Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On going deaf and some thoughts on the St Louis Rams

So it's been a weird week, really. 

I've had some trouble recently with my hearing, having to ask colleagues, my kids and my friends to speak up or repeat themselves, and it's been annoying for all involved. I went to my GP, and was promptly referred to a specialist, who, after giving me a hearing test, stated that I needed hearing aids in both ears. Both ears! What's THAT all about??? I mean, I had a feeling that I was going to need at least one, but two? On top of that, I went for an MRI scan today. Apparently, it's "just a precaution" (why do doctors always say that? it's like salespeople saying "this isn't a sales call", you just KNOW as soon as they say it that they're lying) to check that there isn't any swelling of the nerves that connect some stuff to some other stuff. Results to follow, but the specialist was at pains to point out that it's really no big deal, nothing to see here, move along. 

We'll see. 

St Louis Rams, my beloved but, quite frankly, rather shite NFL team, continue to upgrade in free agency. This time, we're rumoured to be talking to Jo-Lonn Dunbar, a linebacker with New Orleans. I'm not sold on this potential acquisition to be honest, Dunbar had a breakout year last year, but a few years of mediocrity, bad behaviour and injury before that. We're not exactly blessed with options at LB though, so I supposed beggars can't be choosers. I'm more excited by the potential signing of Marcus McNeil - he would upgrade the OLine in an instant, and has Pro Bowls under his belt. Having said that, I think he has other suitors elsewhere that may look more attractive at this moment in time. Even if we don't sign anybody else in FA, I'm very happy with the work we have done - Cortland at CB and Scott Wells at Centre are both a massive and immediate upgrade. Wells in particular will make a difference; Sam will finally have someone in front of him who knows how to read a defensive line, who can spot whether the players are lined up to blitz or zone cover and can direct the players around him accordingly. It will give Sam the chance to concentrate on his routes and receivers, and make good on the promise he showed in his rookie year. Langford is also a nice addition, although I'm concerned that his best position is in a 4-3, and we play a 3-4. Time will tell, I guess, he's got a ton of potential, and will, at worst, give us more options on a defense that was devastated by injury last year.

The rumour mill has it that Jeff Fisher may look to trade back up or down in the draft, possibly either with Cleveland, currently in the number 4 spot, or even down further with the likes of Miami. I guess that's the beauty of holding so many extra picks in upcoming drafts (and two in round two of this years) thanks to the mega trade with the Redskins - we get some room to maneuver and hold a few cards we can deal. I just want to see them used wisely - the Cowboys used the draft picks, players and trades earned in the Herschel Walker trade many years ago to build a team that won three it too much to dream that we can do the same?

What would I do? I would stay put at number six, and take Blackmon at WR, Richardson at RB or Claibourne at CB - whichever of those three is still on the board then, I'd be happy to have in a heartbeat. Personally, I'd prefer Richardson, I think he's by far the standout RB of  not just this draft but of any draft in the last few years - the type of player at his position who doesn't come along very often. Blackmon is GOOD, but there are other WR's in the draft this year that aren't that far off his (apparent) level. Also, as much as SJax is a legend, he's 29 now, and reaching an age when running back's traditionally start to drop off - we need to start thinking about his successor. Jeff Fisher loves a heavy, pound on the ground running game, and a second back to compliment SJax is vital, if Fisher sets up along the same lines he did when bossing the Titans. Whoever we get, what we need is a genuine playmaker, a difference maker who can step in from day one and start us back on the road to relevancy in the NFL. 

Speak soon folks, thanks for reading.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bonus short story ;o)

I was doing some tidying up of old backup devices, and found this little tinker. It was an entry into a short story competition, and the rules were that it had to be no longer than 1,000 words (it's exactly 1,000 words...brevity has never been my strong suit), and about a burglary (nice writing company I'm keeping). It won, netting me a nice little cash prize, and it sparked off an idea or two that would, eventually, lead to the proposed plot of the second book in the Broken World series, (provisionally entitled A Dance with Destiny).

Just throwing it in here as a little taster, it's a short, down and dirty read that will hopefully raise a smile of enjoyment. Thanks for reading.

Andy poos

The Test
Copyright Andy Logan March 2012

    In the moonlight, Erical and the creature stared at each other, and neither moved, neither even appeared to breathe. The silence was complete and oppressive. The creature’s red eyes glowed like fires in the dark, and its mouth opened wider, spit dripping down from its fangs. It fixed its absolute gaze on the young thief and inclined its head to one side, studying him. It looked Erical up and down, and then, with a voice thick with danger and the promise of sudden and total violence, it spoke.
  “I hunger…” 
  In those seconds before the creature leapt for him, Erical’s mind flashed back to a few minutes earlier…

  He had stood on the roof and stared down at the street below. Erical loved the view from so high - some people strode with purpose, the fire torches they used to light their way bobbing methodically up and down as they walked. Others could be seen stumbling haphazardly in the darkness, suffering from the effects of Drellakian Ale.
  Crime was far from rife in this part of Drell, but the Militia presence was at its greatest.  As young as he was, Erical had already succumbed to the bitter irony of poverty – the poor usually steal from the poor, because it’s easier.
  Tonight, though, he was stealing from one of the richest men in the City. He had to get in and retrieve a vase. If he could do so, he would have passed the final test and would no longer be an apprentice - he would be a NightRunner, a true thief. In the alley far below, opposite his target, his masters waited, ready, should he return with the vase, to bow to him as an equal in the traditional manner.
  Taking one last deep breath, Erical ran as fast he could towards the edge, mentally steadying himself for the right moment, for the exact second when he would have to make the leap over.
  His feet hit the edge, and he jumped, throwing his arms ahead of him, his speed and power carrying him out over the street and across the deadly drop to the gutters below. For a brief second, he was suspended, weightless, and felt the familiar sensation of his stomach flip-flopping back and forward inside him as he sailed across the gap.        
  He landed safely and elegantly and gently lowered himself head-first over the roof, both hands gripping the edge with the claw fingers attached to his gloves, allowing him to peer through the glass window just below.  Inside, all was still. According to his research, this was a storage room, and should be unoccupied. Erical pushed the window as gently as he could, and manoeuvred inside.
  The vase he had been charged with stealing was on a table outside the bedroom below. Erical moved downstairs, quickly, silently, but stopped suddenly when he reached the bedroom door - it was wide open. Was the Merchant awake? He could see the object of his desire on its table on the other side of the open doorway, and realised he had no choice, had to pass by the open doorway and grab the vase. Erical moved as quickly as he dared, his eyes drawn to the doorway as he did so, and he chewed furiously on his bottom lip. Halfway across, he stopped dead in his tracks.
  Standing there, completely silent, was a…thing….at least seven feet tall. The moonlight that came streaming in through the glass windows illuminated only part of it, but those parts were covered in shaggy dark hair and Erical could see what appeared to be bone sticking from parts of it’s arms and legs. A huge head with a mouth full of white, sharp, pointed teeth that glistened and gleamed in the light like finely polished and wicked daggers turned to look at where he stood, rooted to the spot.
  He had heard of these creatures, semi-intelligent brutes purchased and placed in the homes of those wealthy enough to afford them, tasked with guarding property, and eviscerating anybody foolish enough to trespass.

  Erical’s mind snapped back to the present as the creature lunged forward, and the soundless spell was broken. It reached for Erical, and the young thief hurled himself across the doorway, trying to stay out of reach, his hands reaching out to try and grasp the vase as he dove past, fingertips reaching for it.
  He wasn’t quite quick enough, felt sharp claws rake his back, a burning and stinging sensation assaulting him as jagged wounds opened across his skin. Rolling across the floor, wincing with the pain, he willed himself to get up, as the creature, snarling and growling, closed on him. He felt the hot air of it’s breath on his back, a smell of rotting meat and carrion assailing his senses.
  Once chance, one choice – Erical threw himself at a nearby window, aware that he was two floors up, but also aware that this was his only chance of escape and survival. He braced and bunched as he crashed out of the window, sailing through the air.  He could hear a feral cry of impotent rage as the creature realised he had escaped its grasp; it would have been trained to say in the house, to never stray from its boundaries.
  Erical hit the ground, hard, and the air rushed out from him. He rolled with the impact, wincing as his ravaged back slid across the gravel, gasping as a popping sound heralded the breaking of ribs. Clutching his hands to his stomach, he scrambled to the alley, where his masters waited, and dropped, exhausted and in pain to his knees.
  “Ran into trouble, did you?” Rayvan asked.
  “You didn’t get the vase…” Millar sighed. “I’m sorry Erical.”
  Erical looked up at the two men, and smiled, showing a mouth bloodied from his landing. He spat a single tooth out, took his hands away from his stomach to reveal the vase he was clutching onto, and smiled.
  “Bow…” he whispered.

Another update, a repost of the bonus chapter, and another word on names

'Ey up, is everybody?

So, this is just a quick update on where things are with "Part Two" of Book One. (Bit of a mouthful that, really, should have thought it through a bit better in the first place).

I've procrastinated enough, I think, and the time has come to gut this thing out and just get on with it. I've committed (really committed this time!) to finishing Part Two by summer (shall we say, June, maaaaaaaaybe July) so the wait is nearly over! At the same time as Part Two is released as an ebook, I will also by releasing the paperback version, containing both parts one and two together - exciting, no? 

So, why the delay? Well, as I've said before, basically, my problem is that I just keep on changing things, keep on rewriting parts of the book. At one stage, I literally threw away 75 pages because I didn't like the tone of them, and started the whole section again. My agent thinks I'm precious. I think I'm a perfectionist. The truth, as with so many other things in life, is somewhere between the two ;o)

So, onto the "bonus" chapter, which was posted in the last blog...what all dis about den, eh?

Well, it's the third of the four major story strands within the book. The first, and "main" strand is obviously Gillad, the second is about Krome, Gennarbo, Ferg, et al in Shiancoe, the third is...well, the third is about Oly, and what happens to him, but I'm not about to give anything away about that just now. The fourth concerns the tribespeople called the Doman. There are four separate tribes, although they all share a common heritage, and they're scattered throughout the land of Achelos. There used to be 20 tribes, but for reasons that will become clear, they were whittled down sometime ago to the remaining few. The Doman are human, but they are neither Drellak or Swarth, although they MAY share some common ancestry ;o)

We're interested in one particular tribe, the Tlann, who dwell in the mountains that lie next to the East coast of Swarth and border the lands of the Drellak. Initially, this chapter was supposed to be number four, and would sit inbetween the chapter where Gillad says his goodbyes to Evraa, and the chapter where Gillad carries out the "hit" that he's basically been coerced into.

I was 'persuaded' to excise the chapter from the first part of the book as the next chapter to deal with the Tlann wasn't scheduled to arrive until the second part of the book. It was felt that there was simply too big a gap between the two chapters, and that your average reader would lose the "thread" of the plot strand. Gillad, Krome and Oly all get more than one chapter, so to just dedicate one to the Tlann was an imbalance.

Personally, I think that's patronising and demeaning, and isn't crediting the reader with enough intelligence. I went with the decision at first, because I bowed to the established credo, but have since changed my mind. I threw a strop and said that the chapter was going back in, at chapter four, where it was first intended. As a result, all future downloads of the first part will now feature the extra chapter and the paperback will have the chapter order as I first intended.

However, for those of you who have already purchased part one (Ithankyou x), it's only fair that you get to see the new / old chapter for free. So, without further ado - here it is. Enjoy and thank you for your support and belief.

One more thing - a word on names. A few people have asked why some of the names sound so different, and you will no doubt notice that among the Tlann, the cadence of the names are different again. In short, I wanted to give each subset of people their own style of names and language.

When Achelos was still one country, the fashion was for two names, the last being the 'family' name, similar to our own heritage. When the country split, the Drellak people, anxious to carve out their identity and break with the past, dropped the last name, and adopted a simpler, less fixed and rigid naming vocabulary. Place names were basically 'reset' too, in an effort to break with the past and remove what they saw as the stain of the religious people in the south. In Swarth, a population who like to think they have developed a more sophisticated and enlightened culture, place and people names have a Latin influence, which is intended to demonstrate the more ancient nature of their naming culture. Plus, they still retain the ancient use of family names. For the Tlann and indeed the other tribes of the Doman (see what I did there?) the noun influence is that of ancient Norse. And as for the people in black, the "fire users"...ah, that would be telling, but their names give away a large clue as to who - and what - they really are...not that you've heard any of their names so far...but you will... 

Enjoy! xxx (any spelling, grammar and plain old stupid mistakes are mine, all mine)

“Let the Swarth fear us. Let them whisper tales of people venturing into the mountains and never returning.”

    “There’s a storm coming.”
  Freyi nodded her agreement, and adjusted her footing on the outcrop. She loved the feeling that being perched on top of the World gave her; it was a thrill like no other. The whole World was ranged far, far below, her blonde hair whipping about her face in the strong cross winds, and she felt so alive. She rocked back on her haunches and tucked her goatskin coat into her breeches – leaving loose clothing billowing about you wasn’t the smartest move when you were this high up.
  Next to her, Baldir chewed on an oakroot and stared off into the distance, where black clouds could be seen gathering and rolling towards them.
  “Best get to lower ground,” Baldir said, spitting a stringy piece of the root out of his mouth and watching it arc out into the air before plummeting hundreds of feet. “This high up on the mountain t’ain’t the safest place to be when the storms hit.”
  “I know,” Freyi replied with an irritated tone. The older she became and the higher her place with the Tlann tribe grew, the more Baldir seemed to make a point of treating her as a child.
  She began to make her way down the mountain face, picking her hand and foot holds as carefully as she could. The feeling that ran through her when she was this high up above the World was almost indescribable. It was pleasure, contentment and a slice of fear, all mixed into one, and she loved the way the sensations coursed through her, surging and roiling, charging her head, her heart and her limbs with energy and  excitement.
  Your average Swarth or Drellak dweller would balk in terror at scaling a hill, let alone climb a mountain and trust in just the security of your limbs and the steadfastness of the rock you were clinging to, but for the Tlann, and the other three tribes of the Doman, climbing was something they were born to.
  “I see a goat,” Baldir called quietly to her from just below. Freyi followed his gaze, and saw the mountain animal on an outcrop thirty feet below, grazing on a threadbare patch of grass.
  Freyi checked her hands, made sure that the ledge she was holding onto was strong, and let go of one arm. She reached down to her side, and eased a small shaftbow from her belt. The modified crossbow was high tensile and very light, ideal for hunting on and around the terrain they occupied.
  Taking a deep breath, and shuffling slightly to make sure her body was angled correctly, Freyi gave a quick prayer to the Sky and squeezed the trigger.
  “Good shot!” Baldir laughed, scrambling down towards the ledge. The goat lay on its side, the bolt buried deep in its neck, and its breathing was shallow and laboured. Freyi could see it was in pain and suffering. She felt the usual flush of regret and sadness at what she’d done, but balanced out the feeling with the knowledge that she did what she had to in order to feed the tribe.
  “Finish it quickly!” Freyi called after Baldir. He didn’t acknowledge her, but as his feet touched down the ledge, he drew a dagger from his belt and knelt down to slit the goat’s throat.
  Satisfied, she moved down as quickly as she was safely able to, and joined Baldir on the ledge. He slapped her on the shoulder.
  “Amazing!” he laughed, “You never miss a shot, do you?!”
  Freyi shrugged, uncomfortable with the praise. She’d killed a living creature, had taken an innocent existence to serve hers – and the Tlann tribe’s – ends. Knowing it was necessary didn’t have to mean she was proud of it.
  Baldir pulled some twine round his back and trussed the animal’s legs together. He stood back, and frowned, stroking his chin.
  “Not sure we can get it down the rest of the way in one piece.” He looked at her, “Half each?”
  Freyi pulled a face, and shook her head. “No. Strap it to your back, or roll it down.”
  Baldir laughed at her and peered out over the ledge, gauging the drop.
  “I roll it off here, and it will be in more than two pieces when it hits the ground.” Turning back, he hefted the goat and weighed it in his arms.
  Over complicating things again, Freyi thought, irritated. She hated going hunting with her brother to find food; it always turned into a battle of wills between them.
  “I think I can carry it down on my back if you use the twine to tie it to me,” Baldir said, nodding to himself.
  “It’s a lot of weight to carry down,” Feryi replied, reaching for the twine coiled on her belt as she spoke. She’d be in this position enough times to know that when her brother decided to do something, her opinion was given scant attention.
  “No, I can handle it,” Baldir replied. “Tie it to me.”
  Freyi wound the twine as tightly as she could around the carcass, binding it to her brother’s back.
  “That should do it,” she said, giving it a final sharp tug. “You sure you can carry the weight?”
  “Come on,” he replied with a wink, “It’s me.”

  “How many?”
  “About 100…all armed.” She turned to face him. “Some are wearing armour, but not all.”
  “No. They look…raggedy.”
  “Not a professional army then,” Baldir replied, “Not Swarth.”
  The thought of a Swarth army invading the mountain pass sent a shiver through both of them. When the Doman had first come down from the Blackmount and into the lands of Achelos, Drellak and Swarth had not long existed as two separate countries. In their abandoned lands, the Doman were used to a warm climate, as a result, the vast majority of them migrated south, settling in the new lands of the Swarth. At first the 20 tribes of the Doman were welcomed and embraced, their customs and mannerisms a source of fascination and amusement. 
  Until, that is, the day when the Shivering had broken out. A horrific way of dying, characterized by the victim bleeding from the inside out, every orifice weeping blood, whilst the sufferer shivered uncontrollably.
  The Doman had been open about the fact that they had fled a “great plague” in their own lads over the Blackmount, a plague that had meant it would never again be safe to return there. The people of Achelos leapt to the conclusion that the Shivering was the very same plague the Doman had referred to, a plague that they had evidently bought with them.
  Some of the tribes, such as Freyi’s very own Tlann, had retreated further into the mountains as soon as possible, isolating themselves from the ever increasing anger and resentment closing in on them. Other tribes had moved into the icy wastes of the North of Drellak, putting as much distance as they could between themselves and potential danger.
  Over a period of months, the clamour grew ever louder, citizens demanding that some sort of retribution be visited on the Doman in revenge for the plague they’d bought with them. The end result was an event that saw the Doman shrink from twenty tribes to just four. A massacre, an attempted genocide perpetrated by the Swarth, lasting just a few days but leading to the almost complete destruction of the tribes and their way of life. It was known in Doman lore as the Days of the Red Rivers, due to the bloodshed turning the waters by the various tribal settlements a deep, crimson colour as they ran with blood.
The few surviving tribes were either too remote or, in the case of the Llmachet, too problematic. Most Doman tribes shunned the use of tools as weapons, they had a tradition of unarmed combat amongst themselves, but the Llmachet had no such compunction. Every Swarth detachment sent to wipe them out simply never came back, and eventually, the Swarth simply gave up, content to let the Llmachet live in peace and isolation on their rocky outcrop by the Endless Sea.
  “They could be something to do with the travelers we’ve had in the passes recently,” Baldir said, scratching the back of his head. He pushed past Freyi and took a closer look for himself. “They look similar.”
  “Yes, they do,” Freyi nodded, “But there’s only been a maximum of six or seven of them before, never this many.”
  “I was there when the last group came through – they were taken care of.” Baldir said, moving back away from the cleft.
  “If you mean were they massacred, then yes they were.” Freyi replied with a wrinkling of her nose. She accepted that since the day of the Red Rivers the surviving tribes of the Doman had every right to be wary of strangers, especially those who ventured so high into the mountains, but she was uncomfortable with the extreme measures they sometimes took to safeguard their territory.
  “Everybody knows the rules,” Baldir told her, crawling across the ledge. “We told both Drellak and Swarth how things would be - this is Tlann land; we’ll defend it to our last breath. They shouldn’t have come through the passes, and they shouldn’t have come armed.”
  “They way I hear it,” Freyi snapped back, “They died with their blades sheathed.”
  “Of course they did! You think we’d give them a chance to use their steel on us? They broke the rules; they set foot on our land.”
  “And now there’s a bigger group right here – coincidence?” Freyi risked one more glance over the top. “They’ve probably come looking for their friends.”
  “We let one go.” Baldir said.
  “We let one go. Told him to take a message back, to stay away from our lands.”
  “Then I think we’ve solved the mystery!” Freyi laughed, “The survivor has gone straight back to where he came from, told his story, and instead of running scared, they’ve returned with four times as many men as before!”
  “It wasn’t my call. I was all in favour of killing them all. Let the Swarth fear us. Let them whisper tales of people venturing into the mountains and never returning. We should create a climate of fear, make it so they’re too scared to even enter the foothills.”
  “We shouldn’t kill anybody,” Freyi replied. “That makes us as bad as them.”
  “You’ve forgotten about the genocide?”
  “Of course I haven’t! But if we commit the same crimes as they did, then that makes us no better than they are – and we have to be better, we have to aspire to something more than the Swarth, more even than Drellak.”
  “I’m going to fetch Njall.” Baldir said, “He’ll know what to do.”
  Freyi nodded to herself, and turned back, watching the progress of the column of heavily armed men as they made their way through the pass.
  It took Baldir half an hour to return with Njall, and during that time, Freyi followed the progress of the soldiers. The mountain passes were a maze, a warren of twists and turns, some that led to dead ends, some that led to a sheer drop, but only a small handful of ways could lead you safely deeper and higher into Tlann territory. As impossible as it seemed to her, the soliders were following one of those paths, drawing ever closer to the village where the Doman resided. It was as if they knew where to go, but she couldn’t ascertain how.
  Only the people of the Tlann knew the way, it was their greatest and most closely guarded secret. Something wasn’t adding up about all this, somehow, someway, whoever these people were, Freyi had an awful, gut wrenching feeling that they knew where they were going, and they were heading straight for the village itself.
  “Hey,” a deep voice whispered in her ear.
  Freyi jumped slightly as Njall appeared silently next to her. He was a tall man, with sunken cheeks and a shaven head, he had small eyes set too far into his head that made him look emaciated. If it wasn’t for the wiry, solid muscles that rippled and strained against his taut skin, you could be forgiven for thinking he was ill. He always moved with a lithe and sinewy grace, and when he spoke it was in unhurried, deep tones that belied his slender frame.
  “How long since you first saw them?” he asked, tapping a long finger against his chin, staring at the column as it marched.
  “Fourty minutes or so,” Freyi replied, feeling the familiar sense of unease that always seemed to accompany Njall. He was known as the Conscience of the tribe, a title he earned by annually besting all comers in a hand to hand fighting tournament. As the Conscience, he was seen as second only to the tribal leader, and carried the responsibility for the martial safety of the tribe. It was Njall’s responsibility to ensure that the village was safe and secure, that the members of the tribe, both male and female – for the Doman made no distinction between sexes when it came to duty – were well trained and competent enough to defend their home.
  It was also believed that so long as the Conscience of the tribe was alive, the Tlann would never die, their tribe would continue on in perpetuity. Hence, when a Conscience became too old or too infirm to perform his duty, he was willingly sacrificed, his blood given as an offering to the Lord in the Sky, and a new tournament held to decide a new Conscience immediately. In this manner, the Tlann held firm to the belief that they would never vanish from the surface of Achelos.
  “They’re headed for the village.” Freyi said. “I’m convinced of it – we need to warn them, need to get the defences prepared.”
  “Patience child,” Njall replied, shifting his weight so that he could lean behind and check out the territory further down the pass. “We’ve got no reason to believe they’re headed towards the village.”
  “Where else CAN they be headed?!” asked Baldir, gesturing around him. “Nobody comes up this high into the mountains – nobody except us. They’re looking for us.”
  Njall nodded, but stayed silent, his eyes never leaving the column. Freyi began to tap a foot, impatiently, annoyed that the Conscience didn’t seem to be reacting. The recent interlopers who had been at first driven off, and later killed, had been lower in the mountains, making their way from one side to the other, where the border existed between Swarth and Drellak. These men, however, they had climbed higher, used the well worn passages to reach a point further up, and that surely left only one place for them to be headed.
  “You know these people better than we do,” Baldir offered, giving Njall a small pat on the shoulder. “You’re the one who likes to walk among them.”
  Freyi nodded her assent. Njall was well known among the Tlann for his habit of stealing down from the mountains and visiting the nearby settlements of the Swarth. The nearest town was a few miles from the foothills of the mountains, a coastal settlement called Parthalan Jar. It was a strange affectation of the Swarth that they designated their dwellings in such ways – if a place was named as ‘Jar’, it was viewed as a large town, whereas cities bore the name of ‘Tor’.
  As far as she was aware, based on the tales that Njall had to share with them when he returned from his forays, Parthalan Jar was one of the larger settlements, a bustling, lively seaport. There was a part of her that longed to see if for herself, but she was afraid that the noise, the smell and the crowded streets that Njall described in such detail would panic and scare her.
  “This is true,” Njall nodded. He stood, and walked to the edge of the ledge they were on.
  “They seem to know where they’re going,” Freyi offered.
  “Don’t be so stupid!” Baldir scoffed. “How could they?”
  “I’m telling you, they do! I’ve been watching them, they’re following a defined path – look! That one at the front, he’s got a map!”
  Baldir frowned and stepped forward, straining to look, then stepped back again, his hand covering his open mouth. “How…?”
  “Somebody told them, may they be cursed by the Lord in the Sky.” Freyi said, spitting onto the floor. She turned to Njall. “Somebody told them where to find us, drew a map.”
  “I’m getting old now,” Njall sighed. He leant back against the outcrop, slouching against it. “My time will soon come. I will be forced to give up my blood in order to placate the Lord in the Sky and allow another to become the Conscience. Perhaps you, Baldir?” he said with a sly smile. “You nearly bested me last year in the Leader’s name day celebrations…I would imagine you are the first among candidates.”
  Baldir allowed his chest to swell with pride, but Freyi tensed, her senses becoming alert. Something wasn’t right here. Why was Njall talking in this way, why wasn’t he rushing back to the village to form the defences, as was his duty?
  “Problem is,” Njall continued, “I’m not ready. Not ready at all. I don’t think I’ll be ready tomorrow, either. Or next year. Or the year after…in fact, I don’t think I will ever be ready to sacrifice myself.”
  “Conscience,” Freyi said softly, wiping suddenly wet palms on her tunic, “We should warn the village – the soliders are almost out of sight. It won’t be long bef…”
  “So what to do?” Njall sighed. “What to do.”
  Suddenly, and with a speed that took her breath away in surprise, Njall uncoiled from his slouched position and slammed an open hand into Baldir’s throat. Her brother’s eyes went wide with pain and shock, and he staggered back, hands going to his neck, as if he could heal himself by his own touch.
  Njall leapt forward, bringing one foot up high, swinging it in front of him, aiming it for Freyi’s scalp, but she twisted, instinct taking over, already anticipating an attack, and Njall’s foot, instead of caving in her skull, merely glanced off and sent her staggering back to the outcrop’s edge.
  “No!” Freyi gasped, “Conscience…”
  “I won’t say sorry,” Njall told her. “Because I’m not.”
  The Conscience shaped to kick, but suddenly, at the last second, changed his stance, and lunged forward with both hands extended. Freyi backed up, her senses numb, hardly able to comprehend what was happening. She threw an arm up, more in hope than judgement, and pushed aside the attack.
  Njall jumped back, anticipating a counter strike from her, and smiled. “You’re faster than I thought.”
  “Stay away from my sister!” Baldir cried, spinning on his heel and snapping a kick towards Njall.
  The Conscience moved quicker than Freyi thought possible, half turning to palm aside the attack, pushing Baldir off balance and sweeping his standing leg out from under him.
  As Baldir crashed to the ground, Njall smashed the ball of his heel down into her brother’s face, crushing it, the sound of blood bursting forth mixing with Baldir’s agonised scream.
  Freyi shook herself, as it to rouse from a dream, and took a fighting stance, spreading her weight, balancing.
  “You did this,” Freyi said, as they circled each other. She could hear Baldir’s agonised cries; hear his wheezing, rasping breath. “You gave them the map, you showed them the way.”
  Njall jabbed forward, and Freyi moved to block, anticipating the blow. He was too clever for her, though, quickly transplanting his weight onto his other foot, and bringing his other arm round, sending into her unprotected side. She gave a gasp as the air rushed out of her, doubled over, tears coming to her ears.
  A second blow hammered into the side of her head, sending her crashing to the ground. Hands grabbed her, hauled her to her feet, and she was shoved back, staggering, barely keeping her feet, felt another blow connect with her chin, knocking her down again. And down. And down. And down.
  She was falling!
  She barely had time to register the thought, to process what has happening, before she hit solid ground, hard – hard enough to force the remaining air from her lungs and leave her on her side, not even able to whimper, mouth opening and closing in a desperate attempt to breathe.
  Everything hurt; every single part of her was drenched in pain, a physical torrent of agony.
  Freyi raised her head slightly, tried to open one blood caked eye, knew without touching it that the bruised flesh was starting to swell, starting to close up. She forced herself into a sitting position, gingerly checked herself, winced as she felt some broken ribs, but pleased that the didn’t appear to be any worse damage.
  Looking to her left, she realised she was lying on a ledge, a short way down the face of the ridge. The ledge had broken her fall and saved her life.
  Freyi raised her head and checked how far she had fallen. It was a fair distance, and there didn’t seem anywhere to go, either up or down. The Lord in the Sky must have been watching, and guided her fall to the one place where she could have landed and lived. She waited, quiet and still, waiting for her breathing to return to normal, wincing as her ribs delivered a sharp stab of pain with every gasp.
  Above her, all was silent. Nothing moved. She silently prayed to the Lord that she would see Baldir’s face peering over the edge, looking for her. After a few hours, as the sun began to set and the temperature began to drop, she even began to say a prayer or two in the hope that Njall might appear.
  Night drew in around her, and Freyi fought to stay awake, determined that however she died, whenever she died, it would not be not be like this, not on this day.
  The wind picked up, and rain began to fall. The oncoming storm had broken.