Weekend Wind Down – The Zoukai

This is the opening of The Fated Sky which is the first part of Transgressor Trilogy and the first book in Fortunes Fools by E.M. Swift-Hook.

Caer sat on his pony looking at the dead body on the ground and wondering if he should send more scouts back towards the road, almost a day’s trek behind the caravan. This man had been alone, half-mad and no threat to the caravan, but others might even now be following the same path that they had taken from the road and for the same reason they had taken it: others who were scouts for brigands, bandits or bigger caravans than his own.

He spat in the dirt and narrowed his eyes as he looked past the file of wagons, ponies and people. It was late afternoon and his breath misted slightly in the air. The long cold winter was over, but in the barren Wastelands, spring was always slow to come. The air still carried a biting chill, even in the heat of the day and the distant peaks kept their mantle of snow and ice, tinged with crimson by the light of the huge red sun. Spring was having to claw its way free of winter’s greedy clutches so that Temsevar could bask in an all too brief season of warmth and growth.

The Wastelands were vast and magnificent. Here and there, standing proud and alone in the plain, like the lost sentinels of a forgotten age, were towering flat-topped mountains of rock, some so massive they were too big to cross in a day on foot. It was as though at some point in the distant past the ground had simply dropped away, leaving the high plateaux stranded above, like giant stepping stones, creating a two-tier terrain. If in the winter, these high grounds were the coldest and most exposed, in the spring they seemed always flushed with new vegetation before any managed to creep out of the more parched stones below.

Caer made his decision. With the work to be done, the four men he already had out scouting their back trail were all he could spare for the moment. He called to one of the mounted men who was riding with the caravan.

“Shevek, we are camping here.”

The man he spoke to wheeled his pony away and rode at a brisk pace towards the front of the train of wagons and animals, issuing sharp orders to make the night’s camp around the rocky debris beneath the steep cliff face of one of the high monoliths. Caer felt a familiar sense of satisfaction as those orders turned the straggling ranks of moving people, ponies and wagons into a brief flurry of chaos, before brightly coloured awnings, tents and pavilions sprung up from the chaos, like strange blossoms. Caer and his men rode through the quickly forming encampment, shouting instructions, solving problems, helping secure ropes and encouraging any who were slow to respond with the whips they carried curled in their belts.

In a remarkably short time, the caravan resembled a miniature town with streets and open spaces, stables, and pens. Fires were being kindled, children tending the animals as women kneaded dough and cut the vegetables for the evening meal. Toddlers screamed and got underfoot or rolled like puppies amongst the big, sharp-toothed dogs, which ignored them and begged for scraps with soulful eyes and then turned on each other snapping and snarling when an unsavoury morsel was cast their way.

Once the familiar routine was well established, Caer’s men guided their mounts towards the middle of the camp. The ponies’ short stubby ears, thick coats, wall-eyed glares and powerful necks, made them far from beautiful to look upon, but their split hooves could splay to grip surefooted even on snow and ice or could run fast on firmer ground. It was their broad backs which carried the burden of human traffic in both trade and war with a sturdy strength and agility which, for Caer, had a beauty all of its own.

The men who rode were as tough as their ponies. The older ones amongst them wore their hair long, stained red and tied back into a heavy braid, the greater length of the braid telling of ever greater age and experience. The youngest men had their hair shaved so close to the scalp as to seem bald. They were not even allowed to begin to grow a braid until they had served a year of apprenticeship with the caravans. All the men wore coats made from a brightly coloured heavy-felt cloth, over shirts with billowing sleeves, patterned skirted jerkins made from fleeced hides and plain felt britches which gathered loosely into calf-high boots. All were armed: every man wore a bandolier of wooden cartridge boxes over one shoulder and carried a crude pistol; one or two had a long-barrelled musket or rifled carbine, on their backs and each wore a long-bladed knife with an ornately carved hilt and whips hung looped at their belts.

These men were of the Zoukai, a brotherhood of warrior guardians, hiring themselves to protect the caravans which carried the trade of Temsevar. Named after the swift and ruthless, red-plumed predatory birds which hunted from the skies in these very wastes, they were bound by a strict code of honour which placed loyalty to their captain and their caravan above all else.

There were around thirty men in all, talking in loud boisterous voices, their breath misting in the cold air, laughing together at crude jokes, whilst passing wine-skins from hand to hand. They had gathered in front of the central pavilion, where a clearing gave some measure of status and privacy to the impressive tent of their employer the caravansi – the owner of the caravan, its wagons, its slaves and much of its cargo. When Caer finally rode into the clearing, his check of the camp completed, one of the Zoukai called out:

“Here, Captain.”

Catching the wineskin, Caer let the warm liquid cut the dust of the day from his throat, swilling out his mouth and spitting, only then swallowing a single mouthful before replacing the stopper and passing it on. Then he nudged his pony forwards and moved amongst his men, sending four more out to join the scouts and a handful of others to support the pickets who were already guarding the outskirts of the camp. He wanted to be extra careful today. Then he moved on, talking briefly to each of the others as he passed: a word of praise here, a question there, advice and the occasional sharp reprimand, all delivered with an easy authority.

A sudden stillness, as sharp on the senses as any loud sound, made Caer turn towards the pavilion, already knowing what to expect. The flap was being held up by a slave girl and a woman had just stepped out of the shady, incensed interior. It was her appearance that had silenced the horsemen and Caer understood why. Alexa the Fair they called her on the roads and the title was well deserved. Caer had lived twenty-five years and had never seen a woman he thought more beautiful. Her mere presence was enough to draw every male eye and deprive a man of his next breath.

She was tall, very tall for a woman and slender with it – long necked, long limbed and lithe, almost boyish with narrow hips and small breasts that barely lifted the sheer satiny substance of the emerald robe she wore. Beneath the magnificence of her dark auburn hair, her face with its clear skin and high cheek bones lent her an ageless beauty. Her violet-blue eyes swept imperiously over the Zoukai and when they came to rest on Caer, he felt the impact as if she had reached out and physically touched his skin.

E.M. Swift-Hook.

Manythanks to Robert Lee Beers for the illustration which is the cover of the Transgressor Trilogy.

The Thinking Quill

Bonjour mes petites!

I am your practical pedagogue in the arcane art of literary logistics, Moonbeam Farquhar Metheringham IV, Ivy to my friends and much acclaimed author of the science fantasy masterpiece ‘Fatswhistle and Buchtooth’. Those necessary formalities having been removed, it behoves me to explain how the topic of today’s teaching entered the arena of my awareness.

Last week, you may recall, you learned from my loquacious lecture of literary lore which explored the concept of Voice – the unique belling of tone, taste and texture which each and every author brings to their work. But when I told Mumsie of my pedagogical piece de resistance, she stopped buttering her toast and reached over to wack me on the back of the hand with the flat side of her cutlery.

“You are a muppet, Moons,” she told me in her usual loving snarl. “Voice is not some literary fa-di-da subtle imponderable thing, it’s grammar!” And nothing would satisfy her except my writing to explain to you, my dear Reader Who Writes, that there is another use of ‘voice’ in the literary kingdom – the grammatical usage.

How to Start Writing a Book – Lesson 27: The Write Voice – II

There are, as I am confident you will already know, two grammatical voices. The active and the passive. This is, of course, as applied to verbs. Verbs? Did I hear somebody say the word verbs with a questioning note in their voice. Depart immediately for the naughty step and sit there considering your ignorance while I enlighten your classmates. And desist the whining. Verbs are, as if explanation were needed, doing words. In the sentence Adam chased Eric around the classroom. The verb is chased. Hands up all of those who knew that already. If you didn’t put your hand up one is ashamed of you.

But to our muttons. To quote some dry old grammarian or another: the passive voice is when the subject of the sentence is acted upon by the verb, rather than the subject of the sentence verbing.

Simple explanation:
John smacked Alec’s bottom. Active voice.
Alec’s bottom was smacked. Passive voice. And an intriguing question. Who did the smacking?

This is the wonder of the passive voice, it opens up multifarious imponderables for the reader’s eager speculation to latch onto and expand within the nemeton of his or her own imagination. Take this example and see how the mystery is enhanced and the sense of inevitable doom is heightened:

The final blow was dealt when the mighty Robot Lord was empowered. Falling to the ground, the Queen’s head was cleaved cleanly from her shapely shoulders. Her face was smashed beneath the boot of the victor. Fate was satiated and destiny was fulfilled.

From the point of view of the humble scrivener, the wiseacres out there will tear their sparse and greying locks and cry despairingly – use not the passive voice lest the house of cards you have constructed upon the shifting sands of your enfeebled imagination collapse in a whining heap of pips and smirking pictures. Well I am here to reassure you my little students. They speak of that which they wot not. A beautifully turned sentence is a beautifully turned sentence irrespective of whether the quick red fox jumps, or the lazy dog is jumped over.

Ignore the small minded and febrile who would collar your creativity in the bonds of grammatical usage or common phraseology.

Or look at it this way if you have eyes to see.
John Smith wrote a book. Meh. Blah. Boring.
This example of the authorly genus was made with skill and love by the fair hand of Johannes Smythe.
I rest my case.

Until next my fuzzy little bunnies.

May your voices be passive and your heroes erect.

Moonbeam Farquhar Metheringham IV

Adoring Fans can join my Facebook Group.

Author Feature – from ‘Refuge’ by Regina Jackson Stinnett

Lyric pulled the Beatle CDs out of her backpack and pushed the button to start the CD player. George Jones was just finishing ’He stopped loving her today’ and Lyric looked at the CD player like it had barked at her. “Bubby, whos that?” she asked, pushing eject, removing the disc and placing a Beatles CD in its place.
“That’s George Jones. He’s dead now but he used to be real popular where we lived. He was a country music singer.” replied Dakota “Well he can’t be too popular, I’ve never heard of him.” said Lyric.
“You’re seven, Lyric, There’s a lot of things you’ve never heard of,” said Dakota laughing.
The soldiers were never far from Dakotas thoughts as they got farther and farther away from Findlay. He wondered how many healthy people would be shot by them.
Remembering back to the gunshots they had heard before, he wondered if perhaps there were soldiers stationed in all of the larger towns. ’If there are’ he thought to himself ’I hope we don’t run into any more of them.’ Tired of coloring, Lyric put her book and crayons away then began looking through the glove box.
“Bubby, why is this called the glove box?” she asked. Then began pulling out papers, a small hand sanitizer and a travel sized packet of tissues.
“I’m not sure Sissie. I think its probably because it was originally invented for gloves, and things. Then people started using them for important papers, sunglasses and anything that would fit. What did you find in there? Anything interesting?”
“No, just regular junk,” she replied as she placed all of the items back into the glove box.
“Keep that hand sanitizer out Sis”, said Dakota reaching for it. “It will help us keep our hands clean or at least germ free, since our bottle ran out.” He popped the lid on the sanitizer and squeezed a small amount into his left hand.
He then handed the container back to Lyric so she could use it. “I feel better,” he said as he rubbed his hands together spreading the sanitizer over both hands.
The smell of alcohol filled the truck cab.
Dakota noticed that the soldiers had left their mark all along the interstate.
He assumed that perhaps the whole group had come from the North, probably Toledo and were working their way South. Hopefully they continue South he thought. It would be better if they did, because he and Lyric wouldn’t have to run into them. Dakota knew they should stop somewhere and try to rest for the night. They would be running out of daylight by the time they got to Michigan and Dakota didn’t want to be near any big cities in the dark. The undead that were walking around in the daylight were spooky enough…..he didn’t want to see them by the headlights of the truck. ’That,’ he thought to himself ’would be way too creepy.’
“Lyric watch for a semi or another billboard like the one we slept on before.”

A Bite of… Regina Jackson Stinnett

Regina Jackson Stinnett is the author of Refuge.

Q1: What music do you like to listen to when you write?


I love music of all types, but prefer not to listen while I write. I tend to get lost in the music and it can be very distracting.

Q2: if you could have any animal in the world as a pet, which would it be?


Bloodhound. Why? Because they are gentle, loving pets.

Q3: What is your favourite snack food?


Zucchini fries with parmesan cheese and ranch dressing.
My name is Regina Jackson Stinnett though I prefer to be called Gina.
I'm a grandmother who loves to write, draw, paint, and sew. I run a small seamstress shop and love to create. I have a page on Facebook called 'Refuge' that you can go to and become a fan or check for updates or just give me a' like' if you wish. I also have a page called 'Ravenscraft Studios' also on Facebook.

The Drifter

It isn’t given to everybody to be able to identify the precise moment when they fall for the love of their life…

It was Saturday night and the drifter drove his beat-up truck into just one more trail-end town. Truth to tell he would have preferred somewhere livelier as he had money in his pocket, but he was tired and hungry. He parked the Dodge outside a tiny diner only to see the closed sign go up on the door as he swung to the ground. An old timer and his equally ancient dog stopped and looked at him.
“Food at Belle’s Bar over the street’s better than the slop they serve here. Can even get decent coffee if’n you don’t want beer with your meal.”
The drifter tipped his hat in a grateful salute and made his way to Belle’s.

The old timer hadn’t lied about the food or the coffee. By the time the stranger had got outside of a huge plate of savoury stew, a generous helping of peach pie, and three large mugs of steaming hot coffee he was feeling almost human. He decided he might as well stay for a beer while he chewed over his options.

His usual Saturday night agenda involved picking up some lonely woman in a bar and getting invited back to her place for the night. He got bed and breakfast and his lady hostess got what he reckoned to be some pretty hot sex. Something for everybody, and no offence taken if his advances were spurned. However, he had worked for the better part of two months helping a group of dirt farmers plough and weed and build fences, so he was bone weary and he had money enough to get his own room. He’d have that beer and think. He bellied up to the bar and the woman tender stopped polishing glasses.
“I get you, bro?”
“Bro?” the drifter was amused and that made him look closer at the woman. She was maybe thirty years old, and plain of face, but with an infectious grin and the light of intelligence in a pair of strange bi-coloured eyes. She chuckled.
“Yup. Bro. Saves me trying to learn the names of all the damned fools that come in here looking for beer and sympathy.”
He found himself laughing too, and for some reason that felt good.
“I’ll take a beer please, and one for yourself.”

Somehow or other, he was still by the bar when it was closing time. He watched the bartender take off her apron and hang it on the beer pumps before he spoke.
“Anywhere I can get a room in these parts?”
She looked at him for a long moment then seemed to come to a decision.
“I got a bed too big for one woman.”
The drifter felt his smile flow across his cheeks. This one, he thought, would be a real pleasure. He held out a hand and the woman came around the bar and put her own hand in his.
“Hi, pretty lady,” he said, “my name’s…”
She put the fingers of her free hand across his mouth.
“Let’s just keep it to bro, shall we? This time tomorrow you’ll be gone and your name’ll be no manner of good to me.”
He nodded his understanding and they walked out of the bar shoulder to shoulder.

It wasn’t early when she slid from his embrace and padded out to the kitchen. He watched her go, marvelling at how comfortable she was in her own nakedness and how much he had enjoyed that nakedness. He put his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling. He was still deep in thought when a voice floated in from the next room.
“I’m sorta making breakfast. What do you want on your toast?”
“A couple eggs would be good,” he responded without thinking.
Almost instantaneously a laughing face appeared in the doorway.
“Eggs bro? Sheesh. The sex wasn’t that good.”

And he knew at that moment that his fate lay in a one-horse trail-end town with this woman by his side.

©️ Jane Jago 2018

Coming Soon – Dying for a Vacation

The next instalment in the Dai and Julia Mysteries alternative history series about a couple who are detectives in the fight against crime in a modern-day Britain still ruled by the Roman Empire.

Turning out for a dawn raid was one of the aspects of his old job as a vigiles investigator in Londinium that Dai Llewellyn had imagined would not be featuring in the elevated role he now held as Submagistratus for Demetae and Cornovii based in Viriconium. He would have been quite happy to leave it in the capable hands of his Senior Investigator, Bryn Cartivel and the small group of grim faced Praetorians on temporary secondment, under their decanus, Brutus Gaius Gallus. But orders were orders and these came from Rome.

The Magistratus had been regretful about it.

“I know you don’t want to go careering over the countryside at the moment, but this is something a bit more important than just a theft. It’s part of an Empire wide operation against a major criminal organisation and I need you there as my eyes and ears.”

It didn’t help that the Magistratus, Lucius Ambrosius Caudinus, was also Dai’s brother-in-law, thus making any excuses to get out of the duty pretty much impossible. Normally he would not have minded, but then normally he was not distracted by worry about his wife.

Notwithstanding his reluctance, after a few days of preparation he was sitting in an all-wheel somewhere along a dirt track that led to an isolated villa halfway up a mountain, sipping thermos-tea from a paper cup, whilst out in the dark and the cold his vigiles and the praetorians surrounded the building. Dai knew he was going to miss the extra security that Gallus and his men provided on operations like this. They were well armed, elite troops. His vigiles were non-citizens to a woman and man which meant they were forbidden by law to bear arms and when the praetorian detachment returned to Londinium after its six-month secondment at the end of the month, Dai would be faced with having to request armed support of a much less reliable nature.

The door opened, letting in an icy blast and Bryn stood by the vehicle, greying hair tied back and half-hidden under a knitted hat, breath condensing in the dim light. He held a satphone in one hand.

“Everyone’s in place. Just need your word to go in, Bard.”

Dai reached over and tipped the remains of his tea out of the door, onto the frozen gravel.

“Then let’s go wake Vibius up.”

The Dai and Julia Mysteries are written by E.M. Swift-Hook and Jane Jago. Dying for a Vacation, the fifth novella in the series, is now available for pre-order and will be released on 31 March.

The Small Supergeek

I cooked a full English and as we sat wiping our plates with thick brown toast he raised an eyebrow.
“Can I ask you a geek question?”
“Don’t see why not.”
“What do you know about artificial intelligence?”
“Depends what you mean by artificial intelligence. On one level I’m the best there is. On other levels I neither know nor want to. So, if you are counting computers and games consoles as AI then I don’t suppose there is too much I don’t know. But if we are into the realms of androids and the like I know nothing, and that’s too much.”
“Why? What’s the difference?”
“A lot. But mostly it’s that computers need operators. Droids don’t. I mistrust AI with any kind of autonomy.”
He frowned at me. “Yeah, but they wouldn’t have free will. Surely they would only be able to do what they were programmed to do?”
“Maybe. But I know a lot of smegging flaky programmers… Look Aidan there’s no guarantees with any form of AI. So why give it arms and legs and stuff? I had a robotic foot once, and every so often the bar-steward would go feral on me. Made me think.”
“Surely there’s the first law of robotics.”
“Isn’t. That’s sci fi. We live in the real world not Isaac Asimov’s world. Plus. What has been programmed can be reprogrammed. Give me ten minutes with an android’s chip and I’m pretty sure I could have it do whatever I pleased, and it ain’t even my field. Bad shit!”
He grinned. “So my dream of a sexy android nurse who never needs a day off, and never has a period, is just a dream then?”
Good recovery boy, I thought, as I pasted a snarl on my face. “Only you could be such a bumhole.”
“Me and just about every other doctor under the age of ninety.”
I laughed and waved a hand at him “Finish your food and go away. I have work.”
“What sort of work?”
“Somebody in Nagasaki wants to build a supertanker, unfortunately there’s a big fat hole in their proposal, and a big fat bonus if I can drive a bus through that hole. I’m about halfway there.”
He grinned again. “It ain’t the bonus, though, is it?”
“Course it ain’t. It’s the challenge. The money is just a way to keep score.”

Extracted from Jackdaw Court by Jane Jago. For a limited time only 99p/99c.

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