Stephen King On Writing

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If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.

When I was in the eighth grade, I happened upon a paperback novel by Murray Leinster, a science fiction pulp writer who did most of his work during the forties and fifties, when magazines like Amazing Stories paid a penny a word. I had read other books by Mr. Leinster, enough to know that the quality of his writing was uneven. This particular tale, which was about mining in the asteroid belt, was one of his less successful efforts. Only that’s too kind. It was terrible, actually, a story populated by paper-thin characters and driven by outlandish plot developments. Worst of all (or so it seemed to me at the time), Leinster had fallen in love with the word zestful.

Characters watched the approach of ore-bearing asteroids with zestful smiles.Characters sat down to supper aboard their mining ship with zestful anticipation.Near the end of the book, the hero swept the large-breasted, blonde heroine into a zestful embrace. For me, it was the literary equivalent of a smallpox vaccination: I have never, so far as I know, used the word zestful in a novel or a story. God willing, I never will.

Asteroid Miners (which wasn’t the title, but that’s close enough) was an important book in my life as a reader. Almost everyone can remember losing his or her virginity, and most writers can remember the first book he/she put down thinking: I can do better than this. Hell, I am doing better than this!

What could be more encouraging to the struggling writer than to realize his/her work is unquestionably better than that of someone who actually got paid for his/her stuff? One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose — one novel like Asteroid Miners (or Valley of the Dolls, Flowers in the Attic, and The Bridges of Madison County, to name just a few) is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lecturers thrown in.

Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling. A novel like The Grapes of Wrath may fill a new writer with feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy — “I’ll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand” — but such feelings can also serve as a spur, goading the writer to work harder and aim higher. Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing — of being flattened, in fact — is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.

My Wife, The Piper, Liam Flowers and The End of The World…

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We had a conversation this morning. It was one of those not quite awake conversations that happens on Saturday morning when there is no work to put a stop to them. 

“Don’t get me wrong,” she said. I knew that there was some honesty coming. “I like your blog, but it’s not going to support us. It’s not that tunnel that you are looking for.”

In the last twenty months or so, the writing has been coming thick and fast. It’s as if all my old injuries and wounds have set about healing themselves, all at once. It’s a Doctor Who thing; complete regeneration and a new-build exterior. I have been careful not to become all nice and good about the world, as a born-againer would likely be. The world still exists in its pre-breakdown mode, shit and getting shittier, so no amount of glossy- over by an inner ‘positive-mindset-self’ is likely to change it. But what I am doing is expurgating myself of the false beliefs about my life and its values.

“I wish you would rewrite The Piper. I loved that book. It is as real to me as yesterday.”

The Piper was my first novel, an imperfect issue that came kicking into life just less than a decade ago; on the eve of my father’s death. The book was my way of showing that I wasn’t a dreamer, that I had real talent. So, I chose a book about the coming apocalypse, set in a school, led by an imaginary Piper who was based on Pan, an Anti-Christ type boy, an animated corpse that had turned to leather and the holy trinity in the form of three brothers. What type of dreamer would dream that up? Anyway, my father escaped having to read it as a result of him dying. And I escaped any redemption.

“I want to rewrite it. It’s just finding the time.” But I knew that I was lying.

I have a friend who didn’t want to upset me when he told me that he thought my writing now was much better than the writing of The Piper. That was my baby he was talking about. It may not have been perfect, but it was mine. It’s a thing that is rarely done, offer an honest critique about the appearance of another person’s baby.

“Your kid is as ugly as a mule’s arse! If you don’t mind me saying.”

That’s why I have kept it in darkness. My ugly mule-arse baby sits on my bookshelf, lonely and wanting to be loved.

“I love it,” my wife said. “I love it.”

Now I am being asked to become Victor Frankenstein. My little imperfect issue needs a face-lift. It needs rewriting for a modern world. It needs to be accepted.

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Liam Flowers, come forth.

 

 

 

 

Epilogue 1

In her dreams, Elizabeth was on the ward that had consumed her life.

It had not burnt to the ground as she knew it had many years ago, but was intact and filled with the confused slumber of its patients. The book she had been reading was open at the page where she had fallen asleep. She had done her rounds, had tucked in the sleepers, had recreated the stories she had for them.

The book had taken up three full nights. At its heart was a dark secret of which none of its characters dared to speak. At its core was a girl who had been locked away in the attic of her home for years. She had grown in darkness as a way of keeping her pure. This was her mother’s God.

He was not mercy. He was not forgiveness. God was pain and damnation.

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My Stories

Elizabeth had read the book carefully taking each word at a time and not skimming. She was drawn to the story in the same self-destructive manner that addicts return to the drugs that kill them. The more she read, the deeper she was mired in its lines. On the third night she slept.

In her dream, she woke with the sounds of the sleepers seeping into every crevice of the ward. Waking more, her eyesight adjusting to the night, she raised herself from her chair and felt an energy that had not been there for many years. She looked at her hands and was amazed at how different they were. She turned them over in front of her gaze and saw the backs were now not the veined maps onto which an almost translucent covering of skin was projected. These things she held before her belonged to a younger woman.

She was dreaming and she knew it. She had often woken within a dream and, even knowing that it belonged to the wanderings of sleep, had allowed its tidal ebbs and flows to take her where they would. For the most part, she would forget these nocturnal drifts only for some consciously chanced upon detail to sweep her back. At that, she would stop in her tracks and feel the chill of something reaching out from darkness. These episodes of déjà vu were now starting to fall upon her like leaves in autumn.

It could just be the onset of old age; altzeimers spiked amongst her deepest fears.

In this dream, she moved through the ward, listening to the familiar sound of the invisible ones. She was able to see each bed inhabited by their sleeping occupants and the regular rise and fall of their breathing. All the beds were occupied and it seemed that the ward was not confined by the hospital’s walls. She could see into the shifting darkness and thought she saw beds stretching out for mile upon mile towards some barely glimpsed horizon.

Then there came the sound.

At first it was a low indistinguishable sound that could have been the merest hush of a nervous breeze, but the sound began to grow and swirl around the beds. Blankets began to flutter as if brushed by a passing hand. Elizabeth was frightened.

Every instinct screamed, ‘run’.

She listened knowing that if she heard its true notes, she would be lost. This was the time to swim upwards from this sleep. She pushed upward from the floor, but nothing happened. Movement and sound converged. She was aware of sheets being filled with the forms of sleeplessness. In the far distance was a darkened cloud invading the sky. The stillness that arrived before a storm settle around her.

She would pull herself toward waking. She would tell herself that this was not real, that it was only a dream; a nightmare. Her heart raced and pounded in her chest and pulsed into her temples. Her skin rippled with an ancient angst like a memory locked into despair.

Now, there was fresh movement in  the ward. The sigh of bedsheets, the pat of bare feet on the cold floor. But closer still, there was a hand climbing from beneath the starched linen. The hand that was revealing itself from beneath the veil of dread was that of the Piper and the bodies that were rising from their white cotton shrouds were those of her parents, her brother and the neighbours lost so long ago on that summer night.

She would wake now.

That was how it would happen. She would wake and she might even scream. Hairs would stand rigid on her spine. She would be hyperventilating. For a brief moment, there would be a memory of what she had been through. For a moment, she would remember the touch of the Piper’s clammy hand. For one long eternity, there would remain the memory of a world that was not supposed to have been. For an everlasting instant, she would remember awaiting the grasp of the Piper as he claimed her for his own.

But then she would wake.

That was when he had touched her. The hand was warm and she knew it belonged to the  boy called Nicholas. She turned torwards where she thought he would be and saw the face of the boy grown old. He had grown and now beckoned her to follow.

She was now old and frail and her bones only left the nursing home for short periods in its gardens. She had lived a long life, perhaps longer than God had intended, but she had always been haunted by those children on the ward. Now she had dreamt of Nicholas, the one who had escaped. The boy who was now a man. She also understood that God had not forgotten her and the debt she owed him.

Although her bones ached with years of rheumatism, she pulled them from her bed. She was upright surveying how the moon had thrown its light through the window. It was a cold night and the one that she had been waiting for. With no regard for the torturous strain brought on by movement, she washed and dressed in silence. She would leave this place of the dying and find her way back to where much of it had started: Fairfields House.

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Once she thought that she had cheated God, but she hadn’t.

He had forgiven her and she owed Him.

 

 

The Piper 64

There was silence between them as they pulled on the cords. They were pulling their own weight and that was a task.

They were working in darkness with a shaft of vague light indicating their destination. They toiled knowing that every moment counted. Muscles ached and burned until, at last, they reached the hatch. Michael pushed with his remaining strength. To his surprise, it opened easily and they climbed out into the school kitchens. These were deserted. The staff, that had arrived for their morning’s work, had fled upon hearing the first salvo. Michael looked at his mother, palms were bleeding.

“Michael, does that hurt?”

Michael looked down at his hands and saw the blood for the first time. He was reminded of the boy he had killed.

“No, it’s fine. Let’s get going. Where have you parked the car?”

She was just able to tell him that it was on Thurston Road and they were off out of the kitchen fire exit and around the back of the building.

At roughly the same time, Mr Hunter was emerging in the grey morning with the first of his refugees. They had come out at the same place they had gone in, and, being some distance from the main building, that afforded them just enough of a chance to go undetected.

The bedraggled survivors were being led out into the open by their teachers.

“What now, Graham?” asked a dazed Mrs Sanderson, the PE teacher who he had always respected.

“I’m afraid that we must let the children make their own way home. We can’t take all of them can we?”

“What about St Stephen’s on Blythe Street? Why don’t we take the children there and then ferry them home?”

As more of the students were leaving the passages, Graham saw Chris. There was a look on his face that caused him immediate concern.

“What’s the matter, Chris?”

“I think they might have captured Michael.”

Some moments passed and then the deputy head emerged.

“Are you the last, Martin?”

“I’m afraid so. The boy told me to leave him and lock the door behind me. Which one is Chris?”

Chris stepped forward.

“Son, your brother was a hero. He told me to tell you that he would see you again and that that was a promise.”

Chris’s composure crumpled. Slumping to the ground, he buried his head in his hands and wept openly. Graham sat beside him with an arm around his shoulders and knew that he was close to tears, himself.

“I’m going back in for him. I can’t leave him on his own in there. He wouldn’t leave me all alone and I’m the one responsible for this.”

He tried to shrug the consoling arm away and found that it had become more than that.

“Chris, you’re not going to do anyone any good if you go back in there. Stay here. You heard his promise. He said you’d see him again didn’t he?”

“Get off me. Get off me!” He was fighting now like an animal caught in a snare. “You’re not my father. You’re not family. Get off…”

And that was when the school exploded.

 

 

Flowers had listened as the steps approached him and he had tried to trace their passage when they momentarily stopped. Then he heard a rush of feet coming up from the basement. There were cries of anguish and urgency. Something was wrong. Something had interfered with his plans.

“Sir, I think the timer’s been set off. Rawlins heard it ticking. It could blow any minute…”

Flowers took moments to digest what he was being told. He turned towards the place where he had last heard the solitary footfalls, but whatever had made them was now gone. For the briefest instant he discerned the outline of a figure leaving the building through the main doors that had been opened as if by a stiff breeze.

Yes, they had better move and quickly.

“Right! Everyone outside.”

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It was as they reached the perimeter fence that the school went up. Not quite what he had planned, he thought, directing his camera phone towards the flames, but good enough.

 

The Piper 50

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Like Christopher, Peter woke to sunshine. Only a whisper of a dream remained of the night. 

A heat lay upon him, a heat that he had never felt before. It was strong and dry and the air about him was strewn with rays catching the dust paths of naked earth.

He lay on a straw mat that felt surprisingly comfortable. Somewhere, at the back of his mind, played a dream that had visited him many times before. He had been in a dark place. It had been dark and cold and there had been hunters. There was a memory of fire and a shiver ran along his spine. He pulled a curtain across the thought and it was gone; almost.

He was starting to make a move back to sleep when a voice called out from beyond the bare room he was in.

“Petras, Petras. Are you awake, boy? Get up we have work to do.”

He recognised the voice of his father and knew that he must now arise.

Climbing out of his bed, he stretched himself even further awake and walked out into  a larger space. There, his father, the village’s main herdsman, was standing in a block of sunshine by the open door.

“Petras,” he said hearing the familiar sounds of his son’s footsteps behind him, “we have a long day today. The flock is high up in the mountains and we need to move them to safer ground. There is talk of wolves.”

There was a tone in his father’s voice that alerted him to a creature that was more dangerous than the mere predator which was a wolf. Other boys in the village had been enraptured with the rumour of a pack of warriors that were ravaging the land and using humans as their prey. According to the tale, these pagans worshipped a strange god that invited their brutality if the hunt didn’t succeed. The boys were thrilled by the possibility that their village could lie in the path of such a clan. Like all boys, they wanted to become men and this would mean that they would fight alongside their elders in defence of all that was theirs.

As he stared in admiration at his father, another voice joined the day.

“Demitrus, is it wise to take the boy? He is still so young and will be of little use if there is trouble.”

This was the voice of his mother, Syrinx. Peter stared at her for a moment in disbelief. How could she have said such a thing? He was old enough to help his father and was certainly not afraid of wolves. And if there were savages out there he would stand with his father and defend the herd.

“Mother,” said the boy in a voice that surprised him. “I am a member of this family and village and I am old enough to give my help when it is needed.”

“That is a boy who will be something one day,” his father said with a flourish of pride.

“If we take care that he reaches that day,” his mother added with concern.

“We will go with others so that we give each other protection. Our dogs will tell us if anything comes.”

 

 

They had been walking all day and, although getting higher, the heat of the sun continued to stalk their steps. Peter reached for his waterskin and drank some more.

“Be careful, Petras, the sun will continue to shine but your water will run out. We have yet much work to do.”

The goats that had been found had fallen into a muddled line in front of them. The herd dogs were watchful and would chase after any that meandered away from their intended course. The other villagers had gone ahead to find members of their own herds leaving Petras and his father alone on the mountainside.

Although his father was not one for much talk, Petras enjoyed the time spent with him. His father was a good man and worked hard for the family and the village. If the community had a leader, it would be him. The young boy looked toward him and was proud. The leather-brown skin, gained through years of toil on the mountain, held sinewy muscles that were as taut as bowstrings and as powerful as a bear’s. When Petras grew up, he wanted to be like his father and wished to marry a woman just like his mother. In the afternoon sun, life appeared to be predetermined for him.

Up ahead, the herd dogs had stopped. They were encircling a patch of ground that was free of the wild rosemary bushes that covered the area. They were sniffing the air in a manner that suggested they had found something of interest, but were keeping a distance between them and the thing that had drawn their attention.

Petras looked toward his father and noticed a frown running across his forehead. If he had not known his father so well, he might have thought that he was undergoing a moment’s apprehension.

“Petras, you stay here.”

The order was sharp and commanding. The boy watched as the father covered the ground between him and the dogs. Once he reached there, he knelt down for a long while looking into the same space that was now the focus of all of their time.

Petras noticed that he was saying something and that he was forming his hands into the same shape he would make if he were talking to their gods. The breeze had changed direction and carried with it the briefest scent of a something that had been burnt. The boy sat down on a rock and waited. Some time later, his father returned.

“What was it, Father?”

His father did not answer at first. He seemed to be collecting his thoughts.

“Hunters,” he mumbled. “Hunters have been here and they had made a kill. They made a meal on that ground over there.”

“Is it a goat that they ate?”

“No, not a goat. Let’s go.”

“What about the rest of the herd, Father? Should we not collect them too?”

For the first time in his life, the boy felt his father’s anger as he came down to eye level.

“We forget the herd, boy, and we make for home. There is something in these mountains that is feasting. No more talking from now on. Do you understand? We leave the goats and return.”

Petras nodded, shaken by this outburst. Whatever his father had seen had changed their course of action. He heard fear in his voice and that had transferred itself to him. He had also, or so he thought, been touched by the thoughts that were inside his father’s head. He saw a fresh memory of the thing that his father had seen. What he saw was a darkened patch of ground with the dying embers of a fire. In the middle of the fire he had seen a skull of a creature that was not goat.

His father had recognised it immediately.

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It was the charred remains of a human skull.

 

 

The Piper 46

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The sound of feet had receded.

The shouting was being swallowed up by the night, leaving Pete to breathe deeply.

For the first time in his life, he felt terrified. He had never been in such a situation before and had been fortunate that the stupidity of his would-be attackers had given him those few seconds in which he escaped their intentions. Now, his temporary sanctuary could easily become his cage. He had to find a way out.

Looking around the loading bay, he could see the large secure metal door where the vans would deliver their goods. This was raised above ground level so that the drivers could just back their vehicles up against them and then walk their deliveries into the shop. To the right of these were three large metal industrial bins. The unwanted packaging would be placed in these before being collected.

Pete noticed that one of the bins was full to overflowing and guessed that, like everything else, someone had not been doing their job right. To all sides of the delivery area was a huge brick wall that was further complemented by an ugly razor wire that ran along its entire length. Pete had only managed to scan his options when he heard voices returning.

He had seconds to make a decision.

In truth, he had nowhere to run and only one place to hide.

The metal bins could provide him with a hope. He could hope that they would not search them, that they would continue to be the stupid thugs that they had earlier shown themselves to be.

The bins were his only hope so he quickly climbed the steps onto the loading platform and lifted the lid off the nearest one. Like the one in the middle, it was obviously full. He replaced the lid and it made the slightest of noises. The night became still. Pete listened for the sounds of approaching feet and heard none. His heart was pounding and his hands began to tremble. The breaths he was taking became shallower and shorter; tears were beginning to form on the lower lids of his eyes.

More than anything else, he wanted his mum.

He’s behind that shop. The one with the van parked at the entrance of the drive.

It was faint yet clear. Pete recognised the thoughts of the leader. He tasted the blood that was still in his mouth and sensed the hatred that coated those thoughts.

There was no time left to wish for his mother. He was alone and needed to give himself a chance to stay alive. The last bin was full too, but when he looked more carefully he saw that one of the boxes had not been properly folded flat. This left a space and it was a space into which a young, scared four-year-old could creep.

Deliberate steps were making their way down the drive. Nobody spoke. For once they were working as a group. Their leader was still holding his wounded hand. His eyes had taken on a black intensity. The others followed him with the same intent. They would get their revenge for the attack. In their minds they felt as if it had been they, not the child, who had been unjustly provoked. In their minds, they had the right to avenge such an insult.

The rule of force would tell.

Without prompting, the gang stood around the bins.

The vain chance that the boy could escape their search was over. They would find him and their leader would exact some terrible retribution for the wrong that had been done. He had stopped holding his hand now. The triumph, surging within him, flooded his immediate thoughts. This would make him feel better. This would make him feel much, much better. He didn’t want to rush it.

“Go back to the van and break in. I’ll bet there’s an emergency supply of petrol in there. You know what they look like. They’re green plastic things with black hoses attached. Bring it back and we’ll have a little bonfire.”

Pete heard everything.

“I know you heard that kid. You’re going to be cooked like a barbeque. Let’s call it an early Guy Fawkes. Shame we haven’t any fireworks.”

That was when Pete really lost control. His bladder burst and the warm liquid ran down and along his legs. His shoulders heaved in a heavy realisation. His whole young body collapsed in on itself and he tried to summon the face of his mother and brothers, but they would not come.

He was alone, in a bin, waiting to be burnt alive and there was nobody coming to save him. His tormentors had won. They were now in charge.

They had found what they wanted.

“Lift the lids and pour equal amounts into each. We’ll have to guess which one he’s in once they take light.”

Dutifully, the others did as they were told. There was no more talk.

At the last moment before the lid opened, Pete controlled his tears. He felt the fluid falling around him and upon him. He almost choked on the smell of the fuel. After some moments, the first stage was complete. The leader stepped forward onto the platform. In his injured hand he held a box of matches. The lids had been taken off the bins and one of his underlings came to stand at his side.

He was holding his camera phone up to record the action.

“This is what happens to all those who defy us,” announced the leader. “Those who dare oppose the new way will die like this.”

He dropped a match into the first bin. He moved to the second and did likewise.

Pete held his breath and prayed.

He prayed that God would take him before the flames. He prayed that his mother would somehow find him and place him next to his father. He prayed that someday this would all be different. He prayed that it would be quick.

The match dropped and went out. Pete heard the word “shit” and then discerned the striking of another flame. It too fell, but this time it caught on some paper that was drenched in petrol. The initial flame rose and gave rise to others. Soon everything was alight.

Pete’s body felt the heat. He prayed some more and was reaching his final ‘Amen’ when his legs were grabbed from beneath. Fingers wrapped themselves around his ankles and pulled hard. The force was so powerful that it made his arms fly up above him. His stomach was in his mouth as he dropped at a speed that defied comprehension.

Later the gang would push over the bins and find only cardboard and plastic. Their triumph would be empty, but they would get over it.

The New Age was coming and they would be a part of it.

 

 

 

 

The Piper 44

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Liam sat expecting the worst.

Today should have been the day when he had taken care of old business. It should have been easy with the city in so much disorder. But, things had not turned out that way. The Andrews boy was not the pushover that he had been led to believe; he had power.

Liam had walked home in the rain. He had not cared to cover himself against the elements, but had stripped to the waist. The cold night rain had lashed against his bare skin and had given him some relief. His anger was boiling over and he needed an outlet. For him, nothing arrived. He would have to wait.

When he got back to his flat, he was wearing the maniacal grin of a man returned from battle. Along the way, he had stopped to break a bottle, intending it for use on others yet had turned it on himself. His forearms bled and the rain diluted his life blood and added to its own flow.

He was terrible to behold.

The Leatherman was waiting in his favourite armchair. The replacement television was playing and the lights from it cast animated shadows across the darkened room. Liam was more than a little confused.

“Close the door on the way in. I do hate the cold.”

He recognised the undercurrent of the voice.

“Come in boy. Come in.”

Liam moved slowly into the room. He did not go for the but walked in the semi-darkness of the illumination of the flickering screen.

“This sack of bones spent a long time watching this. Four years of non-stop television and only one channel. It must have seemed like an eternity. He had the commercial side switched on.”

The voice snaked around him.

“So, you have tasted defeat, my boy. And what does that taste like I wonder?”

The leather torso turned around to look at him and he saw the space where the eyes ought to have been. Far from there being nothing there, he thought that he saw objects, like black diamonds glinting towards him.

“Ha, I see that it did not appeal to your palate.”

The corpse was directing itself towards the blood that was still freely pouring from Flowers’ penitent wounds.

“A form of stigmata,” the thing giggled again. “It will take more than that to atone for this miscalculation. I don’t wish for the blood of my chosen one, but for that of another. Have you any suggestions?”

Liam had a suggestion, but dared not utter it. He did not want to open the door to his thoughts.

“We could make an offering of anyone on a night such as this. If you want blood, then we could find it. The streets are ours and you know it.”

An explosion of frustration shattered the night.

“Have I taught you so little, you fool? Have I invested my kingdom to come in such a crass idiot? You do not understand the gravity of this night or you would not suggest such a thing. The family are not ours. We have nothing. Your incompetence is outstanding. Your underlings have left us stranded on the sands of fortune and you offer empty vessels for escape? I want your man, Liam, I want Podrall.”

Flowers was stunned.

He had never expected this.

Podrall had been with him from the start and there was something about him that was family. Now, he was being told that Podrall should die for the underestimations that had taken place. Was not he to blame as well?

“What about the middle brother? I think we could make an example of him. I remember what you told me about how you put fear into populations. We haven’t got all of the family, but if we showed what would happen to one of their prized members, then maybe we could tempt them out into the open. That would be a better use of resources.”

A snort of acceptance greeted this.

“You learn well boy. You learn well.”