Sunday, June 7, 2009

Heroes... Prologue - "Darkness"

Jorski Thurnam – known as “Horse” to his friends, and Watchman Thurnam to the rest of the city – stood in the middle of the intersection, and looked up the Street of Nets to where every oil lamp along one block had been extinguished. He cocked his head just a bit and focused on the mystery in front of him. For several hundred feet, the lamps on both sides of the street were burning. Beyond that, they were dark. He took a long draw on the pipe in his mouth, before tucking the briar into his belt. He glanced around. It was fairly quiet, as it often was in this part of town, this time of night. He unwound the strap that tied his truncheon to his belt. Weapon in hand, he started up the street toward the smear of darkness. He quickly left the large warehouses behind and moved into a neighborhood of small shops and rowhouses. He slowed as he came to Gundrin Way, the first cross-street, and heard the clatter of hooves on cobbles. One of the city’s black-painted broughams raced by, nearly cutting him off. Had he not been distracted, he would have banged on the side of it with his truncheon as it passed. It was moving much too quickly.

After it passed, he broke into a jog. He hurried to the end of the block, passing a beggar sitting beneath a lit lamp and a pair of young toughs posing as hard men. He ignored them, as he ignored the hound that darted into the street, barking at him. Jorski slowed to a puffing halt as he reached the end of the block and the beginning of the darkness. He caught his breath as he crossed the intersection and approached the fringe of shadows. This area was patrolled by the lamplighter known as Tall Wennel, never one to shirk his duties.

“Wennel?” Jorski did not yell. At night, voices carried.

Ahead of him, the entire block was dark; every lamp for two hundred feet had been extinguished. The storefronts of the darkened block melted into one vast wall, black on black. Jorski clenched his jaw.

“Tall Wennel?” he called again.

No answer. He stepped into the shadows and rapped his truncheon against the first unlit lamppost. The hollow clang echoed louder than he intended. He rapped again, lower. The sound was muffled; the reservoir in the pole contained oil and the lamp should be burning. He took a step forward and heard a crunch under his boot. Hundreds of tiny fragments of glass sparkled on the cobblestones. He looked back up and focused his gaze on the lamp itself. All four panes of glass had been shattered in their frame, as if something had struck it from four directions at once.

Jorski eased deeper into the shadows and approached the second lamppost. It was in the same condition – broken panes and extinguished flame. Darkness hid the third lamp. He assumed it would be like the others. He turned around and strode back into the light.

“Wennel? Tall Wennel! Where are you, boy?”

He stood silently, waiting for a response. He listened for anything out of place, but heard only the usual night noise. The surf washed against dock pilings. Ships creaked on their moorings. Faint sounds of revelry came from taverns a few blocks over. Two or three different broughams clattered by on streets in the distance. An angry couple raised voices in an apartment somewhere behind him. Cats mewled and hissed, fighting over some discarded scrap.

These were the normal sounds of Harbordown. Though he waited, he heard no furtive movements, no sounds of soft breathing, no quiet whisper. He turned back to face the dark street in front of him. Eleven years he’d had this job, working nights most of the time; never had he seen this many lamps out on one street. The Lamplighters Guild made certain that something like this never happened. Anyone or anything could be hiding in the shadows between here and the Debbin Road intersection.

He took a deep breath to call for Wennel again, but as he did, his nose twitched. He reached up and momentarily pinched his nostrils closed. He knew that smell. You couldn’t be a Downer watchman for long without smelling it. He sniffed the air again. A rare autumn afternoon rainstorm had washed the city clean of most of its usual odors. The smell of blood in the air was unmistakable – blood and gore.

"I heard a scream earlier,” someone said to him. Jorski jerked and nearly dropped his weapon. He spun, looking for the voice. A female figure waved to him from a battered doorway in the light. He recognized her, as he did most of the whores and nightingales left in his part of the city.

“It was a woman,” Touched Irma said. “Or maybe a boy.”

“How long ago was that?” he asked.

Touched Irma stepped away from the door and moved toward him. He saw the burns on her arm, neck, and face that had marked her since childhood. She raised her damaged, club-like hand and pointed into the darkness.

“It was ten minutes, fifteen maybe. Down the street.”

“You seen Wennel?”

“Not tonight,” Irma said, turning her back to him. She used the good side of her face to look over her shoulder. “Be careful.” She shuffled back to the doorway.

Jorski turned back once again to face the darkness. As he did, the bell from Nender’s Tower across the harbor rang three times. Though the tower stood nearly six miles away, the peal swept down from the elevated lands of High Town, echoing across the salt-water harbor, and into the lower, older portions of Harbordown. He glanced down at the streets and saw his shadows, cast by the lamps nearest him. They slanted away from him and merged into the confluent darkness. He reached into the front of his tunic and pulled out a wooden whistle on a leather thong. He held it between his teeth and strode into the darkness.

The glass embedded in the soles of his boots crunched. He stayed to the middle of the way, avoiding the puddles left behind from the rain. He moved carefully, ears pricked to the sounds of the street since he could no longer see it. He spent most of his waking hours after dark. At times, a week or more would pass before he would see the sun. He found that he never missed it. He reckoned it a necessary thing, for crops and travelers and such, but he preferred the darkness, with its oil-light shadows and bare stillness. A dark street or a dark night had never bothered him, until now.

He kept a steady pace as he followed the black thoroughfare. He didn’t hurry; you never ran toward danger. The crunching of the glass in his boots faded as the shards fell away. He passed a few small alleys. Some were nothing more than cuts to other alleys, and they were never lit.

When he reached what he guessed to be the center of the block, Jorski stopped and opened his mouth. The whistle bounced against his chest. He took another deep breath. The stench of spilled blood and black shite was richer. He could almost taste copper and chamberpot in the back of his mouth.

“Wennel?” No answer.

Wennel was one of the oldest boys doing the job, fourteen or fifteen years old. He and Jorski would occasionally cross paths and share a smoke. He was a good lad, responsible. Jorski respected him as he would any watchman, dockworker, or harlot who took pride in his or her job. The boy would never have let these lamps go unreported. He would’ve called someone out from the guild to replace the glass and relight the lamps. He certainly would have been waiting at one end of the dark block with a lit wick, ready to escort anyone who happened to pass through there.

Standing still, Jorski listened again. The noises he heard were almost exactly like the sounds he had heard earlier, except for one thing: the cats’ meowing and fighting was louder. It sounded as if there were many of them. Cats only congregated for one of two things: food or sex. No female was yowling in protest, so it was unlikely to be sex.

“Bugger,” Jorski muttered. He increased his stride, hurrying toward the end of the block, where the lights on Debbin glowed warmly. He drifted to the north side of the street, passing one tiny alley. As the distant lamplight grew brighter, he slowed to a stop at the mouth of Jasper’s Cut, a nasty little slash between two streets. It was an ugly place and always had been.

The odor of death and spilled blood flowed from the alley. He pinched his nose shut again and listened to the feline chorus no more than a few yards away. He took one step forward, kicking something with his boot. It banged and scraped on the cobbles. The tiniest flash of light played along its length as it skittered away. Jorski snatched it up. It was a four-foot pole, with a flattened hook above a thick stem of cord at one end – a lamplighter’s wick. The cord was cold; it had been extinguished some time ago.

This time Jorski ran. He left the dark street and crossed Debbin to the first lit lamp. He reached up and threw open the shutter, shattering the glass in its pane. He shoved the cord into the lamp, holding it until it caught fire. He plunged back into the darkness. He slid to a stop in front of Jasper’s Cut and raised high the flame.

Holding the wick over his head and his truncheon at his waist, he entered the darkened alley. The buildings overhung and nearly grew together two and three stories above him, hiding the sky. With only the flickering light over his head, he moved deeper into the alley. He moved cautiously, avoiding the piles of shite and garbage that the rain had failed to wash away.
The cat noises grew louder. A few of the feral creatures darted away as he approached. One hissed and swiped at his boot. He brushed it aside without kicking it. He didn’t blame it; it was just their nature.

A dark form lay against the back wall of a building. He started toward it, but one of the larger cats bolted directly at him and tangled itself in his feet. Jorski tripped, stumbled, and fell. His truncheon bounced away and his face slammed something soft. He still held the wick, which had not gone out. Jorski pushed himself back up to see what he had fallen upon. When he wiped the moisture from his face, his fingers came away red. He smeared his hand on his red-and-black tunic and reached for the body in front of him.

Jorski rolled Tall Wennel toward him. In the wick’s flickering light, he saw the boy’s mutilated face and chest. Jorski swore; he’d never seen anything like that done to a boy – or a man. Still kneeling, he turned away and vomited. A minute later, when he found he could stand, he wiped his mouth, bit down on the whistle, and blew.

Continue with Chapter One - "Malcolm"


  1. I found it very interesting, and descriptive. I think it is very good.

  2. Hi Nick,

    I have detailed notes on the prologue but hesitate to put them here. If you are interested, let me know if I should put them here or reach you another way.

    Overall - the piece failed to pull me in as a reader, took far too long to develop, had some very nice characterization bits and interesting info re: oil lamps.

    Ex. of notes
    Para #1 - Questions - Wouldn't the pipe be hot? Wouldn't he need to knock it out first before putting it away?
    (tilted his head) just a bit (awk) change to slightly or remove, doesn't add anything.
    Smear seems too small a word for the amount (1 block) of darkness.
    I liked the brougham and Jorski's reaction (or lack of) to it - pulled me in as a reader but the rest kept me at arms length.

    #2 Why did he jog? I don't feel any urgency or real threat from the lack of lights and he seeems (I think it's the pipe) like a stroller. Neither the beggar or toughs seem disturbed by the darkness. I feel very distant from the scene and piece.

    Denise from writer's group

  3. #3 Why would he call for Wennel when he can't see the lamp lighter stick, or some other indication, of his presence? He seems to be jumping to conclusions - if he has cause, beyond it is his route, then I need to know.

    #4 I like the oil lamp info - very interesting. How can he see the shards? Are there other light sources available from windows? How far does the light extend between lampposts? Is there a pool of darkness between 2 lit lamposts or does it overlap? Same with the pane-less lamps - how does he see this and surmise that the damage happened all at once - how does that show in the remains of the glass? Is it important?

    #5 Same as 4 - how is he seeing in the dark?

    #6 Is this a business, residential or combined area? Wouldn't other inhabitants be roused or concerned about the lamps?

    #7 The list of sounds is awkward. It throws me out of the story.

    #8 We already know the sounds are normal - redundant. Are these sounds he would expect? If so, I would expect more human involvement as it seems normally there are people about.
    The Guilde info seems out of place here. I'd move it up to #4 - it is more relevant to establish his unease.

    #9 The nose twitching is awkward - his takes a deep breath through his mouth so why does his nose twitch? But I like the nose pinchingas a way of clearing it? Blood and gore - does gore smell different? If not, remove.

    #10 Too much time has passed to finally pull in a witness. I like that he nearly drops his weapon - good characterization. Still have no light radiational distance. Very disconnected from the story losing interest in continuing.

    #11 The dialogue adds little. I'm gone as a reader.

    #12 The bell peal is a nice concrete device pulling me back in but the light and shadows throw me back out.

    #13 He stayed to the middle way - awkward. How can he see the puddles? It states he can't see the street. If the glass was stuck in his soles all this time, I'd expect he'd have noticed and commented earlier. Nice info on him - preferring darkness - makes him relatable.

    #14 Doesn't he have a match or something he uses to light his pipe? You never ran toward danger - different pov - his or your advice?
    The galss shards would't fall away but be scuffed off or ground/broken off - awk. wording.
    How many alleys are in this block?

    #15 Open mouth, whistle bounced - put together - awk. phrasing of letting whistle drop from his mouth.
    If took a breath w/ mouth he would tastethe blood and shit; if with his nose, why drop the whistle?

    #16 I like the info on Wennel - it pulls me back in but it's out of place. Move it up. He's near the blood - let's get to it!

    #17 Again, nice info but I don't care. I want him to get to the blood - if he's hesitant or scared, show me, but stop putting it off with description.

    #18-20 Now her hurries? You've lost me as a reader. He hurries but it still takes 4 paragraphs to get to the body. I feel no rush, no urgency, from him. Contradictory messages. As a reader, I no longer care.

    #22-23 Like the cat and his attitude, but again it takes him too long to get to the body.
    "face slammed (into)something soft.