Tag: Countdown

Three Months To Go…

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Wow! It’s only three months until SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB comes out in paperback, and also three months until THE EMPEROR OF MARS comes out in hardcover! (That’s July 18th, 2017 for those of you reading this in the future.) There was a time when I thought this was never going to actually happen, and now suddenly the books are going to come out after all.

Pre-order the paperback of SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB: Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes and Noble

Pre-order the hardcover of THE EMPEROR OF MARS: Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes and Noble

Or buy the hardcover of SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB now: Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes and Noble

The good news is that we should be in America pretty soon after the books come out, and Steph will have her US version of THE DRAGON WITH A CHOCOLATE HEART out just a little earlier, so we’re thinking about doing a joint launch party in East Lansing for our books. Keep an eye out, and we’ll announce it when we pin down the details…

Also, I’ll be giving away a SIGNED ARC of THE EMPEROR OF MARS via Goodreads next week. Watch out for that, too.

Now, back to writing my next book. The words won’t wait. :)

Secret Countdown: Meet the Characters

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One Day To Go

Yep, yep, yep. SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB is out tomorrow, January 12th, 2016!

If you pre-ordered it from Book Depository or Amazon or somewhere else, your book should be on its way to you already! Keep an eye on your mailbox.

Today, I thought it would be a great time to meet the characters of SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB.

Edward’s Family

Edward Sullivan – our hero

“I was hanging from a rope, fifty feet up the side of a great pillar of red Martian rock, with my arms buried in a sopping curtain of tanglemoss and bury-beetles trying to build a hill over my head…”

All 12-year-old Edward Sullivan wants is to be left in peace to read his Thrilling Martian Tales magazine. Instead he has to keep his chaotic family from disaster. And when disaster does strike, he is the one who will have to save them all.

Putty

“I’ve had lots of practice waking people up. It’s one of my specialties.”

Edward’s little sister, Parthenia (Putty), is incredibly enthusiastic and as impressionable as wet putty. Like their father, she is a genius, but she rarely keeps her attention on anything for more than a day or two at a time.

Cousin Freddie

“A man who starts the day without a kipper is a man who will feel like a smoked fish until bedtime! So says Plato, or, er, someone.”

Cousin Freddie is a well-known but well-meaning idiot. But when he — literally — crashes in, everything starts to descend into chaos. Freddie is up to something, and Edward needs to find out what before it’s too late.

Olivia

“What if someone sees us? What would they think?”

Edward’s middle sister, Olivia, is the most proper person he has ever met. How will she cope when she finds herself in the middle of the Martian wilderness, far away from civilization?

Papa

“You know, none of my family have shown the slightest interest in the device. I had once hoped that Edward might follow me, but…”

Papa is a genius, there’s no doubt. He’s the most successful mechanician on Mars, and his wild inventions have changed both Earth and Mars. It’s just a shame he doesn’t have a little more time for Edward.

Mama

“They called me the Crystal Rose of Tharsis, you know. Every young gentleman admired me.”

Mama was once one of Society’s most adored young ladies, hosting salons that were the envy of Tharsis City and with a host of admirers. But when her father gambled away the family fortune, nobody wanted to know her anymore and she has never quite recovered from the snub.

Jane

“It is remarkably handsome. Is that the latest London style, Cousin Freddie?”

Edward’s oldest sister, Jane, is possibly the sweetest person on Mars, but as far as Edward can tell, she’s never had a single thought in her head that isn’t about fashion or young men.

Other Characters

Sir Titus Dane

“My business carries me to Mars so infrequently that, when I found myself in the area, I could not resist the temptation of taking a slight diversion to pay my respects to one of my dearest friends.”

The famous archaeologist, Sir Titus Dane, was once of Mama’s admirers but no one has seen him for ten years since he disappeared in a cloud of disgrace. So why has he turned up out of the blue and what does he want with Edward’s family?

Dr. Octavius Blood

“I always carry my rock samples with me. You never know when you might need them.”

The small geologist is obsessed with rocks, but there is more to him than meets the eye.

Other Assorted Villains and Rascals

“Grrr. Argh. Grrr.”

…are villains and rascals. The villains! The rascals!

The illustration of Edward and his family is by Jeremy Holmes. Copyright Christy Ottaviano Books.

Secret Countdown: Into the Wild

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Two Days To Go

It’s juuuuusssst two days until SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB is officially published, two short, possibly rainy (in Wales, at least) days and I was totally going to write an awesome blog entry to celebrate. But I am soooooo tired today. Too little sleep, too many things to do for too many days, and all I want to do is go to sleep.

So, lazy post alert!

With only two days to go (have I said that already…), SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB is making its way out into the world, creeping onto bookshelves with a sneaky glance over its shoulder in case anyone is looking, and showing its dragon-y face to the passers-by. Here is the proof:

This is “Secrets” in Palm Desert Barnes and Noble (photo courtesy Rich and Kathy Burgis):

Here it is in the “Little Professor Book Center” in Alabama (photo courtesy of Sara Glassman):

And, finally, here’s “Secrets”, with its shiny star, at the ALA Midwinter conference in Boston (photo courtesy of Randi Pink):

That book next to it is Paper Wishes by my fellow debut, Lois Sepahban. It came out a few days ago, and I talked about it here.

That’s it, then, guys! The book is making its tentative, shy way out into the world. If you spot it, give it a stroke and tell it all will be all right…

Oh, and as a bonus, here’s an interview I did with Kick-Butt Kidlit.

See you tomorrow!

Secret Countdown: Five Truths To Keep You Sane

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Three Days To Go

In three days, on January 12th, 2016, SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB will be published. Publishing your first book can be a pretty stressful experience. Trust me on this. You’ve worked for ages — not just the years you’ve spent on writing, rewriting, and revising this particular book, but all the writing you did before this book that wasn’t quite good enough. And now your book is finally, finally coming out. It’s going out into the world. Maybe it’ll be ignored. Maybe it’ll be hated. Maybe no one will even know it ever existed.

Yeah, boy, this is stressful.

So, if you’ve got a book being published and it’s stressing you out, here are some thoughts of comfort.

1. Someone is always doing better than you

It’s very easy to look at everyone else with a book out and to see how much better their book is doing than yours. They’re getting starred reviews from Kirkus. They have a front table display at Barnes and Noble. They are on every blogger’s list of books to be excited about. Their debut is on the bestseller lists. They have adverts in the national press. They have a thousand five star reviews on Goodreads. Their advance is twenty times what yours is.

What a failure you are. What a loser. Maybe your book wasn’t that good after all.

Yeah, but no.

Someone will always be doing better than you. Even if you’re outselling JK Rowling, someone else might be getting all the award nominations. Even if you’re getting all the award nominations, someone else is on the top of the New York Times bestseller list and you’re not.

You can’t win.

The truth is it is basic human nature to compare ourselves to those doing better than we are and not with those who are doing less well. The ones we see are the ones with the great success. But they are the exceptions. There are far more people whose success is on a par with yours and plenty who are not doing as well. Except you’re not noticing them. You’re comparing yourself with those very few who, by luck or timing or national mood, just happen to be hitting a freakish level of success.

Don’t compare yourself to them. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. There is no win in comparing. It’s a lose every time.

2. There’s nothing you can do, so don’t stress it

It’s a horrible truth, but nothing you can do will really make much difference. Yes, a signing or a school visit might sell some extra copies. Yes, a blog tour might get a few people interested. Yes, putting vast amounts of effort into social media might shift a hundred more books. Attending conferences and conventions and producing lots of swag and doing dozens of giveaways, all these can add some sales.

But they are insignificant. Compared to the number of sales that will be generated just by sitting on bookstore shelves or being ordered by libraries, what you can achieve through your own efforts is statistically small and isn’t going to make much difference to your success.

How is that comforting?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I get a certain amount zen-like calm from the idea that I have no real power over whether my book sells or not. You can fall quite easily into thinking that you’re not doing enough, that if you could just do a bit more, that would make all the difference.

It wouldn’t.

If you enjoy blogging or giveaways or social media or school visits or conventions, do them by all means! But don’t do them because you think you have to. You’re not losing out by not doing them.

Actually, I’m lying. There is one thing you can do that will make a difference. You can write the absolute best book you can. And you’ve already done that.

3. This is not the end

If the worst happens and your book isn’t a success it’s not the end.

Every writer who has a career lasting more than a few years will hit that point where a book flops and they are dropped by their publisher. I know a lot of writers who have gone out of contract. Sometimes it was their first book or first series. And every one of them has come back again after a few years and sold again. Some of them have gone on to enormous success after that commercial failure earlier in their career. Hell, even George R.R. Martin was dropped by his publisher because his book didn’t perform as expected, and he’s doing all right now.

4. Someone, somewhere bought and loved your book

Maybe none of these things help. Maybe you’re still feeling down. Maybe you didn’t get any reviews and only sold 500 copies and no one seemed to notice your book came out at all, except your family, and even they didn’t seem terribly excited.

Well, it’s not true.

Someone bought your book or checked it out from a library. Someone loved it. It spoke to someone. It mattered to someone. That is true for every book ever published. We all hope that thousands of readers will adore our books, but it’s not a failure if only one person loved it, because by giving them something they loved, you’ve changed their life for the better. If you can do that for one person, there’s no way your book failed.

5. You did it!

Yep, you did. You wrote a book and you got it published. Have you any idea how rare that is, how unlikely? Millions upon millions of people want to write a book. Millions actually do. The vast majority will never get those books published. Writing a book good enough to be published is an incredible achievement all by itself.

In all the pressure of the process of publication, we forget all too often what an amazing thing we have done.

Take time to be immensely proud. What you’ve done is special. You did it!

Secret Countdown: Free Short Story: The Land of Reeds

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Four Days To Go

Four days. Four days. Four days until SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB is published on January 12th, 2016.

I’ve always loved Ancient Egypt. I’ve visiting the remains of the civilization in modern Egypt. I love books and novels and short stories about it. I love watching documentaries. So it’s no wonder that Ancient Egypt is one of the influences on the Ancient Martian civilization in SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB.

Ancient Egypt was a wonderful, rich, and varied civilization, and though it was only an influence in SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB, it was the setting for my fantasy story, The Land of Reeds, that was published in Realms of Fantasy in February 2006, a story of revenge, ghosts, and the path to the afterlife.

With just four days to go, I thought I’d offer the pure Egyptian (fantasy) experience up for free. Enjoy!

The Land of Reeds

The dead, he had discovered, had mouths and could speak, but they could not be heard.

Or, they could not be heard by the living: the dead talked among themselves with voices of sand and dust. Amenemhet did not wish to talk to the dead. A man who has been murdered wishes to speak to those still living, to lay testament before them, to give warning.

The dead, in their crowded voices, said that Re no longer travelled through the underworld each night. They said that his face was now no more than a ball of fire in the sky. There were no more demons in the underworld, no Apep the serpent, no Amemet the great devourer, no gates, no judges, no scales. There was no Land of Reeds.

The dead said Amun-Re died on the day the Macedonian usurper sat upon the throne of the two lands and proclaimed himself Pharaoh, for Alexander was no true son of Re, no true son of Osiris and so no god.

Perhaps, Amenemhet thought, they were right. All his life, he had studied the map that showed the path through the underworld and learned the words of the Chapter of Renewing the Gates in the House of Osiris which is in Sekhet-Aanru. After his murder, Amenemhet had watched through the eyes of his ka as the sem priest prepared his body and performed the sacrifices and as the kher-het priest read the prayers and instructions. All had been in order, and Amenemhet had felt his ka slip free.

But when night came, his ka had not entered duat. It had remained in the desert sand, and Amenemhet had become aware of the press of the dead around him and the whispers of their dry voices like the desert wind. “Re no longer travels the underworld at night,” they whispered. “His face is but a ball of fire…”

* * *

He left the tombs and the dead behind him and walked down into the town. The narrow streets were busy with the living. Amenemhet passed easily through them, his ka as insubstantial on their skins as his words were on their ears. Other kas of the dead also moved through the streets. They stared at him with drawn, grey eyes. Amenemhet stepped around the dead, sometimes stepping through the whitewashed, mud-brick walls of the houses that lined the tight streets to do so.

Once, in the market, he shouted furiously at the living: “Rep-a Djau has murdered me. He slipped a blade into my throat and left me to bleed to death.” But the living kept on their way, chattering and laughing. Amenemhet spat emptily onto the ground.

“They can’t hear you, you know.”

Amenemhet looked around. The ka of a child was standing behind him. She could not have been more than eight years old when she died. She scarcely came up to Amenemhet’s waist.

“I know,” he said. “Go away.”

Her ka held ghosts of colours. Specks of precious gold swam in her eyes. Most of the kas he had seen had been grey.

“We could help each other,” she said, scampering after him as he strode through the crowd. “I was poor and young. I never saw the maps of the underworld. I never learnt the words to speak at the gates.”

“Go away,” Amenemhet said. “Those things are as dead as Amun-Re. The Land of Reeds is no more. And what could you offer me?”

Amenemhet’s house was on the southern edge of the town, a mile from the rich flow of the Nile, set among the estates of the wealthy. Amenemhet had been hety-a of the town, and all had been pleased to pay him court and to seek his wisdom. Now those same people saw him not and heard him not. The only one who paid him court was the ka of the wretched urchin who dogged his heels like a loose bandage.

“Something,” the child said. “I have been dead for a long time. I know the world of the dead among the living. I know things.”

“Go away,” Amenemhet repeated.

A golden chariot stood outside the gate of his house. The sight of it plunged Amenemhet’s ka into coldness. Rep-a Djau was here. With a roar of rage that did not even stir the dust in the air, Amenemhet plunged through the outer wall.

The murderer was not in the square court, but the door in the north portico stood open, and Amenemhet heard voices from within.

Amenemhet stepped through. Rep-a Djau stood in the centre of the reception room, clad like a pharaoh in his green and gold gown and his bead necklaces. Baketamen, Amenemhet’s wife, sat on an earthenware bench before Rep-a Djau. The two girls, Meryt and Kawit, and his little son, Hori, who was scarcely off his mother’s breast, stood behind Baketamen. Baketamen had obviously been crying, but she had dried her eyes and looked up at Rep-a Djau.

“I have always been a good friend of your husband,” Djau was saying. “He trusted me. Anything I can do for you, I will.”

“Liar,” Amenemhet screamed. “He always envied me you. It wasn’t enough that he was richer than I, that he had the ear of the Tjaty of the two lands. He wanted you. He killed me. Don’t listen to him.”

Baketamen smiled. “You are kind, Rep-a. We will remember your kindness.”

Djau bowed. “You may always call on me.”

Then the murderer turned, and strode out of the house.

When Amenemhet finally thought to look, the ka of the troublesome child had gone.

* * *

The servants did not come the next day. When Amenemhet’s ka searched through the house, he found his wife sweeping the sand from the floor. With every stroke of the brush, a tear fell from her face into the sand to be lost in the water she had sprinkled there. His children, even little Hori, were building a fire from dried dung. When he had been alive, they had burned only wood in this house.

“There is a new haty-a now,” a voice said. “You are dead. Your place is not here. The taxes you once received now go to another.”

The ka of the child stood beside him.

“Go away,” Amenemhet said. “Why do you bother me with things I know?”

* * *

The first creditor came at dawn on the third day. He was a grain trader from Thebes. Amenemhet had met the man only once. The man had stuck to Rep-a Djau’s shoulder like a shadow to a wall. Amenemhet had disliked the man and refused to do business with him. That had angered Rep-a Djau.

“It grieves me to trouble you at such a sad time, Nebet Per,” the trader said to Baketamen, “but your husband owed me money. The debt is long overdue. I would wait longer, but my farmers need payment.”

Outraged, Amenemhet swept through the man. “I have done no business with you. You lie.”

“You are mistaken,” Baketamen said. “I keep the household accounts. I have no record of any debts unpaid. My husband told me of no contract with you.”

The trader bowed his head and passed a rolled papyrus to her. She flattened it. Amenemhet peered past her. The bill of sale was clear. His seal had been pressed firmly onto the papyrus.

Hesitantly, Baketamen said, “It is a large sum.”

“You see my dilemma, Nebet Per.”

“I made no such contract,” Amenemhet shouted. “The bill is false. Rep-a Djau must have stolen my seal when he murdered me.”

Baketamen rolled the papyrus and returned it to the trader. “You will be paid.”

The trader bowed deeper.

“How?” Amenemhet said, but none answered.

* * *

They came like the flow of the Nile, the creditors, each with his papyrus. With every payment, Baketamen’s face became more drawn, her figure more bent. Her eyes grew desperate. She did not sleep.

At last, near the end of the second week, when the latest in the flow of creditors had gone, Baketamen dropped to her knees on a floor mat.

“Amenemhet,” she wailed. “How could you?”

“But I didn’t,” he said.

She did not hear him.

* * *

“We must sell the house,” Baketamen told her children. “That is the only way we can pay your father’s debts. This is a good house. It will bring us enough.”

“Where will we live?” Kawit asked, through tears.

“We will find a small place in the town. It will just be one room, but it will shelter us.”

“We should go to Rep-a Djau,” Meryt said. “He would give us rooms in his palace. He is kind.”

Baketamen shook her head. “Your father would not like that. We still have our pride.”

“Who cares about father?” Meryt shouted, little Meryt with the wide brown eyes and the thick black hair, his jewel. “This is all his fault. I hate him. I wish Rep-a Djau was our father.”

She turned and ran from the room, passing through Amenemhet’s stricken ka.

Amenemhet’s anger lifted him like a feather in the wind from the north. Yet it seemed a distant anger, an anger drained of colour. His ka drifted through the town, across the rich fields, to the desert beyond and the tombs. For a while, he forgot his family and slipped only among the kas by the tombs. They did not revolt him as they once had. He found comfort in their endless, repeated words of despair. Re no longer travels the underworld at night. His face is but a ball of fire in the sky…

Time passed, a scarce-noticed breeze.

One day, a golden chariot drew up before Amenemhet’s tomb. A tall man in green and gold alighted. Disquiet grew in Amenemhet.

The tall man hitched up his robe and urinated onto Amenemhet’s shrine, befouling the offerings left there.

Amenemhet howled. Rep-a Djau. Fury revived him, and his memories tore back. He chased the speeding chariot towards the town, throwing curses at the rep-a’s back.

Once in the town, he slowed. The streets here were narrow. The rep-a’s chariot could not move swiftly.

Amenemhet surveyed the crowds of the living. How bright they were. He became transfixed, and soon the chariot was gone.

Wailing from one of the low buildings reached Amenemhet. He passed through the wall.

He did not recognise his family at first. These people were strangers to him. They were dirty, bent, sun-darkened, and poorly dressed. Yet when Baketamen looked up, Amenemhet knew her.

Beside her, Meryt and little Hori stood over their prostrate sister. Kawit moaned and twisted on the dirt floor. Her skin was oily with sweat. She seemed very close to Amenemhet, as though her ka wished to slip from her body and begin the journey to the Land of Reeds.

Baketamen brought a rag from a bucket and squeezed water over Kawit’s hot skin. The girl moaned in response.

“Mother,” Meryt said. “Kawit is dying. She will not last another day if we cannot bring a doctor.”

“We have no money for a doctor,” Baketamen said. “It is all gone.”

Rep-a Djau has money,” Meryt said. “He has his own doctor. He would help us. You know that.”

Baketamen bent her head. Then she straightened. “You are right. We have waited too long. Help me with your sister. We will go to the rep-a.”

* * *

Amenemhet followed his family to the rep-a’s palace. A guard let them through the massive external wall, while another hurried off to fetch servants. Beyond the wall was a garden. Date palms, pomegranate trees, sycamores, and acacias lined the winding paths. The roof of a pagoda jutted from the shrubbery to the left. Blossoming vines trailed over it. Around the edge of the gardens, Amenemhet saw kitchens, workshops, stables, cattle sheds, and a wide granary.

“I never could offer you this,” he said, unheard. “Yet you loved me.”

Servants arrived to carry Kawit on a litter. Baketamen and other children followed a scribe through the gardens. They passed a large rectangular pond from which grew lotus plants, papyrus reeds, and water lilies. Amenemhet saw the thick brown bodies of fish slide through the water.

The enormous house stood on a plinth at the end of the garden. A colonnaded flight of stairs led up to a vestibule. There Rep-a Djau stood, his smile as wide as the river. Amenemhet saw the rep-a take Baketamen’s arm. Then a silent wind took his ka and bore it away.

* * *

Time passed. Dust settled on his eyes. His ka grew gaunt and listless. He found himself drifting through the streets, dragged again and again to the crowds at the tombs. He forgot his name and his purpose.

“You’re becoming like the rest of them,” a small voice observed. “You are fading. Your ka will forget what it knew, and all you will be able to do is repeat the same words all the other kas repeat.”

“Go away,” he said. But there was no force to his words.

The ka of the child continued remorselessly. “You will forget the map of the underworld. You will forget the path to the Land of Reeds. You will forget the words to speak at the gates.”

“Go away. Re no longer travels the underworld at night. His face is but a ball of fire in the sky. There are no demons anymore in the underworld, no Apep, no Amemet, no gates, no judges, no scales. There is no Land of Reeds.”

“Listen to yourself. You just repeat the words. Maybe Amun-Re is dead. Maybe Re no longer travels the underworld. That does not mean there is no Land of Reeds. You know the map, yet you will not follow the path.”

“There is no path,” he said.

“If you help me, I will help you,” the dead child said.

Amenemhet’s ka drifted, caught by a dead wind.

Time passed.

* * *

Something was pulling at him. Amenemhet realised he was at the tombs. Kas pressed tight around him. He could hear words coming from his mouth. “…are no demons anymore in the underworld, no Apep, no Amemet—” He cut off the words.

The ka of the child stared up at him sadly. “Your colours are almost gone. You are near to forgetting.”

“Then let me,” Amenemhet whispered.

“Your daughter is well. She has recovered from the fever. Your family now live in the house of your murderer. He speaks of marriage to your wife. Perhaps…perhaps soon your son will number among the dead. Your murderer resents that your blood flows in your son’s veins. Accidents are easy. I know.”

Already the words wanted to bubble from Amenemhet’s lips. Re no longer travels the underworld at night. His face is but a ball of fire in the sky… Instead, he said, “Help me.”

“Come, then,” the ka of the child said. “I will take you to one who can speak with the dead.”

* * *

The child led him down towards the river, where the poorest lived. Sometimes, in the inundation, these rough houses were swept away by the river. When living, Amenemhet had not come this way. The narrow streets stank of human waste.

The hut the child took him to had partially collapsed in an inundation. One wall was gone. The roof dipped towards the floor. Amenemhet dipped so he could see within.

“Come,” the child said. “To the living, she is deaf and blind.”

Amenemhet stepped into the dark.

“I see you, oh dead,” a voice said. “I smell your dust and I hear your pale breath.”

Amenemhet bent towards the sound. A crone sat huddled among rags.

“Who are you?” he said.

“No one you would know, oh grand hety-a.” She cackled. “So grand to come so low.”

“I was murdered,” Amenemhet said. “Rep-a Djau slid a blade into my throat and left me to bleed to death. You must tell everyone. They must know the truth.”

The crone rocked back and cackled again. “Who will listen to the words of an old woman against the word of the rep-a? They would throw stones at me.”

Amenemhet fell to his knees. “I was always a loyal servant of Ptolemy Philopator. Once, he touched my hand.”

“Go,” she said. “The kas of the dead have no place with the living. Go to the Land of Reeds or go to fade. I do not care which. You know the map of the underworld, and the child is a true child of Re. Between you, you can reopen the path once more.”

“I do not know where the path begins,” Amenemhet said.

“It begins where it has always begun,” the crone said. “It begins where life meets death, where they combine, and where life fails.”

Amenemhet stood. “I will not go while the rep-a lives. Justice must be done.”

“Then fade,” the crone said, “but bother my rest no more.”

* * *

The town was filled with celebration. Curious, Amenemhet followed the crowds.

Rep-a Djau’s house was surrounded by flags. Amenemhet heard music within. He passed through the wall. The child followed behind.

His wife stood on the top of the steps leading to the rep-a’s house. Beside her, Rep-a Djau stood, garbed in a wedding robe.

“He has married her,” Amenemhet said. He swept forward, his ka buoyed by rage. He pummelled his fists through Rep-a Djau. They had no effect.

He felt the dead wind try to lift him back towards the tombs.

The rep-a lent towards Baketamen. “Tonight,” he said, “you are mine.”

Amenemhet saw his wife shiver and a tear lay its trail down her cheek.

He drew back. His ka grew cold.

The ka of the child gazed up at him, her face sad.

Amenemhet looked up at Rep-a Djau. “I know where the path begins,” he said.

* * *

The dead were easy to lead. Their kas had become grey. They had lost their will. They could only repeat words. Amenemhet became his own dead wind. He passed through them, drove them, tugged them. And he taught them new words to repeat.

Slowly, the kas began to drift from the tombs.

A cold wind passed through the town, and even the living moved aside.

It reached the walls of Rep-a Djau’s palace and passed through them. The guests grew silent.

At the high table, Rep-a Djau stood, his forehead lining, his mouth growing tight.

The cold wind reached him. The dead reached him.

“Follow,” Amenemhet said. Behind him, the dead whispered their new words.

Amenemhet flowed up into Rep-a Djau’s heart. There the ka of the dead met Rep-a Djau’s living ka.

Grey dust fell from Amenemhet’s ka and drifted down onto the rep-a’s heart. Amenemhet’s colours grew. Ahead of him, he saw the path.

The ka of the child came next. Rep-a Djau clutched his chest as the cold touched his heart.

Then the river of the dead swept through him.

Amenemhet saw the grey dust fall from their kas. As each of them passed through Djau, they spoke the words Amenemhet had taught them: “I am Rep-a Djau. I am a murderer and a liar. The gods judge me. I have murdered hety-a Amenemhet.”

Rep-a Djau’s lips twitched. Sweat sprang from his pale face.

Still the dead came. Still they spoke the words.

Rep-a Djau stiffened. His head tipped back and the words poured from him in a scream: “I am Rep-a Djau. I am a murderer and a liar. The gods judge me. I have murdered hety-a Amenemhet.”

Then he fell.

The last ka to pass onto the path was the ka of Rep-a Djau.

Amenemhet took the hand of the child who had helped him. The map that showed the way was clear before him. The words to speak at the gates sat on his tongue.

“Come,” he said. “Together we will find the Land of Reeds.”

-The End-

Secret Countdown: Five Plans For Five Days (To Go)

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Five Days To Go

It’s now only five days until SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB is published. I have my author copies (see yesterday’s post) and I know the book has started filtering into bookstores, although I don’t think it’s made its way onto any shelves yet.

So let’s talk about something else instead.

When your dream is to get a book published and then you do get a book published, what then? Do you retire with perfect satisfaction to exist in zen-like peace for eternity, having achieved your dream? Do you heck.

Nope, it’s time to come up with new plans. So, these are my five goals for the rest of 2016:

  1. Pitch a book 3 in the SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB series. My publisher bought two books (SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB and THE EMPEROR OF MARS (the sequel to SECRETS…)). I want to see if she wants a book 3 as well.
  2. Write another, completely unrelated, middle grade novel. I started one with wizards and murder and mystery, and I want to get that done. Unless I get commissioned for book 3, in which case I’ll be doing that instead.
  3. Revise THE EMPEROR OF MARS. I’m gonna have to do that anyway. My editorial letter should arrive this month (fingers crossed) and I’ll be doing the rewrite, making it more fun, more snappy, and more awesome.
  4. Write a related novelette or novella in the same world as SECRETS. I’ve actually written one already, but I’d like to do another. There’s another story that is not about Edward and his family that I want to keep pursuing. Also, the novelette I did has dinosaurs in, so how could I not want to keep going on that story arc?
  5. Start work on an adult novel. The first novel I seriously tried to write after I’d started publishing short stories was an adult fantasy novel. It was kind of a mess and I abandoned it, but I still like the basic idea behind it, and I really want to try it again, now that I know what I’m doing. (Kinda…)

So, those are my new goals, and somehow I’ve got it into my head that I’m going to do them all this year. You can hold me to it. Probably.

That’s today, folks. Tomorrow it’s four days to go. *Deep breaths. Deep breaths.*

Secret Countdown: The Very Indulgent Post

- One comment - Books

Six Days To Go

Today in my countdown to publication of SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB on January 12th, 2016, I am going to be very self-indulgent, because today my author copies arrived and they are absolutely beautiful! So, this post is basically just photos of them.

Here goes:

The box of books, newly arrived!
My books. My own. My preciouuuusssss.
MrX discovers the books.
The book has a map. All good books have maps! (That’s Steph’s hand.)
And a first page. All books have a front page…

All the artwork, cover and interior, is by Jeremy Holmes. Copyright Christy Ottaviano Books.

Secret Countdown: I Know It’s Only Rock’n’Roll But…

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Seven Days To Go

I’m doing a blog countdown until SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB is published, on January 12th, 2016. Today, there are seven days to go, so it must be time for some rock ‘n’ roll.

Well, kind of.

Back when I was … quite a bit younger, before I had children and before 10 o’clock sounded like a late night, I used to go down the pub every Friday or Saturday night with my friend, Neil. The pub we usually went to was one of those that has a band playing most weekends. Not always great bands, but not bad bands, either. Most of them were pretty good, musically and technically. But a lot of them weren’t great performers.

They would play, and nobody much would be paying attention.

These bands, it wasn’t that there was anything wrong with their ability, but they seemed to have forgotten that they were playing to an audience. They would look at each other. They would peer at their shoes. They would stare into empty space. But they never looked the audience in the eye. They never tried to grab your attention.

The difference between them and the bands who really got an audience rocking was painfully obvious. The bands who engaged would be right there at the edge of the stage, leaning forward, grabbing your gaze, refusing to let go.

And it occurred to me: that’s not so different to being a writer.

No, no. This isn’t just an attempt to make being a writer seem as cool as being in a rock band, because we all know that’s not true. Sorry, it just isn’t. No one ever became a writer to look cool. Somehow, being hunched in front of a laptop just isn’t as rock and roll as having a Les Paul or a Gibson slung low.

Here’s the way I see it: when you write, you need to be looking your audience in the eye. You need to be telling the story to them. It’s easy to stare at your feet when you’re a writer, to focus on the processes of writing, the technical challenges and the act of putting the words on the page. It’s easy to forget you are writing a story for readers.

That’s not to say that you should try to “sell out”. I’m not for a moment suggesting that you change your story to please an audience. No really great rock ‘n’ roll band changed their music to please listeners. But you do need to remember that you are writing for someone to read. You need to write with that audience as a focus and build a story that they will respond to. You have to look them in the eye, force them to engage, and never let them go.

Your audience, of course, can be anyone you like. It can be as small or as large as you want. It can be your child or wife or husband only. It can even just be you.

Whoever that audience is though, when you write, write as though you are telling them a story and you want them to be as excited by it as you are.

Don’t stare at your feet. Your feet don’t care.

And…

And, in case you came here expecting some rock ‘n’ roll and feel cheated, and in memory of the great Lemmy, here is Motörhead with “Rock n’roll”:

Secret Countdown: Free Short Story: Dawn, By the Light of a Barrow Fire

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Eight Days To Go

It’s eight days until SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB is published! No, I’m not nervous. Honest. Really not.

For today’s countdown post, I thought I’d give away a free short story.

I started writing when I was a teenager, but when I got to university, that kind of fell away for ten years or so. I played about with stories and books a little, but I didn’t really put any focused time or effort into them and I didn’t achieve anything. But in 1999, I was in a pretty awful job and I needed something, anything to stop myself melting from the boredom or it. I decided to actually put some effort into writing again.

I joined the online writers’ workshop, Critters, and then went to Clarion West in 2001, and between those two, I finally turned myself into a professional writer.

Today I’m giving away the first short story I ever published, back in 2002. I wrote it soon after finishing my time at Clarion West, and I still like it. It’s not as smooth as what I write these days, but I think it still holds up.

This story was first published in Realms of Fantasy, December 2002. Enjoy!

Please note that some parts of this story are not suitable for younger children.

Dawn, by the Light of a Barrow Fire

I knew something was up as soon as I saw Frank trudge out of Bennett’s trailer. Twenty years of working in mud and dust and dirt beside him meant I could read him the way he could read a pile of ancient bones. Anyway, something was always up when Bennett asked to see one of us.

This last year, since David died, had been hell, and working under Bennett had only made it worse. If the university department hadn’t been so short of cash, we would have quit in a week. Instead, we had gritted our teeth, bowed our heads, and tried not to scream, praying for the next funding round.

Marcy straightened beside me, and brushed her hair back with a muddy hand.

“I’ll bet you a tenner at three-to-one Bennett’s decided he wants a long barrow instead,” she whispered.

“Do you think he knows what a long barrow is?”

Marcy, Frank, and I were the consultant archaeologists on this project, although Bennett did far more instructing than consulting. We were reconstructing a Neolithic settlement and round barrow for an English Heritage project—one of those projects where you’re supposed to work using the same techniques that were used for the originals. In other words, it was pretty much guesswork from start to finish. We were the second team to work on this; Bennett had fired the previous team when they had refused to comply with one of his more ridiculous whims. We had avoided that fate so far, if only because we couldn’t afford to lose the project.

The whole project was supposed to be for Ancient History Year. Only Ancient History Year was ancient history four months ago, and we still couldn’t agree a design for the huts. Frank and I were for the standard rectangular, thatched design, wooden posts at the corners, and stone walls, a single room centred around a hearth pit. Marcy was holding out for circular with a partitioned interior. We were all trying hard not to let Bennett have a say. He would probably want a two-up, two-down with a conservatory on the back.

Frank reached the top of the hill, and collapsed into the bracken.

“Well?” Marcy said.

“He wants a trench.”

I looked across the hillside, past the half-finished earth mound of the barrow, to the open moor of bracken and brambles. A hawk hovered in the blue air. There was nothing out there for miles. “Where? It’s solid rock up here.”

“He doesn’t care,” Frank said, wearily. “There’s a TV crew coming. Apparently ‘everyone knows archaeologists dig ditches’, so he wants one.”

I groaned.

* * *

It rained most of the next day, a cold spring rain that threatened to turn to sleet several times. The water poured in rivers down the hillside, submerging the proto-trench we had started to dig in the valley where the ground was softer, and threatening to wash Bennett’s trailer away. But no such luck.

By three o’clock, the rain had eased and Bennett sent us back to work, armed with a rusting pump. In minutes we were soaked and frozen. Thank God for students. We sent two of them into the deepest part of the trench to flail away with mattocks and shovels, while me and Marcy hunched over damp cigarettes. Frank was assiduously, and pointlessly, examining a pile of stones some distance from anything wet. Two minutes in the trench had been more than enough for him. No wonder. The whole thing was a façade. We had no reason to believe there had ever been a settlement in the valley. After all, who would want to live in a quagmire? And even if there had been, what did it have to do with building the barrow?

“Hey, look at this,” one of the students shouted. He was crouched up to his waist in the brown water of the trench. I pushed myself up. Mud squelched beneath me. No doubt some innocent flint was being mistaken for an axe-head again.

“He’s found an ancient plastic cup,” Marcy whispered, and I covered a grin.

He hadn’t.

He’d found a bone.

He was waving it around, spraying water in his excitement.

Frank came wandering over, and relieved the student of his find. “It’s definitely human,” he said, turning the brown bone in his hands. “A tibia, probably from a juvenile. Pretty old, I’d say.”

A child. A cold stone dropped into my belly. I pushed past the others and dropped to my knees, scrabbling about in the lowering water.

Within moments my hands caught on something hard and curved. I pulled it free from the peat, not caring that I might be damaging it. I knew it was a skull the moment I touched it, but I didn’t admit it to myself until I had it out the water. It was small. I turned it in my hand. Most of the left side was missing. Smashed away.

I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“Are you okay?” Marcy asked. I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.

“We should do this properly,” she said. “Come on. Leave it to Frank and the students.”

I followed her out of the trench. I was starting to shiver. Maybe it was the cold water.

A child. David had only been a child, just nine years old. My son. A boy chasing his ball. The car hadn’t even stopped.

Marcy sat me down on a stone as the sun emerged from the black clouds. My knees were weak.

I sat and watched them uncover the skeleton, a bone at a time. The skeleton of some poor dead child. Maybe one who had been chasing his ball. Then a car hit him leaving a hole like a fist in his skull.

No. I shook my head to clear the memories. These bones were too old. They weren’t David. David’s ashes were scattered across the field behind my house. No one had scattered this child’s ashes. No one had buried him.

“I’m okay,” I said to Marcy, getting to my feet. “I’ll be fine.” I’d dealt with David dying. But it would be the anniversary of his death in three days, so it was natural that I should be thinking about him. It had been a moment of shocked memory, that was all.

“I’m going to carbon-date the bones,” Frank said, looking up as we approached. “I’d bet they’re at least a couple of thousand years old.” He showed us one of the bones. “Look, they’re in pretty good condition. We might be able to get some DNA.”

I nodded, trying not to feel queasy.

A loud tooting made us all turn. A van had pulled off the road near the trailers.

“That’ll be the TV,” Frank said. “Last chance to hide.”

I tried to smile, but it came out like a grimace. Like a skull.

The back doors of the van opened. Two men emerged carrying a film camera and microphone. A third man, wearing a flying jacket and dark sunglasses, and carrying a clipboard, got out the passenger’s side. The wet ground had begun to steam slightly in the hot sun. I was still cold.

“Into the bunker,” Frank called.

“Hush,” Marcy said. “They’re coming over.”

I was feeling sick, and weak, as though I hadn’t eaten for days.

“You must be Bennett,” the man in the flying jacket said when he reached us, extending a hand to Frank.

Frank started to choke.

Marcy stepped forward quickly. “I’m Marcy Raney. The comedian is Frank. The cute one is Cameron.” She pointed at Frank then me. “What do you want to film?”

“Any swords, armour, stuff that’ll look good on TV,” Flying Jacket said. “No rocks though. People don’t like watching rocks.”

Marcy stared at him for a moment, then, “You know this is a Neolithic project?”

“Cool.”

“You do know what Neolithic means?”

Flying Jacket frowned. “Huh? Yeah, yeah, of course.”

“It means stone age.”

Flying Jacket frowned. “So no swords?”

My head was throbbing. All I could see was David’s body, lying by the side of the road, bleeding. I was choking.

“You’re not from the BBC, are you?” Marcy said.

“Satellite,” Frank whispered.

“Hey,” the cameramen called. “They’ve got a skull over here.”

“All right!” Flying Jacket shouted. “Let’s get-”

“Leave the fucking skull alone!” They all turned to look at me. “Just … just … leave it alone.” I remembered the journalists when David was killed. Wanting to see his room, his clothes, his photos. Hanging around outside the house, night and day, pointing their cameras. It had been a politician’s car. It hadn’t stopped.

“You okay?” Marcy whispered.

I nodded. “Just don’t touch it,” I said to the TV crew. “It’s … it’s not been catalogued yet.” It was pretty lame, and we all knew it. Maybe even the TV crew knew it.

I walked away.

* * *

He has seventeen scars on his chest. His son has only three. The boy is young. Too young to be out alone at night when there are bears and wolves around.

He walks from his hut to the barrow. The boy has too great an interest in the barrow. Maybe he will be there.

The ancestor-bones are bright in the sky tonight. The ground is white and the trees are flat against the sky. It is not a good night. Spirits can see too easily on a night like this.

He grasps the bones around his neck and hears them click together. Protect me, he thinks.

He wants to call out for the boy, but he does not want the spirits to hear. Nor the other men. They will think him a woman for worrying about the boy.

I have the soul of a bear, he thinks. He wears its teeth sewn into the hides of his cloak. I fear nothing.

The boy is not at the barrow.

* * *

I awoke from the dream, shaking. It had been cold, and my son had been lost near the barrow. David had been lost. I had been looking for him. But that hadn’t been me, had it?

Dawn was close.

I got to the site early, when the mists still cloaked the hills and turned the barrow into a ghost floating above the ground. We were going to try to place the capstone on top of the barrow today, before covering it with a final layer of earth. We, and several dozen volunteers, would haul the ten tonne block of granite up the slope of earth that made up the side of the barrow, and drop it onto the upright support stones, sealing the barrow. We were leaving part of one side and the entrance clear so visitors could see how it was constructed, and compare it to the quoits that dotted the landscape hereabouts. We would do the same with some of the huts, if we ever built the damn things.

“I knew you’d be here.”

I turned. Marcy was climbing the hill behind me. I hadn’t heard her car approach.

“Couldn’t sleep, huh?”

“No,” I said. “You?”

“I was worried about you. Want to talk about it?”

“Not really.”

She slipped her arm through mine.

“You’ll make the students jealous,” I said. Students always had a crush on Marcy. I could understand that.

She smiled sadly. “Students don’t get up this early. Nor do you.”

The sky overhead was a pale blue, almost white. The bracken and heather and brambles were speckled with dew. Spiders’ webs bowed under the weight of drops of water.

“It’s stupid,” I said. “It really shouldn’t have got to me. I’m over it.” I shook my head. “I guess I was tired.”

“Bullshit,” Marcy said. She grabbed my arm so I had to turn to face her or I would have jerked my arm away. “You’re not over it, Cam, and you’ve never been over it. You’ve never talked about it. You’ve just bottled it up as though that’ll make it go away. Well it won’t.” She took a breath and glared into my eyes. “Shit, why do you think Alice left you? You never even talked to her.”

I recoiled. Marcy never held back, but she’d never thrown that at me before. My face reddened and I started to turn away.

“Cameron…” she said. She tugged my arm. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Just … just talk to someone, Cameron. If you can’t talk to me or Frank, talk to a doctor.”

“I don’t need to talk,” I said. My throat was so tight it hurt to speak.

She pulled me round and to her. I resisted for just a moment, then rested my forehead on her shoulder. Tears were cold on my cheeks. “I don’t know what to do,” I whispered into her rough hair.

“Talk,” she said. I shook my head against her shirt. Talking would only hurt more. Better to bury the hurt, like ashes in a barrow.

Eventually she pushed me away and wiped my eyes with a corner of her scarf.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m okay.”

Marcy gave me a sad grin. I knew she didn’t believe me. Hell, even I didn’t believe me.

Someone shouted, “Hey,” from down the hill. We turned to see Frank.

“I thought I’d find you two canoodling up here,” he said.

The mist must have been killing the sounds of cars. There could have been a convoy down there.

“It’s a morning for early mornings,” I said.

“It’s not an early morning,” Frank said. “It’s a late night. I spent the night in the trailer studying the bones.” He looked at me. “I figured you’d want to know.”

“And?” My voice caught on the word and I had to repeat it. “And?”

“It’s pretty hard to know without getting them into a lab, and even then…”

“Guess,” I said.

Frank shot a glance at Marcy, then shrugged. “A young boy, probably between seven and twelve or so. It’s difficult to tell until we know exactly when the bones are from. People’s development rates have changed over time. I would guess they’re late Neolithic, but that really is a guess until I get the carbon dating results.”

“What killed him?”

Frank grimaced. “It could have been anything…”

My heart hammered. My mouth was as dry as sand.

“The head?” I croaked.

“Yes, it could have been the head wound. Maybe a blow from a weapon, or an animal, or maybe just an accident. We’ll never know.” He shrugged again. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.” I turned away. My chest was tight and I couldn’t get enough air. “It’s okay.”

* * *

The capstone got stuck halfway up the slope of the barrow when the rollers sank into the soft earth. Bennett suggested using a crane, but apart from the fact that we didn’t have one, that would rather have destroyed the point of the exercise.

I stood with Marcy and Frank on top of the barrow, just above the gaping burial chamber, and we scratched our chins, three bruise-eyed, tired archaeologists whose theories had just collapsed.

“Bigger rollers,” Frank said.

“Tougher volunteers,” Marcy said.

“Planks,” I said.

We didn’t have a clue.

* * *

The frost is hard on the ground. The cold bites into my skin. It is dark, but the moon is bright. I am standing in the shadows of a hut. It is round, with stone walls sealed with dried mud, or perhaps dung. The thatching protrudes almost to the ground, and the roof is steep. The door is a thick fur. From here, the dwelling appears to be sunk into the ground. It looks like Marcy’s design for the Neolithic huts, apart from the roof.

Where the hell am I? It reminds me of my dream, but it seems too real for a dream.

Nearby, I see three other huts. Between them is a low stockade. I can see three or four goats huddled together, breathing clouds of hot breath into the air. I smell smoke and goat dung and something else I’d rather not think about.

The door of one of the huts pulls open, and a man steps out, then pauses and looks around. He is dressed in a heavy, hooded fur cloak. I guess he is about five four tall, but heavily built. He has a long black beard, and long straggly hair. I can’t see his eyes.

He grunts, then turns and walks from the huts by a path that leads up the hill. I follow him. He doesn’t seem to notice.

The path curves around the side of the hill as it goes up, passing through a stand of trees. I think I can identify oak and lime, and maybe hawthorn.

Something howls. My mind says wolf, but how can it be? Wolves have been extinct in Britain for hundreds of years.

I emerge from the trees. The man is fifty yards ahead of me, but I see him clearly. He is near the brow of the hill. There is a barrow there, a dark silhouette against the moonlight.

The man reaches the barrow and circles it. Then he climbs to the top and peers around. His shoulders slump. He descends and sits before the barrow, crouched over. Within minutes a small fire springs up. His face is made gaunt by its flickering light.

I think that maybe he can’t see me. I can’t be here, so he can’t see me. I start up the trail again.

The stones are hard and cold beneath my feet. My joints ache.

I reach the barrow, and the sitting man. He is staring into his fire. I step past him.

“He is gone,” the man says. I jump, then turn to him. He has a deep, accented voice. If he is Neolithic, as he seems to be, he can’t be speaking English, but that is how I hear it.

“Who?” I ask, softly. Maybe he isn’t talking to me. Am I here, or is this a dream? If so, whose? Mine or his?

“The boy. My son. He is gone. I fear he is dead.” He looks up at me. “The boy has no fear.”

Sadness rolls over me so suddenly that I have to close my eyes and clamp my jaw. He is dead, I want to say. Nine years old, I want to say, and hit by a car. It didn’t even stop.

“Can a boy survive seven days out here?” the man asks. “I have searched everywhere. I cannot find him.” His eyes are staring straight into mine when I open them. They are a deeper blue than I have ever seen. His voice turns soft, so that I have to strain to listen. “He had only three scars. Now he is gone. I cannot find him. I cannot bury his ashes. He cannot travel to the tchetchla.” I don’t recognise the word. “Help me,” he says.

I stand. On the other side of the hill, I see a wooded valley. It looks very familiar. If it had no trees, and a small stream, and a road, and a couple of trailers…

I leave the man behind and descend into the valley. It is hard to place myself, but I think that there is where Bennett’s trailer would be, there in the trees.

A film of ice splinters beneath my feet. The ground sinks, and peat-dark water wells up. Not far away are the tracks of a large animal. Something bigger than me, with claws.

And there, just ahead, where the mud is deep and only a couple of dead white tree trunks stretch from the water, there is where the trench will be. I feel sick.

* * *

“You look bloody awful,” Marcy said.

My head hurt. I was sure a migraine was coming on. “Bad night.”

“We’re going to try the capstone again, tomorrow,” Frank said, looking pleased with himself. “We’re going for larger rollers.”

“Round huts,” I croaked.

“What?”

“I think we should have round huts, like Marcy said, and steeper roofs.”

“Traitor,” Frank whispered to me, then glared at the smirking Marcy. “Go suck on your trowel.”

“What’s on the agenda today?” I asked. Pulses of pain were making my vision swim.

“You’re going home,” Marcy said. “Me and Frank have been talking. We’re going to gang up on Bennett and make him give you a day or two off, and we’re making an appointment for you to talk to your doctor.”

“Don’t…” I said, then took a breath and started again. “Don’t tell me what to do.” Pain thudded through my head and I grabbed at my eyes instinctively. “I’m coping,” I whispered.

Frank and Marcy exchanged glances.

“No,” Marcy said. You’re not,” She had her fists on her hips, and her lips had turned white. “I’ve been watching you this last week. If you go on, you’re going to have a breakdown. You’re going to talk to someone, if we have to drag you there by brute force. I’m not joking.”

I looked her in the eyes, through the pain. No, she wasn’t joking. Something crumpled in me. I nodded carefully. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll talk to someone.” And I would.

* * *

I parked the car beside Bennett’s trailer. The luminous hands of the clock showed 3:15. It was a clear night, with a thin layer of mist floating just above the valley floor. I pulled on my big coat and my gloves, and let myself out.

My nose ran immediately, and my eyes streamed. I wiped them with the back of my glove. I wished I’d worn another pair of socks and brought a hat. Too late to go back for them. Tomorrow was the anniversary of David’s death.

I slipped my key into the lock of the second trailer, the one me and Marcy and Frank shared. It was slightly warmer there. I turned on the light. The desktops and surfaces were covered in drawings, photocopied articles, and bits of pottery and stone, the normal mess.

I went straight to the drawers at the far end of the trailer, and pulled open the top one. The bones were there, where I had seen Frank put them, sealed in clear plastic bags. The sight of them made me tremble. I forced myself to calm. I clenched my fists until my hands stopped shaking.

Bennett would fire us for this, I had no doubt. It would be the end of my career, and God knows what would happen to Frank and Marcy and the department.

I took a deep breath. I had no choice. These were the boy’s bones, I was sure, the poor lost Neolithic boy’s. “I’m sorry,” I muttered under my breath. What a way to repay Frank and Marcy.

I carefully emptied the bags one by one into my canvas rucksack. I heard the bones clatter together brittlely. Bile rose in my throat. I swallowed.

I turned off the light, and locked the trailer behind me.

I started along the track, up the hill.

* * *

He is waiting for me outside the barrow. A small fire is burning fiercely. Wolves howl out on the moor. I see trees in the valley, and on the other side of the hill, the dark shapes of the settlement huts, smoke still rising from one. I smell the goats even from here, a rich, cloying smell.

I hug my coat tight around me.

The fire is hot as I seat myself beside him.

“The boy is dead,” the man says.

“Yes,” I say, through tears. I see tears on the Neolithic man’s own cheeks. “I loved him,” I say, and when the man nods I know he knows I am talking about David. “I miss him.” I think it’s the first time I’ve been able to say this.

I pass the rucksack to him. He fumbles with the buckles, then opens them. Slowly he pulls out the dry bones, one by one, and places them on the fire. They catch quickly and burn brightly.

“I loved my boy too,” he says. “Here I set him free.”

Finally he removes the skull, kisses it, and hands it to me.

“Here I set him free,” I say, choking on the words. David, I think. Goodbye.

I kiss the skull too, then place it on the fire.

We sit before a fire of bones, as the morning pales the sky. When the bones are entirely burnt, he scoops the still-hot ashes into a clay pot, and hands it to me. I place it in my rucksack.

In the morning I will place the pot inside the barrow, before the capstone is finally levered on. The boy will travel to the tchetchla.

-The End-

Secret Countdown: Six (Other) Books for 2016

- 0 comments - Books

Nine Days To Go

I’m blogging every day about writing, books, inspiration, and maybe the odd story until SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB is published on January 12, 2016!

Today I’m talking about six fantasy and science fiction books that aren’t Secrets of the Dragon Tomb and that I’m looking forward to in 2016.

Bounders, by Monica Tesler

Middle Grade Science Fiction

Publication date: January 5th, 2016

You don’t get a great number of pure science fiction middle grade books, but Monica Tesler proves that they can be done extremely well. This is the story a group of children bred to be “bounders”, who can leap through space and who are recruited to Earth’s expeditionary and defence force.

Generations ago, undesirable genetic traits were bred out of humanity, but now that diversity has been found to be useful, and the genetic traits have been reintroduced for this select group of children, producing a neurodiverse group who have trouble fitting in but whose talents are essential.

The book shares some of the same science fiction space as Ender’s Game and Starship Troopers, but it brings its own unique take on the training of children for war. There are mysteries, adventures, danger and a very cool world in which to play, as well as a unique take on space travel.

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The Eye of Midnight, by Andrew Brumbach

Middle Grade Fantasy

Publication Date: March 8th, 2016

On a stormy May day in 1929, William and Maxine arrive on the doorstep of Battersea Manor to spend the summer with a grandfather they barely remember. Soon after they settle in, Grandpa receives a cryptic telegram and promptly whisks the cousins off to New York City so that he can meet an unknown courier and collect a very important package. Before he can do so, however, Grandpa vanishes without a trace.

When the cousins stumble upon Nura, a tenacious girl from Turkey, she promises to help them track down the parcel and rescue Grandpa. But with cold-blooded gangsters and a secret society of assassins all clamoring for the same mysterious object, the children soon find themselves in a desperate struggle just to escape the city’s dark streets alive.

This book has been described as a cross between Indiana Jones and the The DaVinci Code. Exciting!

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Masks and Shadows, by Stephanie Burgis

Historical Fantasy

Publication Date: April 12, 2016

The year is 1779, and Carlo Morelli, the most renowned castrato singer in Europe, has been invited as an honored guest to Eszterháza Palace. With Carlo in Prince Nikolaus Esterházy’s carriage ride a Prussian spy and one of the most notorious alchemists in the Habsburg Empire. Already at Eszterháza is Charlotte von Steinbeck, the very proper sister of Prince Nikolaus’s mistress. Charlotte has retreated to the countryside to mourn her husband’s death. Now, she must overcome the ingrained rules of her society in order to uncover the dangerous secrets lurking within the palace’s golden walls. Music, magic, and blackmail mingle in a plot to assassinate the Habsburg Emperor and Empress–a plot that can only be stopped if Carlo and Charlotte can see through the masks worn by everyone they meet.

This is an utterly unique historical fantasy. It’s incredibly lush and entirely involving, with characters you genuinely won’t forget. I found myself completely immersed in the 18th century world, full of princes, plots, and opera. Don’t miss it.

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The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price, by Jennifer Maschari

Contemporary Middle Grade Fantasy

Publication Date: February 23rd, 2016

Ever since twelve-year-old Charlie Price’s mom died, he feels like his world has been split into two parts. Before included stargazing and Mathletes and Saturday scavenger hunts with his family. After means a dad who’s completely checked out, comically bad dinners, and grief group that’s anything but helpful. It seems like losing Mom meant losing everything else he loved, too.

When he follows his sister into a magical world he finds it is identical to their own with one key difference – Mom is alive. But this idealized other world holds terrifying secrets, and he’ll have to defeat monsters both real and imagined or risk losing himself, his sister, and the true memory of his mother forever.

This is a touching, emotionally powerful middle grade contemporary fantasy.

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Where Futures End, by Parker Peevyhouse

Young Adult Science Fiction

Publication Date: February 9th, 2016

Where Futures End is a novel made up from five interconnected short stories. The first story is set right now (or very close to now) and the subsequent ones step into the future, developing the story up to some unstated point over a hundred years from now. Our universe has somehow intersected with another universe, and a very few people can cross between them, weakening the barrier between the universes.

Over the course of the five stories we experience the lives of different characters – some of whom are able to cross between universes and some of whom aren’t – as the intersection alters both universes, as technology advances, and as global warming begins to take hold.

So what’s so great about Where Futures End? Well, first up the structure is not easy to pull off. Different characters? Different time periods? Different voices? Not an easy thing to manage, and something that could go terribly wrong. Well, it doesn’t. It works beautifully, and rather than losing narrative drive, the end of each story leaves you wanting to read the next to add more pieces to the puzzle. Each adds another layer, revealing more about what was going in the previous stories while developing its own story.

Ambitious. Clever. Gripping. You should add this one to your wish-list right away!

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Occupy Me, by Trisha Sullivan

Science Fiction

Publication Date: January 21, 2016

Trisha Sullivan is one of the most intelligent, insightful, and imaginative writers working in science fiction today. It’s an absolute delight to have a new science fiction novel from her after almost six years.

A woman with wings that exist in another dimension. A man trapped in his own body by a killer. A briefcase that is a door to hell. A conspiracy that reaches beyond our world. Breathtaking SF from a Clarke Award-winning author.

Tricia Sullivan has written an extraordinary, genre defining novel that begins with the mystery of a woman who barely knows herself and ends with a discovery that transcends space and time. On the way we follow our heroine as she attempts to track down a killer in the body of another man, and the man who has been taken over, his will trapped inside the mind of the being that has taken him over.

And at the centre of it all a briefcase that contains countless possible realities.

Note: This is published in the UK right now, but you can easily order it internationally from Amazon or Book Depository.

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository | Author Website

That’s it! There are plenty more great novels coming out in 2016, but these six look particularly appealing.