I’m rereading this thing I started in 2003. I think this must be… it must be the 2010 draft? Scrivener doesn’t keep a revision history, it’s the only thing about it I don’t like. This is the novel with the heroine I’m considering recasting as a trans woman. I had expected I’d hate the beginning of this, but I don’t. I forgot, though, I had decided to leave it in first person. Which is astonishing to me, but here it is. It’s amazing what you remember and what you don’t.
Here’s the opening scene, anyway, unedited– it’s the hero of the story’s POV, and it ends before he meets her. Anyway.
It’s not as awful as I remember, at least. Some of you on here who have known me long enough have probably seen this before and are probably sick of it.
I’d woken before dawn, again, to a ghost trying to suffocate me, again.
She thought she knew me, that much I had gathered in these three weeks of her daily attempts to murder me. A red-haired young woman who came staggering out of the mossy woods, bleeding badly somewhere in her midsection, she would press her blood-soaked green woollen mantle over my face as she whispered brokenly to me in her dead nation’s dead language. I’d studied the language as a child, as befitted one of noble birth, but I couldn’t puzzle out what she was trying to say, and I always woke in a panic.
It was making me grumpy. I had a job to do, here. It was a stupid job, and a waste of my time, but there was some sort of politics involved. Politics: the bane of my life. Every soldier hates politics. To die for one’s country is noble and well and good; to die because one’s social superiors have aspirations is the worst sort of fate.
Narrowly edging out being annoyed to death by one’s comrades, that is. As awful fates go, boredom is up there, and nervous boredom the worst of all.
“Shut the fuck up, Feliks,” I snapped.
My lieutenant Feliks and patrolman Miksa both stared at me in open-mouthed shock, abandoning their stupid pointless quarrel over road engineering. Neither of them knew a damned thing about it. None of us did. It was stupid to send a patrol of cavalry to do the work of an engineering party: heads, we could split. Logs, not so well. But it was more stupid that said patrol of cavalry was wasting so much energy annoying its captain.
“Captain Martins,” Feliks said, after a long dumb moment, very much abashed. Miksa made no sound whatsoever, a blessed respite. I never, ever snapped. I had spent my life learning to lead men without ever giving them cause to resent me. This was no way to behave and I was already a little ashamed of myself. But I was still more annoyed with them.
I made myself pull in a deep breath and let it out, collecting myself. Ellyng, my beautiful and normally patient horse, who worked harder than any other horse in our hard-working nation, crabwalked unhappily, swinging his rump around as Miksa drew too near. Feliks kneed his horse up to block Ellyng’s swing, ever a consummate horseman, and steadied both horses with a calm word.
“Is something the matter, Marte?” Feliks asked, close enough to me to speak very quietly. I bit off a harsh reply– I’d already said enough– and then caught sight of the seriousness of his face, and considered it, a bit startled.
Was something the matter? I had very good instincts, but the problem was sorting them from the general noise of a truly terrible mood. Feliks and I had been working together for years now, and he knew me well. I looked around, shaking my head in thought.
The sky was white, a wan early-spring midmorning sun hidden behind high clouds, and it lit the woods dimly all in shades of gray. Dark bare branches wept streamers of pale dead moss over the muddy uncertain track. The woods looked mournful and haunted, the dim shadows stirring with the ghosts of those who’d died here, the ghosts who seemed to think they knew me.
The only life in the scene was my cavalry patrol, two dozen of the best of the legendary cavalry of the Letts. They shone like living jewels in this sad gray setting, the flanks of their horses gleaming in luminous bay, sorrel, chestnut or dappled silver, the semiprecious stones braided into the horses’ manes glittering, the bronze and copper insets of their leather armor and the horses’ harnesses bright in the drab white light, and the hoofbeats– and intolerable grumbling– the only sound for miles.
It wasn’t right. There should have been birds.
I took my breath in harshly. “I hear something,” I said. Feliks nodded sharply, and raised his arm in an abrupt gesture. Behind us, the mumbling shambling complaining horsemen suddenly went silent and alert.
“What is it, Captain?” Feliks asked, still very quietly. I stared southward, down the muddy track, as certainty congealed.
“Down there,” I said.
Feliks breathed a word, settling himself in the saddle. A prayer, probably. They all thought that it was my god who told me these things. Secretly, I thought I just had very good hearing. I never said such things, of course; none but me knew that I’d never really felt the god stirring. It was men who’d left his marks on me, and men who told me what I must do in his name. But obedience and piety had been beaten into me from my first memories, so I did what I was told and kept my doubts to myself.
It wasn’t raiding season. There wasn’t supposed to be anything on this road. Every year, the city of Saxeus sent out a relatively unguarded foray of engineers to do this thankless, dull, boring task. Sending us instead was supposed to have been some sort of obscure political ploy, which of course I wasn’t privy to; such things were the exclusive provenance of my father and brother and the older captains, and my obedience was as flawless as everything I did– out of love or fear, I never let myself decide. But the jangling of my blood told me there were raiders on this road.
This was an essential route; it wasn’t the biggest southern road, but it was one of only two connecting our ally city of Saxeus– and its tin mines– with the sprawling and tumultuous Etalan empire to the south. As such it drew a lot of bandits, mostly Caronians, the most incorrigible enemy of the Letts. It was the Caronians who’d slaughtered the Liv tribe here twenty-something years earlier; the Letts and Livs had been close allies, intermingled in blood, and many of my people were still of the opinion that Caronians should all be killed on sight. The fact that they were perpetually in hungry disarray and relieved this by raiding our trade routes and border towns didn’t help matters one bit.
But it was too early for merchants, traders, diplomats, or anything else that would feed hungry bandits. There was no reason for them to be on the road.
And yet I wasn’t at all surprised when we rounded a blind corner, warned into high alert by my jangling nerves, and found bandits on the road. To our right, the ravine’s face rose up, trailing moss, and to our left was a scree slope, clogged with undergrowth and dotted with trees, trailing down to the uneven, spring-swollen stream below. A foreign-looking wagon, boxy and ornate, lay overturned in the road, its draft animal cut from its traces and some of its contents strewn across the wide part of the road. Another blind curve hooked the road just beyond the wagon, and apparently the wagon and its entourage had been surprised and trapped there. From this direction we had a nice long straight view to see the looks of horror on the faces of the astonished brigands, who had been busily stripping the bodies of their victims.
It was quick work to ride them down, quick and messy, and made the quicker and messier because there were apparently no survivors among the little convoy they’d attacked. Everyone standing and moving was easily identified by ragged clothing and panicked flight as a bandit, and their well-chosen ambush site meant that there was almost nowhere for them to scatter and run to that a horse, and efficient warrior, couldn’t follow.
The shrewd guess I’d made upon first sight of them was confirmed; I spoke passable Caronian, as the language apparently consisted mostly of curse words, and I heard plenty of words I knew as I scythed through the filth with my bright bronze blade. But soon enough the usual, dreadful silence fell, broken only by horrid gurgles and wet crunching noises as my men picked over the bodies to dispatch any lingering sufferers.
My patrol’s other tracker was working at the other end of the battlefield. I dismounted, getting my bearings, and watched him intent on his work. He was checking the north end– if there had been any survivors, they would likely have fled that way. I was confident in him, and so began to work at my end, looking to see if any brigands had left the road before our arrival.
It wasn’t long before I spotted fresh tracks, scuffs on the rocks at the edge of the path, disappearing sharply downhill away from the road. A mossy patch yielded distinct tracks: two booted pairs of feet, and one in sandals or shoes, smaller and lighter. Two men and a boy? A short distance down the hill, heavily scuffed with the traces of an ungraceful passage, and there was a sandal, strap broken, caught in a cleft rock. There was blood on the strap, a little– it had been wrenched off the foot, then. The sandal-wearer was certainly being dragged against his will.
A certainty rose, an ugly certainty that tasted foul at the back of my throat, and I drew my sword.
I had seen a lot of warfare in my day. I had seen a lot of things that would come back to me at night in the quiet moments, competing with the ghosts for my attention. The things a couple of thugs would drag a woman off to do to her were the worst of them.
I was close enough now that I heard her make a breathless, angry noise. There was a thud, something dull connecting with flesh with some force, and a man cursed shrilly in– to my complete non-surprise– Caronian.
Filth, I thought, gritting my teeth so hard they hurt, and with that I stepped out from behind a tree, sword raised.