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Thoughts from a first-time Korra-watcher

So, I finally sat down and watched the full series of Legend of Korra over the course of several evenings this last week. I’d heard a lot of excellent things about the show from various people and for a long time had been curious about it. I agree with several other people that it seems an odd fit amid Nickelodeon’s fart-joke and booger-humor lineup. Since I’m not a Hulu Plus or Netflix subscriber, I watched the series on YouTube, with all of the sound issues and sketchy video quality that this entails (I never did find versions that weren’t cut off at the top and/or bottom). All around, I found Korra to be a smart, well-written saga full of lively, interesting characters. (Warning: contains spoilers.)

I think my favorite aspect of the show is that nowhere during the series does anyone make an issue of the fact that the new Avatar is a girl—Korra included. While characters’ skepticism toward her youth and inexperience come up periodically during the first couple seasons, no one ever suggests that being a girl makes her less an Avatar than any of the previous. Nor does Korra display a need to prove that she’s smarter, tougher, or in any way better than all the boys. From the start I felt like she stayed focused on learning and understanding who and what she needs to be as the Avatar. There’s little I appreciate more in a heroine. While Korra starts out pretty brash and overconfident, occasionally assuming that her Avatar status should automatically command others’ respect or warrant her special privileges, she really grows as a character over the course of the series. My hat goes off to creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino for doing it so smartly and believably—in an era where children’s shows thrive on characters who are stubbornly and stupidly resistant to character development, it was genuinely refreshing to watch Korra and her friends grow and mature over the 50-odd episodes.

Nor do Korra or Asami or any of the other women protagonists ever really serve the function of “damsel in distress.” Sure, Korra gets captured several times in seasons 1 and 3, but each time she makes her captors work to subdue her and on several of these occasions she manages to get herself free without help. I respect that in a heroine.

I like as well the overall level of competence shown by the primary villains of the story. I grew up with cartoonishly incompetent villains like Skelator, Cobra Commander, and the Shredder—characters so unrealistically foolish that the heroes defeat them by virtue of having double-digit IQ points. The masked villain Amon is charismatically evil, with an insidious plan to take over the city and destroy the Avatar—one that allows him to paint a heroic image of himself in the blood on his hands. Not only does he nearly succeed, he defeats Korra at least three times, even succeeding in taking her powers away. Korra’s evil uncle Unalaq may be crazy and obsessed, but he’s still cunning enough to use is superior knowledge of the Spirit World and its lore to stay ahead of our heroes for all of Season 2. It was the dictator Kuvira, however, who quickly became one of my favorite antagonists in all of television. I absolutely love a well-written villainess, as well as intelligent and militant evil dictators. While I’d rather not live under her reign, I respect the way that Kuvira isn’t afraid to use force to unite the squabbling factions of the Earth Empire and put down the thugs and bandits plaguing the countryside.

Nor are Korra’s enemies the sort of villains who lose by surrounding themselves with incompetent help. I liked that even the fight scenes against enemy henchmen and faceless minions tend to be tricky, hard-hitting fights for Team Avatar. The Earth-, Fire-, and Water-Bender bad-guys are all highly competent at their crafts, using their powers in creative and effective ways, forcing the good guys to think on their feet and adjust their tactics to counter their enemies’ fighting style—and even then the heroes don’t always win. Meanwhile, the non-Bender lackeys and henchmen are no slouches either, often expert martial artists and using specialized weapons and technology to make up for the lack of bending. The fight scenes are generally well-done with Anime-style action that I rarely felt was over-the-top.

I was also mostly impressed with the romance in the story. In general I tend to have a preference for tales where romantic tension and drama are secondary (or even tertiary) to the overall plot—thus I appreciated the minimal focus on these relationships throughout the series. The Korra + Mako relationship was one I didn’t really believe in, and I honestly felt like Korra seemed to have a much more fun on the one date she went on with Bolin than all of the time she spent with Mako. I typically hate love-triangles as such an over-played trope, but for the most part I was okay with Korra/Mako/Asami. I wasn’t overly surprised when Mako picked Korra, but I also wasn’t too surprised when they broke up. But I like that they don’t let their personal drama obstruct saving the world.

As far as Korra and Asami’s relationship at the very end of the series, I’m pretty okay with it. I thought ending the series with the two of them holding hands was tasteful and believable—a charming first date between two likeable, mutually-attracted ladies. Admittedly, the evolution of Korra and Asami from buds to potential girlfriends is subtle, but I think I like it better that way. Rather than the flirtation, awkward dialogue, and furtive glances we’re used to with marginally experienced couples, we see a mutual respect and sense of teamwork between two smart, capable heroines. Beginning early in season 3, we start to see a stronger camaraderie between Korra and Asami, influenced in part by their respective past relationships with Mako. I kind of got the feeling that both heroines grew up surrounded mainly by adults and thus neither has ever really had a gal-pal to hang out with before. To me the hand-holding marks the start of a relationship: both of them interested in ‘testing the water’ romantically and wanting to see where this goes.

On the whole, there’s a lot more I could (and would like to) say about Legend of Korra in terms of story, characters, and a lot of the very adult issues that the creators bring up in this truly well-written children’s saga. But I’ll leave off for now with a last set of compliments to the creators. Korra is a genuinely smart, well-constructed story and I offer my thanks for sharing it with the world. As always, thanks so much for reading, folks. Take care, stay awesome!

NaNoWriMo: Success!

I dood it!

I got the 50,000 word challenge for National Novel Writing Month! I was up late last night trying to get it done, but it is done and I am content. Technically, now, it was a continuation of my previous work on my existing novel-in-progress, First Empress, just a later part of the story that I hadn’t gotten to yet. The important thing is that it is that it was all new material to help me continue my tale.

One of the more interesting experiments was getting to deal more closely with Queen Viarraluca’s detractors, her political enemies. Though her majesty has overthrown and executed the Tetrarchy that previously ruled the Hegemony of Andivel and gotten the people and the army on her side, there still exists a Council of nobles that have a lot of political power, and who see this new tyrant queen as a threat to that power. And, to be fair, she is a threat as she refuses to play by their rules and steps around them in everything she does. So it was kind of fun to get a look into their minds and understand what motivates them, as well as their assumptions about Queen Viarra’s motivations.

Here’s an excerpt from an early scene where they meet to conspire against her majesty. At this point in the story, there has already been an assassination attempt on Queen Viarra, and the seven noblemen who financed the assassin have been tracked down and crucified. This scene takes place the evening after a Council meeting where Queen Viarra verbally bitch-slaps a group of her detractors, followed by a speech from General Etan voicing his support for her majesty and his derision for the council.

***

The twenty-six conspirators met at Councilman Evral’s country vineyard estate, the night lit by the near-full moon. Peron followed his father, Lord Amrel, through the gateway and into the main courtyard. It wasn’t enough that this fucking islander queen had hanged the tetrarchs and driven out their families—Peron’s fiancée, Iress, fleeing with them—the she-tyrant had crucified the father of two of the young nobleman’s closest friends and driven them from the city as well.

It was a classic take-over, the young nobleman reflected. New monarch gets the military and the people on her side, then tears down the previous ruling class to ensure her place as sole despot. She’d started by bribing the soldiers with money she’d stolen from the late tetrarchs—and possibly by sleeping with a general or two. Then she’d seduced the people by lowering taxes and spending coin generously among the craftsmen and merchants. It was no wonder the people loved their new queen: the bitch knew how to appeal to the greed of the soldiers and the nearsightedness of the commoners. Her methods were so… cliché that the council and nobles should have seen this coming.

This was why the people of Andivel had formed the tetrarchy in the first place, to maintain a balance of power and prevent such tyrants from taking root and exploiting the populace. Clearly the soldiers and lower classes had forgotten this.

“Of course we blamed them for incompetence,” Lord Unor was saying as Peron followed his father into the main sitting room. “How competent can they be: they got beaten to a standstill by a bunch of hairy, slobbering barbarian thugs who still think iron smelting is a radical invention? One decent hoplite ought to be worth any ten shirtless Gan.”

“Not that it makes a difference now,” another councilman pointed out. “General Etan’s little diatribe made clear that the arrogant bitch has most, if not all, of the army on her side now. How long do you think we have before she has the rest of us on the council hanged or crucified?”

“Or quartered or stoned or impaled or beheaded or torn apart by dogs?” Councilman Ordis added gloomily.

“Or what’s that quaint tradition among some of the eastern Tollesian colonies?” Lord Evral asked. “The one where they lock you in a box with just your head sticking out and give you plenty to eat until you rot to death in your own excrement?”

“That strikes me as unlikely,” Councilman Berol shook his head. “It’s kind of an inefficient way to kill someone, and this queen strikes me as nothing if not efficient.”

“After Etan’s little speech, Lord Onris told me that he’s leaving the city,” Peron’s father spoke up. “He said that he’s not going to wait for the bitch’s attack dogs to come after him, so he’s leaving to be with his wife’s family in Mertal.”

“That’s desperation,” Berol snorted. “Onris fucking hates his wife’s family.”

“Is that our only solution?” Peron found himself asking. “Leave Andival before the crazy bitch trumps up excuses to have the rest of us executed?”

“Well, she’s got the military and the idiot rabble on her side, so we can’t exactly raise a coup or a popular uprising,” Lord Evral pointed out. “And after that failed assassination attempt, she’ll probably be on alert for another knife in her window.”

“And it’s not like we can erode her authority with the council,” Lord Amrel added. “We are the fucking council, but she doesn’t seem to feel under any obligation to play by our rules. How do you attack someone who’s unassailable?”

“There’s a cute trick among the Venarri kingdoms in the west, as well as a few of the Gannic kingdoms, and even some of the western mainland and island Tollesian city-states,” Councilman Haret spoke up for the first time thus far. “When an enemy city seems too fortified and fully prepared for a siege, instead of surmounting the walls or sieging the city, they undermine the walls’ foundation. They have sappers dig under the walls, using gravity to cause the fortifications to crash in on themselves. For all intents and purposes, they attack the very foundation supporting their unmovable enemy, making him collapse under his own weight.”

“I get it,” Ordis smirked. “Instead of sending thugs or assassins after Queen Viarra, send them after her supporters. She can’t watch over all of her friends at once.”

“Exactly,” Haret nodded gravely. “Murder army officers who’ve pledged their allegiance, councilmen who’ve voiced support for her, merchants with whom she does frequent business, even her servants if we can catch them at the right moment. Collapse her foundations by killing her supports and making others afraid to keep holding her up.”

Ambushers Ambushed

An excerpt from the first chapter of my NaNoWriMo project. The scene comes at a point in the story where the fortunes of the Hegemony of Andivel are beginning to turn favorable because of Queen Viarraluca’s just and competent rule. For years they’ve been losing ground to the barbarian tribes who inhabit the Vedrian Mountains that form the northern border of the hegemony. By deploying more and better-trained soldiers to protect the northern trade routes, farms, and townships, they’re able to better deal with the barbarian raiders, retaking much of their former territory and resecuring their northern borders.

The following scene shows a barbarian ambush on a trade caravan along one of the northern roads. It’s one of the clearest earlier looks at the barbarians themselves, the kind of tactics and weapons being used, as well as the barbarian attitudes toward the Tollesian peoples.

* * *

Huntress Bedra and the other bow-warriors of the Benori tribe crouched in the brush on the north side of the Tollesian roadway as the merchant caravan rumbled into view. The caravan was bigger than they’d anticipated, but with the element of surprise, they should still make short work of the merchants and guards. And a bigger convoy meant better loot distribution. This would be a quick, bloody ambush—a massacre, really.

Those idiots in the Averci tribe were still doing small-time raids on small farms and lost caravans, but with the increased presence of Tollesian soldiers on the roads, raiding in thirty- to fifty-man parties was becoming less and less safe. She’d heard that another band of Averci warriors had been driven off just this morning—once again by those fucking cavalry soldiers.

What manner of cowards pranced about on horses in battle, anyway? A true warrior kept her feet firmly on the ground.

No, raiding bigger targets with a larger war party was becoming the smarter and more effective solution—give the Tollesians too many warriors for their patrols to deal with and force them to retreat. Nearly thirty of her fellow bow-warriors and over fifty shield-warriors crouched in the tall grass and brush on either side of the road, waiting for their war leader’s signal to attack. The footmen carried spears to defend against any cavalry that might show up, while the hunters bore longbows with bone- or obsidian-tipped arrows. Bone and obsidian had fairly poor armor penetration, but her tribe preferred to save their bronze and iron arrows for the fucking hoplites.

Bedra had taken on the role of huntress after the death of her husband during the Tollesian’s previous campaign into the lowlands. Considered “tainted” or “jinxed” by her tribesmen, she had found herself unable to remarry because her previous three pregnancies had miscarried. With two surviving children to feed, she had taken to hunting to support her family. After demonstrating her archery prowess, several of the other bow-warriors had invited her on her first raid the previous summer.

The huntress counted about fifty guardsmen as well as a couple dozen merchants, workers, and slaves. Seven wagons in total, all of them covered. The guards carried small shields and spears, short swords, or clubs; maybe a dozen had armor. Bedra spotted a young slave girl who might make a pretty gift for her son. She was sure that the others were sizing the loot up as well.

When the wagons were directly between the two parties of raiders, their war leader stood and blared his hunting horn, signaling the war party to attack. Bedra and her fellow hunters leapt to their feet, letting fly a volley of arrows on the unarmored guards. The guards shouted and retreated back to what little cover the wagons provided, trying to protect their heads with their wussy shields. Bedra grinned as one of her arrows snagged a guardsman in the guts.

With that, the spearmen came charging from the brush, trapping the guardsmen against the wagons. The guards had plenty of brawl in them, but none fought like soldiers and clearly had never fought against true Gannic warriors. The merchants and slaves all took cover amid the wagons, and Bedra was about to notch up another victory over the Tollesian cowards.

Then the whole ambush went straight to hell.

A man in Tollesian officer’s armor stood up from one of the wagons and blasted three notes on a war horn. At the signal, the covers flew off of four of the wagons and soldiers came pouring over the sides. Each wagon carried a dozen of those fucking hoplites and a half-dozen archers. The hoplites leapt into the fray and engaged the spearmen, while the archers crouched in the wagons, exchanging arrows with the Gannic hunters. Even more frustratingly, the archers all wore those linen cuirasses; the hunters wore only wool tunics.

Though still technically outnumbered, the armored hoplites tore mercilessly into the startled spear-warriors. Swords flashed and warriors fell, with but a few injuries among the Tollesians. Bedra could only assume that the same scene was unfolding on the other side of the wagons.

A mere fifteen yards in front of her, the hoplite line hacked through the Benori spearmen, sending the survivors scattering. As the lines broke, the hunters turned to flee as well. Bedra fired a single arrow at the nearest hoplite, but it bounced harmlessly off the bronze scales stamped into his cuirass. The huntress turned with the others and ran toward the trees a quarter mile off. As she ran, however, she saw how futile the effort was. A dozen Tollesian horsemen charged in from the east, cutting off the fleeing hunters.

The horsemen lobbed their javelins into the trapped barbarians, then lay into them with sword and spear. Bedra let fly one arrow into a horse’s flank, causing it to stumble and throwing the rider. Another horse bowled the huntress over before she could react, but thankfully not trampling her. A hoplite put a knee in the middle of her back before she could rise, then forcibly tied her hands behind her. She cried out as the Tollesian jerked her to her feet.

How had they done this? Bedra wept to herself as the bastards led her away. Her tribe had been so successful in their raids the past two years, but the fucking Tollesians had just ambushed their ambushers. What had happened? What had changed?

National Novel Writing Month: Take 3

Synopsis for my entry for National Novel Writing Month (a continuation of my previous NaNoWriMo work):

Having secured her place as sole hegemon of the Northern Vestic Sea, Queen Viarraluca turns her attention to reestablishing and securing her realm’s northern borders. Once a wary understanding existed between the Tollesian city-states and the barbarian Gannic tribes of the lowlands and mountains to the north. But as the strength and stability of the hegemonic political structure waned, the barbarians have become increasingly violent and bold in their raids against their Tollesian neighbors. With a new and strong ruler at the head, the city-states finally have hope of bringing new peace and security to their beleaguered subjects.

The situation comes to a head, however, when the rulers of a former allied city come to Queen Viarra, pleading for her help in liberating their people from a coalition of Gannic tribes led by the brutal and ruthless King Vedon. Victory over the barbarian horde means the elimination of a major threat to Tollesian prosperity, solidification of the northern borders, and a foothold in future campaigns against hostile tribes.

Defeat means the loss of nearly half of Queen Viarra’s forces, resurgence in raids against Tollesian farms and trade routes, and perhaps even the death of the queen herself.

Queen Viarra Commission, by Adelruna

ViarraFor a while now, I’ve given various consideration to commissioning a portrait of Queen Viarraluca, title character from my novel-in-progress, First Empress. About a week and a half ago, I emailed the amazing and talented Adelruna to discuss the possibility. I’m very definitely pleased with the end results. As well as being an intelligent and powerful ruler, the young queen is trained as a heavy infantrywoman, preferring to fight on the front lines beside the hoplites, gaining her soldiers’ loyalty by sharing in their danger and hardship. I feel like Adelruna has portrayed her strength and courage elegantly in this portrait.

I make no apologies for the fact that Queen Viarra is a tyrant. While she loves her friends and works toward the benefit of her subjects, she’s ruthless and sometimes brutal toward those who cross her. (And damn, she’s fun to write.) I don’t see her as being opposed to others’ individual freedoms, but she places more value on the security and stability of her hegemony. Twice she executes nobles for daring to conspire against her and even has her own uncle hanged for assassinating her brothers. The following excerpt is from Chapter 8 when Viarra confronts one of the nobles involved in a conspiracy to assassinate the young queen.

***

Walking beside Captain Alden, Bevren followed her majesty to the gates of Lord Halben’s townhouse, more than fifty hoplites in tow.

“Stand aside,” Queen Viarra ordered as Halben’s gate guards approached. Startled, the guards leapt out of the way, her majesty striding between them. She stormed through the open gates and across the courtyard, her soldiers nearly jogging to keep up.

“Your majesty, this is entirely out of line,” a self-important house slave objected, stepping between the queen and the front door. “If you’ll come back in the morning when—” he cut off as Viarra grabbed him by the hair and turned him forcibly around. The movement caused the sweating bastard to fall to one knee.

“Tell them to open the fucking door,” the queen demanded coldly, keeping ahold of the slave’s hair.

“For Andiva’s sake, open the door!” the man bleated. The doors swung open a moment later, revealing a pair of terrified doormen. Queen Viarra tossed the slave aside and strode through the entryway, likely looking like an archangel of death to the terrified occupants. Bevren followed with the rest of the soldiers, taking note of the servants and family members cowering in doorways and behind furniture.

Lord Halben and Lady Lyria stepped from their bedchamber as the queen approached with her soldiers. “Queen Viarra, what is the meaning of this?” he demanded. “Storming my home in the middle of the night and—” he cut off, turning white and pissing down his leg as Captain Alden held up the assassination contract with the conspirators’ names signed to it.

“Majesty, I can explain—” the traitor began.

He cut off as Viarra grabbed him by the tunic and threw him through a nearby table.

“No, you can’t explain,” Viarra told him cold-bloodedly as she stepped over and jerked him to his knees. “Every lying word you speak in useless explanation is another second you get to spend alive. You don’t get that right.” She turned and threw him to the stone floor in front of her soldiers, bloodying his nose and splitting his lip. “Take him to Fort Lynra and crucify him with the others,” she ordered.

Two hoplites yanked him to his feet and dragged him down the hall, screaming his traitorous head off.

Bevren turned back to where Lady Lyria stood, covering her mouth. She sobbed and shook her head in disbelief as she read the contract for Queen Viarra’s assassination.

“I apologize, Lady Lyria,” the Queen said with unexpected tenderness as she stepped over and took the noblewoman’s hand. The lady looked up at the queen in surprise. “I apologize that I must deprive you of your husband. I want you to know that I harbor no ill will to you or your children. If you choose to stay in the city, I am willing to offer you your husband’s seat on the council, as well as my protection from any reprisals that may come because of his part in the plot against me. However, if you no longer feel safe here in Andivel, I have a ship standing by to take you and your children to be with your family in Ovec at first light.”

“I… thank you for your mercy, your majesty,” Lady Lyria replied, trembling and clutching the queen’s hand. “I will take my children and return to Ovec. But… perhaps in a few years, when my son is older, we can return and he may serve on the council as his father did.” She looked hopefully up at the tall queen.

“I will see to it,” her majesty nodded. “I’ll make sure your home is maintained for your return.”

Wit and Wisdom of Queen Viarra

A few pieces of wisdom from Queen Viarraluca, title character from my novel-in-progress, First Empress:

“You aren’t going to weasel your way out of this. If you haven’t figured that out yet, you’re denser than I thought—and trust me that I believe you quite dense. Tell your tetrarchs and council that the terms of this alliance are completely unacceptable. It is an arrogant attempt at bald-faced extortion and my people will not be harassed in this manner.”

“You’ve tried this line of reasoning already. When you start repeating your arguments it means you’ve run out of them.”

“When fighting with short swords, it’s important to remember that the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”

“Mother had an edge like obsidian. Chip it and it just gets sharper.”

“Adopting a pacifistic stance is only ever viewed as a sign of weakness—as an unwillingness to fight for your people. It disheartens allies and encourages enemies. You have to bring these ideas to the people, show them what can be gained by working beside and cooperating with someone they’ve been enemies with for three hundred years.”

“In Captain Vola’s culture both men and women learn to ride in combat. In fact, they’re required to kill an enemy in battle and present the severed head as proof as part of their passage to adulthood. Barbaric? Perhaps. But requiring women to ride more than doubles the size of their armies.”

“Every culture adapts to whatever suits its people, their environment, and their place within the world’s framework. History teaches us that cultures who cannot adapt die out to make way for those who can. Our culture is not as stable as we like to pretend; I want to make sure we learn to adapt before it’s too late.”

“No, you can’t explain. Every lying word you speak in useless explanation is another second you get to spend alive. You don’t get that right.”

“I apologize that I must deprive you of your husband. I want you to know that I harbor no ill will to you or your children. If you choose to stay in the city, I am willing to offer you your husband’s seat on the council, as well as my protection from any reprisals that may come because of his part in the plot against me. However, if you no longer feel safe, I have a ship standing by to take you and your children to be with your family at first light.”

“I gave consideration to reconciling with the traitors only long enough to weigh its disadvantages. I don’t know how things work in your part of the world, but in my part of the world, mercy is only ever seen as a sign of cowardice. Yes, I could have publicly forgiven the conspirators, but they would not have understood why—nor would my people. They would see it as weakness on my part, assuming that I lack the stomach to right the wrongs against me or defend myself from an obvious threat.”

“There are people who want me dead for no other reason than they’d rather be in charge themselves. Every decision I make, no matter how fair and just, will result in someone I’ve never met praying nightly to the gods for my death simply because I did not decide in their favor. If any of these people believed they could destroy me, they would not hesitate to do so. There is an aphorism in warfare that ‘true safety lies not in counting on your enemy not to attack, but in making your position unassailable.’ This applies in politics as well as combat. By destroying the men behind the attempt on my life, it discourages others who may want me dead from making similar attempts.”

“The saying that ‘history is written by the winners,’ is a load of shit popularized by rabble-rousers angry that someone they disagree with had their own version, but who are too lazy to do their own research, or by envious political opponents of a popular monarch. The truth is, dear Zahnia, that there exist many excellent accounts by historians who fought on the losing side of a war or whose people were subjugated by a hostile invader. But I find that the most reliable histories are the ones written by the bystanders—by people watching a battle from the sidelines or traveling through a country on business: observers with no personal stake it what is going on.”

“Decorum has its place, but anywhere else it goes, it’s more of a hindrance than anything.”

“I can’t claim all of the credit, though everyone insists on giving it to me.”

“I’m not getting in the ‘last word’—I’m getting in the next word. It’s not my fault you lack the wit to get in one after that.”

River Andal, Part 3

Hi folks! Hey, sorry I’ve been so neglectful of the blog here lately. Part of it is due to a recent freelance editing job I did for a friend of a friend the past several weeks, for which I even had to skip a weekend update for the Heroines Blog. Anyway, I’m back to writing for myself for the time being and can hopefully get more posted to this blog and continue my story of the River Andel.

Here’s part three of the story, continued from parts 1 and 2.

***

“Six feet high, but has dirt packed against the inside high enough for the fuckers to kneel behind the palisade and bloody pick us off at their leisure,” Brenal informed Major Kanel, drawing a map in the dirt. “I also saw a handful of two- and three-pounders mounted on swivels along the wall and a half-dozen howitzers facing the river. Past that there’re two more lines of defense. The first is a ring of seven sandbagged artillery emplacements, with two to three falconets per battery. Two of those emplacements overlook the entryway facing the forest, easily within grapeshot range—that’s four falconets they can fire one at a time at whomever comes through the gate.”

“Shit,” Kanel grimaced, glaring down at the diagram. “So anyone through the door ends up shredded meat. You said something about one more line of defense?”

“Their encampment is at the top of the hill where all of their tents and all twelve mortars are housed,” she continued. “It’s surrounded by a partial palisade, open on four sides with paths running down to the batteries and main wall.”

“So the only option we’re going to have is a night attack,” the major mused, scratching at his four-day beard and scowling. “Fuck, I hate night attacks—too many factors we can’t control.”

“You estimated three hundred defenders?” a fusilier corporal asked from nearby.

“More than enough to cover all of the cannon in shifts over the course of the night,” Brenal nodded. “They’re alert but not edgy,” she went on. “I suspect they’ve been told to expect an attack, but don’t know that we’re this close.”

“And a night attack should help keep it that way,” Kanel agreed. “Still, I don’t like the idea of sending your grenadiers headlong into four barrels of grape.”

“Scout chief Ina suggested that since the walls are only six feet, it should be easy for our men to boost each other up and over,” Brenal told the major.

“You know, the stupidly obvious solutions have always been my favorite,” Kanel admitted, eliciting a few chuckles among the gathered officers and noncoms. “Alright, here’s what we’ll do,” the major decided. “Captain Bartz and I will take the voltiguers and most of the line infantry and launch a feint against that east entrance to try and draw their attention that way. Lieutenant,” he addressed Brenal, “you take your grenadiers and Sergeant Ashe’s fifty fusiliers and go over that southern wall. Make those two batteries overlooking the gateway your primary targets. Once you’ve taken those out, the rest of us will storm the gates and join you. We’ll take the high ground and capture the camp and mortars as a group. Questions?”

No one had any.

“Good,” he continued. “We’ll let the men rest up for a couple hours, then move on the hill come sundown.”

* * *

“…and clearly he’s the most pompous, dumb-fuck king who ever lived,” Ina was telling a group of soldiers gathered about as Brenal sat down with them, around a half-hour to sundown. “Lady Aress stands there, mud and blood splattered in her copper hair and across her legionary armor—some of that blood from two of the king’s sons and several of his elite guards. Her husband, General Garran, stands before the throne in his officer’s cuirass. And this dimwit king has the gall to tell the general to send the Lady away, that ‘surrender talks are no place for a simple woman.’” The others started laughing, partly at Ina’s imitation of the arrogant king’s earnest-but-stupid voice and facial expressions, but mostly at the thought of someone finding the legendary Lady General Aress to be a simple woman.

Brenal had to admit that Ina was a very talented storyteller. Her facial expressions added as much to her tale as her tone. She adopted a regal and competent expression for Lady Aress, a stern and annoyed expression for General Garran, and an arrogant and obtuse expression for the king.

“So General Garran, being the smooth bastard he was, takes it in stride, aye,” the scout continued. “He looks down at the fat little fuck and says, ‘I agree. It’s a good thing there’s nothing simple about my wife.’ And the king looks completely shocked, like he can’t believe some lowly general would talk down to him.” Her imitation of the king’s shock and indignation sent the group into another uproar. “So the king sputters for a moment, then says, ‘have they no sense of protocol and decency in your nation? I demand that you send the woman away so we can conduct our business like civilized people.’ The general stares the king down for another moment, then says ‘all of your sons are dead and my men have slain or captured every soldier in your army. You have no room to make demands.’ The little king sputters again, then sneers at General Garran. ‘I’m going to lodge a complaint with your senate,’ the little wanker shouts. ‘I refuse to be bullied by some common, barbarian thug.’” Brenal smiled and the others laughed at the little woman’s arm-waggling imitation of the king’s angry tirade.
Ina continued, “‘I agree,’ Lady Aress told the king before General Garran could reply. ‘It’s a good thing there’s nothing common about my husband.’” The lieutenant chuckled and the others burst out laughing at her punchline. “The general somehow manages not to laugh,” Ina ended her story. “He just gives his wife this look as if to say ‘thanks a hell of a lot, dear.’” They continued to laugh through her imitation of the general’s amused/annoyed look.

“Excellent story,” a private applauded. “You almost sound like you were there for the conversation.”

“Don’t be silly, aye,” Ina chided sassily. “I was home, taking care o’ their kids, obviously.” That got a few more chuckles.

A young man in voltiguer uniform stretched as he stood. Brenal thought she remembered his name being Tannis. “I wish we had someone like General Aress fighting beside us tonight,” the infantryman commented.

“Din’ need her, lad,” Grenadier Sergeant Koss told him, grinning between his grizzled mutton-chops. “Ye obviously ain’t seen Lieutenant Brenal inna scrap. She’s better tha’ any half-mystical heroine what’s been dead three-hundred years.”

A chorus of “hear-hears” broke among the grenadiers and some of the veteran infantrymen. Brenal found herself glad she’d outgrown blushing at others’ praise.

“Really?” the skirmisher asked, looking over at the one-eyed, battle-worn, and probably rather unheroic-looking Lieutenant Brenal Derron. The expression on the young man’s face suggested he couldn’t tell if they were putting him on or not.

“Aye!” another Highlander put in. “Storming those bloody entrenchments at Annamore, the lieutenant took a focking grenade to the face, blowing her on her ass, like. To her whoreson pretty face,” he repeated. “And she gets right back up, bleeding out the right side her face—eye, ear, and nostril—just like nothin’s happened. Pulls that bastard sword of hers and leads the Thirty-Second rest of the way up the focking mountain. All the while, our buglers are blowing retreat.”

“Really?” Tannis asked Brenal, looking awed.

“More or less,” Brenal shrugged as she got to her feet. “They exaggerate, of course. I didn’t hear the withdrawal blown because my hearing was blasted all to hell, and these bastards are too dumb not to follow me,” she admitted. A few laughs and a couple cheers followed her comment. “But keep in mind one doesn’t make officer in a Highland infantry regiment by being meek and complacent,” she continued, patting the young man’s shoulder as she passed.

The hero worship in the young man’s eyes was hard to miss.

Thanks for reading, folks! Any comments and feedback are most welcome. Continued in part 4.

May the 4th be with you!

Sartorially Smart Heroines

chiss It occurred to me belatedly today that I screwed up my timing. Today being May the 4th, I totally should have had a Star Wars post ready for Star Wars Day. Drat.

I should have had something from SWTOR or from one of the films or KOTOR or even one of my old drawings, if I still have one around. I should have taken the chance to talk about how much the series meant to me growing up and what the nostalgia behind it still means to me today.

Oh well. Here’s my Chiss Bounty Hunter from Star Wars: The Old Republic. Take care and May the Force (and the 4th) be with you.

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River Andal, Part 2

Continued from part 1. This second scene zooms to Lieutenant Brenal’s sister Lana, who is a dragoon sergeant for Legion XII.

***

“Colonel Vitzroy decided what?” Sergeant Lana Derron nearly shouted, staring at the dispatch rider in disbelief.

“To fucking pull the heavy cavalry,” the dispatcher shrugged helplessly. “With the enemy horse obliterated, he’s pulled out his detachment of cuirassiers and ordered Major Orban’s lancers out as well. He says the heavies are of no use against the infantry column, so he’s not going to risk losing them. Orban’s pissed enough to chew boot leather, but his promotion is on the line, so no way in hell will he go against his commanding officer.”

Lieutenant Oxwell scowled and Captain Yarb slammed his fist against his desk. “That’s bullshit and Vitzroy knows it,” Yarb shouted to no one in particular.

“Vitzy’s a rear-echelon motherfucker,” Lana scoffed, “too fucking poncy to get his uniform muddy. And he’s too afraid of the dark to spend a night without his mistress.”

“This isn’t good,” Yarb muttered, glaring at the maps on his desk. “At this rate they’ll be able to reinforce Tor Andal in two to three days—well ahead of Legion XIX.”

Indeed, this wasn’t good, Lana agreed silently. Though Legion XII had ousted the Separatists from their western holdings, with the infantry tied up occupying the local towns, cities, and fortresses, only their thirteen hundred cavalry were available to harry the column of eleven thousand enemy combatants retreating east toward Tor Andal. Pulling back the cuirassiers and lancers cut the pursuing cavalry to barely eight hundred.

Allowing the column to escape intact would nearly double the number of defenders that Legion XIX would face in their assault on Tor Andal. The thought made Lana grimace in frustration, knowing that her sister and the XXXII Highlanders were currently attached to Legion Nineteen.

“Have Major Orban and his advance force left camp then?” Yarb asked the dispatch rider.

“Yes sir,” the rider answered, “but the main column is still mounting up.”

“Have their supply wagons left as well?”

“They were being loaded last I looked, sir.”

Yarb seemed to consider for a long moment. “Private,” he ordered the dispatcher, “catch up with Major Orban and let him know that I’m commandeering his supplies. Food, fresh horses, spare pistols and ammunition, cuirassier and lancer helmets, even the spare lances and armor: I’m taking all of it.”

“Yes sir.” The rider saluted and hurried from the command tent.

“Lieutenant Oxwell,” the cavalry captain ordered next, “take about two hundred and fifty of our dragoons from this camp and ride to Lieutenant Dorn’s hussar camp and let him know about Vitzy’s change of plan. Ride ahead with Dorn’s company and harass the enemy rearguard as planned, and assure him that I’ll be coming along in his wake with all the spare equipment I can gather, so he’ll have a means to fall back and resupply.”

“Right away, Captain,” Oxwell answered, saluting.

Yarb held up one finger to keep the corporal from leaving just yet. “Sergeant,” the captain said next, turning to Lana, “take a hundred dragoons and try to get ahead of the enemy column. Get up front and harry their advance as best you can. Kill their scouts, ambush foragers and infantry screens, at night sneak close to the camp and snipe their sentries. Try to make as big a fucking nuisance of yourself as possible. Take any supplies you’ll need before you leave, because it’s unlikely you’ll be able to regroup with the wagons.”

“Yes sir,” she saluted grimly. It was a suicide mission, and they both knew it. But they also knew that it had to be done if they had any chance at slowing the enemy column.

“I’ll secure the supplies and have the remaining twenty dragoons escort the wagons, while I catch up with Lieutenant Dorn’s group,” Yarb informed them.

“We’ve got our assignments, dismissed.”

Mustering her dragoons and gathering supplies went quickly and without incident. Lana strapped on her leather brigantine over her dark green dragoon uniform as she checked over her supplies one last time. Over the brigantine she pulled her grey, winter cavalry coat. Over the coat she strapped her sabre and arming belt. Trained to fight both mounted and unmounted, dragoons were primarily skirmisher cavalry, but could flank an enemy formation or hold a fortification if need be. Their arms included a cavalry sabre, carbine, and pistol. Needing to travel light and quickly, Lana had ordered her detachment to pack only their food, ammunition, and bandages, leaving their tents, bedrolls, spare uniforms, and other nonessentials behind.

As she strapped on her black-plumed, black-leather dragoon helmet, Lana thought once again about her twin, Brenal. Colonel Vitzroy’s laziness was about to make Lana’s job a dozen-fold more difficult—and if her dragoons failed their mission, Brenal and Legion XIX’s mission could become nigh impossible.
If anything happens to Brenal, Lana vowed as she mounted her horse, I will personally break Colonel Vitzy’s arms and legs and fuck his mistress to death in front of him.

Continued in part 3.

River Andal, Part 1

Hi folks! Dang, it’s been a while since last I posted here. Definitely need to fix that. I gave up computer games for Lent in effort to force myself to get more writing done, with mixed results. While it’s allowed me to get more work done on the Heroines Blog, I haven’t had the chance to do much with Am I Blogging Now, for which I apologize.

Another project I’ve been working on is a short war story called “Six Miles Up the River Andal.” It takes place in the same world as my First Empress stories, but eighteen hundred years later, with an assumed Napoleonic-Era technology and cultural level. My two immortal characters, Zahnia and Luka (Queen Viarraluca), are still alive and kicking ass, necks deep in war, politics, and intrigue. I’ve decided to post the story to my blog in 8–9 parts to see what kind of response I get from readers. Feel free to leave comments, questions, or criticism. Thanks and take care, folks! (The battle scenes are fairly brutal and I don’t bother to censor the profanity: reader discretion advised.)

***

The Northern Separatist War essentially amounted to a bunch of near-sighted monarchs declaring war on the Tollesian Empire for the right to declare war on each other. Arrogantly so, considering this was about the only right the Emperor denied them. Being so far from the core provinces, the northern protectorates were kept on a much longer leash than regions closer to the capitol. Had they simply declared independence instead of war, the Empire might have even granted them their desire. Evidently the Separatist leaders didn’t consider that possibility.
from An Illustrated History of Warfare on the Northern Continents, by Zahnia, the Chronicler
* * *

It was common geographical knowledge that the only way to invade the city of Tor Andal from the south was to sail up the great Andal River. Densely wooded, unnavigable fenlands covered most of the region between Tor Andal and the Tornis Sea. With no roadways through the fens, invading armies had to sail upriver six miles, or march a hundred miles to the west or two hundred miles to the east-by-southeast to circumnavigate the fens. Thankfully, the Andal River was deep and over a quarter-mile across, easily traversable by large sailing ships.

Grenadier Lieutenant Brenal Derron of the XXXII Highland Infantry of the Tollesian Empire adjusted her scarf against the light, misty snowfall as her company crept through the trees along the east bank of the murky river. Nearly eighteen hundred years ago, the war galleys of Empress Viarraluca I, founder of the Tollesian Empire, had sailed up this very river to attack the allied cities of the renegade Gannic warlord, King Antorix. Today Tollesian warships would once again sail the River Andal to deal with another threat to the stability of their empire.

Tor Andal was one of the last bastions of an uprising of sixteen northern kingdoms that had declared independence from and war upon the great Empire of Tollesia six years past. The separatist coalition had announced their defection by murdering the Emperor’s middle son and his entourage during the prince’s visit to the northern protectorates. Before word of the defection had even reached the Imperial capital at Kel Fimmaril, separatist guerillas ambushed and routed the two Tollesian legions and their auxiliaries stationed in their provinces, sending both legions retreating to friendly territory. From there the separatists rounded up and imprisoned every alleged Tollesian sympathizer they could get their hands on and threatened or invaded neighboring kingdoms who stayed loyal to the Empire.

Brenal had graduated from the Legion Officer’s Academy at Gillar barely a month before the war broke out. Trained as a grenadier infantrywoman, she’d been sent north with her company as part of the Thirty-Second Highlanders to aid Legions XIX and XXIV in their opening retaliation against the separatists. For six years they’d waged a brutal, ugly war through the mountains and forests of the northern empire, sacking cities and battling army regulars as well as guerilla fighters. Brenal had fought on the front lines of every battle the Thirty-Second was involved in, holding and storming entrenchments, attacking and defending cities, and skirmishing with enemy combatants in all types of weather. Almost a year previous, Brenal had lost her right eye and part of the hearing in her right ear to an enemy grenade. The damage to her inner ear was only sufficient to occasionally confuse her directional hearing, but the loss of her right eye had forced her to learn to shoot a musket left-handed.

Sergeant Lana, Brenal’s twin sister, had meanwhile been assigned to a dragoon company with Legion XII and sent north a year later in effort to open up a new front against then western-most of the defecting kingdoms. Though the sisters exchanged letters when conditions allowed, they’d not actually seen each other during that entire six years.

As a woman in a grenadier infantry unit, Brenal was something of an anomaly. The Legions of the Tollesian Empire were originally founded by possibly the greatest warrior queen who ever lived and had possessed enough competent women generals and officers over the centuries that not only did women soldiers make up nearly ten percent of the army, there were harsh penalties in place for rape and other mistreatment of that ten percent. Even so, the majority of these women were stationed in cavalry, skirmisher, artillery, and other support units. For Brenal to be on the front lines at all was an amazing feat, let alone lieutenant in a decorated highland grenadier company.

“Scouts returning, Lieutenant,” a sentry reported, jogging up and saluting.

“Thank you, Private,” Brenal saluted in return. “Akins, pass word for Major Kanel,” she ordered one of her grenadiers as she turned and strode quickly to the front of their column.

Their column was a detachment of around six hundred battle-hardened infantry from Legion XIX, including four hundred fusiliers of the line, a hundred and twenty voltiguer elite skirmishers, and Brenal’s company of seventy-two Highland grenadiers. Their mission was to capture or destroy Tor Andel’s first line of defense: a battery of mortars atop a fortified hillock next to the River Andel. The hill was around two miles downstream from the city and since the advent of sinew-powered artillery had been a favorite location for Tor Andel’s defenders to use when harassing incoming ships. While the dozen mortars atop the hillock probably couldn’t destroy the Tollesian fleet, they had potential to cause enough damage to force the Legions to pull off their attack.

Tallish and dark-haired, Brenal tightened her layered, woolen coat against the chill as she made her way through the winter-dead brush. Her coat was standard-issue slate grey and damned-near bulletproof. Beneath she wore her lieutenant’s cuirass, slightly more ornate than the standard heavy infantryman’s, but made from the same high-grade Tollesian steel. Beneath the armor she wore her Highland infantry uniform: navy-blue coat with red-and-blue tartan kilt. Her head kept safe from the cold by a plain wool scarf and dark blue tam. While the other members of the Thirty-Second were clad nearly identically, the infantrymen from Legion XIX differed in that they wore wool pants and a tri-corner hat instead of kilt and tam, and the voltiguers usually wore a hard-leather jerkin or quilted jack rather than steel cuirass.

Though armament differed, all of the infantry carried similar kit and equipment: rations, bedroll, tent, canteen, mess tin, knife, hatchet, flint and steel, and sapping/entrenching spade. The grenadiers’ standard armament included a pistol, frontline musket and bayonet, and two short-fuse grenades, though some carried a hanger or other small sword for close combat. Fusiliers also carried musket and bayonet, but might opt for a pistol or hanger for their sidearm. As the voltiguers were primarily skirmishers, they carried a long-range rifle without bayonet.

Infantry officers usually carried a sword as well. Sabres were standard issue, but many officers carried rapiers, basket-hilt broadswords, or even long-swords. Brenal outdid these by carrying the bastard sword given to her by her mentor and benefactress, Lady Ellona.

“All of the trees?” a fusilier sergeant was asking as Brenal arrived.

“Aye, eighty to ninety yards in any direction from the base of the hill,” Ina, their scouting chief confirmed. Ina was a tiny woman, easily mistaken for a child, but from Brenal’s observations, she made up for her lack of stature in intelligence, insight, and all-around wiliness.

“You’re saying that there’s no cover then?” Brenal asked, crouching near the tiny, dark-haired woman.

“Virtually none, Lieutenant,” one of the other scouts informed her. “They cut down every bloody tree to build a palisade around the base of the hill. There’s one entrance facing the river and one facing the forest. Looks like they blasted the stumps out as best they could, too.”

Meaning their infantry would be exposed to cannon fire well before they could get into musket range.

“In a way I’m surprised someone didn’t think of it sooner,” Brenal commented. “The palisade gives them additional defensive cover, while minimizing the entrances funnels us into concentrated musket and cannon fire.” She rubbed her eyes briefly. “It’s amazing how much bloody harder this gets when they follow a few smart defensive precautions. How high is their palisade?”

“Six, less than six and a half feet, Lt,” Ina answered.

“Show me,” Brenal ordered the tiny scout.

“Aye, Lieutenant,” Ina nodded. Brenal stood and followed her into the fens, once again amazed at how quickly the tiny woman moved through the brambly foliage. Dressed in a long—for her—coat, Ina had a quick, confident walk that barely made a noise or left a track across the partially-frozen, squishy fenland. As well as her kit, she carried a spyglass, two pistols, and a short sword.

“So I think I’ve figured out why you were so familiar when we first met a week back,” Ina commented as they crept through the fens. “You’re one of Lady Ellona’s wards, aye?”

“I am,” the young lieutenant nodded, stepping over a deadfall, “along with my twin sister and younger brother.” Lady Ellona was the slightly infamous head of the First Empress Merchant Company—the largest merchant company in the Tollesian Empire—and was an advisor to the Emperor himself. “Her ladyship hired mother as an attendant and chambermaid after our noble father squandered his inheritance on cards, ale, and prostitutes and subsequently died from the clap. Our lady adopted us as her wards when mother died saving her from an assassin’s bullet. How do you know Lady Ellona?”

“She’s me oldest living friend, aye,” Ina informed her. “I’ve been abroad the past twelve years, but I correspond with her ladyship regular-like. She insists she’s not much of a teacher, but I’ve yet to meet one of her ‘students’ who doesn’t have the same confident stride and air of competence what you have. That, and ya didn’t have that sword when we met first. He was a bit hard to miss. You know his history?”

Brenal drew the bastard sword from her shoulder scabbard. “I know it’s almost three hundred years old,” she confirmed. “According to my lady’s family’s tradition, it belonged to Ryla, the folk heroine who saved the kingdom of Pren.”

“Aye, he did indeed,” Ina confirmed. “May I see the bugger?” she asked, holding her hands out. Brenal shrugged and set the heirloom sword in the scout’s hands. “There you are, ya wily bastard,” Ina laughed, looking the sword over, the blade alone being as tall as she was. “Come out of retirement to fight beside another smart colleen, aye? Good on you; you always did have an eye for the ladies.” She turned and handed the sword back up to Brenal. “Thanks, Lieutenant, seeing the old bugger’s in action again does me more good than you know. He’s a good lad—take care of him, aye?”

Putting the blade away, Brenal thought she caught a nostalgic tear in the tiny Ina’s eye. “I promise,” was all she could think to say.

Ina nodded and patted the lieutenant’s elbow. “Let’s take a look at that hill,” she motioned, leading the way.

Continued in part 2.

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