Reynold's Rap: Notable Quotables for Penfeathers

I approached Timothy GM Reynolds aka Alex T Crisp, a rather prolific writer whom I think we can forgive for being Canadian, and asked him to comment on my new book of children’s Rhymes. Nope, not the German musician, or the expressionist painter. Tim was gracious enough to look over Penfeathers, despite his busy schedule and the egregious (my word not his) demands on his time and personal resources. The following is his response, which I deeply appreciate.

Hi Fred.

Firstly, thank you for letting me read your collection. It certainly took me back to my childhood. So, here is something I hope you can use for the back cover, although what you have there already is quite good:

“In Penfeathers, Richard Fredric Grenville has captured some of the liveliest Mother Goose rhymes with an uncomplicated, unadorned folk-art-style of illustration which nicely accompanies this selection of classics without overshadowing them.”
~Timothy Reynolds, author of ‘Dragons in Suburbia’ and other short, dark tales.




After the tildes, he also forwarded some extremely helpful critique which I appreciate, greatly. He is a real gentleman and a great writer. I suggest that after you have purchased Penfeathers, you then pick up a copy of Shanghai Steam, or Dragons.

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Publishing Vanity, How different is self-publishing from vanity-publishing

Recently I tried a foray into self publishing. I have had some items of non-fiction published in the past, but my current work is a somewhat dark fantasy and it’s a struggle to get read. On the other hand, I have seen some success stories in self publishing. So I thought I’d try testing the waters.

In the past I’ve viewed self publishing as vanity publishing, POD as an expensive version, and dedicated mainstream publishers as a necessity. But In my search for the right agent and/or publisher to love my work and put the effort into helping me refine and market my manuscripts as published works, I stumbled onto a couple of individuals who were committed to self publishing. Prolific writers (I’m the slow plodding sort) who work hard to make a presence that is bigger than their work and who have gradually moved from self publishing to minor indie publishers.

This inspired me to at least dip my toe in the waters and see what the process might bring. ePublishing got me some small response, so I thought I’d try printing with POD. Just as I made this decision a major POD changed their prices and fee schedule. I was amazed at how easily one could simply publish and be available for bricks and mortar as well as libraries and ed. institutions. So once more I got to editing and soon I was evaluating proofs and preparing to launch.

One thing I tried was contacting a major indie book store. Ironically, this store has as one of it’s facilities a POD of no small skill and no small fee. If purchasing their services, then you are given space in the storefront, however I had already published. I had my LCC and my very own ISBN-13 and a beautiful trades paperback to call my own.

It took a couple of weeks to hear back, and this is the core of what I was told”

We do not carry self-published books, those printed by vanity presses or print on demand titles. Previous sales tests have shown that, while our customers are interested in all subjects, they are much more likely to browse and purchase titles like this at their local bookstore or on-line rather than carrying them with them on their travels.

Now I didn’t understand the point about carrying them on their travels. Yes people buy books to read on flights and trains and ships. But a bookstore is about books. Also I immediately saw the way they lumped vanity, self-published, and POD into a single entity. That rankled. It hit my pride. I wasn’t a vanity published author. I was a real writer with a good book and it was real. How dare they make that comparison.

And then– it hit me.

Life, what a concept.


If you like a good story with some thought provoking undercurrents or you just like real old fashioned fairy tales, get Neverwas.

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Neverwas In Print, New this month!

New Print Release coming in January. We’ve taken the plunge and Neverwas is going to print this month. It will be available on Amazon, but we’re hoping to get exposure in brick and mortar. If you want a print copy and don’t want to pay shipping you should be able to order it through your local bookseller. That’s assuming it’s not on shelves. . . . Well that is a fair assumption. But help us bring it to those who don’t eBook, tell a friend or buy it for a friend!

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Travailing East

I’ve just completed a long stay with a dear friend and sister in faith and by adoption. It was a healing time, that helped me to regain some equilibrium and hopefully refresh my mind enough to finish some projects. I’m truly grateful for the opportunity and for the hospitality that she and her extended family and friends offered (in some cases proffered).

That said, I traveled by train. I’ve no particular distaste for flying, but the quarters a re cramped and the experience is made worse by the hysterical and draconian security measures. The body scanners for instance are a marvel of technology, and completely and utterly in opposition to the constitutional right to freedom from unreasonable search. So I took the train.

Trains are a source of liberty in travel, in that you can get up and move about. You don’t have to operate the vehicle yourself. You can eat, drink and relieve yourself on your own schedule, within reason, and never have to stop for either. But trains are not glamorous so in general they do not atrtact the brightest and best America has to offer. The crew of a train works very hard to provide as comfortable and safe an environment as possible, while dealing with the same complaining, selfish and hostile public that flies or buses or uses the highways.

The difference is that the members of the crew are often stretched beyond their mental, emotional and physical capacity by public service jobs. This is not a fault of the applicants, who certainly should be congradulated for getting work and keeping it, for stretching themselves and for enduring the harsh reality of living aboard public transportation. But they are being asked to do a job that should pay better and should be filled with brighter, more creative and in some cases younger people.

The smiling pretty face and efficient coping of the flight attendant, aboard AmTrak, is replaced with the obstreperous nature and limited abilities that would normally be found among the TSA or your local mall security. People doing their best with inadequate ability leads to mistakes. Couple that with an intermittantly and inadequately funded Railroad and you can imagine that some egregious events and equipment failures occur, regularly.

I want to thank the passengers and the crew of the trains I traveled on: The 14, the 3 and 4, the 50 and the 51. Thank you for making the best of a bad situation and for being human in an environment that encourages the ape within us all. And I thank God for getting me through it and that it is in fact over.

Until, yes, I intend to it again,


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Neverwas 2nd Ed. Now on Sale!

It’s finally here! Neverwas: Forgotten tales of Albion is now in it’s second edition with expanded content. New fairy tales of Teira to entertain and delight kids of all ages six to six-hundred! These are earthy tales with unearthly characters told in the prosaic style of traditional folk tales. And if you’ve already purchased the first edition, never fear, the expanded content is available free of charge from the author.

If you’ve never read these timeless tales of worlds and imagination, get them from one of the many major eBook vendors. Or you can download it from Smashwords.

Go to the author’s contact page and provide purchase information and a current email address  for the first edition and you will receive the updated edition as an email attachment. Did I mention it was free of charge? Well it is! So act now.


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Gyldenhar and the Starvling Orks

© 2011

Long ago in a far kingdom there was a great famine and for lack of food people died. Deep in the forest an honest Ork made his meager living by cutting wood. His wife and tiny daughter helped by gathering nuts and berries. They lived in a small cottage built of stone and the love Papa had for his little family.

Inside their house they had precious little comfort, but Papa had made a wooden bowl and spoon for each of them, carving and shaping the bowls for each with tender care, and Mama had painted them and oiled them till they gleamed as smartly as the finest porcelain. In the loft Papa had made a bed for each of them, selecting the right limbs and cutting each board by hand, lacing the ropes till each bed was a perfect expression of his love.

Mama had stuffed mats with straw and carefully sewn patchwork blankets quilted with wool. Each blanket was crafted lovingly over long months, working deep into the night, to show that she too could show her love for her little family. And though the famine raged each night the little family of Orks would each their meager porridge and sing and tell stories till dark, then crawl into their cozy beds thankful for the love and small comforts provided for them.

As you know Orkney, the land of Orks, had long been ruled by fierce men of the White Isles of Albion, who in turn took it from the Ogres of Thanreach. These men were tall and strong, though not so stout as the little Orks whom they ruled with a cruel hand. And near the wood where our fine family lived there was a village of White men.

In the village was a fine big mill where all the folk both Ork and White must needs bring their grain and beans to grind. If ever there was a miller who was kind or generous, if you can credit such a thing and not think me mad, it was the miller of the big mill in the village. And this kind man had a boy named Gyldenhar, for his hair was fine and yellow like spun gold.

The miller doted on his boy and lavished him with the finest clothes and his very own room with a bed and a wardrobe and his own writing desk where he could practice his letters. The miller could afford such finery, because, even in famine, corn must be ground into flour and beans must be ground into meal and folk must pay for the grinding as best they can.

Now, Gyldenhar was a wicked selfish child who never appreciated the things his father’s wealth afforded. Every new toy the toymaker crafted and placed in the window of his shop captured Gyldenhar’s fancy and he would demand to have it. The Miller denied his child nothing and would become angry if the toymaker had promised the toy to another child. Such was the miller’s influence that he would press the parents of the other child and exchange one of Gyldenhar’s old toys for the new toy. Thus the children of the village were forced to play with toys that were worn or broken by Gyldenhar, who would gloat and show his new toys to every child her could find.

The smith took a new apprentice when the old one left on sojourn to master his craft. Now the new prentice was of an age with Gyldenhar and had milked cows and plowed fields his whole life. This had left the lad broad in the shoulder and strong as an ox. One day the smith was out and Gyldenhar wandered into the forge to gloat over his new toy. The prentice was hard at work and had no time for Gyldenhar’s prattle, so he showed the boy from the forge with no by-your-leave. Gyldenhar ran home, straightaway, and began a tantrum such as threatened to call down lightening and thunder. It was a so loud the neighbors closed up shutters and the miller locked his sails and rushed into the house to look after his boy.

When he heard the cause of his boy’s wailing, he marched straight to the smithy with Gyldenhar on his heels, where he confronted the prentice. Now the prentice was busy learning his craft, but he was a good natured lad and soon explained that he’s simply had too much work to do to admire Gyldenhar’s toy. As the truth of the matter unfolded the miller was suddenly struck by the difference between his Gyldenhar and this smith’s prentice at work and he began to see how his doting had spoiled his son. The miller apologized for his son’s behavior and returned to the mill where he set Gyldenhar to work as his own prentice, for it had always been his intention to pass the mill to his son when he was old.

Our story continues:

If you like this story and want to read more check out the eBook Neverwas: Forgotten Tales of Albion on Smashwords.

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Little Green Stocking Cap

© 2011

Once upon a time a Big Bad Wolf met a little girl wearing a dark green stocking cap. The wolf greeted the little girl politely and she told him that she was called “Little Green Stocking Cap” because she was never seen without it, for an evil fae had cursed her to never remove it. She was called thus for so long that soon everyone had forgotten she’d had any other name, even she! Little Green Stocking Cap was wandering the woods on her way to find a house she’d heard was made of sweets. She had left her own home because her poor parents could not help her to remove the heavy green cap, and for shame they made her wear a silly bonnet to cover it when ever she went out of the house. Green was quite courteous to the wolf, which was quite a novelty for him indeed. But when they had spoken for a time, Little Green Stocking Cap remembered that wolves had an unfair reputation for eating little girls right up. She became frightened and ran away very fast.

Now the wolf had just remembered that the house of sweets had a very bad reputation, indeed. So, valiantly, he attempted to warn the little girl that what was sweet to the taste could turn sour on the stomach. But Green ran very fast and he became winded, so with a snarl he turned and went on about his wolfly pursuits.

Green Stocking Cap did not trust his quick retreat and continued as fast as her little legs could carry her. Just when she thought she could not run another step, there in the next clearing she saw the great house made of sweets. The walls were chocolate cake and the windows were sugar candy. Each tile of the roof was made of a different kind of chocolate delight. With a cry of joy, Green Stocking Cap ran and flung herself on the sweet-tart steps of the house and fell fast asleep.

Just as it fell dark a beautiful princess appeared and opened the door to the sweet house and invited Green Stocking Cap in. Green was very tired and the princess was so beautiful that she trusted her instantly and was soon fast asleep in a bed of her very own, with sheets of spun sugar and pillows stuffed with kettle-corn.

For a time all was lovely in the fine, sweet house, then one day Green took a fancy to hold a celebration to thank the beautiful princess for her hospitality. Green waited until she was out then slipped into the the princess’ chamber to seek correspondence that might reveal what friends might visit to celebrate.

On a high chest Green found a writing box that held many letters and notes. As she was copying the most promising names, the princess returned and found her with her hand in the box. Before little Green could explain, the princess transformed and her true form was revealed to be none other than the same wicked hag that had cursed Green to always wear the cap!

Green gave a cry and ran from the house, just avoiding the clawed hand of the wicked fae. In her other hand was a great knife and Green had no doubt that should she be caught she’d soon be cut up and in the pot to boil!

Again, Green ran as fast as her little legs could carry her, but the cap snagged upon bushes and held her back, so that the fae gained upon her, calling all her wicked friends to aid her in catching the little girl. The fae truly did plan to feast that night!

Just as Green’s legs gave out and she fell to the soft mould beneath a great oak, the Wolf sprang out of the brush. Green’s heart quailed, for she knew she could not run another step. With the Wolf before her and the Hag behind, where could she turn. She was dinner for certain.

Just then the Wolf leapt and Green fell to the ground shivering, but he sailed right past and took a great bite from the Hag who had come up behind Green unawares. They fought and tussled in great fashion, but eventually the Hag was so bloodied she tore herself free and fled with a screech, grabbing a broken stick and flying off on her makeshift broom.

The Wolf led Green to an old shepherd’s hut by a glassy lake. It was none to clean, but Green soon found she had made a home and in time the local animals and herdsmen became a new family. And ever after the Wolf watched over her from the deep wood.

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El Shaddu Chapter 1

Hear Oh People

© 2010

In the year when the priest Hahmahn died, the breath of El Shaddai blew forth to cleanse the Land and the Heart with word and fire. Bearing with it the sweet fragrance of kinnaman, the potent spice of cedar and the sweet balsam of Bashan it fell upon El Shaddu, in the District of Argob. Bringing its sweet perfume to fling open the shutters of a room like any other, in an inn like any other, it fell with fresh anointing upon the servant of El who lay dreaming of auspicious things.

He woke with a start. Which is to say, the sun finally edged its way far enough past noon to lance his face with a nauseating glare. Hahniel groaned and covered his forehead with an arm to protect his eyes from the intruding light, but that only made his face hotter and did little to block the sun beams, which were becoming more intensely urgent by the minute. Rolling onto his stomach did little to help either, since this put his face in direct contact with the musty mattress and his mustier cloak. It was all too reminiscent of a boyhood spent chasing goats and watering camels in the blazing sun.

After a few minutes of twisting, it became obvious that he was going to get no more rest. This conclusion was punctuated by the sharp sting of an insect bite between his eyebrows. He rolled to his feet with another, louder groan and an even louder fart. His clothes were scattered about the tiny chamber. Despite the searing sunlight pouring in through the open window, he was inclined to let himself fall back into the bugridden mattress. But the reek of the chamber pot under his bed began to make him nauseous.

His mother had always said to say he would never have a pot to piss in. This was her unsubtle way of insisting he would never be a rich herdsman or great warrior. His mother had read to him from the Sefer Khayim every night. Daughter of a wizard and wife of the Adonai-Hadebir –which is to say the Lord of the Temple– she was steeped in the mysteries of the faith. His father, Yerulon, had been cruelly murdered by thugs in the employ of the king, and his mother had made it clear that he’d never have his birthright while his uncle, the king, remained in power.

Ashashi TiaraShe’d been partly right. It wasn’t his pot, it came with the room, though it certainly did cost a king’s ransom. The city, Bayt El Shaddu, had grown from a refugee camp where many Kanaani had fled to escape the oppression of the No-Amuni king. It was short on creature comforts and, rare though they were, they cost dearly.

He assembled his hodgepodge of clothing, scavenged from various rubbish bins and corpses, then carefully washed his face and hands in a basin set on the window ledge for that express purpose. Lastly, he took an ewer of fresh ointment, scented with kinnaman and kinehvos. This he sparingly poured over his tousled hair. From a pouch on his belt, he took a matching bronze comb and razor. They were delicately cast and bore decorative, abstract scroll work. He used the comb to carefully straiten his hair and remove any soil or insects he might have acquired during his repose in the dubious bed. Then he toweled his neck and hair dry, before styling it with the same comb. He used the razor to trim his mustache, careful not to cut the corners of his beard.

After he had carefully packed most of his few belongings, he pulled his most prized possession from under the filthy mattress. This was a staff carved from the branch of a pistachio tree and shod in bronze. Either end had a cap made of the hardest forged bronze and the length of the staff was clad in parallel rods of rare iron. The Iron had turned black with age and corrosion and the bronze had likewise become a dull black-green like algae in a pond. Weapons were not allowed in Bayt El Shaddu, unless you were a guardsman. But the staff was corroded enough to attract little attention and staves were the constant companion of the desert herdsman. It attracted little notice, but left him less naked and longing for the haft of a spear.

Still, he was, in fact, naked. His head remained uncovered. He picked up his tiara and settled it on his head, saying a silent prayer. Spirits of El my lord and master, preserve me and guide my steps this day. May the Serpents who soar above your holy throne be my guides and my salvation. For you are Divinity to Divine Beings and Prince of Princes and so may it ever be. So may it ever be.

The tiara consisted of a braided band of horse hair studded with copper rivets. From this hung an expensive hood of light black karpesh, covering his head and neck. It hung to his shoulders like the hair of a woman, with “wings” that draped to his chest in front. These could be crossed over his face and secured when operating a chariot or caught in a desert storm. His face was covered in a sheer veil of transparent organza, also died black.

A proper tiara was his only indulgence. The rest of his clothing might be ready to fall from his body, but he would live and die wearing a proper tiara. Ironically, his dramatic headgear, that would have made him conspicuous anywhere else, was unremarkable in the bosom of El Shaddu. Nearly every citizen of El Shaddu wore some form of headdress designed to hide the features. No one would choose life in El Shaddu if he had no reason to hide his face and his past.

Satisfied that his head was decently covered, he left the room and climbed to the roof of the small inn. The hostess was busily shoveling bread from a brick oven and several patrons were lounging about sipping thin sour wine or beer. Here the summer heat was scorching and the smell of bread reminded him of his own excess with beer the night before.

Beer is the water of conflict and wine is the sea of shame. Reciting the proverb mentally did nothing to alleviate the throbbing in his temples. He flicked his fingers and wiggled his arm sinuously like a houri dancing for her supper. Instantly, a bloom of blue white flame sprang up around his fingers, barely visible in the bright morning sun. His gift of miracles seemed more like a heavy curse than blessing sometimes.

He sighed and clenched his fist causing the flames to flare, then extinguish, lest unwanted eyes see them. He glanced around the roof and saw that he hadn’t gone entirely unnoticed. The hostess was eying him warily like a snake watching a mongoose for sign of attack. She had seen something of his fire but his hand no longer shone and his face, hidden deeply in the folds of his tiara, would soon lose its glow. After a frozen minute in tableau she suddenly remembered the rapidly cooling loaf on her spade and turned back to the oven with a muttered curse and a pagan sign against evil.

He chose to ignore the added insult. The Assuri had been trickling through El Shaddu on their way to Yevus for hundreds of years and their witchcraft had left a mark on the poor folk who traded with them. Occasionally, you saw a superstitious fool wearing a cast silver flame of Uhuru Mazda, or iron claw of Ahriman. Worst of all were the occasional prayers to Antsu the moon — which caused a wave of nausea to pass through him as the unclean spirit of the fallen one attended these prayers and conflicted with the Spirit of the Living Creator within himself.

It grated that an aspect of the enemy was worshiped as the Destroyer of Worlds. As he turned back to the street below, he hunched his shoulders and muttered, “All glory to the Name!” But he couldn’t resist a scornful snarl for the foolish woman. If she knew who she had guested, she would have pleaded on hands and knees for having tainted the air with her superstitions and witchery. He knew life in Shaddu had hardened him but you couldn’t survive if you bled for every lost lamb.

As he scanned the street, he saw a gleam of white in the stoop of the house across the street. The light had betrayed the skulker who watched his house. It would seem someone was wiser than his hosts, or perhaps the lord of the house was smarter than his drudge of a wife. He would have to move to another inn, and hope that the skulker gave up. The only valuable thing he owned was his own hide. Since the land had fallen to the lies of Ahmorah, even that was seldom sought after, except as a trophy. But the occasional thief still imagined he might be hording a secret cache of gems and baubles. Best to avoid confrontation altogether.

He took one last look at the street and then turned toward the steep stair ladder. As he passed, the mean-eyed hostess continued to glare. If looks could kill, an Ahripekh would have long since severed his spine. He moved with his usual stealth, attracting as little attention as possible as he climbed down the steps to the ground floor. This was devoted to a common room where patrons ate meals and drank during the day and slept at night when the doors were barred. The price of a beer or mixed drink was sufficient to pay for a spot in the old rushes covering the stone floor, at least till the doors were unbarred and the innkeeper propelled you into the street.

He stepped into the shadows and leaned against a door post, borrowing a page from the book of the spy across the street. He watched quietly. One thing he knew was how to keep still. The training he had received in Karkhemesh had been brutal, but it had earned him the place he’d wanted in the caravans of the Spice Road. Once he had even traveled the Silk Road Eastward from the Spice Markets. But the presence of the Enemy was strong there, and he had soon tired of the oppressive weight. He’d turned back by trading posts with a brother of the order, who was attached to a passing caravan returning to the western Spice Markets. The brother Ashashi had wished to hurry on to the land of the Han and retrieve a bride he had bargained for. The thought of traveling so deeply into the miasma of the eastern lands still caused him to shudder.

As he watched the street, his quarry peeped around the corner, exposing his position. Most of the local clothing was dyed blue or black to save money. The sun bleached that clothing faster than soil and sweat could darken it, but the war generally ended in a stalemate where the fabric disintegrated before it could lighten past a dull grey.

The lurker quickly pulled back, but that short exposure made it possible to distinguish his silhouette from the surrounding shadows. As Hahniel gathered himself to step out into the sunlight, a group of women approached, chattering. The lurker seemed to melt deeper than ever into the shadow as they passed; a wise precaution that he chose to emulate. This was not the sort of street where women generally traveled in small groups or without guards.

As the women passed on by, he spotted their guards following. They were two exceptionally well muscled men, wearing a hodge podge of scarce armor and carrying sharpened poles as spears. It would have been an impressive display of might for the city of El Shaddu, if the guards hadn’t spoiled it by missing the presence of both his watcher and himself, and by using their imitation spears as walking staves. As they passed him, one of the guards turned and blew his nose so that the output landed precisely between his feet. It fell on the line marking the end of the shadow he was hiding in, so that the shadow cut a sharp line through the gobbet. He looked up trying to meet the guard’s eyes, yet the guard swept his hiding place thoroughly without ever looking directly at him and without ever seeming to work at avoiding him. He re-estimated the guards. Perhaps they weren’t useless after all.

As the guard passed on, another figure dashed to the side to make way for the crowd of women and didn’t reappear until they had passed her. She appeared to be alone and looked anxiously up the street in his direction, as if checking for any other processions or perhaps thieves. She took another moment to straiten her shabby clothes, then began scurrying along after the crowd that had just passed, careful not to overtake them.

As she turned her back toward him, another lurker melted out of the shadows and began following the lone woman. It seemed the watchers might not be there for him today after all. He fought with himself for a moment, but wisdom lost the battle and he strode out into the street. As he approached, intentionally clacking his staff on the pavement, the stalker glanced over his shoulder and grimaced. At the next door, however, the figure turned in as if ready to knock and be admitted. With a snarl of his own Hahniel swept past the lurker in the doorway and barreled into the lone woman, knocking her parcel from her hand and dropping his staff with a great deal of racket.

The woman got up with a curse and began to berate him, till she saw his tiara. This close his face was visible, but the tiara was intended to instill fear more than anonymity and it did its work well. Her own face was obscured by a scarf that was wrapped to form a hood and veil. But her eyes widened with fear and darted about as if looking for rescue from him. If she cried out or resisted, his attempt to help her would be wasted. He began to apologize profusely and pretended to help her with her parcel, while he eyed the stalker. His first watcher was nowhere in sight, but the woman’s assailant was caught in the open and was forced to saunter on by with a look of promised murder, disappearing around the corner of a cross street.

The woman was getting annoyed by his “help” so he retrieved his staff and, with a last apology, continued on after the lurker. He passed a narrow alley cloaked in deep shadows but saw nothing moving, so he continued toward the corner where the woman’s lurker had turned. He intended to go the other way and keep going till he’d found a new inn with much less excitement, and hopefully, cleaner mattresses. As he reached the corner, he paused for a last look at the street that had been his home for the last five years. Sounds of a struggle drew his eyes like magnets. He saw the woman, being dragged into the alley by his first watcher. He growled in frustration and self disgust. It was careless of him to have lost track of a potential assailant, even one who obviously had no interest in him.

The woman’s struggles didn’t seem to attract any attention from the occupants of the nearly deserted streets. He knew he should continue on and give as little attention as the other fine citizens. No one was going to help her. He had already begun to think of the assailant as his, so with a muttered blessing he turned and ran back to the mouth of the alley. The woman was lying on her back with her skirts pulled over her head, baring her shapely body and firm hips. She was screaming incoherently, while lying perfectly still because the tip of the assailant’s knife pressed against her throat through the muffling fabric of her skirts. Her shift had been torn loose and discarded beside her. The assailant was fumbling with the ties on his wide trousers with obvious intention.

Without thinking, Hahniel silently rushed forward on the balls of his feet, falling into the familiar rhythms of the sword form Fire. Raising his staff, he swung two handed, ending with an overhand jerk, pushing with his right hand pulling with his left so that the last few inches of his iron shod staff connected with the temple of the assailant with the speed of a galloping horse. As he swept on past, the crunch of skull bone and wet thud that accompanied it were drowned by the redoubled screams and curses of the woman, as the body collapsed across her like a sack of onions. She quickly scrambled out from under the corpse, grabbing the knife and turning on him with her teeth bared in a rictus of fury and fear.

He paused a moment, then changed his grip to that of a man holding a walking stick instead of a headsman wielding an ahripekh. Holding one hand out in a placating motion, he began to inch toward the woman, speaking what he hoped were soothing words. His blood was boiling and his tongue prickled with the lightening and fire that always accompanied conflict. Another sort of fire burned in his chest, wanting to leap along the staff and strike the knife from the woman’s hand. He resisted both the urge and the inner voice that told him he should disarm her and punish her for the effrontery of raising a weapon against him. She had come close to losing her life and more at the hands of a vicious assailant. It was understandable that she be afraid. As he watched her bare breast, slick with sweat, heave with violent panting, he was very determined to be understanding and not frighten her any further.

A few strides brought him within reach of her, but she still held the knife like she knew how to use it. He decided he would have to disarm the woman after all, for her safety as well as his own. He adjusted his grip, two handed again so he could knock the knife from her hand, when the world virtually exploded in a concussion. He found himself suddenly sprawled on the ground, feeling of the back of his head. His vision was blurred and darkness was creeping into the edge of his awareness.

Hahniel heard a woman’s voice saying, “You fool! Don’t kill him.”

A man’s voice came from behind, “He killed Nahum readily enough.”

He turned his head, confused that his left leg wasn’t cooperating and looked behind him. Something he couldn’t quite place was familiar about the man standing there. He tried to puzzle it out as the woman said, “I don’t care two minot about Nahum. That fool was going to go through with the rape. Our friend here really is my hero, even if he did deliver himself neatly into our hands. Now get him bound and gagged so we can get out of this filthy alley. We need him alive.”

The man paused staring sullenly down at him, then finally shrugged. “You have been teasing Nahum for weeks, and you know he was here to avoid death for raping two women in Yerikho. Still, I suppose the pig got what he deserved.” The man sighed and his posture shifted from menace to resignation. In that moment, as consciousness finally escaped, Hahniel saw the man’s face clearly. It was the second assailant, the one he’d thought was stalking the woman. How foolish he’d been. He’d forgotten the first rule of El Shaddu. No one is innocent. It had all been a trap and he’d fallen for it like a sheep to slaughter. If he never woke up, it was no more than he deserved for stupidity.

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John and Maggie

or The Path of Dead Sparrows
© 2011

Neverwas: Forgotten Tales of Albion
Neverwas: Forgotten Tales of Albion

Once upon a time there was a happy forester, named Will, who lived in the edge of the dark wildwood with his wife, Gwen, and two dear children; the boy called John and the girl called Maggie. They lived in modest comfort in a cozy little cottage made of stone with a cheery iron stove and real glass window! John made a living from cutting wood and, though this is very poor work, he loved the forest and found hidden treasure in gathering nuts and fruit, which he would sell at the market in the village. In this way he made enough to buy a steel bill to cut deadwood and brush and to prune the wild trees till he had made for himself a fine orchard hidden in the forest deeps. He even made enough to give his children each a silver penny on their birthdays and another on feast of Christmas.

His children knew how strong and brave their father was, for hidden dangers lurk within the wildwood, outlaws and gnomes and every horrid wight! Because they loved their father, the children saved their pennies and bought for him a silver watch with springs and gears and when the watch was opened it played Will’s favorite song, which (though you might not guess of such a sober and righteous man) was “Mother Watkins Ale”. Next to his own dear family, Will loved nothing more than his stout bill and his silver watch.

But to pay for such a fine life, Will was a very busy man. Five days a week he must hie to the wood with his bill and his barrow to gather wood or harvest the nuts and fruits which he sold. On the sixth day he was off to the village before the crack of dawn to sell his gleanings and to pay the piper for the feast.

Now, Gwen knew the value of a goodman who treated her well and gave her such a fine house and babes. But such hard work and long hours left Will so tired that most days he would come home and, after a fine meal and a pipe of Merkian Tabac, he would sit in his fine chair by the fire and fall fast asleep listening to the children learning their letters and their maths by the light of the hearth. Poor Gwen met this with good enough cheer, but no matter how she scolded herself, she felt lonely and missed the days when she and Will were young and had no babes underfoot. But she never spoke a word to trouble good Will or the babes, and suffered her lot in silence, till the babes were mucking the barn or away in the meadow chasing the goat.

Then she would stand as she beat the rugs or hung the wash to dry, and bemoan her lot. She cursed the forest and the silence. She wished for other women to talk to and she cursed Will for a fool to work so hard and mind her so little.

One day while Will was away to market and Gwen stood hanging the linens to dry, a man approached who was fair of face and brow. He was a strapping man with a well turned calf who looked for all the world like her Will, till looking a second time she spied the flaw. He bowed with courtly grace and begged a crust of bread and a cup of tea. Being good folk and generous as well, Gwen invited the stranger to stay for tea. While they sat, the stranger asked if Gwen had heard of a man called Will.

“Why my own dear husband is named Will!” Gwen exclaimed. “Perhaps he is the one you seek.”

They spoke further and it was soon established that he was Robert, Will’s own dear brother. They talked and talked and the time fled by, for Gwen had missed the converse of strangers these many years. Soon they fell to laughing and embraced like old friends, though there was something more to that embrace then was proper for a brother and sister in law. And as he left, he asked that Gwen say nothing of his visit, for he wished to surprise his brother whom he had not seen in many years. She was inclined to cast him out and tell her husband all, but Robert plead and importuned so sweetly that she forgave him and agreed to hold her tongue.

Robert continued to return each day while the children were in the fields doing their chores and regailed Gwen with tales of travels to foreign lands and adventures the likes of which few ever dare. The talk was so exciting and the company so sweet that Gwen grew quite fond of Robert, and in no time the brotherly kiss upon the cheek grew into something rather more intimate and not the sort of thing a good wife should ever do! If a woman yields once she’s done for, and so, because she had given in the first time, she was hard pressed to avoid so the second., till nothing was left to withhold.

One day when Will was once again at market, the children returned home for tea and found Robert comfortably seated in Will’s chair by the fire. John was quite perplexed and stood examining the stranger who had invaded their cozy home. Maggie, who was younger, marched straight to the chair and stood with her arms akimbo and her face screwed into a frown. She stared deeply into Robert’s eyes and demanded, “Why are you sitting in my father’s chair!”

“Why because it suits me, don’t you think?” Robert replied with narrowed eyes.

Gwen swept in to gather her babes and, holding them tightly, told them Robert was their father’s brother who had come a great distance to plan a surprise for them all. At that, Robert gave her a wicked smile and Gwen giggled so sweetly that the children were quite surprised, for they had seldom seen Gwen with so light a heart, short of a glass of Christmas cheer.

Gwen announced tea and the children were astonished at the table that was set for them. There were cakes and cheese, even tiny tarts made with strawberries preserved with honey. When they had eaten their fill, the babes cleared while Robert returned to the fire, and (wouldn’t you know) he began to smoke Will’s very own pipe. He sat in the chair and Gwen lit next to him, perched on the arm of the chair. The babes looked on with eyes like saucers as Gwen explained that uncle Robert would be coming to visit whenever Will was away. He would help Gwen in the cottage, John and Maggie would continue to tend the animals and the garden. There were two rules that they must strictly observe, they must not enter the cottage while Robert was there and they must never speak of Robert to Will (for that would spoil the surprise).

“And I’ll have your oath on it, my dears,” Gwen said sternly. “You must swear by thy father’s own head never to tell him what you know, until Robert and I have sprung the surprise.”

* * * *

That night after Will had come home and the babes were abed, they lay whispering of all that had transpired. They worried what Robert’s true intentions might be, yet they had given a solem oath, on their own dear father’s life, to keep silent, so they tossed and turned till sleep finally caught them and resolved to do as they’d been told. For adult affairs are no business of children.

The next day and the next Robert came to the cottage soon after Will had left, and he left again just before tea. This habit continued as the days wore on into weeks and the weeks into months. Yet the children were faithful to their promise and never entered the cottage until Robert had left. They carried pails to work filled with bread and cheese for luncheon and they wanted for nothing. Still they worried. Soon the leaves began to fall and the shadows grew longer. The cold of winter seemed to nip at them though he was still a ways off.

One sunny day the air was warm and butterflies flitted about the meadow, when a wave of clouuds swept accross the sky like a curtain and it grew quite chilly indeed. Poor Jon and Maggie were soon chilled to the bone and sat with chattering teeth, huddled together for warmth.

“We must return home for our cloaks, lest we catch a chill and die,” Maggie said.

“Nay, Maggie, for we have give our oath on the life of our own dear father. Should we break our promise we risk the life of the one who is dearest to us both!” John cried.

Our story continues:

If you like this story and want to read more check out the eBook Neverwas: Forgotten Tales of Albion on Smashwords.

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Critical Reason

As most authors must at some point or another, I have involved myself with reading circles. You can probably imagine, if you haven’t been through this personally, it is a best a mixed bag. Authors are artists first and craftsmen second and that means egoism is unavoidable. The obvious form of ego is defensiveness toward the work, though some authors scruple so stridently that they seem nearly masochistic in their desire to find negative criticism. This is partly because no one wants to be made a fool of. In other words, when your hair is mussed, you expect a concerned friend to tell you before letting you go out in public.

If you want to help, there is nothing more helpful than honestly pointing out poor habits and writing flaws, and explaining them clearly. Vague statements like, “you need to tighten it up,” are not only unhelpful, they generally disguise one of the following failures in critique. If you’ve been honest and found a real issue that is not actually a failure in your own critique, you’ll be ready to give concise examples of specific errors and suggestions on how to improve them.

Similarly, one would hope that a writer you’ve built a relationship with would have the compassion to honestly tell you when and how you have blundered in your own work. But the bugs-in-your-teeth, stoicist nightmare where all you hear are attacks and negative comments, is just as bad. If you allow yourself to be drawn in, the predatory instincts of those negative writers will distort your vision and your voice. Give them enough opportunity and they will try to make you and your work conform to their own images. When there are several, this can make for a very bad mess.

The answer is to make yourself a good critic and surround yourself with good critics. I know. The “C” word. It’s the filthiest word in the writer’s vocabulary. How much worse can you insult a fellow author than to call him or her a critic? But it remains the only salvation of the Writer’s Circle. The only way you can be sure to avoid the opportunity to harm or be harmed by the “writer’s circle” is to learn some basic rules of good criticism.

Now. I don’t propose teaching a course in Philology and Hermeneutics, but here are some critical don’ts to establish in your circle:

  • Poor Reading

It might not be intuitive, but not everyone who appreciates great books is observant or patient enough to comprehend what they read. I don’t know at the times I’ve shared a piece with a fellow writer in hopes of getting some insight or tip on how to improve it, only to find that I can’t recognize any part of the critique. For all intents and purposes they have read a piece that I never provided to them.

Such critiques, even if favorable, are insulting. As a caveat I’ll concede that agents and acquisitions editors do break a lot of the reading rules. That’s because most are inundated with a stream of hopeful writers, all of whom want to be the one chosen. They have to trim the stack so that they are only seriously considering a limited number of final choices. At that point, failing to read well would be dereliction and would cost them money and probably leave them jobless.

In a speech course in college I had a professor who suggested that you thank the audience for coming before hand. After you’ve spoken you wait for applause (or rotten eggs) but you never thank the audience because you have just provided them with a service. You’ve spoken for them and, whether they enjoy and appreciate it or not, you’ve given them something, it’s improper to thank them for listening. When you provide a work to a peer to read, you thank them for agreeing to read it before hand. After the fact you’ve done them the honor of allowing them to read it, if they can’t be bothered to actually do the reading, and do it well, then they’ve failed you and themselves.

  • Blinding forestructure

We all come with baggage. For a writer this is gold. You can draw on your own experiences and perspectives to flesh out your characters. Only a little bit of synthesis can turn that childhood haircutting faux pas into an insight into the tortured psyche of a werewolf with a heart of gold.

When reading for pleasure, that forestructure of memories and ideas helps to shape our choices and helps us to identify with characters and situations. But that is a double edged sword. The same baggage that makes reading and writing a rich experience, colors our perspective and prejudices our analysis. The good critic has to be able to set aside personal forestructure and read objectively. This is tricky because too much objectivity makes Joan a dull girl. There is a balance to be maintained. Allowing our forestructure to inform our reading, while recognizing our own preconceptions, is central to good critique.

  • Skimming

One of the most common types of bad reading is skimming. Students learn to do this, some even call it speed reading. Realistically it’s nothing more than laziness. Some claim “comprehension levels” with high percentages and justify it as a superior method of reading. However the speedy delivery does little for most readers and while they may retain an impression of the content, the details will be blurred at best and, in most readers, they’re just wrong. Real learning and effective critique is completely dependent on a steady, careful digestion of the material. If fact, I recommend rereading several times. Now if you initially skim, that may work, so long as you don’t rely on that for critique.

  • Quitting

Finish the work. I don’t care if it is the most trite and boring drivel, or if it offends you to the core. There is no good excuse for critiquing a work that you haven’t carefully read all way through. There may be some material that so boring, offensive or poorly written to your sensibilities that you simply cannot read it. That’s fair, if your certain you’ve given it a fair shake considering the previous issues. Your only option to finishing is to quit and explain that fact to your fellow author. Another reason you may not finish is distraction or overwork. Maybe you feel you have too little time. Whatever your reason for not finishing the work, DO NOT CRITIQUE. It’s fair to explain the content that offended you and why. Be honest. But don’t assume that your partial reading gives you any room to critique the work as a whole. For all you know the plot turns and the elements you found distasteful become the core for a very strong and appealing argument of your own view of the material.

  • Anachronism

After poor reading the next most common problem is anachronism. This is a variation of the basic theme of blinding forestructure, but it qualifies as a discrete issue because even otherwise careful and conscientious readers fall prey to it. We start to learn about what is real and observable by the age of three. Between three and nine most people learn the fundamental perspective that will shape the remainder of their lives. The whole nature versus nurture and early socialization bug-aboo comes back to bite in the most awkward times. It’s only to be expected that it would affect the reader by causing them to interpret the believability of a story element in terms of one’s “real life” experience. This is death to the critic. A part of fiction is the need to seduce the reader into accepting the character’s preconceptions in place of their own.

For a medieval fantasy character, it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that the supernatural is all around. A devout religious person in Europe, would still leave a saucer of milk on the back porch, “for the fae folk.” The large number of fat stray cats was entirely unrelated to the fact that the fairies drained every drop during the night.

If a reader can’t get past her own culturally bound view that belief in fairies is silly, that reader is useless to you. This principal usually crops up in less obvious places: clothing styles, sexual moires, religious experiences, common household tasks, political correctness, etc. A great example is the banning and revision of Samuel Clemmons’ (Mark Twain’s) Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Two works whose entire purpose was to enlighten and teach racial tolerance and progressive ideals, have been butchered and history has been perverted to serve the purposes of extremists.

  • Narcisism

By far the worst negative feedback error, is being so self absorbed that you spend a large chunk of your critique allowing your own voice or person to be the focus. You’ve agreed to help someone else to perfect themselves, to improve as a writer and critic. That never means making them over in your own image. That never means being derogatory or snide.

  • Mistaking your personal preferences for quality standards

Every author has his or her own voice. Perhaps you dislike the flow and play of a given author’s work. You probably aren’t the best critic if every time an author you are reviewing says something, you feel the need to change the word order and rewrite. Now that rule could be taken to extreme. I’m not saying you shouldn’t point out bad writing. There are commonly accepted standards for bad writing, these include but aren’t limited to: excessive use of passive voice (the gun doesn’t get picked up, the villain picks up the gun), bad grammar, excessive misspelling and typos, lack of punctuation, run-ons, inappropriately florid prose (where it doesn’t fit the tone of the subject or setting), unrealistic dialog, and too many more to fit here. Really, covering them all would require an undergrad program in lit. 😛 But we know them or learn them quickly enough. But when you go beyond the common standards by applying personal preference, pet peeves or trendy conventions as a standard of quality, you’re too narrow minded and incompetent to be an effective critic. It’s a fine balance and one that has to be learned by experience. It can’t be taught wholesale.

The other main way personal taste can adversely affect the quality of criticism is by comparing this author’s vision to another author who dealt with the same subject. The temptation to do so is palpable. But just don’t do it. Using other authors as exemplar models is fine and it’s probably the best way to teach. But it’s one thing to find an author with a similar concept and style and use that  to demonstrate ways of improving. It’s quite another to compare to an author’s work with that of a completely dissimilar author who happens to have written your favorite treatment of the same subject. The second is just sniping. Never tell your subject that he or she has failed to handle the subject well simply because of a different approach to the same subject. Morte’ d’Artur is often held as the standard of Arthurian Romance. This doesn’t entitle you to tell the author of an YA about Arthur that she’s done poorly simply because she doesn’t focus on the sexual tension and murderous jealousies that tore Camelot in shreds, and doesn’t use Hoc Seil Latin of the French court as her chosen dialect. Understand that a new perspective on a work is not the same as the tawdry “revisioning” so rampant in Hollywood film.

Again, there are cases where the new perspective is tawdry or just bad. It’s a matter of practice and judgment to discover where that line falls and to identify where personal prejudice lies. You’ll have a much harder time seeing narcissism in your critique than other readers. The only other reader to that is likely to be as blind to your failure as a critic is your subject author. If that author lacks criticism as a skill, he or she may be so crushed and discouraged as to quit. You may have eliminated competition but you’ve helped no one, especially not yourself.

  • Talking about yourself rather than the piece.

By far the worst error, is being so self absorbed that you spend a large chunk of text talking about yourself, and your own experiences rather than the work you are critiquing. The author who has entrusted his work with you doesn’t need to hear about the other books you’ve read and loved. He doesn’t need to hear about your skill levels. He doesn’t need to hear how you are more honest, responsible and knowledgeable at critique. Get yourself out of the picture so you can see objectively enough to help the other author improve his work. That’s the only way you’ll deserve the same from him.

  • Ethnocentrism

You and the family, community, nation, federation, even continent you live on are not the center of the universe or the literary world. You must be capable of allowing alien environments in novels to be alien. That means your cultural and moral standards do not apply to the characters. You are allowed to disapprove of the characters, of their choices, even their society. That’s part of what novels, and speculative fiction even more so, are intended for. They let you explore your feelings and reactions to things you are not likely to see in your own environment, or consider feelings about elements of your environment in an objective manner. Granted, sometimes an author is using a scoop shovel where a teaspoon is needed and that “over the top” style needs, in many cases, to be reigned in to make a story work. But sometimes splashy, in your face, confrontation is needed to make the point and build a thought provoking and entertaining story. Ask yourself if your reaction is really in proportion to the elements that offend your sensibilities.

  • Personal Offense

At some point you will be offended. An author will write something that is just so offensive you cannot avoid reacting negatively. For some, a novel portraying US soldiers conducting a pogrom against Native Americans, or National Socialists running a concentration camp would be difficult. If the men acting in this way were then portrayed in a positive light, it would be offensive. There are other hot button topics that many others would react to as violently.

What’s the answer? Give a review explaining how unrealistic and stupid the novel is? Hardly. Nazis and 19’th century US Army personnel were family men and had private lives filled with loved ones and sentimental, even sympathetic themes. You may know that intellectually, but may still be deeply offended, because history shows they were also monsters. The answer is to inform the subject that those elements are offensive in a deeply personal way and you are not capable of reviewing the work. That’s the end of it. Even if the subject begs, you should never do more than explain why you took offense and how the tone would have to change for you to be able to accept it. This must never be couched in terms of “the story is bad because” and “you must do this to make it better”. Offense distorts reason. You can’t honestly know if the novel is bad, you aren’t qualified to review it.

  • Spare Feelings

I’ve dealt the major negative reactions that kill a critique, but the worst overall flaw is the false positive. As I said initially, an honest critique with negative responses is like saving a friend from humiliation. You don’t let a friend leave the house with bed-head or mismatched shoes. You also mustn’t set someone up for failure by looking for all the nice things you can say. If there really is nothing good you can say you should say so, and explain why. If you actually can find nothing that needs improvement you should say that too, but the likelihood is that you aren’t being honest with yourself or your subject. Honesty is the greatest kindness. Honesty in reading, honesty in analysis, honesty in personal preference and reactions — these are important to keep you from discouraging the subject unfairly. But it is just as bad to unfairly encourage them, while setting them up for failure and embarrassment. If you are positively impressed by the work, and you have been honest in critique, you’ll be able to offer concise examples and encouragement.

As most authors must at some point or another, I have involved myself with reading circles. You can probably imagine, if you haven’t been through this personally, it is a best a mixed bag. Authors are artists first and craftsmen second and that means egoism is unavoidable. The obvious form of ego is defensiveness toward the work, though some authors scruple so stridently that they seem nearly masochistic in their desire to find negative criticism. This is partly because no one wants to be made a fool of. In other words, when your hair is mussed, you expect a concerned friend to tell you before letting you go out in public.

If you want to help, there is nothing more helpful than honestly pointing out poor habits and writing flaws, and explaining them clearly. Vague statements like, “you need to tighten it up,” are not only unhelpful, they generally disguise one of the following failures in critique. If you’ve been honest and found a real issue that is not actually a failure in your own critique, you’ll be ready to give concise examples of specific errors and suggestions on how to improve them.

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