Tag Archives: fiction

The Wandering King: Book 3 Begun

phalanx

 

Those that have been enjoying The Wandering King series will be happy to hear that I’ve started work on book 3.  I used the year’s hiatus to work on a contemporary novel.  After spending 5 years immersed in the ancient world, I needed to spend some time writing about today’s world.

The subtitle for book 3 hasn’t been selected yet.  If you’d like to weigh in on the subtitle or suggest one of your own, feel free to do so in the comments section.  Here are a couple that I’m mulling over…

  • Glorious Fall the Valiant
  • Black Hulled Ships
  • Perils of War
  • Land of Brave Men
  • The Sworn Band
  • Victory or Death

The lines “glorious fall the valiant” and “land of brave men,” come from the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus.  “Black hulled ships,” comes from Homer.  The “perils of war” comes from Thucydides.  “Sworn band” is a translation of the Spartan smallest military unit, the enomotia.  A variation for the subtitle could be “Sworn Band Leader,” which was an enomotarch, which is comparable to the modern title of lieutenant.

Where Book 3 is Going

In book 1, Summer, Harvest, War, you journeyed with Euryanax south to Libya and north to Corinth and Delphi.  In book 2, With This Shield, you followed him west to Italy and Sicily.

In book 3, you’ll venture east with our hero to Thrace, Scythia and Asia Minor (modern Turkey) where he’ll take part in a 6-year struggle called the Ionian Revolt.  Though not written about in any novels that I’m aware of, the Ionian Revolt is covered in Herodotus.  It was a revolt by the Greek cities in Asia Minor against the High King Darius of Persia, and is seen as the precursor to the more famous Persian War.a82f442a443b716d8ffa57bc15e88771

Before Eury goes east, he has some unfinished business to take care of at home in Sparta.  When we last left him, he was marching away from Athens with the Spartan army after they had just ousted the Athenian tyrant Hippias.  His uncle Leonidas had put him in charge of a handful of young Athenian boys, who we are told are hostages, but King Cleomenes wants to disguise this fact by having Eury train them in the agoge.

Book 3 opens with us learning that Eury has been given the responsibility of training a group of young boys from all over Hellas.  Cleomenes has expanded upon his original idea, and offered to teach the sons of his allies in Boeotia, Arcadia and Macedon the Spartan way of war.  Like many of the innovative things Cleomenes did in history, this is not a popular idea among his fellow, conservative Spartans.

Among Eury’s students are some young, historical personages, such as Alexandros son of King Amnytas (Alexander the Great’s great-great-great grandfather), Alcibiades of the Alcaemonids (grandfather of his famous namesake), and Leontiades, the future Theban commander at the Battle of Thermopylae.  Several others are based on minor characters mentioned by Herodotus in The Histories, some of whom, like Attaginus, end up allied with the Persians during the Persian War.

Eury’s cousin and chief rival and antagonist, Pausanias, is also training a ‘herd’ of boys, the salamanders.  As they have a 8-year head start on Eury’s ‘turtles,’ Pausanias’ salamanders are  a lean, mean pack of wolves, whose main goal in life is to kill Eury’s charges, of which they’ve already done away with 3 at the start of the story.

How Eury manages to help the turtles survive the agoge and one of Sparta’s most brutal rites of passage, the Festival of Artemis Orthia, make up the first two chapters of book 3, which I am working on now.

Diversion to Athens

If you’ll recall from book 2, after the Spartans overthrew the Athenian tyrant Hippias they left one of their puppets, a rich nobleman named Isagoras in charge.  Isagoras promptly exiled ‘the father of democracy’ Cleisthenes from Athens.  If you’ve read Herodotus, you know that Cleisthenes eventually returns and “took the common people into his party” enabling him to oust Isagoras.

Although I admire the Spartans, one of the things that is not so admirable about them is their aversion to democracy.  In defense of the Spartans, philosophers like Aristotle and Plato were not exactly keen on the Athenians version of ‘pure’ democracy either.  Many during the age (particularly wealthy landowners) viewed it as ‘rule by the unwashed, uneducated rabble.’  Cleomenes attempted to interfere in Athenian politics, where he wanted to get rid of Cleisthenes and reinstate Isagoras.

As the Athenian democracy survived, you can probably guess that Cleomenes’ plans backfire on him.  Once the Peloponnesian League and his co-King Demaratus learned what he was up to, they walked out on him.  Cleomenes had cleverly planned to have Sparta, Thebes and Chalcis attack Athens from three sides, but once the Spartans left with Demaratus, the Athenians rallied and beat the Thebans and men of Chalcis in two separate battles.

What role will Eury play in all of this?  You’ll see.

Reunited with Miltiades

Hopefully I’m not giving away too much of the story  by saying Euryanax is forced to leave Sparta.  When Eury does, he returns young Cimon to his father Miltiades, who as we learned at the end of book 2 was returning to the Thracian Chersonese to reclaim his lands there.

Why did I introduce Miltiades in book 2?  Readers familiar with Greek history will recognize him as the key strategos of the Athenian forces at the famous Battle of Marathon.  If there is a book 4 in the series, it’ll cover Marathon, where Miltiades has his historic day in sun.

For purposes of book 3, Herodotus also records that Miltiades was involved in some adventures prior to Marathon.  He captured the islands of Lemnos, Imbros and Tenedos in the Aegean Sea, taking them away from the Persian Empire.  Miltiades also has a part to play in …

The Ionian Revolt

hoplite3The last thing I’ll say about book 3 is that the same way that Eury was reunited with Theokles during the Battle at Phalerum in book 2, his friend will reappear in time for the Ionian Revolt’s famous Battle of Lade.  There will be some surprises regarding Theo and his mistress Stesilaus, so I’ll close here before I give anyway any spoilers.

The important thing to know is that book 3 is begun and I am excited to be working on it.  Don’t want to promise a completion date as that just adds the pressure of a deadline.  Will only say that it took three years to write book 1 and two years to complete book 2.  It’ll take a few years to deliver the story to you, but for me, this is the fun part.  Just like you, I’m curious to see what happens next to our hero, Euryanax.

With This Shield: Historical Characters

othryades-mourant

Of the 60 men and women in With This Shield’s character listing, more than 40 are based on real people from ancient Greek history.  Below you will find some additional information on 15 of these historical figures.  Am also including the pronunciation of their name, as readers have told me they find this helpful.

SPOILER ALERT:  Though the data below will not give away the plot of With This Shield, in some cases it will tell you what became of the character in history.  I’ve been careful to leave out events covered in the next book in the series, so it does not give away too much information.

Aeschylus (S-kuh-lus)

While only a teenager in With This Shield, Aeschylus will grow up to be one of the most famous dramatic playwrights in Greek literature.  Twenty years later, he and his two brothers, Cynegeirus and Ameinias, would take part in the Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.).

Of Aeschylus’ 90 plays, only 7 survive.  One of his earliest works, The Persians, is based on his experiences in the naval Battle of Salamis (479 B.C.).  It is unique among the Greek tragic plays in that it describes a recent historical event.

Aristides (ah-ris-TĪDE-ēz)

In The Histories, Herodotus describes Aristides as the “best and most honorable man in Athens.”  In later years he was called “Aristides the Just.”

His life is recorded by the Greek author Plutarch in his book The Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans.  Plutarch states that Aristides and Themistocles were friends when they were young, but they had a falling out because “…both were in love with Stesilaus…”

My favorite story about Aristides occurred when he was older. The Athenians were voting on who to ostracize (the ‘winner’ being exiled for 10 years).  An illiterate voter who did not recognize Aristides approached him and asked him to write the name of Aristides on the ballot.  When the statesman asked the man if Aristides had ever wronged him, the man said, “No, I do not even know him, but it irritates me to hear everyone call him ‘the Just’.”  Honest to the end, Aristides wrote his own name on the ballot and was exiled.

Callicrates (kal-ē-KRAT-ēz)

Callicrates is only mentioned once by Herodotus, who says he was the most handsome man in the Greek army.  Thirty years after the events described in With This Shield, he would die at the Battle of Plataea (479 B.C.) while the Greeks were waiting for the Persians to charge and an arrow struck him in the eye.

Herodotus wrote:  “Having been carried to the rear, as he lay dying, Callicrates said he was  happy to die for Hellas, but it grieved him that he did not get a chance to prove his bravery, that he did no acts of valor worthy of the spirit he had in him to perform great deeds.”

Callimachus (kal-ah-MOCK-us)

Twenty years after the events described in With This Shield, Herodotus lists Callimachus as the polemarch (commanding officer) at the Battle of Marathon.  Callimachus led the Athenian right wing and was killed after the Persians were routed and the Greeks were chasing them to their ships.

In Athens, it was customary for the father of the bravest man killed in the battle to give the public funeral oration over the dead.  Callimachus’ father and the father of Aeschylus (whose brother Cynegeirus was also slain) argued over whose son was the bravest.  Callimachus’ father won.

Years later the Athenians erected a statue on the acropolis next to the Parthenon in his honor, called “The Nike of Callimachus” (the Victory of Callimachus).

Cimon (SĪ-mon)

Miltiades’ youngest son would go on to become one of the most famous statesmen and generals in Athenian history.  My depiction of Cimon is based on what we know from Herodotus and Plutarch, who claim he was a great supporter of the Spartans.  In later life he wore his hair long in the Spartan style, and named his first son, Lacedaemonius, after the Spartan homeland, Lacedaemonia.

After the Greco-Persian Wars, when the Greeks formed the Delian League to prevent future Persian incursions (the League would become the precursor to the Athenian Empire), Cimon was named as its principal commander.  Cimon led most of the League’s military operations from 475-463 BC.  During that period, he and Aristides drove the Spartans under Pausanias out of Byzantium (later called Constantinople and today called Istanbul).

His most famous military victory came at the Battle of Eurymedon River (466 B.C.), when he captured or destroyed over 200 Persian warships.

Cleisthenes (KLĪS-thenes)

Cleisthenes was the grandson of the tyrant of the Greek city of Sicyon (also named Cleisthenes).  Among his more famous descendants in the Alcmaeonid clan were the Athenian statesman Pericles (builder of the Parthenon) and the orator, statesman and general Alcibiades.

Cleisthenes is remembered in history as the ‘father of democracy.’  While some people consider his reformation of the Athenian constitution giving equal voting rights to all citizens a benevolent act, more than likely he did it to break the hold of the wealthy plains tribes, the Pedieis, over Athens, giving each of the tribes a level playing field.

Cleisthenes called his reforms “isonomia” (equality under the law).  It wasn’t until later they would become known as “demokratia” (rule by the people).

Cleomenes (KLE-ah-men-ēz)

Even though Cleomenes reigned for 30 years, during which time he was the key player in Spartan politics, and he accomplished numerous, slick diplomatic maneuvers, Herodotus does not paint a flattering picture of him.  He accuses him of being unscrupulous, a drunk and insane.  Historians tend to believe that whoever Herodotus spoke to in Sparta to gather information about Cleomenes, was probably among his worst enemies.

Cylon (SĪGH-on)

What we know about Cylon comes from the Syrian neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus, who wrote in his book, The Life of Pythagoras:

“Cylon was a leading citizen of Croton with all of the advantages of noble birth, fame and riches; but otherwise he was a difficult, violent and tyrannical man who eagerly desired to participate in the Pythagorean way of life.  He approached Pythagoras, but was rejected because of his character.  Unaccustomed to rejection, Cylon vowed to seek revenge and destroy Pythagoras and his followers.”

The story in With This Shield about the alliance between Cylon and Ninon, who used phony, forged documents, to discredit Pythagoras and inspire the populace to burn down Milo’s house are found in Iamblichus.  Whether there is any truth to the story, or if it was part of an oral tradition, is hard to say as Iamblichus wrote 700 years after Pythagoras’ death.

Elpinice (L-pin- ēz)

The daughter of Miltiades, Elpinice, is known from Plutarch’s Life of Pericles, where she appears twice.  On both occasions she confronts and rebukes Pericles regarding his political actions.

After the events described in With This Shield, she became the lover of the painter Polygnotus who used her likeness in a painting of Trojan women on a stoa in the Athenian agora.  Later, the richest man in Athens, Callias, fell in love with her.  At the time, her brother Cimon owed the Athenian state a large sum of money and he married her to Callias to pay off the family’s debts.

Gorgo (GORE-gō)

Euryanax’s cousin Gorgo is among the few women mentioned by Herodotus in The Histories.  She is notable for being the daughter of a Spartan king, the wife of a Spartan king and the mother of a Spartan king.

Though little is known about her childhood, like other Spartan girls from a noble family, she would have exercised daily, been well educated, could read and write, and do mathematics.  She also would have learned how to drive a chariot and taken part in Sparta’s many festivals, which included dancing and singing in a chorus.

Gorgo is presented by Herodotus and Plutarch as an extremely wise, well-respected woman, who offered sage advice on several occasions.  Her most famous remark came when an Athenian woman asked her, “Why are you Spartan woman the only ones who can rule over men?”  To which Gorgo replied:  “Because we are the only women to give birth to real men.”

Miltiades (mil-TĪE-ah-dēz)

Miltiades is among the more famous Athenians appearing in With This Shield.  Will resist talking about his most well-known exploits, which will be detailed in the third book in the series.

Miltiades’ family, the Philaids, claimed descent from the Trojan War hero Ajax the Great.  Miltiades’ father won the Olympic Games three times for chariot racing, making him so popular it inspired the jealousy of Athens’ tyrant Hippias, who had him murdered.

Miltiades’ uncle, known as Miltiades the Elder, established an Athenian colony in the Thracian Chersonese (today known as the Gallipoli peninsula) where he set himself up as a tyrant.  When Miltiades the Elder died the tyranny passed to Miltiades’ brother Stesagoras, and after his death, to Miltiades.  Miltiades cemented good relations with the Thracian tribes in the area by marrying Hegesiplye, the daughter of the Thracian King Olorus.

The Greek historian Thucydides, author of The History of the Peloponnesian War, was a Philaid.  His father was named Olorus.  Whether it was the same Olorus related by marriage to Miltiades, is unknown.

Othryades (oh-THRAY-dēz)

As noted in the first two books of The Wandering King, Othryades was famous in Sparta as the lone survivor of the Battle of Champions (540 B.C.) between 300 Spartans and 300 Argives.

According to Herodotus, after the battle Othryades was so upset that his companions had all been killed, he committed suicide.  My apologies to Herodotus for letting Othryades live.

The image at the top of this post is a photograph of a sculpture done in 1779 by the French artist Sergel, titled “Othryades the Spartan Dying.”  It is on display in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Stesilaus (STES-ah-lāy-us)

The “beautiful and brilliant” Stesilaus from the island of Keos is mentioned in Plutarch’s Lives as the cause of the lifelong enmity between the two Athenian statesmen Aristides and Themistocles.

Like Othryades, I’ve taken some creative license with Stesilaus by turning “him” into a “her.”  It’s not that I’m anti-gay.  Not in the slightest.  I just did not think the story would read as well if two of my characters were fighting over a beautiful young boy.  That said, it’s important to realize the role homosexuality played in ancient Greece.

Says Plutarch of Aristides and Themistocles, “They were both in love with Stesilaus of Keos, the most beautiful and brilliant of youths; whom they both cherished so passionately, that not even after the boy’s beauty had faded did they lay aside their rivalry.”

Themistocles (tha-MIS-tōe-clēz)

While I don’t know how many readers are familiar with Themistocles, he is among the most famous Athenian statesmen and generals of all time.  I don’t want to reveal too much about him, as his story will continue in the next book in the series.

My depiction of Themistocles in With This Shield is taken from a tidbit of information I picked up while reading Plutarch’s Life of Themistocles.  Plutarch describes the young Themistocles by saying, “The wildest colts make the best horses.”

He also says that Themistocles was thrown out of his family by his father Neocles for drinking and carousing.  Though this information about Themistocles is debated, it helped form my characterization of him as brilliant, but somewhat wild and unscrupulous.

Plutarch also says that Themistocles was among the first people in history to become a lawyer to launch a political career.

Xanthippus (zan-TIP-ē-us)

Xanthippus was a wealthy aristocrat in Athens, famous in history as the father of the statesmen Pericles, who built the Parthenon and led Athens into its golden age.

Xanthippus married a niece of Cleisthenes named Agariste (Pericles’ mother).  Although not an Alcmaeonid, he became closely linked with their family.

Like Aristides, Themistocles, Miltiades, Callimachus and Aeschylus he would fight in the Battle of Marathon.  His greatest military victory would come in the last engagement of the Greco-Persian Wars as the commander of the Athenian naval forces at the decisive Battle of Mycale (479 B.C.).

Character request?

Want to know more about a character in The Wandering King series?  Let me know, and I’ll do my best to comply.

Absolute Write or Wrong?

AWAs a reader and a writer I enjoy reading other author’s blogs.  By doing so, I pick up valuable advice, and you come across the current issues facing the independent writing community.   The big issue of the day is the Amazon v. Hatchette debate, but I’ll save my thoughts on that matter for another post.

One of the other issues I’ve seen cropping up is the controversy over the writers’ website, Absolute Write.  On their site they have an extremely well trafficked forum called the Water Cooler.

The site was created in 1999 by an admirable freelance writer named Jenna Glatzer (who left in 2007).  Absolute Write (AW) boasts 60,000 users, and averages 8,000 posts a week, all on issues dealing with writing and publishing.

Over the past few months I began noticing AW popping up in a lot of conversations.  Some people claimed to love it, that it provided them with assistance finding an agent, getting a query letter polished, or critiquing their writing—while other’s absolutely hated the site, even going so far as to say they’d been banned for speaking their minds or they’d been the victim of cyberbullying by the members there.

Not belonging to any writers’ forums, I decided to check out AW.  Please understand, I did not go to their site with an axe to grind or any pre-conceived agenda.  I’d seen people speak for and against the site and was simply curious as to the truth of the matter.  So I put on my journalist’s hat and decided to do a little field research.

I spent a week ‘lurking’ to see if the site looked worth joining.  What I found was a bit overwhelming, a touch of information overload.  There are eighty active boards in the forum covering a plethora of subjects; everything from dealing with rejection, writer’s block, grammar, research, publishing scams, novels, short stories, poetry, literary agents, publishers, freelancing, songwriting, script writing… their list of topical areas is extensive.  Whether you want to talk to other writers working on westerns or greeting cards, you’ll find a home for it on AW.

Most of the areas of the site are open to everyone, but a few require you to have a minimum number of posts or six months of time logged on the site to access.

There are so many topical areas on AW that I’m willing to bet that most users gravitate toward their areas of interest and hang out there.  To visit all of the boards and read all the new posts everyday would be virtually impossible.  The boards that I visited, while some of the threads were silly, for the most part the users were respectful, encouraging and supportive of one another.

After two weeks I decided to join, and was a bit surprised when it took them three days to ‘approve’ my registration.  Not that it truly mattered.  Not being approved simply meant I could not post anything.  There was plenty to read.  Each board had their stickies with instructions and there were a mountain of FAQs to peruse.

Once approved, there is a board for new members, so I created a thread there and introduced myself.   About a dozen people welcomed me aboard.  So far, so good.

Over the next week or so, on the various boards I visited, I began to notice a certain amount of negativity pervaded many of the conversations.  People were depressed because they were getting rejection letters, upset because they had too many ideas and didn’t know which one to work on, gridlocked by writer’s block, unable to write because they were dealing with ADD…

In an attempt to be helpful, I decided to create a thread on ‘Famous rejection stories,’ and shared about a half dozen stories about famous writers like Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Dan Brown and J.D. Salinger, who were rejected numerous times before ever getting published.  My thought in starting this thread was to try to encourage people by showing how all authors have to deal with rejection.  It’s something all writers share in common, even the famous ones.  And if you persevere, you just might get lucky like they did.

After creating the thread, someone posted a response saying that he’d heard God had been rejected numerous times before ever getting the Bible published.  Ha, ha.  Sarcastic, but not a personal attack.  Next someone posted a comment that they hated hearing that J.K. Rowling was only rejected 12 times before Harry Potter found a home.  They went on to say they’d been rejected 400 times.  Someone else picked up the idea and added that that J.K Rowling was a horrible example of a writer having a hard time getting published, that her experience was nothing compared to the pain and suffering the average AW writer experienced.  Oi.

At this point I commented that if the posters were having such a hard time dealing with rejection and getting published, why not try self publishing?

This is where my experience with AW went horribly awry and I began to understand why certain people accuse them of cyberbullying.  I was too new to the site to realize it, but I’d stumbled into one of AW’s pet peeve subject areas.  All I had to do was mention self publishing and a dozen people, most of whom had in the neighborhood of 1,000 to 15,000 posts on AW, jumped on me and began ripping me to shreds for daring to even suggest such a course of action.

The basic line of thinking expoused by the hard core AW members was, self publishing is for losers, self publishing is too hard, self publishing is too expensive, self published writers don’t get read… on and on.

In response, I posted that self publishing might be difficult or expensive for some, but if you know how to follow instructions it’s actually fairly easy and doesn’t have to cost you a dime.  I went on to quote a recent research study by a group called Author’s Earnings that states 31% of the sales on Amazon are by self published authors and cited my sources.  You can find them here and here.  There are numerous articles in the media on the subject.

Unfortunately, it seems you cannot have a rational discussion on AW, not if you take up a position that goes against the convention wisdom of AW’s tenured elite.  Trying to back up what I was saying, merely caused more old timer’s to pile on.  It was as if I’d been thrown to the wolves, or perhaps more accurately, was being beaten by a bunch of old biddies using their canes and walkers.  People could see I only had made a couple of posts on their site, I was a noob.  You’d think someone, like a moderator, would have interceded and at least attempted to defend or rescue my bloody carcass, but nope.  I ended up at the bottom of a large pile without a voice raised in assistance or even in pity.

One person, with over 5,000 posts on AW, posted a novel length dissertation on the Author’s Earnings report claiming it was grossly inaccurate and that he and the other old time AW members had already concluded, self published authors never got read.  This line of thought was quickly supported by several other long time AW members.  They rather snidely told me that they’d disproved the Author’s Earnings report weeks ago.  Where had I been?  Living under a rock, no doubt.

I replied, asking as innocently as possible if the group had ever heard of Hugh Howey.  That got them howling.  I quickly learned that trying to argue or provide verifiable proof or evidence of what you are stating means nothing to the elite on AW, it only causes them to froth at the mouth.

Here I was trying to offer some simple information, stories about famous authors who had persevered and succeeded, with the goal of trying to dispel some of the negativism I saw on AW—and I was tar and feathered.

At that point, I threw in the towel and gave up posting anything additional.  I’d made a grand total of 12 posts on their site and felt like a group of vigilantes had run me off with pitchforks.

Do I see value to AW?  Yes.  Am I impressed by their long-standing members?  No.  I got the impression that they are an exclusive club, with a preset list of beliefs that you either subscribe to or they burn you at the stake.

Will I go back to their site?  For the past several days I’ve been licking my wounds, pondering that question.  If I do, it will be to read, not to share what I know.  What’s the point, when it appears their entrenched elite already know all the answers?

writing_jealousy

Beyond the Farthest Galaxy

PROM-006 - The spaceship Prometheus makes its way to a distant planet.

 

Beyond the Farthest Galaxy or The Search for Valhalla, are working titles for a science fiction novel that I would like to finish one day.  To share some of my writing with my readers, I am posting the first chapter below.

In truth, I am not a scientific person.  I’ve never been a big fan of Star Trek (I know, sacrilege) and thought the last three Star Wars movies were laughably awful.

That said, for years I’ve been tinkering with my own science fiction story.  What I like about the genre is that it’s so creative.  Like what Tolkien did with Middle Earth, it allows you to create your own world, your own creatures, planets, life forms, society, religion, etc.

The basis for the plot of Beyond the Farthest Galaxy is the classic Robert Lewis Stevenson novel Treasure Island.  No, my story is not a re-hash of Stevenson’s, I mention this only to give you a rough idea of the plot line for the story.

Over the years I’ve accumulated a pile of notes, character sketches and outlines for Beyond the Farthest Galaxy, but have not actually written much more than the first chapter.  I present it here to give people something to read.

Will be curious to hear what people think of Will and the planet Eden.

* * * * * *

1.  William Pendleton

Like two dancers moving together, Will and Rafe pulled their longbows to their ears.  The ox horn bows creaked as they took aim at a 5’ tall, two hundred pound, bipedal striped fox.

The striped fox had been named after a small animal native to a planet called Earth in the innermost systems.  They both had red fur, a long snout, pointy ears and sharp fangs, though from the pictures Will had seen of Earth’s fox, it was not as big and dangerous as the one he was looking at down the length of his stone-tipped arrow.   Their striped fox used its red fur and black stripes to blend in with the Oryo bushes that grew wild in the forests of Eden.  Many an early settler had gone for a leisurely stroll through what looked like beautiful gardens, only to have a striped fox leap out from hiding to tear out their throat.

“Now,” Rafe whispered and the two let loose their bow strings.  The arrows whistled through the air as they sped toward their target; Will’s red-fletched bolt striking the beast clean through the throat, a kill shot, while Rafe’s white-fletched shaft passed harmlessly through the Oryo bushes to thud into a tall Moroso tree.

As the beast fell, Rafe cursed under his breath.  Months ago, when Rafe had convinced Will to go hunting with him, it had been his idea to award their kills to whomever made the better shot.  Rafe had made this arrangement because he thought he had better aim, and it irritated him to learn that although his school friend couldn’t memorize and recite the names of the twenty-two inner star systems like Rafe could, Will had better eyesight and a steadier hand.

Lowering his longbow, Will commented, “You missed, again.”

Their companion, Keeta, a little humanoid creature bigger than a chimpanzee screeched in glee as she scampered through the tall grass to plunge a crude stone knife into the striped fox’s chest to make sure it was dead.  Keeta belonged to a sentient tribe called Namba that lived in the Moroso forests of Eden.  Namba weren’t as intelligent as humans, but they had their own language, had developed crude Stone Age tools and lived in the giant Moroso trees in herds of one hundred or more, mostly eating the fruit that grew wild in the forests.

Rafe considered Keeta and the Namba ‘idiots.’ In fact, he considered most humans idiots too, but Will couldn’t help admire Keeta’s skill with her crude, razor sharp knife.  The Namba had six fingers on their hands and feet and their extra digits made them extremely dexterous at things like peeling back the hide from a dead fox.

After Rafe pulled his errant arrow from the Moroso tree, he raised his hand as if to strike the Namba.  “I told you not to let her touch them.  She’s done it again.  She’s bloodied the fur.  It’s no good.”

Will caught Rafe’s wrist and stopped him from striking Keeta.  “You can have the hide.  Just don’t hit her.”

“You sure?” Rafe said slyly.  “I took the last four.  You only got one.”

“It’s all right.  Take it.”

Rafe smiled, “If you insist.”

Rafe and Will had met in the little one-room school house on the island of Ithaca.  Their parents were members of an organization called the Anti-Technology Foundation.  Will and Rafe’s grandfather’s had both served on the first starship, the Republic Colony Ship (R.C.S.) Compass, to enter the Gaia Galaxy.  After they’d arrived, they’d found the planet, #R492, which system probe readings had determined contained the elements necessary to sustain human life,   The crew of the R.C.S Compass found five planets in the system, one of which was Earth-size, predominantly covered by water, and crawling with flora and fauna.  It looked so green from orbit they’d named it after the Garden of Eden.  The world contained two continents, Capri and Iberia and a small island they named Ithaca after the home of the ancient mariner Odysseus.  It wasn’t until they began exploring the surface and trying to set up a base that they learned Eden’s animal life, though not as advanced as humans, could be every bit as dangerous.

After the Republic colony Avalon was established on Capri and a wormhole generator constructed, starships began to pour into Gaia exploring the neighboring planets and setting up additional outposts on Capri and Iberia.   Disgusted by the way the newcomers cut down the Moroso forests and exterminated creatures like the striped fox, a group led by the R.C.S. Compass’ original crew, including Will and Rafe’s families, informed the government officials at Avalon they were going to set up their own settlement on Ithaca called Independence, and they wanted to be left alone.

Calling themselves the Anti-Technology Foundation, or Anti-Tech’s, the group published a manifesto stating that they blamed society’s ills on the scientific advancements that had polluted the inner systems.  Though they were laughed at and ridiculed in the press, the Anti-Tech’s said they intended on showing the universe it was possible to live a good, productive life by leaving their electronic gadgetry behind and living off the land.  While the robotic farms built on Capri and Iberia produced enough food to feed a dozen planets, the Anti-Tech’s on Ithaca, though happy, struggled just to feed themselves.

As Rafe stuffed the striped-fox pelt into his backpack, Will spotted a long, dark shadow as big as a cloud moving quickly across the grass.  Without a sound Keeta used her tail to scramble up a Moroso tree and hide among the giant leaves.

“Get down you big dummy!” Rafe yelled diving behind a striped Oryo bush.

The shadow passed over Will, blocking out the sun.  He gazed up at the largest creature he’d ever seen, bigger even than the atmospheric craft that buzzed over Ithaca on their way to Avalon’s starport.  People called them Eden dragons, but they weren’t real dragons, not like the ones Will had seen in the picture books at school.  Eden’s dragons weren’t lizards with scales and didn’t breathe fire.  They had feathers like a bird, talons long as a tractor blade and a beak so sharp it could bite a man in half, and sometimes did, if you got caught out in an open field and weren’t paying careful attention.  On a clear day it was difficult to spot them against the sky because of their light blue underbelly, but today was partly overcast and the giant bird easily discernable against the dark clouds rumbling across Ithaca toward the island’s central mountain, the Twin Peaks.

Squinting, Will tried to figure out what it was carrying in its talons.  “It’s caught something,” Will said, shielding his eyes with a big hand.  “Something shiny.”

Keeta poked her head out from among leaves bigger than she was, and Rafe came out from hiding among the bushes.  “It’s picked up a shuttle.”

Will had never been on a public shuttle, but each year one visited from Avalon carrying officials from the Republic.  According to Will’s grandfather, they came to try cheating the Anti-Techs out of their land.  Republic orbital surveyors had scanned valuable mineral deposits on Ithaca and wanted to buy it from the Anti-Tech’s, but Independence’s city council refused to sell.  As Will recalled, a shuttle could hover over land or water and held about twenty passengers.  The dragon carried the heavy, titanium steel vehicle as easily as a cat carrying a mouse.

“Where you figure the shuttle came from?” Will asked.

“Avalon, you idiot.  Where else?  You don’t see any shuttles in Independence do you?  We’re still back in the twentieth century.  We ride horses and plow with oxen while the rest of the universe flies space ships and manufacturers its food in factories.”

“Seem’s like a mite far to fly.  I wonder if anyone onboard is still alive.”

“Why else would it pick the damn thing up,” Rafe said watching the creature disappear behind a cloud.  “Eden dragons don’t eat metal.  They’re carnivores.  It’s flying to the Twin Peaks.  She’s going to feed the survivors to her young.”

Will didn’t understand big words like ‘carnivores,’ but figured it meant dragons liked to snack on humans, which Will already knew.

“I’ll bet you there’s all kind of gear on that shuttle,” Rafe said.  “If we could find the wreck, there’s no telling what might be onboard.  Computers, helmets, maybe even a pistol or a decent rifle.  Here we are, living in the Space Age, hunting with bows and arrows.  I was born in the wrong place.”

“If there are any survivors, maybe we could help them,” Will replied.

Rafe laughed.  “With what?  These?” he said shaking his bow.  “By the time we climb up the Twin Peaks, there won’t be any survivors.  You coming?”

Rafe had a nose like a hunting dog when it came to smelling a profit.  Though it was illegal on Ithaca to own any of the high tech devices made on Capri, all Rafe ever talked about was getting to Avalon where he wanted to gouge himself on video games, moving picture stories, and little boxes that magically played music.  Rafe’s goal was to make enough credits selling striped fox furs to bribe a shuttle pilot from Avalon to stow him onboard.  His dream in life was to get off Ithaca and go to work for one of the interstellar corporations surveying the star systems around Gaia.  According to Rafe, you could get rich if you discovered some new mineral, gas or plant, that the corporations could turn into some fancy new consumer good and sell for a fortune to the ‘idiots’ back in the inner systems.

“I’m not a farmer,” Rafe told him again and again.  “I’m an entrepreneur.”

When Rafe asked Will if he wanted to come with him to Avalon, Will shrugged and said he’d think about it.  In truth, he hadn’t thought about it much.  Will liked Ithaca.  He liked the slow pace of life.  He enjoyed walking behind his father’s plow.  Though Rafe hated it, Will enjoyed getting up at sunrise and feeding the animals in the barn.  When everyone got together to help a neighbor build a new barn, and afterwards threw a picnic with fried brownie steaks and nectar juice, Will got a nice warm feeling inside.  He loved farm life, nor could he understand why Rafe was in such a hurry to leave it all behind.

“Come on,” Rafe said.  “We got to make it to the base of the Twin Peaks before it gets dark.  You can help me carry whatever we find.  That shuttle is going to pay for my ticket off this chicken shit island.”

The two young men walked all afternoon across a vast plain of dark green sawgrass.  Sawgrass looked pleasant enough from a distance, but if you examined it closely you could see each blade was made up of teeth-like saws that could tear through cloth pants, which is why both young men wore tough, knee-high leather boots tanned from the hides of Eden’s domesticated cows called brownies that provided their beef.

With Keeta perched on Will’s shoulder, the two young men trudged across the broad empty plain keeping a close eye on the purple clouds blanketing the afternoon sky.

“What if Montana comes back?” Will asked.  The old timers that had crewed the R.C.S Compass called the two last remaining Eden dragons Montana and Nebraska, because they said they were as ‘big as the states of Montana and Nebraska.’  Though Will had no idea what a ‘state’ was, he figured they must have about the size of John Franklin’s barn, which was about the biggest thing Will had ever seen.

“Montana’s going to be busy for a while,” Rafe said urging Will to pick up the pace.  “It’s Nebraska I’m worried about.  Don’t look at me you idiot, keep your eyes on the sky.”

They trekked across the field without any trouble and made their way over the Oryo covered foothills to the base of the Twin Peaks.  It was too late in the day to make it up to Montana’s nest on the snow-capped northern peak, but by nightfall they were able to make it half way up the mountain to the place where the air became too cold for trees and bushes to grow and they were forced to camp out in one of the many caves that dotted the eastern face.

“I know what you’re thinking before you even open your mouth,” Rafe said as they chewed on the tough, cured beef sticks they carried in their packs.  “No, we ain’t making a fire and cooking up some of that ceva meat.”

Ceva were a stork-like bird that lived in the Moroso trees, famed for the brightly colored red, orange and gold tail feathers.  The humans on Capri had hunted out all of the ceva for their feathers which they sold to the inner systems for ladies’ hats.  Rafe had taken to shooting the birds with his bow just to scalp off the feathers, making Will suspect he had a secret contact in Avalon.  What birds had survived on Capri and Iberia had flown to Ithaca where the Anti-Techs placed them on their endangered species list and protected them under their animal rights’ laws.  That didn’t stop Rafe.  He wasn’t against breaking the rules when there were credits to be made.  None of which Will understood.  The universal monetary system was made up of invisible things called credits you couldn’t carry in your pocket.  They lived in something Will’s grandfather called a ‘system,’ only it wasn’t a star system.  On the contrary, from what Will could figure out, this kind of system was so small, you couldn’t even see it.  Nor did he see the sense of trying to store up something you couldn’t hold in your hands.

Will refused to shoot birds just for their feathers, something Rafe dubbed ‘idiotic.’  He hated to see their carcasses go to waste, so when Rafe killed one of them, he had taken to wrapping up the ceva meat to cook.  He would have liked to have brought some home to his family as it tasted like chicken, but Rafe said he’d only get arrested for poaching, so instead he cooked the breasts and thighs for Rafe and Keeta.

“No fires,” Rafe glared at him.  “Go to sleep.”

Using a rock for a pillow, Will wished he’d thought to pack a blanket.  Keeta curled up into a ball beside him, providing some warmth, but not enough to keep his teeth from chattering after the sun went down.

They rose early and began to climb the rocky east face keeping a close eye out for Nebraska who was known to live on the southern peak.  Like the ceva, the humans on Capri had shot up all their dragons, leaving only Montana and Nebraska.  Every year when the shuttle from Avalon arrived in Independence, one of the subjects the government and Anti-Techs liked to argue over was the fate of the two remaining giant birds.  The Republic’s officials claimed the dragons were a nuisance that mistook their robotic farming machinery for brownies, which cost them a fortune every year in lost equipment.  The city council at Independence refused the Republican Guard’s planetary fighters permission to fly across their air space, saying the dragons had  been on Eden first and had as much right to be there as humans, a position Rafe considered ‘moronic.’

Will sweated as he climbed, even after snow began to appear among the rocks.  He was beginning to agree with Rafe that maybe the Republic was right for once, and maybe the city council was foolish for letting the last of Eden’s dragons live, especially when Montana and Nebraska might make a meal out of him at any moment.

Using whatever cover they could find, which wasn’t much, as no fauna grew this high on the Twin Peaks, the two young men made their way slowly through knee-deep snow.  It was getting so cold, Will’s hands had turned red as a tomato making him try to remember what he’d learned in school about frostbite.  While he fretted over such things, Keeta began to jabber excitedly in his ear.

Rafe hid behind a large outcropping of rock and motioned for Will to join him.   “Your little pet…”

“Don’t call her that.”  Like the ceva and the dragons, the humans on Capri had been merciless to the Namba, selling their populations to the inner systems as pets that they advertised as ‘smarter and easier to train than dogs.’

“All right then, your girlfriend then.  I was only trying to give her credit for spotting it first.  Look up there,” Rafe said pointing at a mangled piece of wreckage that had once been a titanium steel hovercraft.  With the roof smashed in, it looked like a burned out shell of a building.

Keeta chattered in alarm and together the two young men ducked behind the rock as a large dark cloud drifted lazily across the snow.  They watched as Montana returned to alight on the shuttle.  Like a farmer opening the double doors of a barn, the dragon used its long talons to pry open what was left of the shuttle.  The bird lifted its cruel red eyes to the sky, opened its curved beak and thrust its head downward as rapidly as a striking snake.  Montana tore a row of blue cushioned seating from the craft and tossed it aside.  Eventually it found what it was looking for.  Rafe gasped as they watched the giant bird snatch up a lifeless human from the wreck, lift its head and swallow the body whole.  Flapping its wings excitedly, she rummaged with her beak in the shuttle coming away with another human, this one alive—though not for long.  The man got off three shots from an energy pistol before Montana ripped him in two with her talons as easily as Will might snap a breadstick in half at Sunday supper.  With a high pitched screech of triumph, the dragon launched itself off the shuttle.  With a piece of what had been a man in each of its claws, the giant bird soared over their hiding place, banked between the Twin Peaks and flapped its way to the top of the northern peak where it fed the bloody remains to a single blue-feathered hatchling.

“Come on.  Now’s our chance,” Rafe whispered.

His throat dry and his knees wobbly, Will followed Rafe as he struggled through the deep snow.  Will was plenty scared, but determined to see if they there were any survivors left that might need their help.  What they found reminded Will of the time a transport ship carrying colonists from the inner systems had crash landed on Ithaca not far from Independence.  His grandfather had told him to close his eyes, but Will had to look, and had been horrified at the sight of dozens of human bodies dangling from the Moroso trees like the blood red flowers that bloomed on them in Spring.

Keeta scampered back and forth across Will’s broad shoulders, chattering to herself nervously as Will fought back an urge to vomit up the brownie stick he’d eaten for breakfast.  Like the transport ship, the shuttle was torn and twisted beyond recognition.  Thankfully Will saw only six bodies.  The first four had no pulse, the fifth breathed, but bled from his abdomen and appeared unconscious.

The sixth was a woman hiding in the tail section under what remained of the single engine.  While Rafe looted the ship, giggling in girlish delight every time he found some new treasure, Will knelt in the snow beside a dark-haired woman only a few years older than himself. As he lifted the sheet of metal she’d been hiding under, his heart leapt into his throat.  The girl was prettier than a newborn colt or a field of sweet corn on a summer’s morning.  The sight of her face and fluttering eyelashes took his breath away.

“I-I didn’t think anyone would c-come,” she shivered, her breaths coming in smoky gasps.  “Who sent you?”

“I’m just here with Rafe,” Will said apologetically.  “Are you hurt?”

“My leg,” the woman said.  Her body convulsed from the pain and the cold.    “I think it’s broken.  If you could just…”

“Don’t go no where,” Will said.  With Keeta chattering in his ear, even though he didn’t understand Namba, somehow they both knew each other’s minds.  Keeta pointed toward what he was looking for.  In what used to be a storage bin, Will found a pile of blankets.  He took them back to the woman and wrapped her in them.

“Thank you,” the woman said trying to smile.  “My name is Joan.  My father is the director of the E.M.C.  If you can get me out of here, he’ll pay a rich reward.”

“Did I hear mention of a reward?” Rafe said joining them.  His backpack bulged with electronic goods and he carried an old projectile rifle over his shoulder.   “I was going to tell you to forget her and help me carry this heating unit down the mountain, but…  How much of a reward?”

The woman eyed Rafe like he one of those acid spitting plants that grew in the Moroso forests and it had wrapped its vines around her ankle.  “Not a hollow credit unless you drop what you are carrying and help Mr. Fairchild.  I believe he’s still alive.”

Rafe laughed.  “You’re in no position to bargain.  Come on Will, leave her, and help me carry this equipment.  With everything I’ve collected, we can not only book passage to Avalon, we’ll be able to live like senators.  I bet we don’t have to work for a year.”

Joan reached up and touched Will’s face, searching his eyes.  Her fingertips sent electric waves rippling up his spine like picture’s he’d seen of a science project called Jacob’s Ladder.  “Please help Mr. Fairchild.  Carry him here.  We’ll cover him in blankets and hide him.  I’ll send a rescue team.  We’ve got to try.”

Will nodded and found the man with the gut wound and was about to lift him, when Rafe got in the way.  “Hold on there hero.”  Going through the man’ pockets he found a picture I.D.  “Lieutenant Winston Fairchild, Eureka Mining Company, Navigator, E.M.S. Meridian,” Rafe read.  “Ooh.  Lieutenant.  I’m taking his boots.  They’re a good pair of synthetics.  Perfect for sawgrass.”  He pulled off the left boot, then the right, crying out in surprise as a pair of goggles fell to the ground.  “Looky here,” he said.  “Mr. Fairchild’s is hiding an optical headset in his boot.  Must be something worth hiding.  What could..?”

A black cloud covered them and a flap of giant wings knocked over both young men as Montana swooped down and snatched up Lieutenant Fairchild.  Will fell hard against a twisted bit of metal that used to be the main beam of the shuttle.  Gingerly he touched the bump rising on the back of his head.

Keeta keened in terror and clung to his neck as Will picked himself back up.  He looked up through the hole in the shuttle’s roof to watch the majestic blue bird bank between the twin peaks as she carried Fairchild to her nest.

“Sorry about your friend,” Will said.  Carefully he put his arms under the woman and lifted her off the ground.  With Rafe berating him, telling him to drop Joan and help him carry his loot, and Keeta screeching in his defense, Will started down the Twin Peaks.  Paying no attention to Rafe, Will hurried as fast as he could through the deep snow, carrying the woman as easily as a newborn lamb.

“Do you know what your Namba is saying?” Joan whispered weakly.

That surprised Will.  “You understand her?”

“Some.  Don’t you have an electronic translator?” the woman said and laughed lightly.  Just seeing the woman smile made Will’s heart beat faster.  “I forgot, you’re Anti-Tech.  Your Namba is saying that your companion is evil.  She keeps repeating it over and over, boka, boka, boka.  It usually means bad.  But in the pitch she’s using, it means evil.

Rafe had his rough edges, but Will never thought of him as any worse than anyone else on Ithaca.  “Rafe’s my friend,” he said defensively.  Come to think of it, Rafe was Will’s only friend.  The only one his age in the little school house they’d attended since they were boys.  One day on the playground Will found two of the older kids banging Rafe’s head against a tree, claiming he’d picked something out one of their pockets.  Will didn’t think it fair for two older boys to bloody Rafe’s face the way they were doing, so had pulled them off Rafe.  When they turned their rage on him, Will blackened one of the boy’s eyes and broke the other one’s nose before their school teacher Mr. Edwards happened along and made him stop banging their heads into the same tree they’d been using to punish Rafe.

Ever since that day he and Rafe had been friends.  He’d been overjoyed when Rafe asked him to join him hunting and fishing.  Even if Rafe usually found some clever way, like claiming Keeta bloodied the pelts, to keep most of their catch, it was good to have a buddy.  Even if Rafe called him a ‘big dummy’ more than he liked, that didn’t make him evil.  Did it?

“Your friend is not a friend,” the woman said pulling her blankets closer around her.  “You’re freezing.  Take one of these blankets.”

“Thank you m’am, but that would mean stopping and I ain’t about to stop here in the middle of this open ground.  Not with Montana roosting close by.”

By midday they’d left the snow behind and began their way down the rocky slope.  Will found a cave that provided shelter against the wind and set the woman down inside.

“We’ll rest a few minutes,” Will said.  “You hungry?”

“Starving.”

Will broke his last beef stick into three equal pieces and shared it with Joan and Keeta.  “Should have thought to shove some snow in my pack,” Will said ruefully.  “It would have melted by now and we’d have something to drink.”

The woman looked at him gratefully as she chewed.  “I can’t figure out what someone like you is doing with someone like him.”

“Oh, Rafe’s not that bad.

“No, he’s worse.”

As Will chewed thoughtfully, Rafe caught up with them.  Scowling, Rafe unhooked his heavy pack and set it down gently, so as not to break any of the electronic gadgets he’d found.  Wordlessly, Joan and Rafe glared at each other.

“Come here dummy.”  Taking Will’s elbow, Rafe led him outside and showed him the goggles he’d found in Lieutenant Fairchild’s boot.  “She didn’t care about him.  She wanted this.”  He flipped open the glasses and fit them on Will’s head.  Tapping a button on the frame, Rafe said, “Go to files.  Search for Valhalla.”

Will blinked as the clear glass of the goggles snapped on and a series of lines, words and planetary maps flashed before his eyes.  The images moved so fast Will began to feel dizzy.  He pulled the goggles from his face and handed them back to Rafe.  “Makes my head hurt.”

“Yeah, well, that goes away,” Rafe said.  “It’s an old optical headset.  I don’t think the data is stored on the glasses, it’s probably saved on a secure server somewhere, this is just a link.  But you can use it to access Fairchild’s personal credit account, read the intergalactic news, talk to a friend, watch a movie.  Short of wiping your ass, this little baby will do just about anything.  But the really important stuff, I found in a folder he had labeled ‘top secret.’  I don’t understand it all.  It has to do with planet named Valhalla.  And if it’s top secret, it’s worth a lot of credits to someone.  This thing is as good as a treasure map.  I sell this to the right buyer, the two of us can get away from cow town and live like emperors.  The only thing you need to do is—dump the dame.  You don’t have to cut her throat, just leave her here.  With that leg of hers, she’ll never make down the mountain.  Both of our hands will be clean.”

“Now Rafe, you know I can’t do that.”

“Of course you can.  If you don’t, you’ll force me to put a bullet in her.”  Lowering his voice, Rafe added.  “We bring her back, she’s going to rat me out to the city council.  All our plans will be ruined.  I’m doing this for your own good, Will.  You’re the only friend I got here.  All you gotta do is walk away.  Go on.  Start down the hill.”

Will took a few steps back toward the cave.  “I’m sorry.”

The woman had been right.  Rafe was evil.  He watched his friend unsling the rifle from over his shoulder and point it at him.

“Now, I’ve never had any practice with one of these.  But at this range, even I can’t miss, you idi…”

Rafe never finished his sentence.  His first glimpse of the giant winged bird was reflected in Will’s eyes.  They’d finally found Nebraska.  Or rather, Nebraska found them.  Will ran for the cave, never taking his eyes from the creature.  It was huge, even bigger than Montana, and easily recognizable by the scar that ran from under its right eye down its throat and through the white feathers on its chest.  Its wingspan wider than John Franklin’s barn, the dragon swooped in out of the sun.  Too late Rafe turned and tried to fire, but in his terror he fumbled with the gun, dropping it before he could get off a shot.  Nebraska landed on him like a hawk on a rabbit, covering Rafe with his talons, but not squashing him under his weight.  The dragon screeched and rolled Rafe over with a single talon like a cat toying with a mouse.

Will stumbled into the cave and snatched up his bow and quiver.

“Don’t!  He’s not worth it!  He was going to kill us both,” Joan yelled.  She wore an optical headset similar to the one Rafe had taken from Fairchild.  “I’ve got a signal.  Don’t go…”

Notching an arrow in his bow, Will ran back outside, Keeta alongside him.  The first missile stuck the bird in the chest.  It was like trying to bring down a starship with a pointy stick.  Shouting and waving his arms he tried to get the creature’s attention.  If he distracted the beast, Rafe might be able to roll to safety.  Nebraska glanced over at him like he was an annoying fly.  The giant bird reared up and flapped its wings, throwing a cloud of rocks and dirt at him, driving Will back a step.  Wiping the dust from his eyes, he aimed his second arrow at the bird’s face and let fly.

Keeta hopped up and down in glee.  An eye shot!  White fluid oozed from the red orb and the beast screamed in pain and rage.  Now Will had his full attention.  Deciding it had had enough fun with Rafe, the dragon raked its sharp talons over him, slicing Will’s school pal up like a loaf of bread.  Rafe screamed in agony, his dismembered arms and legs flopping on the rocky ground the same way a ceva’s body twitched after you cut off the head.

Will placed a third arrow in the dragon’s throat and was reaching into his quiver again when Nebraska reared back his head, aiming to spear Will with its beak.  Only Keeta ran out in front of him, drawing the bird’s attention, diverting his aim.  The beak struck with cobra-like quickness—snatching up the little Namba.  Keeta wailed as Nebraska lifted its head to the sky and opened its jaws wide.  With a single gulp the dragon swallowed Keeta whole.  A bulge that had once been Will’s friend slid down the bird’s long neck and disappeared.

More angry now than afraid, Will put a fourth arrow into the bird’s throat, which in its hurry to get at Will trampled on what remained of Rafe’s body.  The young man’s head and chest splattered against the hard ground the same way an overripe plum exploded when you threw it against a wall.

As the dragon reared back its head, knowing he was about to die, Will let fly a fifth arrow.  It flew straight and true right inside the beast’s open beak.  As the arrow pierced Nebraska’s pink tongue, out of the corner of his eye Will detected an arrow of another kind speeding at the dragon’s back.  Something long and white as snow struck the creature from behind.  The next thing Will knew, Nebraska was enveloped in a wall of flame.  The white missile had been fired by a robotic system fighter that soared high overhead, doing a victory roll between the Twin Peaks.  Will was knocked off his feet by the concussion.  Nebraska tried to spread its wings and fly, but its feathers lit up faster than dried hay in a brush fire.

Joan had managed to crawl from the cave where she lay on the ground watching.  With Nebraska filling the mountain air with black smoke and screeching out its death knell, Will picked up the woman and carried her back inside lest they both end up trampled underfoot.

“Are they both gone?”

“Yes,” Will said.  “You did that?”

“If you have the credits, in a matter of minutes you can have an X-11 shoot down anything on Eden.  I may go to jail for breaking about a dozen of your laws, but you were worth saving.  I can’t believe I watched you stand up against a dragon with only a primitive bow.  That was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Keeta was the brave one,” Will said.  I’m just a big dummy, he thought.  Will glanced at Rafe’s backpack and considered opening it to see what Rafe traded his life for, but left it alone.  He needed to get Joan to a doctor.

Nebraska finally ceased its cries and fell, landing so hard it shook the ground.

“Wait here.  I’ll be back,” Will said, intent on making sure Montana was not hovering overhead.  Nebraska sizzled like a steak on a grill at a picnic on Foundation Day.  The air smelled like burnt ceva.  Like he’d been drawn to the colony transport crash site, Will could not help but stare at Rafe’s body.  It looked as smashed, broken and bloody as one of Eden’s oversized mosquito’s that Rafe had liked to squash with a hammer.

Not far from Rafe’s remains his rifle lay on the ground.  Will considered picking it up, but what was the point?  The Anti-Techs would only take it from him.  The sun broke through the clouds and glittered on something lying next to the gun.  It was the goggles Rafe had found on Lieutenant Fairchild.  Will put them on, but grew frustrated and took them off when he was unable to figure out how to make the pretty pictures flash before his eyes.

Rafe had called it a treasure map to a planet called Valhalla.  Will had never heard of the place, but the idea of owning something ‘secret’ lifted goose bumps on his arms.  Like Joan, he would break the law too.  He shoved the glasses into his pocket and went to tell her it was safe to move.

The Good, the Bad, the Mediocre: Amazon Reviews

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Good Reviews: The Bubbles in the Champagne

Since publishing The Wandering King in April of 2013, approximately 2,000 copies have been distributed through various booksellers.

Ninety-seven percent of the sales have been e-books rather than hard copies, and 99% have been through Amazon. A distant second is Barnes & Noble (20 sales), and behind them is Apple iBookstore (2 sales). Dead last is Smashwords (1 sale).

The success The Wandering King has received on Amazon has been largely due to the reviews.  The average rating of your combined reviews gives your book a ranking under the ‘top rated’ listing and a special spot on Amazon’s web page.  This ranking has placed my book in the #1 to #3 spot under the Ancient Greek History category for the last 9 months.

To date, the book has received 40 reviews on Amazon.  Here is a breakdown of the number of 5-star through 1-star reviews:

                (28) 5 stars
                (9) 4 stars
                (2) 3 stars
                (1) 1 star

It has been a delight to read reviews such as:

  • Turning the last page of a good book, ending a good read, is like saying goodbye to a dear friend. One relishes the experience of both and longs for more time together…                    

                                       Dianne Smith

  • Many thanks to the guy who wrote this book. Really enjoyed it and have recommended it to all my friends. The book is something special, great character development; this man can really write.  

                                      Steve Fowler

  • Well-crafted historical fiction both educates and entertains the reader. Stephen Marte’s ‘The Wandering King’ achieves those goals. I’m looking forward to reading more of his story…

                                      Gregory Stoltz

  • Fantastic story, absolutely loved this. It is the story of a young Spartan growing from boyhood to manhood. The author portrays a character raised in a harsh world, but who still dares to defy tradition and what is expected of him. Brilliant, I cannot wait for the sequel…

                                      Tomas

A heart-felt thank you to everyone who has taken the time to write a review.  You have greatly contributed to the success of The Wandering King.

I do not know Dianne, Steve, Greg or Tomas, or the vast majority of my reviewers, which makes reading their reviews immensely gratifying.  Knowing people you’ve never met in Pittsburgh, Dallas or Portland enjoyed the story so much they can’t wait to read more, is music to any writer’s ears.

Admittedly, I do know four of my reviewers. My mom, my brother and two friends have reviewed The Wandering King, but they all read the book and enjoyed it, so their reviews are legitimate. Knowing Amazon will delete your book and toss you off their site if you try planting fake reviews, is all the motivation any author should need to play it honest.

I wish I could get more of my family, friends and co-workers to post reviews. When someone tells me they’ve read the book and loved it, my stock response is: “Put it in writing. Post a review.” Unfortunately, the majority of people who have told me they’ve read the book, never post anything.

Bad Reviews: The Worm in the Apple

The Wandering King has received only one bad review. After a year of nothing but good reviews, I received this in May 2014:

  • This is one I put down early. I’ve read Herodotus a number of times and have wondered what Doreius [sic] and His [sic] adventures to the lotus eaters could have looked like. The author tells his story rather than shows. The writing lacks even basic description. I do not have any idea where the other reviewers gave this book even a score higher than 2. It’s that briutal [sic].

                                    Sparta Fan

If Sparta Fan had an axe to grind with me, he succeeded.  His 1-star review succeeded in knocking The Wandering King off its perch as the #1 top-rated Ancient Greek History book on Amazon.  Seems hard to believe one review could knock me out of the top seat, but it did, which has adversely affected book sales.

As a professional writer who has spent a lifetime researching The Wandering King and three years writing and polishing his work, it is distressing to read, “the author tells his story rather than shows” and “the writing lacks even basic description.”

I refer Sparta Fan to the first chapter of the book, which appears here in my blog, The Planistai. To quote a sample of showing versus telling:

  • While we waited, I noticed Gorgo was trembling beside me. “Are you all right?”
    She looked at me wide-eyed. “I am so excited!”

If I wanted to tell the reader how Gorgo was feeling, all I had to do was say, “Gorgo was excited.”  Instead, these two lines show her trembling and wide-eyed.

Also in the same chapter appears:

  • “No girl is going to tell me what to do,” my cousin Pausanias snorted. Especially not the daughter of Cleomenes. Pausanias was a husky boy, with a thick neck, gloomy, deep-set dark eyes, a face full of pimples and a broad, pug nose that had always made me think of him as a wart hog.

If I wanted to tell the reader Pausanias did not like Gorgo, all I had to say was, “Pausanias did not like Gorgo.” Instead you see how Pausanias feels through his dialogue. Also in the paragraph is a brief description of Pausanias’ appearance. Why Sparta Fan would state the book “lacks even basic description” makes me wonder if he even read it.

Rather than continue to quote additional excerpts from The Wandering King, if you want to make up your own mind on the matter, please read the sample chapter on this site: The Planistai. It’s free.

I apologize if I sound defensive. I am. Writing is an intensely personal experience. Your books are like your children. Insult my son and like any good parent, my reaction is to leap to his defense.

A friend who read Sparta Fan’s review called it a ‘hatchet job.’ In looking over the other books Sparta Fan’s has reviewed on Amazon, I see he’s highly rated a number of books by British author David Gemmell. I’ve tried to read Gemmell’s work, but I don’t care for his style. I would describe his writing as, ‘historical fantasy,’ which doesn’t interest me. To be fair to Sparta Fan, I am guessing he was expecting historical fantasy like Gemmell’s work and instead got historical fiction. 

In the end, what I’ve learned from reading Sparta Fan’s review is that everyone has different preferences, and you can’t expect to please everyone.  It’s like looking at a painting by Picasso. One person sees an odd collection of blocks and colors that remind them of fingerpainting, while another person sees a woman weeping that is so evocative the viewer is moved to tears.

I suppose all I can do is be thankful that the majority of my readers appear to enjoy my writing.  On the flip side, I’ve learned that reading negative reviews can destroy your motivation.  Who wants to spend all of the time and energy required to write a book if some stranger with an axe to grind is going to piss all over your work?

Mediocre Reviews: The Flavorless, Chewy Steak

The Wandering King has only received two 3-star reviews. In one, the reviewer had nothing but good things to say about the book.

  • The Wandering King is an entertaining read that paints a different picture of the principal families of Sparta than other books of the same genre. Interesting stories, good detail, and enough action to keep the pages turning.

                                          David Nolletti    

David appears to have enjoyed the story.  Why he gave it an average rating is a mystery.  Perhaps to him a 3-star rating means it met his expectations or maybe some people are just tough reviewers.

The only other 3-star review commented that the book was “entertaining” but he found it troublesome that I used some modern language that he did not feel was appropriate to ancient Greece. Wish he had given some examples. If he had, I would have corrected them.

* * * * *

Where initially I loved seeing a new book review appear, I am now a lot more tentative about reading them.  It’s tempting not to look them at all lest it sap my energy to keep writing.  That said, I have no intentions of quitting.  Yes, I write so others will read what I’ve written, but first and foremost, I write to create something I would enjoy reading, and that feeling is not likely to go away.

If others have had similar experiences or advice regarding book reviews, would be curious to hear them.

Inherit the Flames

flames3

In an author’s blog, I recently found a comment that after she had written three books she noticed a dramatic increase in sales.  She now has 12 books out, but it was after her third book hit the shelves that she felt she gained more reader attention and things began to take off.

It is going to be several months before I finish the second book in The Wandering King series, and possibly another few years before the third book in the trilogy appears. 

So I began wondering how I might be able to get a few more content on Amazon without taking too much time away from working on my Greek story. 

Don’t know if it’ll make a difference or not, but I’ve decided to publish a few short stories on Amazon.  The first of these is titled Inherit the Flames.

It’s a modern re-telling of the Biblical Cain and Abel story about a good brother and a bad brother.  Bad brothers tend to get into more trouble, so there is more opportunity for conflict, so the story follows one day in the life of Cain’s modern day counterpart, Conor. 

Both 18-year old Conor and his 21-year old brother Aidan are equally intelligent and talented, but each have chosen a different path in life; Conor to become a rock guitarist and Aidan to go to med school.  Take a guess at which one their religious parents favor and which is the outcast? 

The story is set in and around Atlantic City in 1978.  I lived in that area when I was young and as this was the year before gambling was legalized in Atlantic City, it provides a gritty backdrop to the story.  In those days my friends referred to Atlantic City as ‘Sin City’ as it was overrun with drugs, prostitution and racial strife. This is the enviroment that Conor is trying to esacpe and he’s got one day to do it. Will he succeed?  That question propels the plot forward.

Juxtaposed against Conor and Aidan are two female characters, Miriam and Alyssa, one from the wrong side of the tracks and one from a wealthy family that has given her everything. I’ve included them to add depth to the central theme of the story: do we inherit the sins of our fathers?  Are Conor and Miriam doomed simply because their fathers were evil men? Or will they escape their fate?

Though the short story only costs .99 cents on Amazon, if you’re reading this blog and tempted to buy it, wait till March 1.  I’ll be offering it for free through Kindle Select from March 1 through March 5.

Creating Fictional Characters

While writing The Wandering King I picked up a few things about creating fictional characters that may be of some use.  Some may be adages you’ve heard before, some may help inspire new ideas.  Use them as you see fit.

1.  Give your character a goal

This is an oldie, but goodie.  Simply put, what is your main character trying to achieve?  Does he want to be king?  Is she trying to earn her father’s love?  Are they trying to get a sport’s scholarship?

If you think about the good books that you’ve read, you can usually pinpoint the main characters’ motivation.  Hamlet wants to avenge his father’s murder.  Romeo wants to marry Juliet.  Macbeth wants to become king.

Giving your character a goal, gives your reader a reason to turn the page.  Will Hamlet kill his own mother Gertrude and his uncle Claudius to avenge his father?  Even though the Montagues and Capulets hate one another, will Romeo still get the girl?  Though Macbeth has pangs of conscience, will he kill King Duncan and steal the crown?

While working on The Wandering King, I made a list of my characters and ascribed a simple, one sentence motivation to each.  Once they had a goal, now I knew how they would behave in each scene. 

For my main character, Euryanax, I went a step further.  I placed his goals right in the book, right up front on the second page.  He states, “All I ever wanted was to earn my father’s respect.  To win a woman’s love.  And to become a Spartan citizen.”

Those three goals might sound easy, but they’re not, and they’ll take Eury several books to accomplish.  Giving him clearly defined goals and making them difficult to achieve, is what propels the plot and hopefully keeps the reader flipping the page.

2.  Describe your character’s physical appearance

Unless you tell us what a character looks like, they’re a faceless blob to the reader.  If they’re worth introducing, they’re worth describing.  You don’t have to spend three pages telling us about their hairstyle, just give us a quick snapshot of your character in a paragraph or two.

Nor should this be a laundry list of statistics, like Stan was 5’9″, 165 pounds, had blond hair and a laid back demeanor.  That’s pretty dull stuff.  Tell us what makes Stan unique.

Here are a few examples of character descriptions from an author that I admire named Richard Powell:

Character:  Arthur Peabody Goodpasture

“I did not enjoy shaving; not only is my skin quite sensitive, but also every look in a mirror leaves me depressed.  Mine is not the grim, strong face of a typical Goodpasture. Such a face is spare and angular, as if welded from steel plowshares, whereas my features look as if they had been hastily whittled out of balsa wood. I have limp blond hair, near-sighted blue eyes, a snub nose and a chin that barely escapes being weak.  It is such an insignificant face that sometimes people fail to see me when I am right in front of them. The typical Goodpasture usually looks ready to complain of having received poor service, whereas I usually look ready to apologize for having given it. As a boy, I used to practice jutting out my jaw, so that I would look grim and strong, but it merely gave the impression that I had a toothache, so I gave up.”

            Don Quixote, U.S.A.

Character:  Ward Campion

“The young man from Philadelphia who walked on the station platform at Waycross, Georgia, was obviously a member of the upper classes.  In 1895 upper-class people wore clothing that set them firmly apart from persons who made their living at manual labor. Thus the young man wore polished black shoes, a well-pressed suit, white shirt with a high stiff collar, gray cravat with a pearl stickpin, Chesterfield overcoat with a glossy velvet collar, and  black derby on which no speck of dust was allowed to linger.  In spite of the propriety of his clothes, however, he had muscles that could not have been developed at a desk or on the grounds of the Merion Cricket Club. His hands were big and square, and had once been heavily calloused. In many ways his face could have served as a model for Charles Dana Gibson in drawing the ideal mate for the Gibson Girl: high forehead of the type people like to call noble, blue eyes, Grecian nose, well-formed lips, and firm but dimpled chin. A gently reared young lady might have felt impelled to swoon in his arms, confident that when she recovered the young man would be on his knees (having first pulled up his trousers to save the crease) to propose matrimony. 

“After a second look, however, the young lady would have noted the hard thrust of the dimpled chin, the way a glance from the blue eyes seemed to spear whatever they looked at, and the fact that the fine nose had once been broken, perhaps by something as crude as a fist. At that point any sensible young lady would have decided to stay fully conscious and alert in his company.”

           I Take This Land

3.  Reveal your character’s personality through words and actions

In addition to describing a character’s outward appearance, we get to know them through their actions and dialogue.  Here is another example by Richard Powell:

Characters:  Great Ajax and Little Ajax

“Will Great Ajax tell us his thoughts?” Agamemnon said.

Great Ajax rose slowly from the floor, going up and up, until his head bumped a rafter.  He cuffed it pevishly, which shook the hut.  “Uh, what thoughts do you mean?” he asked.

“We have captured Helen,” Agamemnon said speaking slowly and distinctly.  “Should we go home or continue the war?”

“How do I know?” Great Ajax said.  “You fellows decide what to do, and I’ll go along.”

“LIttle Ajax?” Agamemen said.

The Locrian bounced to his feet.  “Why do you always call on that big clod ahead of me?” he cried.  “I get tired of this Great Ajax-Little Ajax stuff.  Why not Stupid Ajax and Wise Ajax?”

“Little man,” Great Ajax rumbled, “some day when a worm hole in my ship needs caulking, I’m going to shove you in it.”

“Just try it mutton head, just try it,” Little Ajax cried.

Here several men grabbed Great Ajax and held him back, while Achilles restrained Little Ajax with one hand.

         Whom the Gods Would Destroy

Though Powell gives us no physical description of Great Ajax and Little Ajax, we get to know a good deal about them, and can even picture them in our minds, based solely on their words and actions.

4.  Tie your characters to people you know

Creating fictional characters out of thin air is difficult.  The job becomes easier, and your characters become more multi-dimensional if you connect them to people you already know. 

For example, in The Wandering King, I’d determined that the character Pausanias was going to be a bully.  What better bully to draw on than my greatest nemesis growing up, a kid in school name Billy?  Billy had treated me cruelly on plenty of occasions.  I knew how he behaved, how he spoke, and how his mind worked. 

Pausanias is based on a real historical person, so he doesn’t look like Billy, but he acts the same way Billy did.  The reader doesn’t see or hear Billy, but I do.  Doing so, helped me determine what Pausanias said, how he sounded, and how he reacted to different situations. 

When I started my story I made a list of my characters, and tied them to people I knew, which gave each one of my fictional characters a way of speaking and behaving, and it gave them multiple dimensions.  It gave them life. 

You certainly can create characters from scratch, but it’s easier to borrow from the people you know well.

5.   Do NOT model your main character after yourself

A lot of writers cast themself as their main character.  I tend to think this is a mistake.  Now your book is no longer about Greece or high school or a Polish family – it’s about you.  Please, don’t work out your life in the pages of a book.  Work it out with your counselor.

Okay, so you screwed up in college by not marrying Anna Marie.  You’ve been a wreck ever since because your life didn’t work out the way you wanted.  So you decide to work out your life by re-writing it so that you get Anna Marie in your book. 

This type of personal writing should be kept in your journal.  No one is interested in your fantasy of what could have been if you hadn’t been such an idiot and dumped Anna Marie in favor of taking the job in Boston.  This is not the material that novels are made of.   This stuff only matters to you.   Hate to be cruel, but we just don’t care.

I don’t mean to upset people by saying this, but I speak from experience.  When i was young, I wrote dozens of stories with myself as the protagonist, trying to work out all of the things that went wrong with my life.  It’s only when I took myself out of the picture, that I became a true writer.  Once I stopped trying to work out my past mistakes in my stories, my writing improved immensely.  The Wandering King is not about me.  It’s about a character named Euryanax, and the story is so much the better for it.

Work out your life with your therapist.  Don’t saddle your main character with your problems.  Give us a main character we can cheer for, not a character we feel sorry for.

6.  Make your main character unique

This is an addendum to #4 above.  The main character in The Wandering King, is not based on anyone I know.  Euryanax is not me.  Not at all.  I wouldn’t have the courage to deal with half the situations Eury deals with during the course of the story.

I suppose I could have modelled Eury on someone I know, but I didn’t.  I wanted him to be his own person.  He’s the main focus of the story, the book is told from the first person perspective, so I put the majority of my efforts into developing his character, nor did I want him to be based on my brother Matt or my Uncle Charlie.  I wanted Eury to be his own man. 

If The Wandering King is creative at all, it’s because Eury is not like any character you’ve ever met before.  He’s the product of his father Dorieus, who was a great general, so Eury becomes a master tactician.  He’s a product of the hero of Othryades, who taught him how to fight.  He’s the product of his mother Phile, whose very name in ancient Greek means ‘love,’ and he’s the product of a Spartan upbringing that taught him such conflicting lessons as to value honor as well as how to steal and kill.

Your main character really should be your work of art.  Make them memorable.  You do that by making them truly one-of-a-kind.

Hopefully some of these tips have helped.  If you have suggestions of your own, please feel free to share them.

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