Excerpt | A Peasant Pledges His Life to a King

This is a preview of my upcoming short story “A Peasant Pledges His Life to a King”. Title and content are subject to change in editing.

A Peasant Pledges His Life to a King

AZRAEL GAZED upon the crimson velvet baldachin draped high over the throne, its gold tassels and garnishing alight in the flickering flames from torches mounted along the walls. From a dome ceiling of wooden coffers gilded with gold leaf hung an enormous bronze and crystal chandelier upon which so many candles burned they gave the impression of a single glowing orb—or had Azrael’s eyes glazed over at the sight of King Ubel?

At the bottom of the steps, two sentinels in plated armor crossed their swords to bar Azrael’s passage. He stopped, his final footstep echoing from the stone walls and pillars to call forth an utter and deathly silence. A sweet, balsamic scent lingered in the air, though no incense burned and the origin of the smell eluded him.

His journey had been long and arduous and lonely, rowing across the Sea of Memories, riding a stubborn gelding through the rocky hills and cliffs of Death’s Passage, losing the horse to the depths of the Sorrow Swamplands, and finally enjoying reprieve at Hope Springs before approaching the gates of Ubel’s Kingdom, taluses on either side slippery with moss, archers at the battlements high on the crenelated walls surrounding the bailey, from which he could faintly hear the chattering of lords and ladies at market, the squeal of wagon wheels, the neighing of cart horses.

Azrael had traveled far to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the chance for a peasant to compete in the Knight’s Tournament and win a pouch of gold, a dozen roses, and an audience with the king himself.

Now, at last, he peered between two crossed swords and met King Ubel’s squinted ocean-blue eyes.

Ubel shot a glance at Sir Donovan, Head of the King’s Guard, and spoke with a raspy voice and slurred words. “Are we about done with this shit, Don? I’ve got a little prima nocta waitin’ for me in my quarters. Beautiful young lady. She walks down the aisle tomorrow mornin’, and by God it’s my kingly duty to make sure she walks funny.”

The king laughed and backhanded Sir Donovan’s chest, gauntlet clanking against the metal eagle emblem on his leather cuirass, which he wore over a chainmail hauberk. Sir Donovan was otherwise unarmored, though the other knights of the guard wore full plated suits to intimidate those who came to address the king.

“The peasant Azrael is the last in line today, your majesty,” Sir Donovan said.

King Ubel turned back to Azrael with a grimace. “A dirty peasant comes before me? Tell me who let this happen so I can chop off his head.”

Sir Donovan cleared his throat, then said, “This is the peasant who won the jousting match at the Knight’s Tournament three moons ago.”

“Oh,” King Ubel said, eyes lighting up with recognition. “So you’re that mysterious fellow who came forth with a homemade lance and no armor and killed one of my best men.”

“I am, your majesty,” Azrael said, bowing his head as he spoke.

“Well shit. That was quite a show you put on. How I do love a good surprise, though I must say it’s an act of treason for a piece of lowborn scum like yourself to kill a knight. I ought to have you executed right here and now.”

“If it pleases the king,” Azrael said.

King Ubel shifted in his seat, leather cushion squealing beneath him. He raised a golden goblet to his lips and slurped several gulps of its contents, never taking his eyes off Azrael. “You’re from the Drearyn Hills, aren’t you?”

“Correct, your majesty.”

“Am I good or what?” the king asked his head of the guard.

“Impressive, my king,” Sir Donovan said.

“I’ve got an eye for it.” King Ubel sneered at Azrael. “That rotten olive skin of yours gave you away. I can smell the goat piss on that tattered smock you’re wearing. I’d bet all the gold in my teeth your father is a farmer.”

“Yes, your majesty. He was.”

“Was?”

“He’s dead, my—”

“And your mother,” the king interjected, “is some kitchen wench he bought off an innkeep—or maybe she’s a whore.” A smirk crept onto Ubel’s face as he awaited Azrael’s response.

“Do I smell myrrh, your majesty?” Azrael asked.

The king grunted, raised his goblet, and took a drink. “I put it in my wine. Trying to ward off a toothache. I’m surprised you can smell anything besides your own filth, peasant. Now what do you want?”

Azrael took a knee and bowed his head once more. “Your majesty, I come before you today to pledge my life to you. To serve you in any way you see fit. To protect you, if you so desire, from foes far and wide.”

Laughter erupted and filled the throne room. Even Sir Donovan, a statue of a man, emitted a faint chuckle. It all died down when Ubel fell into a wet coughing fit.

“Protect me?” he said. “You?”

Coming soon.

Taking the Self-Publishing Plunge

I’ve finally committed to self-publishing some of my short stories, creating a mailing list, setting up my Amazon author page, all that good stuff. This is all gearing up for a bigger project: rapid release of a book series.

More details about that are forthcoming, but in the meantime, if you’d like to check out the two stories available now–Something Missing and If That Ain’t a Zombie–head on over to my Amazon Author Page.

Or if you really want to stay updated on my work, you can sign up to my newsletter to be notified of future releases.

That’s all the news for now. I plan on being much more active on this blog. Hope you decide to check out my short stories and maybe even stick around for more.

Have a good one.

Chilly Over Here in the Shade

I started this blog to post a couple excerpts from my books and make myself findable on the innernet, but that’ll get old faster’n deviled eggs at a summer cookout, so I’ve decided I’m also going to use this space to chronicle my desperate search for a literary agent.

I’m having a good time on Twitter, but mingling with writers of all levels of development and success has its downsides. Blue checkmarks and “rep’d by” in the bios. Reminds me of my teenage years, when I was the pale, chubby loner sitting in the shade watching all the pretty girls jump through the sprinklers with all the good-lookin’ guys. Like I showed up to a party but no one invited me and the occasional glare evidences the unspoken truth that I’m not wanted.

I want to join the cool kids’ club. More than that, I want to form my own club. I want to have readers all around the world, to fight my publisher until I finally give in and agree to do book signings and I show up to a packed house, then mumble my way through the event with downcast eyes and heavy anxiety. Hell, you know what I’m talking about. Riches and fame. Movie deals. Prizes. All that stuff. I’ve always been a shoot-for-the-moon type.

Last week I sent out half a dozen query letters for my serial killer novel. I pulled up a list of the Top 50 literary agencies based on the most six-figure advance deals. I’m working my way from the top down.

I haven’t heard back from any of them yet. No rejections, no full or partial requests. Don’t worry, though. I’ve checked my email ten times since I started writing this post.

Meanwhile, I’m doing what every querying writer should do: finishing up a new novel. This one is an upmarket thriller about grief, loss, small-town politics, and teenage love. I have a really good feeling about it. Of all the characters I’ve created over the years, these feel the most authentic, and I wholeheartedly believe a reader could become attached. Especially to Reagan. She’s quite the troublemaker. In a good way.

Anyway, I won’t keep you. I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than read the ramblings of a dumb, hopeful country boy like me. I appreciate you taking the time out of your tweet browsing to read this post. You’re a rare one, and if you’ve been jumping through the sprinklers with the others, it’s probably getting pretty chilly over here in the shade.

Get on outta here. I’ll catch you later.

Pretend, First Chapter of a Novel

This is an excerpt from an unpublished novel.

Trevor,

I want you to move out.  You can have the vacation money.  I’m staying with a friend until you find somewhere to go.  I just can’t take it anymore.

  Emily

-note-

HE READS the note over and over, studying each word for meaning and intent.  There are only four sentences, not even one for every year they’ve been together—not even by half.  She must have come home sometime early this morning and tiptoed into the bedroom so as not to wake the monster from his slumber, for fear that he might ask why she didn’t come home from work yesterday.

I want you to move out.

Reading this feels like getting shoved from behind.  The handwriting is sloppy. When she takes her time she can write beautifully, but if she’s in a hurry it’s like the scrawl on a prescription.  Expulsion, banishment, rejection, all with unlimited refills. He reads the words in the tone of her parents. When she talks to them they’ll probably say, “Finally, Emily.  Finally.”

You can have the vacation money.

She planned this.  Three months ago. It was the first week of April when she proposed the idea of saving money for a vacation, something they never did together.  Trevor has never been on a real vacation, and she knows that. His childhood adventures consisted of camping twice at Land Between the Lakes, a trip to Dollywood that he was too young to remember, and a planned vacation to Gulf Shores canceled at the halfway point because one of his sisters got sick, resulting in a one-night stay at a motel outside Huntsville and an uneventful hour at the rest stop on the Tennessee-Alabama line, where they ate lunch at a picnic table and gazed up at the big rocket before the anti-climactic trip home.

The vacation was her idea.  They agreed to start putting back fifty bucks per shift out of Trevor’s nightly tips.  For the next three months he had never been happier to dive into the weeds making drinks and serving up slices of New York-style pizza, knowing his reward would be a warm beach, an endless expanse of ocean, and perhaps, on a daring evening, Emily lying naked in the moonlight, waves lapping at her feet.

Now two-thousand dollars sits in an envelope in the back of her underwear drawer, two-thirds of the goal, money that was never meant to finance a vacation but rather a deposit and first month’s rent on an apartment, with a little left over for used furniture, toiletries, and groceries.

I’m staying with a friend until you find somewhere to go.

A friend.  Not Sarah, not her sister Alice.  Just a friend. If it’s a friend he knows, she would have given a name.

“A friend,” he says through a fit of coughing.  His mouth is sticky and the headache he woke up with is intensifying fast.  He’s pretty sure he drank the entire fifth of bourbon last night, having not eaten all day.

Trevor grabs his pants off the floor and slips them on lying down.  Then he sits up and works his feet into his shoes without bothering to untie them first.  There’s broken glass all over the kitchen floor, dishes and the bourbon bottle. Passing through the living room he learns that he broke the TV last night too.

He makes a pot of coffee and smokes a cigarette on the front porch, staring at the oil stain in the driveway, a remnant of the Volvo, which they had hauled off to a junkyard two years ago.

When the coffee is ready he fills up his Stanley thermos.  Then he starts packing, taking only what’s his: laptop, books he knows she won’t want to read, his clothes, his CDs.  Most of what they own they own together. He thinks about collecting one towel, one wash cloth, one fork, one knife, one spoon, one glass, one bowl, one pot, and one pan, but everything is a complete set.  If he’s going to take one of any set he knows she would rather he take it all.

He has to take the money though.  And to get to it he has to push aside her underwear—thongs and lacy bras—and think about the word friend.

On top of the dresser is a framed photograph of them together.  It’s not professional. She had it printed at an office supply store and framed it herself.  They’re sitting on a bench and she has her head on his shoulder. A homeless man took the photo using Emily’s phone.  Trevor gave him five bucks for the trouble.

He loads up the trunk and back seat of his Cadillac with garbage bags and a couple of boxes.  Pulling down the driveway he hears a chime and glances at his phone. It’s Jack’s chat head image: UK letters, white against a blue backdrop.  Jack and Sarah just closed on a house. They’re supposed to be having a housewarming party this week, and Jack’s probably messaging to see if he’s still coming in spite of the circumstances.

At least he assumes he gets precedence over Emily, since he and Jack have been friends since childhood.  Or maybe they don’t know yet—or do and still want both Emily and him to attend.

Unread messages and unchecked notifications and unanswered phone calls have piled up since yesterday morning.  Two voicemails from his mom, lots of chimes from social media apps, and texts from several friends he only talks to when there’s some occasion to attend, or a random invitation to hang out, meet up, go see the new movie they both instinctively know the other is anticipating.  Word has obviously spread. He wonders how many people knew it was coming—the educated guesses and the ones who kept her secret for her, perhaps even facilitated her infidelity, if there was any. Friend.

As he turns onto the street, Trevor tosses his phone in the passenger seat floor board.  His brain is foggy. He feels like he’s still only half awake. The farther away he gets from the house the more it hits home that she’s gone.  He’s driving a little too fast, failing to come to a complete stop at STOP signs, determined to get to some place unfamiliar, some place not besmirched by the memory of her.  Yet part of him wants to turn around, go back home, try to get in touch with her.

When he turns onto the main road, the phone slides across the floor mat and hits the door.  He hopes the screen cracked. He drives away from his neighborhood brimming with anger and salacious thoughts.  In his mind he pictures some of the photos on his phone, random snapshots of their life together: Emily sitting in a booth with her hands wrapped around a pilsner of some foamy chocolate stout; a selfie she took in the car with his phone—sunglasses and earbuds and a white tank top and a ponytail; Christmas morning four years ago, sitting in front of the tree in a snowflake-patterned onesie; soaked head to toe in rain after a concert at Iroquois Amphitheater; sunbathing in a bikini beside her aunt’s pool; a family of groundhogs she found at Cherokee Park, another picture she took herself, though in this one she only appears as a shadow on the ground.

I just can’t take it anymore.

The Margins of Lacey Pruitt’s Arc

This is an excerpt from an unpublished novel.

When the day arrived it brought an amendment to the unusual cold of the month.  The air was sticky, the sun intense and sweltering. In the distance the hills were tinted gray through the haze.

Phil’s shirt was pasted to his chest.  He stood by the benches pretending to warm his muscles with stretching.  He jogged in place for a moment, waiting for Lacey Pruitt to round the turn.  She passed by and he allowed her an advantage of one hundred meters before setting off down the center lane of the track.

For two laps he closed the gap between them gradually, orchestrated conditions so that he drew ahead of her just as they raced along the benches.  He offered a brief wave as he passed.

“Hi,” said the girl.

Phil counted down from five in his head.  Then he tripped himself and went sprawling across the painted cement, tumbling, grating skin from his knee and shin and elbow.  He let out a cry and sat wincing and holding his leg from under the knee.

Lacey Pruitt gasped and came to a stop and leaned over him breathing heavily, hands on her thighs.

“Jesus, mister, are you okay?”

“What a spill,” said Phil.

“Oh goodness.  That looks bad.”

“Yeah, I just . . .”  He began to rise, staggered, flopped back down.

“Do you need some help?”

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he said.  He climbed to his feet with seeming difficulty.  “Thank you though.”

He stumbled over and dropped onto the bench.  The girl followed.

“Want me to see if the school nurse is still here?”

“No, that’s very sweet of you.  I don’t want to interrupt your run.  I’ll be all right.”

“I can’t just leave you here,” Lacey said.  She sat down beside him. “I saw a girl get a hairline fracture from falling like that.”

“Let me just sit for a moment,” he said.

“Okay.  Can I get you anything?”

“You wouldn’t have water by chance.”

“Sure.”

The girl sprang up and ran over to a gym bag near the locker room building.  He watched her. Ponytail bouncing. The eagerness to do good deeds. It radiated from her like a foul smell.  She rummaged through the bag and ran back to him and held out a bottle.

“Thank you,” Phil said.  He drank and handed it back.  Then he said, “You know I think you’re right.  A trip to the doctor is certainly in order.”

“I bet the nurse is still here.”

“I wouldn’t want to hold her up,” he said.  “I’ll clean my leg when I get home and in the morning Doc Higgins will probably send me for an X-ray.”

“Hurts, doesn’t it?”

“Yes ma’am.  Though not as much as the first time I fell on this track.”

“I haven’t seen you running here before.”

“My normal schedule sets me out at four in the morning.  I run to town and take four laps around the track before turning home.  It works out to fourteen miles.”

“You run that much every day?”

“Not on Saturday or Sunday.”

“Still.  It’s impressive.”

“I almost missed it today.  My little girl woke up with the flu this morning so I kept her out of school.  I hated to leave her with a babysitter this afternoon, the poor thing.”

“Where’s her mother?”

“I’m afraid she passed away last year.”

“Oh, I’m so so sorry.”

“It’s okay, you didn’t know,” he said.  “I remember when we first started dating in high school.  She lived clear across the county. Every Sunday after church we would both set out running and meet up together at the bridge down past the square.  She always beat me there, but there was one day . . . we arrived at the same time. Running to one another. And when I slowed down she sped up and jumped into my arms and kissed me on the cheek and hugged me.”

The girl was smiling.  “That’s really sweet,” she said.  “So did you run track for this school?”

“Several years ago.  It’s funny that I fall and hurt myself the last time I’ll ever see this track.”

“What do you mean?”

Phil was quiet for a moment.  “Oh, I’m sorry, I believe I lost myself to another memory for a moment.  I’m moving away is my point. This was to be my final lap here.” He stopped and looked around.

“That’s terrible,” Lacey said.

“I suppose I’m a bit sentimental.”  He ducked his head and nodded, then twisted his skinned knee and raised the leg and bent it slowly several times.

“You can tell me about your memory,” said the girl.

Phil smiled but did not look up.  “Well. It was a track meet my senior year.  I was ahead by a full lap, if you can believe it.  We were undefeated for the season. I was seconds away from the finish line when I took a spill just like this one.  I was shocked and embarrassed and I wanted to get up, but damn did it hurt. And my opponents were closing in on me.”  He looked up at Lacey and he turned to face her. “It was a home meet and so the crowd was roaring,” he said. “In just a moment they would idolize me or they would condemn me for life.  I just had to win. You know that feeling. When you’re in agony and your muscles are burning hot and it’s neck and neck and something just pushes you through it because you can’t come this close and not triumph.”

“Oh, you bet,” said the girl.

“So I forced myself off the ground and I hobbled over to the finish just as the boy in second place position caught up with me.  It was so close the judges announced a postponement in the final decision, pending the development of the finish line photograph.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, and the next day a story was published in the newspaper declaring me the winner.  When I came to school the following morning, dozens and dozens of people from all over town were waiting there and when I stepped off the bus they cheered for me and my classmates were arriving one by one and they all joined in.  I tell you Lacey. It was. A remarkable feeling.”

“Wait,” she said. “How do you know my name?”

“Sports enthusiast.  I follow the progress of all the county’s promising athletes.”

“Aww. Really?”

“That’s actually why I’m moving.  I was offered a job recruiting for the University of Kentucky.  Keep at it and you might be looking at a scholarship in a year or two.”

“Oh my goodness.”  She cupped her hands over her mouth.

“I see national meets in your future.”

“Wow. Thank you. So much.”

Phil waved a hand and looked away.  Then he said, “You know what. It behooves me to not leave home without completing this one last lap.”

He stood and feigned a grimace.  The girl jumped up and locked her hands around his bicep to brace him.

“Do you think you can make it?”

“Only one way to find out.”  He turned on the track and said, “Would you like to run the final lap with me?”

The girl smiled and trotted out to him, inhibitions forgotten, ponytail bouncing.  “Somebody’s gotta catch you if you fall and hurt yourself again.”

When the lap was near completion he cried out and slowed down.  Lacey pulled ahead but looked back and stopped. He slowed his gait and when he caught up to her she walked alongside him.

“It’s going to be a long walk home,” he said.

“Oh goodness, I didn’t even think of that.  Would you like a ride? I have my dad’s car.”

****

At the cliff’s edge he put her on her feet and hooked his left arm around her breast and hefted her up and slit a gaping hole in her abdomen and led her mulish and thrashing to the ledge. In her efforts she kicked rocks and sent them splashing down into the creek pool and these were the last sounds she heard before her neck snapped, eruptions somewhere in the vast darkness below.

A wind blew in from the south, forming a great wave of shaking leaves in the treetops, and suddenly a darkness rushed through the woods as though something gigantic were passing overhead.

Phil lay down on his belly and crawled up to the ledge and peered over.  The body swung back and forth like a pendulum.

“You’ll believe anything I tell you,” he said, and then he reached down and grabbed hold of the rope and pulled at it to widen the margins of Lacey Pruitt’s arc.

Phil Tells Brittany a Bedtime Story

This is an excerpt from an unpublished novel. Steal a word of it and I’ll find you. Enjoy.

In the evening he put the girl to bed.  Marley had spent the afternoon in his bedroom, refusing to come to the kitchen when he called her for dinner.

“Does your mother read to you at bedtime?”

“My mom can’t read,” the girl said.

“Does she tell you stories?”

“No.”

“Would you like me to tell you a story?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know the tale of Hansel and Gretel?”

“No.”

“Would you like to hear it?”

“Yes.”

“I won’t swear to the fine points,” he said, sitting at the edge of the bed, “but in short there lived in some place or another a mother, a father, and two children whose names were Hansel and Gretel. They were destitute.  Poor, I suppose I should say. The mother was housemaster, the father a simpleton.” He paused and was smiling. Brittany did not show confusion, either understanding his words or glossing over those she didn’t.  “The mother in her wisdom determined for her sake and the sake of her husband that the children must be banished. So the father led the children into the woods and left them there. They were lost.”

“Lost in the woods,” the girl said.

“Yes, I suppose you can commiserate.”

She nodded.

Phil continued.  “They set out, Hansel and Gretel, to find their way home, but like you they had no sense of direction.  They drifted without gain through the foreboding dark. At dusk they came suddenly upon an old scary house, where lived an old woman so harebrained and hideous she seemed like a wild creature. She was a hunchback, toothless, her clothes ragged and soiled, her hair in tangles, her fingernails long and jagged and yellow.  She spoke with a wet rattle in her voice. Like this. But the children were laden with hunger and the old woman lured them into the house with candy and the warmth of the fire.”

“Is she—is she a bad guy?”

“A very bad guy. She ate them.”

“She ate Hansel and Gretel?”

“She locked Gretel away and cooked Hansel in the stove and when the meat ran out she cooked Gretel and ate her as well.”

Dear Literary Agent

Dear Literary Agent,

This is my first blog post, my first major public appeal for representation. You might have seen my Dear Literary Agent tweets on Twitter, but so far none of you have wised up and come callin’, so I thought I’d make it easier on you. I know you agents like email. Well, saddle your horses. My contact form provides direct passage to the best decision you ever made.

I am seeking representation for a shitload of novels. Though I have had an agent before, I’ve never actively queried up until recently. My former agent just so happened to read a book that I self-published under a different name long, long ago, and she contacted me out of the blue. What’s that mean for you? It means you’re looking at an untested, untainted, unfettered farrier of fantastic fiction. Now I know what you’re thinkin’. Farriers shoe horses. Well horse shoes are good luck, and so are my manuscripts. Let’s make a couple million and have a drink to celebrate.

Come follow Phil the serial killer as he raises an adopted family deep in the Kentucky woods from the late 50s to the late 60s.

Come follow seventeen-year-old Charlie as he tries to convince his small town that he’s not responsible for a rash of local disappearances.

Come follow Trevor as the line between fantasy and reality blurs after his fiance leaves him and his life starts falling apart.

I could go on, but I know you’re chomping at the bit to get in touch. Rein in your excitement and save it for submissions, dear literary agent.

I’m waitin’ for you.

Sincerely,

Kyle Anthony

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