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Re: [Mar 2015] - Rogues - Submission Thread This is a bit grimdark, but I have a character who is a rogue with a big part in my trilogy, so this month's competition gave me a chance to flesh out a passing reference in the third book into a prequel short story.

find me on twitter @TOMunro

1500 words excluding title.

Trust a Thief

Spoiler for Hiden:
   Kaylan missed his pipe but, in the absence of a portion of nagan weed, whittling was the next best thing to settle the mind and steady the hands.  The thin blade of his knife of last resort twisted and turned at his bidding, scoring out flakes of wood with the same precision he once spun the tumblers of the finest locks in Undersalve. He’d been working on the piece on and off for days.  The shape had been buried in the broken branch, but he’d seen it nonetheless. Now his careful knife work had stripped away all extraneous material to expose the crescent within, fashioning an exact copy in wood of the golden symbol his lady wore.

He lifted the piece to his lips and blew softly, scattering the last shavings which veiled the perfection of his carving.  A sob from the campsite caught his ear and he looked down from his treetop vantage point at their diminished company.

It had never been a large band, but the remnants, survivors really, sat grim with fatigue around the embers of the fire.   There were too many empty bedrolls, even allowing for those that had fallen in the battle.  The fog which had saved them from utter destruction must also have misled many on the way home. Kaylan threaded the finished crescent on a strip of leather and slung it around his neck.  More like the missing had chosen to get lost, to slip away from the string of patriotic disasters.  The brave were dead.  The wise had fled.  What did that make the rest of them? What did that make him?

He sighed.  He’d died a long time ago, or would have but for the lady’s intervention.  His life before had hardly been honourable, numberless temples denuded of their sacred treasures by his particular talents; the second life she’d granted him he held in trust for her alone.

A movement drew his eye, the waft of a branch, then another disturbed by the careless passage of a dark figure.   Kaylan frowned.  The chief was on the move and someone would soon feel the edge of his tongue.   The thief slipped from his perch, shinning down the rough bark surface with as much alacrity as he had once scaled smooth stone.     

He trod lightly across the forest floor, alert to the other man’s heavy footfall, so that it was the chief who started in surprise when they came face to face at the bend in the path.

“What are you doing, creeping about like that?” He had put his armour back on, the black helm and chainmail vest of a rich lord, not a forest bandit.  Aye, that was the nub of it, a polished warrior ill-suited by training or temperament for the changed military realities, forever picking battles he could not win.  Why did the lady not challenge his strategy?

“I was looking for my lady, chief.”

“She’s sleeping,” he snapped.

Kaylan nodded.  “She has earned it, chief.  She was much drained with healing the wounded while you were resting.”

The implicit rebuke drew a scowl and a snarl.  “I’ve told you before, thief.  I am not your chief.  My name is Albrecht, Lord Albrecht.”

Kaylan smiled.  “Titles have somewhat lost their meaning, chief, save only my Lady Niarmit’s, Princess of Undersalve, heir to Matteus.”

Albrecht leant in breathing heady fumes in Kaylan’s face.  Where had he found the wine? “Matteus was a fool, you are a thief, and Niarmit is my lady, not yours.”     

Kaylan clenched his fists, held his breath and said nothing for a long ten seconds.  Albrecht swayed unsteadily and then stormed away down the path.  The thief exhaled his own anger and hurried along the path to the cave which Albrecht had claimed for himself and the lady. He tried to unremember the sight he had seen beneath the cheek plates of Albrecht’s helm.  The ends of four long scratches gouged by fine finger nails.

“My lady?”

It was dark in the cave.  His boot crunched on broken glass and twisted metal from a lantern.

“Kaylan, is that you?”  Her voice was muffled as though through a mouthful of cotton.

“Yes, my lady.”

“Stop, don’t come any closer.”   There was a shrill edge of panic that became a coughing fit.

“What has he done, my lady?”

“It was my fault,” she said.  “It must have been.  He takes these reverses so hard.”

“It could never have been your fault, my lady.”  Shapes were emerging from the darkness, she was crouched in the corner by the rough bed of furs and cloaks.  Her form was indistinct, but pale stretches of skin showed where there should have been clothing. A length of thigh, white arms folded across her chest.  Her face obscured by unkempt hair or marks of another kind.   “What has he done, my lady?”  The words fell with leaden weight between them.

“My fault, all my fault.”

He stood, head shaking, bruising his palms with his fingertips.  “I’ll get someone,” he said thickly though he could not think who.  Old Meg would have been the obvious choice, but he’d last seen her vomiting blood with an orcish halberd in her belly.  There were few enough women in their band of outlaws.

“No-one, Kaylan.  No-one must know.  I don’t want anyone to know.” 

He didn’t trust himself to speak.  Her stumbling voice filled the darkness.

“Give me a moment.  A moment to rest and then with The Goddess’s grace I can heal …  the marks, they’ll be gone. No-one will know.”

“It can’t be borne, my lady.”

“Kaylan.” She was pleading with him.  “Let me handle this my way, let me handle him.” 

The silence stretched like a taut wineskin.  “Please,” she urged.

“My lady,” he said stiffly ducking out of the cave.


She found him walking back from the pool, his shirt over his arm as he let the sun dry his wiry torso.  The dark marks on her pale face had been all but erased by a few hours rest and the grace of The Goddess.  Only the shadow of a bruise remained along her jaw.  The wounds to her spirit were visible still, in her nervous twitch at a flight of birds, in the brittle fragility of her query. “Where have you been, Kaylan?”

“Washing off the stink of battle, my lady.”

“You picked a fine time for a bath, Kaylan.”  Her eyes darted left and right, suspicious of the very trees.   “I need your help.”

“Always, my lady.”

“I need to find him.  Just you and me.  I want to tell him, this thing, it’s not how it’s going to be.  I’m going to make things different, better.  Starting with Lord Albrecht.” 

He nodded and took a firm step towards her.  She flinched at his approach and the anguish must have plain on his face for she gave a hasty apology.  “I’m sorry, this thing… Albrecht.  I’m not myself.”

“You will be, my lady.”

“He told the others he was going orc hunting, on his own.  Can you track him?  I want this done tonight.  He has to understand, he can’t…”

“We’ll find him, my lady.”


It had taken less than an hour.  Niarmit leaned against a tree trunk retching.  “By The Goddess,” she said.  “What have they done to him?”

Kaylan surveyed the red ruin of Lord Albrecht with impassive detachment. “They call it the blood eagle, my lady.  Pulling the lungs out while the man still lives.”

She puked again, staining the bark with the yellow scum of an empty stomach.  Kaylan turned.  “You shouldn’t see this, my lady.  You don’t need to.”

“I had to, but by Saint Morwena, this is cruel even for orcs.  What is that they shoved in his mouth?”

“Don’t look, my lady.”

Too late. She leaned in and then another paroxysm of heaving shook her at the reality of Albrecht’s brutal humiliation.  “You should go, my lady.  I’ll take care of him.”

She straightened.  “No, we were close.  He cared for me once, in his own way.  I’ll do this.”  She leant, eyes averted and seized a bloody arm to pull at the body.

Kaylan knelt beside her to lend his aid.  “Over there,” she said.  “We’ll build a pile of rocks over him.”

The body slid and squelched from the sodden earth where it had fallen.  “What’s that?” Her gaze, avoiding the bloody catastrophe of the corpse, snagged on a shape that had lain beneath Albrecht. 

They froze a moment, both seeing the carved wooden crescent on its broken lanyard, its intricate relief stained with blood.  Then Kaylan snatched it up and slipped it into its pocket while Niarmit looked at him open mouthed.

“It was orcs did this, my lady,” he told her.   “Albrecht went looking for them, and they found him and now you can move on.”

She nodded slowly, though he was not sure how much of his statement she was agreeing with, nor did he intend ever asking. 

March 17, 2015, 01:15:38 AM
Re: [Mar 2015] - Rogues - Discussion Thread > "Meat's back on the menu boys!"

Presumably, that is synthetic 31st century bovine culture meat?

Food fit for a thief*?

(*Also known as property redistribution operative or PRO for short?)

March 19, 2015, 06:55:47 PM
Re: [Feb 2015] - Fanfic - Voting Thread congratulations @Saraband you got my vote  and thanks for your thoughts @Jmacyk

April 02, 2015, 01:03:11 AM
Re: Post your Grim Gathering Review :) Thanks @Jmack for the comments.  Writing the review gave me something to do while I wasn't able to be at breakfast (sniff) so I'm glad people liked it.

Also it was good to meet people and I'm sorry to have missed some, There were fellow short story competitors I didn't get to catch up on such as @ScarletBea and others (I think) I did get to chat to @Heyjude, guessing at a name behind a handle

A great time had by all, I heard mention of rumour of another possible event in August?  well have airport will travel count me in.

April 12, 2015, 08:00:14 PM
Re: Fantasy-Faction Grim Gathering: April 10th. F-F Big Breakfast: April 11th. Ah ha, now I can place you, walking with Mark - were you in the front row at the Q&A too on the other side of Steff?

To be honest the widely retweeted quote was actually heard by @G_R_Matthews while we were chatting in the queue who was able to tell me what the young cyclist had said, and it seemed like a good subtitle for a post written to take my mind off the fact that I was missing breakfast!

Hopefully I will get to talk to more faces behind the handles and stay for breakfast next time.

April 12, 2015, 08:31:59 PM
Re: [Mar 2015] - Rogues - Voting Thread Congratulations to Rukaio,

A very good month for entries and - from the voting - something for everyone!

May 03, 2015, 07:46:50 AM
Re: Titles for regulars As someone who has been known to dabble in spreadsheets myself, @Raptori, I salute you. 

And also much praise @xiagan as you say for running an excellent contest that keeps on drawing us writers back, I'm just sorry that dearth of muse and excess of day job mean I can't enter as often as I would like.  :)

(I hope I've got those link things right  :-\)

October 10, 2015, 12:14:36 AM
Re: [Oct 2016] - Corpses - Voting Thread Thankyou to everybody for their congratulations and for their votes, I'm so glad you liked "Where there's a ill."  I'm only just in from work to pick up all the messages, so apologies for being the silent lurker even through the declaration of results.

I thought it was a fantastic month with some wonderfully imaginative and well written entries and I really wasn;t expecting to win.

I voted for
The Soulspeaker
Hoy Girl
Harry and

All of which I thought had a better chance than mine.  In the time I have been watching and contributing stories, the quality has been rising inexorably.

Also, congrats to Xiagan for the fiendishly intoxicating device of an anonymous month.


December 01, 2016, 07:01:13 PM
Re: [DEC 2016] - Dragons! - Discussion Thread Oh! I like this one - I've got an idea incubating quite nicely.

a) I've always wondered about the ecology of dragons, like how did Smaug survive dormant and unfed for so many years, and where do they get their fire from and what use do they have for gold.

b) I was fascinated by the phrase "Tickling the Dragon's tail" used by Los Alamos scientists to describe dangerous experiments with nuclear cores - which led to one famous fatal accident.

I wouldn't want to give too many spoilers for where those two thoughts are taking me,  I just hope I can make it fly!

December 02, 2016, 07:16:11 PM
Re: [DEC 2016] - Dragons! - Submission Thread Tickling the Dragon's Tale

(1500 words excluding the title)

Spoiler for Hiden:
“It’s too dangerous, Shedmaster. It would violate all the protocols.” Dag paused. “It scares me.”

Sloti looked away at his subordinate’s frank admission, glancing through the thick lead-glass window that separated the control room from the cavernous bleeding chamber.  He supressed a shiver. A decade of working the sheds had still not inured him to the experience of being eye to eye with a dragon, albeit a chained and dormant one. Cherna lay immobile on the tempered steel lattice atop stone columns towering four storeys above the shed floor. Even through the glass he could feel her heat, fancied he could sense the invisible rays emitted by the activated blood coursing through her veins. Here lay a creature who could kill a man in her sleep. Maybe Dag was right to be afraid.

He shivered away the momentary doubt. A half-dozen technicians beetled across the shed floor pushing trolleys from the curing bay towards the delivery room.  He had been one of them once, weighed down by a white suit lined with lead plates as he wheeled seasoned power rods across the shed floor - long dark cylinders of solidified dragon’s blood which the technicians laughingly called black puddings.

The grim humour masked everybody’s nerves. The precious rods needed such careful handling, hot to the touch even through the asbestos gloves. Brought together in a precise array, they could amplify each other’s heat to instantly boil water.  Sloti’s father had said, give an engineer enough steam and he could make anything happen.  King Andreas the Dragontamer had understood that maxim well, a whole empire built on the miracle of unlimited steam, driving engines of every description. Steam generated by the heat from dragons’ blood.

Dag came up beside him, watching the routine spectacle. He leant suddenly across to haul on the alarm klaxon, a single blaring note that froze all activity in the shed. Men turned expectantly towards the control room where Dag was already growling into the speaking tube. “Technician  Feynma, watch your separation. Keep those rods at least four cents apart. D’you want to trigger a flashover?”

The distant Feynma acknowledged the command with a gloved salute. Dag ran a palm over his balding head, hair long since pushed out by the worry of his responsibilities. “Isn’t what we do dangerous enough?” he asked.

Sloti looked back at the dragon. Cherna, second surviving daughter of the broodmother Alba.  Since he had taken command, Shed C had been the most reliable of the half-dozen dragon sheds, regularly meeting every production quota and deadline.  But Cherna could never be as big or productive as her mother.  When the dragontamer had first harnessed the blood of dragons, Alba had been an ancient wyrm too large, in truth, for comfortable handling. Committees of engineers had decreed the optimum size for her offspring and the subsequent sheds had been built to those dimensions. The organic portion of Cherna's feed carefully calculated to allow her to grow into her cage and now each measured meal of cattle and sheep was just sufficient to precisely replenish the blood they drew from her every fourth day.

Of course it was rock, not food that energised the lizards’ lives. A unique metabolism refining ore to fill their blood with activated neptunium.   The radiation it emitted could supplying the heat and energy to keep a dragon alive even in a dormant state for decades, centuries even. 

“We do well enough.” Dag’s observation stirred Sloti from his reverie.

“Six sheds, six dragons, that’s all we have and - as of last week - it is all we ever will.”

“There will be other males. The hunters will find one in the wild.”

Sloti rounded on him. “No they won’t. Zarin wasn’t just the last male dragon in captivity. He was the last male dragon anywhere. Poachers who don’t know any better have found and drained the corpses of every dragon. There will be no more males, no more eggs to hatch.”

Dag looked down at the hemispherical incubation pit on the shed floor, directly beneath the dragon’s belly. The dragontamer had imagined breeding dragons would be easy – boy meets girl, a few years later out pops an egg.  However, there had been several accidents of incubation. Getting the egg precisely placed was no mean feat, balancing its need for warmth from its mother’s body against its need for protection from her radiation.   

At last the engineers had understood the creatures’ fascination with a dense but highly conductive metal and why male dragons brought gold as a courting gift, when male birds just built nests. Lead, steel, copper or poured stone, all had been tried and failed as a substitute for gold.

So, whenever a dragon was pregnant the royal treasury was emptied, gold piled and shaped in a gleaming hoard between the mother on high and the egg’s resting place.  Cherna had laid just one egg long ago. Some misalignment of the gold or the necessity of being inseminated with her own father’s seed had produced a hatchling too weak to break out of its own shell. Only Alba had been bred from successfully - five daughters from seventeen attempts.

“There will be no more dragons, Dag. We must make the most of those we have.”

“But to lace the ore grindings with spent dragon blood?”

“It will enhance the enrichment process. The new blood will be half again as potent as the old. We can draw the power of nine dragons from just six sheds.” Sloti grabbed his deputy’s arm, eyes bright with enthusiasm. “We will be heroes of the empire.”
Dag said nothing and Sloti heard agreement in his silence.


“See!” Sloti waved a sheet of technical data in Dag’s face. “It is better even than I expected. Nearly 60% enhancement in the fuel yield.”

Dag stared out of the viewing port at the dragon, watching the flaring of its nostrils with each inward breath. A pebble of niggling thought triggered a sudden avalanche of understanding. “Shedmaster, if the blood we draw out has a higher yield, then so does the blood we left in her!”

“What?” In one short syllable Slotin went from irritation to horror. A crashing snap sounded through the glass, a sundered chain that had held Cherna’s forelimb for centuries. “Oh Gods. What have we done?”

The dragon stirred. At the far end of the shed its tail swept a lazy arc through a dozen technicians. A century long balance of feeding and bleeding to keep the creature on the cusp of dormancy abruptly undone by their irresponsible experiment. Driven by the enhanced blood, Cherna woke from slumber.

“The control rod!” Dag leapt for the red lever – the fail-safe system to release a massive steel rod poised above Cherna’s chained head. Explosive charges would drive it through her skull into instant euthanasia.   

“No!” Sloti pulled him back. “We must draw off more blood to compensate.”

“It’s too late for that you fool.”

And it was. The lead lined window shattered at the tap of Chenya’s claw. The dragon raised its head, maw opening to breathe into the control room. Dag saw it all, the two ducts in the corners of her mouth squirting jets of black blood, shaped into a ball by her forked tongue. He flung himself behind the console. Sloti stood transfixed by the terror he had unleashed. And then the blood-ball went super-critical. With a blinding blue flash, a tsunami of heat washed through the control room.

Dag struggled upright beside the melted smouldering console. His hands were already blistering, he wanted to vomit. There was nothing left of Sloti but a thin shadow of dust on the far wall. With agonised steps Dag staggered to the red lever. In the shed beyond the dragon was writhing effortlessly free of its chains. He pulled at the half-melted lever and it finally yielded just as the dragon’s attention lunged back towards the smoking man in the tiny room.

The control rod fell with the force of a mountain behind it, puncturing Cherna’s neck. The dragon railed in agony, widening the wound as black blood poured from her throat, cascading from the gantry to the shed floor.

Those technicians not already dead ran from the staccato bursts of flashovers as pooling blood collected in critical puddles.

“Oh shit,” Dag muttered through melted lips. The copious quantities of dragon blood were draining towards the incubation pit, a perfect receptacle to collect a super-critical mass of fluid. A charge beside which the lethal flashovers were mere sparks. Power enough to flatten everything in a two mile radius, everything apart from the dragons.

He stumbled to the windows at the far side of the control room. Bylla’s shedmaster looked up from within a panicked crowd rushing in random directions at the sounds of disaster.

“Save yourselves,” Dag called. “Bury us in poured stone.” It was the only way, but even as he said it, Dag knew it would not be enough.

December 04, 2016, 07:28:01 PM