I have rewritten the first chapter of Blood of Esta so many times since completing the first draft back in 2008 that I’ve lost count. It’s definitely the chapter I’ve revised the most. Probably because it is the only part of a novel that has at least a chance of being read by an agent or publisher when you query them. If they like your query letter, they’ll read the first few pages. If you can’t hook them with those pages, your’re screwed.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I had won a professional critique of the synopsis and first three chapters of Blood of Esta. The critique was from the Acquiring Editor at Bell Bridge Books, Debra Dixon. She gave me highly encouraging feedback about Blood of Esta and my writing (my favorite line being “feel very confident that you’ve gotten to a point that your writing is professional and enjoyable”). She also pointed out a few things that she thinks could use some rethinking. The biggest potential “problem” was the prologue. She didn’t feel that the prologue scene, though informational, was powerful enough to open the book. She gave a suggestion for a new opening, one that I’d already been thinking about writing. I took her advice, and below is the new opening scene for Blood of Esta. Comments are always welcome.
BLOOD OF ESTA
N. M. Carrara
One thing I had learned about my connection to the Earth these past thirty years was that cold always meant danger. I’d once walked barefoot across a frozen lake in the Snow Mountains. Without any threat that the ice would crack or that I would be ambushed by predators, the frozen lake felt no different than walking on a plank of damp wood, and the snow that fell in those mountains kissed my skin with the same tepid wetness as a spring drizzle. But confronted with danger, I felt the cold. Like the time I’d trekked through the burning deserts of Gensamer. Even with the blinding sun at the noon apex, the sand below my feet had grown colder as I neared a scorpions’ nest hidden in the dunes. The change in temperature was the Earth’s warning. Cold equaled danger. And now, as I sat waiting on the wall, I didn’t know why an Adornian peace officer and a foreign ambassador were galloping towards the monastery, but the chill that laced the summer air told me that trouble chased after them.
“Have they cleared the forest yet?” I breathed the words into the cool, dawn air. I sat atop the outer wall of the monastery, alone. The monks would just be waking deep inside the main building. They couldn’t hear me, but my question wasn’t for them.
Wind gusted from the east, spreading waves through the fields of yellow and brown lilyweed grass that surrounded the monastery’s ivy-covered outer walls. It blew against my cheek, swarmed slowly around me, and filled my head with a choir of soft voices.
They will leave the forest soon, child. The voices came from the grass in the fields, and the thick oaks and pines of the forest just over the horizon. The voices of the Earth, carried to my ears on the wind.
I bit down on my lower lip, I didn’t like waiting. Especially in times like this. The Earth didn’t know what had caused these travelers to flee Weston and head towards the monastery. The uncertainty bothered me the most. It felt like a dull knife scraping against my bones, prodding me into action. I wanted to jump off the wall and run into the forest to scout out the travelers in person. But I promised the monks I wouldn’t run off on my own, as I had done many times before. The air around Siensi had become steadily colder the last few weeks. The monks couldn’t feel the Earth’s warnings, but they knew me well enough to read the signs in my body language. Some evil had set its sights on Siensi. Something big. I promised the monks I would stay put until the travelers got here so that we could discover what this approaching danger was together. After thirty years, the monks still saw me as the little Tribe girl they swore to protect.
I brought my knees up to my chest and wrapped the cloak around my legs as I watched the rising sun crown the horizon. Its golden rays glimmered off the sharp edge of the longsword resting beside me—the Ushibane.
“Pastella,” Earon said my name. I kept my eyes on the sword. The distortion in the old monk’s voice, as if he were talking into an empty jar, meant that he called to me from inside the monastery—using the air to carry his message.
“Earon.” I said his name so that the Earth would know I wanted to answer him. The wind would carry an imprint of my voice to the small black box he wore on his belt and translate that imprint back into sound. Earon was Padrone of the Brotherhood of Siensi, the head monk, and as such, made sure he had a direct way of communicating with me.
“Where are you?” I noted the hint of dread in his voice, as if he thought I had broken my promise. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
“I’m on the wall, where I said I’d be.”
I’d been sitting on the wall all night. I told the monks that I wanted to wait out here to question the Earth about the travelers. In truth, I took up the watch so that I had an excuse not to sleep. I hardly slept anymore. Even the nights Finster held me wrapped in his arms I struggled to let myself sleep. The nightmares came too often lately. I took it as another sign that trouble lurked in the shadows.
I did not look back towards the monastery, but I could feel several pairs of eyes peeking out its windows at me as I continued to watch the sun rise.
“Has the Earth told you anything new?” Earon asked. “Do you know who they are, or why they’re coming?”
I shook my head, certain that his was one of the sets of eyes I felt watching me. “Only that they need our help.”
The wind picked up and blew my hair into my face, the same dark brown it had been since childhood when I had learned how to keep it one color. It was my greatest disguise, the one that had kept my birthright hidden for thirty years, the one that made it possible for me to leave the monastery and explore the rest of the world without worry—boring brown hair. I smiled as I tied the long locks behind my head.
Earon said something else, but I couldn’t make out his voice over the choir of whispers that filled my head. They are leaving the forest now, the Earth said. This time, along with the voices came images. Blurred at first by a milky haze, images of a row of tall pines and oaks came into focus before my eyes, pushing my view of the sunrise further into the background. A massive horse emerged from the forest, atop it sat an equally massive man. I couldn’t make out his features. The sun rose behind him, peaking through the trees and turning him into no more than a monstrous silhouette. The horseman pointed a thick arm my way, though I knew he could not see me, the tree-line of the forest sat on the horizon, over five miles away. The horseman waded into the lilyweed field that abutted the forest, and behind him a second shape emerged from the woods—a smaller horse, carrying a smaller man. The scent of autumn filled my head. I furrowed my brow. I loved the smell of autumn, but its fragrances didn’t belong in early summer. Cold meant danger. I didn’t know what the scents of autumn meant.
“They’re almost here,” I said to Earon as the image began to fade. I moved to get up, but before I could gain my stance, the image shifted from the horsemen to movement in the field two miles to the south.
“What is that?” I whispered.
A breeze blew past my face. My nostrils flared, and I caught the musty scent of the beasts just as the Earth whispered their name into my ears. Bonehounds.
I checked the two daggers I had hidden under my cloak, grabbed the Ushibane and stood on top of the wall. I could just make out the movement of the bonehounds as they ran through the field. They weren’t heading this way. The beasts ran towards the horsemen who approached the monastery from the east.
Earon’s voice rang through the whispers of the Earth. “Pastella, what do you see?”
“Poachers are heading for our guests. I’m going to stop them.” I pulled the hood of the cloak over my head. Earon’s words of caution faded into the wind as I darted across the wall, but I felt the truth in his words. Bonehounds were not the threat the Earth had been warning me of. Something worse headed this way.