Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Forgotten Songs - Chapter Three (and a whole lot more!)


click to see at large size; notes on the art after the story!


Chapter Three

A voice called out of the darkness, and the sound of it made Martin’s hair stand on end. It was deep, resonant, with an accent he could not place — it had much in common with the local dialects, but the sounds of strange places thickly overlaid the accent of Esketh.
He shot a glance up at the bandit, but Yussan seemed to have relaxed. He still held his hands well out from his sides, in plain view, as if even now we was not about to take liberties, but the man who had spoken out of the darkness was clearly not his enemy.
With a ring of iron-shod hooves, a big gypsy horse stepped out of the ruins. He was muscular, black and white, with a luxuriant black mane stirring in the night breeze, and a white tail he twitched restlessly as the man brought him closer. The animal might as easily have been a warhorse as a ‘vanner’ bred by the wandering people who crossed enormous distances from Setzele in the far east to Thulis in the north. His harness was heavy, well-tended but scuffed with age and wear. Martin saw all this at a glance as he looked up at the rider who had spoken out of the night.
The man was lean, his skin blued by the moonlight, which gleamed on hard muscles and wove highlights through the red hair that was clasped loosely at his neck. He was shirtless, but wore the forearm guards of an archer, and the band about the right biceps, common to warriors. The band contained their valuables, and on the inside was engraved the names of their next of kin. They wore it on the sword arm, and the understanding was tacit: it would be the last possession they lost, just moments before they lost their lives.
Many times, Martin had seen young men heading off to the regiment for the years of their indentured military service. Their fathers fitted the leather armband before they joined the ranks marching out, and into the band was placed a few silver coins, a charm for luck, perhaps a cameo painting of the family they left behind and might never see again.
His eyes swept over the man’s broad, lightly-furred breast, came to rest on his face, and Martin swallowed hard. The stranger was handsome, with strong features, deep eyes, a wide, sensual mouth.
“I thought it would be you,” he was saying to the bandit, and that mouth twitched in a half smile. “You’re getting too predictable, Yussan. One of these days it’s going to be a father or husband who tracks you out here, mad as all hell. He’ll have a dozen men behind him, and they’ll spike your stupid head on the Esketh gate.” The big horse came to a halt, and the stranger gestured with the sword he held loosely in his left hand — not the right, which made a statement. The armband circled his right biceps, but here, tonight he was not on the offensive. “You should have better sense,” he was saying. “There’s far easier ways to make an end of yourself!”


Yussan Lemaran’s laughter was a sharp bark suggesting little humor. “Damnit, is that you, Leon? It always is.”
“It’s me — and you’re lucky. Again,” the stranger told him in acerbic tones.
Leon. The name teased Martin, and he blinked, trying to make out details as the man brought the horse around. His skin prickled — he was as keenly aware of his nakedness as of his predicament, and he knew Yussan was not the only one who was lucky tonight.
Even now, Lemaran kept his hands where Leon could see them, and he was cautious as he approached the horse. The one called Leon watched him step up, and Martin saw at once, he was not in the slightest impressed by Yussan’s swaggering and posturing.
The sword shifted in the moonlight — a gorgeous Wakana blade, out of the forges of Tenereth. They were priceless, Martin knew. This one had to be at least a hundred years old, since the forge-masters had ceased to make them back in the days of the great rogue warrior Gendoku. They were the weapon of choice of the swordmasters, and this one told Martin a great deal about Leon, without him even asking a question. Just once, he had lifted one — or tried to. The Wakana was so heavy, he could not extend his arm to swing it, and now he watched Leon handle an identical weapon so easily, while sleek muscles rippled in the moonlight.
The man’s head tilted at Yussan with another kind of arrogance. Leon knew how good he was; he had no need to demonstrate it. And clearly, Martin saw, Yussan knew all this too. The bandit extended one gloved hand, and for just a moment Leon took it with his right, while the left balanced the sword.
“Welcome back to the badlands,” Yussan said easily. “Have you returned also to your senses? I was surprised when you rode with Chalmera’s company … and more surprised to see you alive. One day, those precious lost causes of yours are going to get you sent home as a little pot of ashes to be buried by some kind soul who remembers you. If anyone does.” He gestured at the wasteland of thorn bushes and ruins which stretched away to the blue mountains. “There’s a fortune out here, just waiting for the picking.”
“A fortune,” Leon said darkly, “in skin and flesh. It’s not a trade I’d care to turn my hand to.”
“Don’t waste your tears on the fools who get caught in the badlands,” Yussan advised. “They’re idiots who deserve everything they get and a lot more besides.” He stroked the nose of the big gypsy horse. “You want to share? I’ll share. I was always willing to share with you.”
“And what will you share?” Leon chuckled. “Tonight’s catch?” He glanced once in Martin’s direction, and shook his head. “One day, you’re going to get yourself into such trouble, you won’t be able to buy, brag or batter your way out. Then it’ll be you sent home as a pot of ashes … if they bother to send you back at all. More likely, you’ll lie in these badlands you like so much till the vultures pick your bones clean, and no one will be sure who you ever were.”
Yussan’s shoulders lifted in an expressive shrug. “Maybe. Probably,” he admitted. “But I do well, Leon. I do a lot better than you.”
“Only,” Leon told him, “if you judge your fortune in cold coin, and you don’t mind trading in skin. Speaking of which, you’re not taking this one.”
The bandit spread his arms wide. “I already took him.”
“And now you’ll let him go,” Leon said sharply. “Get busy and find yourself another, since there’s apparently so many of them out here.”
“But not like this one,” Yussan protested. “This one’s a beauty. Look at him! He’ll be worth a fortune at market, once he’s been educated, and I’ll relish taking care of that little chore myself. I told you, I’m ready to share. You want this one for yourself? Not fair, Leon. Not fair at all. I found him, I caught him, I should be the one to train him up and market him.”
All this, Martin absorbed without believing what he was hearing. His luck was darker than he had imagined. He knew he had been a fool, but the enormity of the situation had only just begun to dawn on him.
The stranger was a warrior, nothing was surer; but he was close to Yussan — Martin saw it in the way he reached over and touched Yussan’s dark hair, in the way Yussan relaxed around him, stroked the horse, took the liberty of curving his fingers around Leon’s reins. These two were connected, and if Leon cheated Yussan of his prize tonight, the exchange of merchandise could hardly do Martin any good.
“Go and catch another,” Leon was saying in that deep, resonant voice. “And as for you — you’re a complete idiot, Yussan.” He gave the bandit a light, playful cuff, in mock admonition. “Take better care, before your neck and shoulders are heading in different directions. I’d have to go tell your poor mother how you’re lying in a ditch with the butcherbirds squabbling over your bleached bones!”
But Yussan only snorted in something like scorn. “My mother? She’d dance in glee!”
Leon’s dark brows rose. “For a moment, she would. Then she’d remember you when you were her child, and get misty-eyed, and throw things at the messenger as if it’s all my fault you’re dead and gone.” He shifted in the saddle and laid the Wakana over his knee. Go on, get out of here, go find a good fire and a plump courtesan, and a jug of wine. Get legless and laid, in whatever order amuses you … and be careful who you accost in the badlands next time!”
Hanging on every word, Martin could scarcely believe a syllable. Hot, acid confusion fuddled his mind while his skin prickled in the night’s growing chill and his knees protested the stones where he knelt. He watched Yussan take a step back, and the bandit grinned up at Leon, insolent and oddly good natured.
“I’m hunting tonight, and I’ll continue to hunt,” he said flatly. “But if you want this one … ah, take him, Leon. I guess I owe you a favor.”
“You owe me six,” Leon corrected.
Yussan laughed aloud, and this time it was a sound of genuine humor now. “Oh, you’re counting?” He stepped back again, and the shadows wreathed around him once more.
Martin watched his form lose substance with darkness and distance until it vanished into the gray-blue of the twilight. The ruins hid Yussan from view, and he might never have been there.
Now, Martin blinked after the vanished shadow, and then looked up into the warrior’s broodingly handsome face. The gypsy horse shifted restlessly as Leon regarded Martin with a little curl of the lip, a shake of the head. He had precious little patience for idiots, Martin knew at once —
But what did he want? Nothing about this scene smacked of rescue, and Martin shivered to the marrow of his bones as he realized he was just headed for some other market, perhaps more distant and more prestigious.
He moved to ease his knees and took a quick breath as Leon frowned down at him. Dark eyes looked him over slowly from brow to knees and back, missing nothing, as if Leon were assessing his value just as Yussan had — his marketability — but the first words Leon directed at him took Martin by surprise.

NOTE: The Abraxas Contents List is in the left-side column -- quick links to each chapter


***********************************

So ends Chapter Three (and if you're wondering, here is Chapter One, and here is Chapter Two, to get you caught up!), but before I leave you for today I want to talk about the art...
First: my apologies for the fact it took so long to get this done! Those of you who know me, know that my health is in rags and tatters right now. I've been working for about two weeks, a few minutes at a time, to get it done, but now that it is done, I'm thrilled with the quality and detail in this piece.
It's "only" a raytrace, rather than a LuxRender image. Confession: Lux takes a degree of attention, concentration, vitality, energy, I haven't owned in a couple of months. I need to get back to Lux -- big time. I also need to double my RAM (or just max it out, and have done with the mucking about). But most of all, I need some decent health to do all this with!
But --
This being a raytrace gave me the perfect opportunity to make the piece 50% render and 50% painting. I got the best render I could wrangle, and/but the magic happened in Photoshop. Knowing that I was going to do a massive amount of painting on it, I rendered it big. No, HUGE. How big? well, click on this, below, to check this out at full size (notice if your browser is resizing it -- look for the little magnifying glass icon  and click on it):


...I rendered it at 3,000 pixels wide to give me the ability to get in there and actually paint the face, the hair, even though it's a semi-longshot. I had a suspicion I'd have to hand-paint the skin, because the lighting conditions are low ... and DAZ Studio often gives you "murky" skin tones when the lights are not so bright ... but how can you have bright lights in a twilight/night scene? You can't, obviously, so you know going into the project, you're going to do some serious painting. That being the case, you might as well render the image the size of the wall, and give yourself space to paint in. Sooo...


...here is the full-size "bite" out of the middle of a 3,000 pixel wide render. At this size, I was able to hand-paint his face, some of his hair, as well as all the shadows and highlights on and around the costume. Nice!

And as much as anything, it's the details your eye doesn't even go to, but which register in the periphery of your vision, which make the image compelling. Check this out at large size ... I don't say "full size," because this chunk is uploaded at 2,000 pixels wide, which is already reduced from the 3,000 pixels painting:


The rocks, grass, plants, shadows, highlights ... everything is hand-painted. Actually, I had a lot of fun with this -- but it did take a long time. The difference between the painting and the raw render is amazing. What started me doing this? I spent an hour or two looking at the work of some of the leading fantasy artists, and also at the work done by the major CGI effects work being done by the leading studios. The CGI being done now is quite the equal, right out of the computer, of the work of the finest fantasy artists ... but. And it's a colossal but. One can do ART on the desktop. But the kind of work produced by the major effects companies ...? Nope. Thanks to Dave, as of last Christmas I have a PC that is probably the most powerful machine on the open market right now, and it would still take weeks, plural, to render a single image at the quality you remember from Lord of the Rings. Sure, it could be done, with a dozen tests and previews (taking a day or two each!) before the final render was set to go. But ... urk. Is it just me being impatient? When I see an epic image in my mind's eye, I know it'll take maybe 1-2 hours to pose it, and 1-2 hours to light it, and then 2-6 hours to raytrace it, and 3-5 hours to paint it. Look on the bright side of life; you could be done in 7 hours, or a few days of hobby-level rendering and painting. I want to get the image done, and go on to the next one! And...

Well (blush) as much as I love the 3D work, I'm starting to enjoy the painting equally as much. You watch a comparatively "flat" render come to life and just start to glow. It's enormously rewarding. Speaking of which...

Here, you have Michael 4 and the Millennium Horse. The horse is wearing the Vanner skinmap by CWRW, and I also used the mane and tail pack from CWRW to create the fabulous mane and tail effects (these are Photoshop layers, folks, not something added in 3D). The tack is the Millennium Horse Tack (DAZ), with some fine adjustment made in the settings. The costume is mixed and matched from M4M4 Jouneyer Scout (from DAZ Marketplace) and Euros fantasy costumes (from Renderosity). The backdrop was rendered in Bryce 7 a couple of years ago, but I blurred it out for this, to account for depth of field ... in these lighting conditions, to focus on the character, the distance is going to be blurry. The ruins are a set of fantasy props ... wish I could remember what they're called! They're from Renderosity, that much I recall. The trees, also -- I think they're called "Gnarly Old Trees," something like that. Do a search on fantasy props, they'll turn up, and they're inexpensive. Michael 4 is wearing his high rez skinmap (from DAZ) and the Midnight Prince hair set to red. The straps are from the Euros Top; the boots, the Euros boots. The sword is from the High Fantasy prop set. The render was done, as I said, at 3,000 wide, and raytraced -- don't know how long it took, because I went off to organize dinner and the next time I looked, it was done. It didn't take long to raytrace, because there's no foliage on the trees, and the mane, tail and hair are comparatively small areas of detail. Foliage, hair and fur are what make a render take many hours (or even days). Then the fun began. I painted everything, everywhere, in about 30-35 layers, usually just with the default brushes provided in Photoshop, but with the addition of some .abr brushes: Ron's Fog, Ron's Birds (both from DAZ), and then various plants and grasses packs -- all from Renderosity; of which I recall Mystikel's Ivy as being used over and over. 

And I'm looking forward so much to future chapters! 

Will try to post more very soon. Cross fingers, my health will mend and I can get back to being more productive.

Jade, August 17
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