I recently finished the second draft of a story I’m working on, and I decided to share it online. I’m sharing one chapter at a time, and the story is about 487,000 words right now (roughly 5 paperback novels in length, give or take), so this will take awhile.
I estimate that 2nd draft is about 80% of the way there, story-wise; but 80% is not 100%. This chapter might show up in the final story completely unchanged. It might show up with minor changes, or heavy revisions; or might be cut from the final draft completely. If it does remain, it might be in a new place in the story or the same place.
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“Higher, Papa! Watch me go higher!” Iliar cried down to his father, so far below that his great bearded papa was barely a speck, as he reached for a handhold.
This building was good for climbing–one of Iliar’s favorites. The guards would frown at him sometimes, but his papa had rustled his hair and told him not to worry about it. The big people with those swords at their hips had better things to worry about than stopping a child from playing on the roofs, he had said.
Even when getting to the roofs was an adventure in itself.
Iliar reached up, swinging easily from one handhold, and grabbed the big knob above his head and pulled himself up. His fingers wrapped around the top, catching easily on the scales carved into the marble. He smiled as he yanked himself up and sat on the hunk of marble–carved to look like a sea dragon with scales and fangs–legs wrapped around it, spinning to look down and wave at his papa far below.
“Careful, Iliar!” the big man called, hands cupped around his mouth as he yelled. But even from so far below, Iliar could see Papa’s smile. That smile lit him up from the inside and made him feel like he could do anything.
He spun around on the marble, easily keeping his balance long enough to find another good handhold. This was his favorite city in the world–not that he’d ever visited any others, but this one had to be the best. There was so much marble here! The whole city was carved in it, and the stone was all worked to make it the best for climbing. Every wall and roof was carved with the fanged heads of dragons–they were his favorite, their scales so easy to grip–or lion’s heads or leaping dolphins or waterfalls.
He wondered sometimes if the city had been built this way just for him. Why else would someone add so many good handhold and footholds to the sides of buildings?
He swung himself up onto a roof, finding his purchase even though the roof was carved into undulating waves. Those waves were his least favorite. They were smooth and hard to grip with his hands, and anyway what was the point of carving your roof to look like a wave when there were waves on the ocean every day? At least dragons weren’t real. And lions–he had seen them once, in a menagerie his papa had taken him to, so he knew they were real. But they were so fierce. With those big snapping jaws, and when another boy had tried to poke one too hard it had let out a roar that almost knocked Iliar off his feet and left him telling his friends about it for weeks afterwards.
Who ever told their friends about a wave they’d seen? All waves were good for was rocking boats, and anyways Iliar preferred to be on land when he climbed.
He spun to wave down at his papa, looking a hundred feet down the carved marble side of the building he’d climbed. His grin felt like it would bust a hole in his face. He didn’t think he’d ever been so high!
He looked around the whole city, feeling like the king of the whole place. The whole world, maybe. More of a king than when he had found that pretty gem in a refuse pile two years ago, pretty and blue with just a little crack in it, and his friends had all agreed that that made him the ruler for a solid two weeks.
That had been the best two weeks of his life, and even when Sarah had kissed him on the cheek and used his distraction to grab the gem and claim she was the queen now–he rubbed his cheek, thinking how impressed she’d be that he’d made it all the way to the top.
He looked over the whole city, and his attention snagged on the docks for some reason.
He almost looked past–what did the docks have, but a bunch of big and small ships with furled masts, bobbing on those waves–but something about it held his eye. There was a commotion. He squinted a little, trying to see. It wasn’t too far; the noble’s house he was climbing, empty for now, was close to the docks. There were two men on the docks, talking to the big dockmaster.
There was something odd about them. Iliar’s gut churned to look at them, the same way it had churned when he’d seen that big stranger in a cloak a week and a half back. That stranger had smiled at him, but then he’d pulled a knife on a shopkeep and Iliar had ran like the wind back home.
These strangers made him queasy, like that. He didn’t want to be near them, and he was glad he was up high.
He shivered. Suddenly he wanted to be back on the ground, with his papa. His papa was the bravest man he knew. If he was with papa, those strangers couldn’t touch him.
He swung down to the sea dragon’s head, then down to the lion’s head and put his feet on a window ledge that flowed like more waves. Then down some more, catching a carved dolphin leaping in flight in both hands and dropping from there to a broad flat ledge shaped like even more waves. Then down the rest of the way, hanging from a cornice on the second-story balcony until his feet were only a little bit above the cobblestones, and then dropped to the ground.
“What happened?” his papa asked. Iliar’s eyes were wide, and he had climbed down fast even for him.
“I saw some people down by the docks,” he admitted. He looked at the ground. He didn’t like admitting he was scared, and he didn’t like being scared. “Big men, wearing black cloaks even over their faces. Why would they wear cloaks when it’s as hot as it is?”
He studied the cobblestones some more, then forced himself to look his father in the eyes. “They scared me, Papa.”
His father growled behind that bushy beard and mustache, considering. He still towered over Iliar, even though Iliar was growing fast. One day soon he’d be as tall as his papa.
And one day soon after that he’d be like Papa in other ways. As strong as him, as good as him. No-one tried to hurt Rorin Alindrah or the people he protected. Once Sarah had stolen some sandals on a dare, and the shopkeep had come after her with a big stick capped with iron. She had screamed and run until she found Rorin, and he hadn’t said a word. Hadn’t asked questions. Had just put himself between the girl and the shopkeep, arms crossed and staring at the other man. And the shopkeep had turned around with a muffled curse and gone back home.
His father had made sure Sarah’s mother had known she was stealing, and Iliar didn’t think the resulting conversation had been pleasant. He wasn’t a man to lie or cheat, and he didn’t let anyone else do it either.
But still…if you were in trouble, and you found Rorin Alindrah, you were safe. No matter what.
“They scared you, did they?” Rorin asked. His eyes glinted beneath that furry brown beard.
“Well let’s go and see them…from a distance, don’t you worry. You don’t scare easy, Iliar, and if they scared you then I want to see them with my own eyes before we go and tell the Watch. The more details we can gather, the less chance they’ll have to hurt anyone.”
Iliar nodded. He gulped, though, and didn’t move when Rorin turned to walk towards the docks.
“Iliar,” his papa said. The big man knelt down, his dark breeches scuffing on the cobblestones, so he was looking his son in the eyes. There was compassion there in those dark eyes. Understanding. And also a fire. Not anger, not at Iliar. More…passion. Like he knew what he was about to say was important, and he wanted to make sure it got through.
“Sometimes in life you’ll be scared. And that’s okay. You don’t scare easy, but even I get scared sometimes.”
“You?” Iliar asked. He couldn’t believe it. His papa nodded.
“Aye, lad, even me. Never trust a man who tells you he’s never scared–or a woman. Fear is a part of being human. Anyone who ever tells you they’re never scared, you run from them because they’re either a fool or a liar.
“But sometimes the scary thing is the right thing, and then we have to face down our fear and do it anyway. Remember when I saved Sarah from that shopkeep?”
Iliar nodded. His papa’s dark eyes were intense. “I was scared then. Terrified that he would crack my head open like a ripe melon. But I stood up for her because it was the right thing to do.”
Iliar nodded. He could see that. He hadn’t known his papa was scared, but he was glad he’d done the right thing.
Rorin nodded, those eyes alight beneath that big shaggy beard.
“Now, we have two bad men in the city, and we know where we are. What’s the right thing to do?”
“Call the Watch,” Iliar said instantly. The Watch would take care of any footpads or murderers.
“We could do that,” his father agreed. “But neither of us have gotten a good look at them, and I know they’re wearing cloaks but they could take those off and then walk five feet in front of us without us being any the wiser.”
Iliar shivered at the idea.
“Plus, we don’t know what they’re after. Maybe they’re trying to kill someone, maybe they want to get rich slitting as many purses as they can. Maybe they’re after Sarah, or another of your friends.”
Iliar picked up a rock from the street. It was big enough his hand couldn’t close around it fully, and it was heavy.
“If they’re after Sarah,” he said fiercely, “I say we don’t wait for the Watch–we kill them now. I can throw this rock into one of their heads and you can kill the other one.”
Papa laughed. The sound was big and booming, and he reached out to ruffle Iliar’s hair.
“I should have known a couple of strangers in cloaks couldn’t frighten you, lad! Not when Sarah’s involved. You’d protect her from the Gods themselves if they came after her. When you’re old enough to be promised to her, she’ll be lucky to have such a stalwart defender in her husband.
“But we don’t know that they’re after Sarah,” said Rorin, sobering again. “We don’t know who they’re after, or why. We need to find that out before we make any sudden moves.”
Iliar nodded. “So what do we do?”
His papa looked at him. “Well, what do you think we should do?”
Iliar’s face scrunched as he thought it through.
“If the bad men are after Sarah,” he said, “then we could head them off; or just go protect her. But we don’t know who they’re after. So we either go kill them right now, or we go spy on them and try to see who they’re after, or what they’re after. And then…then we make another plan once we have more information?”
Rorin nodded. “I like it, lad. Only: let’s have less talk of killing from you.”
He reached out and plucked the rock from Iliar’s hand, then tossed it down the street. It cracked into some cobblestones and bounced once or twice before stopping.
“It’s a hard thing to kill a man, and it’s not always the right thing. In fact, it’s often the wrong one. Only kill a man when you have no choice and it’s his life or yours–or the life of someone you’re trying to protect.”
“But these men are–”
His papa cut him off.
“I know you think they’re bad men, Iliar, and I believe you. You’ve got sharp eyes and a good head on your shoulders. But they might just be after a little gold, and have nothing worse on their mind than a slit purse. That’s something for the Watch to investigate, but would you kill someone for being a thief?”
Iliar thought about it. Remembered Sarah and that stupid dare they’d put her up to. He shook his head vehemently.
Rorin ruffled Iliar’s hair again.
“Good lad. Let’s go down and investigate, and see what we see. I like that plan of yours. Then we’ll figure out what to do once, like you said, we have more information.”
Iliar felt about ten feet tall that his papa had taken his plan. He grabbed Rorin’s calloused hand, his small one nearly swallowed in Rorin’s great one, and helped his father to his feet. Rorin let himself be helped, smiling all the while; and they set off for the docks.
They walked through the broad winding streets of the city towards the docks. Iliar had been too scared when he first got down from the noble’s manor to notice, but now the sounds and smells of the city washed over him.
He wrinkled his nose. He had been out of the city, once or twice, and even up into some nearby mountains with Rorin; and that air smelled a whole lot better than city air. It smelled sour, with the stink of too many unwashed bodies all pressed close to each other, living and breathing all the same air. And there was the stench of garbage too, and of refuse that hadn’t been washed into the sea yet.
That was one of the reasons he liked being so high. High up above the city, the air didn’t smell bad like that. It just smelled….clean. Sometimes like rain and sometimes like a sea breeze, but mostly clean.
He and Rorin passed people on the streets, though the streets were broad enough that they didn’t need to jostle. Iliar barely noticed the family of four they passed, or the lone man who came after that with wide sleeves on his robe, or the children laughing and scampering through alleys. He only looked each one over to make sure they weren’t wearing a dark cloak and cowl, and then let them pass. He needed to stay focused on his mission.
The hawkers in street booths and shops, though, he couldn’t ignore. Hawkers crying their wares, filling their lungs and calling for everyone in earshot to buy a new horsehair comb or fresh apples or silks or peppers. One merchant offered sheets and ribbons of colored silk, calling that Rorin should buy them for his wife as decorations. Rorin didn’t say anything as he walked past, but Iliar saw his eyes tighten. It had been three years since Mama had died.
The hawkers and the buyers, sometimes haggling and sometimes yelling at each other, formed a cacophony that was harder than the rotten smells to ignore. They passed one woman waving her arms and yelling at a big man behind a booth selling wooden necklaces, accusing him of something, and he threw up his hands and yelled back.
Iliar was just as glad when they passed those two. He didn’t know what he was going to do when they found the bad men in cloaks, and he needed time to think.
Before he knew it, though, they were there. Through the winding streets, along three blocks lined with stalls selling mostly fruit and grain, and up to the wet dark wood of the docks.
A sea breeze kicked up, cooling Iliar’s hot face and mercifully cutting through the smells. He took a deep breath, enjoying the breeze rifling through his hair, reminding him of when he had climbed that big tower last week and the wind had been so strong he had had to close his eyes against it.
Then his smile faded. He looked around the docks. The bad men were nowhere to be seen.
Iliar looked again, more slowly.
There were the boats, tied up and bobbing gently on the blue and green waves. Iliar dismissed them with a shake of his head. He didn’t think the men were on a ship.
And even if they were…he couldn’t see inside of them. He looked at one big galley, with three big masts and sails all furled. It rose and fell on the waves, the aged wood creaking. His father had insisted he learned a little about ships–a boy in a port city should know the fastest ways in and out. Iliar had found it boring, but eventually Rorin had gotten a nibble of interest by explaining how the Watch had to keep tabs on every ship so that brigands and thieves didn’t come into the city. That kind of thing was exciting.
Still…he knew the men had arrived on a ship, but he didn’t think they were on one now. The big galley, for instance. On deck were a bunch of barefoot and bare-chested sailors, moving ropes around and singing some kind of raucous song he didn’t understand. Something about a girl who was walking in the forest and had forgotten to put any clothes on. Iliar frowned. How could you forget to put clothes on?
The lyrics only distracted him for a minute, though; then he was back to his hunt. His gaze searched along the docks, careful and probing the way his papa had taught him to look.
There were passengers getting on the docks from the ships, everyone from poor boys scampering down the gangway to noblewomen in dresses of silk whose noses wrinkled at the smells on dock and the raucous songs of the sailors. Iliar mostly let himself skim over those people, though he kept an eye out for anyone with a black cloak and cowl. The strangers had already been on the dock.
From there Iliar watched the people milling on dock. There were sailors there too, bare feet slapping on the hard wood as they hauled crates and carried bundles and saddlebags. There were horses, heads down as they were hoisted into the air off the ship and put back on dry land, or the reverse. Somehow the horses never looked too pleased to be being carried. Iliar couldn’t blame them. It would be fun to be as high as them with nothing holding you up but a rope, but being stuck in that big sling sounded miserable.
On the docks, there were passengers boarding, some looking excited and some staring at the bobbing ships and already looking queasy. And there were merchants, hard-faced men in fine clothes haggling with each other or with shop owners who had come down to the docks to get their business before their competitors.
Iliar’s gaze skimmed over them, searching, but they were dressed far too finely for the bad men. The men were dressed in breeches, baggy or tight; with fine shirts worked with gold and silver on the sleeves and buttons. The women wore silk dresses, gray and green and red and gold, and with embroidery picked out along the sleeves and bosom. Some women wore tight breeches and flowing shirts, and had their hair pulled back from sharp eyes and no-nonsense faces; but none of them, man or women, wore a black cloak and cowl.
“They’re not here,” Iliar said. He felt sad about that. He wanted to find them and stop them, wanted to be a hero.
“I think you’re right, lad. I’ve been over this crowd twice now, and I don’t see anyone in a black cloak. I know I said they could leave the cloak behind, but it’s all we have to go on so that’s what I’m searching for.
“I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by keeping looking, not right now.”
At Iliar’s dejected gaze, he put his calloused thumb under Iliar’s chin.
“But we’ll keep looking. Every day we’ll keep a weather eye out around the shop, and you keep watch while you’re helping me or with your friends. If they haven’t been scared off by you already, we’ll find them before they can hurt anyone.”
Iliar’s chest swelled until he felt twice as big. He could scare them off?
“What do you say we go back to the house? Daylight’s fading and I want to finish off that armchair before we open up tomorrow. Peyton’s coming by tomorrow, and I think he’ll buy it for his manor this time.”
Iliar nodded, looking up at the darkening sky. Papa was the best woodworker in the city, so good that even nobles came to him to buy his chairs and tables and fine little ornaments. Iliar was learning, too. He had carved a little dolphin out of some wood. It was rougher than Papa’s animals, but Papa had delighted over it and put it on a little ledge below the window, right next to the big cat he’d carved that looked so life-life Iliar still wanted to pet it some days.
The sky darkened as they walked through the winding streets back to their home and woodshop, the sun turning from yellow to orange to red as it sank over the horizon. And then night had truly fallen.
Iliar shivered and stepped closer to his papa. It was silly; he was way too big to be afraid of the dark. And he wasn’t…most nights. Tonight, though….
Rorin reached back and took Iliar’s hand, his great bear-like hand enfolding Iliar’s smaller one. His warmth made Iliar feel safe. They walked along the empty streets, walking faster now. Iliar was almost running, and even Papa’s stride lengthened.
He couldn’t explain it. Nothing could hurt him, not with Papa next to him and holding his hand. And he could fight too, had beaten every one of his friends in their fights with sticks. He could beat one of the strangers if he had to.
But still…he picked up his pace, and was relieved when Rorin did as well.
Then they heard it. A rock clattering against the cobblestones.
Rorin spun. He kept a tight hold on Iliar’s hand, but he dropped into a fighting stance, knees bent a little and his wrists cocked. His free hand balled into a fist.
“Who’s there?” he demanded.
A man appeared from behind a twist in the streets, and Iliar’s breath caught. He was a tall man, thin; and wearing a black cloak and cowl.
“We don’t want you, old man,” he said. His voice was distinguished, tones clipped. Like a nobleman’s. “Only the boy. Let us have him, and you can go on your way.”
“I’ll kill you where you stand if you touch him.”
There was nothing in Rorin now of the gentle giant who laughed and ruffled Iliar’s hair. Nothing of the kind man who had helped Sarah bandage her sliced-up knee, or told her jokes and showed her his wooden cat to distract her from the pain as he cleaned the wound. There was cold death in his voice.
The bad man’s cowl shifted and he shrugged.
“I doubt that very much. But if you have to try, you have to try. Sammel?”
From behind Iliar, the scuff of a boot on stone. Iliar whirled. There was another man, twin to the first, cloaked and cowled.
Suddenly his papa gasped. Iliar spun, and Rorin was on the ground, like his knees had just given out.
And then before Iliar’s eyes, Rorin aged. His muscle vanished, and his skin tightened on a skeletal frame. His hair receded. His skin turned gray and his eyes glazed over as Iliar stared, shocked and helpless and horrified.
In seconds, Rorin was dead. His dead eyes were still fixed on Iliar’s face, and there wasn’t even a spark of life inside them.
Iliar dropped Rorin’s hand and screamed. He was still screaming as the two strangers grabbed him, and blackness took him.
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