I thought it was high time for another short story filled with Copper and blood. Sometimes you can’t face your current work in process and prompts are a good method of taking your writing down a different path. Often than not, they tend to wander back to familiar territory.
This short story began with the prompt ‘Sorry I’m late.’ It let me take the male main character from my current WIP and lead him down another path, in this case, his past. Short stories help me flesh out characters and in this instance, Artan’s backstory. Here I write a significant skirmish he’s involved in during the civil war, fifteen years earlier, and introduces his own mentor. He’s no longer a warrior but he will have to fight again in my WIP and this allowed me to play with the type of character he was and perhaps still is at heart.
They don’t have to be perfect stories. It’s material you can refer back to and a means to get into the heads of your characters. I have in mind a key scene which happens off page and from my antagonist’s POV, which the reader never sees. The antagonist is rarely an evil entity. It’s interesting to question how the story would read if written in the eyes of the antagonist and helps make them believable.
Do you use prompts to help with your writing?
Blood and Copper
The guards waved him through the gate and he trotted his horse along the sodden trackway to the large tent in the centre of the encampment. Copper snorted at his dismount, happy to no longer carry her owner. The mare bowed her head and tugged at a small piece of turf which had yet to be churned into the mud.
He patted Copper fondly, ‘Hay, water and a warm stable for you tonight,’ he promised. A dry spot near the fire would be a welcoming place to rest his own weary body. He’d had enough of this rain, which fell steadily, drumming on his riding coat and sneaked down his collar. There were a few more hours of daylight left but the heavy cloud cover meant torches were already burning. They smoked and hissed whenever the fat raindrops found them.
A guard outside the tent escorted him inside and he found three men pouring over various maps and paperwork on a large table at the centre.
“Artan Belsham. The messenger from Sinder’s company.” The guard announced and all three men looked at him expectantly.
“Belsham? They said you’d arrive yesterday.”
Artan forced his tired body to stand straight, which only drew attention to the fact he was a head higher than any other man there. “Sorry I’m late,” keeping his gaze focused on the right temple of the man who’d spoken, he continued, “the snow’s early. Llanatus pass is becoming treacherous. No doubt the rain here will be falling as snow there. I should warn you now, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to use the route again until spring.” The fire and lanterns made the tent uncomfortably warm. A trickle of sweat, or perhaps a drop of rainwater, edged along his temple.
Artan handed over the sealed message to the man who opened it and began to read, his lips moved silently. There was an awkward silence as he read the message and Artan tried to look as stone-faced as he could muster. He’d already had an earful from his own superior for making direct eye contact at him.
“Why’d you do that, you idiot?” Foreman had rolled his eyes and put his head in his hands when Artan told him. Well, grumbled and sulked if he was being honest. “I need to knock some sense into that thick skull of yours before some axe wielding bastard cleaves it in half.”
Before the war, Foreman had been a warrior to Lord Elmsworth ever since he had the muscle to pick up a sword. Artan had in his head a warrior would be tall, strong and proud. Foreman, on first appearances, was a madman. Eyes slightly too wide open, a face more scar tissue than beard. Average height and a body all muscle and sinew, and covered in intricate patterns of ink, put there by a long lost lover.
The two of them had been side by side in Artan’s first shield wall. Something happened in the madness of battle. In a heartbeat between the fray, their eyes met and each saw an odd reflection of themselves in the other. Joy! The joy of battle. The exhilaration of power over life and death. The rhythm of what he’d been trained to do and the ease of which they proceeded across the battlefield. Joy, yet tinged with the shame and the belief a man should not find such pleasures in killing. After the hangover of battle, Foreman had shared with Artan his friendship and wisdom.
“Now, if the idiot would care to listen for a moment.” Foreman paused. He always did when he believed his next words would be important. ‘If you want to survive the enemy then go for the throat. If you want to survive your superiors then listen carefully.” Foreman accentuated each point by jabbing a grubby index finger into his chest. “Don’t look them in the eye. Keep answers brief and if possible, don’t say anything at all!” Inside Artan smiled at the memory but on the outside, he appeared as if he felt nothing at all.
His thoughts drifted on the return journey. He’d have to take the alternative route back to camp. Another four extra days travel and the weather showed no sign of improving. That bastard, Sinder! Putting him on messenger duty. Carrying letters was a task for dullards who didn’t know one end of a sword to the other. Artan wanted to fight.
The man now passed the letter to his two associates to read. Artan knew what the letter would say. Sinder had sealed it so he couldn’t read it but he knew.
“Sinder’s secured Collaton. That’s the news we were hoping for.” Artan just stared ahead.
I did, Artan’s thoughts clamoured what he wanted to tell the men before him. I secured Collaton and won that bloody battle. Sinder had put us down on the bloody Levels. We’d have been up to our waists in silt and flood water and the enemy would’ve slaughtered us.
Normally, he held quite a high esteem for his superiors but Sinder was the brother of a very rich and exceptionally intelligent tactician. Attributes which appeared to have skipped Sinder the younger completely. Every hardened warrior saw the stupidity of their position but it was Artan who voiced it the loudest and Artan who they rallied behind. So it was Artan who received the punishment and now he was delivering letters of a victory where his name had been omitted. The kingdom had been so solid a year ago. All it took was an heirless dead King to rock the foundations and bring the whole thing crashing down.
“You can confirm it?” The third gentleman asked, peering from the letter over thin spectacles.
“Yes, sir. Sinder was quick to realise the dangers of positioning his men in the Levels at this time of year, especially with the recent amount of rainfall. The men were moved northeast to higher ground.” Perhaps Sinder hoped he’d try and reason with the three men and tell them Sinder was a useless bastard. Artan knew they wouldn’t believe him and he also knew where it would lead. Foreman had taught him well and he bit his lip.
The man peered at one of the maps on the table to get a sense of his bearings. “To Calmady? The terrain there is bad, if not worse.”
“It played to our advantage, sir. Most of the enemy were on horseback and there was enough open ground for a shield wall.” Calmady was a gradual slope leading towards Rollstone Moor; a bumpy terrain full of tussocks, peppered by giant boulders and a scree slope cascading down from the tor at its peak. The shield wall wasn’t a particularly good one but it was better than drowning in heavy mail in the Levels. They were lucky the horsemen had been so lightly armed. Casualties were high on both sides but they’d emerged the victor.
“This is good gentlemen. Belsham, stable your horse and go to the mess tent. I will have another message for you to take to Sinder by the morning.”
“Understood. Thank you, sir.” The three men went back to their maps and Artan ducked outside. The rain fell heavier and by the time he’d stabled Copper and found the mess tent his clothes were soaked through. The next set of wages will be put to a new coat but Sinder wasn’t renowned for paying his men promptly.
The food was bland but the conversation made up for it. He even got a mug of beer, but there never appeared to be enough to get drunk on. Pulling out his tattered deck of cards he gambled and finished with an agreeable winning streak before retiring to the bunk he’d been shown. As he put his deck away he noticed the unopened letter still in his satchel. Sophia cried when he told her he planned to fight. She didn’t understand why her older brother had to go away.
“It’s my duty,” he told her. But it wasn’t the real reason and the reason why he hadn’t opened her letter. Sophia had made no mention of it yet but in her sporadic letters, he feared she may do without realising the significance it held to him. Turning the envelope over in his hands he reluctantly began to tear open the seal.
A scream rang out into the night. The blood-curdling cry of a man who’s soul had been torn from his body by steel. Before the cry had silenced, Artan strapped on his own swords and dashed out into the night. Men marched ahead but no one panicked. The men drilled for warfare daily and a warriors actions were intuitive and he followed the group, silently cursing his lack of armour. He wore only light leathers and had no shield. At least he had his swords and a horse.
Copper greeted him and sensed the building commotion, eager to escape the stable. He’d no time to saddle her and rode bareback holding on with his thighs and resting his free hand on her mane. The other held Tempest, his longsword. Her name suited this night as the storm had only intensified and far in the distance, lightning flashed and thunder rumbled, deep across the earth.
Lightning barely lit the sky behind the storm clouds. The sheet flashes silhouetted the line of the enemy shield wall across the hill. Their own wall came to greet it and the noise of the two sides crashing together reverberated louder than the storm. The noise of bloodshed filled the air and in the next flash, he saw the enemy line had broken. They’d expected to take the camp by surprise but the men had been prepared and Artan kicked Copper into full gallop and screamed his own war cry. The shield wall crumbled and he drove Copper straight through it, knocking over the men who stood in her path. Cutting Tempest down it caught a man in the chest. Copper kept going and each time Artan found an enemy Tempest sang and the man she touched rained blood.
Copper responded to his touch and turned, galloping back towards the broken line. Artan’s eyes searched ahead. He never saw the spearman to his left and Copper screamed and reared. The spear lodged deep in his mare’s neck and Copper threw him to the sodden ground. Tempest fell from his grip and as he dragged himself upright to retrieve the blade a heavy boot kicked him squarely in the ribs and he rolled onto his back. Lightning flashed overhead, profiling the warrior who loomed over. The heavy boot stamped firmly on his chest, crushing the air from his lungs as the warrior leant his weight into it.
Artan couldn’t see his attacker. The face obscured by the helmet, stylised like a snarling bear. Tempest lay out of reach but he still had her sister blade, Squall. Drawing the short sword he thrust it up between the heavy mail into the man’s groin and twisted the blade, grunting at the effort. Artan sensed the man’s surprise and a strange mewing noise escaped his throat as he slumped sideways, shuddering a final breath.
Pulling himself upright he tugged Squall from the dead man’s body and retrieved Tempest. The fighting had died down and he only killed two more men until they claimed victory. The rain eased and the smudge of dawn appeared on the horizon as the cloud dispersed.
Another small victory, Artan thought, noticing his sword hand shook uncontrollably. He gulped in air, but the action proved painful. Finding Copper, he wrenched the spear from her throat and crouched beside her. Weak legs trembled from riding bareback. Her body still warm as he stroked her fondly. Mud and blood watered down by the rain tarnished her beautiful coat. Copper’s sleek, brown coat shone like her namesake in the midday summer sun. For her to die in such a wretched, dank place made his heart sink. The battle lust fled and all which remained was the thought of how close to death he’d been.
Three houses declared they had right to rule after the last Kind died. How long would this bitter civil war last until one became victorious? It didn’t matter now. In a few hours, he’d have a message to deliver back to camp. To that useless bastard, Sinder. Eight long days on the road. No, it would be much longer, for he didn’t have a horse.