Brown River Queen cover art

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Steampunk Forever

The present, it must be noted, sucks.

Part of the reason it sucks is because today it's perfectly acceptable to say 'this sucks.' Our forebears would have expressed the same emotion with far more eloquence and wit, stating perhaps something like this:

The times in which we find our ourselves inspire equal portions of horror and dismay. Chaos and banditry surround us at every hand, and unrest greets us at every turn. Men and women of all ages have been eternally subject to the whims of fate, but never before have these whims been so full of malice and contempt for the very faces upon which they blow.

Now that's just lyrical. But it won't fit in a Tweet, so we moderns proclaim 'this sucks' and go on to yell at people on Facebook.

So I'm resetting my personal clock to an 1888 that never was. In my new reality, Charles Babbage's mechanical calculating engine worked. Nicola Tesla found a wealthy financier, and from his laboratory came wondrous machines that put those of Edison to shame. 

Mighty airships ply the skies. Air piracy rises as well, and battles are fought in the heavens using Tesla's deadly rays, which dwarf and outshine the lightning. 

Scientific progress made leaps that our own history skipped. A new world emerged, sounding of the hiss of steam, the determined turning of gears, and the crackle and hiss of strange energies barely contained.

I think that's a world worth living in.

Of course, I can't live there full-time, but I can don my steampunk ghostbuster's aether pack and my Victorian clothes and wander around SF/F conventions without getting hauled away to answer a lot of nervous questions about the machine strapped to my back. 

I'll be cosplaying as a steampunk ghostbuster at the upcoming Memphis Comic and Fantasy Convention, where I'm also on a number of paranormal panels. 

Yes, these are images of me, transformed into period-accurate photographs. I like posing for these, because no one smiled in photos until after 1950, and I just can't smile on command. 

I know, I know, cosplaying is generally thought of as a pursuit for a younger, thinner crowd. But I enjoy it so I'm going to do it. 

One of the (few) advantages of getting older is the realization that one no longer cares what anyone thinks of them. Act my age? No. I'll act as I wish, and if that offends anyone, I simply don't care. 

So, if you are planning to attend the Comic and Fantasy Convention, and you see this gentleman in the halls, stop and say hello. 

We of the year 1888 enjoy conversations with strangers, who most often are revealed to be friends we are meeting for the very first time. 

Also, look up my panel schedule, and sit in on a few! I'm bringing some of my DIY paranormal investigative gear, and we'll swap stories. It will be, as we say, a smashing good time.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Proton Pack Redux

I made a few changes and additions to the Steampunk Ghostbuster Proton Pack this week. 
Most notably, it now has sound!
The small lighted Bluetooth player mounted at the top takes microSD cards, so I built a looping sound file to add some life to the thing. The track is 15 minutes long, and then it just repeats until I turn the player off.
I went through several sound builds until I found one I liked. The first couple sounded great, but were a bit too modern to fit the steampunk theme of the pack. Finally, I went back to the drawing board, laid down a background of hissing steam and shuttling gears, and then added in a few bells, the scrape of metal on metal, a bit of antique sewing machine, and a dash of randomly-reversed chime sounds.
I think the end result fits the build perfectly. I posted a short video with the sounds and lights running below.
If anyone is curious, I built the soundtrack using Audacity, which is a free sound editing program so easy to use even a Frank can run it. The image below shows part of the audio creation process. Each row represents a different audio track. You can move them, apply various effects, add, delete, and re-arrange as much as you like. Then you merge the tracks, and viola! Your very own audio track.

You can probably guess by looking at what some of the tracks represent. The top one, the fat one, is the steam hiss. The second from the bottom, the regular series of small ticks, is a clock. The rest are bursts of sounds I thought were interesting.
All the sounds were free, downloaded from 
As promised, the video is below. It's pretty dark, but dammit, Jim, I'm a writer, not a cinematographer.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Markhat Art!

The painting above was done by local artist Thomas Grosskopf, and it's a beauty. Depicted are Darla, Markhat, Mama Hog, and a few of their fanged foes.

Thomas lives in Abbeville, a small town just a few miles from Oxford. We'd never met, until the librarian at my old alma mater, Lafayette High school, asked me to come and give a talk to the book club a couple of Fridays ago.  

I did, and I was gobsmacked when Thomas presented me with the painting above. Turns out he's a Markhat fan, and he certainly captured the characters. Mama Hog has never made a book cover, but that's a perfect rendition of her.

You can see more of Thomas's art at the Bozarts Art Gallery on 403 Main Street in Water Valley, Mississippi.

Thomas, thanks again for the stunning painting! It's always an incredible experience when your books inspire art. 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Knocking Man

Finally. It's October.

I love everything about October. The scary movies, the Halloween decorations, the first hint of chill in the air. The falling leaves. The sight of my lawn mowers sitting idle in the corner of the garage.

Yes, it's my favorite time of the year.

In honor of October, I'd like give you a free audio story that I think fits the spooky mood perfectly. By following the link below, you can listen to me reading my short story 'The Knocking Man.'

It's a half hour long, so settle back, grab something to drink, and hit the play button. I hope you like it. 


For next week, I hope to have some new ghostly EVPs for you to listen to. I'll be taking my gear out to various cemeteries in hopes of capturing voices that are hard to explain. 

Until then, enjoy The Knocking Man. 

I've also added some new lighting features to my steampunk ghostbuster's proton-aether pack. The pictures are below. I plan to wear this somewhere, for Halloween, despite the sad fact that the things weighs as much as a brand new Chevy Volt.

Here it is, propped against my workshop wall, in dim light:

The shot below was taken in the dark, with all the lights set for always on -- they can also flash, which is the setting I'll use for some of them.

I'm pretty happy with it, especially since it's made from junk plumbing parts, an old motorcycle clutch, and the guts of a vacuum cleaner. 

See you next Sunday! And remember, if you want to leave a review for WAY OUT WEST, it's only a click away...

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Broken Promises

Just last week, I claimed I wouldn't be talking anymore about the new Markhat book, Way Out West.

Turns out I lied. That happens a lot -- but Big Al's Books and Pals, the renowned indie book review site, featured Way Out West last week, and I just can't let that pass unannounced.

You can read the full review by clicking below:

Review of Way Out West by Big Al's Books and Pals

Did they like the book?

That's always the first question that springs to mind when I get notice of a book review. Here's the book you spent months slaving over, sweating blood over, pouring your heart and soul into -- and now it's out there, all alone in the wild, facing its audience for the first time.

It's a scary moment. No two people are going to come away from a book with the same experience. I know of books that are beloved by people -- smart people, people with taste and discernment -- that left me scratching my head and wondering what all the fuss was about. There are even highly-touted books that I read and loathed. Which isn't to say they're bad books, by any means. They just weren't right for me.

So what if my book wasn't right for that particular reviewer? What if they read it, and hated it with the burning fury of ten thousand bright young suns? What if they publicly declare their hatred for the book to an audience of hundreds, or thousands? What if I've crawled so far under this heavy sofa out of sheer terror that I can't get free and my corpse is found years later, much to the amusement of the readership of Fark?

Two things happened, concerning the review in Big Al's. First, they liked the book. And second, I was able to squirm free of the sofa after a forty-five minute struggle. 

So it is with an immense sense of relief and no small level of back pain that I can post an excerpt from the review.

"It’s a wild ride of murder, intrigue, and time warps. New characters who play important parts are written with depth and style. Darla is sharp and takes on an impressive role as Markhat realizes he married up in class.

There are delightful surprises among the darkness of this tale and more twists in the plot than any roller-coaster ever invented."

Now that's the kind of review that I live for. Because it means that maybe, just maybe, the book worked.

Novels are a lot like engines made out of words and pauses and pacing. Mostly words. You try and put the right words in the right places, in the hope that the whole of them will take on a life of their own. You hope that the reader sits down and turns the ignition with the first dozen words, and that the book cranks right up and takes the reader on a ride they won't soon forget.

That's the fear of every writer when a review comes up. The fear that somewhere along the road from Chapter One to The End, the engine just sputters and dies, or veers into the dread ditch of boredom. When that happens, it's trip over, and another book is always ready to pick up the stranded and offer them a ride.

But that's the nature of the beast. You do your best and then sit back and hope for the best.While you work on yet another little engine that might.

I am especially glad that the reviewer picked up on Darla's growth too. I've got big plans for her, and she is rising easily to the demand. So much so that The Darla Diaries may start appearing sometime next year.

So that's one important review I can file under 'five stars.' 

Makes all the blood, sweat, and tears worthwhile.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Who's Reading My Books?

I've been compiling statistics concerning my readership, particularly of the Markhat books.

How do I collect this data, you ask?

Nosey, aren't you, I reply. But since you asked, I managed to crack Amazon's mysterious book-ranking feature, so I now have access to some data not available to the public. 

Here's how my readership breaks down, ranked in descending order of total impact:

  • Readers chained in my basement.
  • That guy who's been stuck in the Dakar airport in Senegal since 2010.
  • Mrs. M. O. Feinstien, of Flushing, who still disapproves of the name 'Markhat.' Sorry, Mrs. Feinstein, it's too late to change his name now.
  • The pair of NSA analysts who started compiling a dossier on me since I searched 'airports in North Africa' just a few minutes ago.
  • The students of Miss Krieger's fourth-year World Cultures class, who despite being in Liechtenstein were assigned 'Brown River Queen' as required reading material. I think this was a clerical error, kids, but my no-refunds policy is still in play. Deal with it, or, as they say in Liechtenstein, 'komm damit klar.' 
  • The Dalai Lama. Thanks for all the fan mail, dude, and yes we've totally got to 'throw back a few suds' one of these days. You party animal you.

Armed with this vast array of data, I can now fine-tune my marketing efforts. And by 'marketing efforts,' I mean increase the frequency of the beatings down in the basement.

 Way Out West has already garnered reader reviews on Amazon. My favorite of these is the one below, which is a direct quote from the book:

Well done, RedHerrin, well done! And thanks. 

Seriously, book marketing is hard. I really have no idea what to do -- blog tours? Tweets? A barrage of 'Hey read my book' posts (like this one)? 

I've decided against pretty much all of those avenues. My plan is to just work on a new book and hope people like Way Out West enough to talk about it. 

So this is probably the last time I'll mention the book, unless there is an actual need to discuss it. I will announce the availability of the print edition, which should be ready in a few days. It will be priced at $9.99, which is about as low as I can price it without actually losing money on each sale.

That said, here's one more link to the book, and one more picture of the cover, for anyone who missed the previous blog, which announced the book's release.

WAY OUT WEST for Kindle


And the cover, which I love with a love most unseemly:

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Way Out West

Here it is, folks.

The tenth title in the Markhat Files series, Way Out West, is now on sale in Kindle format on Amazon, and as a Kobo ebook from the Kobo site!

Here are the links:

WAY OUT WEST on Amazon, in Kindle format.

WAY OUT WEST on Kobo, in Kobo format.

Other formats will follow, probably later this week. There will be a Nook version, an Ibook version, and a Google Play edition. The print book will also be available on Amazon shortly.

I could have waited to do a full-spread release, but since 99% of my sales are Kindle ebooks, I decided to go ahead and launch today.

That's the cover above. I love this cover; the artist got everything right. I wanted Darla front and center this time, to reflect her equal role in the book. I think her expression is perfect -- she's clearly a woman to be reckoned with. 

The locomotive is there, too. The train in the book is named the Western Star, and I wanted it featured as well, since it's the setting. There's also a clue to a pivotal scene hidden in the cover, but that's for readers to discover on their own.

So what's this book about?

It's about home. About leaving home. About changes. About making those decisions that all of us face from time to time. Stay or go. Fight or flee. Play it safe, or take a chance.

I realized when I finished writing Way Out West that it was heavily influenced by current events. Like it or not -- and I don't -- our world is changing. Every year is the hottest on record. Society is in turmoil. There are storms brewing on every horizon, and unless you've got a vault stuffed with money, places to hide are hard to find.

Darla and Markhat are in the same situation. Old magic is creeping back into their world, changing the landscape as it moves and strengthens. Rannit's walls may have withstood the War, but they'll provide no defense now. Not when monsters stroll the streets.

That sounds dark. Yes, there are dark aspects to the book, but I hope you'll come away from the experience with a sense that there is still good in the world, most often right at your side.

Mama Hog is back, of course. So are Slim and Buttercup, Evis and Gertriss. Magic and murder, guns and sorcerers, wise-cracks and close calls -- it's a wild ride.

I hope everyone enjoys the book. And if you do, (ENGAGE BEGGING MODE) please leave a review. 

I'll post updates when the other versions go live. It won't be long, so if Kindle ebooks aren't your preferred format, don't worry.

I do hope you enjoy Way out West

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Not Long Now

If you've been waiting for the new Markhat book, your wait is nearly over.
Editing is done. A bit of formatting remains, but not much -- I expect to release the new book, WAY OUT WEST, in a few weeks. Maybe just a couple.
This will be the tenth entry in the series. For anyone unfamiliar with the previous titles, they are, in order, as follows:
And now, WAY OUT WEST.
Markhat has enjoyed quite a career, one I never saw coming the first time he walked onto the page and started cracking wise to all and sundry. He's faced murderous magics, grappled with sinister sorcereries, tackled mad magicians and phantom murderers and flat beers with equal aplomb.
So I'm thrilled to offer this latest adventure, and it's one I truly hope you enjoy.
I will tell you this much -- this one is set on a train. Specifically, a steam locomotive, bound for the wastelands left empty and in ruin by the War. The wastes are slowly repopulating, with towns springing back to life along the railroad, and Markhat's new case takes him to the end of the line.
Darla is a full partner in this story. I've come to enjoy writing her as much as I do Markhat. I've even toyed with the idea of a spin-off series featuring Darla'a own adventures, told by her (The Darla Diaries?). If someone can please provide me with an extra three to five hours a day, I'll get started at once.
Next week, I'll reveal the cover for WAY OUT WEST here in the blog.
Today, though, I'll provide you with an excerpt from the book. No spoilers, no secrets revealed -- just a single scene, to give you a taste until the whole book is available.
The scene takes place shortly after the Western Star leaves Rannit. They've just entered the plains, when the locomotive comes to a screeching unscheduled halt.
The bar car was pandemonium.
Shattered glass and spilled booze covered the floor. Half the occupants had their faces pressed to the windows while the other half made for the door.
Darla and Gertriss, bless them, were back to back by the door, pistols drawn.
“We didn’t do it,” I yelled, over the din. “Evis. Follow the crowd. Keep an eye out for long thin knives or people sneaking into sleeping compartments. Gertriss. Watch Evis. Darla. With me.”
Evis nodded and charged the door, Gertriss on his heels. Darla took my hand and we followed, shouldering our way through the crowd.
By the time we reached the platform between cars, the Western Star was stopped. Her steam engine still chugged, and her funnel still belched smoke, so I was at least reassured we hadn’t exploded. Yet.
I shoved a pair of hesitant riders aside and put boots on the gravel track bed. Darla hopped down after, and together we sprinted past the stopped cars, watched the whole time by rows of worried faces.
Gravel crunched behind us. I turned to see a small mob of brave souls following in our wake, led by the stumbling clown. He saw me turn and honked his red nose at me, nearly tripping from the effort.
The Western Star was nineteen cars, not counting the tender and the locomotive. I was huffing and puffing by the time we drew even with the engine, and unable to cuss when I saw what lay ahead.
“What the hell?” said Darla, who wasn’t even panting.
A mastodon, the biggest one I’d ever seen, was sitting on the tracks, waving its hairy trunk back and forth between its monstrous yellow tusks. And I do mean sitting—its back legs, all forty tons of them, were folded so that the beast’s wide ass was planted across the tracks.
The mastodon’s musk was so powerful my eyes began to burn, and I had to struggle not to gag. Horseflies buzzed thick about us.
“Those are Trolls,” said Darla, lowering her revolver and hiding it behind her skirt.
I nodded. Flanking the mastodon was a pair of Trolls, also seated, remaining still and silent in what I understood to be a Trollish gesture of friendly respect.
Huddled in a nervous mob at the locomotive’s blunt prow was Engineer Stoddard and a pair of sooty toughs I assumed were coal shovelers.
“Trolls and their horse,” I said.
“Why would they park their horse on the tracks?” Darla asked.
“Because they can park it anywhere they damn well please, I suppose,” I said. Engineer Stoddard turned, saw me, and smiled the kind of smile one reserves for delivering bad news to people you don’t like.
“Well, there he is,” he barked, hooking a thumb over his shoulder. “I’ve already sent for the basket of apples. You get to deliver it. That’s the Watchman’s job, dealing with Trolls.”
His burly fire-men snorted until Darla let them see her revolver.
“Apples?” I asked. “Why apples?”
Stoddard shrugged. “Because they like apples. How the hell should I know? They’re Trolls, they don’t make no sense. They stop the train. You give them apples, let them talk Troll bullshit until they get done. They move their Troll horse, and we waste a half a damned day getting back up to speed. That’s the job, fancy man. Now it’s your job. Here’s the apples.”
Rowdy came charging up, dragging one side of a bushel basket of apples while another conductor dragged the other.
“I’ll go with you, Captain,” Rowdy said.
“Hell you will,” snarled Stoddard. “That’s a Watch job. You’re with the C&E. Get back to your car.”
“Go on, kid,” I said softly. “I can manage.”
Darla stepped up and shot a killing glare at the engineer. “I’ll take this side, dear,” she said. Her revolver had vanished as quickly as a magician’s trick rabbit. “We wouldn’t want to impose upon the C&E by asking them to do a man’s job, now would we?”
I grinned and grabbed the other handle. Engineer Stoddard’s face turned the vibrant red of a ripe tomato.
“No indeed, wife,” I replied. “I’m sure they’ve got a full day of cowering to do.” I tipped my hat to the railroad men as we passed them. “Mind you don’t soil your underbritches, gentlemen.”
If they had any retort, the Western Star herself rendered it inaudible with a long billowing discharge of compressed steam.
Gravel crunched behind us, as the clown raced to catch up. “Don’t mind me,” he said. “Don’t worry about the Trolls, either. They’re friendly.”
“How do you know that?” asked Darla.
“Because we ain’t dead,” he replied. “Here, I’ll go first.”
And he did, charging up to the larger of the two Trolls before breaking into a clumsy, bumbling dance.
“That is either the drunkest man I’ve ever seen, or the bravest,” said Darla.
“Both,” I replied. The apple basket was heavy. We took our time, so I got a good look at both Trolls before stepping within smiting distance.
The rightmost was typical Troll—a towering mass of muscle and fur decorated with foot-long talons and piercing Troll eyes. He was naked, save for a cargo belt and an ornamental necklace made from weathered human skulls, each missing the lower jaw and strung together through ragged holes on each side of the cranium.
The Troll on the left was half the size of the other. His fur was dark, almost black, and though his eyes were every bit Troll warrior, they darted about constantly and something like a grin shaped his toothy maw.
“Is that a child?” whispered Darla.
“I think so,” I replied. “Unusual. They’re shy about bringing their youngsters around humans.”
The adult Troll started clapping in time to the clown’s ridiculous dance. “Ho, ho, ho,” it boomed, followed by a string of wet Troll words that might have been a cheerful greeting or a graphic description of the dismemberment to come.
We dragged the bushel of apples as close as I dared. “Greetings, Walking Stone,” I said, taking off my hat. “May your shadow fall tall and your soul grow to meet it.”
The Troll nodded but kept clapping. The railroad clown danced gamely on, gasping for breath but, by the Angels, keeping his too-large shoes shuffling in the gravel.
“Show him an apple before I have a stroke,” muttered the clown. “I can’t keep this up all damned day.”
Darla snatched up a ripe red apple. “For you and yours, Walking Stone,” she said, holding the fruit aloft. “A gift, given in friendship.”
The Troll ended his claps with a bellow and a laugh.
The clown dropped to his knees and vomited. Both Trolls erupted into fresh gales of laughter.
“It is good to be greeted with mirth,” boomed the adult Troll, in passable Kingdom. “We accept your gifts.” He switched back to a Trollish gargle, and the smaller of the pair marched forward, careful to keep his mouth closed and his fangs hidden.
“We are indeed a mirthful folk,” I said, as the Troll youngster approached. “Mirthful, friendly, and mostly unarmed. My name is Markhat. This is my wife, Darla.”
“I’m Jiggles,” said the clown, still mopping his chin with his filthy sleeve. “Pleased to meet you all, yer lordships.” He gave his false nose a desultory honk.
The elder Troll nodded. “We saw the wounded sky, and knew a hurried iron horse approached,” he said. “My son Iron-in-Legs wished to see his namesake, before we quit these lands.”
The Troll kid took the basket from Darla with a wink. He shoved a handful of apples in his maw and started chewing them before he turned and took the basket back to papa.
“Named after a train, is he?” I replied. “Well, that’s a first. Tell you what, Walking Stone. Why not bring your son on the train, let him have a closer look? He could even blow the whistle. Would he like that?”
The Troll tilted his head at me, and for an awful moment I was afraid I’d unwittingly delivered some dire insult. But then the Troll laughed and exchanged a few words with his son, whose responses were somewhat hampered by his mouthful of half-chewed apples.
“That would indeed be an honor,” the adult Troll replied at last. “Although our agreement with the iron road men does not extend to such liberties.”
“It does today,” I said, while Darla tried to shush me. “The iron road men will do as I say. Isn’t that right, dear?”
“I sincerely hope it is,” Darla said.
I made a sweeping gesture toward the Western Star. “Please, be my guests,” I said. “Bring your horse, if you wish. Our tender car has great big water tanks. He may drink from those.”
Darla bit back a snort.
“That is indeed most generous,” replied the Troll. He turned, and bellowed to the mammoth. It replied with a loud, clearly annoyed sigh and rose from its haunches to lumber up behind the Trolls.
I turned. “Follow us, friends,” I said, and I set off at a good clip.
“Mister, you should have been a clown,” said Jiggles. “You’ve got the damned mouth for it.”
“Never got the hang of juggling,” I replied.
“That engineer is going to be livid,” Darla whispered. “No wonder we’re never invited to parties.”
“Merely doing my part to establish trust and cooperation with our Trollish brethren,” I replied. Indeed, as the thunderous tromping of the mammoth and the Troll’s happy booming conversation reached the Western Star, dozens of faces turned our way. Most of the crowd milling about outside the train cars made their way hurriedly back inside.
Stoddard was the only man standing by the time my impromptu parade reached the locomotive.
“This is Engineer Stoddard,” I said, turning to face the Trolls. “He drives the hurried iron horses. He is delighted to meet you both, and he welcomes you aboard his train with open arms and a smiling, eager heart. Isn’t that right?”
“What the hell—” Stoddard began.
“Furthermore,” I added, “he invites your mighty horse to slake his thirst from the C&E’s complimentary and no doubt sparkling water. See that the tank car’s water cover is removed, Engineer Stoddard, that’s a good man.” I pushed the sputtering engineer aside and gestured for the Trolls to climb aboard. I’ve not spent much time around mastodons, but this one either knew the word water or his snout functioned as an exceptionally keen nose, because he was already pacing beside the locomotive, exploring its intricate workings with his trunk. “Follow me, gentlemen. Mind your heads. The opening may be a bit low for Trollish persons.”
Stoddard cussed but barked out orders. The mastodon eased tensions by lifting its tail and depositing a steaming ten-bushel heap of dung damned nearly in Stoddard’s face.
I swung myself up on the locomotive’s step and offered Darla my hand. I moved quickly inside to make room as a furry Troll foot came down on a locomotive’s iron bones for the first time in history, I guessed.
The pounding of human feet charging for the back cars sounded over the steady chugging of the steam pistons.
“It stinks,” opined the adult Troll, squeezing his nostrils shut. Even stooped and huddled as best he could, the adult Troll could barely fit his massive frame through the Western Star’s cramped locomotive gangway.
The younger Troll, though, managed to sidle his way all the way to the front of the engine. He gurgled out words that I’m sure meant ‘Look, Papa, shiny machines!’ before he charged directly into the engineer’s cab.
Stoddard, his face the color of burning coal, managed to squeeze himself past the Troll and plant himself firmly in front of the brass levers and wheels that operated the train. “If Trolls wreck this train, I swear I’ll see you pay for it,” he growled at me.
“Show him the whistle,” I replied. “The kid wants to blow it.”
Stoddard’s eyes bulged, but he reached up and pulled hard at a worn iron lever.
The Western Star’s steam whistle blew, three short blasts. “Tell him not to tear it out of the works,” said the engineer.
The kid didn’t need any prompting. His furry Troll paw closed on the lever and he yanked and let the whistle sound until Poppa Troll muttered something in Troll.
The kid let go. My ears rang, but I kept my smile.
“You can tell everyone you made the hurried iron horses sing,” I said. The elder Troll translated for me, and the kid responded finally with a single solemn Trollish nod.
“You do us honor,” said the elder Troll. He clambered down from the train and stretched, his briefly extended claws flashing bright and white in the sun. “Walk with me, as we depart.”
We walked. The kid took up the rear, stealing glances at the train and munching down apple after apple.
Darla came too, and didn’t bat an eye when the mastodon’s massive trunk, still dripping from his drink at the tank car, took a curious sniff at her hat.
“The hurried iron horse stank of more than the coal,” said the adult Troll as soon as we were well away from the train. “It stank of the magic your folk employ. The dark magic. You have a special word for such stinking magics…”
“Sorcery?” I asked.
“Yes. That word. Be warned. Such a stench alone is cause for alarm, for turning, for seeking a new path. But your peril is threefold. The radiant child approaches from the east. The gray fate from the west, drawn by the dark. This thing you call the train, it is to be a meeting place. You would do well to come with us. My horse may bear the happy burden of many friends.”
I nodded, choosing my next words carefully. “I am honored, Walking Stone, to be named among your friends. I must remain with the train, though, as my own friends are bound to it, and I am determined to see them safe.”
The Troll shrugged. He reached into one of the pouches attached to his belt, and produced a small bundle of weeds and sticks bound together with twine.
“Take this,” he said, tossing me the bundle. It smelled of sage and Troll. Mostly Troll. “You gave Iron-in-Legs a boon. I give a boon to you. This was blessed by a word from the Wise. Burn it in an hour of need. The smoke will bear the power of the word. May it serve you well.”
I nodded gravely. “I thank you, Walking Stone. You do me and mine honor.”
The Troll blinked, and we set out again, still meandering through the tall plains grass.
“You said earlier you are quitting these lands, Walking Stone,” said Darla, after a time. “Might I ask why?”
The Troll swiveled his big dark eyes about, and his voice fell to a hoarse Troll whisper. “Many things, dark and light, are awakening,” he said. “Waking, to walk. More join their number with every sunrise. The day is approaching when the old tales will be flesh, the old terrors born anew.” The Troll turned to look at me. “Do your folk not see this too?”
“We’ve seen,” I said, thinking of river monsters and the Slilth. “But what are we to do?”
“My folk seek our old lands, the lands of the low sun, the lands of ice and the skies of the cold fire,” said the Troll.
His son spit out a gob of apple-seeds and the elder Troll batted him casually on the back of his head.
“Just how far north are you heading?” I asked.
“As far as there is land underfoot,” he replied. His voice fell even further. “Though the wise among us say that may not be far enough. Even the face of the Moon is troubled, friend. This is a new thing that even the Wise have not seen.”
Darla’s hand closed on mine.
“We wish you well,” I said, when the mastodon halted, and the Trolls gathered by its side. “Safe travels, and warm beds.”
“It is a brave man who chooses to walk with death,” the Troll replied. “A brave wife who walks beside him. May your shadows fall tall and your souls grow to meet them.”
Darla gasped. She knew enough about Trollish etiquette to realize what a profound gesture the Troll just made by speaking the traditional blessing to us.
Both Trolls made flat-footed flying leaps from the dirt to the mastodon’s furry shoulders. The elder Troll bellowed, and the mastodon turned and trundled away north, trailing horseflies and stink.
Darla and I watched them go.
I didn’t realize for a moment she was shivering. It wasn’t cold.
“Look, that was all a lot of frontier hooey,” I said. “Trolls are worse than Mama Hog when it comes to seeing boogeymen behind every bush.”
“That’s absolutely factual,” said Darla. “But you know damned well everything he said was true. Every word of it.”
I frowned. “Radiant children? Gray dooms? Sorcery on the train? Someone knifed a Watchman, sure, but that’s just plain old murder.”
She turned to face me. “Even Bel Loit won’t be far enough, will it?” she asked. I could see her eyes moving, see her taking in the empty grassy plain, the wide blue skies, the retreating mammoth and its riders.
“Nothing coming but tomorrow, hon,” I said. “It’ll be just another day. Only difference is that I’ll be slightly more distinguished, and therefore irresistible.”
She kicked me in the shins, but her heart wasn’t in it. I grabbed her up in a fierce hug about the time the Western Star’s whistle began to blow.
“That man is furious,” Darla said as we put our backs to the retreating Troll horse and made for the train.
“Railroad men,” I said with a dramatic sigh. “Always angry, always in a hurry. They’re not serene like us.”
The mammoth bellowed in a long, sonorous reply to the train whistle. We marched on, the grass whipping about our knees.
A pale gray disk of moon rode high in the cloudless sky. If the face of it was troubled, I couldn’t discern it. I did wonder if Stitches was still up there, cataloging her trove of wonders, all alone.
The whistle sounded again, three short blasts, and then the Star’s steam engine groaned and roared. Great billows of steam shot from her undercarriage. A fat plume of black coal smoke began to pour from her funnel, and as we watched the mighty pistons stirred and the great iron wheels squealed as they turned.
We had to run to catch up and haul ourselves aboard. Darla was laughing, and I suppose I was too, and we stood there on the steps for a long time just watching the endless plains quickly pass us by.
....continued in WAY OUT WEST!
That's just a very small excerpt from the book. I do hope you'll come along for the ride.