10 Questions with a Twist

Regulars at CWT will already have guessed how I would reply to today’s Daily Prompt. It seems quite simple, right? 10 easy questions, answer ’em and go.

Of course, doing it the ordinary way has never held much appeal to me, so I have turned it once again into an exercise in character development. Readers, meet (or meet again) Flann Hildebrand, the reluctant hero of Another Sword. Flann, answer the questions with minimal sarcasm, please.

10 Questions as Flann Hildebrand

 

  1. What is your favorite word? Charge.
  2. What is your least favorite word? Dead.
  3. What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? Hmm… I don’t tend to get turned on. I turn myself on and switch myself off whenever I feel like it. But there’s something about a good horse running, the Knights of the Lamb battle cry, and a Scripture passionately and wholeheartedly read aloud that gives me chills.
  4. What turns you off? A Scripture read like it’s a cold, dead piece of writing. Read it like it lives. Read it like it’s on fire. Oh, and lazy people turn me off too.
  5. What is your favorite curse word? Well, my favourite curse word used to be pretty unprintable. These days, I tend to stick to “Shea’s underpants”. Don’t tell Demetrius.
  6. What sound or noise do you love? Tariq – my horse – whinnying when he sees me for the first time in the early mornings.
  7. What sound or noise do you hate? Easy. Screaming girls. They’re always my problem and generally need defending. Alarm bells, too. Anything that means another battle.
  8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? I can’t imagine being anything but a knight, but I think I’d have fun as a horse trainer.
  9. What profession would you not like to do? Politics. I suck at them. I usually leave the politics to Demetrius; all I do is poke swords in people when they threaten him. Quite simple.
  10. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” Call me corny, but it’s true.
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Of Horses and Their People – Part V

The message flickers once and disappears, leaving us all in a stunned silence. My heart is in my horseshoes. I look sideways at B. C. and see sweat break out on his neck with stress. Skye is stiff and motionless on my back. What now?

Behind me, Rain’s ear-splitting neigh of indignation breaks the silence. What?! How dare they kidnap our parents?! THEY SHALL DIE!!

“Rain! Stay calm for twenty seconds and listen to me!” Skye snaps. “We have to stay calm. We have to think. I appreciate this may be a new skill for you,” she adds acidly.

My horse is being mean, so she must be worried. Skye’s never worried. About anything. I shiver.

Okay, okay, let’s think about this. B. C. closes his eyes and sighs. We need to get out of here, but we can’t just leave Firn’s ‘rents here. There’s no knowing… He shudders. Well, I know what they will do. And it’s not pretty.

What… what will they do, B. C.? I ask.

B. C. turns to me, but his eyes are clouded with pain. They want to turn us into centaurs.

Centaurs? Immediately, an image of Glenstorm the Centaur from Narnia flashes across my mind. Well, that doesn’t sound too bad… being a creature with a human’s torso and a horse’s body and legs. Except…

What happens to the horse’s head? I whisper.

Exactly. B. C. tosses his head, fear lending urgency to his gestures. To become a centaur or any beast of man’s alteration, not God’s creation, would be to be half an animal. Living on the loss of another’s death. He adds, quietly, We horses would be the first to die. But I doubt mankind would last much longer.

“It’s like a nightmare,” says Skye.

It’s like a horror movie, says B. C., and we both shudder.

And that’s what they’re going to do to my ‘rents, I whisper.

“Not on my watch.” I hear the click as Skye cocks her pistol.

But Skye, they’re hostages. How can we stop them from being killed?

“Simple,” says my horse. “We turn ourselves in.”

We gawk.

Skye leans down and speaks under her breath, far too quietly for security cameras to pick up, but easily audible for a horse’s ears. “I’d speak in horse language, but we don’t have a word for deceit. We pretend to turn ourselves in. If we work together, we can overcome all these guards, machine guns and all, with the element of surprise. I’m guessing none of them understand horse?”

B. C. snorts. No, or by now they’d know every swearword in the equine language.

There are swearwords in the equine language? I ask.

Firn, you know that look Siobhan used to give you every time you rode out one of her bucking fits instead of falling?

Yeah?

Well… there are swearwords in the equine language.

“Guys!” hisses Skye. “Listen to me! We have to speak to the herd. But that’s our only option if we’re going to save the lead mare and stallion of Firn’s herd. We have to turn ourselves in and, when they least expect it, all strike at once. Unity. We have to work as a herd.”

Will the herd accept it? asks B. C.

Skye shrugs. “I don’t know. But we have to try. You tell them, chestnut pony.”

Pony? Speak for yourself! I’m all of sixteen-three hands, thank you! B. C. turns towards the other herd members and neighs loudly to get their attention. Then he speaks in horse language, simply. We have everything to lose. Freedom, dignity, life, each other. But we can’t just walk out here and leave two of our kind to suffer. We have a plan, but it’s risky, and will only succeed if we work together. And none of us can pretend to be able to force you to go through with it.

The silence is deathly, and my heart stops. Then Rain steps forward, swishing her long blonde tail with way too much attitude.

You know the laws of the horses, she says. Only fight when you must; this looks like a must to me. And always stay with the herd. That means when your herd’s in trouble, you fight for it. She raises her head and neighs deafeningly. Who’s with me?

The resultant chorus of neighs and shouts coming from every horse and person standing beside us almost repeats the Jericho sequence, but not quite. It’s still enough to send tremors of sound and hope into the deepest fabric of my soul.

I AM!

Skye turns to the nearest security camera and speaks calmly into it. “We surrender,” she says, drawing her 9mm and the machine gun at her hip and dropping them both on the ground. Arwen and Magic copy her. Thunder, who was busy chewing on the end of his machine gun to see if it was edible, looks puzzled. “Why are you dropping those, mommy? They’re shiny,” he points out. “And interesting to chew.”

“Put that down, sweetheart,” says Skye. “It’s not wise to put guns in your mouth.”

“Yes, mom.” Thunder drops the gun, to my intense relief.

Almost immediately, a swarm of guards in unitards, heavily armed, appears and surrounds us. One of them lays a hand flat on my shoulder and gives me a shove back down the corridor. “Move along, pony.”

B. C. flattens his ears until his skull and bares his teeth. Don’t hurt her! He jostles between the guard and me and we trot nervously back down the corridor, a cacophony of hoofbeats, some humans riding, some running between us.

Skye runs. It helps her think.

The guards drive us back through creepy door 13 and into the freaky lab, where they have managed to get the electricity going. We trot across the mangled bridge and down a long staircase, stumbling – it wasn’t designed for hooves – until we get to the main floor of the lab. Lit with the eerie blue electric lights, tiled in white, it’s a typical lab. Rats in cages, some with grossly disfigured faces, missing tails and hands like humans, squeak piteously. Machines beep, whir and spin. Things go gloop in long glass tubes and I’m sure there’s a pickled eyeball floating around in a jar on one table.

Then I spot them. My parents. Confined in a strange glass cage, they stand close together, sheltering each other. They couldn’t be more different; Dad is a massive bay draft horse with a neck that looks like it was carved from bronze and hooves the size of cake tins, while Mom is a pretty dappled pony, little taller – but much more delicate – than me.

Mom! Dad! Rain’s neigh shatters the silence. She lunges forward, but B. C. slams his weight into her, restraining her. Shhh! Remember the plan! he snorts.

I wanna kill some guards! Rain whines.

Later, Rain, I say.

Awwww, okay, Rain sighs.

Standing in front of the glass cage is a tall man in a lab coat. He wears half-moon glasses and has the typical slanted eyebrows, thin white hands and weird pointy beard of The Arch Villain. I wonder if he had plastic surgery to look like that. He looks like Voldemort. He probably did.

“Ah, so you have joined us,” he purrs as we clatter to a halt. “Kind of you.”

“Don’t patronise me, human,” spits Skye, folding her arms. “Set them free. You have us now.”

“Oh, I never said I’d let them go, mare,” says The Arch Villain, his smile curving like a scimitar. “I only said I’d let them live.” He chuckles. “As legs and body for a new generation of species.”

I go cold. What if this doesn’t work? I quaver.

It’ll work, Firn. It has to work, says B. C., not taking his eyes off Skye. She will give the signal.

Rain nudges me. Hey, Firn. See that? she gestures at a tall urn full of green fluid. It’s marked “Antidote.”

Maybe we can get hold of that somehow, I say.

Skye snorts at the Arch Villain. “I should have expected it from a slimy double-crossing man like you. Men! They never were trustworthy.”

Hey! squawks B. C.

“You’re not a man, B. C., you’re a colt so you don’t count,” says Skye smoothly.

Hey!!!! squawks B. C., even more indignant.

She doesn’t mean it, I say soothingly.

“Maybe, maybe not,” says the Arch Villain, twiddling with the knobs on one of his machines. “I know I’m not trustworthy.” He laughs. “What a wonderful creature a horse is… Trusting. Gentle. Patient. They can’t lie, they cannot deceive… Perfectly splendid, don’t you think? And that is what sets them so far below humans.” He smiles at her. “You signed your own death warrant by trusting me, little pony. They say there is no secret so close as that between a horse and rider. Maybe we’ll see just how close that secret can get.” He snaps his fingers. “The audacious lady and the little bay pony, immediately,” he orders.

A horde of guards step forward, surrounding me, rough hands grabbing at my mane and tail. I squeal briefly in shock and kick out, but they effortlessly grab my hindlegs and lift me off the ground. I hear B. C. roar like a stallion and a guard screams in pain; but Skye yells, “B. C.! Stop!” and Rain neighs, The plan! and it’s without further opposition that the guards manhandle me up onto a platform just like my parents’ glass cage. The Arch Villain pressed a button and a glass dome slides down over me, trapping me. I’m too scared to move, quaking where I stand.

“And this one?” the guards ask, holding Skye by her arms. She doesn’t resist, but quivers with rage.

“Put her in there,” says the Arch Villain, pushing another button that lifts the glass dome over my parents. They jump aside as the guards wave machine guns at them and throw Skye onto the platform. At that moment, she waves a hand in a sweeping, slicing gesture and the herd goes mad. As one, they turn on their guards, taking them down with kicks and bites too fast for machine guns to counter; the Arch Villain yells, alarms blare and I throw myself against the glass, fighting to break out, terrified, lost. Then a familiar voice neighs, Stand back! and I stagger backwards as B. C. rears and brings both forefeet smashing onto the glass. It shatters, raining splinters everywhere, and we both gallop into the fray, but we have everything to fight for and the guards have nothing. It’s over in minutes. They flee – all but the Arch Villain, who snags a machine gun and aims it at my head.

“Not so fast, pony,” he sneers.

My mom and dad kick simultaneously. He probably never even knew what hit him, but I did: The devastating power of parental love. Skye steps over to the body and nudges it aside. “I’m sorry that had to happen to you,” she says. “But that’s what you get for it when you mess with God’s creation.”

Mom! Dad! I whinny, running up to my parents, who immediately start to nibble-groom me with their teeth. It’s like a horsy hug, and it’s the best hug I’ve had in a looong, long time.

Are you okay, Firn? Mom asks.

I’m fine, Mom, now that you guys are safe, I say.

Thanks for your help, squirt, says Dad, whose 18hh bulk justifies my nickname.

Help? We saved you all by ourselves, says Rain cockily.

Think so? Dad smiles at her, his dark forelock hiding his eyes. Why do you think the alarms failed, the electricity clashed as catastrophically as it did and the guards were so slow to respond? Computer programmers can be hackers too, you know.

You broke into their systems? squawks B. C.

Yes, says Dad, with pardonable pride. And your mom here only prevented certain people with attitudes from being killed, oh, fifty or sixty times?

I can be convincing when I need to be, says Mom meekly.

What attitudes? chorus B. C. and Rain.

I rest my case, says Dad. Now, let me help that fat brown horse of yours to figure out that antidote.

With Dad doing the thinking and Skye doing the stubbornness, it’s not long before they’ve worked out the dosage for the antidote. Thunder and Magic help to carry the huge urn of green liquid and we all head outside, Dad’s brains and brawn being of invaluable assistance in opening and enlarging the exit hole. At last we’re all back out into the star-studded night with the full moon surfing on silver mares’ tails and the smells of grass and hay bales rising all around us.

B. C., Rain, Skye and I join the ranks of horses and people all standing in readiness as Mom readies the antidote, giving Arwen instructions on drawing up tiny dosages in syringes they pinched from the lab.

“Who’s first?” asks Arwen, holding up the syringe. B. C. groans beside me and buries his face in my mane.

Me, says Mom, calmly.

“What if it doesn’t work?” asks Arwen.

I trust Jon, says Mom. It will work.

Arwen gulps and gently pushes the needle under Mom’s skin. My mother stands still, unflinching, as the quivering Arwen injects the antidote. My heart thumps in my chest. I should have volunteered, I should never have let –

There is a sound like a gumboot being removed from a particularly wet dung heap, and where the pretty grey pony stood, my mom is there; short and kind-faced, but with a wiry strength. (Thankfully, also fully clothed).

MOM! Rain and I squeal.

Is it over? enquires B. C. from the depths of my mane.

Yes! Look! She’s human again! We’ll all be human again!

After that, Mom was in her element, helping everybody as laughing, neighing they transformed back into themselves, injection after injection. The horses ran in laps around the grassy paddock, stuffed their faces with hay or threw themselves down and rolled. Arwen, once again a dish-faced grey mare with a perfect white diamond on her forehead, tore snorting around in circles before attempting to kick anyone in sight. Siobhan, a bay pony, trampled three humans and broke two fences, heading for home. Magic leapt and curvetted, a graceful grey gelding. Thunder, stolid and bay, gave one giant bunny hop into the air before coming to the ground and amiably beginning to lick the nearest person.

Rain, a tall blonde girl, danced in graceful ballet moves that cut swathes through the wavy grass. Dad, once again a bearded man, used a piece of wire, some spit and half of someone’s hanky to fashion a multiple-dose syringe that speeded up the process.

B. C., Skye and I were last. Skye gritted her teeth as Mom injected her shoulder, gasped once and transformed. She was beautiful as a human, but as a horse, she’s dazzling; a collection of sleek chestnut curves that bend and flow like a symphony. She steps over to me and with paralyzing joy, for the first time I experience her as a horse experiences another; her smell, her beauty, her language. We breathe into each other’s nostrils, blowing thoughts at each other, smells, emotions until I would have cried, if I was human.

But I’m not, and then it’s over, and B. C. is standing squished close against me as Mom gently injects me in the neck. The needle pinches slightly, I screw my eyes tight shut and the world spins. My senses blur and fade; smell and hearing all but vanish, touch virtually disappears and the next thing I know I’m lying on the ground, cheek pressed against the grass. Cheek. Wait. I’m lying facedown. I sit up, and realise that I’m human; short and thin and undeniably human.

“That’s it,” says Mom’s voice above me. “It’s all right again.” She hugs me close, then walks away to help Dad doctor the handful of injuries from the fight.

“Being human suits you,” says B. C., and I get up and see that he’s human too – the way he was made to be. I almost break his ribs with one of my epic hugs and sigh deeply.

“I’m glad that’s over!” I say.

“Yeah, it was tough, but it was a pretty cool adventure,” says B. C.

“Yeah…” I watch the horses run laps through the grass, led by their queen, the indomitable Skye who never gave up. “I think I’m going to miss being a horse, though. I know God made me to be human, but it’s weird not to be able to smell and touch and understand the way a horse does. And run. And be strong. I miss that. Humans can’t be powerful and graceful at the same time the way horses can.”

B. C.’s big warm hand engulfs mine, fingers intertwining.

“Horses can’t do this,” he says.

Of Horses and Their People, Part I

“This is just my luck!”

My scream comes out as an extremely loud and indignant whinny, or at least, as loud and indignant a whinny as it is possible for a pony of my size to admit. I have loved horses all of my life, and as a little(r) girl, I often imagined being a horse. Perhaps a splendid palomino mare, or a gorgeous black Arab as fast as the wind. But I had all but forgotten the whole idea when that bunch of mad scientists released species-changing toxins into the water to see if it would work. One sip of water and foom! I am a human by day and a horse by night.

Well, I say “horse”. In disgust, I look down at the ground, which, it has to be said, is not very far away. I am not a splendid palomino or a gorgeous black Arab. Instead, I’m pretty much the horse version of my human self: Small, skinny, rather timid and possessing hair of a depressing shade of muddy brown. Because it’s winter, I have the added disadvantage of being fluffy.

I snort loudly.

“Hello you,” says a beautiful rich voice behind me, and all disgust vanishes. I turn around with my ears pricked and give a soft, loving nicker. My horse, Skye, is stunning as a horse, but she doesn’t make a bad-looking human either. A tall blonde with smooth buff skin and a strong, athlete’s build, her Roman nose only serves to make her profile look sharp and noble, like an eagle’s. She buttons up a borrowed jacket and looks distastefully at the long jeans I put out for her. Spotting my flattened ears, she shakes a lock of silver-blonde hair out of her face.

“No, I’m not getting cold,” she says. It’s winter, but she’s only wearing a knee-length pair of cutoff jeans – cut off with my pocketknife two nights ago and hidden somewhre in a hay bale where I can’t find and confiscate them since. “You know I hate stuff on my legs.”

I snort again. I know this only too well; when we were still the right shapes, we almost crushed my trainer when Skye felt the touch of a piece of wire on her hindlegs.

“These are good though.” Skye all but purrs with glee as she pulls on a pair of thick socks and boots. I give her a happy nudge with my muzzle. Skye’s soft soles have been a problem for ages.

Fully dressed, Skye gets up. Most of the human-animals I’ve met so far move awkwardly in their new shapes, unused to the extra or missing pair of legs, but Skye moves with liquid grace – she always does.

Come on, I say in horse speak, which is basically body language of a depth no human could fully understand. Saddle up. Let’s get back to work.

A grim shadow falls across Skye’s face. She pulls her saddle off the side of the lungeing ring and plops it on my back. “Yes. It’s been too long. This ends tonight.”

I stand silently as Skye saddles me up. The two horse paddocks are silent and empty in the full moonlight. For years I’ve kept horses here; my dad and I built the lungeing ring, the two field shelters, put in the troughs. I’ve ridden here for hours, wearing a path around the grass arena, and fallen a good many times too. Even more hours were spent feeding hay and cleaning hooves and grooming horses.

It was just another of those beautiful, ordinary days; I had saddled Skye for a ride and took her out on the farm, galloping up hills and trotting through forests, enjoying ourselves as we always did. In the summer heat we soon grew thirsty and I drew rein at a stream. We both drank our fill.

When we got back, just before dark, we found my house empty of people and the paddocks empty of horses. That was when we transformed.

In the weeks that have passed since, Skye and I have spent all our time searching for our lost family. We have always been close, so close that her herd and my family fused into one family group: she considered my bearded father her own dad, and her tall grey friend, Magic, was my brother. And now they are gone. My father, mother, and sister have vanished; so have Skye’s herdmates, Arwen, Thunder, Siobhan, and Magic.

“It ends tonight,” says Skye, as if reading my thoughts. I open my mouth and she slips the bit in, folding my ears down gently to settle the headpiece on my mane.

Yes, I said. Tonight we’ll find them. We picked up a lead earlier in the day, whilst hunting around in town. One of the mad scientists’ much-abused lab workers (we found out a lot in the past few weeks) skulked out of an alley and into my waiting grip this morning. He tried to escape, but only until he realised that he was not only up against a furious (and pants-wettingly terrified) 5′ 4″ human, but also a livid (and utterly fearless) 500kg horse.

Then he spilt the beans pretty well. We finally know the location of the secret lab where our family is being held, have directions to the cells where they’re kept, and even know the combination on the lock. We’re pretty sure it’s the right one, because I had a bottle of the toxic water in my hand and was threatening severely to feed it to him if we got back and found out that he’d lied.

Now, with the lab worker safely tied up and stowed in my cupboard for the moment, it is time for action. Skye leads me out onto the drive, runs the stirrups down and lengthens them four holes before gathering the reins and leaping on, or kind of stepping over and sitting down.

“Now I know why you complain about riding little ponies,” she says.

Now I know why you buck when I pull the girth up too tight.

She laughs and strokes my neck. “Let’s do this. C’mon, Firn.”

I break into a trot and we’re off. Heading north out of the farm and onto the gravel road, I swing into a canter. I may be slow, but my canter is smooth, allowing Skye to switch on her high-tech spy watch. Inserted inside it is the file we got from the lab worker, which gives us a map to the secret lab. I hear the beeps as Skye connects the GPS.

“I still can’t believe this,” she says, slowing me to a walk to catch my breath as we turn onto the tar road. I stretch my neck and breathe deeply, feeling sweat break out underneath my girth. Me neither. It was right under our noses! Why couldn’t we find it?

Because it was right under our noses,” says Skye. “Right where we don’t expect it to be.” I feel the shift in balance as she looks up; I’m still amazed at how sensitive my sense of touch and balance is as a horse. “Right there.”

The stacks of hay bales in front of us seem utterly nonthreatening. Excessive, perhaps – hundreds of stacks, each consisting of hundreds of big round bales – but they lie peacefully in the moonlit field, crystal clear in my equine night vision. I take a deep breath and that’s when I smell it. An undertone to the mouthwatering scents of hay and grass, I catch a whiff of something acrid and chemical. It smells like Skye’s spy watch and my cellphone.

Technology.

Skye presses the left rein against my neck. I swing away from the pressure, turning through a rusty old farm gate, and slink – as far as a horse can slink – behind one of the stacks. Skye slips off and sits on the grass beside me.

“Your senses are pathetic,” she whispers. “I can barely – achoo!”

It’s the hay, I tell her, shoving her hard with my nose as she doubles over coughing. Get away from the hay. You know you’re allergic!

“Yeah yeah,” Skye rasps, wiping her nose. “I know, human. Relax. And tell me what you smell.”

Hay. I drool a bit and try to pretend I’m just chewing my bit. Grass. The tar road. The cows across the road. The –

“Firn!”

What? I’m still fascinated by how excellent your sense of smell is.

“Let’s not be fascinated for twenty seconds, okay? What do you smell that’s out of the ordinary?”

With difficulty, I drag my thoughts away from the intriguing medley of smells and sounds around me. Technology, I tell her.

“I hate that smell.” Skye snorts. “So perhaps the guy wasn’t fibbing.”

I don’t think so. But where is the opening he talked about?

Skye checks her spy watch. “Behind that stack of bales, if I’m not mistaken,” she says, pointing.

Looks like all the others to me, I say.

“Exactly,” says Skye.

Huh?

She’s not listening. Crouched low in the overgrown grass, she breaks into a slow, smooth jog; I can’t help thinking of the slow Western gait she uses as a horse. “Come on!” she whispers.

I can’t hide! Worried, I give a short, muffled whinny and flatten my ears.

“Then run!”

I bolt across the distance between the two stacks of bales, skid to a halt, and almost fall over in my panic. I pin myself against the bales, shaking like a leaf. Skye appears seconds later and her expression softens at the sight of her quivering human.

“Hey!” she says gruffly, giving me a rough shove with her hand. “You’re okay, girl. Trust me.”

I take a deep breath, feeling the sweat running down my muzzle. I do trust you.

“You’re doing fine. I’m here.” Skye grabs my mane and gives it an affectionate shake. “I won’t leave you.”

I know, I say, and I mean it. Once, on an outride in our proper shapes – years ago – Skye tripped in an aardvark hole and we both crashed to the ground. Terrified, she leapt to her feet and took off, only to hit the brakes and return to stand over her shocked but unhurt human.* She has never left me.

“Okay,” Skye says, giving my neck a last pat. “He said it would be next to the thirteenth bale on the east side.” With a wary glance around in case of guards, Skye starts to walk down the stack, counting. “One, two, three, four, six – ”

I whinny.

“What?”

You missed a number, I say.

“Which one?”

I snort with frustration. Horses have no words for numbers. Shaking my ears until they flap audibly, I use my front hoof to scratch an awkward 5 in the dust.

“Five,” says Skye, rolling her eyes. She wipes her running nose again. “Look, you do the counting.”

I trot down the stack, touching each bale with my nose as I count in English in my head. I stop beside the thirteenth bale and take a bite of it for good measure because the smell is driving me crazy. My teeth snap shut on something that kicks me in the mouth like an angry carthorse, making me leap back, slip and sit down on my haunches like a dog.

“Firn! What’s wrong?” Skye runs to me, dark brown eyes wide with concern. “Are you all right?”

I can only quiver in reply.

“That sounded like electricity.” Skye peers cautiously into the bale and sneezes loudly. “Ugh,” she mutters, mopping her nose on her sleeve again. She never could get the hang of tissues. “There’s a wire in there. Let’s hope you didn’t break it or the door might not work.”

Sorry, I say, hanging my head and letting my ears flop to the sides.

“It’s okay. Now get off your butt, you look like a disgrace to horsekind.”

I get up and peer over Skye’s shoulder as she kneels in the grass, feeling cautiously through it with her hands. “I’m looking for the lock,” she whispers. “It should be here somewhere.”

Can I help?

“Yeah, you start over there, feel with your nose. And for goodness’ sake don’t bite any more wires.”

The ringing in my head makes me extremely adverse to biting anything very much, but I feel through the grass, trying to resist its amazing scent. I nearly jump out of my skin when Skye gives a strangely whinnying yelp of pleasure.

“I’ve got it!” Still on her hands and knees, she grips something in the grass. I see her pause thoughtfully for a moment as she remembers the combination that has to be tapped into the lock in Morse code. It’s a complicated one, but my horse is smart. Especially when she’s human. I tip an ear and listen to the tapping, my equine senses easily picking up the faint sound of Skye’s fingernail on the touch screen of the lock. I can hear everything. I can hear Skye’s breathing, the rustle of a mouse family in the hay, even the buzz of a tiny midge flitting around my legs.

And then, deep in the earth, I hear the loud, grinding noise of something moving. Something artificial. Something huge.

 

*True story, by the way.

 

***

In response to WordPress’s Creative Writing Challenge, I wrote this. It’s more of a character study than a story, but I am absolutely loving it! Expect more soon! 😀

Phone Call from a Figment

I’m still staring when beside me a Joseph man’s scream turns into a gurgle. He claps a hand to the dagger in his neck and drops out of the saddle, and I’m staring straight into the iron face of a Coyote. His sword is coming my way before I can react; it rings against my breastplate with a force that makes me reel in the saddle. Tariq rears, squealing; I get a grip on myself and on my hilt and block the Coyote’s next blow, bringing Tariq back down to all fours. The Coyote takes the parry easily and turns it into a wind, but the motion makes my shoulder scream pain –

My hands are flying across the keys, sweat trickling down my back, the story flowing from my soul to my fingertips… then my cellphone rings, the funky tune that inexplicably makes me think of James Bond breaking through my train of thought. I blink, coming back from the action-packed world of my YA fantasy novel. It takes a moment to drift out of the imaginary mind of my hero Sir Flann Hildebrand, courageous fighter of evil and succourer of the innocent, and back to being Firn Hyde, a small and quite ordinary teenager-aspiring novelist who is incidentally terrified of speaking to strangers, especially on the phone.

I fumble for my unicorn-sticker-festooned Samsung and groan. It’s an unknown number. For a moment I dither, but it might be something important, like someone telling me I’ve won the Lotto or something. So I answer.

“Hello?”

“This had better not be another of those machines that sound like people,” growls a voice that sends a jolt all the way up my spine. It’s a voice I’ve never heard before, but its echoes ring with a strange familiarity in my mind. Deep, gravelly, with an edge of sarcasm sharper than the speaker’s broadsword.

It can’t be. “Uh, nope. Firn speaking.”

“Thank goodness. Shea’s wonderful cotton socks, girl, I’ve been hunting for you all day.”

“For me?” My voice rises to the usual unflattering squeak. No one will ever talk about Shea’s socks, wonderful or otherwise, because Shea was a hero who doesn’t exist and lived in a country that doesn’t exist.

“So I’m told. I have a small problem on my hands right now, and I’m told I need your help with it.” The voice snorts, a sound so familiar that despite my bewilderment it brings a smile to my face.

“My help?”

“Is there an echo in this room? Shut your mouth and listen. I was born probably, oh, about six hundred years ago. I’ve no clue what I’m doing in what I’m told is the twenty-first century. Thing is, there’s a war on right now in Arishea, where I belong, and I bet the filthy Bahaduryans sent me here to get me out of the way. And I need to get back. Now.”

I know the answer to my question, but I hardly dare to breathe it. “Who are you?”

“The name’s Sir Flannery Hildebrand, and you call me Hildebrand. Flann, if you must. I’m told you know about me.”

 

 

***

 

The Daily Prompt inspired this one, but then again… which writer doesn’t secretly wish their hero would give them a call? 😀 I had fun with this. Now it’s your turn: Do you have a favourite fictional character, your own or someone else’s, that you wish would phone you? Do tell!

From the Ground Up: Meet Flann Hildebrand

I’ll admit it, I’m cheating on the writing challenge yet again.

My life is chock full of astounding characters. Mom, usually so gentle, so patient, who goes off like a bomb if you so much as lay a finger on one of her beloved cows; Dad, who is your typical teddy-bear-wearing-armour guy and has a poetic streak that usually manifests itself in crude Afrikaans ditties; and guns and roses Rain who fires a 9mm handgun with as much poise and ease as she spins a triple pirouette ending in a gorgeous arabesque. Clif the Canadian who has a despairingly odd sense of humour and plays the violin insanely well. And who can forget the Horse Mutterer, who adores horses (but calls them all stupid) and has a very large soft spot for little girls (but calls them all annoying)?

Of course, Lord Jesus has the biggest character of them all; He’s got so much personality that it all overflows into three amazing People – the Father God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. The 66 books of that glorious Bible still can’t capture every last facet of His amazing character; I don’t think anyone will know Him in full until that final lovely day when we go to spend eternity with Him.

But today, I’ll be introducing you to my protagonist, Sir Flannery Hildebrand. Regulars at CWT will have heard of him a few times before, here and here, but today I’d like to show some of the sketching process that I use to figure out my characters before I even start a novel.

The first manifestation of Sir Flann was as a grumpy fortysomething war veteran with one lame leg, a bad attitude and a troubled past. His disability landed him a job as a teacher, which he just knew he was going to mess up; he nearly did, too, but his powerful protective streak shone through and he and his students ended up rescuing the entire march of Bentley from evil monsters. (They usually end up rescuing something from evil monsters,  in my stories).

The original Flann’s character sketch was something like this:

Sir Flann has turned a soldier of fortune, but few will hire him; even though he is still unsurpassed as a mounted warrior, his wound rendered him hardly able to walk, let alone fight on foot. Eventually he is hired by Lord Logan of Bentley to teach four teenagers the art of knighthood. Sir Flann is cynical but committed; like most soldiers he has built himself a prickly armour and he needs shaking up to get out of his prickles.

That was almost eighteen months ago, in an entirely different novel that never really came to be and didn’t even have a title. I ditched it eventually; it chased its tail, never went anywhere, and, OK, let’s be honest, 16-year-olds were not made to write from the point of view of 40-year-olds.

But I had fallen in love with Flann Hildebrand. Even the early Flann was a sensitive man who hid his compassion under a mask of cynicism and snark, and something about his distinctive voice – the sarcasm and self-deprecation mixed with quiet honour, sensitivity and a dose of arrogance – caught my imagination. The story was doomed, but I had to keep writing Sir Flann.

I already had a vague idea of my story’s premise: troubled young knight plays bodyguard to gentle prince and they end up strengthening themselves, each other and their country to the point of winning the war that threatens its future. (He ended up being a lot more than a bodyguard, somewhat mundanely summing up his roles as follows: “Officially, I’m still the bodyguard, but I have a lot of hats: Master of Horses, Threader of Needles, Shouter-at of Annoying Rookies, Trainer of the Fyrd, Royal Advisor, Royal Shoulder to Cry Upon, Royal Kick-up-the-Pants Giver and Royal Pain being but a few of them.”) I had to turn my grim old knight into a young knight who had grown up too fast. This is the abridged version of the revised Flann’s character sketch:

knighted at 15

exceptionally talented with horse and sword

cynical

mature, rather too much so

has his doubts about religion, and tends to question, but is trying to be faithful

insensitive

unwilling to love

antisocial

close only to Tariq [his horse. You knew that was coming]

built a prickly armour around himself, even at his tender age

tries very hard not to care either about his charges or about the people and monsters he has to kill to protect them, but he really wants to care and keeps on building this armour in case he gets hurt, having experienced the hurt in the past

fiercely protective

deeply dutiful

terrified of snakes

loyal

detests ponies, reading, the colour pink, small children (especially babies), incompetent people and jesters. Secretly, he likes music, and is a surprisingly good nurse. He used to sing to Annie Belle [his sister] but stopped after her death, just mouthing the words of anthems and hymns. He’s very easily annoyed and snappish and can be arrogant on occasion.

Demetrius [the Prince] reminds him of Annie Belle, so he reflexively distances himself from him. Janessa [the Princess] annoys the brains out of him. He hates being called Flannery, claiming it’s a girl name, and tells everyone to call him either Flann or Hildebrand.

You can see that some aspects of Flann’s character are the same in both sketches. (And yes, for your information, “prickly armour” is a crutch of mine. Why’d you ask?) Basically, he’s a collection of bad habits and worse memories posing as a heartless cynic to hide his pain. All he needs is someone to come along with the Word of God and get Jesus to clean him up so that his courage, commitment, loyalty and tremendously protective nature can shine through.

Last of all, here is an excerpt from Another Sword, featuring the new Sir Flann at his most Flannesque. I still have a lot to clean up here, but I love this character and his voice (most of the time). Critiques are very welcome!

This is set in a banqueting hall at Kimbraley Castle somewhere near the end of the tale, when Sir Flann is pondering on whether he will leave Prince Demetrius and Princess Janessa (collectively referred to as “the royals”) at Kimbraley and go back to the capital, Ardara, to fight for the King, or stay and look after them.

A beautiful, arched, stained-glass window is set in the wall just there, looking out over the battlemented walls and into the dark forest towards Ardara. Will I be riding that way soon? With the moon lying like a glowing scimitar over the black hills and a few small stars opening their cold eyes, it looks like a sinister route to take. I think of King Carrigan alone in his office with his tired eyes and stupid white dog, and a hot, wet knot gathers in my throat. A dark spot appears in my vision and I blink hard. Ugh. I think I’m tearing up. How embarrassing. But, wait, that’s not just a spot. It’s a silhouette in the window; a sharp shape, blotting out the stars, the corner of a wing flicking across the moon –

“Down!” I yell, diving over the table. I plant one hand on Demetrius’s back and the other on Janessa’s neck and the three of us tumble to the floor. We roll against the wall below the window and I grab the royals and haul as much of their bodies under mine as I can. Something hits the window with a crash so loud it sounds like the air exploded, followed by the splintering of glass and sharp bites of pain as the fragments rain down on me.

The glass has barely had time to fall before I’m on my feet with my broadsword in my hands, searching for the attacker. I spot it gliding up near the roof; a gigantic eagle, bigger than I’ve ever seen before, talons longer than fingers, a great hooked beak like a curving knife.

From my post “Your Castle is on Fire”, you’ll have heard some of Flann’s sarcasm. Here, there’s little or none, because Flann is at his best whenever he needs to rescue someone. Luckily, I give the poor dude quite a lot of rescuing to do throughout the story. 😉

Your turn, readers. Writers, who’s your favourite character? Care to share a snippet? Readers, who’s the most well-written character you’ve read? I’m dying to hear from you.

Your Castle is on Fire

Knight and fire

Knight and fire (Photo credit: Ari Helminen)

Today’s Daily Prompt was a real character development question: Your home is on fire. Grab five items (assume all people and animals are safe). What did you grab?

I know what I’d grab. My King James Bible, our server (which has all our pictures, novels, and business records on it), my Solo Classic GP saddle, the tablet (which has all our ebooks on it), and one other book. I simply can’t decide which one – probably the beautiful graphic novel version of the Book of Revelation, though.

It’s far harder to answer this question on the behalf of somebody who doesn’t exist.

A very large part of being a writer is simply stepping into someone else’s shoes. The fact that you first have to imagine the someone else makes this somewhat harder, and it’s difficult to let go of your own thoughts and feelings and write purely from your character’s point of view. As a Christian girl with not much backbone, a lot of sentiment and little experience of grief or family trouble, I had quite a task writing from the point of view of a courageous if sarcastic young man who has no room for softheartedness, grieving for his sister and suffering from absent parents and massive responsibilities.

After a 95 000-word journey with aforesaid sarcastic young man, though, it’s becoming much easier to slip into the mind of Flann Hildebrand. His conversion in chapter eighteen (or possibly sixteen) made things much easier, too. He became a softer and much stronger soul, and an altogether much more agreeable person to pretend to be.

It’s as the Flann of early days, in the start of his (unpublished) story Another Sword, that I’ll answer today’s Daily Prompt. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the Most Honourable Marquis of Hildebrand, Knight of the Noble Order of the Lion, Sir Flannery Hildebrand. What five items would you grab?

You’re thinking like a typical civilian. Your home is on fire. Okay, everyone’s safe, but grabbing a whole lot of stuff and heading for the hills is sure going to help to put the fire out. Please, people. Can we make a bit of an effort here?

What you should do is quit worrying about your stuff and start worrying about the flames spreading. Scream “Fire!” extremely loudly and clearly, but please not too shrilly, and do stop once you hear the alarm bells ringing. Send someone to the nearest Knight of the Lion (they’ll be guarding most of the gates and all of West Ardara, den of thieves that it is) and you should have a regiment of Knights helping you out within ten seconds, Knights being a good deal smarter than the average civilian, in other words, you.

While waiting for the Knights, run to your neighbours and scream your lungs out at them until they wake up. Bully them into forming a bucket chain and first wet down the houses and outbuildings nearest to the fire. The Knights will have arrived by then and will take over, usually quenching the flames.

No five items in your own house are more important than everyone else’s houses. Unfortunately, you won’t heed my advice. You’re a civilian, after all. It’s no wonder you need us Knights running around protecting your sorry backside.

I did warn you about the sarcasm.

Flann 120 pages later would have answered the same question entirely differently. I’m still getting used to a fervently believing, meek and mild Flann Hildebrand. He managed to hang onto his grumpy voice, but he became a quite different imaginary person on the inside. One I’d be proud to be.

If only changing your soul was as easy as changing an imaginary one.

First-Draft Detail

Detail is one of my favourite things to write. Unfortunately, I’m no good at it. Seriously. None.

Consider the following excerpt from Terramagnia, the children’s epic fantasy I wrote when I was about eleven:

It was a Wolf, but not a Wolf like the Wolves in our world. It was bigger than the Panther. Its coat was silver, silver like the moon, and stood up all along its back. More than that, the Wolf bore himself so proudly, yet somehow so humbly, that Melanie knew he was a knight. There was wildness, however, in everything about him; wildness in his stance, wildness in his bark, wildness in his deep blue eyes, blue as a lake and angry, like a lake in a thunderstorm.

“Steeldust,” hissed the Panther.

“Begone,” said the Wolf in a voice so soft that Melanie strained to hear. All this time, she had somehow known that the Wolf could speak, but when he did it was a most wonderful shock. He was almost howling, almost snarling; his voice itself spoke of long mountain runs in the moonlight, of bounding on the trail of caribou, of days spent loping free in the woods.

This is the first description of Steeldust the Wolf, who was rather a favourite of mine. Sure, there’s a lot of detail in it, but the details are all wrong. Firstly, they’re in entirely the wrong place. This was, in fact, an action scene. The wolf was fighting the panther when they both conveniently paused for long enough for Melanie (my POV character) to take in all this detail.

And so we hit the second flaw: it’s written out of point of view. We’re supposed to be seeing this through the eyes of Melanie, but instead, we’re reading a laundry list of details. We don’t get any of Melanie’s thoughts or emotions – just a picture of what she’s seeing. POV should be a lot more than that.

This second excerpt is from the first draft of Another Sword, written four years after Terramagnia. It’s clunky and clumsy and needs a lot of work, but I can already see the difference from the first excerpt:

Prince Demetrius. The last person I want to face, to have to play bodyguard to. To be responsible for.

Because I had one chance at that, and I completely blew it.

I’m starting to have serious second thoughts about this mission as I stand beside King Adolphus and watch the Prince make his slow and painful way up the hall. Eighteen months ago, before the attack, when he was still a squire in the first year with the rest of us, he was a picture-perfect prince. Slim, blond, blue-eyed, handsome and charming. Everyone in class liked him, even though he was only a mediocre student – hardworking, but not very talented. But he moved effortlessly, gracefully, like a deer.

Now, he can barely walk. One of his thin, elegant hands clutches the silver head of an ebony walking stick, which digs into the carpet as he grips it like a lifeline, tendons springing tight in his wrist. His unnaturally muscular right leg almost bows outwards as it supports his full weight. And the other leg… I don’t really want to look. Between the loose-fitting trousers and the specially made shoe, there’s nothing much to see. But it wobbles perilously under even the slightest weight, the toe swinging out, the knee buckling, before between the stick and the other leg he manages to get the weight off it and takes another staggering, struggling step.

Like the first excerpt, this is the first in-depth description of Prince Demetrius seen through the eyes of my main character, Flann. And like Steeldust in Terramagnia, Demetrius first appears in Another Sword during an action scene. Then, though, his description consists of a line or two, nothing more – we get just a vague impression of him, as Flann was rather more concerned with not getting killed than with studying the Prince.

Now, though, he’s at his leisure and has time to take in all the details. Being the sort of person who beats himself up about stuff, Flann instantly focuses on the Prince’s disability, which he feels responsible for. We get detail, yes; but we also get what that detail means and what’s going on in Flann’s head.

I’ve taken a step forward in my writing in one way, then. But even I can see how clunky that passage is. It’s more lame than Demetrius, for goodness’ sake.

I’d better get back to writing the second draft, then. Meanwhile, readers, feel free to drop a few lines of your own writing in the comments – your favourite piece of detail or character description. Or perhaps mention the writer you think does detail best. I’m backing Peter S. Beagle for his masterpieces, The Last Unicorn and Trinity County, C. A. (which has to be the best short story I’ve ever read in my life).