of the landscape, the capture, everything seemed so real. Many, many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Dawn said...

Very nicely done!

The only observations I wanted to make are that there are a lot of run-on sentences...

It seems there are a lot of AND's and BUT's that could be taken out to help with the flow of thought and imagery you want to impart.

Here taking out THEN moves it along a bit-
'The dry bread and heavily salted meat made them thirsty. They scooped up handfuls of snow...'

Here placing a period after skin prevents the run on sentence that slows the pace of the story...

'They allowed their wrists and ankles to be lashed tightly, ropes cutting into their skin. Then one of the mountain men patted them down and removed their weapons before they were...'

Just a few thoughts I had while reading.

Anonymous said...

Finally got a chance to sit and read this. I'm impressed! It's concise, flows well and utterly enjoyable! I hope you post more stories!

Kate Coveny Hood said...

This was really interesting. I don't think it was too long at all.

Blog posts are supposed to be short, but a short story would still take up pages of a book. And this sounds more like an excerpt from a novel. Something to consider.

I like the character development that comes into play at the end. As a short story - it might benefit from more of that (and more detail on their difference of opinion of the Empire) earlier on. But if it's really just a piece of a longer story - then that wouldn't be necessary.

Maybe you could do a series on this - I'm sure we can all agree that we want to know what happens next!

Cheryl said...

I liked it well enough. Same credibility issues as others have shared. Same concerns about run-on sentences. Perhaps be a little freer with periods and less attached to the hyphens and commas in your narrative. You have an ear for dialogue. A bit more wouldn't hurt this at all.

Good luck and greetings from WOW.

Sandy said...

Stopping by from WOW. I see some valuable comments from others who are far more skilled writers than I will ever be.

I enjoyed the piece and the time and place it was set in. It left me wanting to know more.

"Cottage By The Sea" said...

I thought there would be some thought provoking picture at the end since there are a lot of pictures shared on Wow Sunday but you didn't need one. Your story is the picture. Well written.

Arti said...

Hello Rachel,
I am not a lover of short stories..still u got me hooked!!this just shows that u are a fab writer. well done..visiting from wow

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