Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Challenge Answered (and a little explanation)

When Bill laid the gauntlet down, I immediately said yes, even though I knew good and well that trying to write like Robert E. Howard is a fool's game. Even to go Howardesque invites scorn and ridicule. Nevertheless, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about what goes into the hopper to make Howard's writing so good. I thought that it would be fun to play with his "clash of cultures" idea that he used to great effect in most of his stories. There was always someone different or apart from the rest in Howard's work. Conan, in his youth, is the outsider, the barbarian, in such stories as "The God in the Bowl," but clearly Working For The Man in "Beyond the Black River" as he battles the savage Picts.

Anyway, for some reason, I keyed in on The Northern Warrior and so that is what pulled the story in this particular direction. It's a mere 1,600 words. But I tried, like REH, to pack as much story into the space as possible. So, give it a read and tell me how I did.

(Side Note to the CWSB Crew: If I win this bet, I'll make it worth your while, as I happen to know Bill makes a hellacious lasagna, for he taught me the recipe. No pressure, here. But seriously: godly lasagna.)

A Challenge Answered

by Mark Finn

Brannon Harak, the northern warrior, kicked the door open. There was murder in his eyes and cold steel in his hand. “Vahid!” he screamed. The muscles of his neck strained against the collar of his ring mail shirt as he cast his gaze about the room. The inner sanctum of the keep was as opulent and decadent as the main hall. Rich silk tapestries dripped down the rough stone walls, and rounded oil lamps hung from chains in the ceiling, swaying gently in the night air. Each guttering flame cast amber light into every corner, while errant shadows played across the ornate, heavy furnishings in the room.

One light burned brighter than any of the lamps, and that was the arrangement of candles at the head of a large stone table. Laying on that table, covered in white linens, was Nissa. Her golden hair spilled down over the lip of the table, and her eyes were closed. Standing over her, still in his riding garb, was Count Vahid. The wrappings from his head were loose, hanging to one side of his dark face. He stared at the Northman with a mixture of disbelief and unconcealed hatred.

“What have you done to her?” Harak thundered, crossing the distance between them in a half dozen massive strides. Before he could reach Vahid or the altar, the Count drew his own curved tulwar and the blades crashed uselessly together over the woman’s still form.

“I? Nothing!” Vahid turned Harak’s broadsword away and swung around the altar. “She caught an arrow from your men as we rode back to my castle.” He slashed at Harak’s head, the sharp steel whirring through the air as Harak jumped back. “I was tending to her wounds when you kicked open the door.”

Harak roared and leapt forward, his blade cleaving great arcs before him. “I’ll not leave her to your foul magic! She lives or dies by Jheran’s whim, not your black deviltry!”

Vahid barely drew his curved fighting knife in time to deflect the rain of steel that sought his hide. He countered and parried with both blades, his lips drawn back in a sneer of contempt. Unable to penetrate Vahid’s defenses, Harak aimed a kick at the Count’s midsection.

But Vahid was adept at close quarters melee, and he caught Harak’s boot on his thigh and turned down and away, sweeping his leg against the giant’s unprotected knee. The maneuver would have shattered the bones of a lesser man, but Harak simply fell down and away with a grunt.

Vahid stood over him, the point of his curved sword inches from his face. “You ignorant savage. Our ways are neither foul nor unclean. You would treat her wound with prayer, while I would use herbs and medicines.”

“Don’t speak to me of civilization, Count,” said Harak. He clutched his knee and grimaced. “You sweep into our village in the dead of night, when we had brokered peace with your city-state not a fortnight ago! Your men set fire to our Great Hall so that you can spirit away the king’s daughter in the confusion. Not even the Jaffiri in the West would stoop to such barbarous tactics!”

“And what was your plan, General Harak? I can hear no nattering diplomats in my courtyard below. Not unless all of your Chieftain’s court ride chargers and swing swords.” He withdrew the point of his sword and walked to the window. “No, indeed, it would appear that my men have yours at a distinct disadvantage right now.”

“Liar!” Harak roared. He staggered to his feet, favoring the leg. Truthfully, the blow hadn’t hurt him at all, but Harak knew what a crafty fighter Vahid was, and knew he could use the theatrics to his advantage. “I brought a squad of my finest men.”

“And yet, they seem unable to kill boiling oil and crossbow bolts,” Vahid said. He smiled. “It would appear that you are to be my guest while I conclude negotiations with your chieftain for sweet Nissa, here.” He bowed slightly, and moved away from the window. “See for yourself, Oh mighty oaf, for I can plainly see that you do not believe me.”

Harak approached the window, wary of Vahid’s blade, but the Count retreated behind the stone table where Nissa lay, allowing Harak to spare a glance down into the courtyard below. What he saw sickened him. He had ridden through the city and into the keep with forty-eight men. Now there were less than a dozen of them, pinned between two portcullis gates. Archers were running up the steps to the ramparts, nocking arrows as they went in their eagerness to rain death down on the intruders. The men had formed a perfect shield wall, circular, but their shields and their will would only last so long. It would be a slaughter.

Harak turned to the count. “Spare my men,” he said. “Spare them and I’ll turn myself over as your hostage.”

Vahid smiled at Harak. “Your word?”

“Aye. My word.” Harak set his broad sword down and backed away from it. “Spare them.”

Vahid strolled back to the window and shouted down in Farese. Harak never bothered to learn the language, but he recognized the shouted reply that drifted back up to the window. He breathed a sigh of relief and clasped his hands behind his back.

Satisfied that his orders were being carried out, Count Vahid turned to face Harak again, and something kicked him in the chest and knocked the wind out of him. He staggered back against the window and saw a small throwing axe embedded in his chest. It had gone through his leather jerkin like paper. He tried to speak but produced only a bloody cough. His eyes were accusing as he slid to the floor.

Harak reclaimed his sword and sheathed it, watching Vahid for any sudden movement. “And what good is your word, that you have broken our peace?” Harak said quietly to the dying man. “We are enemies. Now and ever more. As it has always been, so shall it always be.”

Vahid summoned the will to gasp out, “It is…our way…”

Harak reached down and planted his foot on Vahid’s shoulder and pulled out his axe. A ribbon of blood and air followed its withdrawal and the Vahid was gone in seconds. “We are too different, our people,” Harak said as he turned away, now thinking only of Nissa.

She was still breathing, Harak saw, and he cradled her head as gently as he could in his hands. “Nissa?” he said. “Can you hear me?”

Her eyes fluttered. “Oh, my Love…” she said.

Harak’s heart swelled and jumped in his chest. It was the first time she had ever addressed him in so intimate a fashion. Their exchanges in court had always been notoriously formal.

“It is I, Brannon,” he said. “You are safe, for now. Can you move?”

Nissa’s eyes opened, pale, blue, and questioning. “What…happened? Brannon? I don’t understand…”

“You were kidnapped,” Brannon said shortly as he examined the wound in her side. “Spirited right out of the Great Hall by Count Vahid and his mongrel horde.”

“Where is he?” she cried.

“It’s all right,” he said, smiling, his voice now gentle. “He won’t bother you any more. Well,” he said, standing up, “I think we can wrap your wound up with some of this silk and then get you on a horse…” he turned around to pull one of the tapestries down. Behind him, Nissa had started to sob, but he couldn’t be bothered to deal with that just now. They weren’t out of danger yet.

Something hit Brannon on the back, under his shoulder blade; it felt like a pinched muscle as it made his back spasm. He tried to draw a breath and found in a panic that he couldn’t. There was a second hit, and then a third, and now he knew he was being stabbed. He let out a bellow of rage, sweeping wide around for the assassin that must have climbed in through one of the open windows and found only Nissa, holding a bloody ceremonial fighting dagger. In fact, it was a dagger the King had given her on her last birthday.

“You fool!” she screamed. “You great, lumbering fool!”

Brannon moved to take the knife away from her, but he still couldn’t get his lungs to fill with air and his grab became a lunge that she easily sidestepped. He landed awkwardly on the stone table, his back soaked wet with his own blood. “I saved you…” he said.

“You didn’t save me! I wanted to leave! Vahid and I were in love! The peace accord was part of our plan to wed!” Nissa pointed at Vahid. “He was going to make me a queen! I would have ruled this city-state! Not some collection of shacks and huts. Oh, you stupid fool, you’ve ruined everything.”

Brannon could only watch as Nissa pulled the Count’s cloak and broach off of his body and fasten it around herself. “Maybe I can stay here. I’ve got to find Zelik and the Master at Arms.”

“Nissa,” Brannon gasped. He tried to stand. “I’m…I’m…” He never got the rest of his apology out. She walked out of the room, swearing in Farese. As the dark tunnel slowly closed off his vision, he thought, I didn’t know she could speak that foreign devil’s tongue. He fell, not an arm’s length from the man he killed.

Outside the window, a shrill command was shouted. Arrows twanged in the night air. And all was silent.


  1. Coming out of lurker mode to let you know I enjoyed your story. Captured my attention and kept it the whole way through. I'm not very familiar with Robert E. Howard (shame on me) so had to look him up. I didn't know he created Conan the Barbarian. Learn something new every day. Blood and Thunder looks interesting. Will have to check it out. Thanks for the entertaining short read. Has the makings of a grand story.

  2. To Mark: Well done, sir. You hit it out of the park.

    To Willingham: Pay up, bitch.

  3. Outstanding! Enjoy the lasagna! -Dave

  4. Yep, Bill owes you, Mark.

    I know it's blasphemy in your eyes, but this is usually not my kind of thing.

    But I really dug it.

    One thing: "'Don't speak to me of civilization, Count,' said Vahid," should be said by Harak. You plowed into a deer at 65 mph days into the challenge, though, and threw down quickly, so that happens.

    Fun stuff!

  5. Nicely done, Mark, and so densely packed! A love triangle, two betrayals, two onscreen deaths, dozens of off-screen deaths, all in 1500 words. I can't wait for the lasagna.

  6. I have read your response to Bill's challenge, Finn, and judge it to be An Excellent Story. Well done!

  7. I am pleased you all approve. Interestingly, writing this story was a lot like doing an imitaion of a famous celebrity. You never can sound exactly like the person; the best impressionists look for those mannerisms and verbal tics that uniquely signify. Were I to approach this same story in plot and structure, it would read pretty differently, I think. It would be longer, for sure, at least by a thousand words or so, and some of the affectations that I earmarked as Howardian would be absent.

    Where Howard always shined most strongly in my own work (he said with no trace of modesty) is in my fight and action scenes. If I absorbed anything from REH intuitively, it was that.

  8. Hey Mark, could you talk about some of those REH affectations that you used? And were there some that you just -couldn't- use? I haven't read enough Howard, so I know I'm missing them.

  9. Nice work Mark. I smelled a little Fritz Leiber in there too.

  10. In a very late answer to Daryl's question, the main thing I tried to do (and, I think, didn't pull off so well) was utilize Howard's sense of poetical economy. Howard was pretty good at taking that old chestnut of "As you know, Bob," and turning it into, if nothing else, driving exposition that you wanted to read more of. I did that, I think, pretty well, but it was the poetical part I Epic Failed on. What to Howard was mentally intuitive was to me torturous and labored. Some of his paragraphs read like prose poems, with meter and rhythm and everything. I doubt even he knew he was doing it.

    I also tried to invest in my little story an earnestness of character. You root for the Northman, because he seems like the natural pov character. But everyone else's motives are just as sincere, and in the end, ruthless. No one likes anyone in the story. Even handed misogyny. Another Howard specialty.

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