Sunday, August 17, 2014

Upping the Tension in a Fight with Dialogue

by @Jeffe Kennedy

I'm a talky kind of gal, at least in fiction. I tend to be quiet in company, unless you get me going on a particular rant. But writing-wise, I love dialogue. The interplay of ideas, witty repartee, teasing, suggestion, learning, knowing - so many wonderful layers to explore in the interactions between people (or creatures). Talking can be a profound kind of intercourse.

Much like sex. Or fighting.

When interviewers ask me for facts no one knows about me - which is always hard to answer, because usually there's a reason it's not public information - I sometimes offer up this relatively little known piece of my history.

I studied martial arts for about fifteen years. Chinese ones - Shaolin Temple Boxing, T'ai Chi, Pakua, Hsing-I, among others.

That's me above, doing a public demo of how to use a common object, in this case an umbrella, to surprise and deflect an attacker - with a nice little snap kick to the jewels to seal the deal.

I drew on this experience to write one of the opening scenes from The Mark of the Tala, where my princess heroine, Andi, is attacked in the wilderness. Because this is more than just a fight, but also the incident that spurs her personal journey and her first encounter with the man who plays a pivotal role, the dialogue between them is as crucial - maybe more so - than the physical fight. I use it here to build tension, much as Andi uses it to stall, trying to think her way out of the situation. The man also uses the conversation, to keep her engaged, to discover exactly who she is and also to sway her judgement.

It's a favorite scene of mine, so I'll paste it in below. It begins when Andi and her horse take a hard fall.



            Then Fiona screamed.
            I heard it after we were already falling. I fell with her, tumbling to the grass—not soft, but brutally hard under the bright dressing. Fiona’s great supple weight rolled over me, crushing my breath. Long practice had me kicking free, so her ungainly lunging to right herself left me behind, grateful not to be dragged by my foot as she galloped out of sight.
            My lungs struggled against paralysis, grasping at the bits of air they could drag in. Knife-like pangs shot through my muscles. The image in my head throbbed with stark shock.
A man, standing there with a pack of dogs, in the fold of a wallow. Hounds bigger than wolves. No wonder Fiona had shied and lost her footing.
They would be on me in a moment.
            A man with dogs where they shouldn’t be was never a good thing. As far as I’d gone, I was surely still in Mohraya, where Uorsin owned all hunting rights. And my sword still strapped to the saddle, racing off to nowhere. Only my little dagger remained, in the sheath on my belt. If I survived this, Ursula would kill me.
            The hissing grasses as he strode toward me sent panic through my veins. Gasping, forcing my rib cage to flex, I struggled to my hands and knees.
            “Should you move just yet?” inquired a low voice.
            The air burned like fire. I looked up through the dark tangle of my hair. He stood a short distance away, black leathers, black cloak. Seven wolfhounds ringed him, sitting on their haunches, an avid audience with uncannily blue eyes.
            “I’m fine,” I managed to say evenly, thinking of the times Ursula had knocked me with the flat of her blade and taunted me until I stood. Of course, she hadn’t done that in some time, since it took me so long to get up again. “You startled my horse.”
            And you shouldn’t be on King’s Land.
            I didn’t dare say that, though. Because I shouldn’t be on King’s Land either, unless I came from the royal family, and he didn’t need to know I was Uorsin’s relation.
            “Yes,” the man agreed, dark eyes steady. “Do you need assistance standing?”
            Definitely not. The man shared the lean, hungry, and lethal look of the wolfhounds, even with his careful distance. I wiggled my knees and ankles. They felt okay. Hopefully nothing was so damaged as to make me stagger when I stood. The cold congealing in my stomach told me I couldn’t afford to appear at all weak.
            I stood, slowly, brushing grass off my riding pants as I unfolded, to give myself time to test my weight. Nothing gave way, thank Moranu.
            “I’m fine,” I repeated, returning his assessing stare, deliberately slowing my heaving lungs.
            One of the wolfhounds sniffed the air in my direction, raising its russet ears. It growled softly. A hushed word from the man settled it.
            “Not often one finds a princess unattended in the wilderness,” the man observed, as if commenting on the weather, but his face burned with an unholy, acquisitive light.
            I scoffed. “I wish! I imagine those royal brats have soft lives of silks and candies. No, I’m only hunting rabbits for my family.”
            He took a step toward me, flattening his hand to signal the dogs to stay. I steeled myself not to step back. Predators always became more dangerous when presented with a chase. Two horse lengths between us still gave me room. To do what, I didn’t know. I could never outrun those hounds.
            “Lies don’t become you, Princess.” His gaze drilled into me, evaluating, calculating. “Now, which one are you? Not Ursula the heir, I don’t think. Rumor says she looks more like a man than a woman.”
            “No closer,” I commanded.
            “Or what, Princess Amelia—you’ll scream?” He held out questioning hands to the empty sky, but he stopped closing on me.
            “I’m not Amelia,” I said on reflex. Idiot. I closed my hand over the hilt of my dagger and drew it. “And I was thinking more of using this.”
            He smiled, eyes glittering. A breeze wormed through the meadow, sending a wave through the grasses and lifting a strand of his long black hair, tied in a tail at the nape of his neck. He took another step closer and stopped, watching me to see what I’d do.
            “You’d have to get quite close to me to use that,” he purred. “Are you certain that’s wise?” He flicked long fingers, and the wolfhounds stood to attention, ears and tails high, surging around him in an eager sea.
            “What will happen is that you’ll go your way and I’ll go mine.”
            He took another step. One horse length.
            “Even if I hadn’t recognized Salena’s look about you, I’d have known you for one of Uorsin’s by the way you give orders. I am not, however, one of your subjects.”
            At the sound of my mother’s name, I lost the little breath I’d gained. The name no one spoke. This wasn’t bad. This was catastrophic.
            “Who are you, then?” I gritted out, my thighs tensing. One more step and I’d be within his reach. His looked to be a good six inches longer than mine. I was outmatched in every way. I’d have to get inside and do damage quickly, before he could inflict any on me. “Besides a bully and a trespasser.”
            He raised a defined eyebrow at my words, taking a half step. Barely outside the boundary where I’d have to act, which he had to know. He moved like a warrior and used the pressure to discomfit me. He stared me down, the hounds shifting restlessly behind him. From this close I could see his eyes weren’t black at all, but very dark blue.
            “Is that how you name me?”
            “Care to argue the points?”
            “If you’re not Ursula and not Amelia, then you’re the other one.”
            “Flawless logic.”
            He grinned unexpectedly, a flash of white teeth unsettlingly like his hounds’.
            “What shall I do, then, with this amazing piece of serendipity, Princess Andromeda?”
            “The wise trespasser would let me leave in peace. The foolish bully might find himself gutted like a pig.”
            He shifted, leaning his body a hair closer. I sank into my feet, shifting my weight into my back leg, which gave me a bit of space and made me ready to spring. Big men seldom expected a smaller opponent to jump in close, but it was the only choice for someone like me, who couldn’t afford to stay at the devastating perimeter of a larger opponent’s weapon. I kept my gaze on the center of his chest, where any movement would start.
            “Ah. Or, since I am already judged and condemned, perhaps I’ll trespass just a bit more for my trouble. If this is the opportunity I think it is, we can’t afford to waste it.”
            Don’t think. Watch for the window of opportunity.
            His hand snapped out to grab me—Moranu, he was fast—but I confused him by moving in. Men always try to grab, Ursula’s voice reminded me. It gives you time to strike if you keep your head.
            Using my momentum and holding the knife pointed down in my fist so the power of my shoulder drove it, I sliced the blade across his cheek, whipped the arc around into a circle, and slammed the hilt against his temple. My sleeve tore in his grip as I sprang away, and he dropped to his knees, clutching his face, bright blood sliding through his fingers.
            The dogs ringed him, anxious, forming a suspicious guard. I backed away, reestablishing distance. Careful to test my footing. Don’t you dare trip, or those dogs will be on you in a flash. I’d never be able to fight them off.
            The man was woozy from the blow. Ursula would have knocked him unconscious. His dark eyes found me, blazing.
            “Point to you, Andromeda.”
            “This isn’t a game.” I kept stepping back. My arm stung. “I’m leaving. Keep your dogs to you or I’ll kill them.”
            “Brave words.” He climbed to his feet, unsteady, but intention coiled through him. “But you’ve only made the test easier.”
Blood laced down his cheek and over his throat. Three horse lengths. Where was Fiona? I’d trained her to return to me if I got unseated. If I survived this, I’d have to teach her to come to me even if there were wolfhounds involved.
“Now that I have you, I cannot let you go until I know for sure if you have the mark.”
            I pointed the knife at him. “You do not have me. And you never will.”
            “Ah, lovely Andromeda—I think you’re mistaken in that.” A wry smile twisted the bloodied side of his face. “You surprised me with your little sticker, I’ll admit, but I dare you to come that close to me again.”
            His face darkening, he strode toward me. One pace, two. Too fast.
            I panicked.
I ran.
            Run. Run for the forest.
            The grasses tore at my hips and thighs, whipping my arms with stinging tips. My heart gasped for blood, the cool mountain air searing into me and providing no sustenance. I wasn’t a strong runner, but I prayed to Moranu that the blow and blood loss would be enough to slow him.
            Just let me reach the forest.
            A thundering weight hit my back, throwing me down into the green cave of grass, my body shuddering with the second impact in only a few minutes. I held on to the dagger, though, striking out wildly at the man, who tried to pin me, a howl screaming out of me, something animal, feral.
            He ducked the blade and grabbed my wrist in an iron grip, holding it to the ground. I struggled to get a knee up to his man-jewels, but he pinned me under heavy thighs. With my left hand I stabbed stiff fingers for his eyes. He caught that hand, too, closing strong fingers over mine, crushing them together and pushing my hand down tight against my breast.
            I screamed. Fought.
            To no avail.
            After forever and a few minutes, plus a massive effort of will, I stilled myself. Time to rethink strategy. My thoughts, shattered into pieces, began to fit together again.
            “Finished?” the man pressing me to the ground asked. He sounded grimly amused. Probably feeling triumphant. I could use that.
            I opened the eyes I’d held squinched shut since I fell. His face loomed a hand’s width over mine, the knife cut I’d given him welling blood that smeared down his face and neck, contrasting with those fierce midnight-blue eyes. His black hair had come loose from its tie during the struggle, and now it rained down around us.
            “Let me go,” I whimpered, wriggling against him in what I hoped was an enticing way. It worked in that I managed to reposition a knee to the inside of his thigh. I’d likely get only one chance at that, but even a glancing blow might distract him long enough for me to plant the dagger in one of those blazing blue eyes.
            Like you should have done in the first place.
            His dark lips twisted in that half smile. “Nice. But you don’t play the damsel in distress all that well. And if you go for my balls, I’ll break your wrist.”
            “If you plan to rape me, you’ll have to get them out at some point—I’m sure I can find a way to injure the precious things,” I snapped back.
            He blinked at me, his face curiously still.
            “Rape?” He examined me, as if the thought hadn’t occurred to him, his gaze lingering on my lips. “Isn’t that rather prosaic?”
            “I’ve found most men are.”
            “Have you?”
            I didn’t answer. It had sounded good.
            “You mistake me, Andromeda. My plans reach farther than a bit of a tumble in the meadow, enticing as the thought might be. Our current position is simply serendipity.”
            His words chilled me in a way that the prospect of attempted rape hadn’t. Rape I could fight and likely win, if I kept my head.
            “You’ll have a hard time taking me hostage,” I sneered with deliberate contempt, “unless your pack of mutts will help you drag me off to whatever prison you have in mind.”
            The right side of his mouth lifted in a half smile, creasing the blood.
            “It’s true. I hadn’t expected this opportunity and I’m ill prepared. I hadn’t thought that—” He sighed. Amused chagrin crossed his face. “Is it too late to woo you into coming with me willingly?”
            I laughed, the sound harsh as the cawing of a crow.
            “Do I look feebleminded to you?”
            He examined me, considering. “Foolish, perhaps. Certainly overconfident. But no”—he sighed again, as if pressed by a great weight—“not likely to trust me. Yet.”
            “Trust!” I spat. “You’re the feebleminded one.”
            “Look at me, Andromeda,” he commanded, sapphire glints hypnotic in his dark eyes. “I’ve been looking for you. Don’t you recognize anything about me?”
            I couldn’t help but look. The press of his hard body, the searing heat of his skin, the eyes like midnight and twilight wrapped together—they reminded me of something. A wolf howled, lonely, my mind. The ocean surged, swirling blue depths sinking into deepest black.

            Under the waves, deep under the sea
            Sands dissolve the cicatrix of thee.
            Cobalt crabs pluck at deep-frozen lies
            Eating the corpses of what she denies.

            The images, as with the words of the song, ate at me, blurring the edges of who I knew myself to be. Salena. He’d mentioned my mother. What did that mean?
            “I’ve never seen you before in my life,” I whispered. It felt like a lie.
Was that Fiona’s nicker in the background? I seized on that. My horse, my life at Ordnung. That was true. Real.
            “No. But I thought you would know me anyway.”
            “You didn’t recognize me—you thought I was both of my sisters.”
“Did Salena teach you nothing?”
            “My mother died,” I snapped.
            “Believe me, I know. Her death caused a number of problems.”
            “I’m so sorry that the greatest tragedy in my life gave you annoyance.”
            The half smile twisted his lips. “More than you can conceive. I’ll make you a deal. Give me a kiss.”
            I didn’t reply. My dagger hand had gone numb, but a flex of my fingers reassured me I still grasped the hilt.
            “One kiss,” he repeated, “and if you still don’t want to come with me, if nothing happens, I’ll let you go.”
            Seemed like a bad bargain on his part, but I wouldn’t point that out.
            “No arguing?”
            I shrugged as best I could. “Whatever gets me closer to freedom. Either you’ll keep your word or you won’t. Either way, I’ve given up nothing of importance. And I seriously doubt your kisses are that spectacular.”
            “No?” he murmured, lowering his head. “We’ll see.”
            Mesmerized, I watched his lips descend to mine. The blood still pulsed, oozing out of the cut, fresh and bright over the dried tracks. Despite his nonchalant words, I felt the tension shimmering through him. This was the moment Ursula had described, when lust clouded their thinking.
            “Blood,” I murmured the moment before he touched me.
            “What?” His voice rumbled through me, soft, gravelly.
            “You have blood on your lips.”
            “I know. That’s the point.” With a certain grim determination, his mouth fastened on mine, though I tried to turn my head at the last moment. A bright flash of pain and I realized he’d bitten my lip.
            “Thrice-damn you!” I tore my mouth away, struggling.
            “Watch,” he ordered, holding me still.
            On his lips, the blood seemed to shimmer, then move of its own accord. A tiny bird formed, darkening from the scarlet of fresh blood to black.
            Then flew away.
            Aghast, enthralled, horrified, I watched it go, an impossible pinprick disappearing against the sky.
            “That’s impossible,” I whispered.
            The man’s joyful and triumphant smile crashed into disappointment at my words. “You really know nothing at all.”
            “Then let me up and you can explain.”
            Resigned, he nodded and moved just enough to loosen the grip on my hand.
            Not my dagger hand, but the one between us that he’d pressed to my bosom. I pushed my fist through his hand, up in a short jab to his larynx. He jerked back, howling, and his blood spattered my face, warm salt on my tongue. I pulled my dagger hand free and plunged the knife into the only target I could reach, his muscular shoulder.
            The knife stuck and I had no time to tug it free. I yanked away. He grabbed my ankle and I stomped down on his wrist with my boot and ran.
            Straight to Fiona, who waited right there, thank Moranu.
            The dogs gave chase and I couldn’t separate their excited barks from the man’s angry howls. I heard him ordering them to stand down, as if they’d understand his words.
            I scrambled onto Fiona, expecting the sharp bite of the hounds at any moment, but they only spun around my horse, sniffing and yipping. I dared to look for the man.
            He knelt in the grass, rage, pain, and blood distorting his fine-boned face, black hair a wild cape around him.
            “This isn’t over between us, Andromeda,” he punched the words at me through his pained throat. “Don’t think for a moment that you’ve escaped me. I am your fate. I have the taste of your blood now. Run now if you’re afraid, but I will come after you. I will always find you. You will be mine.”
            “Never!” I shouted at him.
            It sounded like a vow.


  1. I absolutely loved this scene, one of the best first meets ever. And good action to boot!

    1. Thank you!! I have a soft spot for this meet, also... :-)