Tension and Peril can be used in many ways. I like to use it to change the pace, a bucolic scene where the rustic tranquillity is suddenly disturbed by a dying horseman on a foam flecked horse, or perhaps the meal in a quiet bar, when suddenly a shadow falls across the table. In these examples the reader is surprised by the action which follows which gives it a starker feel.
But also you can build tension slowly. Here we have Benor describing an incident to his companions. This passage is both descriptive, but also quietly tightens the screw in preparation for what is coming next. When the action does happen it is almost cathartic and the tension is released.
“As we made our way slowly west we saw no one, but there were signs that others have dwelt there in the past. For example there was the ledge cut into the rock we had just negotiated, in another place there is a short tunnel, less than a horse length, but still carved by man. Admittedly they could have been ageless, but then we found an old fetish of bones and a skull blocking the path.”
Benor shifted uneasily and Amiche could see that there were things being remembered that the older man had been trying to forget.
“We travelled another two days and things got even more fey. There was an almost mummified body impaled on a stake at the side of the road. Then we came to a door set into a cliff face, covered with strange glyphs and sigils. One of our scouts touched it with the cold iron of a sword blade and the door burst into flame and was still burning when our rearguard passed an hour later.”
Benor stared into the fire, remembering. “You have to remember that those with me might well be Urlan but they were young. I was oldest by nearly thirty years. I decided we would be cautious, and we made our camps as silent and secret as possible, with no open fire. But there were strange cries in the wind and then we came across a small pool where a stream had been dammed. When I looked into it I could see the reflection of a strange mountain town, turreted houses, lattice windows, and joined to the trail by flying bridges. Yet no such thing was visible when you looked around. It was unnerving.” Benor glanced at Kirisch,
“The Urlan slept very lightly, so lightly that it was wise to say their name when you wanted to waken them for their turn at guard duty; merely tapping their shoulder could have been fatal.”
He stared back into the fire. “There were other things, a rusting gibbet creaking when there was no breeze and tracks of some creature that left footprints that none of us had ever seen before. Then we occasionally heard small falls of stones above us, as if someone was watching and inadvertently
knocked a couple of small stones off a ledge, but we saw neither watcher nor falling stones. Then at last in the distance we saw in reality the dwellings I saw reflected in the pool.”
Benor sighed, and once more poked the fire into life with a stick. This time the flames shot up, illuminating his face and casting dancing shadows on the rock behind him. “We hid ourselves well and watched the buildings overnight.
Lights were seen at the windows and we even heard distant music, but as we approached next morning the place was run down. I left most of my people on the level ground at the foot of the trail up to the village. I took about a score of the older Urlan with me, Alissa stayed with the others. We rode in column of twos up the flying bridge to the gate, but all was still. When we got to the gates everything was in silence, the gates hung open and you could see that it was really one intricately planned building, not a village. I shouted, and one of the Urlan blew a horn, but no one came. So we split into two parties, one to guard the horses in the gateway, the other party to make our way through the buildings.
Mystery piled upon mystery as we could see signs that things had been moved or used, but the grates were stone cold and the ovens had not been fired for some time. Finally we came to what seemed to be some sort of mage’s workroom and there we saw a sight which chilled the blood of even the Urlan. Some poor wretch was hanging on a frame across a grille in the floor. The wretch was dead, but had died the previous night; his life blood had flowed through the grille to whatever lay below. He had been tortured to death. On his arm was a tattoo, ‘Mummer’s Dance’ plus a picture of a boat which might have been in full sail had enough skin remained.”
Amiche broke in, “I remember the ‘Mummer’s Dance’. Her crew were convicted of piracy, but there was a general feeling it was more fraud and theft, they’d never actually attacked anyone. So they were sentenced to follow the Central Trail, to see if it was still open to the Oasis towns.”
Benor remained staring into the fire. “It is. But none of the crew of the Mummer’s Dance were seen in the east”
Obviously I’ve stopped this passage even as the tension is slowly building, if you want to know what was going on, then the passage comes from ‘Dead Man Riding East.’