Once again, I’m every writer’s bad example.
There is an alternate-history-fantasy story I’ve tried to forget, and that I just can’t. I wrote a whole novel with these characters–a novel that needs major work on the pacing in the middle. It’s dark and Gothic, set in a place that never was, and I love the story and the characters so much. There will come a day I have time to fix it. Or gut it and start over.
But this world, and these characters, won’t let me go. Thinking about them at all generates more ideas, more stories. Over the last year I’ve stolen time to work on a novella (dear dog, let it stay short) set before the poor doomed novel.
And for some unknown reason my brain thought it was a brilliant idea to start this novella when Lori and Josh were kids. My writer brain was oh so wrong.
That isn’t where the story starts, Lori doesn’t belong in this one at all, but it took 10,000 words or so before I realized that. The scenes I wrote belong to something totally different. What that story is I can’t tell you.
No words are ever truly wasted if they teach me something about a story, or the characters, or craft. If nothing else, this was an exercise in nailing voice. I wanted to invoke a time and place, and I think I accomplished that.
I have so many story pieces sitting on my hard-drive, doing nothing and not earning their keep. Some of them suck big pointy rocks.
But some, or most, don’t. They will likely never grow beyond what they are now, so I figured I might start sharing some of them here. At least then I might feel better about the time I spent indulging my story brain and not working on a novel.
Not sure if this is a good idea or a bad idea. I guess I’ll know if people start flinging rotten fruit.
The Duke of Unicoi’s Estate, Franklin Province, April, 1855
I held tight to Papa’s hand, watching strangers lead away the yearlings and chaffing at being made to stay out of the way. Even so, standing in the sunshine watching was better than being shut inside the parlor, stitching a sampler.
If Mama had her way, I’d be doing just that, away from dust that settled in my hair, the smell of sweat and horses, and safe from hearing men’s rough talk. Mama truly believed a duke’s daughter should be sheltered from the rough parts of life. She did her best to keep me fragile as a china doll.
At ten years old I’d already figured out that being fragile was boring. I did my best not to miss a thing.
My three brothers were allowed to help with the sale. Thomas is the oldest, sixteen and already taller than Papa. For the second year running he wrote chits saying who’d paid, and took IOUs from those cash poor. Samuel turned fourteen at Christmas time, but he double checked brands and gave orders to the wranglers, same as a grown man. He never lost track of which horses to separate from the herd.
Even Isaac, little more than a year older than me, ran messages back and forth. He never missed a chance to grin or stick his tongue out on his way past, smug at being allowed to go where he pleased while I was made to stay with Papa. Thom saw me stick my tongue out right back at Isaac, but he didn’t scold or let on.
Papa’s horses were the best in the kingdom, prized by breeders and traders from all the provinces. Men traveled from as far as Seattle in the Northwest Province, or the grasslands of the Odessa plains to buy his yearlings. I loved listening to their voices, trying to figure out where they’d come from by the way they talked and the clothes they wore. Most pitched tents in the valley below the manor, or slept in their wagons. Campfires bloomed in the meadows at night, sending showers of silver sparks drifting toward the sky.
I’d overheard Mama and Papa talking and things were changing. Folk would still travel long distances to buy my father’s horses, but they’d gather outside Charlotte, not where I could see. King Harold had convinced the ruling houses to hold regional markets twice a year, spring and fall, to sell their horses and cattle, dried tobacco and breeding stock.
This was the last year our valley would fill with visitors. I wanted to be in the thick of it all, drink in the sights and sounds, and remember all I could.
Papa understood that. He convinced Mama that I wouldn’t come to any harm, not with him and Thom so near. She made Thom promise to help look out for me, but that was an easy thing for him to swear.
Each morning I left the house right after breakfast, and didn’t go back until forced inside to wash up for supper. Mama gave me looks and her mouth pulled tight from the start, but she never said a word. She’d promised Papa to let me be for the week.
The day everyone was set to leave, I didn’t even take time for breakfast. I ran down the backstairs soon as I threw clothes on, dodging into the kitchens long enough to grab one of Maggie’s warm biscuits, and continued out past the house servants’ cabins. That was the quickest way to the barns and paddocks. With luck I’d be there waiting long before Papa dragged Isaac from the breakfast table.
I came around a corner of the main barn to find Thom and Sam leaning on the paddock fence. Mares munched on new spring grass, three of them with long legged foals at their sides. My brothers had their heads together watching the mares and talking, but their voices were pitched low in the way that meant they were keeping secrets. I hugged the barn wall, listening.
“Harold’s just begging for trouble.” Sam was shredding a handful of hay, tearing the stalks apart bit by bit and tossing the pieces away. “I’m not saying he’s wrong, mind you. but less than half the ruling families support him. None of those houses send thralls to market in Orleans.”
Thom shrugged. “Uncle Tobias thinks Harold can win the rest over, but it’s going to take time. Closing the Orleans market is only the first step.”
“Maybe. I hope Tobias knows the earl is stirring up trouble again.” Sam looked grownup and serious, worried in a way I’d never seen before. I crept closer, staying quiet so they wouldn’t know I was there. “Some of the traders were talking last night. I guess the earl’s taken to buying support with silver when he can’t come by it honest. One man swore he’d heard that Bledsoe was looking to buy a mage.”
“He won’t find one. Not in the provinces.” Thom chewed his lip, staring out over the paddock. “Still, might be best for us to tell Papa and Uncle Tobias what you heard. Just to make sure.”
They stood there quiet long enough I started to think about coming out of the shadows. Sam put an end to that right quick. He brought his fist down on the top rail of the fence. “Harold should just strip Bledsoe of his lands and be done with it. He’d cause a damn sight less trouble.”
“Harold can’t seize an earldom, not for anything short of treason against the crown. Rein in that temper of yours and think, Sam.” Thom was raised up to never forget he was heir to the province, and that what he did could hurt other folk. He worked at making Sam stop to think things out and not always charge in bull roaring mad. “Open rebellion is the only reason the ruling houses would accept. Bledsoe is a coward. He’ll back down.”
“You sound just like Papa.” Sam tipped his head to peer at Thom, squinting against the sun. “I hope you’re right. But I think you’re wrong.”
I slid back around the corner of the barn, out of sight and wanting to think about what I’d heard. Most I didn’t understand, but anything that stopped Sam from joking made me uneasy.
A big gray barn cat squeezed out a narrow gap in the barn siding, twisting round my ankles and purring loud enough to rouse the dead. I sat in a patch of shade next to the wall and she crawled into my lap.
Papa found me there, tracing dark and light patterns in the cat’s silky fur with a fingertip, and listening to her purr. He didn’t question why I was sitting in the dirt; I loved cats more than most anything.
Thom and Sam were still leaning on the fence when I came round the corner hand in hand with our father, the gray cat trotting at my heels. My brothers stopped talking soon as they saw me. Sam swung me up to sit on the top rail, putting me eye to eye with the curious foal who came to lip my fingers.
A moment later Thom was making plans with Papa for the trip to Charlotte in the fall, figuring how many horses to drive to market, talking about keeping wolves from stalking the herd, and how many days they’d be away from home.
The life I’d known all of my ten years, the rhythm of people coming and going, things that I’d counted on always staying the same, was about to vanish. Secrets between my brothers were a piece of that, worry sitting on Samuel’s face the way it did on Uncle Tobias another part. Maybe this was what Mama meant about putting aside childish things and having to grow up.
I’d never thought of Sam’s laughter or happy times as childish. Growing up didn’t seem a fair trade for giving those up. Not fair at all.