Science fiction and fantasy
An Excerpt From Along The Watchtower
24th July 2013
It seems like a long time since I've read a good portal fantasy, and I don't think they've been popular since the nineties. That means they're about due a revival. It's particularly interesting when an author takes the format of someone moving from the humdrum and often awful modern world, into a somewhat idealised medieval world where magic and individual heroics are possible, and flips it. That seems to be what's going on here.
The appeal of this kind of story is in the contrast between one life and another, and also in the sense of grandeur. Both Freddie and Frederick are engaged in epic struggles, but only one of them is the focus of the entire country, and if he fails, so does everyone. Along The Watchtower is an intriguing variation on the portal theme, and I can't wait to see where the author takes it.
Please enjoy this gripping excerpt from Along the Watchtower by David Litwack.
BeckyOn the ground floor, the center of the hospital opened into a small courtyard, an insecure space with too many places for insurgents to hide. I took a quick breath and tensed.
“Wait up, Ralph.”
“It’s okay, Freddie. You’re safe here.”
“Give me a minute. It’s my first time out.”
I surveyed the perimeter. A few benches. A flower garden dominated by hydrangeas, but not like the softball-sized blossoms my mom used to grow. These were small and paler than the Cape Cod variety, which were a blue that could compete with the sky.
At once, I could see my mom, hands buried in the hydrangeas, grooming her flowers—one of the few memories I could bear to recall. Me and my brothers in the driveway shooting hoops. Mom telling us to keep the ball out of her garden. She was happy then, surrounded by her family, her garden, and the ocean.
I looked past the hydrangeas to find purple asters and some lilies too. But no roses. For some reason, I’d been hoping for roses.
Despite the nice day, the courtyard was deserted, except for a woman about my age who sat on a wooden bench, finishing up a brown-bag lunch. Her eyes were closed and her head tipped back to take in the sun, making her appear to be dreaming. Sitting alone on the bench, her face seemed framed by flowers.
When she heard us coming, she sat up, straightened her scrubs, and smiled.
“Hey, Ralph. What do you have there? Another victim for me?”
“Becky,” Ralph said. “What’s up? This is Freddie, Lt. Williams, our newest patient. We’re trying to bring him back from the dead. Freddie, meet Becky Marshall, one of our physical therapists.”
I nodded a greeting to her, not much in the mood for small talk. She tilted her head to one side as if evaluating me. Then she gave me the kind of look that said we’d met before, if not in this world than in another, and that she intended to make a difference in my life.
“Is he ready for me?”
“Soon. If he’s assigned to you.”
My attention was drawn to a soda can on the bench next to her. I’d seen too many IEDs in soda cans.
She caught me fixating on it and grinned.
“Just my diet Pepsi, Freddie. See?”
She chugged what was left and tossed the can into a nearby trash basket. Then she crumpled the bag into a ball and to show off, stepped off exactly five paces and shot the bag into the basket in a perfect arc.
“Nice shot,” I said.
“I make that shot every time.”
She came close enough that our knees were almost touching and hovered over me, sizing me up.
“You’ll be mine,” she said finally. “I can tell. I get all the hard cases.”
As she walked away, light on her feet like a dancer, I fumbled for the wheel of the chair, trying to spin it around so I could watch her go. But Ralph had set the brake.
The GardenerThe white butterfly fluttered before her face. When she saw it, she reached out a hand and at once it landed on the curve of her wrist.
“Now there’s a fine omen for you,” she said. “Light knows we need one these days.” She whispered some words and the butterfly flew off across the courtyard and out over the castle wall.
A fine omen? Perhaps. But I’d learned to be wary. I stepped forward, scuffling my boots to make noise. She ignored my presence. Not until I was a pace away did she turn.
It was hard to say if she was beautiful or even pretty. Soil from the garden had splattered her cheeks and marked her forehead with a splotch that looked like a raven. A muddied apron hid her shape. But I took note of a glint in her gray-green eyes, as if the flowers had conspired to lend their color. And her mouth was a crescent moon upturned on its side.
The corners of the crescent twitched when she saw me but only for an instant. Then she went back to her work as if I were invisible. Her hands cradled each bloom as she sliced off the heads with a small knife.
“Are you spirit or demon?” I demanded.
She made no answer.
I drew my sword, relieved it slipped so easily from its scabbard, and stretched it in her direction. She watched the point from the corner of her eye but kept her head down and continued to work. Finally, I nudged her with the tip.
She let out a yelp. Only then did I realize I’d thrust too hard, and the blade had slit her garment. I backed off at once, ready to apologize, but then recalled my encounter with the assassin. I poked again, more gently this time.
“Why do you keep doing that?” she said.
“To see if you’re real.”
She stood and faced me, feet set wide and planted squarely on the ground.
“Why shouldn’t I be real?”
She was tall for a girl, her head rising above my chin, and had a bearing unlike a servant. When I continued to challenge her, she reached out and eased the point of my sword to one side.
“Would you put that silly thing away?”
I began to back off, then remembered the circumstance and held firm. “Why didn’t you say anything when I first approached you?”
“Because we servants aren’t supposed to talk to you royals.” She lowered her gaze and turned back to the flowers. “I’m sorry . . . Milord.”
“What’s your name?”
“Rebecca. My name is Frederick.”
She paled and then bent in a deep curtsy, her brashness collapsing into two whispered words. “The dauphin.” . . .
I wandered in a circle, hands folded behind my back, and inspected the flowers, unsure of what else to say. Then a thought occurred to me.
“Do you have roses in this garden?”
“No roses, Milord. I have asters and hydrangeas. Some fall crocus. And climbing the wall to the watchtower, sweet autumn clematis. A bit of monkshood underneath and tulips in the spring. But no roses.”
I must have looked disappointed. She came closer and reached out, but not enough to touch me.
“It must be lonely, Milord, a terrible burden. Every morning as I walk from my village to the gardens, I see the darkening clouds and wonder where my strength will come from. Then I remember. The dauphin will protect us. Save Him Oh Goddess, I pray. If only I could do something to help.”
I mumbled a thank you and turned to go, but stopped when I saw her examining her damaged apron.
“Are you here every day?”
“No, Milord, I have other gardens as well.”
“Come tomorrow, and I’ll bring you a new apron to replace the one I tore.”
She curtsied more deeply this time.
“I’d be so grateful, Milord, but I have nothing to give in return.”
“Ah, wait.” She took her small knife and clipped off a bulging blossom at the stem and handed it to me. “Now place it in water the first chance you get.”
I accepted the gift and admired her through its petals.
“Thank you,” I said. “Tomorrow at noon.”
As I walked away, I glanced over my shoulder to get one last look at the gardener. She was back at her work, resuming her song and snipping away, so light of hand and foot. As she blew away a curl that had drifted across her face, the summer dress rustled against her skin. I inhaled the scent of the flower and thought I caught the sun peeking through the clouds over Golgoreth.
And for the first time since my father died, goddesses seemed possible.
Along the Watchtower tells of a tragic warrior lost in two worlds; a woman who may be his only way back from Hell. Get it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or iTunes.
There Comes a Prophet A thousand years ago the Darkness came—a time of violence and social collapse. Nathaniel has grown up in their world of limits, longing for something more. For what are we without dreams? Get it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or iTunes.
David Litwack, the once and future writer, explores the blurry line between reality and the fantastic. Visit David on his website, Twitter, Facebook, or GoodReads.