Friday, May 23, 2008

A Knight of the Land, Chapter One

I have a novel. It isn't finished yet, but I'm going to finish it this weekend in one sleep-deprived blaze of glory or die trying.

Sometimes it feels like that's how I write: all at once or not at all. A Knight of the Land sat in the back of my head for six years before I suddenly burned almost all of it onto the page over the course of three months. Then school started again, and the nearly finished novel has sat on a succession of hard drives for about four more years.

Well, now I'm going to push those last few chapters out over the course of this coming weekend. I have a meetup with a potential gamer friend on Sunday and a one shot on Saturday... and I am not doing anything else but writing. Eating and writing. Eating and the consequences thereof, and writing.

Note that sleeping is not on that list.

Anyway, tonight I begin to finish chapter 27, 28, 29, and 30. This is chapter 1.

- I -

“You’re going to do it, aren’t you?” Ibosh said abruptly. Kurzon stopped pacing and stared at him in shock.

“Isan knows, too,” Ibosh continued. At this Kurzon threw up his hands in despair and sat down by the little campfire he and Ibosh had made hours ago, when the sun set.

“Does everyone know?” Kurzon asked, exasperated. “Lady’s grace! You know, Isankar knows... tell me, does Dame Lameya know? Do the High Knights know?’

“The High Knights haven’t had to watch you pace for two nights in a row,” Ibosh pointed out. “The High Knights also don’t sleep next to you. You talk in your sleep, sometimes.” Ibosh grinned wickedly. “At least that’s what Isankar tells me. As for Lameya... ah who can tell what she knows or doesn’t know? She’s Dame Lameya. She knows everything. She isn’t bound by the same rules as us mere mortals, you know.”

“Well, then,” Kurzon said, “what are you going to do about it?”

“Ibosh pulled a stick out of the fire with one hand, a knife out of his belt with the other, quenched the few embers clinging to one end by beating it on the grass, and started whittling. He was a big man, bigger than Kurzon, taller and broader, and almost all of it muscle. His shoulder-length black hair was tied back in a warrior’s knot. Like Kurzon, Ibosh wore the traditional leathers of the Knights of the Land.

A sheathed hunting sword lay at Ibosh’s side, longer than a greatsword and with a wider crossgaurd beneath a relatively slender double-edged blade with a stabbing point. Unlike most Knightly weapons, which tended to be simple, Ibosh’s sword was heavily decorated. The hilt was wrought with paper lanterns and flutes and swirling lines meant to represent music and perfume. Kurzon knew that the blade, now hidden whithin its scabbard, was etched to show a dancing girl with a long curved knife in each hand. The etching was what gave the sword her name; Ikanadoi, the war-dancer.

Kurzon remembered how when their training was first beginning Ibosh had insisted on learning to use the weapon he had carried with him out of the north, how the older Knights had criticized the weapon’s length and weight, and how Ibosh had stuck to his choice, and mastered the weapon, almost despite them. Kurzon missed Ibosh, and he hadn’t even left yet.

“I suppose I’ll have to talk you out of it,” Ibosh said mildly, not looking at Kurzon. He kept his eyes on the stick he was whittling.

Kurzon frowned. “She’ll die without me, Ibosh.”

“And she might die anyway, if you die along the way, or if her people fail to honor their old oaths and kill you the moment you enter their forest. In fact, she could be dead already. You are a full-trained Knight of the Land; she is a maybe-Knight, a dream, nothing. There’s a reason we don’t send Knights out when they dream of someone who’s too far away or in a nation that doesn’t honor our mission, Kurzon. It’s just not worth the risk.

“I remember what it felt like, to hear the call of the land and not know what it meant and not know how to answer. I can’t put her throught that, whoever she is. And eventually, she’ll die.”

“Oh, lady’s grace, Kurzon, you think I don’t remember what it’s like?” Ibosh asked. “I lived with it for years.”

Ibosh had been born in the norther part of Albashire, the northernmost of the Ten Nations. Albashire still honored the Knights and their mission, but it was a long trip over land and sea, and there were bandits and monsters and worse perils along the way. Either no Knight had dreamed of Ibosh or the journey had been judged too dangerous. Unlike most young people in his position, Ibosh had not succumbed to the madness or suicide that claimed most untrained Knights. When he had come to Avarorn, it was as on his own, as a tourist, unaware that, for the first time in his life, he was coming home.

Kurzon had no answer to that. He simply sat on the grass, letting the night air ruffle his hair and make the fire dance and throw sparks. Three Dog Hill, crowned by a circle of standing stones, was between Gan-Iad and Gan-Veren, the Gate of Fire and the Gate of Thunder, the lonely mountains that marked the end of Avarorn and the beginning of the Ash Valley. This was the place where Knights stayed to absolve themselves of their failure to ride out to retrieve the new Knights they dreamed of when they slept beneath the Vision Tree at Avarorn. The High Knights made the decision, and the Knight was bound to obey them.

“I have to, Ibosh,” Kurzon said, almost plaintively. “She needs me. I can’t abandon her. You know what happens to Knights who aren’t brought to Avarorn for training. It almost happened to you.”

“It’s what you’re supposed to do.”

“I don’t care.”

“It’s orders.”

“Honor is more important than orders.”

“You’ve got me there,” Ibosh sighed, throwing the stick he had been whittling into the fire. “You win first round. I concede. I’m going with you.”

“No, you’re not.”

“I knew you’d say that.”

“There’s no sense in you throwing life away, too!” Kurzon insisted.

Ibosh only laughed. “So, death-wishes are only good for the likes of you, sir Kurzon Mors of Shim, washout from the Tower of Roses, lover of the untameable Isankar of Beshavar, hero of the as-yet-unwritten sagas! Humble, everyday Knights, like myself, must aspire merely to stub our toes. Poor, sad, dependable little Ibosh Idabelesh. I’ll give him a cookie.” Ibosh mimed giving himself a cookie and put on an exaggerated expression of pitiful gratitude as he pretended to chew and swallow.

“I didn’t wash out of the Tower of Roses,” Kurzon said, fighting back laughter. “I left, when the Knights came for me. The Tower even refunded my tuition.”

“Sure you didn’t,” Ibosh said, sounding unconvinced, despite the fact that Kurzon had told him this story years ago and he knew it was true. “We all know you were mooning after Isankar the Fair, even then, and you failed all your classes for love of the Black Lightning of Beshavar.”

“I didn’t even know Isan then!” Kurzon insisted, turning bright red. Ibosh grinned.

“Exactly! It must have been awful for you.”

Kurzon shook his head. Ibosh was incorrigable. For the entirety of Ibosh’s squireship, his teachers had tried to convince him to take himself seriously, to adopt the quiet dignity that the Knights were famous for. He had refused with the same vehemence with which he had insisted on learning to use his sword. Ibosh was Ibosh, and he would never change.

“So, it’s settled, then. I’m coming with you.”

“It’s not settled. You’re not.”

“Look at it this way, Kurzon,” Ibosh said, brown eyes twinkling wickedly from beneath his shaggy brows. “Can you stop me?”

Kurzon considered it. He knew if it came to a fight he could not beat Ibosh without killing him, if he could beat him at all. Kurzon glanced at the horses where they stood hobbled and placidly grazing a few yards away. His horse, the slender and clean-limbed Aldebaran, was the faster of the two, but Ibosh’s Herek, a great shaggy war-horse, had more stamina. The time Kurzon gained by riding faster would be lost when he had to dismount and lead Aldebaran at a walk, and a prolonged race would kill the smaller horse and leave Herek only a little worse for the wear. Kurzon shared the Knights’ dim opinion of people who rode their horses to death.

“Even if you could get away from me,” Ibosh pointed out, “I could send a message to the High Knights, through the land, and they’d send messages to Knights stationed in Altorn...” Ibosh shook his head. “Come to think of it, how were you imagining we’d get past those, anyway? They’ll send a message to the Altorn Knights when we aren’t at the Kenorn by tomorrow at sunset.

“I thought you said the High Knights didn’t know.”

“They don’t know yet, but they’ve got brains in their heads. Besides, it’s standard procedure to alert the local keeps if a Knight goes missing. You’re just as likely to have gone rogue as you are to have been kidnapped by bandits, or have fallen down a hole and broken a leg.”

“I thought if I rode hard tomorrow, a straight shot through Altast, I’d make it to the Silent Moors before anyone knew I was missing. I’d hide there for a day, let Aldebaran and Lain rest, then go north, through Kray, skirt Herekteer, and ride north through the Vast.

“You planned to ride through all of Altast in a single day, then camp in the Silent Moors alone? That place is filled with bandits, Herekay, and worse, and you’ll be exhausted! With that kind of planning you’d get yourself killed before you were halfway to Kredhorn. You’re lucky I’m coming along.”

“Ibosh...” Kurzon said with a sigh, but he could tell there would be no moving his friend now. “You and Isankar planned this, didn’t you? You knew I couldn’t perform this vigil alone without raising suspicions, and you arranged for it to be one of you.

“We thought about sending her, the idea being that you’d be happy to spend the next few months wandering around the Ten Nations with your lady-love, but when she’s around you fall all over yourself trying to impress her. You’d be even more insufferable than you are now. You may have been impossible to sway when it comes to going, but can you imagine being convinced to let Isankar follow you into danger?”

“I’m not that bad.”

Ibosh laughed, pulled his cloak closer around him, and leaned back against one of the standing stones with his legs stretched out in front of him. “No... not quite that bad. We’ll wake up at dawn tomorrow. No watches tonight, we’ll have enough of that on the road, right?” He grinned and shut his eyes and was almost instantly asleep.

Kurzon sat awake for a while, watching the fire burn down. He considered leaving while Ibosh slept. It was pointless, Ibosh would make good on his promise to use his abilities as a Knight of the Land to send a message to the High Knights. Sending messages through the land was easy enough, and reliable over short distances. The Knights stationed in Altast would send out patrols, all the more effectively, now that they would know where Kurzon was headed, and he would almost certaintly be caught, brought back to Avarorn, and punished.

In the end, Ibosh was right. That did settle it. Kurzon wrapped himself in his cloak, lay down by the coals of the fire, and slept.

• • •

Kurzon and Ibosh set off at dawn that day, at a walk, at first, to stretch out their horses’ legs and then at a moderate run that even Aldebaran could keep up all day. Each of them had their animals; Kurzon’s raven, Domino, sat on his shoulder, a black bird of unusual size with a sharp beak and aloud, scratchy voice, especially for the repetition of curses he liked. Lain, Kurzon’s great brown wolfhound, ran at Aldebaran’s side. Ibosh had one comopanion other than his horse. Poking from the top of his saddlebags were the black nose, shiny black eyes, and black-and-tan fur of his ferret, Belvern.

Kurzon and Ibosh rode all day, through the Field of Ash and most of Altorn. By the time the trees and fields gave way to the stinking mire of the Silent Moors, it was long past midnight, by the stars, and both men, their horses, and Lain were exhausted. The night had turned cool and wet in the Moors, and steam rose from the men’s breath and the horses’ flanks.

“We made it!” Ibosh crowed, swinging off Herek’s broad back. He sank instantly into the watery ground up to his boot-tops.

In the pale starlight, Kurzon could see that Ibosh was grinning widely, and could not help but mirror his sentiment. Neither had been certain that the next fold in the land or twist in the road would not reveal an armed party of Knights and Altastaran warriors bent on taking the wayward Knights back to Avarorn. The last part had been hardest, as Kurzon and Ibosh rode in near total darkness, with only the dim light of the stars to guide them. Kurzon thanked the Lady herself that it had not been a cloudy night. Stopping to wait for dawn had not been an option, and lighting a torch anywhere in Altast would almost certainly have spelled instant capture.

“Whoreson!” Domino muttered, rustling through his feathers with his black beak. Hard rides, and nearly everything else, made him grumpy.

“Yes, we made it,” Kurzon agreed with a smile, ignoring his bird. He dismounted and began to check Aldebaran for any of the myriad injuries and ailments that horses were prone to, especially those who have been pushed a little harder than they should be. Ibosh started fishing through his saddlebags for a torch. “We did...” Kurzon trailed off, head cocked.

“What’s wrong?” Ibosh asked.

“I can’t tell,” Kurzon replied. “I thought I heard something.”

Ibosh frowned. “It’s the land, Kurzon. It’s getting to you. The Silent Moors have been sick since before the War of Fire. Try to relax.”

“Not the land. It sounded like-“

The familiar twang of a bowstring snapping back into place and the breathy sound of an arrow cutting through the air split the night. Kurzon froze. Through the gloom, he could just barely see an arrow sticking out of a dying tree a few bare inches from his head. Domino squawked in indignence and pecked Kurzon hard on the ear. Ibosh swore and started to draw his sword.

“Be still, Ibosh,” Kurzon snarled, “that was a warning shot!”

Ibosh stopped, hand still flexing warily on the hilt of his sword, and waited. Lain growled low in her throat. Domino huddled on Kurzon’s shoulder. The horses shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot.

“Call off your hound,” a voice called out from the darkness. In the dead silence of the Moors, the quality for which they had been named, it was easy to pinpoint the voice’s origin, but the starlight was too dim for Kurzon or Ibosh to see the speaker.

“Lain,” Kurzon said, “tashral!” Tashral was Keashonite, the language spoken in the time of the Hundred Nations, before the War of Fire. The Knights of the Land spoke and read Keashonite and named their swords and their animals in it. Except for the Knights and scattered scholars in places like the Tower of Roses, Keashonite was a dead language. Tashral was not a command to heel, as Kurzon hoped the bandit thought it was. Tashral meant ‘patience,’ and for Lain, it meant stand down for now, wait but do not relax, and be wary

“You’re in Black Eyes Brotherhood territory, Knights,” the voice continued. “We don’t appreciate strangers.”

“We mean you no harm,” Kuzrzon insisted. Domino grumbled, and Kurzon silenced him with a finger on his beak. All the foul words the bird knew fitted these bandits, no doubt, but there was no reason to remind them of that. “Our business in the Moors has nothing to do with you.” If it had, Kurzon continued silently, there would be two Knights to each bandit, all of them well rested and ready to prove their valor in battle.

“You’re Knights,” the voice insisted. From the sound of it, the reversal of roles was not lost on the speaker, despite Kurzon’s words. “We don’t like Knights. I’ve got men here were forced off their land by Knights. Used to be farmers, now you call us bandits.

“You’re called bandits because you steal and rape and murder,” Ibosh growled, tightening his hand a little more around the hilt of his sword, “and ‘got men?’ Sounds to me like you’ve ‘got man.’” Ibosh slipped his sword an inch further from the scabbard. Instantly, there was the creak of ten or twenty bows being pulled back. They were surrounded and outnumbered, after all.

Kurzon bit back a curse. He had not wanted to anger the bandits any more than he had to, though he had to admit that now, at least they knew how many bandits there were, and where they were. It did not improve their prospects by much.

“Oh, we’ve got you well circled ‘round, Knights, don’t make no mistake about it.” The speaker laughed. The other bandits allowed themselves to join in this time, filling the silence of the Moors, for a moment, with the sound of cruel humor.

“The question is,” the speaker asked aloud, “what do we do with these lost Knights, now that we got them? This is a rare opportunity, men. Think hard.”

“Cut off their balls?” one bandit suggested. The others laughed.

“Nah, the Knights ain’t got balls, to let their women fight like that. What we wanna do is slice ‘em up proper and coat ‘em with muck and hang ‘em from the trees to rot all slow like.” There was a sound like a man smacking his lips.

“There’s no profit in that. Cut out their tongues and sell them over the mountain to Beshtire,” one, more practical bandit suggested. “They’ll put strong fellows like these to work in the fields, or use them as soldiers, and since they can’t speak, they’ll never tell no one they used to be Knights, not that any folk in Beshitre’d care. After long enough in the desert, they won’t remember what they were, anyways.”

“There’s an emphasis on cutting that’s starting to get on my nerves,” Ibosh said. Domino seemed to agree. He muttered “pigshit” under his breath. Ibosh’s eyes flicked to Kurzon. Even in the darkness, they had a grim look to them. Outnumbered as they were, weary from their long ride and with the sickness of the land dulling their abilities, they stood little chance of victory if they fought. It was becoming increasingly clear that they had no chance at all if they did not fight.

“Perhaps if you just let us go, in return we don’t kill you,” Ibosh said. “How does that sound?”

The speaker laughed, but there was a little less courage than there had been before. Kurzon narrowed his eyes. How was it the bandits could see them well enough to use bows when he and Ibosh could see almost nothing at all beyond each other?

“Lain...” Kurzon said, keeping his voice in a wary tone, as though ordering her to stay down, but what he said next was “veren,” which meant ‘thunder’ and which Lain, trained to obey her master’s words, not his tone, knew as a command to attack. Lain burst into motion, first running low in the swamp, then leaping for the speaker’s throat. Arrows hissed, but Kurzon and Ibosh were already on the move, each to the side of the bandit circle nearest to where he stood. Domino fluttered into the air and fought as well, pecking at the bandits’ eyes and faces.

The battle was terrifying. Faces made strange by the dim starlight appeared and diappeared out of the confused darkness. The ground was so muddy it was worse than fighting in half a foot of water. Kurzon could hear the horses scream, but could not tell if they needed help, and knew he could not find them if they did. The silence of the Moors that had helped them find their enemies before betrayed them now; each sword blow, shout, and grunt echoed as though it were not two men who fought twenty, but two armies battling in the mucky soil.

Worse, when Kurzon reached for the strength of the land, as he had been taught to do, all he found was a twisting, filthy blackness that left him feeling unclean and gained him nothing. The Silent Moors were sick, almost unto death. The land had no strength to give.

The two Knights quickly realized this was a fight they were not going to win. Their foes were too numerous and had some unfailing ability to find them in the dark. Soon, they were fighting side-by-side and back-to-back, spinning and dodging around and behind one another, making circle of blades to keep the bandits at bay. The bandit leader was no fool, and soon he ordered his men to pull back and use their bows. The first arrow caught Ibosh in the shoulder and sent him sprawling and clutching at his wound. Kurzon dodged the second, mostly by accident, as he dropped down to keep Ibosh from drowning in the swampy water.

Just as Kurzon began to try to touch the land one last time, through its sickness, to commune with it and prepare for death, something began moving among the bandits, slaying them so quickly they had barely time to cry out before they were killed. The arrows stopped as the bandits tried to defend themselves, but their efforts were fruitless. Whatever it was, it bludgeoned the men to death, when it did not pick them up and throw them at one another or simply squeeze them until they broke. They cracks and abortive screams and tearing noises were worse than anything Kurzon had ever heard before.

The sounds finally ended. Kurzon rose to one knee, sword ready. Ibosh grasped Kurzon’s shoulder and pulled himself part way up, one hand searching blindly for his sword.

“Do’eli ar sheen,” a voice rumbled out of the darkness, speaking the ancient Keashonite title for the Knights of the Land: high warriors of the people of the land. The voice continued in the common dialect with an accent Kurzon could not place. “Put up your weapons. I am a friend.”

“Who are you?” Kurzon asked.

“I am Shahan Surus, ar Na’Aril,” the voice replied, slipping back into Keashonite. Shahan meant sword, but it was also a word for an honored servant. The Na’Aril were one of the other races that walked on the face of the world, creatures like and unlike me. According to legend, all of them could touch the land, as though they were a race of Knights. “I see you, Knights of the Land. I remember the treaty. I will give aid.”

“Hear me, Shahan Surus,” Kurzon said. “My friend is wounded.”

“It’s not so bad,” Ibosh lied weakly.

“I see,” Surus said.

“I cannot. Have you a way of making light?”

By way of reply, the Na’Aril shuffled about and soon held a flaming brand. By the firelight, Kurzon could see that the Na’Aril’s size was not an illusion of the night. He was more than eight feet tall, and covered with a stony hide. He seemed gangly, but that was only an effect of his size. His arms and legs were, in fact, far wider than Kurzon’s, or even Ibosh’s. Stringy greenish hair hung down around his face and his heavy-lidded eyes were a surprisingly intelligent shade of blue. In one great fist, Surus held a gnarled wooden shaft that was like a staff for him but could have served Kurzon as a lance. The stick was dark with swamp muck and what could only be blood.

In the light, Kurzon could also see one of the bandits he or Ibosh had managed to kill, lying in a pool of blood with his throat cut. His eyes were grossly changed, huge, glossy, and black. Some of the bandits were ordinary men, if filthy and ill-attired, but others were mutated as well. Some had extra eyes, small dark thinsg that still twitched and blinked blindly out of crushed and bloodless heads, or new eyes growing in their sockets, pushing the old eyes out of the way. A few had no eyes at all, only boil-covered bulges. Kurzon was nauseated in a way that had nothing to do with the stench of death that surrounded him. He had heard stories, but he had not wanted to believe them to be true. Corruption in the land could strike men as well as animals. This was what a sickness in the land did to those who lived with it for too long.

Ibosh moaned softly and let himself sink back to the ground. In the light, Kurzon could see that the injury was even worse than he had thought. The arrow ran all the way through Ibosh’s shoulder and poked out the other side. The arrowhead was wickedly barbed and coated in equal parts blood and muck. The wound would almost certainly become infected, and quickly. Only the hardiest and most unwholesome things could live in the Silent Moors, many of them too small to be seen, dwelling in the muck.

“That wound must be seen to,” Surus said, picking Ibosh up with one spadelike hand and settling him gently on his shoulder. With the other, he motioned for Kurzon to follow as he shuffled off through the swamp. Kurzon, in turn, gathered up the animals and led them along. Herek was fine, uninjured and almost perversely placid, despite the battle. Belveren, sitting in the saddle, was jumpy and almost snapped at Kurzon when he came to take Herek’s bridle. Aldebaran had a nasty gash along his side, and Lain was limping. Those wounds, too, would have to be attended to. Domino fluttered down to Kurzon’s shoulder and sat there, arranging his feathers and muttering curses under his breath.

They walked on through the night. The only sound was the footfalls of the strange caravan of Na’Aril, man, and animal, and the only light, other than the stars, was Surus’ torch, which he still held for Kurzon’s benefit.

Before long, they came to Surus’ home, a house built into the cleft of a rock that jutted up out of the swamp. Inside, it was large and comfortable. The walls were hung with furs, and Surus had a fire burning in the hearth. For a creature the size of Surus, Kurzon realized, the house would be barely a hovel, but for Kurzon and Ibosh, it was roomy.

“Can you feel it, do’el ar sheen?” Surus asked as he laid Ibosh on a pallet of furs that he must have carried with him from whatever land he came from. “I have cleansed the land in this place.”

“Yes,” Kurzon said, nodding. The land here was not the pained, dying thing it was outside. On this rock and in its immediate surroundings, the land was strong and healthy. “I had not known such a thing was possible.”

Surus shrugged hugely. “You must help your friend find that power now. The fever is on him.” Surus lay one hand on Ibosh’s forehead. Ibosh was pale and sweaty, and he had his teeth clenched tight against the beginnings of convulsions. Surus snapped off the fletching on the arrow and calmly drew it out through the wound. Blood and muck flowed freely from the hole in Ibosh’s shoulder. As Surus turned to fetch bandages and clean water Kurzon took Ibosh’s hand.

Kurzon reached out too touch Ibosh, in the same way that he reached for the spirit of the land. Ibosh met him halfway. There was a moment of confusion, the room swam and shifted, and they were one. Kurzon felt the throbbing pain of Ibosh’s wound and all the nagging aches of a day’s hard riding. Ibosh felt Kurzon’s healthy strength and unflagging determination. Images and memories bent, turned, and were superimposed upon one another. Ibosh could see Isankar as Kurzon’s lover, clad only in her hair. Kurzon saw Isankar as Ibosh’s friend, wearing a Knight’s studded leather and smiling in the way she always did before a sparring match, lopsidedly, touched by bravado and fear. Kurzon saw himself as Ibosh saw him and saw Ibosh as Ibosh saw himself. Boundaries blurred and faded.

Together, Ibosh and Kurzon reached out to touch the power of the land. There was danger, as there always was. The land was lonely and hungry. From the moment a Knight first heard the call of the land to the moment he died, he would never be safe. All it took was an instant of weakness, and the Knight would be lost forever in the spirit of the land.

Kurzon and Ibosh held one another back, drawing strength together without succumbing to the land’s call. Blood was forced to the wound, to flush away infection. Bones were ordered to begin knitting, severed muscles and sinews regenerating.

Through Ibosh’s eyes and his own, Kurzon saw Surus return with a bowl of boiling water that smelled sharply of mint and lemonbalm. He poured it on the wound, and the throb became a sharp and sudden agony. Kurzon screamed, and heard Ibosh scream with him. Ibosh abruptly severed the link and retreated into himself. Kurzon tried to cling to consciousness, but Ibosh’s pain was too strong. He left himself go and drifted into darkness.

• • •

The next thing Kurzon heard was Surus’ gravely voice, speaking somewhere near his ear. “Do’el ar sheen, how do you feel?”

Kurzon woke suddenly. His shoulder still ached, a memory of someone else’s injury, and he felt weak and frayed on the edges. The pain jogged his memory. “How is Ibosh?” he asked, sitting up a little too quickly and reeling with vertigo.

“Sir Idabelesh will be well. He woke yesterday, but he is still weak.”

“Yesterday?” Kurzon steadied himself. “How long have I slept?”

“Four days, Sir Mors. You called much from the land to save your friend. You nearly lost yourself. That was courageous.”

“And the horses?”

“Na’Aril do not ride, but Sir Idabelesh told me what I should do, and I did it.” Surus rubbed one stony shoulder. “The horse, the one named after a star, it does not like others than its master.”

Kurzon allowed himself a small smile. That was Aldebaran, all right. If Aldebaran was kicking, he was well. “No, he doesn’t. And Lain? Domino? Belveren?”

“Sir Idabelesh asked the dog brought to his bed and tended her himself. Your bird is about. The weasel gaurds her master.” Surus made a face that could have been a smile. His teeth were a pale shade of green, but that seemed to be their natural color. “She is a fierce creature.”

“I thank you, Shahan Surus ar Na’Aril,” Kurzon said, bowing as best he could from a sitting position in a bed. “You are a gracious host and an honorable man.”

“Don’t call him that!” a voice said from the doorway. Kurzon turned his head and saw Ibosh coming into the Na’Aril’s hut, Belveren on his good shoulder. The other was wrapped in bandages, but he had the use of that arm and seemed to be in little pain. It was clear that he had been communing with the land for healing while Kurzon slept. Without the land’s help, that had been a wound no man would be able to ever recover fully from, and certainly not so quickly, but Ibosh looked as though he would be well in a few days.

“He won’t appreciate being called a good man,” Ibosh continued, pulling over chair that, for Surus, would have been a stool, and sitting it by the bed. “Na’Aril are not men. Most of them don’t particularly like men, either.”

Kurzon considered this for a moment, then turned to face Surus, who was crouched on the stone floor. “That’s a good point. A gracious guest does not pry for answers, but I would like to know what brings you so close to the lands of men. I am a Knight of the Land as well as your guest, and my debt to you can only mean so much. I have duties that must precede it."

“Most of my tribe is in the land you call Herekteer, fighting idanos against its folk,” Surus rumbled. In Keashonite, ‘idano’s meant crusade or holy war. It was a word the Knights knew, but did not often use. The Knights of the Land had gone to war in the old days, riding against those nations that defied their commands and ill-treated the land. It had taken the War of Fire and the near destruction of the Knights to show them that they were not strong enough for holy war. “I am old and lame, so I volunteered to come here to watch the Silent Moors and do what I could for them.”

“Are there many bandits like the ones you killed that night?” Kurzon asked. Surus shook his head.

“By the lady’s grace, there are not many, but the number is always growing. Men and women who commit crimes in Altast and Avaronast and Kray or are forced off their land by the Knights or their chieftains, they come here. The bandits here welcome them. They rut amongst themselves and breed more, and always the sickness of the land creeps into them and makes them monsters.” An expression like disgust crept into Surus features.

“But I am no warrior, not any more, and I am alone,” Surus concluded regretfully. “I kill them when I find them, but I cannot make idanos against them. I can make no holy war.”

“We all do what we can,” Ibosh said, putting a hand on Surus’ shoulder. “You saved us, and you save others. You’re a good... Na’Aril, Shahan Surus.”

“One day, when the Knights of the Land are strong again, we will come to the Silent Moors and clean them out,” Kurzon said, his eyes hard with the memory of the things he had seen that night. Creatures like those, for all that they had once been men, did not deserve to live. “I swear it, Shahan Surus.”

“Will the do’eli ar sheen ever be strong?” Surus asked, wistfully. His blue eyes were clouded and his face creased and unreadable. “There are those in my tribe who wonder, who say the do’eli ar sheen cannot control the humans, that the time will come for idanos belesh.”

“Is it really that bad?” Ibosh asked. The Knights of the Land and the tribes of the Na’Aril communicated rarely. For all the High Knights knew, the Na’Aril could be on the verge of declaring ‘idanos belesh,’ the final war of the Na’Aril against humanity. Long ago, the war had almost happened. The Knights of the Land – through a single, courageous Knight who had earned the trust of the Na’Aril by dying to save them – had prevented it by swearing to keep humanity in check. Now the Knights were weak, ruling only in Avarorn, and with influence in a bare handful of nations, and none of the Knights wanted to think about what this would mean to the Na’Aril.

Surus cocked his head, then stood, knobby joints popping. He seemed sad as he fetched his staff and turned towards the door. “I must go, and I will be gone for three days. There is food and good water for you. Take what you need, my people eat and drink little. When I return, I will lead you to the edge of the Moors and send you on your way.

Kurzon and Ibosh looked at one another. They did not need to speak; both knew they were thinking the same thing. They had seen Surus fight, and he was, by his own admission, old and lame. Could the Knights stand up to an army of Na’Aril in their prime?

Domino flapped noisly in from outside and sat himself on the bedpost between Kurzon and Ibosh. He looked at Ibosh, then at Kurzon, bobbed his head and squawked “cowshit!”

“Yeah,” Ibosh agreed, “cowshit indeed.”
Hereby I declare the beginning of the Burning Zeppelin Experience.

What is a burning zeppelin experience?

When you confess your love to the object of your affection, that's a nice experience. And that's ok. It's sweet. It's nice. The music swells, you kiss her... and that's it. A nice experience.

When you confess your love to the object of your affection on the deck of a flaming airship, beneath an alien purple sky over a boiling acidic sea, while the enemy guns spit emerald death, that's something more. That's not sweet and it's not nice. It's powerful. It reaches down into your guts, where your soul lives, and pulls it up and out and into your skin, so your hair stands on end and your eyes catch fire... that's it. That's what I talking about. A burning zeppelin experience.

The burning zeppelin experience is what you get when you juxtapose emotionally and narratively important scenes with a backdrop of excitement and adventure. As a reader and writer of science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism, I believe in the power and importance of the burning zeppelin experience. In this blog, my first foray into online publishing, I hope to explore the burning zeppelin experience through fiction, poetry, and essays. I will link to the burning zeppelin experiences of others and, with your help, produce my own.