Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Devil's Bridge

Last October, while participating in “Fright Fest” at Heroines of Fantasy, I published a work of flash fiction titled The Devil’s Bridge. It’s based on a Welsh legend about an old woman and her deal with the devil – on the eve of Samhain (Halloween). So, in honor of Saturday’s holiday, I’m republishing the story here. Hope you enjoy it!

Brynn dreaded the hike to the devil’s bridge, though she dreaded the full moon even more.

Its light bathed the path through the bracken-covered hillside that led to the ravine. Every few yards, Meg jabbed her walking stick into Brynn’s back, goading the ten-year-old forward, while Meg’s old wolfhound, Mister Grimm, followed alongside. Mister Grimm was as mean as sin, and Meg had threatened to feed Brynn to the dog more times than the girl could recall. Although tonight, Brynn feared the moon and the bridge more than the wolfhound. Yet she wondered if he could smell the hunk of day-old bacon hidden in her fist.

“Keep moving,” Meg hissed. “Of all the orphans the village has brought me, you be the slowest.”

The old woman’s eyes simmered in their sockets, amid a face creased like an autumn leaf. Some said Meg was once the most beautiful woman in the village, but now she was so old that Brynn’s Nana was just a child when Meg was in her prime. Nana believed witchery preserved Meg’s beauty, but even witchery could not defeat the haul of time. 

Ahead loomed the bridge, a crude arch of stone that spanned the ravine where the river plunged three hundred feet in a rushing fall. On the far side, moonlight kissed the headstone of the ancient dolmen encrusted with moss. Nana once told Brynn that dolmens were the tombs of giants, but some believed they were gateways to the Otherworld, where dark faeries lured their prey.

A chill washed through Brynn’s gut. “Why do we have to come here tonight?”

“Because it’s Samhain,” Meg replied. “The curtain between the living and the dead is like mist, and the mandrake growing near the dolmen is at its peak. ‘Tis powerful magic in them roots tonight, so time to harvest.”

“But Nana warned about that bridge.”

“’Tis just a bridge.”

“Nana said that when you were young, you tricked the devil into building it.”

Meg’s eyes narrowed. “Your Nana told you that?”

“She said he built it for you for the price of the first soul to cross it. But instead of going first, you pushed your servant across, a sickly girl, blind in one eye. Cheated, the devil howled and screamed. Now, Nana said, at every full moon he takes the life of the first to cross the bridge.”

“Your Nana died a fool!” Meg snapped. “There’s no truth in them myths. Now come on child, there’s harvesting to do.”

From a pouch on her waist, Meg drew a rusty gardening spade and handed it to Brynn. “Now go and get me some mandrake root.”

Brynn’s stomach hardened. “Alone?”

Meg held up her fingers, bent like a spider’s legs and tipped with jagged nails. “My hands are old, too feeble to grip a spade. Now do as you’re told.”

“But Nana said—”

Meg grabbed Brynn by the hair and jerked her head back. “I don’t care what your Nana said,” Meg said through clenched teeth. “Go dig up some mandrake root, lest I turn you into a toad and feed you to Mister Grimm!”

Brynn froze, scared to even breath. When Meg let go, Brynn backed toward the bridge, nearly stumbling due to the weakness in her knees. Her whole body shook as she turned at the bridge’s threshold. The spray of the falls kissed her face. Hundreds of feet below the bridge, the rushing waters seethed into a cauldron-like gorge.

Brynn’s heart felt as if it would beat through her chest. She stopped and looked back.

“Go!” Meg shrieked. 

Brynn shook her head, a thought pounding in her mind. She cheated the devil . . .

“Get on, or I’ll beat you bloody with this stick!”

Brynn sucked in a breath and shook her head again, mouthing her reply. “No.” 

Meg grimaced. “Grimm, make her go.” 

The wolfhound stood as tall as Brynn, with a massive head and teeth as long as her thumbs. His eyes gleaming in the moonlight, he padded toward her like a hound closing on a wounded hare. 

Brynn struggled to hold back a cry. Summoning all the courage she could muster, she opened her palm, revealing the hunk of old bacon in her hand. Mister Grimm stopped and cocked his head, smelling the cured meat. The wolfhound opened his jaws, just as Brynn whipped her arm and hurled the meat toward the dolmen.

“No!” Meg screamed as the wolfhound tore across the bridge.

Mister Grimm lunged for his prize. Then Brynn gasped. 

A torrent of water blasted from the falls. Arms stretched from the spray amid a ghost-like shape with burning red eyes. As it fell on the wolfhound, the ghostly demon roared like the wind, drowning out the dog’s cries. Water pummeled the stone bridge, and when the torrent ceased, the demon and the wolfhound were gone. 

Brynn exhaled—right before Meg eclipsed her view. The old woman’s eyes fumed with rage. With a fierce cry, she cracked her stick upside Brynn’s head. And the girl’s whole world began to spin.

* * *

On the dirt floor of Meg’s hovel, Brynn woke in darkness to a sound at the old wooden door. The scent of stewed mandrake clung to the air as Brynn rubbed the side of her head, swollen like a gourd. She heard the sound again. Something scratched at the door. A chill rushed up Brynn’s limbs as she got up and walked to the doorway. Hesitating for a moment, she opened the door. At its threshold stood Mister Grimm. The hound’s eyes burned like hot coals.

Brynn staggered back. Those eyes, like the demon’s from the falls! 

She feared she might faint, but the beast brushed past her and padded toward Meg, asleep in her bed. As it lunged and Meg screamed, a faint smile crept across Brynn’s lips. For there was one more thing Nana used to say. 

“Remember child, always give the devil his due.” 

Friday, October 23, 2015

5 Questions For Season 3 of “Da Vinci’s Demons”

After a very long wait, the premier of Season 3 of Da Vinci’s Demons airs tomorrow. To me, it will be bittersweet because Starz has ended the series, making Season 3 the final season of one of my favorite shows. Even worse, the studio made the decision after filming wrapped, so it’s unlikely we’ll see a true series finale that resolves all the show’s storylines. But let’s hope for the best. Here are 5 questions I would like answered before the series ends.

1. Will Pope Sixtus Fail?

The evil Pope Sixtus has remained a major antagonist of Lorenzo and Leonardo since the series began. As one character noted, “a devil sits on the papal throne.” This becomes all the more true once we learn that he is not even the real pope! The real pope is his twin brother, whom he imprisoned in Castel Sant’Angelo. In Season 2 it is revealed that the true pope has a plan to take his rightful place at the appropriate time. But will his plan succeed before the series ends? I’d like to see what happens to the evil Pope Sixtus then.

2. Will Lucrezia End Up A Hero?

In Season 1 we learn that the beautiful Lucrezia Donati, the mistress of Lorenzo the Magnificent, is actually a spy for the evil pope, under the command of Count Riario. Her actions in the first season turn out to be seemingly villainous, although it’s suggested that Riario may be manipulating her into doing his bidding. We eventually learn, however, that everything Lucrezia has been doing is to help her father, who is the true pope (his brother, the false pope, even killed Lucrezia’s sister before her very eyes). This revelation changed everything I had thought about Lucrezia in the beginning, and I’m looking forward to seeing if she emerges as a hero by the series’ end.

3. Will Leonardo Meet His Past Self?

There has always been a time travel element to Da Vinci’s Demons. In the very first episode, the Turk, al-Rahim, tells Leonardo about a mysterious order called the Sons of Mithras. When Leonardo denies being a member of this order, al-Rahim says, “Are you sure?” This suggests that al-Rahim knows about Leonardo’s future. Later, it’s revealed in a flashback that what Leonardo witnessed in a cave as a young boy was actually his adult self dangling in the shape of The Hanged Man (you know, the card in the Tarot deck). And somehow, this is all connected to Leonardo’s mother, who disappeared when he was an infant and had some connection to the Sons of Mithras. Now, it turns out she is with the Ottoman fleet sailing upon Naples. This plot line has been built up from the beginning, so I really hope we see it come together in Season 3.

4. Is Riario Lost to the Dark Side? 

When we were first introduced to Count Riario in Season 1 he was the henchman of the evil Pope Sixtus. But by Season 2, after he and Leonardo are captured by the natives of Machu Picchu, Riario and Leonardo become allies, and, surprisingly, Riario becomes a somewhat likeable character (not Jamie Lannister likable, but much more likable than the snake that he was). We can also have pity for Riario after it’s revealed that the evil Pope Sixtus made Riario into the monster that he is. 

After Riario returns to Rome, he seeks absolution from the real pope in the dungeons of Castel Sant’Angelo. But the imprisoned pope would have none of it, deeming Riario beyond absolution. Condemned and broken, Riario has now been forcefully indoctrinated into the Enemies of Man, a group opposed to the Sons of Mithras. The Enemies of Man also seeks the Book of Leaves, the show’s central mystery. And, as al-Rahim warned Leonardo, “In the hands of the Enemies of Man, it will be greater than any army.” In the end, I expect a major conflict between the Sons of Mithras and the Enemies of Man. Although I wonder, when the dust settles, whether Riario will be saved or whether his soul will belong forever to the dark side.

5. What is the Book of Leaves?

This mysterious book has been a focal point for two seasons, ever since al-Rahim told Leonardo to seek it, and we learned that Pope Sixtus wants it too. The tome was supposed to lie hidden in a place called the Vault of Heaven, but when Leonardo and Riario enter the Vault, the book was missing. What they found instead, was a brazen head that played a recorded message left by Leonardo’s mother. This is the first time we learn that she may be alive – and that she might have the book. 

The evil Pope Sixtus believed the Book of Leaves was written by the Nephilim, the offspring of humans and angels spoken of in the book of Genesis. And indeed, when we saw a page of the book kept in the papal archives, the letters changed magically from every type of language, to astrological symbols, and even to strange hexagonal patterns. Count Riario, meanwhile, believed the book had Atlantean origins. But even he seemed to come around to the Enochian theory after witnessing a cave drawing inside the Vault of Heaven. The drawing depicted human-like beings with elongated heads (or helmets of some type) and strange haloes or circles behind them. When Riario sees them, he begins to quote from the book of Genesis: 
“There were giants on the earth in those days. Perhaps these were the Nephilim, the offspring of the Sons of God and the daughters of men, and they created this Vault.”
Leonardo has to find the Book of Leaves. After all, that’s been his quest since the first episode, and it would be a shame to end to the series if the book is never found.

Closing thoughts: The answers to all these questions will come sooner than expected since Starz is releasing the entire final season On Demand starting Saturday. I, however, will probably watch the episodes as they air. But for those who want to binge watch or skip ahead, the season finale to Da Vinci’s Demons is just a day away. My only hope is that we get a satisfying end to Leonardo’s tale and his quest for the Book of Leaves.

* Photos courtesy of Starz

Thursday, October 15, 2015

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms!

Many of you may already know that this is out, but while we wait patiently for The Winds of Winter, George R.R. Martin has released a book comprised of three novellas he wrote some time ago about a hedge knight in Westeros and his diminutive squire.

I picked up a copy last week and can't wait to dig in! Here is a description from the novel's dust jacket:

Taking place nearly a century before the events of A Game of Thrones, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms compiles the first three official prequel novellas to George R. R. Martin’s ongoing masterwork, A Song of Ice and Fire. These never-before-collected adventures recount an age when the Targaryen line still holds the Iron Throne, and the memory of the last dragon has not yet passed from living consciousness.
 Before Tyrion Lannister and Podrick Payne, there was Dunk and Egg. A young, na├»ve but ultimately courageous hedge knight, Ser Duncan the Tall towers above his rivals—in stature if not experience. Tagging along is his diminutive squire, a boy called Egg—whose true name is hidden from all he and Dunk encounter. Though more improbable heroes may not be found in all of Westeros, great destinies lay ahead for these two . . . as do powerful foes, royal intrigue, and outrageous exploits.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is also beautifully illustrated and only about half the size of the average novel in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. What's not to love about this?

Friday, October 9, 2015

"The Last Kingdom" Premiers This Saturday!

This one snuck up on me, but thanks to friend of the blog Bill Brockman I've learned that the television adaptation of Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom will premier this Saturday on BBC America!

Young Uhtred
For those that follow this blog, you know that Bernard Cornwell is my all time favorite author of medieval historical fiction. The Last Kingdom is the first book in his Saxon Chronicles about Alfred the Great who prevented the Vikings form nearly conquering all of England. Here is an excerpt from The Wall Street Journal about tomorrow's episode:
BBC America’s powerful new historical drama “The Last Kingdom” tells the story that made England possible, and with it the flourishing of Anglo-Saxon culture and law that underpin America as well. The series is set mostly during the ninth-century reign of Alfred the Great, the Saxon king whose realm of Wessex—roughly covering the lands south and southwest of London—was the last holdout against the Danish Vikings who had conquered the other English kingdoms. After several years of “Vikings” on the History Channel, it’s nice to root for the home team instead.
I truly can't wait for this one. At a time when we're still waiting for the debut of Season 3 of Da Vinci's Demons and the return of Vikings (not to mention Outlander, Black Sails, and Game of Thrones), we get this to entertain us through the fall. Good times indeed!

** Photo courtesy of BBC America

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Plot Hole That Swallowed “The Maze Runner”

Recently, my daughter and I caught The Maze Runner on HBO and liked the movie enough to see The Scorch Trials this weekend. What we found was a plot hole so big it literally swallowed the first film. And it left me wondering: what in the world went wrong with this franchise? Note, some *SPOILERS* to follow.

The Maze Runner was a fun film set in a dystopian future where a group of teenage boys and ultimately one girl find themselves trapped in a place called the Glade that is surrounded by a titanic wall that leads to a mysterious and dangerous maze. The maze runners are members of the “Gladers” brave enough to explore the maze and search for a way out, all the while dodging these cyborg-like giant scorpions that are trying to kill them. The big mystery, of course, is what is the maze? And why are these kids trapped in it?

The Maze Runner ends with a cliffhanger, but at least the kids have escaped from the maze, thinking they’ve been rescued by commando-like rebels in a world where the sun has scorched the earth, killing most of mankind. Its sequel, The Scorch Trials, takes place immediately after the first film. The Gladers are now in a militarized safe house, but something doesn’t seem right. They learn there were many mazes and many kids, all of whom live in this militarized barracks. And each night, a group is taken away never to be seen again. This set up is certainly suspenseful through the first 15 minutes, but in the next scene, the whole thing flies off the rails.

The hero of both films, Thomas, discovers that the groups of kids taken away each night are being put in a coma-like state while their captors “harvest” their blood, using it to find a cure to a virus that helped wipe of most of humanity. It turns out that the kids brought into the maze are immune to the virus, and their reward for surviving the maze trial is this medically induced coma. That’s where the movie kicks its predecessor down the plot hole.

The problem is in the movie’s premise: an organization called W.C.K.D., or “Wicked,” has gathered up all of these kids whose blood makes them immune to the plague and might help Wicked find a cure. But rather than just putting them into a coma right away and getting on with the harvesting, Wicked first decides to put these immune-types into a deadly man-made maze where many of them will be killed by robot scorpions. There’s no suggestion that dead kids are good for harvesting, so it makes no sense that Wicked would waste their precious blood in what amounts to a pointless game – albeit one that was the subject of the entire first film! We spent an entire movie wondering what the maze was, only to learn in the sequel that there was no point to it whatsoever.

What happens next in the film is that Thomas and his friends escape, like any sane people would who didn’t want to end up like pod people. The rest of the movie is a suspenseful and scary chase through a ruined world in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. But there is no more game or maze to be solved, only a mad dash to outrun the zombies and the forces of Wicked. Sort of like Zombieland, but without the humor.

I left the movie scratching my head. The films are based on a series by bestselling novelist James Dashner, and no good novelist could live with a plot hole that big. It turns out this problem doesn’t exist in the books. Rather, it’s the movie that jumps the track and deviates massively from its source material. While I haven’t read it, I’ve learned that The Scorch Trials novel involves another game like the maze. The kids learn that there are two groups of maze runners whom Wicked has been studying to find a cure for the virus called the Flare. Now, in what is called “Phase 2” of their tests, Wicked has infected both groups with the virus and is sending these competing teams on a race through a post-apocalyptic desert called the Scorch to a safe house where they supposedly will find a cure.

Significantly, it appears the blood harvesting plotline is nowhere to be found. As a result, both the maze trial and this new trial make some sense. There is something about the survival of the fittest nature of these game-like tests that is relevant to the experiment. And it’s far more complicated than just putting these kids in a coma and harvesting their blood. More importantly, it has to be. Otherwise Wicked would just skip these silly games and get straight down to harvesting.

I cannot imagine why the filmmakers chose to make such an enormous break from the books. I hate when that happens, and it usually never ends well. Once the “Scorch Trials” are no longer a trial or a game, any logical tie between the two movies is broken. All we’re left with is a plot hole so big it swallows The Maze Runner. And that’s a shame. Standing alone, the second film is both scary and suspenseful, and the post-apocalyptic scenery, at times, is spectacular. But it was supposed to be a movie about maze runners, and it turns out there was never any logical purpose in the movies for that mysterious maze.

But these are just my thoughts, and maybe I’m missing something. So if you have a theory on how the maze still matters in the movies, as opposed to the books, I’m dying to know.