November 17, 2010

Wind Sprint: THE SEVENTH SACRIFICE

I'm not keen on giving up on a manuscript, but sometimes a thing is broke so bad it can't be fixed1. THE SEVENTH SACRIFICE was a manuscript I abandoned because it was all wrong. There were a few chapters I enjoyed (the introductions of the tinkers), but it boiled down to Cheshire getting off his wagon and then getting back on. 27,000 words of a whole lot of nothing. AND, where I wanted to take the story was near impossible because of where I started the story.

So, when JEHOVAH'S HITLIST is finished, I'll take another crack at it. It seemed like a good story to use as a wind sprint.

Now aside from my own rules, there are some fundamental rules to writing. You know when people say, "All writing is subjective." That's crap. Don't listen to those people. They don't know what they're talking about. Your enjoyment of writing is subjective, but there is a craft to what we do and any craft has rules.

But rules were made to be broken! Yes they are, but you have to know them to break them, which is why we study our craft the way we do. You have to know what the rule is and you have to determine how you can break it well. Just breaking it to break it won't get you anything but a broken rule and you'll look like an amateur. [/tirade]

So, one of these rules is not to start your manuscript with a fight. Why? Because the reader isn't invested. Fights are usually detailed things. You don't just say "they fought." You choreograph. You build tension. There's a winner and there's a loser. But if it's your first chapter, who the hell cares? The reader is not invested in any of the characters and their life or death is irrelevant to the course of the story so far because there hasn't been a story so far.

With THE SEVENTH SACRIFICE, I set out to break that rule. Mostly because I didn't want to dwell on the combat (which I failed at since speeding it up wrecked the pacing of the chapter). More over, I wanted to portray the good guy as a bad guy (which I succeeded at, but possibly succeeded at too well). I also better incorporated the song as a feature of the story. The song appears frequently throughout the book and is pivotal to the ending (which I wrote in the first draft and we're keeping it because that thing is solid gold!). Originally, the first chapter just started with the word "Singing:" a la John Cleese in the Eric the Half a Bee sketch. That didn't work, so I finagled something new.

Now this is a first draft. Really, as a wind sprint, I think it counts more as a zeroeth draft2. It'll get a full pass again later once I take up the manuscript in earnest. Still, your comments, criticisms, and questions are always welcome. The excerpt comes after the footnotes so those of you that want to read the footnotes but not the excerpt don't have to go to the bottom. I'm nice like that.

1 Bonus points if you can name the show and episode I took that line from. It's one of the greatest episodes of television EVAR! So if you haven't seen it, you should go watch it.

2 For the life of me, I can't find my post or Liz's post on this concept. Someone help me out!


THE SEVENTH SACRIFICE

NOW

CHAPTER 1


Cheshire couldn't remember much of his father. Given enough time and enough distance, memories blended together. Things like eyes and hair became meaningless. Things like a smile for one's son after a hard day's work became priceless.

Cheshire's strongest memory of his father wasn't of his father at all. It was Netty, their plow horse. And not even of the mare herself, but the song his father used to sing about her. When the sun was high, the clouds absent, and the furrows rocky, Cheshire's father sang about the old gray mare.

These many decades later, when Cheshire couldn't have picked his father out of a crowd at a tavern, he still remembered that song. He sang it himself, from time to time. Whenever things got difficult, he sang until they weren't difficult any longer.

“These old legs
They're not what they used to be
Not what they used to be
Not what they used to be
These old legs
They're not what they used to be
Soon they won't dance no more.”


Morningtide at Field House was the preeminent ball of Grafton County. Lilian Enright was the weakest of the Pretenders which meant she had to throw the most extravagant parties, remind the other nobles of the county who was in charge. Remind them who was queen now.

Cheshire loved to dance and Morningtide hosted the best musicians. Add to that the most exquisite delicacies and the most beautiful women, and the affair was the grandest in the entire Kingdom. He had a special set of dancing shoes made special just for the event. He polished every piece himself: the black leather, the square silver buckles, even the wooden soles. That was his secret, one he did not share with the younger fellows. When they stared and tried to figure how this man thirty years their senior flowed about the floor so smoothly, Cheshire took advantage of their pause to introduce himself to their dancing partners.

That secret was was about to kill him. Cheshire's foot slipped off another rock. He caught himself, abrading his hand, saving himself from a more severe break. He needed to get off these rocks before it was too late.

“These old eyes
They're not what they used to be
Not what they used to be
Not what they used to be
These old eyes
They're not what they used to be
Soon they won't see no more.”



He had seen her there, at Field House. She said her name was Elisabeth. He said his was Edward He had danced with half a dozen other women, but when he took her hand in the middle of a wheel, he had known she was the one. He took her card away and ripped it up. She would dance with no other than he.

Let her other hopeful suitors complain, and complain they had. He a week before his fifty-ninth birthday, she a week after her sixteenth, it was the scandal of the ball, and her eyes sparkled for it. A dark blue-gray like the ocean in the midst of a storm, she smiled and she laughed with those eyes.

They had danced together until the midnight bells rang. And while other young women bid their partners farewell and returned to their chaperons, neither Elisabeth nor Cheshire would leave each other's side.

He whispered in her ear, and she laughed. He told her there was a full moon, and they should walk on the beach together. Her eyes sparkled like stars and they escaped out the servant's entrance.

Her parents would search the crowd for her, but on the beach, no one would hear her scream.

“These old ears
They're not what they used to be
Not what they used to be
Not what they used to be
These old ears
They're not what they used to be
Soon they won't hear no more.”


The beach was beautiful, he knew. If only he could get to it. A rill of stones separated the Field House with its manicured lawns from the ocean with its unending waves. It was impossible to walk across with waxed shoes, even harder to do so with haste. The roar of the ocean told him it would be faster to press on than to try and return the way they had come.

The ocean seemed nothing more than a painting from within the Field House. The crash of the waves was turned away by the rocks. What little made its way up the hill was overcome by the orchestra. Here, alone on the beach, he could not even hear himself breath, the waves were so loud. He most certainly could not hear her.

Cheshire climbed atop a boulder the size of a mastiff. It crowned the rill and gave him a clear view of everything. The rocks continued on almost to the waterline, but the tide was leaving and the sand reappeared. In a little while, the beach would be three times as large. That did him little good now, of course.

He should not have let her get away from him..

“These old hands
They're not what they used to be
Not what they used to be
Not what they used to be
These old hands
They're not what they used to be
Soon they won't fight no more.”


The full moon lit the beach in its entirety, but the clouds raced across the sky, and shadows danced everywhere. Cheshire turned every which way, trying to find Elisabeth. He could not let her get away. He would not get another chance at this if she made it back inside. The house was still full of boys with swords playing at being men. If she sicked them on him, he'd be a fox to the hounds.

The waves lulled, and he heard the crunching of rocks from the other side of the rill. He turned about, pulling a knife from his sleeve. Elisabeth ran atop the rill and vaulted into the air. Steel glinted in the moonlight, a blade twice the length of his knife.

Cheshire lifted his knife above his head. Metal clashed against metal as he turned the blow away. His waxed shoes slipped out from beneath him, and he fell off the boulder. Elisabeth wasted no time in striking a second time. The dagger slid just past Cheshire's neck and tore off his favorite earring.

She bounded away just as quick, melting into the shadow of a passing cloud.

“Tell me your name, girl.” His voice cracked. As did the rest of him. Near on sixty years, only the Pretenders could say they were older. Cheshire wondered if their bodies were falling apart too.

“But Edward, you know my name. I am Elisabeth.” She raced by and struck a glancing blow. Again he turned it away. She was gone before you could counter. She was faster and stronger than her size suggested. He could not hope to best her on these rocks.

Cheshire kicked off his shoes and pulled himself up. The rocks were cold through his silk stockings. He stepped aside, putting the boulder between them.

She came again. He waited to see if she went left or right. She leap, ball gown and all, onto the boulder. He took one step back, but gave her no more room to dive atop him. He thrust from the elbow, striking for her ankles. Her leap thrown off balance, she pushed herself back off the rock and slid to a stop amidst the stones. She skipped back out of his reach. Cheshire found the largest rocks he could nearby and began weaving a path toward the sandy beach.

“Is this how you get your jollies, Edward? You wander the counties in search of balls where you can seduce young women?” She made a zigzag of her own, keeping the beach always parallel to them. “Has your manhood finally whithered and now you think to take it out on me?”

Elisabeth held out her off-hand, palm downward, two fingers up. She lifted her right knee and raised her dagger above her head. Cheshire couldn't help but smile. She knew Quintal's Offensive. The master swordsman's Fivefold Strategy had been revolutionary in its day. It had fallen from popularity three decades past. If there had been any doubts whether this girl was the one he sought, that satisfied them.

Cheshire put his left foot out, touching the rocks only with his toe. He twisted to the side, keeping his blade-hand parallel to his leg, Quintal's Defensive. It was a humble swordsman that designed the counter to his own maneuver. Cheshire had always admired that about Quintal. The girl approached. He turned, countered, turned, and riposted. The girl slapped his blade away at its last breadth. It sliced open the side of her dress.

“Want me naked too? Dirty old man,” the girl spat.

Cheshire laughed and smiled at her despite himself. The last one had been younger, scared. It had been quick and easy. Easier than any of the ones before. He had forgotten how much he enjoyed the challenge. Something beside his bladder stirred inside him. Purpose—

“Ow, damn!” Elisabeth's blade slid across his elbow, and opened the flesh to the bone. Cheshire dropped his knife. His left hand shot out and caught it by the hilt before it fell to the rocks. His back popped a staccato beat as he whipped himself sideways.

He held the blade up less confidently than a moment before. He looked between his exposed elbow and Elisabeth who smiled at him viciously.

“This old elbow, it's not what it used to be, not what it used to be, not what it used to be.” Blood was coming on faster than it should. He'd had too much to drink at the party. He'd need to finish this quickly. “This old elbow, it's not what it used to be—”

He leaped forward from large rock to large rock, bringing his knife down like an ice pick. It wasn't graceful, but his size and power finally tipped her balance. She stumbled on the rocks.

Cheshire seized the opportunity to find a path to the sandy beach, making a wide arc across the largest rocks.

“Soon it won't... what? Bend? Soon it won't bend no more? That's a bit boring, don't you think, dear?”

Elisabeth raced toward him, Quintal's Charge. He needed his right arm for Quintal's Shield, but there were other methods to counter Quintal's Fivefold Strategy. As she closed, he kicked. The sand exploded in a cloud. She jerked back, and he put his bare foot to her face. His hip popped.

Her nose cracked and blood spurted down her face. She fell back and dropped her dagger. Cheshire dug his foot into the sand beneath it and flung the weapon into the water. He moved in behind her while she rubbed her eyes clean. He wrapped an arm around her neck like a snake around a country mouse.

“Tell me your name, girl,” he growled. “Or this old arm will snap your fucking neck.” He gave her a hard jerk just so she knew he was serious.

“You bwoke my node.” The girl pawed at her face over Cheshire's arm. He would pin her hands, but his right arm couldn't stand the pressure. It would need stitches when he was done here. He certainly wouldn't be able to bury the body in this state. He was glad he was taking this one with him.

“I'll break a lot more than that if you don't tell me. I won't stab you in the appendix, not this time. I'll cut your arms and legs off and bury you back in those rocks. I'll leave you trapped in that husk of a body until I have the rest. Then I'll know one way or the other.”

Cheshire bent her sideways until her arm was pinned agianst the beach. He pressed against her elbow with his knee and leaned forward. She breathed hard and blood showered across his sleeve. The shirt was already ruined. She panted and grunted but didn't speak. He jerked forward and felt the arm snap. The girl screamed, thrashed about, but he kept his grip firm. She clawed at his face with her good arm, but he bit down hard on her fingers.

“Tell me.” She only screamed louder. He broke her other arm. He let go his choke hold and stood. Her feet dug into the sand as she tried to push herself to her feet. Without her arms to lever her up, she just dragged her face across the sand until blood mixed with the grit and turned into a thick gristle.

Cheshire cut into her leg. The knife point stuck into her bone.

“Helb!” she howled. “Domeone helb me!”

“Scream all you want.” Cheshire circled her but she rolled in the sand, hiding her one good leg from him. “No one can hear you over the rocks.”

“Helb! Helb!”

“Tell me your name!” He kicked her in the side, rolled her over, and cut into her last good appendage. She lost use for speech then. She began a caterwaul louder than a mountain lion with its tail caught in a trap. That was the answer he needed.

“Howler.”

The sand beneath the girl was wet and mucky, not only from the tide but from the blood that spilled out of her. There was but a trickle left, squirting out in pathetic bursts, but still she howled. She thrashed and screamed and kicked. Life leaked out of her but still she moved.

Cheshire wiped his knife clean with a rag. He had no idea why. He was not done yet. It felt like this last act deserved something extra. He walked up behind her and grabbed her hair with his bad arm. His elbow burned hot and fierce, and he felt a little light headed, but he was strong enough to manage this. He stretched her neck to the side, then opened the bottom of her throat with the dagger.

Her howling disappeared. She tried to scream, but the air only gurgled out of the hole in her throat.

“That's better,” he said. He wiped the knife clean a second time, then slid it back into his sleeve. He took the cloth and wrapped it around his wounded elbow. With left hand and teeth, he managed a knot.

“Stand yourself up,” Cheshire said. She gave him an incredulous look. “Drop the act, Howler. If you were still Elisabeth, you would be long dead.” She did not move. “You can walk to the wagon and lie down, or I can lash you to the back and drag you to Four Corners. The choice is yours.”

Howler mouthed a litany of what Cheshire assumed were curses, but her throat only gurgled.

“Forty-nine years,” he said. “I've hunted demons for forty-nine years. It will all be over soon.”

When still she did not move, he found a large rock nearby and struck her over the head. He hoisted her up onto his shoulder and carried her down the beach away from Field House.

A wagon was parked where no one would see it. He threw her into the back. Cheshire hopped up onto the buckboard, took the reins in his good hand, kicked the break free, and gave his horse a snap. The wagon pulled onto the road and headed inland, away from the peacefulness of the ocean.

4 comments:

  1. Kaylee, /Out of Gas/, my favourite episode.

    "Sometimes a thing gets broken, can't be fixed."

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  2. Britt wins! (Although you're back in the USA. We spell it favorite here. :P)

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  3. Nice job portraying the good guy as the bad. Although, I think you could draw it out even longer than you have here. Instead of having Elisabeth return to attack Edward, what if you have him spot her fleeing back in the direction of the ball? Only when he catches up and knocks her down does she leap at him with her dagger. That'd keep the reader unsure about what's what till nearer the end of the chapter...

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  4. Thank you for your comments, Nate. I had thought about going that way, and may yet. Once I started implying that Cheshire was a serial killer and not the protagonist, I worried about damaging the first impression so badly that the reader would not recover from their opinion of him.

    I think it would be a better chapter if I went the way you suggestion. I only worry that it will make for a lesser book.

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