Welcome back, my friends. In this week’s Odds Without Ends, we’re taking a look at a story I started last year called Vermilion. The idea first came to me in the winter of 2011 shortly after my father died. I was downtrodden and wanted to work on something simpler and less complex. The word Vermilion struck me as a solid title, and pieces started to slot into place.
The premise was wonderfully simple: a forest elf wanders into town and slays a dragon. So simple. I had a strong image of the world and I was excited to get started. That’s right about when things went off track.
The plan (and that strong image) changed considerably as I compiled notes. Instead of a medieval setting, I drifted in a pseudo-Western direction, creating frontier lands peopled by miners, farmers and outlaws. Elves became native tribesmen, and the story adopted an undercurrent of racial tension.
Let’s take a look at how that turned out, shall we?
In the long days when summer had overstayed her welcome and autumn fast approached, a shadow descended on the Dusklands and made itself at home. It came from the mountains of the distant North on wings as red as blood, spreading terror like wildfire wherever it darkened the sky.
Before the shadow’s arrival, this was a place of hope and boundless promise, an untamed frontier that lay outside the needy grasp of the old world kings. Fed by countless winding rivers and guarded by red hills that jutted up like gravestones, the Dusklands promised a fresh beginning, a fertile patchwork of thriving forest and haunting plains where lost souls drifted about in search of salvation and aging legends came to be forgot.
Terrible news spread slowly across that desolate expanse, and cries for help went unanswered.
But not today. Somewhere in the wild country, a lonesome figure marched along a rough and pitted road, holding a steady pace despite the heat and his own exhaustion. He kept his eyes low to protect from the bronze sun, the dry wind, the airborne dust and grit.
He had traveled for days without rest, never stopping for so much as a drink of water as he soldiered on toward the setting sun, and he might never have stopped at all if not for that plaintive cry for help. A man’s voice. Hoarse. Panicked. Overpowered.
A pause came in the wanderer’s step and his ears twitched, pinpointing the sound’s direction and distance. It came from just the other side of the next ridge, maybe sixty yards on and downhill. He heard other voices too, shouting, gruff and aggressive, followed by the bitter ring of sharp steel coming unsheathed.
He glanced at the road ahead of him. If he stuck to it, he could pass unseen and keep wandering, keep ambling on toward the slash of brown desert in the distance and whatever solitude lay beyond it. There was no need for him to get involved.
He’d never been one to take the easy trail, though.
Instead, he lowered the hide bundle from his shoulder and unwrapped it, revealing a curved bow and handful of flint-tipped arrows. They were all fresh work, smooth and unblemished wood neither etched with runes nor worn from use. Simple tools but well made, and the arrows would fly true. That much he knew from experience, and that was all that mattered just then.
He rolled the bundle into a makeshift quiver, dropped his arrows inside and slung it back over his shoulder, then dashed silently forward with his bow at ready. He crouched low as he crested the ridge and stopped to watch.
They were human. Three stout men dressed in long coats of dun-colored leather stood in a half-circle with sabres drawn. Dark strips of cloth hid their faces. These were monsters of sinew and stone, hardened by long years spent on the unforgiving road.
Their terrified victim and his poor overloaded donkey stood on the opposite side. The man was slight and too well-dressed for travel, with shiny shoes, fine slacks, a crisp white shirt and a patterned waistcoat. He held his quaking hands in the air and he squinted like a mole exposed for the first time to daylight.
“You can’t do this,” the victim said, fearful yet somehow still defiant. “Folks are depending on me.” The shaking made his voice trill like a morning bird.
The bandit leader swished his sabre for effect. “Seems you don’t understand the deal here, friend. We take this stuff one way or another. You choose to live or die.”
The victim’s arms came down and stretched out in front of him, his hands signing a plea for mercy. “Come on, now. Please,” he said.
The wanderer sat still and watched with growing curiosity. The ways of men were strange to him, troubling and exciting in even measures. He felt a powerful urge to remain hidden and watch the encounter play out, but the urge dissolved when the bandit leader advanced. The wanderer’s heart made the decision for him.
One hand lifted his bow. The other retrieved an arrow, nocked it and drew back. He sighted for an instant and released, sending the wooden shaft slashing through the dusty air.
The flint-tipped arrow bit the bandit leader’s ear from the side of his head, and he howled in pain. Blood painted the gravel in gleaming red. His men reacted instantly, their chests heaving, their spastic eyes lurching about for answers.
The leader didn’t panic. He tore away the cloth-mask and held it against the flow of blood. He had a face like a dried river bed. “You’ll damn well pay for that,” he growled.
The wanderer considered his options. He could hug the earth and think grassy thoughts, maybe escape their notice. He’d be some shadowy creature of their imagination as long as he remained unseen. A mystery. No lone traveler could ever be as frightening as that.
But remaining hidden was a defensive move. It would sacrifice any advantage he already held, and predator might fast become prey.
No, he decided grassy thoughts wouldn’t do. He stood tall, raised his bow and loosed another arrow. This one landed off-center in a hulking underling’s chest.
The massive man looked surprised and there followed a flash of anger, but his strength quickly melted away. He shuffled sideways, struggled to remain standing, and then tumbled to the ground dead.
“You can still walk away alive,” the wanderer said, his last arrow already drawn. The words were foreign in his mouth, and he could hear the strangeness of his accent.
The bandit leader looked to his fallen companion and he chose quickly. He sneered, spat on the ground and scrambled for the woods with his remaining thug close behind.
The wanderer waited on his perch, listening to the two bandits run into the distance. When he could hardly hear them crunching in the sandy soil anymore, he finally lowered his bow and walked down the steep ridge.
The victim was still beside his donkey. He tried to wipe the sweat from his brow and left a smear of dirt in its place. “Mighty kind of ya, mister,” he said with a wave. “Dunno what I woulda done if ya hadn’t a come along.”
The wanderer approached. “You would have died. Your cargo would be lost, and your sad donkey would be roasted on a spit.”
“Ha, sounds about right. You’re a real straight shooter friend. I like that.” The victim raised a hand, signaling a pause. “Sorry, just gimme a second here. Have to find my damned spectacles.” He bent at the waist and blindly pawed at the ground. His hands found the still warm corpse, and he said, “Oh.”
A glint caught the wanderer’s eye and he plucked an unusual item from the dirt. It consisted of a thin wire frame that cradled two pieces of glass, and he assumed that this must be the mysterious spectacles the victim spoke of.
“Here,” he said, and handed the curio over.
“Thank you! Man, there’s just no end to your kindness, is there?” The victim gently cleaned the pieces of glass with a handkerchief, and then placed them on his face. He blinked a few times for good measure, then turned to the wanderer and froze. His eyes were wide and bright.
“Oh, wow,” he said.
The wanderer stood there bemused. He was tall and slender as a sapling, barely clothed in simple leathers, olive skin revealing lean muscles like a wild animal. His black hair was tied back in a ponytail, drawn away from a long, tattooed face that seemed all that much longer for it. His features were thin and exotic, with pointed ears arcing away like supple blades of grass.
“You’re a forest elf,” the victim said in surprise. “I mean… Elethi, right? Sorry, where are my manners?”
“I do not know,” the wanderer replied. “Did you drop them in the dirt with your spectacles?”
The victim paused for an unusually long stretch, then a smile crept onto his face. “Funny! I never knew elves could be funny.”
“We… have our moments.”
The victim nodded, smiled, and seemingly forgot himself in a daydream. With a startle, he realized he was staring and he flushed with embarrassment. He offered his hand. “Oh, umm… name’s Windsinger. Ryan Windsinger. I’m a physician.”
The wanderer awkwardly took the hand and shook in imitation of the human way. “I don’t know this word, physician.”
“Like a medicine man, sort of. Healer. More or less.”
“Well, then. I am honored to meet you, Ryan Windsinger, the physician.”
“Please, just Ryan. Ry if ya like. And, uh… whom do I have the honor of meeting?”
The wanderer tilted his head. “Call me Gurien,” he said, absentmindedly touching the fresh tattoo that dominated his forehead.
Ryan pursed his lips. “Gurien? Kinda strange name for an elf, isn’t it?”
Gurien’s face remained blank. “Do you know much about the Eleth?”
But Gurien had discovered the answer even as he spoke. The telltale signs were all there, however subtly. Ears that came to a point, coppery eyes, thin lips and angular nose.
“Part elf myself,” Ryan said. “A quarter on my father’s side. Never met a pureblood before, though. Grandad was long gone by the time I was born.”
Gurien had heard stories of elves interbreeding with men, but he always suspected them to be flights of fancy. Fabrications. He’d certainly never seen the fruits of such indiscretions with his own eyes.
“There are more like you?” he asked skeptically.
“A couple, here and there,” Ryan replied. “Usually keeping their heads down, mindin’ their own business. Best not to draw too much attention among men. That’s just the order of things.”
“Curious,” Gurien said, and he wasn’t sure which part was more strange: that men allowed mixed breeds to live among them at all, or that they looked down on such children when they did. They were truly a species of boundless contradiction.
No matter. He turned and retrieved his arrows, one from the corpse’s chest and the other from the ground. He flexed the shafts looking for imperfections in the wood, then returned them to his quiver when he found none.
Ryan said, “It’s true what they say about your kind, I see.”
Gurien began to search the body for valuables. “And what is it they say?” he asked.
“That you’re uncanny archers. Fifty yards out and you took an ear clean off.” Ryan looked to the corpse, eyed the chest wound. “Punched a hole right through that one’s heart. Hot damn.”
“We aim true,” Gurien said, a simple statement of fact. He lifted the thug’s hunting knife, weighed it in hand, then slid it into his belt. “Tell me, Ryan Windsinger… why were you prepared to die today?”
“What? Oh. Didn’t have much choice, I s’pose. There’s a lot of wounded folk showing up on my doorstep right now ‘n they need my help. I can’t do much for ’em without these supplies.” He patted the donkey for effect, and the beleaguered animal grunted in response.
“I see. Perhaps in the future, you will think to arm yourself when conditions are so dire.”
Gurien picked up the bandit’s sabre and tossed it slowly end over end. Ryan’s eyes went wide. There was an instant of indecision, of panic, then he ducked to the side and let the weapon fall to the ground with a clang.
“I… I don’t carry weapons. Took an oath never to harm no one if I can help it, and I take it pretty serious.” He eyed the weapon on the ground like it was covered in angry snakes.
Gurien winced at the word oath, but he nodded with understanding. “So be it, quarter-blood. Journey swift then, and pray the honored elders shadow your steps.”
He stood, turned his back on Ryan and started off for the road.
Gurien halted but didn’t turn.
“Um,” Ryan said, and kicked at the dirt. His face lit up with a good idea. “You should come back to Carston with me. Let me repay yer kindness with a home cooked meal and a soft bed. Least I can do.”
Ryan sighed wistfully. “Don’t make me beg.”
“This Carston,” Gurien said after a moment, “is it far?”
“Half a day. We could be there before dark if we make good time.”
The elf turned and looked at the bespectacled physician, took a second to weigh his options. Then he ducked his head and said, “Lead the way.”
Carston. A slipshod monument made of wood beams and masonry, an imperfection jutting up out of the flat landscape like a ragged scab. It lay in a wide valley surrounded by bubbling hills, in velvet grasslands interrupted here and there by patches of bristly brush.
It stood at the confluence of two rivers that snaked throughout the valley, together feeding the rich soil and slaking the thirst of farmers and ranchers, merchants, gamblers and prostitutes, wandering criminals and bounty hunters alike.
For Gurien, the first and strongest impression was the smell. Close air carried a smothering mixture of stale human sweat and fresh animal dung. There was no escape, no refuge even on the outskirts of town where Ryan Windsong’s home and business lay.
“How do you stand it?” the elf finally asked.
Ryan smiled. “It’s not so bad. There’s work, food, and only half of these folk would kill ya for no reason at all. Those are pretty good odds, all things considered.”
Gurien covered his face with a rag. “The odor, quarter-blood. You don’t even smell it, do you?”
Ryan cocked an eyebrow in puzzlement. He looked around and when he didn’t find the supposed stench’s source, he sucked in a lung-full of air through his nose, pursed his lips and shrugged. “Is it really that bad?”
“Sorry,” Ryan said. “I know it doesn’t smell like a Summer daisy, but… Guess we just don’t notice it anymore.”
And that’s all there is of Vermilion. A few good ideas here and there, but I don’t think I was ever quite as excited about the Western theme as I should’ve been.
As the story unfolded, we would learn that Ryan Windsinger is treating refugees from a nearby town recently destroyed by a red dragon. The townsfolk of Carston come to believe they’re next, and they’re not wrong. Men with The Sunset Company (a group trying to build a railroad through the Dusklands) put a reward on the dragon’s head, attracting all sorts of adventurers and killers-for-hire. This would include a group of Drakhari Knights who hunt dragons for sport, and a spell-slinger (sort of like a magical gunfighter) named Eli Task.
For the time being, though, this one’s just not meant to be.
I haven’t quite decided what we’ll be looking at next week. It’ll likely either be the first chapter of a dystopian biopunk novel called Avarice, or the first chapter of Bronze Archer, which is about near-future drone technology. I suppose the one thing we know for sure is that it will be a first chapter.
Until then, keep it real my lovelies,