Who is your Ultimate Fantasy Questing Party (Part 1)?

With the release of Prime Video’s Rings of Power, I’ve been rereading a lot of Tolkien recently. Tolkien was the writer who first sparked my interest in writing, and hanging out in Arda, whether in the pages of his books or through the portal of an onscreen adaptation, always leaves me wiser and happier than I was before. Revisiting Middle Earth has also reminded me of one of the great debates I used to have with my nerdy friends (such as they were) in my youth: If you had to pick the ultimate fantasy traveling party to go on a magic-filled quest, who would you include?

A couple of ground rules:

  1. For the purposes of this exercise, we are going to assume that you are building your party to go on a traditional fantasy quest, like the one described in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Your quest will consist of an epic, episodic adventure, involve a magical object, feature a mentor, etc. A nefarious, evil entity will try to thwart you, and you will probably lose at least one companion along the way. There will be magic. There will be monsters. Your hero will change over the course of the journey. The FATE OF THE WORLD will be at stake.
  2. For the purpose of this exercise, your party will consist of nine. Why nine? First, because we need an equal number for the sake of comparison and evaluation. If every party is the same size, the game is fair. Why nine specifically? Any number would, technically, do, but we’ll go with nine in honor of the nine walkers in the Lord of the Rings. These things tend to be traditional.
  3. The members of your traveling party MUST originate in a fantasy novel or series of novels. Graphic novels are ok for the purpose of this exercise; TV shows and movies are not (use the books upon which they were based).
  4. You may only choose one character from each book or series. Choose wisely. If you choose Gandalf, you will not be able to also include Samwise Gamgee. If you choose Hermione, no Harry Potter, etc.
  5. We’re using traditional high fantasy as our setting. Magic is ok; technology is not.
  6. Consider the different archetypes traditionally found on a fantasy quest. You need not use all of them, but they exist for a reason. A party of Gandalf, Ged Sparrowhawk, Dumbledore, etc, might seem really powerful and cool, but there is a reason why we don’t see many such parties in fantasy novels. Who will play the role of the mentor? The hero? The muscle? Which characters will be able to use magic? Which will not?

I will post my answer next week in this space. Truthfully, the members of my party will likely change many times between now and then. In the meantime, please put yours in the comments. I might even include some in next week’s blog. I look forward to hearing your ideas.


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News and Notes: Publishing News and Broken Hands

I apologize for missing last week’s post. I recently broke bone in both of my hands, and typing remains difficult.

I do have some publication news to report: My short story, “The Three Capitalist Pigs” has been published in Once Upon Another Time: Fresh Tales From The Far Side of Fantasy, which is available for FREE download now on Amazon. The book includes stories by 13 members of the vibrant Twitter writing community, and can be downloaded here.

Nassau County Voices in Verse was also released this past weekend. The annual collection of poets from Nassau County includes my gothic poem, “The Wolf in Me.” It can be ordered directly from the publisher here.

I also received word that my poem, “When the House of Usher Falls,” will be published in volume 2 of Love Letters To Poe. My poem, The Widow’s Walk was published last year in Vol 1. More information to follow.

Here are a few photos from the poetry reading in support of the Nassau Country poets book launch on Saturday. I look a bit different because I was unable to put in my contacts with my broken hands.

News and Notes: Recent Interviews

If you’ve enjoyed the Surrealist Cadavre Exquis project I recently organized, be sure to check out my interview on Jon Black’s website. Black, who was one of the participants in the project, asks me about the philosophy and motivation behind the project, and provides some context and history surrounding the original surrealist cadavres as well. You can read the interview here:

I also have a story in the forthcoming Once Upon Another Time anthology, scheduled for release on May 23rd. As part of a series on the authors in this Writing Community fantasy and fairytale anthology, I was interviewed by RC Hopgood. You can read the interview here:

https://anothertime2022.blogspot.com/2022/05/five-questions-with-a-rubin.html

The Captivity of Lord Hephaestus

At night, Lord Hephaestus dreamed of flying. In his mind’s eye, he burst forth from his lair like an undead spirit rising from its cerements. His soul soared as he rose, circling with the currents high above the cliffs and mountains of his home, creating his own thermals by breathing forth fire to heat the night sky. Onward and ever upward he flew, his wide wings beating tempests that would knock even the hawks and eagles from the sky. He was lord of the heavens, of the lightning and of the fire, which he rained down on a world that, rightly, feared him, leaving a path of charred devastation in his wake. He imagined himself as the villagers must have seen him, his form silhouetted, diving, as if straight out of the moon, the embodiment of death and terror, the smoldering evil of the Weather-Maker mountain range.

He would play all night, swooping and soaring, and then, with the first rays of the new dawn, he’d awaken and realize he was still trapped in this same cage.

A dragon with clipped wings, earthbound, like a common house pet. Cruelly, they called him Lord Hephaestus: a lamed fire god, like a dragon whose wings had been cut to prevent him from flying away—a small joke created by small minds. It was patently absurd, but then again, it made about as much sense as the rest of his life in captivity among the humans.

If he had been bested by a brave hero in combat, he could have lived with that. There was a long history of such noble encounters, and though the balance of outcomes was strongly in favor of his species, there was enough of a precedent that he hardly would have been the first werm vanquished by a valorous knight. If that hero had proven worthy, and if he had been merciful enough to let his adversary live, Lord Hephaestus might have even let himself be saddled and ridden as, together, they could have accomplished great deeds and long be remembered in ballads. And, if he had not been merciful, at least the dread dragon would have been a dead dragon, free from the humiliation of his defeat and its consequences.

But that was not his fate. He had been captured by the humans’ cunning artifices, ensnared by machines that were just as soulless as their creators. There was no banter, no battle, no romance, just an underhanded nerve agent and an invisible net. His doom, it seemed, would not be sung by bards. No, his lot was to be taunted as he lived out his life in this cage, or, “artificial habitat,” as his captors called it. They spoke in euphemisms to cover their cruelty.

Still, he was a dragon lord, and, even in this situation, he was honor-bound to comport himself with dignity. He therefore indulged them in their pretenses of kindness. He did not complain when the barbecued goats they fed him where not charred enough, and he pretended to struggle to defeat their chess masters (though he would never go so far as to lose, even when facing the best thirty in the kingdom at the same time). He obliged them with a spectacular show of fire at the appointed times, and cooled his overheated belly on the bed of blue ice packs that substituted for his mound of treasure.

Over time, his indignation cooled like the fire in his belly after a satisfying hunt. His anger blunted as so many swords had against his scales. It had started when the human caretakers (when did he stop thinking about them as captors?) brought in a sphinx to live in the adjacent “habitat”. He commiserated with her about her given name—they called her Cleopatra, how unoriginal—and joked about the quality of the cuisine. With the natural pride indigenous to all dragons, he made light of his situation so as not to seem weak or unchivalrous in front of her. His efforts to buoy her spirits ended up raising his own, and in time, Lord Hephaestus and Queen Cleopatra became friends. Here, finally, was a mind to match his own, a worthy foil in debate and a delightful companion in conversation with whom he shared many common experiences.

Each night, they would challenge each other with riddles. They would wager portions of the treasures the humans had confiscated, knowing full well they would likely never get a chance to pay their debts, and then compare notes on the day’s indignities, comforting each other to sleep with soft words and gentle praise.

Often, after the sphinx had fallen asleep, Lord Hephaestus would lie awake on that mound of cold blue ice and compare his plight to that of his lady friend. If he was being honest, she had it much, much worse. There were many stories of dragons, and his crowds usually greeted him with awe (especially after a well-timed display of fire against the tempered glass of his enclosure). The children carried around stuffies and figures resembling his likeness, and though it hardly lived up to the fading memories of the piercing cries of terrified villagers or the look of ultimate resignation in a dwarf king’s eyes forced to relinquish his treasure, that tribute was, at least, something. In the world of the magical menagerie he was the star, just as he had been in the realms of myth and legend. The sphinx, on the other hand, didn’t draw large crowds, her merchandise wasn’t as popular among the young ones, and, though she possessed a regal bearing when still and blinding speed when she chose to move, her act just didn’t have the flash or sizzle of his best pyrotechnic display. Worse, she was forced to endure taunts of, “The answer is man!” hundreds of times each day, as the humans had few legends in which she featured prominently.

Seen in this light, his captivity didn’t seem that bad. He began to appreciate what he had. He took pride when one of the grandmasters told him that the royal chess team’s record had improved exponentially since its members started regularly training with the dragon; he roared back good-naturedly when children growled at him with their toy dragons; and he learned how to blow whimsical shapes in the smoke rings he expelled from his great nostrils to further entertain the masses.

In truth, it was harder than he had worked in years. Even in his youth, he would spend most of his day lounging on his treasure, and now, after years of captivity, he was beginning to grow fat and old. There was comfort here. While the blue ice packs were not very romantic, and while they certainly weren’t as pretty to look at as a mound of golden treasure, they were, in point of fact, much colder than precious metal and therefore more efficient at cooling the smoldering in his belly.

There was also friendship. Dragons were usually solitary creatures, which now that he thought of it probably contributed to their ill-tempered surliness. Had he lived out his days under The Weather Makers, he would have lived and died alone, with no one to talk to except the voices in his own ever-working brain. Here at least he had Cleopatra. She would keep him from growing bitter in his dotage. Gone were the fires of Svarog and Pele, gods whose names he would have been proud to bear in his youth, and only the maimed Hephaestus remained.

All things considered, it was almost enough to embrace these conditions for autumnal years—almost enough to not only bear it, but perhaps to enjoy it. It was almost enough to allow him to forget the affront of his captivity.

But only almost. When he fell asleep each night, Lord Hephaestus couldn’t escape the memory of flying. He couldn’t escape the dream of drafting vectors into the vortex. And when he awoke each morning, he couldn’t escape that echo of the pain he had felt when they clipped his wings. He could not escape the shame of knowing he was no longer—and would never again be—a great green wyrm wending up into the welkin.

–by A. A. Rubin

This story first appeared in the March/April Issue of The Kyanite Press.

Forthwith Flies The Mage

There is a city on a hill
A beacon burning bright
A model of the great and good
A citadel of light

The enchanted forest lies below
Behind it mountains rise
Where darkness lurks inside the caves
And evil waits and hides

The city’s ringed all around
By a wall both tall and stout
It glistens brightly ‘neath the moon
And keeps the demons out

But Lo! The prince of devils stirs
He wakes, his power grows
He plots and plans his sweet revenge
The city does not know

He gathers spirits to his side
On that fateful day
And sends a sortie swiftly out
The town to make assay

The wraiths are whirling all around
Above the city night
Attendant shadows do they bring
Quelling all the light

Forthwith flies the mage
On a dragon does he ride
Forthwith flies the mage
Through the dark and dusky sky

He brings his glowing staff to bear
And trains it on the shades
The dragon flaps its massive wings
Beating back the raid

The mage he speaks the sacred words
An ancient holy spell
The wraiths they writhe beneath his might
Banished back to hell

A raucous cheer, it rises up
From the city streets
Hosannas for the hero mage
Their enemies he beat

But deep inside the caves of hell
The demon king does rage
He stamps his foot and gnashes teeth
O’er the failure of the wraiths

Sworn swords and lords he calls to him
He gathers up his hosts
A massive army to command
Of monsters, orcs and ghosts

They rise up like the living dead
And with a steady thrum
March to the heavy sound of doom
Beat out on their drums

The goodly people gather round
They cower in their homes
They pray to gods most tearfully
But fear they’re all alone

Forthwith flies the mage
Resplendent in his power
Forthwith flies the mage
In the city’s darkest hour

His dragon swoops with wings unfurled
It dives on down eftsoons
Towards the city’s citadel
Silhouetted by the moon

Into the fray, callooh callay
Like Zeus’ thunderbolt
He is the storm, Mjolnir thrown
Until he feels a jolt

His dragon’s mighty scales are pierced
A bolt has found its mark
Shot blindly by a demon’s bow
Lucky, in the dark

The dragon rears up suddenly
The mage from off him thrown
Falls straight down into the field
Through the Sturm und Drang

With magic does he slow his fall
And through the wind does float
And hovers lightly in the air
Above the city moat

Forward walks the mage
With a steady tread
Forward walks the mage
And faces the undead

He stands alone before the gate
His staff of yew in hand
The last best hope to stop the spread
Of shadow through the land

A silence settles o’er the field
The mage and the commander
Stare silently across the sward
Like figures trapped in amber

The demon lord’s in disbelief
Have they just sent but one,
Hero ‘gainst his mighty hoard?
They couldn’t be that dumb

The devil lifts his fist of doom
And gives the dread command
And thus the static silence breaks
At the falling of his hand

A volley from his archers flies
Into the sky of night
Eclipsing pale Hecate’s orb,
And quashing out the light

The arrows fall, a deadly rain
Toward the mage’s person
The people groan behind the walls
His death is all but certain

The shafts they dot the city gate
Haphazardly they land
A raucous cheer now rises up
From the demon band

But still the single figure stands
When the air does clear
The mage, unscathed for all to see
Inside a glowing sphere

Another volley is sent forth
This one all-aflame
But when the arrows reach their mark
The outcome is the same

The demon prince, the lord of hosts
Rides up and down his ranks
His soldiers shout and beat their plate
Armor loudly clanks

And all at once the horde does charge
The wizard to engage
A cavalry of nightmares filled
With berserker rage   

Forthwith flies the mage
Forward cross the field
Forthwith flies the mage
With just his staff to wield

He cuts on through the charging line
Breaking their formation
But round they move, from the flanks
In retaliation

In the deadly circle stands
The mage with staff of yew
Surrounded by his evil foes
Whose vigor is renewed

Wave after wave they fall on him
In a constant motion
But break like water on the rocks
Which jut into the ocean

A ring around the mage does form
A pile of the dead
A mound of lifeless bodies grows
Even to his head.

They battle on past midnight
And still the bodies rise
A mountain there before the mage
Reaching toward the skies

The enemy indefatigable
Can smell the mage’s blood
As he begins to tire
Drowning in the flood

The demon prince strides out perforce
To land the final blow
He gloats above the fallen mage
But little does he know

The injured dragon has returned
Seeking out his master
He swoops upon the hellish hoards
Reigning down disaster

Beneath their heavy plates of steel
The cavalry does burn
And with the fire of his breath
The tide again is turned

The mage’s vigor is renewed
By his beast’s return
Like the phoenix from the fire
His courage is reborn

He plants his staff and rises up
Trying to hide a wince
And looks into the demon’s eye
Staring down the prince

The devil wields his ancient sword
Forged in the pits of hell
He swings it wildly at the mage
With an evil yell

The mage dodges dips and weaves
Avoiding every blow
But his leg is injured
And he drags behind his toe

The demon’s rage redoubles
He sees the mage is lame
He focuses his efforts
On the limb that’s maimed

But still the mage eludes him
Though each stroke by less
He wills his foot to movement
And curses ‘neath his breath

The two contend throughout the night
The duel goes on for hours
They dig deep trenches in the dirt
Trampling all the flowers

The devils nicks him with his sword
The mage’s hand drips blood
Which falls on down, to the ground
It’s soaked up by the mud

The demon spins his spectral sword
His is the day to win
But mid swing his blade is frozen
The mage begins to grin

He’s drawn some runes in the dust
With the leg he lagged behind
Tracing symbols in the dirt
Which the demon bind

And with the sacrifice of blood
Dripping from his hand
He locks the devil to the ground
Roots him to the land

The demon’s hellish blood runs cold
He is a block of ice
The mage taps with his staff the ground
And mutters something thrice

The ground below does open up
It swallows the prince whole
He sinks on ever downward toward
The pits of ancient She’ol     

The remnants of the demon horde
In confusion flee
The city gates thrown open with
Hurrah’s and shouts of glee

But the field is empty
The mage he isn’t there
He’s mounted on his dragon and
He’s flying through the air

Whenever he is needed
Wherever evil reigns
Take a look up to the sky
Forthwith will fly the mage

Note: this poem originally appeared in the Organic Ink Poetry Anthology, (volume 1, now out of print), and was reprinted in the now defunct Kyanite Publishing’s Healing Words.


Check out my National Poetry Month reading series on my instagram page, go to the links page to read some of my published writing, and follow me on twitter and facebook.

Some Publishing News, And Happy Birthday To Me

Today is my birthday. For one year at least, I have become the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. What’s the best present you can give an author on his birthday? Read his work. Luckily, I have some new publishing news to report. I have work in two anthologies you can buy, and a free poem online as well.

My story “The Forgotten” is included in the Remnants shared world anthology from Kyanite Press. Remnants presents a post-apocalyptic world overrun by two different types of monsters. Each of the stories, written by a different author, takes place in the same universe. It’s a really interesting collection, and there is such diversity in the stories that, if you’re a fan of sci-fi, horror, or post-apocalyptic fiction on any stripe, there’s something in there for you.

My story, “The Forgotten” deals with a group of orphans who have banded together to fight the monsters. It’s a dark psychological tale that celebrates the power of childlike imagination even in the darkest times. Here is the opening paragraph to whet your appetite.

For the third year in a row, I have flash fiction in the Serious Flash Fiction anthology. This anthology, is one of my favorites. Each year on twitter, The editor, runs a contest to find the best tweet-length stories. Once again, my work was selected among the winners. This is one of my favorite anthologies each year, and I have discovered some of my favorite writers through this competition as well. The anthology also collects the previous years’ winning entries, so, if you buy the book, you’ll get my microflash from previous years as well.

The Serious Flash Fiction Anthology

While the previous two publications are for purchase, I also have a present for you on my birthday. My high fantasy ballad, Forthwith Flies The Mage, a long narrative, poem about a mage and his dragon battling the forces of darkness is now available for free as part of the “Healing Worlds” project from Kyanite Press. It is one my favorite pieces, and if you enjoy fantasy in the mode of JRR Tolkien or Ursula Le Guin, I know you’ll enjoy it.

Be sure to connect on facebook, twitter, and instagram, and let me know what you think in the comments.

Whither The Witch: Finding the “Dark Lady” in Fantasy Literature

Oftentimes, in this blog, I will share a passage from a book that I’m reading to illustrate a lesson about writing. Today, I would like to share a book excerpt for an entirely different reason. Something I read recently, in a book that I’m enjoying otherwise, doesn’t seem right to me, and as such, I would like to ask you, my community of readers, for your opinion about the passage in question.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynne Jones, is a satirical travel guide to Fantasyland, the mythical world where all fantasy stories take place. After a generic fantasy map and a brief introduction, the bulk of the book consists of a glossary of the common terms, peoples, species, magic, buildings, etc. which one is likely to encounter as a “tourist” who finds themselves in a fantasy story.

Jones is a very funny writer, and if you are either a reader or writer of fantasy stories, you will likely enjoy her parodies and criticisms of common fantasy tropes, such as the prevalence of stew in fantasyland (at the expense of other culinary options) and the paucity of cattle compared to the amount of clothing made from leather. For the most part, I found myself laughing along with the loving critique, remembering these clichés in stories I’ve read, and analyzing my own writing to see how many I, myself, employ.

There was, however, one entry that did not jibe with my experience reading fantasy literature: In her entry entitled “Dark Lady,” Jones writes, “There is never one of these, so see DARK LORD instead. The management considers that male Dark Ones have more potential to be sinister…” (P50; see pic for full entry).

When I read this, my mind immediately leapt to Jadis, AKA the White Witch, from CS Lewis’ famous The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe. Jadis is both the main antagonist in the most famous of the Narnia books, and, as she represents the devil in Lewis’ allegory, she is the personification of evil. While she is described a “white” witch because she covers Narnia in snow and ice, her behavior, power, and function certainly qualify her as a “dark lady.”

Was Lewis unique in his use of a “dark lady” antagonist? He most certainly was not. In the previous generation of fantasy literature, female antagonists were common. Both Alice in Wonderland (1865) and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) feature female antagonists, and, while the Lewis Carrol’s Queen of Hearts doesn’t fit the stereotype exactly, L. Frank Baum’s Wicked Witch of the West certainly does. The witch, who performs evil magic, lives in a dark castle, and has legions of terrifying minions, tries to thwart a questing party from achieving its goal and rules the land largely through terror. Functionally, she is similar to Tolkien’s Sauron (or any other standard Dark Lord.

Classical literature, too, is filled with a myriad of women who function as “Dark Ladies” in their respective stories. Whether they are goddesses, like Circe, witches, like Medea, or displaced divinities, like the furies, female villains are at least as common as their male counterparts in the mythic tradition which inspires much of fantasy literature.

Additionally, there are many instances of “Dark Ladies” in classic fairy tales, which if they are not technically fantasy literature, are definitely close cousins. The Disney version of Sleeping Beauty, which contains many elements of fantasy (magic sword and shield, dragon, hero as knight, royalty in disguise) features Maleficent, who is a prime example of the Dark Lady archetype.

I did have a bit more trouble coming up with more modern female Dark Ladies. Kossil from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tomb of Atuan (1970) comes to mind, but I can’t think of many others. Whether this is because they fell out of favor after the 50s when Narnia was written, or whether this is the result of a gap in my own reading, I do not know. I do know that there are many contemporary examples where an older story featuring a “dark lady” is rewritten from her perspective (Wicked, etc.). That these books exist, however, negates Jones’ claim that such characters are missing from the fantasy canon.

Now, I realize that satirical writing in general, and Jones’ book in particular, are subject to hyperbole, but given the relative veracity of the criticisms of fantasy literature in the rest of the Tough Guide, the “Dark Lady” entry seems incorrect and out of place.

So, my questions to you are as follows: First, can you think of any examples of the “Dark Ladies” in the fantasy literature of the latter part of the 20th Century? Second, was there something that changed in the fantasy landscape that caused this alleged switch which seems to go against the history of the genre? And, lastly, who are your favorite “Dark Ladies” in fantasy literature from any era (and why do you like them)?

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.