A short story, about 3500 words.
Parkhar’s father has a plan to wrest an ancient talisman from the glittering City of the ancients and the godlike, deathless Bots that guard it — but it will be Danwill, Marjay, and their cohort who take the risks. What they find will shape the future of the whole tribe, maybe even of all humanity itself!
This is my newest ebook short story single. While my patrons at Patreon have downloaded their free copies as part of their patron privileges, thirty days before release,
at this writing it is available elsewhere only by preorder. The release date is April 7th HEY YOU CAN GET YOUR COPY NOW! The cost is a mere 99 cents — all you can get for that price at Starbucks is a funny look from the cashier. Of course you don’t have to buy and read this — you should read what you want, that’s kind of a central idea in this whole freedom of expression thing we like to talk about in authordom — but it would make me really happy if you did. And there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be happy too, because if you’re here reading this far into a science fiction writer’s bloggy stuff you probably enjoy science fiction in general. Right?
The preview below is a bit over the 30% you can view where it is available to preorder (or buy directly if you’re reading on April 7th or later). You can find it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Play Books, Kobo, Smashwords, and hopefully soon at iTunes! [Right now iTunes is not listing it, though I haven’t gotten a ticket from Apple about any problem with the ebook file — if/when it finally is listed, I will hopefully remember to come back here and update the link to point at the book instead of my iTunes author page]
Enough of that, here’s the preview:
S.A. Barton — Copyright 2016
Since the time of my grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather, the People have sought the Grail. Today, I hold it in my hand. The other two survivors of our band eye me as warily as I eye them. It is easy to talk of sharing before you hold the key to all wealth and power in your hands; after, it is more difficult to practice. Temptation…
Parkhar sits with his back against the office door, twisting a leather tourniquet tighter on his left wrist. He hisses through his teeth at the last twist. His hand and the stumps of his fingers tremble, dotting his pants with more blood, red over red. He’s wondering if we’ll let him live now that we’ve found the prize. Marjay, though – she and I are unwounded but for scrapes and scratches. She’s short, broad, agile almost to the point of acrobatics; she stands across the massive burlwood desk from me, eye on the grail, hand on the haft of the heavy machete at her hip.
“Well, Danwill?” she asks, soft in the silence that falls after Parkhar’s groan. “Can we share, or must we duel?”
For a thousand and some years, we the People have lived in the hills and mountains surrounding the City. For the same amount of time, anyone setting foot in the City has been swiftly confronted by its tireless Bot defenders and either killed or captured. They are immortal spirits, avatars of the ancient giants who strode the land before the People were created and who have since passed Beyond. A few Bots fly through the air on circle-blades that whirl faster than even the wings of hummingbirds flap; a few, the size of bison, roll on wheels. Most wear forms like those of human beings, but bulky and shiny-black armored, and they walk in magic boots that never wear out. When Bots take a captive, on nights when the winds are still the captive’s cries can be heard all the way up in the mountains. Some of them live and scream for many weeks.
The City, in stories passed from grandmother to grandmother to grandmother, has always been a pool of jewels in the night, luminous treasure cupped in the great ancient mountains’ palms. As in the tales, even now it is bright there while in our tents and burrows we strain our eyes at guttering tallow candles. It is warm there while we shiver. There are storehouses packed with food while our lean bellies growl. The City is jealous of her bounty.
The holy tales say that once, the People dwelt among the giants in the City. Then, talismans brought them shelter, food, and other luxuries we can no longer imagine. The holiest talisman, the Black Grail, is said to grant the bearer all the heart’s desires, provided by the Bots.
With the Black Grail, the People might be brought back into the City to live in riches – and the one who brings them would be their King.
“Well?” Marjay asks one more time. The cords stand out on her thick forearm with the power of her grip.
If we fight, either might die. Even the victor might die of wounds later, or lingeringly of gangrene. We are too closely matched.
Slowly, I draw my own machete – a little longer than hers, its spine not quite so thick.
She tenses. Half the length of her blade clears its sheath in a blink, with a sound like the chirp of a bird.
Slowly, slowly, eyes locked with hers, I extend my blade, turn it sideways, lay it on her side of the desk.
“There’s only one way that we both walk out of this place,” I say.
“You have to be joking,” Marjay replies. “You know I have no interest in men.”
Over many years, many bands of young warriors have challenged the City and its lethal Bots for the Black Grail – or simply, in famine times, for a few armloads of food from the City’s warehouses.
No previous expedition has ever recovered the Black Grail. Few who have gone hunting it have returned. From those handful of survivors, we have some trinkets of the city among us. The Herndez clan has a ball-shaped lamp that has stayed lit for twenty generations. The Denneh clan, Marjay’s, has a box that plays music that no instrument of ours can duplicate. When it stops playing, allowing it to rest in the sun for only an hour will restore it to play for many days. My own clan, the Kirkays, keeps kitchen herbs in metal cans that once held food captured from the City in a famine time a hundred years ago. There are a few other trinkets, but not many.
Few are willing to challenge the Bots. They cannot be harmed by blade, arrow, or spear. There are tales of talismans that might stop them, but those have proven as elusive as the Grail itself.
My father was one who was willing to challenge the Bots, in his own way. By studying the holy tales and the many stories we tell around our campfires, he thought he knew where the Black Grail must lie. But he was also a man of extraordinary patience and cleverness. Instead of going himself, he made a plan for the future. As he executed his patient plan, his hair slowly turned iron-gray and I grew into a man.
I remember, dimly, being four summers old, waddling with the weight of a reed basket of dirt and gravel gripped in both hands. It was a scoop of what my father and his fellows dug out of a long tunnel under the city boundary. Part of his plan was simple: avoid the eyes of the bots for as much of the path to the Grail as possible. The entrance of the stealthy tunnel, squared off with heavy smoke-blackened timbers, was shielded from the inspection of the Bots by the abrupt stony mound of a hill near the city limits. Still, that we were digging must have been obvious. We children, who, grown, formed the company that has brought we three survivors to the residence of the Grail, carried out endless buckets of earth and stone, filling nearby dry washes and building new hills. It’s obvious in hindsight. So many things are obvious in hindsight. Things that might have saved lives if only they’d been obvious to us before. But the desire for the Grail was strong in us all, we young adventurers, our aging parents and grandparents, even our wise toothless Eldest whose food we youngers trade the honor of chewing for her ease. The vision of wealth blinded us all. Perhaps that is the curse that ended the reign of Giants and allowed the humble People to step from their shadows.
But the Bots had never shown curiosity about anything beyond the border of their domain. We had never seen any pay attention to anything under the ground. And so we thought we were safe…
…and that’s the preview. Want to see what happens next? Head back up to the top and click a retailer link, or click one of the Patreon links there or in the header, become a patron, and download your free copy!