Thank goodness, there were enough immediate “yes” responses that I didn’t have to tuck my tail and slink back under my rock.
So here you go, folks. The entire prologue of The Heart of Atualon in all its first-draft glory:
A Lonely Wind
The wind was born of a shepherd-girl, playing her lonely flute. Nimble fingers dancing across smooth bone, lost to memory now, sweet young breath long gone to dust and war and the tattered cloth of an old and unreliable memory. But the sunlight was still the same, pouring across the Zeera thick and sweet and rich as avra poured from a pitcher of gold.
Born of song and longing and the magic of young girls, the wind danced in pain and beauty across the soft yellow dunes, caressing them into song, raising an army of wistful little sand-dae that died before they could become much of anything. They understood this in their thin and sandy hearts and danced away what time was given to them, dying here and there without so much as a sigh of regret.
The wind rattled and knacked through the desiccated branches of a blackthorn, startling a hare so that she dashed from cover against her own best judgment. Pale sands still cool from the long night, stained red with the first blush of morning, now here and there were painted red with a brush of hawk’s feathers dipped in hare’s blood, terrifying and beautiful and true. The hawk rose triumphant from her masterpiece, screaming with life.
The wind was rank with night’s dying, and hare’s breath, and the song of silenced girls. And though the old woman was past caring about omens, though it did not matter this day whether she rode toward the shadows or toward the light or down the throat of a dragon, the hawk’’s scream raised a chill in her blood and caused her breath to catch, and this in turn caused her left leg to twitch (the wounds of a careless youth had long since caught up with her) and so her faithful old mare shuffled and stumbled a bit to the right. Sun Dragon unfurled her great wings at just that moment, filling the sky with life and death and everything in between, and the old woman smiled and changed her course. When all paths lead to death, she supposed, one might as well ride towards morning.
The rolled blankets dug uncomfortably into her bony old backside; Zakkia’s beautiful saddle had been gifted back to the people, and she allowed herself a moment of regret. Perhaps she would stop and make more dream-milk tea; pain was a thing she might choose not to endure. But her sweet mare, the best of mares, true friend of her heart, ambled on at a comfortable pace and so she decided to wait. If one of them was to suffer some discomfort, let it be her.
And then the wind changed.
Zakkia tossed her fine head, sucked in a lungful of air, and let it out again in a long and thoughtful snort. Years past, she would have pranced and danced and fought for her head at the smell of fire and blood and anger. Years past, the woman would have laughed and roared a challenge and plunged them both into the heart of whatever trouble lay ahead.
It was a wonder either of them had lived so long. The old woman smiled, though a stranger would have missed the ghost as it skittered across the dry old dunes of her face, and turned to her true companion, her one love, her breath-and-blood. And the waking dream of her loss staggered her, stilled her, filled her to overflowing.
Her soul reached out towards that still place, the dead center of her heart. Warriors who had lost limbs would grope towards their missing parts just so, she had seen it, the disbelief as they tried to touch that part of them that was no longer there.
And waited, till the grief she had tossed into the air came crashing down upon her again, shattered her anew.
Zakkia stumbled again, and wandered a bit, head nodding low. Soon, now.
This was the second day of their three-day journey; the pair had drunk deep from the sweet well and the bitter, had served pride and kin and herd; there was none living who could say this was their fight, or breathe a word of reproach if they turned away at the last. But one may as well bid the stars in the night sky to cease their shining, as well bid the hawk not take the hare, as ask an old warrior to turn aside from excitement. Even on the last day of her life.
Or perhaps, she thought with a bitter smile, and urged her mare to an easy canter. Perhaps especially on this day. She had never planned to nap her way into the Great Song.
Zakkia’s stride shortened as she stiffened her neck and shoulders; she tossed her head and snorted a soft little horse-roar. They were coming up on the Bones of Eth, a place of shadows and ambush and wicked repute, and so the old warrior was not surprised to see carrion-birds. Would have seen them earlier, damn the veils drawn over her eyes, damn the weakness that trembled in her hand as she clutched her short bow at the ready. And damn whatever danger lie ahead if it thought to feed on her stringy carcass. Zakkia stumbled a little as they slowed to a walk, and sparked the embers of an old warrior’s heart to flame, a hot spark of anger that her mare should be made to suffer any discomfort, any indignity on this their last day. She asked for a halt, and stroked the sweat-slick shoulder of her best friend in all the world, and sucked in a hissing breath between her teeth. She still had enough teeth to chew her own meat, thank you very much, and sands be cold the day any of the pride’s younglings could ever outshoot her. Where there was life, she was fond of telling the cubs, there was room for foolishness; her heart, still beating, urged her to folly.
Zakkia tossed her nose forward, insistent, and together they walked between the red-and-black banded pillars of stone that thrust up from the sands like the twisted and tormented legs of a dying spider. The chill that caressed her spine had little to do with passing through the scant shade; murder and worse had been done here, long ago and long ago and not so long ago. This sand, these rocks had drunk deep of rage and blood and they were thirsty for more, she could feel it. Smell it in the air, hear it in the thick and malicious chuckles of wind as it hissed through the rocks like a dying breath.
The wind, and the pock-pock-pock of Zakkia’s hooves on stone, and…something else. A hopeless sound, thin and lost, no more substantial than the last wisp of smoke from a dying campfire.
There are things in the world, predators of the soul, that will mimic the cry of a human child and so draw in their prey. The old warrior knew to the marrow of her oft-mended bones that this was not such a sound. Zakkia, truest friend, cleverest of mares, shrieked her outrage and let fly a kick, and then they plunged into the clearing as if they were charging down the very maw of a dragon.
Za fik, why not? As well die today as tomorrow.
The Bones of Eth was a lonely place, a shadow-stone set in gold. Nestled in the burning sands, it offered respite from the sun, a place to rest one’s weary bones, have a sip of wine, perhaps let the pack-animals chew their cud before dragging your weary, sweaty self back towards whatever destination was so desperately important that a journey across the Zeera had seemed like a good idea at the time. The traveler might wonder whether there had once been a city here, what structure or service the dark stone sentinels had been intended for, in the long ago when this land was cool and verdant. And they would wonder why, when rest was so close and so longed-for, their travel-weary animals would fill with life at the sight and smell of the place, balk and scream and bolt, and suffer the lash rather than be led into the shadows beneath the Bones. A wise traveler would listen to the wisdom of her animal companions and skirt the area entirely, breathing a sigh of relief once she had passed, without ever knowing why.
But wise travelers, like old warriors, were rare as rain. The wise stayed home and grew old; the foolish became travelers, or soldiers, and died young.
Zakkia trusted her old warrior, and so the good mare did not balk, or bolt, or so much as hesitate as they charged down the steep and narrow path. The footing was treacherous, but she was nimble as a filly, and the dream-milk tea had filled her with high spirits; the bright flame of false youth, enough perhaps for one last act of high folly.
The air between the Bones was not simply cool; it was…thick…the rocks seemed to shimmer and dance before them as a mirage on the horizon, so that when they broke through the veil and into the heart of Eth, the old mare stumbled and the old warrior very nearly lost her seat. The thought of a warrior such as herself coming off her horse, on this day…on this day!…had her grinding her teeth and looking for someone to shoot, even as Zakkia tucked her haunches under and they slid to a halt.
Not bad for a pair of old ladies. Now they had only to find an enemy to kill, and end this life on a glorious note. It was not the death she had planned for them, but death can be funny like that.
And just like that, as if her thoughts of blood and glory and an interesting death had broken a spell, something snapped back into place, and the air was still and thin, and the sunlight was ordinary sunlight beating down on the heads of yesterday’s warrior and her old horse, all wound up with nothing to kill. She looked around, wary, but feeling in her bones that whatever danger had been here, they had missed by a hairsbreadth. Zakkia agreed: her ears swiveled this way, and that way, and then flattened as she reached back to nip reproachfully at her rider’s foot.
The old warrior nudged her horse’s teeth away and scowled; some days it seemed that she had spent her youth chasing the perfect lover, and her maturity chasing the perfect death, and she was beginning to suspect that the latter was as elusive as the former. Then again, she had caught some fine men in her day—she most certainly had—and one or two had been worth the effort.
She shaded her eyes against the sun as it rose above the Bones of Eth. There, in the far and darkest corner of the clearing, was a huddle of large, boxy shapes. Wagons of some type, no doubt, settlers or merchants or some other brainless wanderers, and scattered here and there, like a spoiled child’s forgotten toys, the still and rounded forms of pack animals. Damn her dim eyes, that was as much as she could make out. One of the carrion birds lit, wings outstretched and screaming with glee.
The wind picked up like a traveler’s lute, singing a song of woe. It cradled in its song the cries of a child, pulling the warrior and her horse along with a kiss of regret, a caress of heartbreak, a slap of sand in the face. Whatever had happened here, had happened, the meat of the story was gone and all that was left for them to chew on were hide and bones, gristle and entrails, and a bitter draught to wash it down.
But she was a warrior, used-up or no she was still a warrior, and a warrior will always do what needs doing. If you cannot save the living, Youthmistress Hapuata had once counseled, soothe the dying. Send the dead off with a drink and a song and the smoke of sweet grasses. And never forget to loot the bodies.
Youthmistress Hapuata had gone down the gullet of a lionsnake and had gutted it from the inside out before dying of her wounds. The old woman sighed, and lifted a stiff old leg over the back of her stiff old horse, and slid to the ground, wincing at the hot little needles in her knees. She had so hoped to make it to Nar Kabdaan by the end of this day, and let the red of a dying sun blossom before them as they shared the last cup. She had always wanted to see the sea, to smell it and hear the waves. They said it sang a sweet song. They said it stretched farther than your eyes could see. It would have been glorious.
The old woman stopped as they drew near the wagons and left her mare to poke about—no need to force her horse to look at dead things, too—and flapped her bony arms at the carrion bird, a fat red ghully-vulture that hissed and spread his wings at her as he claimed his prize.
She sucked her teeth, shook her head, and sighed; the vulture’s meal had, until recently, been a fine brace of churrim, spotted and sleek and fit. Such as those would have been a fine thing to bring to her Pride, and now they were meat. The scent of blood was as yet stronger than the stench of death. Not long, then. She had almost……
No, none of that. That path led nowhere. She turned from the dead churrim with another sigh, leaving the vulture to his ill-deserved meal, and startled so that she almost dropped her bow. The wagons—there were four of them—were of a design she had seen once, a drawing in a rare book that had caught her fancy as a child. Small, bright houses they were, all of wood and with little doors and oiled-hide windows, red lacquered three-tiered roofs that had reminded her of the jiinberry farmers’ broad, pointed hats. Narrow wooden wheels made for hard-packed roads, not for the soft singing and ever-changing sands of the Zeera. It was an impossibility, like a dream upon waking, like rain on a summer day.
Tempting luck, the old warrior glanced back over her shoulder; yes, her mare was still here, standing a little ways off with one hind leg cocked and her lower lip drooping. The air was still hot and dry as air should be, and the vultures were fighting over the bodies, as vultures should. And yet, here were these wagons, heavy things made of wood, charming to look at but impossible to drive across the sands.
And where were the bodies? The smell of fresh death was heavy, and here she could see a thick splattering of blood and hair and other bits, as if someone had had his head smashed open on the side of the nearest wagon, she was warrior enough to hear the songs of the newly dead, but there were no bodies.
As soon as that thought blew across her mind, the old woman felt the hair at her nape prickle, her breath catch. Her nostrils flared, and as she drew closer could see that damage had been done to the beautiful wagons. Gashes, gouges—a lionsnake’s claws, perhaps, or some breed of wyvern—one of the wagons had had its roof smashed in, and all but one of the slender wooden wheels had been crushed to bits as well. There was an odd metal-and-sulfur smell that reminded her of the Araki hot springs, and one of the wagons, the least damaged, was burning.
No, perhaps it was not burning, but a thin trickle of smoke breathed forth from a rent in the window, and it was from this wagon that the noise came.
The old woman did not fear death, but she had never liked magic.
She stilled herself body and mind, closed her eyes, dug her toes into the sand through the worn, soft leather of her favorite boots. Let her aethra, her animal-spirit, open and unfurl like a lotus blossom, like the supple stretch of a waking cat, like the kiss of dawn on the last long day. She opened herself to the feel of things: the vultures, filling their bellies with sweet hot meat, gorging on fatty entrails, heavy-bellied already in the rising heat of the day. Zakkia, sweet, beloved, familiar, redgold flame tinged with blue now flaring with false life, now spluttering like a campfire burned down to its last embers.
She could see her own spirit, crippled and broken, bleeding from that wound which would never heal. Half a soul bleeding out into the dark. Oh, sweet Saffra’ai, better by far to drink the night’s last song than live with such grief. Such pain.
Saffra’ai, my love, I cannot do this alone…
She tore herself away from her grief; it could not be survived, this wound, but it could be set aside for a little while, and there was work yet to be done.
In the sky above, she felt nothing. In the sands about her, nothing. In and around the three crushed wagons, half a score of new ghosts, angry but impotent. And in the fourth…
In the fourth wagon, a small and bright life. Human. Wounded…
No, there were two lives. No, one. And then again, two.
She opened her eyes and grunted as the vertigo hit, staggered a short step before shaking it off and heading towards the smoking wagon, where a child lay weeping in terror and grief because her mama would not wake up.