Alone

Twelve Years Ago

 

Rain drops struck the window with heavy smacks. They clung for a second in thick globs before flowing slowly down the glass, leaving trails not unlike those of small unhurried slugs. Townsfolk rushed by on the street below in an effort to get indoors before the heavens opened even more. The ledger on the table next to the window read Drayfmont 1, 1039. It was Tyrfin, in the old calendar, the first day of winter. The season arrived with uncustomary punctuality this year. Aura Lockhaven watched the drops on their journey to the ground. Heaving a loud sigh that gave voice to her ache, the girl’s exhaled breath fogged the glass. The window looked as miserable as she felt.

Aura turned from the window. Despite the total lack of shadows on the ground outside, she knew the day approached eleven of the sun. Morgana would unbolt the tavern door soon, and they would arrive. They had arrived every day for the past week. They came like roaches. First they came to pay their respects and grieve with her. Then, they came to cheer her. Now, they came to do what they did best, eat her father’s food and drink her father’s ale. Only now, it was her food and her ale. Some nights, Aura just wished they would go away. Still, they were her people now, her customers, and she had a name and tradition to continue.

Her room was tiny. Officially, it did not exist. Lockhaven Tavern had only four rooms upstairs for guests. This room was that oh, I think a guest had to leave town early fifth room. It was kept mostly for customers too drunk to walk home but not too drunk to drag upstairs to sleep off their twelfth tankard of ale. It was also kept for the tavern owner’s youngest daughter, who all too often fell asleep behind the bar playing with her army of straw dolls. Aura needed a place to sleep, now that Lockhaven Manor, as the cozy house had been known, lay in a pile of cracked stones and charcoal. She thought her father would approve of her taking the small room, leaving the larger rooms for paying customers.

Once, Aura loved waking in this room. On most nights, it was around ten of the moon, and she awoke to Richard’s brawny arms lifting her with a laughter-filled Squirt, it’s time to go home. Let me tell you about the night a troll broke into this room! Her big brother carried her down the stairs to the sounds of flute, lute, and fiddle, laughter and bootfall, and always the fond farewell from Ester and their father, and not a few good nights from whatever customers happened to be standing near the door. This morning, as she had the past five mornings, Aura awoke to searing agony in her left hand, and silence so thick it beat in her ears as if she lay next to a drum.

Being right-handed, Aura always thought her left hand was just a spare, like that second hammer most carpenters carried in their chests. She knew otherwise now. For the past five days, Aura spent an hour slipping into her one remaining dress and brushing her hair. Whenever she instinctively used her left hand, she screamed as another blister burst. The apothecary told her that the wound would heal, eventually, but it would leave a nasty scar that stretched across her palm from her little finger to her index finger, then down to her thumb, and over to the other side of her hand, like an ugly capital letter C.

C for clumsy. C for careless. That candle looked so pretty in the market, all bright and blue. She thought it might smell like berries. Why did she light that one, instead of one of the others? The candlemaker must have mixed the fragrances wrong. It exploded, sending fire all over the sitting room, onto the rug and up the draperies. Why had she hid beneath the table, instead of running outside? By the time Henry Lockhaven reached her, flames had replaced the stone walls. He made it to the front door, throwing her out into the yard. Then, that burning beam fell across his back. She tried her best to push it off. All she had to show for her efforts were tears, agony, an empty life, and a bandage over a useless hand.

Aura threw her head back. She opened her mouth. Lockhavens do not cry in public. Cedric, Henry, Richard, and Ester stood silent as the gravedigger filled in the grave of Aurora. Even Aura, a newborn in Henry’s arms, remained silent. Cedric, Henry, Ester, and Aura stood silent as the gravedigger filled in the grave of Richard. Cedric, Henry, and Aura stood silent as the gravedigger filled in the grave of Ester. Cedric and Aura stood silent as the gravedigger filled in the grave of Henry. The scream wanted to come. Morgana might hear her. The scream became a gurgle in her throat.


Aura stood before the bronze mirror, making certain she presented a confident face to her town. Her auburn hair, growing redder with each passing year, looked tolerable, considering it missed Ester’s hands and brush. The nice blue dress, the only one remaining from the fire, was clean. Morgana washed it for her every night. Staring at her emerald eyes, she wondered if they would ever sparkle again. She thought she looked about as confident as a ten year old could, considering she carried the weight of the hopes of four dead adults on her narrow shoulders. At least, she still had Uncle Cedric, whose shoulders filled a doorway. When Grimchester Lockhaven died, his eldest son, garrulous Henry, took the tavern, while his youngest, quiet Cedric, took the brewery. Theirs had been an amiable, and profitable, partnership. Now, Hartshorn’s wealthiest man, and a lifelong bachelor, Aura knew he was too stingy to take a wife, one who would want his money. With each passing year, her father said of his brother, one year older and one farthing tighter. Still, he often ate with her family and always told her funny stories while bouncing her on his knee. She doubted if the man would open his wallet enough to take her into his home, but she hoped. Cedric was, after all, her family.

If she had just not lit that particular candle, she would slip into a long, thick woolen dress. With ease, considering her left hand would not be burned. Then, she would put on her winter coat. Then, she would wander across the street to pester Brythony with her latest dream about living in a castle and being able to control the weather. She thought about crossing the street to see Brythony, except her recent dreams were all about fire, smoke, and death.

Turning from the mirror, Aura walked to the small table by her small bed. Without thinking, she flexed her left fingers. Fire roared through her palm. Aura winced and fought to control the scream pushing its way up her throat. When she could breathe again, she reached her right hand toward the table. With delicate caresses, she touched the few items on it, the few things to survive the fire. Propped against a tin tankard, she kept her parent’s portrait. In front of it, lay Richard’s sword, Ester’s favorite wine glass, Henry’s tankard, and Aurora’s thimble. In the center sat the most precious of all, a smoke stained leather bound notebook containing her father’s tales of the Sarethian Seven, copied down as Henry told them to her only five months ago. Whenever she read it, and she read it often the past few days, she still heard her father’s voice. Other than the tavern and her own name, this tiny shrine was all that remained of her life.

Aura took her time descending the stairs. She knew what awaited her. Or rather, she knew who did not await her. Only four months earlier, she would have flown down the stairs to hear It’s about time you woke up, Squirt from beaming Richard. Only four months earlier, she would have received a tousle of the hair from Ester, followed by Look at you! You’re such a mess. Let me put you together. Only four months earlier, Henry would have scooped her up, thrown her over his shoulder, carried her across the tavern, and deposited her on the bar. Now, sit there and make sure I tap these kegs the right way, will you?


            A nice, tidy tavern, with walls of cream colored plaster over stone, and thick oaken upright beams every eight feet, and a sconce bolted to each beam. Four windows, three along one wall, and the fourth near the wide front door. A fireplace with its winter fire already warming the chilly air. Over the mantel, a muscular monster of a two headed axe, and a shield big enough to serve as a child’s bed. Four chandeliers hanging from the wooden ceiling with twelve candles each blazing overhead. Twelve round tables with eight chairs at each and a lit candelabra prepared in the center of each. Three stools in one corner, with a lutenist already seated upon one, checking the tuning of his instrument. The dark wooden bar against the back wall, behind which stood the blonde Morgana, polishing pewter tankards. Behind her lay the already roaring kitchen and the stairs down to the cellar where famous Lockhaven ale aged. The only Lockhaven in sight was the girl standing in the center of it all.

Half a minute later, that changed. The door burst open. Trailing the rain and wind behind him, Cedric Lockhaven strode into the tavern. Aura smiled upon seeing him. He looked like a shorter, thicker version of her father. Same brown hair and beard, same heartbreakingly blue eyes. Her smile faded as he stormed by her without even a nod. He bolted to the bar. The girl followed her uncle as he knocked on each and every cask and keg. He inspected the kitchen, tasting the roasts and stews. He checked every cask in the cellar, twice. Then, he snatched the ledger from Morgana, reading only the most recent page.

Cedric walked to the center of the tavern, and looked around. Aura followed, wondering what he was doing. The man nodded. Then, he looked down at Aura. She cocked her head to one side, trying to read his gaze. His eyes looked like ice. He pointed toward the front door.

“Get out,” Cedric Lockhaven said.

“What do you mean, Uncle?” Aura asked. “I can’t leave. My customers will arrive for luncheon soon.”

“They’re my customers now,” Cedric said. “Get out.”

“This is my tavern now,” Aura replied.

“Not any more. It’s mine,” he said. “A tavern is no place for a child.”

“You’re going to run it for me?”

“No,” Cedric said. He remained quiet for a full minute. “I am going to run it for myself. You don’t belong here anymore.”

“But it’s my home, Uncle Cedric.”

“No longer. I said, get out!”

“But it’s Daddy’s! That means it’s mine!”

“It belongs to the one best suited to run it and that’s me! Don’t think I haven’t seen you spill the ale. Claiming you hurt your hand. You’re wasting profits. Lockhaven Tavern is mine. If you want money, go be a harlot. Get out!”

“Cedric, no!” Morgana shouted, storming toward the Lockhavens. “It’s cold outside, and raining. She’s wearing an autumn dress and the girl doesn’t even have a coat.”


“As for you,” Cedric said, turning on Morgana, “I know your husband can’t feed that brood of yours alone. How would you like to see him try?” When Morgana shook her head, Cedric said, “Get back behind that bar where you belong, and I don’t want to hear another word about this child again.”

Aura gulped. Four months ago, her brother Richard died on Rathstone Bridge defending Hartshorn against a Skol attack. Two months ago, three Flumantine boatmen raped and strangled her sister Ester. Six days ago, fire took her father Henry. That didn’t count the fact that her mother Aurora died giving birth to her. She had not thought it possible that life could get any worse. Now, her tavern was gone, and the only remaining member of her family just threw her out. What feelings remained in the child’s soul plummeted down into her bowels. She wanted to urinate. She wanted to cry. Lockhavens do not cry in public.

“Where will I live?” Aura stammered.

“That is none of my concern,” Cedric snapped. “Just don’t go asking any of my customers to take you in. I’ll see to it that you don’t! Now go, or I’ll sell you to the Skols for a tidy sum. How would you like that? End up in some Arantian king’s bed?”

Aura’s hands flew to her face. She ignored the agony in her left palm. This could not be happening! How could Uncle Cedric be so cruel? She trusted him. Only four months ago, he had been so kind, but everything had changed within those four months. Shaking her head, she mumbled, “Let me gather my things –”

“What things?”

“I have some things upstairs –”

“The only things that are yours are what you are wearing. If it’s in this tavern, then it’s mine.”

“But –”

“Get out!”

Her parents’ portrait. Richard’s sword. Ester’s goblet. Her father’s tankard. Her mother’s thimble. Her notebook. Her tavern. All that remained of her life had just been wrenched from her grasp by the one man she trusted to care for her. Her head spun. Black flecks appeared before her eyes. This could not be happening, she thought. She wanted to vomit. She wanted to cry. Lockhavens do not cry in public! Lockhavens do not … do not … do not …

Aura threw back her head. She shut her eyes. Every shred of love, every shred of hate, every fear, every tear, every piece of grief, anguish, joy, peace, rage, and stirring feelings she did not understand roared up her throat, twisting together into unity as they did, and erupted from her mouth in one long scream. The sound was not that of fear or rage. It was that of pure creation and absolute destruction. Aura became that scream, an vocal entity roaring out the throat of a fleshen vessel into the air. The scream flew around the tavern. It smashed into the walls. It rattled tankards. It roared through casks. It raged through the kitchen. It knocked the lutenist off his stool. It continued to smack the walls long after the mouth that uttered it closed.


“Dear Baniar,” Morgana whispered. She collapsed to the floor, staring at Aura in horror.

Aura opened her eyes to an almost blackened room. Only the cold gray light struggling through the windows illuminated the tavern. The odor of soot from extinguished wicks filled the air. Even the fireplace and oven had been snuffed out. The only sounds in the tavern, other than raindrops on glass, were the breaths of fear, greed, and fury.

The tavern looked as empty and silent and she felt. She stood oblivious to the darkness around her, knowing only that which consumed her. The chaotic storm of raging emotion, and the total void of nothingness filled her. Without another word, Aura turned toward the door.

Her feet made no sound upon the floor. With each step, her heart broke further. With each step, she left behind a life she thought would continue forever. With each step, her soul trembled more as yet another feeling tore itself loose. By the time she reached the door, she no longer knew what she felt. Aura Lockhaven felt it all. Love for her father. Pride for her brother. Grief for her sister. Sorrow for the mother she never knew. Pity for Morgana. Terror for herself. One feeling, one special feeling, for her uncle.

She ignored the fire in her left hand. She ignored the cold bite of the iron latch in her right. What were they compared to the agony in her heart? As she turned the latch, she turned to Cedric. She cast him a cold glare, one devoid of all feeling except unrefined hatred.

Aura said, “I thought you were my father’s brother!”

Then, she stepped out into the freezing rain.

= = =

An illustrated chapter from The Fires of Tallen Hall, the upcoming second Aura Lockhaven novel.

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Aura Lockhaven Trivia

 

Aura’s surname began with her giant of a warrior ancestor, the Locchaefen. In old Ayrdic, the name meant Lock on the Haven, and was given to him as the defender of the port town of Vine Haven more than 200 years earlier.

Aura’s name was supposed to be Aurora. Her mother Aurora died giving birth to her. Her sister Ester suggested naming the baby after their mother, but had a hard time saying the name. Their brother thought she said Aura. Their father Henry liked the way it sounded, so that’s what he named his newest daughter.

Aura was born on Haemmont 1.* It is also the first day of summer, and Parin, or the old feast day of Ystlena, the goddess of love.

Her astrological sign is Erasto, the sign of the lovers. ** It is the only dual sign in the zodiac. An Earth sign, most born under this sign are extremely tactile, somewhat slovenly, irritatingly stubborn, and rigorously sexual. However, being born on a change of the Wheel of the Year (Parin), Aura acquired some of the traits of the two signs at 90 degrees, which are both Fire signs. That gives her a speed, fastidiousness, and somewhat volatile temper not known in others born during this 28 day period.

Aura’s necklace is known as the Sacred Star. It is a septagram, with each of its seven points representing one of the elements; Air, Fire, Water, Earth, Metal, Light, and Spirit. Usually, the elements are assigned to directions: Air to east, Fire to south, Water to west, Earth to north, Metal to below, Light to above, and Spirit to center. On the Sacred Star, however, they are arranged simply by which element gets along with which.

She is a fantastic cook, having learned from her father and older sister. Her specialties are roasts and stews.

She eats and drinks too much simply because she adores the way things taste. If they’re good, that is.

Aura is famous as an ale fiend. Lesser known is her fondness for nutbreads and berry tarts, particularly from her own oven.

Aura grows her own herbs, for both culinary and magical uses.

Aura brews her own ale at home, from her father’s recipe.

She loathes any form of seafood, but will eat it if offered by a hostess. That is only good manners. Except for lamprey and eel. Those things look like worms, so “No thank you, I’m allergic.”

Other than carrots and potatoes, Aura is not fond of root crops. Radishes and turnips taste like dirt.

It’s a good thing Aura walks the mile into Hartshorn, and back, and performs her own chores. Otherwise, she might weigh considerably more than 150 pounds. At least a big chunk of that chunk is muscle.

Her favorite animal is a cat. She loves their aloof sense of independence.

Her second favorite is the raven, although she is fond of any bird.

The only animal Aura fears is a spider. Her fear borders on an obsession, and causes her to panic and hallucinate. The hand sized raft spider is the worst. Spindly cellar spiders aren’t much better. She has no fear of the small jumping spider, however. They’re cute, like grumpy old men with bristly moustaches.

Although Aura doesn’t own a horse, she is an excellent rider. She thinks bits are cruel and prefers to guide a horse with her legs and hands.

Her grandfather, Grimchester Lockhaven, built much of Hartshorn, or at least financed its construction. His crowning achievement is Fourth Wharf and Warehouse, commonly called the Lockhaven Dock. Aura visits the wharf whenever she needs to connect with her family.

Her other place to connect with her family is the Lockhaven plot in the temple cemetery, which has too many graves to suit her.

Aura inherited her nose and height from her father. Her face, figure, hair color, and eye color come from her mother.

Aura’s home is known locally as Big Hedge. It was probably a farm at one time, but no one remembers when that time was. It is 60 acres of untidy old growth forest, blackberry brambles, and fields that have not been cultivated in decades. The house has a stone first story and a waddle and daub second story. The roof is wooden shingle. A narrow tower is attached to the western side. Of course there is an ale cellar.

The house does have a shower out back, an outhouse, and an indoor sink in the kitchen. Aura’s master Sagacius, the wizard who taught her and owned Big Hedge before her, is the brother of a mad inventor after all.

She speaks five languages. She is fluent in Ayrdish, obviously, and Nebelish. She is also fluent in the Coadic variant of Tangoi, which makes her capable of communicating with the people of Garrania and Caillia to a fair level, and surprisingly Ogres as well. She thinks she’s fluent in Flumentine and Sollantine, but her stilted diction and syntax cause native speakers to almost die of laughter. Her competency in Karanthek extends only as far as being able to cast spells in the ancient language. ***

While normally a calm and loving woman, Aura can be riled. This is known as getting her Lockhaven up, her father’s term for blowing his stack. When that happens, she has the most vile mouth imaginable. Her ability to string together obscenities, and make them up, leave most people breathless.

Aura is competent with a quarter staff and a dagger. She is also a capable brawler, with powerful arms and legs honed from chopping firewood and gardening. She is totally incompetent with a sword or bow, although she has her late brother’s sword.

If she charged fees for her spells and charms, she might be modestly well off. As it is, the townsfolk insist on paying her with services and food. Right now, they’re rebuilding that ramshackle old farmhouse of hers. It’s a good thing, too. The roof has started to leak, and Aura is no carpenter.

 

 

* Our equivalent date: May 1. It is also known as May Day or Beltane (one sexy holiday). In older calendars it was the first day of summer.

** Our equivalent astrological sign: Erasto loosely translates into Taurus

*** Our equivalent languages: Ayrdish = English. Nebelish = German. Tangoi = Celtic. Coadic variant = Welsh. Flumantine = French. Sollantine = Spanish. Karanthek = Greek.

 

What wasn’t established in A Path of Stones will be in The Fires of Tallen Hall and Crimson Cloak. The fourth novel, The Enchantress of Hartshorn, will open with Aura being driven to distraction by the din of One-Eyed Rupert building her a barn, without any instigation on Aura’s part.

My Personal Agenda for Aura Lockhaven

I didn’t create Aura Lockhaven just to tell a cool story. Well, if you’ve read my website, you know why I created her and how she now has absolutely nothing to do with that original premise whatsoever. That is a good thing. However, when A Path of Stones solidified into something tangible, I did sit down to think about my underlying philosophies for that book and the rest of the series. So, for those of you who are interested, here is why Aura is like she is and what I hope to accomplish with at least her first three books.

With A Path of Stones, The Fires of Tallen Hall, and Scarlet Cloak, I’m answering my own personal goals as well as the complaints of the fantasy reading community at large. I hope.

GOALS

1. I wanted to write the story I wanted to read.

The typical high fantasy is a neverending chain of interconnected books. Examples include Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth, and Terry Brooks’ Shannara series. Personally, I prefer a series of standalone novels in the tradition of the James Bond books or the Dresden Files. So, that’s what I’m doing with Aura’s story. The first three books are one story. From there, they are standalone, unless I need to split a story. Book Four, The Enchantress of Hartshorn, will focus on one week in Aura’s life as she struggles with, and comes to terms with, being the new official enchantress of her town. Elements of the previous books will be referenced, such as why some people are obsessed with her mother’s maiden name. That’s expected, and works without forcing the issue. But it won’t be directly tied to the first three books. Book Five will be similar but with a clearly defined villain, while Book Six will be a Lovecraftian ghost story centered around Elisabeth Lovejoy. The Hound of the Baskervilles with swords and spells. Don’t ask about the rest of the series. Aura hasn’t told me yet.

I also wanted to maintain the foundation that the hero or heroine is good and stands for something. I grew up in the 1970s, when movies were dominated by protagonists who were losers or despicable (The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, etc.). That changed with Star Wars in 1977. That was the first movie, outside the James Bond films and Disney, where the protagonists were good, stood for something worth standing for, and won. I want to continue that tradition in a world that has devolved into the anti-hero or worse, protagonists who are no different from the antagonists. Moral ambiguity is real in our world, but I see fantasy as a modern mythology — it entertains while it educates, encourages, and edifies.

Aura Lockhaven does the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do. She is motivated by compassion, and fights from a defensive posture. That does mean she gets her pretty butt kicked more often than she kicks. Good has boundaries it will not cross, while evil will do whatever is necessary to win. That adds to the conflict, would you not agree? Aura will lose from time to time. It’s inevitable. But that’s life.

2. I wanted a female protagonist.

Women are more interesting than men. If I give a sword, wand, or gun to a man, I know what he will do with it. If I give the same weapons to a woman, I don’t know what she will do until she does it. That is because we have 400 years worth of fiction with competent male protagonists, dating back to Cervantes and Shakespeare. We extend that much more if we consider the tales of the Norse, Greeks, and those from Asia and Africa. The first competent woman protagonist in American fiction was Scarlet O’Hara, while the second was Wonder Woman. Both appeared in my mother’s lifetime. Most appeared since I was born in 1963. I want to add to that list. It needs to grow.

Now, it is a fair question to ask how can I know what a woman will think and do? After all, I am a man. Stripped of the cultural conditioning, men and women aren’t all that much different. The basic difference I see is men think like a sword while women think like a shield. Together, they get the job done. Aura’s nation is one that still believes in men and women standing together against a common enemy (although the state religion is changing that). Besides, I’m married. Half of Aura’s personality is based on mine. The other half is based on my wife’s. Aura is essentially half English, half Welsh. My wife is half German, half Irish. So, I just ask my clearly better half, “What would you do in this situation?” and go with her answer.

3. I wanted to create a role model.

This is a dicey prospect. Deliberately creating a role model comes with a sizeable amount of hubris that can only be avoided with great determination. I want Aura to be a model for doing the right thing, letting one’s heart lead, and getting back up when knocked down.

I hadn’t expected her to be a role model for women, but apparently she is. That is out of my hands, and I am not complaining. Women need good role models. Half our species has been kicked around and confined to the kitchen and neverending pregnancies for 10,000 years. If a woman wants to be a mother and housewife, I will stand with her in total agreement, but it should be her own choice, not thrust upon her by a heartless cultural consensus. Aura is not a voice for Feminism or the career woman, any more than she is a voice for the housewife, much less the Religious Right (Aura is a Pagan). She is a voice for self-determination, for choosing one’s own destiny. I hope that works for both men and women. Interference by others in one’s destiny is a subject I will explore in future books. Let’s just say Aura’s greatest enemies don’t cast spells.

4. I wanted Aura to be real.

Aura is supposed to be a realistic and relatable character, while still filling the role of fantasy protagonist and fantasy woman. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with creating a character you’d love to date. I wanted her to be believable enough that the reader would have no problem seeing her step out of the book and sit down for a cup of tea and a good chat.

Aura is beautiful (although she doesn’t see it), sexy, and sexual, yes. If you want a flat-chested woman, go read Little Orphan Annie, don’t look at me. She does have endowments in the chest, but also the hips, thighs, and stomach. In other words, she eats and drinks too much and it shows. She also has a hump in her nose, which frankly I find attractive. She doesn’t wear much, but she has logical reasons, other than the standard of sword-and-sorcery bare essential outfits. Aura is a nudist, cloth absorbs magical power, and as an enchantress, seduction is one of her assets (it helps with diplomatic negotiations). Aura is also smart, competent, wily, and physically strong. She ain’t no bimbo. Aura may have the body of a 1980’s Playboy Playmate, but she has the mind of a PhD. Tell me what is wrong with that! Why can’t a woman be beautiful, sexy, and sexual, while also being smart, competent, and sometimes, lethal. Why does the smart woman have to be asexual and ugly, while the beautiful one is stupid? I also tried to make her class standing realistic. Aura isn’t a princess, nor is she a farm girl. She’s merchant class. In today’s terms, she’s the bar owner’s daughter who double majored in poetry and chemistry, and who now runs a perfume and jewelry shop.

Her greatest strength is the ability to listen to what other people say, add it all up, and arrive at the truth far ahead of anyone else. Half the time she thinks her way out of a problem, instead of using any magical power. But in the 21st Century, common sense is as rare as a glamour spell, so perhaps it does qualify as magic. Aura doesn’t need a man in her life, although she wants one. Wanting and needing are two different things.

She is also highly flawed. I gave her one of my own flaws — arachnophobia. Those are easy scenes to write! In the opening trilogy, Aura looks for validation from external sources, but so do 90% of us. She suffers from low self-esteem, which causes her to be less powerful than she can be. Between her volatile emotions and trauma-related panic attacks, she can be unreliable, and fall apart at inopportune moments. Sounds like many of us. Yet, she perseveres, and that is the greatest magic of all. Aura Lockhaven isn’t perfect. She’s real. That, ultimately, is our goal as humans — to be real in the face of tremendous flaws and overwhelming pressure from society to conform to its ideals of perfection.

 

COMPLAINTS

The first two complaints are almost universal within the fantasy reading community. The third is my own.

1. The books are too big!

The average mystery novel is about 75,000 words long. Science fiction may reach 100,000. Have you seen fantasy books? They aren’t books. They’re tomes. You can kill a troll with those things. Most average 300,000 words. George R. R. Martin seems determined to best War and Peace. Not only are those books too big, but to get them to fit within any readable size (i.e. holdable), the font is often nine point. Those of us who are nearsighted hate you, Mr. Martin.

I determined that no Aura novel would exceed 150,000 words. If it does, I’ll split it into two smaller books. Hence, why the opening story is the worst fantasy cliche’ of all — a trilogy. I’d rather split the story into three parts deliberately than have it do so in your hands. Digital? You don’t want to pay the price for a file of 500,000 words. Size equals affordability.

Besides, I make more money, but you spend less, if I write sixteen 150,000 word novels instead of eight 300,000 word gargantuas.

2. The quest is always about saving the world.

Frodo set a bad precedent. This complaint is so true. From Richard Rahl to Jon Snow, the hero’s quest is always some colossal undertaking. I wholeheartedly agree. Saving the world is important, but most of us just try to save ourselves. A small, localized heroine needs a small, localized quest, and the Scarlet Enchantress of Hartshorn is about as localized as you can get. So, Aura’s quest in her first three books is to gain the power to help more people, and to discover the truth about herself. Her quest is intimate. For the remainder of most of the series, her quest will be to help whoever needs help, even if that someone is herself. That’s a bit more in keeping with the private detective novel, but I like it. Eventually, Aura may undertake to save her country, but it will be from the position of counselor to the monarch, not the warrior. In other words, Gandalf, not Frodo or Aragorn.

3. The hero undertakes the quest way too fast.

This is my personal complaint. Frodo set the precedent, but no one listened. He didn’t undertake the quest to destroy the One Ring until two-thirds of the way through the first book. On the other hand, Richard Cypher (later Rahl) seized on being the mythical Seeker in three paragraphs (Wizard’s First Rule). That is way too fast for my tastes. Aura doesn’t decide to meet the Order of Enchanters until chapter ten of A Path of Stones, and doesn’t accept the position of the Dyrgana (the explorer) until almost the end, and does both with great reluctance and much soul-searching. That’s the way I think it should be. One does not rock her own boat without much consideration and thought.

Not that you will readily see any of these philosophies as you read the Chronicles of Aura Lockhaven. I hope I’m a good enough writer to keep them hidden from all but my own eyes. But now, you know.

 

The Bogeyman of Child Pornography

Whenever Freedom of Speech and Censorship is discussed, someone always brings up child pornography. As in, “Are you saying that child pornography is all right?” It’s a bogeyman. The obsession some people have with it makes them sound as if they are the pedophiles. Methinks thou protesteth too much. It’s interesting that they never mention snuff, which is far worse as someone actually dies.

So, I am going to discuss child pornography.

I am going to do so in a way that any reasonable person can understand and comprehend. That is a relative concept, of course, because reason and common sense in the United States is as rare as an ivory-billed woodpecker or eastern mountain lion; i.e., extinct.

To my way of thinking, child pornography is a photograph or motion picture in which someone is having sexual relations with another person, and that other person is age 16 or younger. The act can range from nudity, to touching, to actual intercourse. The ages of 17 and 18 are murky as young people that age have been having sex together as long as there have been barns and means of conveyance. But the laws in America generally says age of consent is 18, so we’ll go with it.

Someone under the age of 18 (and especially under 14) cannot grant consent for the act. He or she doesn’t know how. He or she has no idea what is happening. He or she is not prepared emotionally, much less physically, for the consequences. Because it is a photograph or film, a real person is being harmed in a real way, usually irreversibly so. That isn’t just a crime in the eyes of the law. It’s a crime against humanity and about as inhumane as one can get. It is an absolute violation of the most innocent and vulnerable of all. It’s a crime in most statutes of the United States, and it usually brings the FBI in on the scene, and I wholeheartedly agree.

So, no. That is not protected by the Freedom of Speech, nor should it be.

Neither is snuff. A film of someone being hanged or crucified is not covered by the Freedom of Speech. A professional filmmaker knows how to stage and edit a movie to make it look like someone has been hanged or crucified, but I’m talking about a movie where someone is actually murdered. Those do exist.

Again, child pornography is a photograph or film in which a real minor is engaged in a real sexual act of any type, with the subsequent real harm inflicted, which is a universally granted byproduct.

Now, how about drawings, paintings, and 3D renders.

To quote Neil Gaiman, “No. You don’t get that one.”

Those are “lines on paper,” brushstrokes on canvas, pixels on a monitor. It doesn’t matter how disgusting that may be, those are not real children. That is not child pornography. It is simply tasteless. There are no laws against bad taste. If there were, reality TV would be illegal.

If you condemn a drawing of Kakashi having sex with a 16-year-old Sakura, then you also must condemn quite a few Renaissance paintings of naked cherubs flying around Aphrodite. Yes, you do! Those are painting of naked babies. You must also condemn Michelangelo’s David. Yes, you do! That is a statue of a naked teenaged boy. You must condemn all depictions of Andromeda. Yes, you do! Those show a teenaged girl in bondage, and sometimes she’s nude. This is a case of what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If you condemn one, you must condemn all, or you are a hypocrite.

Freedom of Speech must protect the distasteful, disgusting, and depraved (Sakura-Kakashi), or it won’t protect what needs to be protected (David, and Andromeda). As long as no real person is harmed, it is protected. That is why hate speech is a gray area – the listener may actually suffer harm. If someone is actually harmed, it is no longer a Freedom of Speech issue, but a felony crime. Harm at least equates to assault and battery, if not a far more serious crime. How can representations of people in oil paint on canvas be guilty of any crime, much less raping each other?

That is totally different. Sakura is not actually having sex with Kakashi, as neither are real people. So, no felony has been committed. It’s the same with a vore picture. That is not a real woman being swallowed by a real snake, and she is not really going to be dissolved slowly in darkness and searing agony. It is fiction, so no felony has been committed. No reasonable person would assume that Jim Caviezel was really crucified and murdered in The Passion of the Christ, so no reasonable person should assume that a Sakura-Kakashi ship drawing, a Renaissance painting of nude Andromeda chained to a rock, or any other work of certifiable or verifiable fiction or art actually depicts real children or teens in a real sexual situation. If you do assume that, then you don’t need a lesson in art and censorship, you need a psychiatrist.

Once the process of censorship is started for that drawing of Kakashi and Sakura, it has begun for all art of any erotic nature. Censorship is like kudzu. Once it is established, it never stops. It just keeps growing. It will consume fetish art: crucifixion, bondage, and non-cons. It will consume erotica. It will consume fine art nudes. This is already happening in America, where the Religious Right, Fascist-leaning Mens’ Rights Activitsts, and leftist Social Justice Warriors want all women to be totally covered and devoid of any sexuality. Censorship will eventually reach the point of banning anything that remotely disturbs a small group, and that is a war waged in our libraries for at least the past century.

The answer to this is quite simple. If you don’t like it, don’t look at it. I don’t, so I don’t. If you don’t like it, don’t make it. I don’t, so I don’t. I seldom include a child in a render, unless it’s a group scene (a group without at least one child looks peculiar), or I want to depict a character protecting the most vulnerable of all. I also don’t depict hanging, crucifixion, or vore. I don’t like them.

The Freedom of Speech guarantees my right to write or render what I wish. It also guarantees my right to NOT write or render what I do not wish. That is not a case of obeying a law, or cowtowing to community consensus. That is my personal choice. If someone else wants to do something else, that is between him, his conscience, and the FBI. Not my problem.

 

The Problem with Practice

Practice, practice makes perfect, perfect is a fault, and faultlines change. — REM, “I Believe”

The concept of practice is problematic for me. I’m classically trained on the piano and violin (although I’ve forgotten most of it). When I was studying, my parents kept harping “Practice, practice, practice. Practice makes perfect.” I didn’t want to be perfect. Once you’re perfect, there’s no where to go. So, my playing became rote memorization, and mind-numbing repetition, totally devoid of any passion. It sounded good, but my heart wasn’t in it.

I can’t take that into writing and art.

The great jazz masters taught me something, especially Sonny Rollins. Mr. Rollins never practiced. He played! Every time he played a song, he played it better than the last time, even if the last time was ten minutes ago. When asked why it sounded different, he replied, “I already played it that way. Why should I play it the same way again?”

That I can do! I can write this story better than I wrote the last one. I can make this render better than the last one. That’s how I can grow, develop, and continue to push myself, without ever hitting that stale and stagnant point of heartless repetition.

 

Aura News, December

For various reasons that I won’t go into (they’re too numerous), the second Aura Lockhaven novel is not ready for publication this month. Alas, December, 2017 was my target. Perhaps, next year.

There are major developments, however.

The way I write a story is I create the skeleton with dialogue. Then, I add thin muscle and skin with description and enough narrative to hold it together. After I have a complete form, I go back and flesh it all out and make the language lyrical.

The Fires of Tallen Hall is currently 85,000 words long. It’s only two-thirds complete. And it’s still a skeleton with the barest of muscle and flesh. So, completed, and with the language I want, it will no doubt exceed 200,000 words.

That’s just too long for my tastes.

So, I split Tallen Hall. As much as a trilogy is a cliche’ it seems the best way to make the book affordable and small enough to read. I’d rather split the book myself than have it split itself in your hands. This also gives me the opportunity to build tension leading up to the revelation of the opening story’s villain, the one who manipulated Aura all through A Path of Stones. It also allows me time to build toward the climactic wizards’ duel that now takes place in book three.

The second book will still be called The Fires of Tallen Hall. The third is entitled Scarlet Cloak. Considering that both books are in the same stage of development, I should be able to release them concurrently, holding Scarlet Cloak until sales of Tallen Hall start to dwindle. That would be nice.

So, here’s to June, 2018.

Wish me the best.

Seriously, It’s Time to Get Serious!

It’s time to get serious about being a storyteller.

Please let me preface this by stating a few things up front.

First, I am a professional. I get paid for telling stories. Oh, not much. Yet. But it’s what I do. It’s who I am. I’m trained to be one, too, holding a BA in English an MA in Creative Writing (and I graduated with a 4.0 GPA, thank you very much — not bad for a guy whose grandfather was an illiterate sharecropper). I use both the language of the word and the image, because one conveys a story better than the other. It all depends on the story. The difference between an amateur and a professional is the amateur does it for love while the professional gets paid. I’m lucky. I get paid for doing what I love.

Second, I have a personality disorder. Some of you know that. I’m schizotypal. That’s just a clinical way of describing an eccentric kook. I don’t try to hide it. Heck, I consider it a personality order because diagnosis explained why I’ve had eighteen different careers in my life. Yep. Eighteen. Failed at all but two, and one was unceremoniously ripped out of my grasp. Why try to fit into an office cube when my brain isn’t wired for that? You would think I would have learned that at 25, but that was the 1980s, when a college graduate was supposed to be a successful businessman. I’m dense at times. Anyway, that fact isn’t just important to the ultimate goal of this post, but to say that if you have a “mental illness,” you aren’t alone. I have friendly ears. Talk to me before doing something rash, okay?

Third, schizotypal, unfortunately, comes with a host of nasty side-effects. In my case, it’s chronic depression and crippling social anxiety. The depression is managed. It isn’t controlled. It likes to slip by my doctor and kick me in the head. Anxiety has a mind of its own.

Fourth, I had a severe breakdown in May, 2013, from which I didn’t exactly come back. That was when anxiety decided to move in with me, and not pay rent. I’ve been apartment-bound ever since, unless my wife is home and can go out with me. You don’t want me alone in a crowd! You just don’t. Hence, the job that was ripped from my grasp. I’m also trained to be an English teacher at the community college level. Darn, and it was fun, too.

Fifth, I have hyperfocus. That means the room could be on fire and unless you tell me, I won’t notice.

Those are causative agents. Where am I going with this?

I’ve been working with Aura Lockhaven since 2010. To say she’s my favorite character is an understatement. She isn’t just my favorite character that I’ve created, she’s my favorite character of all time. I feel like Aura is a real woman, just invisible.

In January, 2013, after graduating with my MA, I decided to turn a tawdry, rather awful comic into a written novel. That was the Aura graphic novel that ultimately became A Path of Stones. If you want to read the entire process, it’s here on my website. A Path of Stones was published this past February. It took me four years to finish it and publish it because of that breakdown, depression, and hyperfocus.

The breakdown interrupted my efforts in 2013. It left me numb for the rest of the year. In January, 2014, I finally felt like doing something creative. But I was too depressed to write. So, I worked up a render that became “Barbarian Wall.” That led to the creation of the Sarethian Seven, and 200 pages of short stories. Because of hyperfocus, and seeing only the project at the end of my nose, the S7 took up two months. After that, I still didn’t feel like returning to Aura, so I wrote treatments for two novels that you don’t know about. One is an epic fantasy that reached chapter twenty. I’ll probably eventually finish that. The protagonist is a man (don’t faint!) who is a middle aged burnout of a college teacher. Gee, think he’s a bit of an avatar? The other is a horror story based on my render “Leopard Girl.” I told you that I based novels on renders! By the time I moved on from those, it was a year later. Hyperfocus.

In 2015, I finally forced myself to work on Aura again, and finished A Path of Stones by the end of that year. I got it to my beta reader, who read it and gave me her feedback. What happened? Depression again. Around April, 2016, I created the comic Dandelions. It was a pretty powerful story and I’m proud of it. That consumed most of my time until August, when I shook myself and finally got back to the novel and revised it. By February of this year, I had a hardback in my hands.

What have I done since then? Well, the sequel, The Fires of Tallen Hall is essentially where it was in March; three quarters finished. What happened? Depression again. Distraction again. Hyperfocus again. I became bogged down with a few new 3D characters. They threatened to create yet another storyline. Somehow, I found the discipline to say no to that idea (but it’s still lurking around in my head). Then came my latest, the superheroine comic, Valkyria. I have no complaints about that.

The thing is, between depression, distraction, and hyperfocus so extreme that I ignore everything except the project right in front of my eyes, I forget far too often that Aura Lockhaven is my main lady. She has a story for me to tell that spans sixteen novels. Only one is written. She’s been counting on me for five years. Now, we can add Katie, Stephanie, and Jessica Ashe to that, and Allyson and the Dandelions are still pacing in the corner of the room.

I can’t really speak for the total impact of Valkyria and Dandelions. Others know that better than I do. I can speak for the impact of A Path of Stones. Everyone who has read it and told me of their experience has dumbfounded me. It brought tears to one man’s eyes. Another is demanding the sequel, saying “We need that book right now!” It caused one young woman to realize she could still have faith after suffering extreme spiritual abuse. That’s heavy. I have a gut feeling that Valkyria and Dandelions can have the same level of impact, but in a different direction. In 2017 and probably next year, it is important to know, as Katie says, “the good guys can win!”

I’m sitting on three atomic bombs and I’ve been treating them like firecrackers!

That changed this morning. Is this my job or not? Is it more than a hobby? Is telling stories that entertain, educate, encourage, and edify my reason for existence? Yes, it is. Therefore, I am setting up a schedule. My desk will become my office. That isn’t easy for a guy who pretty much lives organically, but it has to happen if The Fires of Tallen Hall ever sees print, Valkyria advances to Book Two, and Dandelions is actually finished. At the moment, the Sarethian Seven is the project on hold. Besides, I don’t want to release it until I publish Aura Book Five as it’s tied directly to the Auraverse.

So, here we go.

Monday: Aura Lockhaven. This is primarily the novel but includes an Aura 3D art collaboration series I’m halfway into, as well as one-off art pieces. My goal is to write 2,000 words per day. That isn’t unreasonable. Most blogs are 1,000. This journal post is 1,600 words and I wrote it in an hour. That’s easy for a guy who has struck 10,000 words in one day.

Tuesday: Aura Lockhaven. 2,000 words per day, for two days, is 208,000 words per year. That is one novel, people! At my voracious output (when I actually work), and with that schedule, I should average two novels in one year.

Wednesday: Valkyria. This is primarily the comic, but also includes one-off art pieces. I figure two pages per week. Not a bad pace. I’m planning for a full tower comic production computer next year that should increase the page output per week.

Thursday: Valkyria. An planned Aura-Valkyria crossover will go here.

Friday: Dandelions. To start, one-off art pieces to refamiliarize myself with the characters, and also refont the comic so I can post it again.

Saturday and Sunday: Nothing Aura, Valkyria, or Dandelions related. If I do anything at all in DAZ while my wife is working on her jewelry-making, I’ll render something totally different.

At no time on the weekdays, do I work beyond 6 when my wife comes home. I do have a wife. I do have a life. It’s time to talk to her, play with the cats, and read something called a book. I’ve also been ignoring my spiritual practice, which isn’t healthy for a member of a minority, alternative religion. My heart is telling me that I’ve been sedentary for six years. Wow, time to actually exercise. And perhaps staring at a computer screen until 11 PM is why I have insomnia.

I’m building in permission to not write if depression strikes. However, instead of doing something totally random, I’ll focus on the subject of the day. That will keep things moving forward. It will also keep me from getting lost for another four months in yet another storyline.

This doesn’t mean that Aura, Katie, and Allyson will cease being fun. It just means I get more done that is fun, and actually has a purpose.

Now, the question is, can I keep this schedule? Well, we’re all about to find out.

The Enchantress and the Warrior

I am pleased and honored to announce a collaboration with Zaki Asakura, known as Akizz on DeviantArt. We have followed each other for over a year, and developed a good working relationship. For some time, we’ve wondered what would happen if his character Viona, the Warrior of Beauty, met Aura Lockhaven.

We decided to find out.

To see what happens when Viona enters Aura’s world of the 11th Century, start here at this page: http://nathanomir.deviantart.com/art/The-Enchantress-and-the-Warrior-01-690670626

To see what happens when Aura enters Viona’s world of the 21st Century, start here at this page: http://nathanomir.deviantart.com/art/Early-days-690510555