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Author: James Gardner
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The Muted Shout of the Gray Tower, A Science Fiction and Fantasy Anthology, offers an interesting mix of fantastic tales. Gardner’s Lost Twins is a ”space opera,” and Time After Time is more of a time traveling “soap opera.” But Pneuro Dancer and Liquid Villain are comedies, both silly and funny with a touch of preposterous reality: From Pneuro Dancer, “[the ship] reminds me of your mother, D.L., suck-nasty and perpetually on the rag.” From Liquid Villain, “Were you [a student from a middle school and a test tube containing the villain] really trying to take over the world?” “Not anymore.” In The Sea Cave People, L’Qisse and Taroe, become lovers: “Beloved, I’ve always loved you.” … “I’ve wanted you since I learned of physical love.” She [Taroe] drew a ragged breath, “And I’ve planned for you from the time I knew what to do.” They discover the true nature of their tribe’s past and become the first royal couple to complete the traditional sea borne betrothal journey: “Holy Union and conception of Thirty-first Generation’s Monarch must occur at sea or on First Island which might be the middle of an archipelago. No one knows,” [said the Sea Shaman. The Snow Vixen Is a were-fox with no memory of her human self. Lost in a wizard’s spell, she must free herself from his slavery and fight her way to a home and family that she doesn’t know exists. There is poetry and many unique illustrations, original sketches, artwork, and photographs too. Click that mouse and enjoy. It’s worth every cent of the three, oops, $2.99. {] The Muted Shout of the Gray Tower also titles one of the tales with a continuation in The Children of the Gray Tower: wizardry, werewolves, and love triangles both involving Reade Beryl the Sorceress, Last Serf of the Gray Tower whose love overwhelms Tomlin of Martyr’s Cavern, Warrior Priest of The Book.

Rating: Unrated

Sample Chapter

Muted Shout of the Gray Tower
by Sidewinder 4 {Jim Gardner}

Important: “Thou,” means my intimate special you.

           The priest’s words buzzed in Tomlin's mind. All of thy contemporaries chose the oral examination. Very well, thou hast chosen a task. Our thoughts and prayers go with thee. Follow the river. Use the lesser ford at Saint Weldon’s. Locating thy prize is easy, but wisdom is not cheap and walking the valley is another tale. Remember, anything that breathes might be disturbed from rest in the Gray Tower’s Valley.

            From atop the short wall around Saint Weldon’s Shrine, Tomlin gazed into the fog shrouded valley. Like a weapon thrust home by a crippled assassin, the tower protruded up through predawn mists. The parapet about the conical crown of the invalid bastion clutched at gray tendrils that writhed about, aimless and uncaring. Compared to the spotless Chapel of Martyr’s Cavern, the tower promised a slovenly welcome. The unkempt sight disquieted Tomlin’s eye and his stomach.

Gray coast-moss grew down from the parapet, drizzling towards earth. Water glistened on the mossy shroud and dripped a careless drool from toothless battlements into a dry moat.

A piece of debris let go from high among mold stained roof tiles and gathered speed, inducing other bits to tumble down the side of the leaning keep. Emerald and red beryl flashed their fires in a cascade of dusty pebbles and disappeared, their final rest hidden by the fortress’ wall. Their dusty trail joined the fog and drifted about The Tower.

The young student warrior-priest looked back from hill’s crest, back at his camp, back at safety and friends. They waved. He acknowledged their love.

 Irene smiled and said. "Thou mayest still chose the teachers and their tricks.”

"I'll take the woods and her tricks," said Tomlin, and he thought, to be free of Irene and of the constant prattle of her tongue I would gladly face a dragon-demon while standing in iced waters. She’s as persistent as a badger.

 From behind golden eyes like twin harvest moons surrounded by a golden cloud, Irene sighed. She hugged Tomlin and whispered, “I’ll pray for thou; thou of the bold bow and swift sword, thou the tall tanned one of molten movement and calm courage.”

 “And I you,” said Tomlin. With the shapely Irene in his arms, the muscles in his face quivered but his tongue stilled behind clenched teeth. He thought, Oh, to return with a potion to repulse the quasi-poetic Lady Irene. She is comely but her words never cease.

 Irene blew kisses and smiled. She waved, “God’s Speed, Noble One.”

 Tomlin’s mind returned to his task.  The Mentors all agreed. The fourth of the original copies of The Book is in The Gray Tower. If the task is easy enough for a student, why hasn’t it been retrieved by now? The Wisdom Council performed The Rite of the Dead over me before I left. Why do they let me go?

 Tomlin looked at the smiling Irene who waved again. He thought, If I survive, I have passed Ordeal, and I can name my posting; away from Irene, God willing. Self, why have you chosen certain battle? Self, t’is not for glory, nor power but to prevent being sucked soulless by the words of the mindless Irene. Better a faithful trollop than righteousness like the Lady Irene’s. 

He pulled an arrow from his quiver, laid it across his bow, and nocked it. He held both in place with a schooled hand and checked that the draw of his sword and dagger were both free and smooth. The walking began. Good footing allowed a swift descent to the river and a quick, if noisy, crossing at the ford. The finding was indeed without effort. The Tower remained in sight between massive oak branches.

Only a few mushrooms among carpets of rich green ground moss greeted Tomlin under the oaks near the water; not much else grew there. He saw no trail, nor disturbance of the meager vegetation. Folds of gray fog wandered between the trees clotting along his selected path in ghostly mounds taller than the oaks, and now and then a small number of ancient pines. Their cones crunched under his boots. They seemed to float on a sea of acorns.

“The Priest said that the dark energy of this place boils up from The Nether.” he sighed, and muttering to himself he pulled his cape back freeing bare arms to the cold,                    

The air stank. To the east, the sun broke the horizon. But its golden light was wasted on the tower. A pale parody of the radiance that shone from the sunrise gilded the gray walls with shadow.

If a faint sound had not warned Tomlin, the wolf would have torn the blood veins from his neck. But he dodged, the leap missed, and the wolf snatched only the collar from his cape.

Tomlin drew his bow and shot the wolf in its gaping mouth. His arrow stuck out the back of the thing’s head. But the wolf scrambled back up to all four feet and snapped the arrow with powerful jaws. The creature chewed and spat dropping the arrow’s remains to the ground.

The creature crouched and leaped again. Tomlin met its attack pinning distended jaws together with his sword and hacking at its neck with his dagger. Blood flew. The wolf’s body eventually loosened from its head and flopped to earth clawing and twitching.

With the bone rings of its neck littering the ground, the head bit and bit again seeking in vain his guarded fist. Tomlin pinned the demon’s skull to the ground with his sword and hacked its wolf’s head to pieces with his long jeweled dagger. Nose, tongue, and eyes still sought him but without success.

Little bits of fuzzy-bloody wolf flesh clustered in spasm on the ground. The dust drank up the blood. With a fading howl the segmented wolf-demon stilled. Its torso stiffened into death. The carcass became rot and stank as if exposed to the sun a week instead of a moment. 

Tomlin’s knees trembled. His arms ached. He gagged and coughed.

“Bring more,” he bellowed into still air. When he walked he staggered, and pain coursed down the nerves in his arms and legs.

With a disquiet that lingered, the priest's words recalled other fears. Apparitions that speak are the more deadly. Casting spells of comfort and temptation they are able to weaken or misguide your heart’s courage.

Tomlin knelt and cleaned his weapons with handfuls of moss and dirt. He still quivered but spoke aloud, clear, and quick, “I can do all things from the power of The Book...”

A voice cajoled from the fog, a female form with long wavy hair. “Indeed; words are but airborne and spit laden boast. It is thy sword, Noble One, which stilled Le Fenre. Boast of that, Slayer of the Demon-Wolf King. Flesh and blood hath killed a spirit. Swell with pride.”

Tomlin blinked and blinked again. Was she here or there? No, her image was indeed double; the first more distinct and clothed in palest green muslin, the second a nude's refection as if in a still pond. The two did not always move at the same time but always stopped commingled or adjacent.

“What are you?” Tomlin said.

Two voices merged; the result said, “A maiden. Are you weak of eye, Bold One?” Then one voice, “Or are you weak from eyeing?” The bare image touched its breast.

“Why are you looking over there? I stand here.” The first voice seemed puzzled and the naked image moved to overlay the clothed; then the clothed overwhelmed it.

Tomlin could not help his words, they came forth of themselves, “Strange vision; you are a maiden you say? Weird maiden, how stand you here and there?” he pointed.

The single image frowned. One voice replied, “A drunkard's dream.” Two voices continued with a wink and grin from the single image, “and the better to fill thy eye.”

The priest seemed to speak behind Tomlin‘s ear, Near the tower one might glimpse a spirit.

A deep throb passed through the ground; the tower shone with dull greens and blues from within. Their strange fire became fingers of rust colored smoke. Their image played along the underside of a fog bank that curled up from the river.

“The Old One plays,” the maiden laughed in her strange blended voice. “He seeks a warrior to do his bidding. Your victory catches his eye; as it did mine. Let us walk to the fortress. He has wine. Some days he will share.”

Tree roots overgrown by moss slipped beneath Tomlin’s feet. He fell twice into the stream. The maiden trod lightly; sand and slick mud supported her. Even water supported her step. Tomlin sunk half way to his knees and climbed from ooze both rising and sinking in the muddy sand.

“Here; walk here,” the maiden motioned.

He walked where she pointed. Mud became sand mixed with rounded creek rocks. They grew to cobble stone size and soon he walked upon a pavement that sparkled; aquamarine, and deep emerald. But black opal pebbles that lay dusted about supported his step, for the cobbles themselves shifted. Did the woman scatter the dust?

“What is your name?” the question slipped from Tomlin’s lips even as sweat dripped from his brow.


“Barrel? Like beer barrel?” Tomlin said and smiled.

“No fool; Beryl. I am Reade Beryl, serf of the Gray Tower. I am named for a red gemstone not unlike those on which thou treadest.” She smiled. The Other winked as well.

“You call me ‘thou?’ And I but now know only your name. You presume much,” Tomlin frowned as he spoke.

“Thou calleth me ‘you?’ But I know thee, Tomlin of Martyr’s Cavern. I address thee as I wish.” She turned and half bowed. With her bodice drooping she said, “Thou. Thou, oh Tomlin, thou. Oh, and thou do be pleased to look...more.” She stood laughing and skipped a step and laughed some more.

Tomlin blushed and clutched the rose-quartz talisman that hung about his neck. “Please yourself...” Tomlin sputtered, “” The Rose Crux bled warm pink light between his fingers. Self-control returned.

Reade walked ahead, treading lightly along. A black opal hung from her neck on a tiny iron chain. A breeze, the tower’s breath, chilled and Beryl pulled her cloak over her head. Warm brown curls surrounded her face and spilled from her hood. Strong brown eyes glanced at Tomlin from a pale face.

In darkening shade their path dropped with the stream and followed its bank. “This way is often hidden by water. The Old One’s magic holds it forth when he wills.” Beryl glanced up at drooping vines draped with coast-moss. “If the water were at its usual height we would move yonder among those, hand over hand.”

A hundred royal strides ahead their walkway reentered what sunlight penetrated the fog. But a moss covered, vine-tangled twilight waited.

Tomlin froze. A pair of yellow eyes stared from high among moss and vine. The snake coiled about a limb and followed his every movement. With an arrow notched, lean Tomlin gave a second thought and trotted on.

Beryl ran ahead and moved as if she owned the wood. Catching up, Tomlin pulled her by the hand and ran for high ground and dim sunlight.

Beryl pulled loose, “I may call thee ‘thou’ but I own me. Not thou.” Coils of gray wormy serpent fell and wrapped about her. She screamed only once for her breath would not draw. Her face reddened.

Tomlin loosed two arrows that thudded home into snake coils. When he raised his bow again, the serpent struck. In dodging Tomlin fell; his cape punctured by a fang as long as his arm. Impaled on a tree the torn garment choked him.

Beryl made a sign with her fingers and went limp. A cold red fire burned consuming fang and tree but not Tomlin and his tattered cape. Tomlin fell free.  

He avoided the second snake strike by jumping among the creature’s coils. The thing followed his every move but could not strike the student warrior-priest. A third near miss filled the thing’s mouth with its own rotten flank.

The maiden is surely a sorceress. Even so, I must free her, Thought Tomlin.

Tomlin yelled prayers and hacked the worm with his sword. Hiding, dodging, and slipping away when it struck, he opened and widened a wound in the snake’s flank near the pale Reade Beryl. The worm released and recoiled away from his blows.

He pulled the pale maiden free, close, and breathed into her mouth. Tomlin became Reade’s breath until she with great effort drew a wheezing breath of her own. She coughed and spat.

Tomlin presented the tip of his sword and the Rose Crux to the wavering snake’s head proclaiming, “By the power of The Word and The Book.”

Reade slipped to the ground but continued to breathe. The weakened serpent convulsed. Pale gray light leaked from between its scales. A final aggression, an uneven wavering strike fell short of Tomlin and the wheezing Reade. The serpent quivered and crept. It shook and slithered away, trailing blood towards the river.

“Thou a wizard be; breath of life and war-magic called forth.” Beryl panted but steadied by the wavering Tomlin she stood and said, “Bold One, there are others of her kind. The tower beckons; let us linger no more.”

The serpent disappeared into the river. The water rose. Tomlin and Beryl sloshed along but trod knee deep before reaching the fog dimmed sunlight. Beyond the vines Beryl spoke, “I’ve heard this place called Moss Hell. Now I know why,”

They climbed. Steps cut from virgin rock steadied their footfalls. After a hundred paces they still stood ankle deep in water. The rising river kept their pace.

Tomlin’s voice stained with awe, “I almost died, twice.”

Beryl laughed but stood three steps above the water and clutched her chest. She puffed a bit, “We, thou Tomlin. We almost died. Art thou a philosopher too? Thy talent hast no visible end. I thank thee for my life.”

The last steps, each a solid red jewel, faded into the muddy stream, disappearing beneath the muck clotted flow. Tomlin pulled the coughing woman along. They fell and slid into a fog choked ditch, discovering it the tower’s dry moat. “The river may yet fill this,” wheezed Beryl.

With the decrepit drawbridge down, the mangled portcullis jammed open, and the moat near filled with dried silt they crossed into The Gray Tower. Muddy water invaded the moat and soon licked the fallen gate.

About the courtyard bristled empty battlements built to confront those who passed the gate. Archer’s slots stared with empty eyes. Tomlin’s gaze stopped at the granite stair that led up into the keep, “Surely a path so wide and fair is a trap baited with its own comeliness. Still, there are no visible defenders.”

Reade climbed half the stair before Tomlin joined her. The wind whined a muted shout of grief, water curled into the courtyard, and thunder mumbled a warning above the fog.

“The water can get deeper than this,” she called to him, turned, grabbed two handfuls of skirt, and climbed. Small hail stones fell; then ones the size of apples.

Hail as big as a man’s head hit sending ice splinters in all directions. Petrels, the small storm birds of legend, fell dead along with sky ice into the courtyard. Tomlin and Reade sprinted the remainder of the staircase among exploding cold white splinters.

The storm beat the fortress with an unseen fist. Inside the pounding seemed to come from a mighty stone drum. Only the warm smell of Reade Beryl and the dusty odor of the keep filled Tomlin’s nostrils; darkness reigned within their sanctuary; sleet, rain, and hail fell without. Beryl encircled Tomlin’s waist with her arms and brushed his face with her cheek. Her blended voice said, “Together alone; how awkward.” She licked his ear and kissed his mouth, “Thou.” She kissed him again.

She wrapped her arms about him. He pulled her closer. The smell of warm maiden dusted with pine needles and anointed with cold crushed mint filled his head. Fresh melted ice water trickled from Tomlin’s brow and made a tiny splash on Reade’s cheek.

Tomlin’s thought’s threatened to overpower him when her tongue found his. He quivered and not just his thighs. I want her. May the teachings of The Book protect us. I want her.  

Tomlin gently freed himself from Reade’s embrace, “The water is still rising,” he said.

 “Water?” mumbled Reade. “Yes the river; the river is too full and its overflow distracts my... Who climbs...where?  How could thou stop? Such kisses are rare. Climb?” said Reade and climbed following Tomlin’s quivering step.

            A circular stair led upwards and joined a circular hallway that ended at a wooden door. After opening easily the entrance revealed the same again and its door repeated the matter: stair, hallway, door; a total of three times. Each stair and each hall were guarded by empty archer’s slots a fist wide along the left wall and head sized murder holes along the ceilings.

After the third level a counter clockwise stairway hung from the wall, quartz, granite, and limestone alternated as risers and ascended into a darkness sounding with the papery flutter of wings. High pitched squeals and continual thumping could be heard between lightning flashes and thunder rolls.

Tomlin’s bow spat two arrows into the upper darkness. A large bat dropped with the first but the second arrow stayed gone. Tomlin filled his left hand with his sword and climbed.

Reade watched and wrung her hands, “Beware, thou hero, I’ve seen bats as big as bulls inside this tower.”

Tomlin looked back at Reade holding a lamp’s light without a lamp to contain it. He looked up at the dark. That can’t be true, he thought.

Reade began her own assault; verbal but effective, “Thus saith Reade Beryl of The Gray Tower to The Mists, sky ice, cease!” She spat against the wall and motioned with her hands visibly gouging the air. It hissed. Her lamp-less light brightened and changed hue from pale butter yellow to searing blue-white. The beating-thudding of the hail stopped. Gentle rain continued.

The upper levels of the keep now reflected enough light to discover its overdeveloped population and stop Tomlin’s assent. Lightning flashes confirmed the shadows with stark white light. As big as bulls? “Creator’s chin whiskers. Bats as thick as venison stew; as big as hounds.”

Tomlin climbed at a trot and swung his sword. Bats fell. Some chattered in frenzy and departed upwards. Tomlin slowed.

Reade screamed, “Watch out; there are missing steps.”

He stopped. Bow shot after bow shot sliced into the huge bats. Small bats fled but many dropped dead; some two to an arrow. Reade dodged bat carrion and spoke again, “Spirit of the Dread Keep, be bound, be stilled, and be gone.”  Blue-white lamp-less light slowly climbed to the top of the keep.

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