Havoc looked[i] around the former insurgent camp. The bodies had been collected, searched and buried. The few prisoners were being interrogated, and his sentries were posted, watching for rebel messengers or hunters returning to camp. He didn’t want word of the attack reaching the enemy if it could be avoided. Let them think their army was deserting.
Everything was in order. The sun would be up soon. The teamsters had arrived with the pack animals, and the scent of a meal being prepared was starting to pervade the camp. There should be a little bit of meat left from when they last had a chance to hunt, but it would be a lean breakfast. Havoc pursed his lips and whistled a scale of notes. He waited, then repeated the trill.
A moment later there was a soft rush of wings, and a large gray hawk flew in low and landed on Havoc’s outstretched wrist. He waited for her to settle and then brought her head to his. She leaned in and they touched foreheads.
“Hello, Gypsy. How is my girl? Do you feel like hunting?” Gypsy fluffed her feathers and looked around, as if expecting to see the prey he had in mind. She was a Pale Chanting Goshawk, an elegant bird of prey with light gray feathers on her body and white on her upper wings. She was almost a foot and a half in length, with a three-foot wingspan. Her beak was bright orange with a black tip, and her black eyes were large, taking up most of her face. A small fluff of feathers above her beak gave her the expression of a haughty lady of fashion.[ii] Havoc had raised her from a chick, and she had been his constant companion for five years. In Pale Chanting Goshawk years, she was still an adolescent.
Havoc held his wrist high and Gypsy turned to face forward, leaning and dancing impatiently from claw to claw.
Van Zant was there, stirring a pot hung over the small blaze. He was a small, wiry man who had been in the service of the Empress almost three decades – ever since he was fourteen. Van Zant was proud of the fact that he had almost been killed in the service of the Empress seventeen times, and he worked that information into conversation whenever possible.
Havoc leaned over the cook pot and inhaled deeply. “Mmmmm. That smells like . . .” Havoc leaned over and took another sniff. “Grass. Boiled grass. Is there any protein in there?”
“Nope. And there won’t be unless you want to throw in some Rebel. They ain’t been buried too long.”
“I wouldn’t put it past you, you sick puppy. Gypsy is hunting. If she finds something it will go in the pot.”
“No skunks. I got my limits, ya know.”
“Don’t lie, Van Zant. You think I just met you?”
Havoc tossed a little more fuel for the cook fire, then raised his head at the soft sound of wings. Gypsy’s melodious chant announced her success: ‘kleeeu kleeeu klu klu klu.’
Havoc mimicked “Klu klu klu” and stepped back so she would have room to drop her prize. She swooped in and released her catch, and large rat rolled right to his feet.
Van Zant snickered. “Her aim’s real good. A gourmet, she ain’t.”
Havoc ignored Van Zant and addressed his hawk, who had circled around and landed on his shoulder. “Don’t listen to him, Gypsy. You’re a brilliant hunter and this cretin is lucky you’re willing to share.” Gypsy watched as he sliced some choice pieces out of the carcass. He fed her and launched her for a second foray before skinning and de-boning it. “It’s almost a pound of meat. You want it for your pot or should I share it with someone who has a less sophisticated palate?”
“Drop it in. Tastes like chicken, anyhow.”
Gypsy’s second kill was a small opossum, which followed the rat into the stew. When it had cooked long enough to be edible, Havoc filled two bowls, and went in search of Karma.
He found her sitting on a small knoll at the edge of camp. A torch driven into the ground illuminated her. She had bathed in a nearby stream, and her pale hair was still damp. She was concentrating on a sheet of parchment spread out in front of her and marking it with what looked like a lump of charcoal. She looked up at his approach. Smiled.
He offered her one of the bowls. “I brought you something to eat.” He looked down at the parchment. It was a detailed drawing of the battle they had just fought. As he looked closer he could make out individual people, including Karma and himself fighting back to back, with their enemies falling before them.
“Hey – that is really amazing! I’ve seen work by Royal Portrait Painters that isn’t this good.”
Karma smiled and patted the ground next to her. Havoc again offered her one of the bowls. She peered into it and sniffed, then wrinkled her nose and shook her head.
Havoc laughed. “I know it’s terrible, but you need to eat. Don’t worry, after the first few mouthfuls, your sense of smell will shut down in protest and the rest will go down easier. Come on. I’ll go first.” He put her bowl down next to her and took a swallow of the stew. Years of bad food on the march allowed him to look pleased and say “Mmmmmm,” as he chewed and swallowed.
Karma shook her head again and reached for a tiny woven pouch. Havoc recognized it as the one she recovered from the armory tent. She emptied it out in her hand, and displayed a handful of almonds. She offered the bag to Havoc, and he held his hand out, bemused. When she placed it in his hand, it felt like there was something in it. He looked at her, puzzled. She gestured for him to pour it into his hand, then took two rocks laying nearby and expertly cracked one of the almonds open.
Havoc put down his bowl and upended the pouch over his hand. Out flowed a handful of walnuts, leaving the bag empty. He looked at Karma and raised his eyebrow. She popped a nut into her mouth and gestured for him to pour the bag again. He did so, and out flowed a handful of cashews.
“Hah!” He carefully piled up his nuts. He took both bowls of stew and dumped them out, then reached for a cashew. Karma giggled.
He forced himself not to react to her laughter. It was the first sound he had heard her make, and he didn’t want to make a big deal about it.
They crunched in companionable silence for a while. Havoc uncapped the flask at his side, took a swig of whiskey, and as an afterthought offered it to Karma.
She sniffed it, blinked, then took a small swallow. She shook her head and made a face.
He grinned sheepishly. “It’s the best whiskey for five miles around. I guarantee.”
She gave him a narrow look, took another sip, and handed the flask back. The torch popped and crackled, although the rising sun made its glow unnecessary.
Havoc took a last handful of nut out of the bag and handed it back to her. “Where did you get this? I’ve never seen anything like it.”
She reached for her drawing of the battle, and turned the page over to the blank side. In the top left corner she sketched a small image of herself with a wound in her abdomen. With just a few strokes it was obvious what she was portraying. Havoc admired the economy of her work, and glanced at her midriff with concern. The drawing didn’t show how she received the wound, but it looked serious. To the right of that sketch, she drew a dividing line and started another image, this one of Karma pouring the contents of a small vial onto her wound. The next image showed the wound, healed, and Karma holding an almost-empty vial.
Enthralled, Havoc watched her draw.
The following panel showed Karma walking through the woods. Next, she came across a trap with a squirrel caught in it. The teeth of the trap had torn open the squirrel’s belly, but some motion lines showed that there was still life. The next frame showed her prying open the jaws of the trap, and pouring the last of the liquid from the vial onto the injured squirrel. The penultimate frame showed the squirrel healed and alert. Havoc noticed that in the background there was a small pixie, wiping away a tear.
Havoc looked again at the preceding drawings, and now that he knew what to look for he saw the small pixie in every frame with the squirrel, her expression distraught and helpless.[v]
In the final frame, the pixie handed Karma the pouch that was now attached to her belt. Karma put the finishing touches on her drawing, and held it out for inspection.
Havoc, who had watched every line being drawn, looked at the whole sequence again. Then he looked at Karma.
A lock of her hair shining like platinum had fallen forward over her eye. Havoc gently brushed it back, out of her face. She looked down quickly, then looked him in the eyes. He liked the silky feel of her hair. Emboldened by her acceptance of his touch, he stroked her hair again.
“Your drawings are beautiful. The story they tell is beautiful.” He cupped her cheek with his hand. She closed her eyes and leaned into his touch. His voice husky, he said “You . . . are beautiful.”
Her eyes opened and locked on his. He held perfectly still. She leaned towards him, until her torso touched his. He yielded to her pressure, and lay back on the ground. Her body followed his and she swung her right leg over his hips. He lay on the ground, and she straddled him, her face inches from his. She tilted her head and ducked under his chin. Her mouth locked on his neck, and he tipped his head back to allow her easier access. He carefully reached for her, touching her waist. She leaned harder into her kiss, and he groaned and wrapped his arms around her. She sucked on his neck until he was afraid he would end the interlude prematurely.
He took three deep breaths.
It wasn’t enough.
He took his hands from her waist and gently grasped her head, raising her to face him. Her eyes were as glazed as his were. She focused on him, and reached to cradle his head in a gesture mirroring his.
He felt his pulse pounding.
She hooked her right leg around his left, and rolled sideways. He let her pull him towards her, until their positions were reversed. She opened her legs and he settled between them. She leaned up and kissed him hard on the mouth, licking at his tongue. He felt a rush of exultation, and kissed her back, hard, leaning his hips into hers. She opened wider. He felt the friction of their clothes, and was irritated by their interference.
That tiny distraction was enough to remind him of the context. She’d been abused. He didn’t want to compound it.
His kiss gentled. She demanded. He soothed.
He moved his kiss from her mouth to her cheek, to her jaw, to her neck. He cradled her head with one hand, and stroked her cheek with the other. He trailed his fingers down the side of her throat, across her collar bone, around the outside of her breast, down her ribcage to her waist and hip and thigh. Then he kissed her gently on the lips and his fingers began their journey again at her hair, down her cheek . . .
At first she was tense and frustrated, squirming furiously against him, trying to arouse him to impatience.
But he was bigger than she was. And he was on top. He kept himself under control and continued her seduction.
She stopped fighting him, and lay still. He could still feel the tension in her body.
He continued to stroke. He continued to kiss.
Eventually she grew languid and relaxed.
He continued to kiss. He continued to stroke.
He felt her breathing begin to grow ragged. ‘Thank God,’ he thought.
He wrapped his left hand under her hips, his right hand still cradling her head. He rolled backwards, reversing their positions. She was again straddling him.
He laid still, waiting for her to act.
She held herself still. She tensed, almost glaring at him.
Dammit, he thought. I should have gone for it when I had the chan . . .
Karma pounced and kissed him hard. He tried not to groan out loud, but the sound escaped. It seemed to spur her on, and she ground her hips against his. Encouraged, he spoke the words running through his head.
“Karma! I want you more than I’ve ever wanted anyone. Please, please . . .”
She covered her mouth with his, devouring his tongue. He felt her move and without realizing how she managed it, he felt the cool morning air on his
[explicit content redacted][vi]
Gently, he began working his hips against her. Her eyebrows flew up in surprise.
“We’re not done,” he whispered in her ear.
[i] “looked” is a weak choice of verbs, and it doesn’t give much info. I could have given the scene a whole different flavor by using studied/scrutinized/surveyed/inspected.
[ii] Hopefully you have a vivid image in your mind of the hawk’s appearance. I studied photos of the Pale Chanting Goshawk and spent a looong time crafting the description. Sadly, I didn’t spend nearly as much energy describing any of my people.
[iii] Exclamation points are considered taboo in almost any situation, but I think you can get away with an occasional one in dialog. Like, one ! per novel. Instead, I should have relayed his intensity through the narrative, like , “Gypsy launched into the air before the echo of his voice faded.”
[iv] Dialog tags other than “said” or “asked” are frowned upon in the publishing industry. This is a fairly recent fashion (or phenomenon, depending on how strongly you agree or disagree with the axiom) A few decades back, stories were rife with “she gasped,” “he grunted,” “she hissed.” Here, “Havoc commanded” is redundant – “Gypsy . . . hunt food” is, by definition, a command.
Throughout my footnotes, I point out myriad style blunders I’ve made, but those “blunders” can be found in thousands of published works, as well. Lots of writers chafe at the restrictions, and lots get away with breaking the rules. I think Chuck Wendig gives the most cogent overview of the controversy in his blog.
[v] It doesn’t make sense that Havoc would not have noticed the pixie from the beginning, since he is watching her draw. I don’t know what I was thinking. Easy fix – I could either make him aware of the pixie all along or make a point of him staring at Karma instead of watching the pictures develop.
[vi] Here it gets graphic. I’m not a prude, but I’m not going to publish soft porn on my blog.