His Take, Her Take

It is my pleasure and a privilege to be joining acclaimed author and writer James LaFond in the launch of Gender in Fiction: His Take/Her Take, where we will be examining gender and sexuality in classical and contemporary literature.

Visit jameslafond.com to share in reviews of works that continue to shape how gender is portrayed -- our newest joint review will be a fun look at Queen of the Black Coast by Robert E. Howard (author of Conan). Join us for masterpieces and mistakes.

LOOKING GLASS

'I don't want to go among mad people.'

Yet that is what Caspian Hythe must do -- and for how much longer?

In a place once safe and sane, madness and worse now flourishes.

Within a frenzied wave of horror and death -- from out of a rupture in the very fabric of space and time -- a gauntlet has been thrown.

Now he must return -- to combat an Evil that hungers for much more than mere dominion.

It seeks the Future itself.

In a world turned upside down, and backwards,
He will enter
the
Looking Glass
Start the adventure with Rabbit Hole.

 

 

 


Sample Chapters

Try out these three of the 22 chapters.

PROLOG

PROLOG

Please, Abby.

No, Cass. I can’t tell you more about my wand. Only that it came to me. It came a considerable distance to get to me. It speaks to me, but it is not mine. And if I ask …

I know. If you ask – you receive.

Cass, have I ever pressed you to tell me everything, about what you did, about all that happened – ‘Below’.

No.

I never will. But I will say, that life works in circles. Life likes circles, Cass.

So does magic, Abby.

Yes, Cass; so does magic, if you will.

For a long moment, the young man stood in the alcove doorway, staring back – at the bed.

The sleeper there stirred then reached across to the wand, which lay like a knife on the counterpane.

Mage, Sorcerer – Apprentice.

What dost Thou desire?


It was thunder, merely the voice of imminent storm; yet it was enough to draw him to the casement. The window swung open; cold wind swept the rough curtains against his face. His cold hand was on the open frame; he looked out into darkness, the thick glass of the panes vivid, gleaming as light flashed across the sky. He turned away, and struck his flank on the edge of the small table. There, across the stained wood, the cards were laid. Cups. The suit of Water and of Air. The Second card, that’s for Homecoming.

Swords. Again, the suit of Air and of Water.

The suit of the Word of Power. The Eight, that’s for the Test.

The Knight – for a woman within the armor, the defender.

Rain pattered against the window as he went to the sideboard, with its ewer and pitcher a pale shimmer. His eyes met those of his own in the mirror above, blue, yet distorted, indistinct – as indistinct as the face that now loomed from behind him, gazing past his shoulder into the looking glass.

Suddenly clear was the face of the young woman. Her eyes were searching, and her red hair was loose about her face.

Ava. My Knight.


Her hand reached up to touch her own lips; longing and sorrow was on her face. The face of Ava Fitzalan melted away, as another image grew into awful clarity.

Out of darkness it came. It was a face fair yet livid, the eyes ebony like the rich hair – pitiless, vengeful, and cold. The red lips parted; a cruel smile spread across the face of the woman in the looking glass.

He pulled back, away from the mirror whose icy surface was streaming with light, pale with mist. A terrible low scream rose in the room, becoming louder, inhuman, piercing ...

Until it merged with the sound of the train’s whistle and he bolted upright in his seat, fully aware, safe.

His book was still open on his lap where he had left it. Held fast by horror, unnoticed by him was the sound of passengers readying to depart, and the tinny announcement of imminent arrival at the station.

They were nothing to him.

What the young man heard instead was the dim roar of the sea, of waves pounding on shores limitless and eternal.

What he tasted on his lips was salt spray carried by a wind fragrant with brine and the perfume of living water. What echoed in his mind was the melody of song, a song that called, that implored, that suddenly faded to silence – a song as sweet as it was inhuman.


“Guildford Station,” proclaimed the porter, at his elbow.

The train lurched to a full stop.

Caspian Hythe tucked his book into his pocket, shouldered his pack, and stepped out onto the crowded platform.

Chapter 1 - WHERE THE HEART IS

Chapter 1 - WHERE THE HEART IS

Trotting up with Cass’ second bag in hand, the porter caught him as he stood blinking like an owl in the sunlight; the young man’s eyes were on the sky high above.

The porter looked up; he saw nothing there.

Cass smiled and tipped the fellow.

“Very kind of you, Mr. Hythe. Good to have you back. Look. There’s your Miss Abigail now.”

There indeed was Cass’ aunt, with her confident stride, her warm smile, elegant and vibrant.

“Oh, don’t forget your book.”

The porter knelt quickly, retrieving the little volume that had tumbled from Cass’ pocket and regarding it with interest – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

An enormous smile lit the man’s face.

“Don’t you just love those sweet old children’s stories, Mr. Hythe?” With no sign on his face of the chill that still claimed his heart, Cass linked arms with Abigail Hythe and the two left the station together.


Cass turned away from the windows; the morning sun had ended with a spate of showers.

Yet the rain sounded different to him.

Like a rainbow whose colours have faded.

What is missing?

Now what?

Cass’ eyes had fastened on the newspaper and the glaring headline.

‘Madness Strikes Again in Guildford: In yet another bizarre act, a husband of twenty years has killed his wife, leaving authorities dumbfounded at the wave of inexplicable violence sweeping the town.’

Sun broke through the clouds and flooded the library. Abby came in with tea and Cass slowly put down the paper.

“Madness?”

“It would appear. I might also say I hope so,” she said, to his look of surprise. “You see, it started just after you went off to class.”

His heart went cold again.

 

“When was it, Abby – exactly when?” She put down her cup.

“It was the week after you had come back – back up, from ‘Below’.”


Cass placed his own cup, untried, on the table. His pensive walk brought him back to the wide windows.

Far across the garden with its immaculate brick walks and cultivated wildness, the little gate under the trees swung gently open.

The gate that leads to the Mount.

To Carroll’s grave.

She falls to rise.

“Cass, do you happen to remember a funny, wonderful man, Professor Quist?”

“Quist. Yes. As I recall, a friend of Dad’s, from the Museum, always digging up things?”

“That’s him. He’s been excavating some ruins, just outside Clandon; a church. At least, that is what they think it was during the last thousand years. The foundations, however, are older than the hills.”

“Why do you ask? He hasn’t gone mad, too?”

“No. One of his workers did, at the site just last week. In broad daylight, for no reason – the man killed himself.”

She didn’t smile; neither did her nephew.

Cass went to the mantel. Across the aged wood marched photos of family and friends. It was a bitter affidavit of loss; there was Cass’ father Randolph Hythe, and his mother. In one, Abby and her brother stood, arms linked, with Iain Fitzalan, Ava’s father. Iain’s pipe still perched on the mantel, left there after one particularly memorable visit.


Cass’ eyes went to his own in the mirror before him, a young man older than his years, with his father’s dark hair, his mother’s nose. Father. Mother. Fitzalan; all dead.

And what of Ava?

It is still a world upside down to me.

Like the reflection in a mirror – it is an echo of the truth, a miniscule of a real world.

I live in a Looking-Glass world. I am both here, and there – which of those is real? “I don’t want to go among mad people,” he said softly. His eyes met those of his aunt; he took up his coat and left the house.

Three months, could it really be three months? Could it really be that long?

It had been in Abby’s thoughts, too, as she had watched her nephew over an unfinished lunch. His ready smile, his laughter; both were pale and insubstantial. Her nephew had returned home in a mood she did not wonder at.

He is watchful and rightly so.

The bits and pieces he had shared with her of his time ‘Below’ were still a fresh memory, as vivid as that of a terrible dawn when she had stood beside a young man on his knees before a ruined altar, distraught, calling for one lost.


In the days that followed, she had gleaned much – a story beyond belief: a journey to an impossible place, a tale of terror, of wonder and of revelation. In the months that followed, she herself had returned to the ruins of the Castle, to the hidden altar, the stones scattered under the trees. Shadows remained, as did the sense of something even darker.

Caspian went ‘Below’ as a man.

He returned as Mage, as Sorcerer.

Yet – something waits.

This is still unfinished.

The story lies in the past and that past is not Caspian Hythe’s.

Evening was coming on.

As shadows lengthened, driven by these self-same doubts, her nephew had once more crossed the river, and found his way behind the Castle ruins to stand again before the gateway to Hell.

Before him, the remains of the shattered massive altar stone lay tossed and silent. The heavy central portion lay as he had left it. Tipped and angled, it balanced like some skeleton’s arm held up by the remnants of dead shoulders.

Darkness leered out from beneath the stone’s mossy lip; illusory, inviting, it marked the way to a fantastic realm, a path to a place of wonder and dream, madness and nightmare.


Hidden was the hole.

Gone – it was not.

Ava.

Like a bell, her name rang, filling his mind, his heart.

Without thinking, he knelt; his hand reached downward into the narrow space below the altar stone. He cried out. For blinding, and blue, incandescence flooded up, cascading out of the hole, meeting and encircling his fingers.

Without warning, it struck him like a blow, sending him hurtling backwards onto the ground. A roar, distant and deep, rose. With his breath hanging in the icy air, Caspian Hythe, young Mage, young Sorcerer, watched as, out of nothingness – a form coalesced, and grew into horrific life. It was chaos itself, like nothing Cass had ever imagined. The eyes were huge, and glowing, the face scaled, and wet. The head was wide, the maw enormous. Wings, leathery and long, swept high behind a body that was wolf-like but utterly unlike any wolf now living. Massive talons loomed into view and dark claws reached for the young man struggling to rise to his feet.


A dazzling light eclipsed the vision of the beast – the jagged edge of flame, wide and brilliant.

A deafening shock ripped through the air; from the thing that writhed in the mist over the stone came a piercing, inhuman scream.

The second shock hurled the Mage further back, away from the claws and teeth as, second by second, the vision faded from view. A moment more and the horror had dissolved into darkness; now all was as before.

Gone was the sapphire light, and with it, the vision of a potent, deadly hatred made flesh and blood. Shaken and gasping for breath, Cass pulled himself up to his hands and knees, fully ten feet from the altar stone. With aching arms and head, he sat back upon his heels, only now aware of the sharp pain in his hand.

Across his palm was a line of blood.

He peered about, fingering the soft turf, following a crimson trail.

There it was.

Protruding, barely visible above the grass – it was a stone; its sharp edge was red and wet.

He pulled it from its muddy bed.

Only when he had half cleared the blood and soil from its edges did he see them – the carven runes, etched deeply into the shard’s face.

Chapter 10 - DARK KNIGHT

Chapter 10 - DARK KNIGHT

The golden light of dusk lit the face of the woodsmen as they looked up.

The woman on the horse was no stranger to their sight, not even like this, with her hair like raven’s wings loosening about her face, her dark riding habit, her spurs savagely driving her mount toward the Keep.

Yet this time was different.

The face of the one that all save the Duchess saw as the most dangerous of confidantes glowed with a brilliance that had nothing to do with the sun, couching itself in flames. They gave a wide berth to steed and rider, and the Lady Dirae disappeared down the road to the Castle.

The chambermaid was harshly dismissed the moment the Dark One entered the chambers. Tossing her gloves to the sideboard beside the ewer, she pulled down her long, black hair.

She flung wide the casement windows. In the fading light of day, Dirae stood, the wind was on her face, lifting the dark locks to float about her. Her eyes moved to the east, where the dark smudge on the horizon marked the forest; the Druid’s Grove, the Haunted Wood.


These were woods darkened by much more than shadows.

She turned away finally and her gaze came to rest on the chessboard set upon the table.

The pieces were in full play.

Not one among the party questioned the man leading them.

The Mage had revealed neither plan nor destination. Yet, his direction, without map or guidance, was singular and purposeful, and they moved swiftly and almost without speaking deeper into the forest. Not entirely without speaking, for as they walked, Iain caught snatches of hushed speech between the Sword Master and the lad. They spoke of the Wood, wild and haunted and of the one who dwelt here, alone but for his horse – the old man of the Wood, a soldier, lone and pitiful – and mad.

Had the Sorcerer heard, or had he known before he turned off the narrow way, forded a shallow brook, and stopped short?

It was nothing more than a song; a lilting doggerel that floated from the trees ahead. Bruno came forward; Cass peered into the forest, as bits of rhyme reached them from afar.


Haddock’s eyes, haddock’s eyes,

If I could but relate: you grow more wise with haddock’s eyes.

But eat them on a gate ...’

“Is that him?”

“Yes, Caspian – see? An aged Knight, the old man who guards this Wood, always in white he is, and the horse as well. If he favours one with speech, it is always nonsense.”

Alesia had joined them as the man himself appeared in the distance, his horse weaving through the trees.

“See you a gate, my Lord?” she wondered.

Cass regarded the tall fellow on the old white horse with pity.

“Perhaps he sees one.”

The old Knight came forward, bobbing a bit from side to side as his mount picked its way through the forest. His silver locks appeared to have gotten the wrong end of the wind; they fell about his face in a tousle. Along with a great club, the Knight’s helmet, like to that of a chess piece, swung from the horse’s saddle. His mount’s pearl grey hide was muddy and unkempt. Dangling from all around the saddle were boxes, sacs and a great, flat dish of pewter that cast off dazzling haloes of light as the rider approached.

With wrinkled face and eyes pale with age, the Knight brooded, deep in thought. His horse came to an abrupt halt and the rider tumbled off into the bracken. The old man pulled himself up, and fidgeted with his many parcels and his armour, which bore the evidence of many similar falls.

The old gentleman caught sight of them and his mild regard brightened.

“Ah! There you are, my squire.”

Cass regarded the Knight; then murmured to Bruno.

“Nonsense, you said?”

Iain also watched the fellow, who impatiently began again.

“Come, lad, help me to mount once more.” Bruno started forward but the Knight frowned.

“Nay! Not you, boy; the tall fellow, he’s my man! Be quick; don’t be all day about it!”

The Mage came forward until he stood just before the patriarch. The old man smiled. Then he gestured to his armour, and Cass dutifully adjusted the shoulder guards and breastplate as the Knight rattled on.

“A picnic in the woods, is it? Hardly a fit place; there be Druids in the Wood, lad. Haunted, it is, as well – your servant (and mind you, I think he might be a tad dim!) he knows better, he does. Aye, the Druid’s Grove was where the worst of them did their darkest deeds, the blackest sorcery, or I’ll dye my whiskers green, I will.”


“The Druids were not sorcerers, sir.”

“Ah! Then you’ve known some?”

“None, I’m afraid,” said Cass.

“Well then! It’s best not to, isn’t it? Just to be on the safe side. Always prepared I am, both I and the horse, for any eventuality, any danger,” declared the Knight, looking back down the way he had come. The little path the horse had found twisted; there, under boughs whose limbs soared high, the way was darker.

Now clouds gathered above.

Their forms curled, dense and heavy, bright with the promise of storm. The wind shifted, colder now; the sun slipped behind the clouds and on that wind came the sound of ravens, their cries hoarse, cracking, voicing a doleful lament, a clamorous soliloquy to the dark into which all living things must fall. The ground exhaled the odor of decay; an account of loss and death, age after age. The Knight turned back to Cass.

“The Druid’s Grove, the trees – all lies just beyond. The trees are the living tombs of the Druids and their victims, you know. Best to come away; best for you, and for your liegemen. Follow me, lad! Crack on! I’ll soon see you safely away!”

The old Knight smiled at Cass; he laid a gloved hand on his reins, ready to mount.

A low voice came from behind the Mage.

“Come away, Cass. The man’s right.”


It was Iain.

Cass turned to stare at him in surprise, suddenly aware of a change in the light. A shadow had fallen across Fitzalan’s face; now his features seemed distant and blurred, even though he stood in the midst of the way, far from the trees.

“No,” the Mage protested, but Alesia called to him and the girl was coming slowly forward.

“Come, my Lord, we mustn’t go further into the Wood.” Her face as well was half-obscured by shadow, her voice thin and weak in the sudden stillness.

When things get silent – all Hell is about to break loose.

Silence; there is silence in the Wood.

And the Knight guards this Wood.

Answering the Mage’s thoughts, the Knight spoke behind him.

“And so I do; and now it seems fitting perhaps that you should stay and do the same, young squire. Send your friends away to safety and stay with me. It must end that way, it can only end that way, don’t you see?” Darker still grew the world around Caspian Hythe; he fought, struggling to find some sense in the words, struggling finally to speak.

“No – that’s not the way it’s supposed to end!”


Yet, darkness continued to grow, taking a yet more horrible form in the Knight’s next words.

“Will you not stay? Then perhaps you should die.”

The Mage did not see the blow as it fell – what rang in his ears was the sharp clang of sword on sword as Alesia’s blade parried the attack.

Cass started violently, rousing as if from dream.

The girl shouted loudly; unceasingly, with all her force, she struck at the Knight whose sword met hers again, and again.

Her final thrust forced the old man backward; his silver hair had begun to float about his face as the Sword Master pulled the Mage back, for across the turf, from out of the Wood, shadows had rushed, building around the figure of the Knight.

Iain took hold of Bruno’s arm, for the lad was eager to join the fight.

“No! Stay back,” he warned. “This is beyond us.”

The Mage’s sword was now drawn. He struck at the one who before their eyes grew ever younger, ever more vigorous.

Alesia stared, transfixed.

“By the Gods – it’s using a spell!”

“No!” growled Cass. “It is the spell!”

A feral look came over the face of the thing in armour.


The White Knight spun about. Now it seemed there were two Knights, both moving too fast to see; one struck at the Mage, the other kept the girl at bay. Cass’ next thrust went through the thing’s shoulder – only to come out again with the Knight unharmed and still advancing.

The girl cried out in fury.

“How is it that the two of us cannot kill one man?”

“Because it is not a man, it’s an incarnation of something in human form – it’s an avatar!”

“An avatar of whom?”

“Her.”

Both Sorcerer and Sword Master fell back.

“How can we kill it?” the girl gasped. “Swords are useless.”

“Not useless – unnecessary,” murmured the Mage.

The Knight charged directly at them.

The Mage shoved the girl hard. She tumbled to one side and he dropped to the ground, his spread legs tripping and catapulting the avatar onto its face. The avatar sprang up – there crouching on the ground was the Mage, his wand raised in his hand. A hoarse cry came from the Mage and light, blinding, sapphire, and effervescent billowed like an angry cloud from the tip of the wand as the eyes of the avatar changed.


No longer pale and watery, now as black as jet were the incarnation’s orbs as, from the wand, a pinpoint of light coalesced, and shot forward.

It pierced the avatar’s shoulder as, in her chambers high in the Keep, the Dark Lady cried out.

She stumbled up; in agony, in rage – her shaking hands clutching at her shoulder.

They came away dark with blood.

In a flash, she reached the table where the chessboard lay. In the next instant, her hand struck out, struck hard – knocking the white knight from its place on the board.

An icy mist rose from the piece as it capsized, tumbling onto the floor, splintering into pieces – even as the form of the avatar, the thing that had been the White Knight, the old man of the Wood, shattered and crumbled like rotting wood, sifting and melting until it vanished utterly.

Cass rose unsteadily to his feet; a thin trickle of blood was at his nostril, stark against his livid face. Iain and Bruno joined Alesia as she drew near the dark burned spot that marked the place where the thing had been.

“You killed it,” she breathed.

“No,” said the Mage, bitterly, his breath still coming hard. “I killed nothing. The organ grinder simply took out the monkey.”

She stared at him in confusion.


“Check to the Queen, anyway,” Iain said softly.

“For this play only, Iain. For this play only,” the Sorcerer muttered.

He left them, limping back to the horse. There, he pulled off the saddle, setting the animal free. He then went through all the boxes and bags that had hung about the beast; they carried little or nothing of use.

All except the very last pouch.

The Mage turned back to his comrades; he held an object out in his hand.

Round it was, clear like marble or even glass. Yet a rainbow of colours slept in its depths, colours that shifted restlessly with the light, changing continuously, making the crystal by turns transparent and then opaque.

Alesia came to him; her face was grave as she looked at the thing he held, a thing at once beautiful and uncanny. Iain also came close; the Mage looked at the Sword Master – at the look on her face – and the words meant for her alone carried beyond.

“You – you know what this is.”