A False Start

I am on holiday in the very lovely Cesky Raj and I am looking for an easy subject for a blog post. Fortunately one is close at hand. Last week I announced the release of the second Kormak short story, A Cold and Lonely Place, and this provoked some interesting discussions in the comments and emails I received.

Among the things that came up was my habit of writing first scenes of short stories that I don’t or can’t finish. The reasons for this are alluded to in the comments of the last post. What I thought I would do today is just show you one of those scenes and then talk about why it was a false start. Most of the post is already written and I get to use some writing that’s never seen the light of day. So here’s a 500 word or so opening scene from a Kormak story that never got finished.

Ready? Here we go!


In the kitchen at the back of his shop, Skardus played with his baby, tossing the laughing boy into the air and then hugging him close. He had been inspecting the one year old for stigmata and he was a little worried. The lad looked like a perfectly formed human child except for the tiny claws on his feet and his vestigial tail. It was something they would need to keep hidden until he was old enough to control the Change. Still that was a bridge they would cross when they came to it. The boy gurgled, said da-da and bit at his ear with small sharp teeth. Skardus felt very happy then his wife came into the room with that look on her face that meant there was a problem.

“What is it?” Skardus asked. “What’s wrong?”

“There’s a man out there, says he knows you, smells like trouble.” Marla wrinkled her nose meaningfully. Skardus rose to his feet and still holding the baby padded over to the doorway. The silence of his movement was negated by the baby’s happy burbling. He slid the door partially open and looked out. A big man with greying black hair stood by the polished wooden counter, a sword scabbarded on his back. Something about the stillness of his manner indicated that the human knew he was being watched.

Skardus said as quietly as he could, “I’ll hold him here for as long as I can. Take the baby and run.”

Marla made a movement with her thumb and extruded one of her claws. Any threat to her children brought out the violence that was never far from the surface among their people. She said. “He’s only a human and he does not smell like a sorcerer.”

She spoke with the confidence of one almost invulnerable to mortal weapons. He kissed the baby on the forehead and then handed him to Marla, kissing her as well.

“Go now,” Skardus said and gave her a grim smile. “That human out there could kill us both in half-a-dozen heartbeats and then butcher the little one without the least qualm. Get out! Quick!”

Marla stood there staring for a moment before she headed towards the hidden door that led down into the cellar and out through the tunnels.
It was the fear in his voice that decided her, he could tell. She had never seen him so afraid in all their years of marriage. The baby, sensing the tension between his parents, started to whimper. The sound of it tore at Skardus’s heart. At the trapdoor Marla turned and said, “Why is he here? Why now? Is it to do with our Anton and his bloody friends?”

Skardus shrugged. “Maybe. Doesn’t matter. Go!”

He watched her leave and thought of all the things he should have told her and now might never have the chance to. He fought down the acid bite of fear in his throat and the urge to extrude his own claws and begin the Change. Now was not the time to give in to instinct no matter how much he wanted to. He had not survived for so long by being a slave to the bestial side of his nature.

He smoothed his tunic down with the flat of his palms, opened the door and strode through into the clutter of his shop, knowing he looked every inch the fat successful all-too-human merchant and not in the least like what he truly was. As he got close he caught the scent that had upset his wife. The man smelled of demon blood and ancient darkness, of agony and terror and endless war.

“Sir Kormak,” Skardus said. “This is an unexpected pleasure.”

Eyes cold and grey as the winter sky looked down at him. Very white teeth showed in a scarred, tanned face. “Unexpected? That’s interesting.”

Then and there Skardus knew it was going to be bad.


First up, let me say I actually think this is a pretty good opening. It has an interesting point of view character and the situation is fraught with story hooks and questions.

I like the way it shows us events through the eyes of someone who would normally be seen as a villain, and I like the way it depicts Kormak, who we normally see as a reasonably sympathetic and heroic individual, as quite terrifying. I had the vague idea of having poor old Skardus press-ganged into helping Kormak track down some of his renegade kin as you can tell from the mention of our Anton. So why didn’t I finish it?

I began the story some time ago, round about the time I was writing City of Strife. I had the idea of using the story to get some insight into the character of the main antagonists in the novel who were were-rats. When the novel took off on its own merry path, I put the short story on the back-burner. The vision of the ratkin revealed in that book made what I had written here obsolete and kind of burned me out on the subject matter. There was a sense of been there, done that by the time I had completed the novel.

The opening does need some work. It’s a bit vague in terms of its setting and some of the language is a bit clunky, but reading it again I did feel the urge to tinker and maybe get back to it one day. Hey, it took me 8 years to get back to the rough draft of the second Kormak novel. I might manage to get back to this story in a shorter time.


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Comments

  1. Michael says:

    Well I’d read it if you finished it… Funnily enough, I didn’t make Skardus as a were-rat, and actually had him down as some sort of minor-demon. I like what you say about seeing Kormak from the outside. In the past, that’s let him face down various enemies, but I haven’t seen him as the scary figure he must be. It reminds me of Frodo asking Galadriel if it’s true that she is dangerous, and her answer that anyone could be seen that way, not least Frodo, son of Drogo…

    Good stuff.

    Oh, and something I was thinking of the other day – have you ever thought of doing “Young Kormak” stories? You know, back in the days when he was still a laugh a minute swashbuckler. “A song, a smile, a blade through your gizzard.” You could give him an irritating sidekick, and maybe a comedy war-horse. No? Just a thought…

    • Thanks, Michael– I did consider doing some flashbacks to the Orc Wars at one point. That was a younger, more heroic Kormak but probably not noticeably less grim. If anything I suspect he has mellowed with age.

  2. Tony Graham says:

    Bohemian Paradise, huh? Well if that doesn’t recharge your mental batteries, I’m not sure what would. 🙂

    Great opening for a Kormak short story. The point of view offers a wealth of opportunity to illustrate Kormak, his order and the world they inhabit.

    I remember reading Count Zero by Gibson and the strong impression the writing made on me – particularly the physical description of one of the protagonists, Turner, through the eyes of one of the other characters. I have a detailed mental image of Turner still. This short story opening invites that same sort of device – how do strangers perceive Kormak?

    Perhaps, you could lose the wererat angle and reconstruct Skardus & his family as one of the multitude of people/groups who might be of interest to the Order of the Dawn. There have to be a wealth of people who live in fear of the Order, whether their fear is founded or not. Like the man who cheats on his meager income tax then lives in fear of the Revenue Men breaking down his door, Skardus could be a dabbler of no importance. But from his own point of view, Skardus has been playing with fire for years and now the Order is after him!

    What if Skardus is just a hedge wizard? Afflicted with prescience?
    What if Marla is an Old One playing at the mortal experience with Skardus, her merely human husband, who is fully aware of her nature? Two-for-one chance to reveal more about Kormak, the Old Ones and the mysterious Pact.

    Skardus discovering Kormak has no real interest in him, instead looking to press-gang him into some service, opens the doors to so many plot and character hooks. Big opportunities to show how the world views Kormak and his Order.

    It’s already clear folk in the world have serious pre-conceived notions of Kormak and his Order, this opening invites a tale that twists those expectations, for the characters and the reader.

    It certainly fires my imagination at all the possibilities.

    Enjoy Paradise!

    • Thanks Tony– many of Gibson’s openings have lived in my memory for thirty odd years. I found myself quoting the starts of half a dozen of his short stories and a couple of his novels to my eldest just the other day. Can’t even remember why I was doing it now. Count Zero is among my favourites– it invokes an entire world and lifestyle in a couple of paragaraphs.

      Some of your Kormak suggestions have been on my mind of late in a slightly different context. I was reading about the Cathar heresy and it brought up a number of possibilities for investigative stories.

      There’s an entire plotline seen from the point of view of an Old One in the upcoming Born of Darkness. Writing that has been an interesting experience. There are also some hints about the powers behind the Solar religion.

  3. Tony Graham says:

    I’m a big fan of investigative stories. I think the fantasy genre is ripe for the mix – particularly when the writer understands the rules (you aptly displayed your capabilities with The Inquiry Agent) of both genres. As mentioned in previous comments, Kormak is a natural for such stories.

    Cathar Heresy + Solar religion + Order of the Dawn: can’t wait to see what emerges from that. Schism in the church? What side will Kormak come down on? What to cling to when he can’t fall back on dogma? Now that makes my literary chops salivate. Careful, that could easily grow past a single novel. 🙂

    In the meantime, I’m really looking forward to Born of Darkness!

    • The Cathar heresy stuff was fascinating in a Le Carre sort of fashion. There was lots of treachery, double agents and just pure human greed and cruelty going on– you know, you get to annex the land of suspected heretics so hey, just by coincidence that neighbour you never liked and whose land you coveted just turns out to be a heretic– who knew?

      The Solar religion is somewhat like the Terrarchs religion– not a coincidence I suspect–it’s dualist the way the Cathar and Bogomil heresies were– Zoroastrian in terms of the theology. I’ve been thinking about the interaction of politics and theology in the background of the series of late. It started to become important.

      Born of Darkness is set in Siderea with a king who talks to angels and who people think is a saint. It also has quite an awesome artefact of the Elder Age sitting in Trefal Cathedral– a suit of armour belonging to an Angel which it has to be said looks not unlike a Gundam battlesuit.

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