They're all written at this point, and the only remaining revisions needed are extremely minor, so any of my readers who've been spending years now waiting for George R.R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss to get off their duffs and finish the last volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire and The Kingkiller Chronicle respectively need not worry about having a repeat of that experience!
I'll post more details, including advance ordering data, as those come in. Meanwhile, we can all listen for those low eerie noises out there in the night, as of strange shapes moving closer...
Think of it as space fantasy: tales of two- (or more-) fisted adventure set in a solar system that's chockfull of intelligent species, inhabitable worlds, and spaceships that look like something other than random collections of hardware -- yes, we're talking tail fins here. The mere fact that we turned out to inhabit a much less interesting solar system doesn't take anything away from the delight readers still get from the solar system tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leigh Brackett, and the other great authors of science fiction's Golden Age, and there's no reason not to set new stories there -- after all, how many people quibble about the fact that Middle-earth and Narnia don't exist?
This collection includes seventeen stories, including my "Out of the Chattering Planet," and amounts to 120,000 words of interplanetary adventure. You can pick up your copy here.
There's also good news for readers of fantasy. The first two volumes of my epic fantasy with tentacles, The Weird of Hali, are heading into print in new paperback and e-book editions, with the others scheduled to follow over the course of the next year. The first volume, The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth, is already available in e-book format and can be purchased here, and the paperback edition is in press -- it can be preordered now (use the same link) and will be in print on December 17. The second volume, The Weird of Hali: Kingsport, will be released in print and e-book editions that same day; it can be preordered here.
Those of you who haven't been following this end of my writing may want to know that, while these novels use the tentacle-ridden horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft as raw material, they're not horror fiction. Lovecraft was a brilliant fantasist as well as a capable horror writer, and I've long felt that the fantastic end of his work has been neglected for far too long; the worlds of his imagination are also just too tempting a venue for fantasy for me to pass up.
The twist, of course, is that we're not getting your standard tale of how tentacled horrors out to devour the world, with the aid of their sinister human cultists, get stopped at the last minute by some combination of square-jawed investigators and sheer dumb luck. (That's been done not merely to death but out the other side into a couple of further reincarnations.) Au contraire, there's always at least two sides to any story; these tales are from the point of view of those awful cultists -- the ordinary men and women, that is, who discover the forbidden truth about those tentacled horrors (aka the old gods of nature) and get drawn into the ancient and terrible struggle between archaic gods and their all too modern, efficient, and up-to-date adversaries. It's a conflict on which the fate of the world does indeed rest, but, ahem, it's not the old gods of nature who are seeking to turn the living Earth into a smoldering, lifeless waste strewn with plastic trash...
So here are the first two volumes -- the stories, to be precise, of how the two main characters of the series find their way into a wider and more eldritch world. The third volume, The Weird of Hali: Chorazin, which launches those characters and several others on a desperate quest to awaken a sleeping goddess, will be out early in the new year. The others -- The Weird of Hali: Dreamlands, The Weird of Hali: Providence, The Weird of Hali: Red Hook, and The Weird of Hali: Arkham -- will be in print by the end of 2019. Stay tuned for more announcements!
So that was pleasant. The other thing that's been a real pleasure to me is watching MYTHIC ripen from a promising beginning to a solid science fiction and fantasy magazine, one that's getting contributions from a growing list of capable authors. A quick glance through the issue tells me that I'm going to have a couple of evenings' worth of very pleasant reading. If you're into good lively imaginative fiction that's into storytelling rather than striking literary or political poses, it's worth your while.
*There's going to be a whole series of these. The first, "The Phantom of the Dust," appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of MYTHIC; a third, "The Mummy from R'lyeh," has been submitted, though I haven't heard yet whether it's been accepted or not.
**Yes, that's Jenny Parrish from the second book, The Weird of Hali: Kingsport. For reasons not too hard to guess if you've read that book, she changed her name after she finished her doctorate.
They would have to travel by dusk and dawn, so the faun said, until the village by the monastery was far behind and they reached wild country watched by fewer eyes. “Sleep now,” he told them. “Sleep if you can.”
The quilts were still wet from the morning dew, so Embery hung them over rocks to one side of the cave, hoping they’d dry a little before nightfall. The faun watched with unreadable eyes. Then, lacking any better option, she and Tay curled up in their clothing in a corner of the cave on a heap of dry reeds. Sleep felt far away, farther than Amalin itself, but all at once she was blinking awake, stiff from hours asleep without moving. She sat up slowly. Outside the cave mouth, long shadows of late afternoon stretched away.
“They came by twice,” said the faun: Uldin, Tay had called him. Embery gave him a worried look, and he went on: “Men in black robes. Monks. Two the first time, six with a gaggle of villagers the second.” His high-pitched laugh splintered against the stone walls of the cave. “Well for them I did not let them find me.”
Embery wondered what he meant by that. The stories she’d learned from old Neely had little enough to say about fauns, and not much more about any of the beings of Amalin other than gods and goddesses, men and women. Eremon had gone to speak to the faun before the last of his eight great quests, to be sure; there was the faun whose riddle in the woods set Cademalis on the road to his destiny, and there was the faun that Amtar met on the road to Tabris, who blessed the Four Hundred when they marched to what they thought was certain death and turned out instead to be a victory beyond hope—but none of that gave her any hint of what one faun might do to six monks and a gaggle of villagers.
She considered asking him, but he turned and scuttled to the back of the cave before she could find the words. With that option closed, she turned back toward the heap of reeds, watched Tay as he slept. Some while passed before she could find the will to wake him.
Evening took its time coming, lingering behind the eastern hills while the sun crept westwards and the sky soared up to the edge of forever. By the time the sun set and the dim harsh sound of the monastery bell came whispering up the valley, calling believers in the Holy Law to prayer, she’d shared out the last of the loaves they’d brought with them. Uldin matched the gift and more with strips of dried rabbit-meat and cups of berry wine: good fare, Embery thought, for what might be a long evening’s journey. She and Tay got the quilts rolled and tied again for slinging over shoulders, picked up their satchels. All the while Uldin sat near the cave’s mouth and watched them with golden inscrutable eyes.
“Soon, I think,” he said at last. “We have far to go.”
“Aren’t you going to bring anything?” Tay asked him.
The faun glanced at Tay as though the thought hadn’t occurred to him. “No,” he said. Then, after a moment: “You can take anything you wish.”
Tay beamed, darted to the back of the cave, came back a moment later with more of the dried rabbit-meat and two of the faun’s coarse brown loaves, which he tucked into his satchel. “That’ll keep us fed for a day,” he said.
The faun shrugged, turned to go. “You really don’t want to take any of your things?” Embery asked him.
“Things pass away,” said the faun. “You might as well try to clutch the wind.” He ducked out through the cave mouth, glanced around, motioned with his head for them to follow.
Outside, evening’s chill had just begun to spread. In silence, Uldin started south along Mollory Edge, away from the three rocks and the faint wisp of rising smoke that told of Gellen’s farm, and Tay and Embery followed. There was another village two days south, Embery recalled, if you followed the Edge and then turned west once it ended. Beyond that? She’d never traveled that way, knew only rumors.
They followed the Edge all the way to its end but didn’t turn west. Instead, Uldin led the way up into the hills, following winding paths that stayed off the ridgelines, out of sight of casual eyes. As the last light guttered out in the far west, he clambered through a gap between boulders. On the far side was a sheltered hollow half roofed with gorse-bushes, as safe a place as Embery could have hoped for. “You need sleep,” said the faun, a dim shadow among shadows. “I do not. We will go further when the light begins to stir.”
Night deepened. The quilts held off only part of the chill, but sleep came anyway, bringing dreams in its wake. In her dream, Embery walked down a long slope into blackened desolation. The half-burnt corpses of trees loomed up here and there into a sky the color of iron, but no blade of grass broke the hard surface of the soil. She passed tumbled squared stones, scorched as well, that might once have belonged to a building a long age before. Then, up ahead, a living presence: a tall figure, human or humanlike, wrapped in a hooded cloak so black it made the waste around it look pale. The figure stood facing away from her, though it seemed to glance back over its shoulder at her as she approached. No sign of a face appeared beneath the shadow of the hood.
She slowed as she came alongside the figure, glanced up uncertainly at it.
“Look.” The voice, little more than a whisper, strained beneath a burden of bitterness and wasted toil. “Look around you.”
She looked. Everywhere the scorched silent wasteland reached away to the edge of sight.
“This is Amalin,” the voice said.
Shuddering, Embery blinked awake. The faint gray light of earliest dawn filtered down through the gorse-bushes above her. Tay lay nestled against her, making slight motions that echoed some dream of his own; dew dampened the quilts; off near the gap between the boulders, Uldin sat, head tilted to one side, listening to the first tentative birdsong of the morning.
By the time she’d extracted herself from the quilts and tucked them back around Tay, the faun had noticed her. “Wake him,” he said with a quick motion at Tay. “We’d best be going before the day’s too far along.” Before she could gather her thoughts; “Food, drink, those will wait. There are too many eyes yet in this country.”
That seemed uncomfortably likely, so she shook Tay awake, got the quilts done up again as blanket rolls, shouldered her share of their burdens and followed the faun out through the gap between the boulders. From then until the sun burnt on the edge of the hills to eastward, they picked their way hurriedly through rugged country. Uldin had gestured for silence and kept it, giving directions only with quick motions of his hands, and so Embery had nothing to keep her mind off the troubling dream she’d had. More than once she’d tried to turn her thoughts to one of the old stories, only to find herself brooding again over the desolation in her dream.
Hours on, when hunger had begun to pinch and certain other needs were making themselves felt, Uldin led them down into a narrow valley where a thicket of gnarled pines huddled in a gap between walls of stone. “Here,” Uldin said, breaking his silence at last. “We’ll stay until evening. Food, water, rest, it’s time for those if you wish.”
Tay gave his mother an uncomfortable look. “Can I—”
“That also,” said Uldin. With a little ironic noise in his throat: “Humans weren’t always so shy about having bodies.”
That got a choked laugh from Embery. When Tay had scurried away to a private place to relieve himself, she said, “It’s the Holy Law.”
The faun gave her a blank look, and then said, “Something that the monks talk about.”
“Much too often.”
“Then leave it for them to speak of.” With a sidelong glance: “In Amalin there is no such thing.”
The faun’s words stirred the wild longing she’d felt before, but it also roused memories of the dream. “Uldin,” she said, “when you left Amalin, was it green and golden as the stories say?”
His golden eyes regarded her, inscrutable. “I left Amalin a long time ago,” he said. “And I do not know which stories you mean. Was Amalin green and golden when Dreela was beaten with rods of iron and cast out upon the snow to die?”
“No,” Embery said after a moment. “But the stories say it was when she came down from the mountains to sit on Kendath’s high throne.”
“I was not there,” said the faun. “In those days I lived in the hills beyond Altessa, where gray stone rose sheer from narrow valleys and gray fogs swept in from the sea.”She was trying to figure out how to bring the conversation back around to the thing she wanted to know when the soft quick sound of Tay’s footsteps on stone drew her attention. A glance back at the faun caught something elusive in his face, left her all but certain he wouldn’t answer her question in any way that mattered. She went the way Tay had gone, patting him on the shoulder as their paths crossed.
Still, both those are out of the way, and I was able to work out the next scene on this project last night and tonight...
A vast silence gathered around Embery then. It embraced the thorn trees, the gray crannied stone of Mollory Edge, the pale blue sky above, the whole of Raithwold and everything beyond it, but what lay at its heart was the half-human figure before her, crouched at the foot of the trees. She tried to open her mouth, tried to make the least sound, and could do neither. The golden eyes regarded her without curiosity, without haste, as though she had been standing there on the grass since the spirits had shaped that part of Raithwold and would be standing there still after ages of ages when Mollory Edge had crumbled away to dust.
“Thank you,” Tay said. “Thank you, Uldin.”
The faun glanced at him, and the half-human face creased in a smile. “You’re early,” he said in a high sharp voice. “You’re lucky I’m here at all. And who is this with you?”
“My mother.” Then, in a rush: “We’re in trouble. They’ll stone us if they catch us.”
“Ah.” The horned head gestured back over one shoulder, toward the darkness beneath the thorn trees. “Best come in, then. No one finds this cave unless I wish it.”
Tay got his satchel and his blanket roll from the grass, took Embery’s hand, pulled her forward. Dazed, she followed, bent low to pass under the branches of the thorns, clambered into the darkness beyond. Dry rushes covered the floor of the cave. The rank animal scent of the faun filled the air, but through it she caught odors of smoke, dried meat, old pungent roots.
“Sit,” said the faun, gesturing. She settled, and the rushes crackled beneath her. Tay sat next to her, nestled up close, and she put an arm around his shoulders.
The yellow eyes regarded her again. “They wish to catch you,” said the faun. “To stone you. Why is that?”
Embery found her voice. “Some of the people in the village saw you and my son walking up past Creel’s Head. The monks think that means I’ve had dealings with unhallowed things.”
“Have you?” the faun asked.
Taken aback, Embery stared at the creature. “No,” she forced out. Then, because she was sitting a few steps away from a faun of Amalin, she let herself say something she’d scarcely allowed herself to think before: “But I wish I did.”
A smile spread over the half-human face. “Maybe you will.”
All at once he turned, scuttled low to the ground into the back of the cave, came forward again with shapes in his hands she couldn’t see clearly at first. “Here,” he said. “Before anything else. Your son has shared bread and drink with me but you have not. Will you?”
She took the flat brown loaf he gave her, bit back her apprehension. There were stories about the bread that strange beings in the woodlands baked and the wine that they brewed, and what those did to the people who ate and drank them. Those were not stories of Amalin, she reminded herself. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, of course. When Eremon asked wisdom from the faun, they ate and drank together before the faun gave him counsel.”
“Good,” said the faun. “Your son knew that too.” Then, with a odd sidelong look, as though the words shamed him: “I am not that faun.”
Remembering the story, she broke the loaf in half, bowed a little as she sat while handing him half of it. The yellow eyes regarded her, inscrutable, as the faun poured something from a wineskin into two cups fashioned from wooden burls hollowed out. He gave her one, dipped a corner of the bread in his cup, waited until she’d done the same.
The bread was of seeds and roots ground coarsely together, she guessed, and half-glimpsed in thought the faun’s strong hands pushing one rock over another. The wine was of autumn berries, and tasted faintly of the skin in which it had been aged. Neither worked any change in her that she could sense. She and the faun ate and drank in silence until the loaf was gone and the cups were empty. Tay watched them both, kept the same silence.
“Now,” said the faun. “Tell me. Tell me everything.”
Embery drew in a long breath, and told the whole story: how Merimer the doctor had come to the village, how the villagers would rather give her gifts than pay him in silver pennies, how Anner’s sons had seen Tay and the faun off beyond Creel’s Head, and from there to her flight with Tay to Mollory Edge. All the while the faun watched her with those unreadable eyes, and kept watching her for a long moment after she’d finished.
“What do you desire?” he asked then.
The question took her by surprise. “I don’t know.” Then, catching herself: “I don’t want them to catch me or Tay. I know we’ll need to go somewhere else and try to find a new home, but I don’t know where, and I don’t know how we’ll manage.”
Her voice trickled off into silence. Now that the immediate threat of the magister and the monks was at arm’s length, and the shock of the faun’s appearance had begun to fade, the bleakness of her situation and Tay’s had begun to sink in. It was early yet in the year, true, and enough days remained to travel far before winter closed in—but in all Raithwold, was there a place that would welcome the two of them? She knew well enough what the folk of the village she’d left would think if a stranger woman who dealt in herbs and healing showed up suddenly in their midst. Worse, word of her disappearance and Tay’s would spread, and though it might take time to come to whatever place she went, come it someday would. There hovered before her eyes in the cave’s dim light a vision of a life spent fleeing further and further into strange countries, pursued always by magisters, monks, and fearful villagers with stones in their hands—
All at once she realized she was trembling. Tay gave her a troubled look and took one of her hands in both of his, but the faun simply watched her, his yellow eyes giving back nothing.
“How far are you willing to go?” he asked her then.
“I don’t know,” she said again. “As far as I have to.”
“That is wise.” He considered her for a time.
Tay, watching him, ventured, “We talked about going.”
The yellow eyes turned. “Yes, we did.” Then, to Embery: “I owe you a debt.”
“When your son went with me beyond the place you call Creel’s Head, to learn certain things from the wind in the oak-trees there, I did not think we would be seen. I was wrong, and so the two of you have lost your home and may yet lose your lives.” He shrugged. “A little thing, perhaps, for you will both be gone soon enough.”
That called up an unwilling laugh from her. “I suppose so. You don’t die, do you?”
The yellow eyes narrowed suddenly. “Of course we die. We can be killed. Have been killed, by the thousands, by the tens of thousands—but should one of my kind escape such a thing, why, then season follows season without bringing him the least step closer to death. We do not age toward death, even when that would be merciful.”
Abruptly he turned away, moved back a little, for all the world like a skittish goat shying away from some too rapid approach. “Enough,” he said then. “I waste your time with empty words. Will you come?”
The abruptness of the question startled her. “Come where?”
“Amalin,” said the faun.
She stared, open-mouthed. The faun regarded her with inscrutable eyes.
It was Tay who broke the silence that followed. “That’s what we talked about, Mother,” he said, his eyes shining. “That’s why we went past Creel’s Head to the oak groves, to ask the wind in the oak leaves for an omen—and it was a bright omen, a good strong omen, the kind that came from Oromas himself in the old days. We can go. We can leave Raithwold behind and go to Amalin. We really can.”
“Will you come?” the faun asked her again.
She was trembling again, but this time it wasn’t fear. All the stories she’d learned from old Neely came crashing into her mind at once, every tale of Amalin the golden, where white temples rose up against a sapphire sky, where Eremon fought and Dreela reigned and Tatennen answered every riddle but one. More: the wild desire that had stirred in her earlier that morning, to raise an altar to the gods and goddesses that were gone with never a monk or a magister to learn of it, burst over her again, irresistible.“Please,” she said, and tears pooled in her eyes.
High and shrill, a chorus of birds greeting the new day woke Embery. She lay there blinking for a moment before memory returned, reminded her where she was and why she and Tay were curled up fully clothed under quilts damp with cold dew. She extracted herself from under the quilts, tucked them around Tay, clambered out from under the spindle-bush that had sheltered them through the hours of darkness.
Dawn spread cold and gray over the little hollow as she stretched out the aches a night’s sleep on hard ground. The birds sang on—a comfort, that, for they’d surely fall silent if anyone from the monastery or the village blundered through the wild land nearby. Reassured, she reached back under the spindle-bush and shook Tay gently awake.
A short while sufficed to shake out the quilts—they’d need to hang in sunlight later to dry, but that would have to wait for some safer place—and to share a loaf of bread and water from the spring for a cold meal. Then they shouldered satchels and blanket rolls, and went back to the place where the highroad could be seen. With the sun just gilding the tips of the distant hills, it was early yet for travelers, and nothing moved on the road except a fox trotting past on some errand of its own. That seemed like a hopeful omen, and so they scrambled down the slope to the road, crossed it as quickly as possible, slipped into the shadows of the wood on the far side.
“Below Mollory Edge,” she said to Tay once they were well away from the road, following a deer-path under twisted oaks. “Where?”
“Up past the creek that flows into the marsh by Gellen’s farm. You go by the three rocks the other boys say were put there by a bad spirit, and then along the foot of the Edge until you get to a place where three thorn-trees grow out of the rock.” He glanced up at her. “I saw the trees and thought of how Tatennen met the lamia by a thorn-tree and answered her three riddles, and that’s why I sang Eremon’s song there.”
She was staring at him by the time he finished, and he quailed a little and said, “Did I do something wrong, Mother?”
“No.” She blinked, forced a smile onto her face, kept walking. “No, not at all. But there’s a story I haven’t told you yet, and it’s about three thorn-trees that grew from a cleft in the rock.”
“I’d like to hear that story,” said Tay.
“Sometime soon,” she promised. “Once we’ve found a safe place again.” That satisfied him, and the two of them wove their way among the oaks in silence thereafter. The birds finished their morning songs and settled into the desultory calls of the day. Off in the distance, the low harsh note of the monastery’s iron bell sounded the call to morning prayers, and a sudden wild desire flared in her to find a place where she would never have to hear that call, where she could raise a stone altar to the old lovely gods and goddesses with her own hands, and pray to them if she wanted to pray to anybody. It was a foolish enough thought, she knew; the old gods and goddesses were dead and gone, and no prayers could reach them ever again; for that matter, if there was a place left in the world where magisters and monks hadn’t proclaimed the Holy Law with staves and cords in hand for those who weren’t minded to listen, she’d never heard of it.
By the time the sun cleared the hills to the east they’d followed the wood as far as it would go, and veered west into a steep-walled valley not much visited even by sheep. A lively little stream wound through it, and they walked in the water for a while to throw hounds off the scent if the monks should go that far. Desperate though their situation was, her mood lifted as they walked. She thought of the three black sloes that Dreela placed in the hollow of the rock in a bitter hour, the only offering she had to give, and the three thorn-trees she’d found there that told her the long years of exile were over and the curse upon the house of Kendath had been lifted at last. That sent Embery’s thoughts straying back through one story after another, all the way to Tatennen’s birth and the terrible impiety that brought the vengeance of the gods down on Kendath’s kings. And the faun, she thought then. Is it waiting in exile as Dreela did all those years ago, waiting for some offering to be accepted?
The thought shattered as she shaped it. There was no one to receive such an offering any more—and was there even a faun waiting below Mollory Edge? The day before, as she’d stared into Tay’s anxious eyes, she’d been sure that he was telling the truth as he knew it, but that certainty was difficult to hold onto as the harsh light of a Raithwold morning dipped further and further into the valley. At most, she told herself, some old hermit who knows the old stories called out an answer when he heard Tay singing, and it may have been less than that, a stray noise, the movement of a wild beast.
Anner’s sons saw Tay walking with something past Creel’s Head, her memory reminded her. Something that wasn’t human. She pushed her perplexities aside, turned her attention outward, tried to make herself think instead about whether someone might have seen them or guessed at their destination.
The valley ended in a ragged slope thick with gorse. They picked their way up it, looked back along the way they’d come, saw no sign of pursuit. The sun was high in the east by then, bare and bright in a sky empty of clouds for once, and by that unforgiving light they hurried across the bare ground atop the ridge and down the far slope.
Ahead, Mollory Edge loomed up gray and crannied, a ragged cliff left behind by the spirits knew what convulsion of the land in ages past. A glance to the right as they came down the slope showed three boulders, doubtless the three rocks of the boys’ stories, and off beyond it in the middle distance the silver line of the stream that flowed past Gellen’s farm to the marsh. She looked the other way, searching for the three thorn-trees, but just then Tay pointed and said, “There are the trees I told you about.”
There they were: three gnarled thorn-trees well leafed out, and all three of them rising from a crack in bare rock at the foot of the cliff. Embery’s breath caught. With Tay at her side, she finished the descent, crossed the meadow at its foot, approached the trees.
Two paces from them, no more, Tay stopped. “This is where I sang,” he said. “I should sing again, to let him know.” She nodded, gestured at him to begin, and he set aside his blanket roll and satchel, put his hands behind him as though reciting a lesson, and sang:
“In the plains of Eshdar I made the great bull yield to my will,
High on Druan Mountain I took an egg from the griffin’s nest,
Three hundred warriors quailed before me at the Bridge of Ai,
But need now lies upon me and the path I must take is hidden.
Come to me, wise one of the hill, and offer me your counsel,
Though I have nothing to offer you in return but my praise.”
After the first few words, Embery closed her eyes. To hear the song of Eremon so, not whispered in darkness with the door barred against the night but in open daylight in her son’s high clear voice, sent mingled dread and delight surging through her, pushing at the limits of her self-control. It was something Neely had warned her of more than once, the longing that might lead her to fling aside every caution and chant the praises of the old dead gods even though it meant throwing her life away. The thing had happened, or so she’d heard: in one of the western islands, in the broad plains of the north where oxcarts followed the great herds, and once, a lifetime ago, in the king’s city of High Leedaw itself. Whispered hints alone spoke of what they’d done that latter time.
The song ended. In the stillness that followed, wind muttering in the leaves of the thorn-trees seemed loud. Then, unmistakable, dead leaves rustled beneath a footfall, and she opened her eyes.
The first things she saw were a pair of eyes facing hers: great and golden, gazing out from a darkness beyond the branches of the thorn-trees, focused on her with the wariness of a wild thing. Dim shadows alone hinted at the thing’s body. Then it stepped forward, into daylight, and she knew that Tay hadn’t been wrong. From great curving horns that framed the shaggy head, down past bare skin and coarse black hair and manhood sheathed like a goat’s, to broad cloven hooves that trod the leaf-strewn stone: impossible or not, a faun of Amalin crouched beneath the thorn-trees in the clear light of day.
In this case I knew that Embery and Tay would have to flee their home suddenly. Why? Well, partly it's what the story wants, and it's partly because that makes for a livelier tale, and it's partly because it takes a sudden shock to send a single mother and her eleven-year-old sprinting out the door on a trajectory that'll set the overall story arc in motion...but mostly because it's what the story wants. I make a lot of decisions that way: it felt right, so I did it.
It wasn't until after I'd written scene four that it occurred to me that I hadn't quite shown everything I wanted to show about life in the village, and in the kingdom of Raithwold generally. I have a growing sense that religion is going to be an important theme in this story; since it's a fantasy novel, the gods and goddesses get to be rather more robustly active than they are in sober realistic fiction; so scene 3 promptly took shape, as I realized that a church service would be a really good way to set the stage for the religious dimension, as well as a good bit of local color and a way of giving the reader even more clearly the sense of the gap between Embery's beliefs and those of the community in which she lives. I didn't expect the abbot to start ranting about those horrible stories from the place nobody's willing to name aloud, but now I know that Embery isn't the only person who knows about it -- it's the local form of rejected knowledge, the stuff that you don't talk about around authority figures.
There's probably going to be a lot more put into that scene referring to bits of myth and tradition, once I figure out more of what the myths and traditions are. I know the gods and goddesses of Amalin are dead now, and I'm trying to get a sense of why. Then there's the figure the monks worship, the source of their Holy Law. I suspect that in later edits, I'm going to drop misleading hints to make the reader think that this figure is yet another dreary Dark Lord, of the sort that cackles in chorus in so many derivative fantasy novels these days. That's not what he is. I'm not perfectly sure what he is, but if I ever do a Dark Lord story -- I've got one plotted, with the working title of Lord of the Crimson Land -- it's going to be a raucous sendup of the entire genre, an epistolary novel told alternately by two characters: very roughly, imagine Frodo Baggins exchanging letters with Sauron many years after the War of the Ring, and in the process revealing to the reader what really happened.
But that is not this book.
The mythic figure Eremon, by the way, is Amalin's equivalent of Heracles; Kendath is Thebes, and the story of the sons of Ruon and the sons of Ardaman is more or less derived from the Seven Against Thebes; the ship that sailed from Golin to find the havens of the Sun is more or less the Argo. If there's going to be a faun in the story, we're going all-out classical mythology, seen through the oddly skewed filter of my imagination.
But that raises another point, one that one of my readers brought up. There's no magic in Raithwold, or at least none has appeared so far; there's the grandmothers' wisdom that the women at the birth practice, but that's it. So far, at least, there's nothing that's appeared in the story that would be out of place in the most grittily realistic sort of historical novel.
I'm not yet entirely certain why that is. I think part of it is that most of the magic in fantasy fiction doesn't merely suck, it sucks, bites, chews, and spits out the tattered remnants. One of the reasons that so many people go around in real life pretending that magic is whatever they want it to be is that there's so much fantasy fiction in which the magic has nothing to do with actual magic. Yeah, I know, I'm preaching to a nonexistent choir here; the number of people who are interested in traditional occultism these days is small enough that we could all probably sit down in a large auditorium with plenty of room to spare, and the vast majority of fantasy readers just want plenty of handwaving and twinkle dust, since they've been taught all their lives that that's what magic is. Cue Harry Potter waving a wand and shouting "Ungrammaticus Latinus!"
There are fantasy novels with realistic magic in them. Most of them are quite old. Fletcher Pratt, in his two excellent fantasy novels The Well of the Unicorn and The Blue Star, drew heavily on actual magical traditions; when William Morris used magic -- and he's the guy who invented fantasy fiction, folks -- his magic is always straight out of the medieval literature; E.R. Eddison put a fine demon-summoning scene, one of the best in fiction, in The Worm Ouroboros, and I've commented before about the vividness and accuracy of the scene where Ransom and Merlin summon planetary intelligences in C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength. For that matter, Dion Fortune wrote several novels that are all about actual magic -- my favorite, The Goat-Foot God, is worth especially close study in this regard.
I know perfectly well that no matter how much I fulminate, the vast majority of fantasy authors are going to keep on splashing around Dungeons and Dragons spells, or things even more absurd, in their stories. All I can control is what I put in mine.
But there may not be any magic as such in The Road to Amalin. There's not that much magic, qua magic, in Greek mythology -- there's some, to be sure, but not that much. Fauns, gods, goddesses, and other mythic beings may be the sources of the fantasy element in this story, and they're in hiding, or dead.
Why? I don't know yet. Stay tuned...
Later that same day, when work in the fields was done, half a dozen sons and husbands and brothers of women who’d been at Sullamy’s birthing picked their way up the trail to Embery’s shack with birthing-gifts on one shoulder. Rapping on the door, pleasant words exchanged, and something worth having set down on the table without anything being said about it: that was the way Embery’s afternoon went. Then, precise as the monastery bell, old Gedda tapped on the door with her stick, come to drink tea and gossip and have Embery tend the old hurt inside her shoulder with salve warmed over the stove. Before she left, she pressed a copper coin into Embery’s hand—her youngest son served in the king’s army and sent money home when he could—and that went into a little leathern bag Embery kept under her bedstead.
With all that, the chicken to stew, and dough to set rising for bread, Embery scarcely noticed how late it had gotten by the time the latch rattled again and Tay came in. He wasn’t half so muddy as he’d been the day before, but the same faraway look was in his eyes, and that left Embery feeling troubled. Still, they had stewed chicken for dinner that night, the first flesh they’d tasted in most of a month, and enough firewood to keep the pot simmering quietly on the back of the stove all night so the rest of the stew would be fine the next day. When Embery put out the lamp and settled under the quilts for the night, no worries darkened her dreams.
The next day the great iron bell of the monastery started tolling at dawn and didn’t stop. That was familiar enough; Embery put on her best clothes and got Tay as presentable as cold water and a comb would permit. The two of them headed down the trail to the village in plenty of time to join the long line of villagers heading through the open gates to the great dark hall near the center of the monastery complex. There they knelt side by side on the cold flagstones of the floor along with the other villagers, while local dignitaries and the well-to-do knelt on velvet cushions up front. Beyond them hung a great black banner bearing holy symbols, and in the midst of them a blank space in the shape of a standing figure in robes of ancient cut.
The service began with the sound of a high shrill chime. With the others, Embery repeated the second and fifth Litanies of Penitence, making sure that her face stayed suitably sorrowful all the while. After that came the readings from the Holy Law, and after that a sermon read out by the abbot, a lean man with a spray of white hair around the edges of his scalp and loose skin below his chin that hung there like a vulture’s wattles.
Embery put an attentive look on her face, glanced at Tay to make sure he’d done the same, and then let her thoughts wander off to one of the old tales of Amalin, one she meant to tell her son sometime soon. Kendath, she thought. Kendath of the four gates, and how the four sons of Ruon the Tall came to conquer the city and their half-brothers, the four sons of Ardaman, defended the gates against them, until all eight were dead and the half-sister they had all forsaken and betrayed became Kendath’s queen. It was a grand story and a sad one, and it would take her a week of nights at least to tell it all to Tay. She had begun to rehearse it in the silence of her mind when suddenly the old man standing in front of them all spoke of her secret thoughts.
“The sons of Ruon and the sons of Ardaman,” his voice rang out, shrill with loathing. “The wanderings of Eremon and the ship of fools that sailed from Golin. All the worthless follies of an age that is gone, all the foolish tales of gods and goddesses who are dead. Plowmen mutter them to themselves as they till the soil, women repeat them to one another as they spin and weave, even the ears of innocent children are defiled by them—and all the while they could be gladdening their souls with the words of the Holy Law.”
Embery made sure her expression was duly shocked, wished she could risk a glance at Tay to make sure he’d done the same. It was a risk telling the stories to a child, so old Neely had warned her, but ever since Tay’s birth she’d longed to share them with him, and so she’d taught him the ways of silence from the cradle up. Was it enough? She knew better than to think that she had any way to know.
The abbot’s sermon veered off in a different direction then, berating the villagers for some other moral failing. Embery tried to pick up the pieces of the story she’d been telling herself, but the words fluttered away in her mind like bats in twilight. All it would take, she knew, was one stray sentence from Tay’s lips, and she’d face the bitter choice between punishment and desperate flight. She shoved the thought away from her, but it kept circling back.
The sermon wound to its end. Everyone joined in the Litany of Praise and Thanksgiving, and then the abbot spoke the words of dismissal. Embery pulled herself to her feet, felt the familiar pain lance through her legs as the cold hard flagstones exacted their inevitable toll, took Tay’s hand and led him, not too fast, toward the sunlight outside. He had a solemn look on his face, as though some thought turned back behind those dark eyes. That set a chill down her, and it didn’t help that a big straw-haired farmer named Anner gave her a quick wary glance she couldn’t read at all.
Still, she and Tay left the monastery grounds without incident, walked in silence up the narrow trail to their shack. Wind in the gorse and heather chased off the cold tolling of the iron bell, reminded her of a scene in the story she’d called to mind during the service, Dreela standing alone on the hillside above Kendath where she’d been left to die so many years before, looking down on the smoke rising from eight pyres far below. Grim though the image was, it cheered her, for Dreela had gone from the terrible hour of blood upon the snow to a place of safety, the protection of the minor god to whom she’d offered flowers as a child, the winding fate that brought her at last to Kendath’s high throne.
The door of the shack shut tight behind them, and Tay gave her an uncertain look.
“You’ve been thinking,” Embery said.
“Yes.” He met her gaze. “Why is the abbot so scared of the old stories?”
She burst into a smile, knelt impulsively and threw her arms around him. “Good,” she said. “Very good, Tay. Tell me this. Would anybody listen to his Holy Law if they could go about telling the stories of the land we don’t name instead?”
He pondered that. “The monks would,” he said. “Well, except for Brother Jurden. Nobody else.” Then: “But I know I’ve got to learn the Law anyway.”
“Yes, you do,” Embery agreed. “You have to learn the Law and keep silence about the stories.” She closed her eyes, felt rather than saw his head nod, hoped that it would be enough.The next day, she had her answer.
In another day or so, when my fingers have recovered from a lively Magic Monday and an even more lively online debate about the current pop-culture fad for inept political magic, I'll post an essay discussing what's going on in these two scenes. In the meantime, questions are welcome.
You don't have to write scenes in order. A lot of people get hung up about this. You really don't; you can write them in whatever order you like. I routinely write the scenes that come to mind most vividly, and then fill in the gaps between them. Since Rule #3 always applies -- nothing's set in stone until the first copies come back from the printers -- any inconsistencies can be fixed later on by editing. Don't worry about consistency yet; get a rough draft written, and then deal with the pesky details.
With that in mind, here's the fourth scene from The Road to Amalin:
The raps came at the door, low and hurried. Embery, who was sewing a waistcoat for Tay, looked up suddenly, set fabric and needle aside and went to answer. Her fears hid themselves when she saw that the only one outside was poor Issa, came back out from hiding again when she saw the expression on the woman’s face.
“Please come in,” she said, managing a smile she hoped wasn’t too strained. “Perhaps you’d like some tea?”
“No,” Issa said, stopping in the doorway. “Thank you, but no. I can stay but a moment. I told you I’d do some good thing for you if I found one, and that’s why I’m here.”
“Why, thank you. What is it?”
“To give you warning.” Issa’s voice went low. “It’s that Doctor Merimer. He heard from Anner’s sons that they’d seen your Tay up on the hills past Creel’s Head, walking with something.” She swallowed. “Something that wasn’t human.”
Embery stared at her, trying to make the words make some kind of sense. “But that’s nonsense,” she said. “And against the Faith, I do believe.”
“Maybe so,” said Issa. “But Anner’s boys aren’t the only ones who say they saw it with Tay, and there’s been stories for years and years about something that walks the hills, you know.” Embery didn’t, but nodded anyway. “But the upshot of it all is that Merimer’s gone to the monks, saying that it wouldn’t be so unless you’d had some dealings with unhallowed things, or you wouldn’t have healed so many—and they listened to him. My Perren came back late from the tavern last night, and he said some of the men were talking about it, bent over the table and quiet. He said the monks sent yesterday for a magister from High Leedaw.”
That could mean only one thing, Embery knew. She tried to keep her reaction off her face.
“That’s what I know,” said Issa then. “I can’t stay a moment longer—if they hear I’ve told you, it’ll be hard on me. But you’ve been so good to me and little Beshy. Spirits keep you, Mistress Embery, and your boy too.”
She turned and hurried away down the trail to the village, leaving Embery to stare after her.
A moment passed, and then Embery closed the door, hurried toward the back of the little shack. You always knew that this might happen, she told herself. It almost happened to Neely that once, and it did happen to her teacher’s teacher, over past Crannach Mountain back when the old queen was on the throne. Her hands shook as she opened the trunk at the foot of her bed, pulled out a few things she couldn’t bear to part with, reached under the bedstead for the little bag of copper and silver coins she’d kept against need.
Then it was necessities, into the same coarse cloth satchel she’d taken down to Sullamy’s: clothing and food, the bent knife she used to harvest herbs, a little iron pot for cooking, flint and steel to light a fire under it. All the while her mind circled around the one story she’d heard from Neely that didn’t have to do with far Amalin: the magister and monks with hard faces, the circle of villagers stooping for cobbles, the old woman crying out in pain and fear as the first stones hit her. Trials for sorcery didn’t happen often, but that offered little comfort if one happened to her.
Behind her, just then, the latch rattled.
She let out a little desperate cry as she turned around, but when the door opened, Tay came through it, panting, as though he’d run far. For a moment they stared at one another, and then he burst out, “Mother—what’s wrong?”
“We need to leave.” She forced the words out. “Now. Come—you’ll need to carry what you can.” When, appalled, he opened his mouth as though to speak, she went on: “There’s no time for questions now! I’ll tell what I know once we’re out the door. Quickly, fill this—” She held out a second satchel, worn but serviceable. “Clothes and anything you can’t bear to part with. Food, too—the last of the loaves. And a knife.”
Without another word he hurried over, began packing the satchel. Embery, hers full, rolled up her quilts into a long blanket roll, found a scrap of cord to tie the two ends side by side. That done, she did the same to Tay’s quilts, finished as he turned to her with his satchel packed. “Here,” she said, got his blanket roll over one shoulder, the ends on his other hip. She settled her satchel, donned the other blanket roll. “Ready?” He nodded, wide-eyed, and she led the way to the door.
A stray thought tried to convince her that when she opened it, she’d see monks coming up the trail with staves and cords, ready to beat and bind her, but luck or the spirits were with her: what of the trail she could see from the shack’s front door was empty, and only the wind in the gorse and heather made noise. Just in case, she motioned noiselessly, and she and Tay hurried up the slighter trail that led away from the village, toward the crest of the ridge and the unfrequented dale beyond it.
Embery’s heart pounded as she scrambled up the rocky trail, Tay at her heels. Her only thought was to put enough distance between the two of them and the shack that anyone who followed them could be put off the track. When they crested the ridge and she found a place where the trail up from the village could be seen, it stretched empty and bare down to the monastery roofs.
“We can rest here a little,” she said then. Tay turned wide baffled eyes toward her, and she went on. “I heard from—from one of the village folk that someone’s been telling nonsense tales about you, saying that you had dealings with something unhallowed. That you’d been seen with it up past Creel’s Head.” His eyes widened further. “The doctor in the village heard of it, and went to the monks saying I must have done the same. Now they’ve sent for a magister for a sorcery trial. They’ll stone me if they catch me, and you too, maybe.”
He stared at her for a long time, then said in a small voice, “Mother—it’s not nonsense.”
Embery met his stare with her own.
“It’s not nonsense,” he repeated. “Below Mollory Edge, there’s a—a thing from the land we don’t name. I’ve spoken with him.” He looked down at the bare ground between them. “Walked with him. I didn’t think anyone saw us.”
She tried to make sense of his words, leapt to the only possibility she could see. “Tay,” she said in a reproving tone. “This is no time for make-believe.”
“It’s not make-believe.” His face turned up to hers, pleading. “The day after you told me the story of Eremon and the faun, I went up toward Mollory Edge after lessons. There’s a story I heard from some of the older boys, that there’s something that dwells up there, and I thought it might be a faun, and so I went there and when I was sure no one else could hear, I sang Eremon’s song.”
Horrified, she said, “No! In the open for others to hear?”
“I made sure no one was near,” he told her. “No one but—but him. And he answered.” Then, all in a rush, he went on. “I didn’t dare tell you, because I knew you’d be angry and forbid me to go there again, and I couldn’t bear to stay away. He—he spoke the name.” Mouthing the word silently: “Amalin.” In a normal voice again: “But he sent me home today. He said you’d have need of me, and I ran all the way.”
A long moment passed before she found her voice. “That was good of him.”
A shake of his head denied it. “He’s not good. He told me that. He’s wise, but not good.” He hung his head. “But I didn’t know anyone saw us. I didn’t think any harm would come of it. If—if I’ve done ill—I’ll go down to the monks and the magister and let them stone me, if that means they’ll let you be.”
“No!” The word forced itself out, and she seized his arm. “Tay, no. How could I bear to let you do that? No, what’s done is done. We’ll go as far as we have to go, so both of us will be safe.”
“We can go to him,” Tay said. “He’ll know what to do.”
Embery considered that. Her thoughts were in chaos, trying to make sense of the impossible—a faun, a being of far Amalin, somehow strayed into a dale of cold gray Raithwold—but if it were true, if it might just this once be true...
“We’ll do that,” she said, and Tay’s face brightened. Then, glancing up at the westering sun, she went on: “But that’ll be in the dawn, not now. The moon’s not bright enough for us to find our way. We need to find a hiding place for the night, and I think I know of one.”
The way down from the ridge was easier, and at the bottom of the dale she kilted her skirts above the knee and had him roll up his trousers, and walked for a long while up the stream—the monks likely wouldn’t send for hounds, but she wasn’t willing to take a chance on that. They left the water only when they reached the spring at its source, hurried through a thicket of hazel and elder to reach the place she’d had in mind, a little hollow sheltered by crags of gray stone where certain roots grew, hard to find if you didn’t know it. From a hidden place beside one of the crags, the king’s highroad from the eastern dales could be seen, and once they’d shed satchels and blanket rolls in the hollow and caught their breath, she led Tay to the place, lay on her belly, looked down at the highroad as Tay wriggled his way beside her and looked out also.
At first the road seemed empty, but a faint murmur came up the highroad from the east, and in time it turned into the pounding of hooves. She reached, pressed fingers against Tay’s lips, the signal for perfect silence, and felt his answering nod. Then the horsemen came into sight below: two riders in buff coats, with steel helmets gleaming cold on their heads and long pistols at their saddlebows; another all in black, wearing the high-crowned hat of a magister; a banner-bearer behind him, with holy symbols on the flag that streamed back from the staff he held; more black-clad riders of the magister’s household, and two more troopers in buff and steel at the rear. They rode hard, and Embery had no doubt she knew why.
Her heart pounded along with the horses’ hooves, kept pounding hard long after they’d gone from sight and their hoofbeats were a dim murmur in the distance. Only when the last echoes had gone and the mournful cries of birds made the only sounds along the highroad did she dare slip back down the slope to the hollow.************************
Okay. I'll post some notes about what I did here in a day or two; in the meantime, questions are welcome -- once again, though, I'm not asking for critiques. (I don't crowdsource my fiction.) And of course those of you who are writing novels of your own along with me should be working on your next scene, too... ;-)
In this second scene, I'm mostly concerned with giving readers some very basic background about the kingdom of Raithwold and the world in which it exists, while continuing to introduce the main character and start the plot moving. It's important for the story that the reader knows that Embery is a capable healer, knowledgeable about herbs and ordinary health care, and the best way to do that isn't to tell readers that -- it's to show her at work. ("Show, don't tell" can be overdone, but it's a good rule of thumb.) So we see her handling a childbirth in a way that demonstrates that she's done this before, is familiar with potential risks such as childbed fever and knows how to deal with them. The little bit about how she got Eman through a case of croup (infected sore throat) sets the stage for that.
It's also a good opportunity to frame the conflict that's going to play a large role in launching her on the journey that will be the mainspring of the story. Remember, the setting's comparable to Scotland in 1700, and so you have the rising conflict between folk healers trained by apprenticeship, who are part of the local social network and can be paid via a traditional gift economy, and university-trained physicians who are outsiders, have no patience with traditional social ties, and insist on being paid in money. Merimer has many equivalents then and now.
Also, of course, once you've finished this scene you have no doubt that Raithwold, or at least this corner of Raithwold, has a lot of very, very poor people in it. I commented earlier on my refusal to follow the First Law of Formulaic Fantasy, which demands that every fantasy novel be set in or around the year 1066, and that refusal remains in place. It's worth recalling, though, that in most parts of the world, in most of history, people outside the aristocracy lived about the same way your average peasant lived in 1066 -- that is to say, scraping by on hard agricultural labor, owning very few personal possessions, and depending on family ties and customary patterns of economic distribution instead of the (allegedly) free market.
It's very common in cheap formulaic fantasy to miss that. By and large -- there are noble exceptions -- fantasy fiction these days is full of people who are for all practical purposes members of the Society for Creative Anachronism -- that is to say, inmates of a modern industrial society who are playacting at being members of a medieval one. To my mind, this makes things a lot duller than they have to be. I like fantasy that brings me into contact with people, places, and events I wouldn't meet in my daily life -- if I wanted the opposite, after all, I'd read realistic fiction! So I prefer to send the SCA members off to the Pennsic Wars, or what have you, and populate my stories with people who live in a world that's not modern and industrial at all. Thus they have beliefs (like the grandmothers' wisdom on display at Sullamy's house) that we'd consider superstitious, and customs (such as the birthing song) that most modern societies have lost. They also get by with a lot less in the way of resources, goods, and services than people in modern industrial societies have at their disposal.
I recommend those of my readers who don't happen to know much about nonindustrial ways of life to do some reading on the subject, if you're going to set a story in any setting that isn't part of an industrial society. Here in the US, it's pretty easy to find books on life in Colonial times, which will give you a very good overview -- look for books for older children and the young adult market; they're better stocked with the lively details that will make for a rich story -- and there are also the Foxfire books, which chronicle folkways from Appalachia. Don't take those details as gospel -- use them as a springboard to come up with your own equivalents.
Worldbuilding generally can be a major trap, in one of two ways. You can do too little of it, in which case you get a world that's mostly clichés you borrowed from other people's books and from the media, or you can do too much of it, in which case your story may get drowned under a torrent of irrelevant details. I prefer to do it a little at a time. At this stage in the tale, I know a little bit about the nameless village above which Embery lives, a tiny amount about the kingdom of Raithwold, and essentially nothing about the rest of the world, except that there's a place called Amalin somewhere to the south that's my stand-in for Greece. There are countries between Raithwold and Amalin, I know that much, and I suspect the largest of them is going to be a little like the Austrian Empire circa 1700, with just a bit of the Ottoman Empire thrown in for piquancy, but that's still just a guess. We'll see when Embery et al. get there.
Consistency and worldbuilding detail can be put in during the revisions. If you get plenty of ideas while you're writing your early scenes, by all means write them down, but remember Rule #3: Nothing's set in stone until the first copies come back from the printers. A lot of the worldbuilding takes place in retrospect, when you look at a plot twist you've put in and ask yourself, "Okay, what has to be true about the world in order for that plot twist to work?" Then you apply that across the board, and weave in hints and references to it all the way back to the earliest plausible place in the book, so that by the time readers discover that Princess Lilybottom rides a tame Styracosaur, it's the most obvious thing in the world -- well, of course, Emerod Castle has tame Ankylosaurs clumping about the gardens, so a Styracosaur makes perfect sense, and so does the scene later on where the characters go hawking with pterodactyls perched on their wrists.
Tolkien is a commonly misunderstood example here. People look at the immense efforts of worldbuilding he put into The Lord of the Rings, and think that he did all of that in advance. Psst -- he didn't. All the stuff in the First Age was there when he started writing, but all the elaborate history and culture of the Third Age? He made that up as he went, and then went back and revised it into the earlier drafts. You can do the same thing. Just keep writing scenes, and make stuff up as you go.
The first scene I write isn't always the opening of the story, but recently that's been the case more often than not, and this is probably going to be the beginning of this novel, which I've tentatively titled The Road to Amalin. (The title will probably change half a dozen times before it's ready for a publisher.) You can write scenes in any order you want; I've written novels beginning with the dramatic climax -- the last novel in my series The Weird of Hali will be written that way, as I've had 10,000 words before, during, and after the events that conclude the whole story arc written for more than a year now, and I'll be going back and filling in the rest once I finish book 6, which is now under way.
But the scene I've written is almost certainly the beginning of this novel.
I have certain prejudices about the beginning of a novel. I like to put the viewpoint character front and center from the first moment; I like to see at least one of the core relationships that will structure the story, right there at first; I like there to be plenty of cues that'll be followed up in the scenes ahead; and I like to leave the reader guessing.
Let's talk for a moment about the difference between suspense and surprise. Suspense is what happens when you know what's going on in the story, and the question is whether the main character is going to succeed or not. Think of your basic bodice-ripper romance. You have Priscilla, the female lead; you have Lord Ironbuns, the male lead; you know, if you've read the genre, that the rest of the story is going to be about whether Priscilla bags Lord Ironbuns or whether her hopes are dashed by his villainous aunt, the Dowager Duchess of Squeam; and the author, if she knows her business, throws all kinds of obstacles in Priscilla's way, some of them functions of Priscilla's own character, some of them from outside, some of them signaled in advance, some of them sprung on the reader without warning, so that when Lord Ironbuns finally drops to one knee and proposes to Priscilla, your sigh of relief is as loud as hers. That's suspense.
Surprise is what happens when you don't know what's going on in the story. You have Priscilla, okay, and there's Lord Ironbuns, but is this even going to be a romance novel, and if it is, is Lord Ironbuns going to be the male lead or is he Priscilla's long-lost elder brother, or is he possibly Priscilla's childhood friend Clarice Lilybottom in really convincing drag, or a ghost, or what? And what is the Dowager Duchess up to, anyway -- is she really as villainous as she seems, or is there something else going on? So Priscilla goes through the story, and Lord Ironbuns turns out to be the villain, and when the Dowager Duchess has her henchmen kidnap Priscilla it's to save her from a box of poisoned snuff, and Priscilla and Clarice are reunited at last and fall in love and decide to run off to Paris and scandalize everyone, and the reader is left going "Wow! I did not see that coming!" That's surprise.
Suspense is fairly easy. Surprise is harder. If you're going to have surprise, you can't use a formulaic plot, and you can't let the reader know too much too soon. This means, among other things, that you can't lecture the reader. You know the kind of story that starts off with ten pages of description, so that the reader knows all about the history of the duchy of Squeam, and all the conflicts between the family members, and by the time the story finally starts the reader has dozed off? You can't do that if you want surprise.
You also can't do the Prologue That Tells All. That's a pervasive bad habit in fantasy fiction, in particular. So you have Blorg the Bad, Evil Lord of Evilness, and he's got a copy of Being a Dark Lord for Dummies, and he's preparing to do the usual thing and unleash his legions of horror on the lands of Lower Upper Southeast Central Earth, right? Just in case the reader might possibly miss what's going on, you do a prologue where Blorg the Bad is brooding in the Tower of Terror, plotting his imminent invasion. You don't have to give the details of the invasion; the reader turns the page and starts chapter one already knowing what the story is about, and from there it plods to its predictable end. You can have suspense in such a story, but you've flushed any chance of surprise down the gardyloo.
I like surprise. I also like suspense, but I dislike formulaic plots, and I really really dislike long boring author lectures and the Prologue That Tells All. (When I use a prologue, my goal is to make sure the reader misunderstands everything he or she gets from it until the story's just about over.) So my preference in the opening scene, and in every other scene thereafter, is to give the reader just enough information to understand what's happening at the moment, without signaling the broader context. So in my first scene, I've got Embery and Tay; he comes home, they talk, they have dinner, they settle down for the night. In the process, I've done certain things.
First, you know something about Embery, who's our viewpoint character. You know that she's poor, she's a single mom, she does things with herbs, she doesn't agree with the local religion but doesn't dare say so openly even to her own son, and she was taught stories by an older woman, and is now passing them on to her son -- stories you don't tell in public and don't admit to knowing, stories that have to do with a place you don't talk about, a place called Amalin that has golden sunlight in contrast to the gray cold climate of Raithwold. You know that she's got a good relationship with Tay -- and you know that she's worried. The sound of that latch clattering makes her jump.
Second, you know something about the setting. I decided, in this story, to rebel against the supposed law that all fantasy fiction must be set in or around the year 1066 -- you know, chainmail, straight double-edged swords, tunics, cloaks, castles, and so on endlessly. The Road to Amalin is set in an equivalent of 1700 or so, thus the iron stove, the teakettle, Tay's shirt and trousers, and so on. You know that it's not set in a familiar place -- the kingdom of Raithwold is on no earthly map, and in 1700 there were no big monasteries with iron bells sounding the call to prayer in rural Scotland. But it's familiar enough that it's not too hard to figure what's going on, and that sense of familiarity is going to be heightened over the next few scenes, as we move toward the events that will set the main arc of the story in motion.
Third, you've been introduced to one of the central themes of the story, even though you don't know it yet. The first chapter, in my way of writing, brings all the main themes into play. The one you get in this scene is Amalin, the place you don't mention in public. Embery and Tay are going there, in the company of a very unusual guide; it's going to be a long, slow, difficult journey; and what happens to them on the way, and what happens to them when they get there, and what happens because they get there -- why, that's the story. You notice that the reader has absolutely no way to figure that out yet. All he or she has are some intriguing loose ends that are definitely leading onward. That's a good way to get surprise, and it's something I like very much when I read it in fiction, so I like putting it in the stories I write.
So that's what's in my mind as I glance back over the first scene, and prepare to write the next one. Questions? By all means.
The first scene doesn't have to be the beginning of your novel. It may not even end up in your novel at all, and if it does, it may be edited out of all recognition by the time the manuscript reaches its final form. The point of it is to start the process of turning all those daydreams and ideas and questions and possibilities into the thing that matters: written prose.
I usually write in scenes of between 1000 and 3000 words. Your mileage may vary, but try to make it enough to tell the reader a little bit about your characters and a little about their world, and to leave the reader wondering what's going to happen next.
Here's my first scene. It's a good deal smoother than I expected it to be, but then I suppose writing professionally for twenty-two years has had some impact on my writing style.
The door latch clattered. Embery looked up abruptly from the heap of vervain on the table, then relaxed as the door swung open and the boy came in. Late, she thought; the great iron bell of the monastery in the valley below had sounded the call to evening prayers not long since. He was muddy again, too, red clay streaking his trousers and shirt, tousled black hair badly in need of a comb’s efforts. At least he’d had the good sense to wash his hands and feet in the creek.
“Tay,” she said, reproving. “You should have been home long ago—and just look at you. I’m minded to have you scrub your own clothes for once.”
The boy hung his head. “I’m sorry, Mother.” Glancing up: “I’ll do the wash if you ask.”
She tried to keep her frown in place, failed. “You can help me with it. Now get yourself into something a little cleaner, comb your hair, and tell me how school went.”
He gave her a hug and a kiss and trotted over to the far side of the little shack, where a wooden chest next to the smaller of the two beds held his clothes. While he dressed, Embery got up from the table, went to the battered iron stove, got a kettle heating and then checked the soup on the front burner and the iron pot of healing salve simmering quietly in back.
By the time she’d finished, Tay had donned a clean shirt and trousers that didn’t have too many patches, forced his hair into some approximation of order, wriggled into his chair, and propped his chin in his hands and his elbows on the table. She settled into her own chair and said, “Now tell me about school. Was the brother instructor pleased with you?”
Tay beamed and started chattering about his time at the monastery school, the lessons he’d recited with the other students, the little events of the day. As she listened and made herself smile, Embery picked up another branch of vervain, picked off the whole clean leaves to go into a wooden bowl, set aside damaged leaves, stems, and the like in a pile for the stove. The familiar task helped chase away her worries for the moment; helped distract her, too, from her own bitter memories of the monastery school. It worried her when Tay headed up into the hills the moment his lessons were over and stayed there until close to sundown, but she couldn’t find it in her heart to blame him for it.
By the time he was finished the kettle had begun to whistle its shrill note, and she got up and made a pot of tea—not real tea from far Oriam, that cost more than she could afford, but good plain betony leaves from her own garden tasted almost as good and were better for a growing boy. Once she poured it and the air in the little shack filled with its scent, she told Tay to recite his lessons, and he stood, put his hands behind his back, closed his eyes, and repeated the table of sums and the names of the kings and queens who’d sat on the high throne of Raithwold from King Brandel on, with scarcely a pause. He drew in a breath, then, and stumbled his way though a noticeably less exact repetition of the Fourth Litany of Penitence.
She praised him anyway, told him to work harder on the Litany the next day, and sipped her tea. The boy pondered that, dark eyes watching her over the rim of his teacup. “Is any of that true?” he asked finally. “What the Litany says.”
“Don’t you worry about that,” she told him firmly. “You need to learn it so the brother instructor will let you pass to other lessons.” His slight smile told her he’d heard the words she didn’t dare say aloud.
Later, after they’d finished their tea, the last daylight faded out and she lit the one little oil lamp that was all the light her purse could afford. By that flickering glow she dished up two bowls of soup and cut slices of coarse brown bread for their supper; by that light they ate, and then washed up the dishes together in a tub of water heated by the last dying coals in the stove. Once they’d both visited the outhouse out back, she barred the door and the windows, put out the lamp, and found her way by feel and long familiarity to her bed, while quiet sounds told her of Tay undressing and settling into his.
“Will you tell me one of the old stories?’ he asked then.
“First you must say the words,” she said, smiling; the exchange was freighted with years of memories.
“I bind myself,” Tay said then, “never to tell the old stories, nor speak of them even, without asking leave first of the one who told them to me, that the secret be not betrayed and the memory of the land we do not name be forever lost.”
“Do you mean that, Tay?”
“With all my heart.” It was true, too. Embery could hear that in his voice, and remembered the more clearly all the times she’d said the same words, lying at night in Neely’s cottage below Crannach Mountain, waiting for the old woman’s voice to come out of the darkness.
She took off skirt and blouse and shift, set them folded on the trunk at the foot of her bed, tied a kerchief about her head to ward off the night’s chill and slipped under the threadbare quilts. “It happened once,” she said aloud, “in the days when gods and goddesses lived with us, when the six cities still rose white and golden against the blue skies that bent over the land we do not name, that the nine voyagers set sail from the harbor of Golin to seek the havens of the Sun on the eastern shores of the world. This is one of the things that befell them as they sailed.”Long before the story wound to its end, Embery could hear Tay’s breathing deepen into slumber, but she finished the tale, as much for herself as for her son. In the bitter chill of a Raithwold night, with the worries of another day waiting for her once the northern sun rose pale over Mollory Edge, it helped to think of the golden sunlight on the hills of far Amalin, the land whose name she never spoke aloud.
In a day or so I'll post some details about why I did what I did with it, but you can also ask any questions that come to mind. A reminder, though: as i noted earlier, I'm not interested in critique. The only people whose opinion concerns me just now are acquisitions editors for publishers of fantasy novels -- and if you're one of those, please drop me a message and I'll be happy to toss you a manuscript or two. ;-)
The irony is that my wife Sara was wading through a recent fantasy novel at the same time. I'll skip the details, as I haven't read the book yet (and may well not), but it's one of those huge paperback volumes, thick as a brick, with the usual bestseller glurge splattered all over the cover. To judge by her comments, there's more actual story in the 224 not particularly crammed-with-print pages of the Andre Norton novel than the recent author got to in nearly three times as many pages.
Yeah, I know, I may just be grumbling "You kids get off my lawn!" in the language of the Witch World, but it fairly often seems to me that fantasy fiction has lost its way in an endless rehashing of Tolkienesque cliches and the like.