6. Flames & Gold

The wailing chant of Ostromo was scarcely audible above the rustle of grass. The Palace Gigantic, towers of flames and gold, loomed in the small sky he could see through the grass, growing closer to block out the sun, becoming brighter until he had to squint and roll over to protect his eyes, so great was the majesty of it. He would not go back to the Princess, he had nothing left to give and he was not ready, but she wanted him, she came for him even here. The march of ordered feet, of her men, were in the marsh, coming for him, where was his sword? She had taken everything, defend yourself.
The chanting stopped and the light subsided, replaced by the shade of the demon grass and the choking pleadings of the old wizard. Realising his hands were around his neck, Hormud released him and rolled off into the mud.
“How long?” They were both breathing heavily.
Hormud looked down, ignoring the scowling sorceror. His side had a compact of mud and grass neatly applied and still surrounded by dried blood. His wound would heal.
“So you had enough courage to weave a spell eh? You tiger among men.”
Onjun’s head twisted sharply and his eyes had recovered their usual venom.
“You are free with your insults barbarian.” The dagger he had given him was in his hand, pointing at Hormud’s throat.
“My little apeling still has teeth.”
“A Pontiff of the Palace belongs to no one but the Warpope, and the Warpope is dead. My neck is my own since I left with you.”
“Maybe I was saving your worthless neck to split on my own steel.”
“See to your own.”
For the time it takes a high arrow to meet its mark the men glared at each other, the sorcerer poised as he was in times not long gone as a priest above his offering. But instead of fear Hormud looked as though satisfied and rolled onto his good side.
“Hurry with your spells Ostromo,” he grumbled, “the grass devils are waiting for us and I am not a man to disappoint when expected for battle.”

What is this Sorcery?

So what is this nonsense? 
 Excellent question, glad you asked. Sons of the Bear God is an awful and forgotten swords & sorcery novel written by Norwell W. Page in 1935, the second book in an unsuccessful personal project by this bewilderingly prolific contributor to The Spider stories (under the pseudonym Grant Stockbridge). Did I mention it was awful?

His bronzed body was naked to the breechclout and on chest and thigh and shoulder the fiery hairs bristled like individual flames in the sunlight — each with its seperate defiance of the hovering death. He set his crouching thighs against the pull of the arrow and his muscles looked like gnarled oak roots thrusting up through forest-mould. The hands of his small companion trembled on the arrow and his pendulous lips quivered.
 It goes on like this for 142 pages. Nothing goes un-adverbed, everything is bristling and defiant and bulging. Names and locations are lifted from history and flung together at random as the protagonist, Prestor John, fights Mongols, Romans, dwarves(?), and the Ainu in his righteous crusade to get 10'000 converts to "Christos", his new god. A god who wouldn't hold it against him if he made yet another evil empire (he's had two) under his banner in the meantime, of course. As long as he gets the promised 10'000 bums on pews it's all good.
 This sounds quite bad, and it is, but like almost all S&S it has a streak of pure genius running through it. The relationship between the hero and his side-kick being a particularly good example, one a little hate filled wizard and the other being Prestor, the egomaniac ex-gladiator, ex-king, who takes every opportunity to insult and bully, the tiny sorceror who used to be a mighty wizard ruler in his own right before having all his co-rulers killed by Prestor. The details are fuzzy. However, we do know this ends up in a wonderful arrangement where it is obvious that Prestor keeps the wizard around purely so he has someone to tell his stories of greatness to, and the wizard is there because he is equally power-hungry but as craven as Prestor is full of himself. This set-up creates a constant cycle of betrayal, where the wizard jumps on any sign of Prestor's weakness in comparison to his enemies' and stabs him in the back, sometimes literally, only to be taken back when the tables turn again since Prestor is a massive egotist who refuses to see the wizard as a threat.
 There are other fun things as well, such as the dialogue. Taken in context it is, again, awful and hammy. Traditional neo-Shakespearean pulp crap speckled with "thee"s and "thy"s. But, like a beautiful cut-up poem they look wonderful when ripped up and placed in a new setting. The series of events are also fun and very S&S. At one point he kills a sacred bear and has to replace it as the official executioner, taking the bears tittle, property, and hoes, how cool is that?

 Quite. So I decided to re-write it and every other book that tries to convince me that S&S is bad. I've read a lot of old S&S books, far more than I can remember if the shelves behind me are anything to go by. I go through them looking for certain texts, often coming across a musty old book and suffering an involuntary shudder as my deepest memory instinctively recoils from remembering it. Even the so-called "greats" like Jirel of Joiry are just bad. Very bad. I'm sure you can put a lot of it down to the time-period, but then you remember that these were written after Conan, along side Elric, Kane and Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser. No excuses!  And thus, re-writing them. I will rip out the quivering spines of these novels, separate them from their flabby, muscle-bound bodies and stick them in lean, minimalist, densely written machines. Smaller machines. About 50% smaller. After you take out all the hamming and flexing there really isn't much left.

 I'll continue to put up sections of the book as it gets torn apart. It's a harder job than first expected as you can only follow the book for so long before the already silly plot becomes out-right ludicrous. This requires some vigorous punching and editing and punching. More battered remains soon.

5. You Lion of Valour

Ahead the shrivelled sorcerer fled in desperate leaps, his shredded finery and flapping limbs made his terror almost comical. Hormud considered shouting to let him know it was him and not the Onjen chasing after him, but the irony of his lineage stopped him. Just as the lush, rank greenness of the grass proper absorbed them he lifted the little Ostromo by his battered hood, boosting the wizard along in great soaring bounds with his voice wailing high, chattering a litany of gods and spirits, beseeching Hormud, cursing his family upon the cruel alters of the Palace Gigantic. Hormud laughed and heard the wet thud of arrow into flesh, felt the start of muscles giving between his knees as iron struck the pony. Hormud leaped clear, landed running and still he boosted the sorcerer along so that his flailing feet scarcely touched the ground.
“Up, mighty warrior,” he bellowed over the rushing of reeds, “cover the earth with your magics, ten mile strides, a death to horses and the bastards that ride them. Spit your prayers to the demon grass.”
The grass now passed above his head but the whining arrows were all about him, plucking past to flick out of sight in the green wall ahead. A red flower leaped high under the slash of his sword and dropped limply. The grass thrashed and wavered like a living, suffering thing as he cut a path— and pain slashed through him. An arrow. His feet plunged deep into the slimy cold of the earth and he fell forward, the pain and exhaustion of days of chasing and hiding fully caught up. His mind darkened as he looked out on Ostromo, huddled on his knees, muddy hands clasping a bald head staring wildly at the fallen barbarian.
“Come, you lion of valour…”

4. Farewell Brothers

They were close behind him as he ran, two riders charging side by side, lances dipped, whipping through the tall grass, tracing hungry lines. No time to notch another arrow, the tiger bow flew from his hands as he leapt from the thorns and above the rushing spears, his sword singing hungrily from its sheath. The confusion of the barbarian’s unexpected charge gave him the time he needed to batter the rider screaming from his saddle. The momentum of the charge still unbroken and unstoppable, the second rider beside him snarling through a face yellow with horse fat, cursing his line as his arms desperately pulled to make room to draw his sword.
“Leave it in it’s sheath brother. It will do you no good.”
The rider cried high and voiceless with despair as Hormud’s curved blade twisted up through his chest— the scream died mid note as the rider hit the ground, head rolling separately through the mire.
Hormud swung a hand high in salute to the riders following, “Hail and farewell brothers”, his fist twisted into the pony’s mane as he kicked it into a mad charge for the tall grass.

3. A Magic of Sorts

“My brothers make a magic of sorts, and being sorcerers will not tread the devil grass.”
The wizard scurried from the barbarians side as far as their cover would allow.
“No, I left the Palace Gigantic with you but I will not enter that devil grass.”
“Then die here.” Hormud laughed, “As for me it doesn’t matter whether it be my kins’ arrows or demon magic. Though I’ve bested a few devils in my time I’ve never stood well against a cavalry charge.”
As though answering a challenge the horsemen crashed their cymbals along to a throaty song like rocks falling down a deep gorge.
“Here, my dagger.”
The wizard took it with trembling hands, “Better to die here under the merciful lances than fight and run. Even animal tracks turn from the edge of the devil grass.”
Hormud plucked a handful of grass, chewed, and jabbed it into into his ragged wound.
“Well then, little animal, find yourself a burrow and dig in. I’ll sharpening my steel on some ungrateful bellies and then see how far it takes me against the High Air. Off with you to make peace with the spirits, maybe they’ll welcome you as their own.”
He leapt to his feet, bow in hand, strung with the gut of a tiger and bound in its skin, shouting the Demarcation of Heritage and singing his challenge as the first arrow flew. The riders flattened against their ponies necks only to be pinned together, screaming in their dying. He was wise to their tricks.
“Howl for us, though I think your horse has a sweeter voice.”
The arrows flew two heart beats apart, made faster by the rumble of charging hooves.

2. A Thorn's Curse

Hormud crouched behind the dense thicket and swore into a week’s thickness of beard.
“Ape-thing,” he snapped at the twisted man crawling feebly through the water beside him, “ are your monkey hands too weak to snap off an arrow?”
He held out his arm, making the arrow head pushing through the flesh of his shoulder apparent.
“No. What use is pulling the arrow?”, he whined into the muck, “Your shit-eating kin are behind us-”
“A thorn’s curse upon the treacherous animals, I hold an empty hand in friendship and they answer me by biting it.”
“-and in front of us,” he pulled himself into a ball, pressing against the sharp thicket as arrows whisked through the grass, “the High Air.”
The young barbarian hissed through his teeth and sat down beside the man “You sorcerers are a pitiful breed to fear the magic you make.”
He set his mud caked fingers upon the arrow head, “I make my own magic”, the arrow tore through him and out in a spatter of gore, his eyes never leaving the sorcerer’s, “and I do not fear it.”.

1. Sons of the Bear God

The harsh dawn sun prodded among the coverts of fir and ceder catching the flicker of iron as the riders drove their ponies on with the flats of their blades. A ragged line staggered up the foothills, hooves beating out a muted melody to the boom-boom boom-di-boom of drums and clashing cymbals. Shouts echoed from the scouts ahead and a pillar of dust curled up between the trees for miles around as the vast column broke into a gallop.
Ahead of the riders’ charge the forest thinned to a narrow beach of underbrush against the Fulgren Sea, endless grass marked with plumes of flowers to beyond the horizon. The ponies caught the smell before the men, causing them to paw at the damp verge, tossing and snorting in fear of the foul stench creeping out of the marsh, dank and rotten. They didn’t push them as even they, soldiers and used to the smell of death, had covered their mouths with rank skins and looked to their brothers for reassurance, secretly curling their fingers around whatever pocket gods each carried. So distracted were they that it took them time to notice the man running through the unbroken grass, looking as though adrift in a hidden boat.
“If our good arrows don’t find him then the Wind Devils of the High Air will.”

The Palace Gigantic

The seven towers of the Palace Gigantic were silent except for the pak pak pak of bare feet on wet stone.
"Little monkey wizard, you have run out of tricks and Hormud is here."
Exhaustion sounded in his voice, but it served to break the tension of walking through the fresh offerings of the Tower of Awesome Carnage. He almost missed the distant screams of sacrifice, replaced by the lap and splash  of their blood running in lazy streams down the stairs and walls. The entire city had turned out to offer anyone they could spare in their efforts to silence the gods.
A new sound, movement, from a nearby offering.
"The priests must be getting sloppy in their hurry, for you to survive their sacred mysteries."
After a moment of thought Hormud hacked at the source of this noise, "No good will find you after today, so I offer you a shorter future."
The body, head cleaved from neck, was pushed aside as a beaked priest launched himself from under it, gripping his side and screaming obscene secrets even as his blood spread and mingled with his congregation.
"Your little birds should hide better or they risk dulling my sword to uselessness on their hollow bones."
Running his thumb along the edge of his blade, it was indeed dull. Instinctively he went to wipe the blood away until realising the pointlessness of it in that place.
"Wizard, I'll still have my hands, and I will take your heart regardless."

Things what I wrote

These are some of the little things I do to fill in the gaps between big things, I do maybe three of four of them a day so my arms don't fall off from disuse. I'll post any that can survive unaided while separated from my head. It's a hard life for fiction.


He walked as he would to the noose, the snow blinding him to his destination yet he would find it with dignity.
Her voice came from behind the cutting storm, "You will lay with me", carried along the wind and over the roar.
"I have too far to go before I sleep."
The storm died, parting the snow as a curtain pushed aside by her cold hand as she came to him, "I believe you, there is nothing to prove, least of all to me. Save this and future pain."
The sun, hidden for so long, was low but its heat found him. She walked beside him in silence for so long, her arm in his, walking towards the meagre sun. The warmth opened his eyes but the cold was in his bones.
"Lay with me," Her hand cool against his cheek, her breath, the last frost of winter on the hills of home.
Stopping for the first time since entering the frozen desert, he gripped her shoulders, "I wish nothing greater, but I am not ready. Come for me when I am a man, pull me from the sword of my conqueror and I will lay with you."
And he left her there as the curtain came down.