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If you are into Norse myth/legends or marauding Vikings, this is the film for you. If you’re into unfettered views of a ripped torso, this is very much the film for you. If you like mystical, magical settings and glorious vistas, you will get all that and a bag of chips. Gorgeous, scenic cinematography with gloom, mist, creepy witches and blood and guts fighting—it’s all that and more chips. It’s safe to say this film will transport you back into the first Millenia, back when hygiene was on nobody’s mind.

It’s no secret that Shakespeare got a lot of his plots from other countries and their legends. This is the legend of Amleth (Hamlet) and done to a turn. So, I knew what was going to happen. That didn’t slow it down for me. Even with the sparse dialogue, the story held my attention. The acting was wonderful with standout performances by Alexander Skarsgard (Amleth) and Nicole Kidman (Queen Gudrun). The music is perfect, haunting, weird and unsettling. To take the viewer into Amleth’s time and to experience it in his point of view, Robert Eggers incorporated Nordic spirituality and beliefs into the story. The soothsayers are believable as occultists. And because Amleth believes, so do we.

Prior to seeing the film, I listened to a Terry Gross interview on NPR with Skarsgard, who was in his hometown of Stockholm. Many juicy tidbits were revealed, such as the unusual filming technique of running an entire, long battle scene in one take. While and after seeing it, I was amazed. Skarsgard joked that it had to be redone due to chickens flying around when they shouldn’t. Repeatedly screaming and growling in bestial frenzy, cranking up in preparation for a berserker attack, left him temporarily without a voice.

This is a movie for the strong of stomach, romantic of heart, and lover of epic storytelling. I attended with a friend who knows the gods of the time. Her explanations cleared up a lot. It might help to look up a list of them. Sorry, Thor is never mentioned. Odin gets all the attention. And the Valkyries. So cool. The only missteps that took me out of the story was seeing one rider with stirrups, which came into use when knights jousted or carried heavy metal into battle, and Alexander’s clean, pretty teeth. Forgave him everything after seeing him without his shirt. Worth the price of admission.

M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)

Follow on Twitter @RigdonML



CW Superman & Lois


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Stuck in the house with a vicious illness (not Covid) left me at the mercy of symptoms. No brain, no ambition, and with nothing else to do but binge, I looked into my curiosity about the newest Superman on the CW. It had many good reviews and gushing adoration from fans. Now I know why.

OK, I’m an unashamed closet Superman freak. As a tot I sat on the linoleum floor and waited in squirming impatience to hear the announcer ask if it’s a bird or a plane. Wonderful George Reeves—what he endured was just not fair. Of course, I didn’t learn about his troubles until many years later. I never liked the Lois rendition from that era. She was just too dippy, but poor Noel Neill probably had no choice. Hollywood perpetuated and leaped on every opportunity to keep women in their place. No one in this new series would ever pull that crap on this version of Lois. She knows how to use a Tazer and even Clark/ Superman backs up a step when she’s ticked.

What stands out in this rendition is a family bombarded by challenges and how they handle them. The chemistry between the four is utterly compelling. The Kent boys—no, young men—are enough to cause a dangerous estrogen surge in the global teen population. As a grandma, I just want to get them in my clutches, feed them cookies, soak up their energy, and listen to their victories and tragedies.

A massive part of the addictive aspects of this series is how the characters and their lives are so identifiable, so today and every day. Physical attractiveness is minor; IMHO, although Jordan’s sweetly dimpled smile is enough to shatter an ocular release (sorry, inside joke). There is much about them to admire. The twins have the virtues of their parents inherent, not forced. They are a mix of kindness, honor, integrity, and loyalty mixed up with the angst of their hormone-messed up ages (14). Young people everywhere must identify and get immediately sucked into their problems. The storyline deals with issues like bullying, social disorders, parental disappointments, to name a few. But the twins are not perfect. They yell at their parents and are loaded with teen sarcasm.

Clark has performance issues about being a dad, as any normal parent should. His deer in the headlights expression when being floored by teen outbursts and their acting out blunders is priceless. As is his stunned look the first time he sees Lois.

Lois is feisty, a mom who works hard not to hover and suffers from professional tunnel vision. Not always a bad thing. Scenes with her sons, when the proverbial chips are down and everything has been blown to hell and gone, are touching. The commitment these parents invest in their children is remarkable.

That being written, this is no Ozzie & Harriet yarn. Many glaring errors are not worth mentioning, because the writing is so dang great. TV production budgets are tiny in comparison to a film. There is finite time to get it done and no money for a re-shoot.

Although I’m sure viewers are interested in seeing Superman’s daring feats, and there are many, I am more invested in the family, how they argue, snark, laugh, cling, and hang on to each other for dear life. When Jordan’s heartthrob, the volatile Sarah, gripes at the twins that she wasn’t lucky enough to have a perfect family, the boys share a startled, meaning-filled look, as they hold back the truth that their family has its own set of problems. It’s brief moments like this, speckled throughout the series that makes it so remarkable. There are no sloppy acting moments or scene-chewing silliness. This is ensemble acting at its best and rarely seen in television, certainly not at this level of intimacy.

Season Two starts tonight on the CW. I’ve no idea how I’ve survived the wait.

M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)

Follow on Twitter @RigdonML





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Saw newest version of West Side Story and liked it. Different and grittier than the Robert Wise version, but Maria and Tony are wonderful—all of the characters more accessible. The dancing and choreography was not as sharp without Robbins at the helm, especially when it comes to Bernardo, David Alvarez, who has a great screen presence and remarkable eyes. But it’s cruel to compare any male dancer with the WWS ’61 fire eating Shark, George Chakiris.

The script is more attuned to reality, brutal at times, and the cinematography brilliant in some spots. I heard on NPR a LAT reviewer say he was not impressed with Ansel Elgort, but I thought he was wonderful. It was widely known that Wood hated Beymer, and I think that came through in the “61 version. Not so this time. The chemistry between Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler is sweet and charming, their times on the screen a necessary, stark contrast to the explosive violence of the gangs.  

 I did prefer the ’61 version of the Gee, Officer Krupke, which is my favorite song and showcased the incredible Russ Tamblyn. The LA reviewer didn’t sound that pleased about adding Moreno to the story but her character works well with the Spielberg vision of showing the futility inherent in racism and gang violence, which is celebrated more than decried in the ’61. The I Feel Pretty scene is better in this newer one, a larger group of women and a much better vocal rendition.

Speaking of grim and violent stories, I’ve included the review of The Last Duel, which was written while my laptop was in the shop getting upgraded.


Historians are not in agreement when it comes to the incredible story of Marguerite de Carrouges and neither is the content of this film, which is written in three different perspectives. Affleck, a writer of one of the chapters, commented that it wasn’t so much about historical accuracy as it was about the era. If you recall the story of Heloise and Peter Abelard, when they got caught she was sent off to a nunnery and he was castrated. How’s that for romance in the time of chivalry.

Rape was a serious business back then, and even though chivalry was touted, the practice of it was most likely different from the actuality. This was a brutal time, cruelty a way of life. This rendition takes the side of Marguerite, accepting her accusation as the truth. Her husband, De Garrouge, (Matt Damon) had an unpleasant, contentious personality. Her assailant, Jacques Le Gris, (Adam Driver) comes down through time as a burly, bullying egocentric adept at court politics. It was recorded that Le Gris protested his innocence on the field in front of many witnesses. This is no surprise. Consider the fact that he was Catholic. Some would suppose his firm belief in his innocence could be a sign of a clean soul. I keep in mind that according to his religion, all he had to do was confess to a priest and do his penance to be utterly cleansed of any wrongdoing.

About the movie, it’s never boring, even when the events are repeated. The two most dynamic events, the rape and the duel, are not accurately portrayed. The rape itself from court records was far more vicious and brutal than the screen version. Fine by me. What was filmed was violent enough.

There are witness accounts from attendees at the duel. The enactment as done in the film was INMH the best route to go. Jousting and hand-to-hand fighting with sword, ax, or any form of mace is dynamic and terrifying. Imagine the impact of that lance coming at you with the impetus of a charging horse trained for the task. The horse was not doing all the work. These combatants were scary tough. I’ve lifted chain mail. The one I picked up was 35 pounds. Medieval mail weight 45 to 50 pounds. Add plate armor on top of that from head to toe. Knights and other vassals fought with close to a 100 pounds of weight, a sword almost as long as their height, or some other form of mace, and a shield. If that wasn’t enough to handle, the crusaders had to endure desert heat baking inside a metal oven and did so for hours.

Conclusion: I really enjoyed this telling of a passion-wrought bit of history. But due to revisionism, especially in the church’s point of view, and the fact that there is little written for, by, and about women in that time period, history itself cannot provide a definitive recounting. This film leaves us to make up our minds about whose version is the truth. If you prefer less cerebral and more action, stay to the end for the duel. Brutal is nowhere near how combat was done in the not so romantic Dark Ages. Director Ridley Scott brought it back to the present.

M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)

Follow on Twitter @RigdonML





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OMG, this is so much fun, creepier and more intense than the first two GB flicks. To be honest, I went not expecting much. I will always be a fan of the original cast and remember the first time I saw Aykroyd on SNL. Still crushing. (Who can ever forget Bassomatic and the refrigerator repair man with the crack showing? My mom nearly had a stroke laughing at that.) This newest version is now my favorite in the Ghostie-verse.

Not enough can be said about Mckenna Grace. This young lady carried a large chunk of the story on her shoulders with what looked like effortless ease. Of course, everyone else does a fine job and Paul Rudd is still looking too damn young for his age. His comic timing is spot on, which helps for the downer attitude of the mom. (With some reason.) Logan Kim is just plain adorable as a sidekick, and the house is a character in itself. I don’t do spoilers but have to include that I loved (and so did the theater audience) the new version of Stay Puft.

So take yourself, and kids if you have them, because I’m a chicken and it didn’t scare me. Do stay for the credits. There’s a hilarious must-see clip before the final rollout.

So many fantastic films are coming out in December. Can’t wait and just because writers need every opportunity they can get to plug their work, my newest release (as Julia Donner) comes out today. Here’s the link:

M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)

Follow on Twitter @RigdonML



King Richard


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As a movie goer, I get burnt out on the anti-hero themes and the constant push for inclusiveness for the sake of inclusiveness spurred by present popularity. Getting those story types crammed down my throat was blissfully absent in this film. It’s about family, hard times and good times, the ups and downs and tragedies of living on the financial edge and the battleground of East LA. The main take-away must be the refrain of not giving up on a dream and how dedicated parenting goes a long way to making a child’s dream become a reality. I know this because I had a mom who thought her kids were phenomenal. (Not all of us are but Mom never let that get in the way.)

Then there’s the acting. I doubt that I will ever forget the bleak misery in Will Smith’s eyes as he watched the TV news clip of Rodney King getting beaten by LA cops, a revisitation of his past, his terror of cowardly gang members threatening his daughter, the scarring of his life embittered by the brutality and viciousness of racisim. (It has been suggested that his own racist behavior was muted in this movie.)

I wish that the irony of how his hard-luck life strengthened his determination to see that his children would never suffer the same was more clearly articulated. It’s there, but I had to wonder if it ever crossed King’s mind that his plans and fathering habits were honed due to his travails at the hands of societal monsters.

Will Smith deserves every award nomination he will get for this film. Emmy award recipient Aunjanue Ellis deserves accolades as well. The young ladies (Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sideny) had not only to act but also play tennis well. The filming of the court action maintained a high level of tension. Most of all, I thoroughly enjoyed the steadfast love and family loyalty throughout. Some of us are starved for more of that, not the candy-coated slop of the fifties and sixties, but how families can overcome through love, faith, and a goal that reaches for the best in us. See the film. There is much to admire.

M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)

Follow on Twitter @RigdonML



Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

My takeaway on this film is that it’s a eulogy mainly about the effect Bourdain had on his friends. Profound disappointment ensues as it digresses into a maudlin confessional and outpouring of grief. It’s all about their issues regarding his death with the excuse that he possessed a mercurial personality. There is never enough of the story-telling his friends rave about. There is never enough of his narration, his wit and acerbic renditions of the human condition a la Bourdain. 

First and foremost, the film opens with much younger Bourdain explaining that he wants no fuss when he dies. None. So why did his friends and co-workers go so far in doing exactly what their friend explicitly said he didn’twant done?

If there is a boat to be missed, Bourdain’s friends are still running in a fog to catch it.

Unnecessary sensationalizing, such as the eating raw snake clip, which was emphasized but the reason he did so not fully explained. Sure, Bourdain loved risk and danger, but he also had enormous respect for cultures and the foods attached to cultures. Much of what he ate would cause us to gag, but what we’d think of as weirdness, he ate as a sign of respect. He also possessed, and was possessed by, unquenchable curiosity.

This was typified, and again not explained, with a brief shot that showed the horror and misery on his face when he joined in on a boar hunt and used the pike he’d been given. Nothing was said of how the incident sickened him, no insertion of his preface of how people buy packages of meat and never take a moment to think about the fact that it came from a living animal, or the many people around the world, who must kill living creatures in order to survive. He joined in the hunt to give respect to his host and fulfill an obligation to comprehend what we all take for granted.

Finally, the film screams for editing. Getting rid of the tedious f-bombs would save twenty minutes. There are endless repetitions and renditions of their friend’s complex personality and their discombobulated inability to understand why they couldn’t do anything to help his downward emotional spiral.

What I did enjoy about this film was how his writing ability was celebrated. Few writers have his brilliance for cutting to the quick with a few words. Saying so much with economy is a gift. So was Anthony Bourdain.

M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)

Follow on Twitter @RigdonML





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Better title: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. (Sorry about it being previously used but it fits.)

I’ve been a fan of Chris Pratt since he kicked and danced his way through the opening credits of Guardians of the Galaxy to Come and Get Your Love. This time, I suspect that he and his agent read the original screenplay and signed up. Then the producers and script writers got their fingers in the pie and made a mess.

The Good part is the alien confrontation/action. Lots of heart-pounding pacing, which serves to make glaring the the plodding, boring, angsty scenes even more obvious and painful. And there are way too many. The initial set up is so unnecessary to the story that it should never have been filmed. Or at least gotten edited out. (Don’t want to imagine what did get edited.)

The Bad is the stupid character choices syndrome, the ‘should we go look in the basement’ cliché. We won’t even go there just to avoid the spoiler-thing.

The Ugly has to do with plot holes big enough to fly the Enterprise through. The ‘ah-ha’ moments that are so not worth the pause for self-congratulation and buoyant hope such revelations are supposed to supply to the story.

When it all boils down to a gob of grease, re-watch World War Z to renew your faith in dystopian action-adventure flicks. Don’t waste your time streaming The Tomorrow War unless you’re in the mood for a laugh.

Better yet, go see 12 Mighty Orphans. It’s a true-to-life story about courage, honor and determination during a time when our country stood for those ideals. The 12’s ending credits are worth the ticket price just to read what those remarkable young men eventually accomplished with their lives.

So looking forward to Black Widow.

M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)

Follow on Twitter @RigdonML




Much has already been written about this film. (See link to NYT article below) What struck me strongest was its uniqueness. Director Chloé Zhao has done something extraordinary. There are scads of movies about character studies, the coming of age later in life, processing grief, discovering oneself, but Nomadland is all of that and more. We are allowed inside the lives of nomads.

We know what to expect when Frances McDormand is first up on the credits. From Fargo to Three Billboards Outside EbbingMissouri, she knows her way around character development. As Fern, she pulls us so intimately into her internal world that there is no looking away. Fern makes it clear to everyone that she is entirely possessed by her need for freedom and isolation, and yet everyone is drawn to her compassion, honesty, and brokenness. Other than Fern’s relentless determination to maintain her freedom, there is nothing harsh about the film. There’s nothing whiny about its theme of rising above poverty with dignity and resolution. There’s a lovely comradery among the nomads, a sense of family, caring, and appreciation of the land that probably has not been seen since the Plains tribes roamed. These nomads travel to seasonal jobs. Fern often chooses not to travel with them. Part of her stubborn drive to be alone comes from unresolved grief for the loss of her husband, the only person in her life that compelled her to stay. Her devotion to him and her grief rejects all attempts from fellow nomad Dave (David Strathairn) to form a relationship. 

Zhao casted real people. This has been done before, especially in cameos, but this is another dimension. Linda May and Swankie live this life. This literally is their life. The dignity and generosity of their spirits glow on the screen. Hear Linda May’s tragedy when she tells Fern that she’d worked all of her life, and when time to retire, her Social Security came to a little over five-hundred dollars. She has no other choice but to live on the road.

At no time was I bored within the story. Nor sad. I was transfixed. It isn’t a tale of woe but of courage, sharing, and endurance. Fern puts her opinion and the story into perspective when sitting in the back yard with her sister’s friends, who talk about selling houses. She points out that there is nothing to be proud about selling houses to people who will never get out from under the debt. The differences between Fern’s idea of living and theirs is a stark reminder of how we make our life choices, what is important to us individually. Fern’s is a life striped down to its essentials, the opposite, and an entirely different American dream.

Look for Nomadland getting award nominations for best picture, directing, editing, and performances. For me, there is nothing like going to the movies. Streaming a movie from home is okay, but sitting surrounded by the dark (and I was the only one in the theater last night) and watching the previews, felt delicious. So what if a mask is mandatory. I never noticed it. Too busy admiring Fern’s courage. Next up, Land.

M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)

Follow on Twitter @RigdonML



News of the World

Civil war veteran, Captain Jefferson Kidd (Tom Hanks) avoids confronting his emotionally damaged life by giving public readings from newspapers. It seems strange to us that people would eagerly gather to listen with rapt focus as they do in News of the World, but lecturing and public speaking was highly valued and appreciated in that era. It didn’t matter what the subject was. In the rough country of postwar Texas, most could barely scrape out an existence. The eager attention of Kidd’s audiences is not an exaggeration. Entertainment of any sort was a rarity and illiteracy commonplace. In those days, the excellence of a speech was graded by its length—the longer, the better. The Gettysburg Address was considered shabby because it was so brief.

Captain Kidd’s plodding reality as an itinerant speaker is jarred from complacency when he comes across an abandoned white girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel). Stolen as a toddler, she’d been “rescued” from a Kiowa tribe being forcibly displaced from their homeland. On the trip to return her to her relatives, the man hired to escort Johanna is hung because he’s black, leaving her stranded. Kidd becomes a reluctant savior in the effort to return the courageous, belligerent girl to her relatives. This means traveling through dangerous country, and so ensues an exciting and harrowing odyssey for the pair. Along the way the two inadvertently begin to heal—the girl from the loss of her first and second family, Kidd from his estrangement to the wife he can’t talk about. I don’t do spoilers. All questions and mysteries are answered in the end.

There is much to admire in this film when it comes to production and storyline. If you’re done with the glut of all action-no-substance movies, this is the meal you’ve been hungering for. There were many standout supportive performances, but hotel owner Mrs. Garrett (Elizabeth Marvel) is my favorite. It goes without saying that this is another Hanks award worthy performance. Zengel’s prickly and ferocious Johanna is easy to feel compassion for even when she’s acting out her grief and loneliness. The costuming and settings are accurate. I bothered me that the captain didn’t cover his face during a dust storm. I had the same bugaboo about westerns when it comes to hard riding a horse then having it not break a sweat. But again, wranglers in movies are either ruled by animal control standards or their tender hearts. And I loved how Hanks rode with heel-down in the stirrups style.

In recent years we’ve been confronted by national upheaval and animosity, divisiveness, cruelty, racism, and violence. All of that is contained in this film, but the difference is its careful contrast of humanity and inhumanity, how two individuals confront circumstantial and environmental adversity, and through companionship, define the meaning of family. The unfolding story is thrilling and absorbing, but most of all, has an ending that had me leaving the theater uplifted and happy. We can all use a bit of that. I’ll buy it when released or brave Covid one more time to see it again.

M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)

Follow on Twitter @RigdonML



It’s Alive

It’s been months since doing anything with this blog. What with movie theaters shut down, there’s not much in the way of films to review, so I’ve been writing. The second book in a my newest fantasy series, Seasons of War, comes out tomorrow. This is a short story from that world. The character was inspired by my son, who passed unexpectedly, in September. The book released tomorrow, Out of the Sea, is dedicated to him.

Revenge and Remembrance

Voxel polished his mother’s armor, smoothing the soft cleaning cloth over the chest plate. He’d had to alter the buckles and straps for it to fit him. It hadn’t been difficult. She’d been a tall woman, more muscular than he was, but he’d inherited her long limbs, stubbornness, and hot temper. Since she wasn’t alive to show his affection, he cared for her armor, proud of the Calvary insignia, her name etched into her sword, and her status embossed in dark blue on the silver metal: Outrider and Archer, first rank.

When his mother discovered she was pregnant, she applied for a dispensation. Warriors were denied active duty if they carried a child. She left Camp Xur and rode home to Sha until her child was born. As soon as she was able, she returned to active duty. He saw his mother rarely, usually on his birthing day or when she delivered dispatches to Sha.

“Voxel, put that away. There is work to be done. The Cavalry leaves tomorrow.”

“I finished the arrows, Grandfather.”

Voxel gestured with his head to the crates of barbed arrows stacked against the armory’s back door. One wall of the armory and smithy had been raised, propped up on poles, and left open during the day due to the heat from the forge.

Voxel used a forearm to swipe the sweat from his brow as his grandfather grumbled, “What about the spears?”

“Done and already loaded on the cart.”

Others avoided Cal of Sha’s perpetually gruff temperament, but his grandfather’s irascible manner made Voxel smile. Tall and bulging with muscle and attitude, customers that came to the smithy didn’t linger to chat.

As a boy growing up without his mother, Voxel had been told that his grandfather hadn’t always been that way. The change happened when Cal’s wife had gone off with another man. Then his daughter had left him for the Cavalry.

They also commented that Voxel had his late mother’s unpredictable disposition, merry and teasing one moment, then in an instant, fierce and combative. Voxel knew that about himself and also knew that he would one day break what was left of his grandfather’s heart by achieving improbable.

The improbable, not the impossible.

Since he’d first touched the armor that he now carefully packed away, he was determined to fight with the Cavalry. From the moment he’d found her things in a battered trunk and brushed aside the dusty packing cloths, he knew what he had to do. He had to avenge his mother’s reportedly heroic death. The problem with that desire was that he was young and male. The Cavalry was made up entirely of females with the exception of Lorin-Sha, who like his father, had empathy with chargers. Voxel’s mother possessed that extraordinary gift that was so necessary for acceptance into the Cavalry. In addition to her temperament, she bequeathed her son the empathic talent rarely found in men.

Most chargers couldn’t survive the loss of their riders. They often went mad and had to be put down. His mother’s mount became despondent, and in confused grief, traveled to Sha to find her. Voxel took him to the forest, hand fed him, offering him the freedom and time to heal. Because of his mother’s gift of empathy, Voxel was able to share comforting memories of her. In time, his mother’s charger regained sanity.

Wild chargers, brown and much smaller than the Cavalry bred, ran free in Sha’s forests. They usually avoided the massive black specimens trained from birth to become living machines of war. His mother’s charger sired foals with brown speckles, and in secret, Voxel chose a female as aggressive as her sire and filed serrations into her fangs like the warriors did with their mounts. He now had a charger of his own and his mother’s armor.

He was ready for combat when word that an invasion was expected on the coast near Cavalry Stud Farm in eastern Xur. The urge to fight rippled beneath his skin. Vengeance burned in his soul, but he wasn’t ready to hurt his grandfather.

As Sha’s Cavalry contingent moved out the next morning, Voxel stood under the armory’s upraised wall. His grandfather joined him, morose and glaring at the tail-docked rumps of the chargers moving down the dusty road.

His grandfather broke the silence. “They will walk or slow jog them all the way to Xur to save their strength. It will take three or four days to meet up with the rest of them on the coast in Xur.”

When Voxel said nothing, his grandfather continued with an explanation Voxel didn’t need but wanted to hear. “The talk in the village is that a sorceress rules creatures from underneath the ground. Whatever they are, they look aquatic in confirmation and come up from the cave tunnels along the coastline.”

“Yes. That is what I heard. Lorin-Sha is leading our warriors. Lord Sha must be worried.”

“Yes. That is to be expected, but he will not interfere with his son’s duty. Nor will I.”

Voxel closed his eyes as an ache filled his chest. “Grandfather.”

His grandfather turned away to stoke the forge. “I am not blind and know what you have been doing all these seasons in the forest. Your mother couldn’t help herself either. She had to go off to fight. And die. They sent her things home with honors, but courage is no comfort for those left behind.”

When Voxel exhaled a long sigh and shook his head, his grandfather said, “Tack up, boy. That spotted charger is watching you from the woods along the village road. Since the only thing I have left of your mother is armor and you, I assume you have her talent for empathy. Your mount has been guarding your things.”

His grandfather kept working the bellows as Voxel went to stand behind his grandfather, gripped his wide shoulders, and pressed his cheek into the flexing muscles across his back. “This is for her, Grandfather.”

He nodded and never looked up from the angry glow and heat of the forge. Voxel stepped back and went to collect the hide bag that held his mother’s armor. He jogged down the road to his charger, put on the armor, and swung up onto her back. She knew where to go—to the hidden cache of her saddle and his weapons. He cinched the Cavalry saddle, tucked the bow in its sheath, strapped on greaves, and mounted up. He savored and shared his charger’s eagerness to do battle as they cantered away from the valley that was his home.

They followed Sha’s Cavalry contingent south then east. He shot harpies for his charger to eat and munched on the seed bread and fruit he’d packed the morning he’d left. Water had to be rationed as they crossed the province of Nir. He hid in the woods for three nights after they reached Xur, waiting and listening for the whistle command for the Cavalry to assemble. When it came, his heart pounded as he rode to the back of the warriors lined up and waiting for orders. A few glanced his way, but he knew that outsiders often tried to join the ranks and were typically told to leave. Setting his jaw, he resolved to ignore anyone who told him to go away. He never thought that the person to confront him would be the Cavalry Leader herself, Denea, survivor of the slaying of the Spawn on the Dawn That Bleeds.

She rode along the rows of warriors, her charger mean-eyed and menacing. His filed fangs gleamed in the sunlight. Her intricately embossed armor and helmet glinted harsh reflections. While her ferocious mount displayed impatience for battle, Cavalry Leader was the embodiment of calm calculation. When she halted her charged at the end of the line to examine an interloper, her expression remained impassive.

Denea focused her attention on his smaller charger. Her own snarled his annoyance at Voxel’s mount, sensing that she had no training, but his charger stood her ground, bared her spiky teeth, and hissed in his face. Voxel worked to suppress his grin, while Denea removed the command whistle from her mouth.

Leaning back in her saddle, Cavalry Leader said, “That mix-breed you ride was sired by the mount of the late warrior Voxella of Sha.”

“Yes, Cavalry Leader.”

“And you wear her armor.”

He forced himself to stay silent and still, to not react when she eyed his quiver of barbed arrows and the spare quivers lashed to the saddle. He expected her to remind him that it was illegal to do so, but instead she asked, “You any good with her bow?”

“I am my mother’s son, Cavalry Leader.”

“Proficient, then?”

When he jerked a nod, his helmet shifted slightly. Warriors plaited their braids in a way that held the headgear in place. He’d let his grow enough to braid but didn’t know how the warriors did the braids. Another worry added to the dread of waiting to be told to leave. Sensing his distress, his charger shifted and made an odd, mewling sound.

Denea said, “Come with me.”

He forced down a swallow and told his charger to follow the heavily muscled rump of the Cavalry Leader’s mount. It wasn’t easy to cover his surprise when he was escorted toward the head of the line. They rode by rows of warriors with spears pointed up, looking like a forest of bristling spikes.

With a nod of Denea’s helmeted head, an archer shifted her mount to make room for him. While his charger obediently backed into the empty spot, a warrior down the line raised her hand. Denea’s nod brought the archer out of position, and she rode up, saluting with an arm-smacking clank against her chest plate.

“Cavalry Leader, may I stand beside the recruit?”

Denea nodded and the exchange took place as Cavalry Leader continued her inspection. The experienced warrior beside her said, “I am Misdra. Your mother was a friend of mine and Lorin-Sha’s.”

“He never mentioned it.”

A corner of Misdra’s mouth twitched. “Sounds like Lorin, the surly sot.”

“I am Voxel of Sha. I assume you will explain the whistle commands.”

“Attention and prepare for attack is two short bursts. Aim and fire at will is one. A long one that rises at the end is charge. We are spaced this way for the ones behind us with spears. They ride through the archers after the initial barrage. We stay on the perimeter to guard the flanks and shoot down anything that tries to escape.”

“What is that noise?” Unfamiliar shrieks and grunts were oddly muffled, and with every moment that passed, increased in volume and fury.

Misdra had to raise her voice to be heard over the escalating noise. “That is the enemy. Reports say they will be twice the size of a charger, may have armor-hard scales. Aim for the eyes. Get ready.”

Two short bursts blasted from Denea’s whistle. All around him, warriors shouted, “For Omirr and Voxella!”

Then they screamed in unison, a high, shrill battle cry. The hairs on the back of his neck lifted from the eerie sound. He clamped spare arrows between his teeth, nocked an arrow, and prepared. The ground shuddered. Chargers shrieked for release as monsters burst up from the soil, spraying dirt and rocks. Webbed claws came out first then heads covered in scales, gigantic jaws lined with teeth, beneath small, blue-black eyes. More rabid creatures crawled out of the holes. He smiled around the metal clenched in his teeth when the whistle command came. There was no time to savor the victory of watching monsters slam head first into the ground from barbed arrows that never missed. His own arrow struck true. He reached for the next, aimed, and let it fly.

With every arrow that found its mark, the relentless rage for the loss of his mother eased, and somehow he knew that he would survive, and perhaps become the second man to be inducted into the Cavalry and make his mother proud.

When the warriors behind the archers charged forward, Voxel’s charger begged to join the savagery. Voxel mentally held her in check and joined the rest of the archers on the flank to finish off the escapees. Time dissolved. His muscles ached from nonstop shooting. When victory was apparent, the archers allowed their mounts to join the melee and tear into anything that still lived. His mare was the daughter of one of the Cavalry’s finest and did her work without instruction. When the whistle next blew, his mare followed the Cavalry mounts into retreat and to regroup.

Warriors came to congratulate his mount now that she’d been bloodied. Misdra slapped his back. “Well done, warrior. It takes a strong empath to keep them in hand.”

A blush burned his cheeks. “I always wanted a sister.”

She handed across a water flask. “Poor fellow. Now you have a battalion.”

He didn’t have to explain to her when he asked, “Do I have a chance?”

Misdra glanced at Cavalry Leader. “You handled yourself and your mount well. And your mother was a favorite.”

“But that might not be enough.” The vibrant rush of battle excitement waned. Reality filled the void. “And I am young.”

Misdra’s nose wrinkled as her lips made a moue. “Induction age has to do with being strong enough to carry a wounded sister from the field. Being male, you developed strength earlier but are still kind of skinny.”

He pinched back a smile that faded when he saw Denea riding up. His heart began to thump. He hoped his eyes wouldn’t start to leak when she sent him away.

Denea removed the whistle she’d kept clenched in her teeth and leaned forward to brace a forearm on the saddle. She looked him in the eye. “You never missed.”

How had she seen that amid all the chaos?

“Son of Voxella, would you like me to advocate with Lord Sha for sponsorship?”

He gulped and said nothing, doubting he could. Her narrow-eyed inspection revealed none of her thoughts. She straightened in the saddle and scratched her jaw. Comprehending what she was asking was too difficult to unravel. His throat was too tight for speaking. He reviewed what she’d just said to be sure he’d heard her correctly. All he could do was nod, and feeling stupid, watched her ride off.

Through a haze of shock, he felt Misdra’s grip on his arm. “Ladnor-Sha is a generous man. He will do it. Of that I am sure.”

Using the back of his wrist, he swiped the wet from his cheeks. “She is making an exception?”

“Sounds like it, and I warn you now, you better sow any oats you have lying around, because there will be none of that once you are inducted.”

He’d started thinking about that at the beginning of last season, noticing girls, and had been very well aware that Cavalry membership included a celibacy rule. The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. “But Lorin-Sha is married.”

Misdra snorted a laugh. “He is royalty and so is his wife.” She shook her head at him. “In addition to getting yourself inducted in the Cavalry, do you also have it in mind to marry a royal?”

“The Cavalry is more than enough.” Tilting back his head, he looked up at the cloudless blue sky and whispered, “For you, Mother and Omirr.”

M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)

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