As I creep toward the finish line with my four-volume fantasy epic, I’m recruiting a small cadre of dedicated beta-readers. Yes, you’re invited! One of my potential victims — I mean “rescuers,” that’s what I meant — asked if I could post the first chapter so he could decide whether to subject himself to the torment.
So here it is — Chapter 1 of The Leafstone Shield.
1: Onions, Scholars, and Blue Lightning
In the heat of the afternoon the plaza of Tyvik the Wish-Bringer seethed with life. Hundreds of merchants had set up stalls and loudly touted their wares. Farmers from the surrounding districts hawked fresh produce, and food vendors waved sizzling spicy meat on skewers. Craftspeople had spread their plates and shirts, scissors and shoes, potions and amulets, baskets and jars on tables beneath fluttering awnings. Children ran and whooped and chased one another while streetcorner orators harangued the crowd. Stylishly gowned matrons shaded by tassel-tufted parasols took tiny steps in their satin shoes, pretending not to notice the filth underfoot. Three red-faced men struggled to manage a snarling demon, tugging ropes looped around its neck while it strained at the chains that bound its taloned hands. A pair of uniformed Watchmen paced, wicked-looking long-barreled rifles strapped across their backs. A high-wheeled carriage, one of the new horseless kind, made slow headway through the crowd, the blue-liveried driver on his high perch between the gleaming brass lamps cursing and snapping his whip close enough above people’s heads to knock a few hats off.
Market basket on her arm, Kyura worked her way down a broad aisle between stalls. Other than picking her way carefully, holding her purse tight, and keeping an eye out for bargains, she barely noticed the hubbub. Uppermost in her mind was the need for trout. Catfish would do, if no trout were to be had. Also candles, salt, a jar of honey, and a bag of onions. In three hours the inn’s guests would be wanting supper, and the cook could surely summon up something savory with fresh catfish and onions.
When Kyura was younger, Aunt Timabara had brought her to the market and taught her how to count her pennies and see that the produce was fresh. Aunt Timabara was gone now. At seventeen, Kyura took money from the cash box herself, and went to market. Someday, when Uncle Dulan was gone, the inn would be Kyura’s. And yes, there were moments when she wished she could trade the catfish and onions for silks, exotic creatures, and the clash of bright swords, and had to remind herself that it was foolishness to wish for things that would never be. But most often she was either working too hard or exhausted from working too hard to waste more than a minute or two teasing herself with daydreams.
She was slim, with long dark hair, a chin that she thought too prominent, and a nose that she wished was short and turned up rather than long and narrow. The boys she knew — a few stolen kisses on a warm summer night, but none of them had stolen her heart away — would have said she was very pretty, but she seldom had an extra penny with which to be vain about it, and was far too busy to use a curling-iron, though she had one (somewhere).
At the center of the market plaza, towering above the stalls, presided the gray and solemn statue of Tyvik. Seated on a cube of stone, more than twenty feet tall at the crown of its head, handsome once but now crusted with centuries of city grime, half its face sheared away by time and weather, or perhaps by cannon-fire in some long-forgotten battle, the statue gazed out across the plaza, its eyes now benign, now sad or thoughtful or stern as the light and shadow played across them. Tyvik had been a god once, if there were such things as gods, but he no longer had any worshipers; all that remained of his divinity was this massive misshapen relic. His temple, a mile to the east on the riverbank, had been swept away long ago in a flood. Only a few bare pillars jutted up from the water to show where it had once stood. But the statue in the plaza remained.
As Kyura neared the statue, a change in the tenor of the voices on all sides snagged her attention — that, and a cool mineral odor that slid around the mingled scents of sweat and fresh produce like water over rocks.
People were pointing and saying, “Look! There!” Pale veins of blue lightning snaked up from the base of the statue, and a dark unruly tornado of crows swirled around the statue’s head, crying out raucously.
Somebody shouted, “Back! Back!” The crowd retreated, leaving an untidy pool of emptiness around the base of the statue. Kyura knew why: Occasionally Tyvik stood up and walked, pacing aimlessly across the plaza, tipping over the tents and dragging them along, his slow stone footfalls jarring the ground and rattling nearby windows. And sometimes he spoke. She had never seen him move or speak, but she had heard the stories. On one of his meanders, years ago, Tyvik had stepped on a dog. People still talked about that.
A young man wearing the yellow vest of a messenger rushed past Kyura, nearly bumping her, and dodged away into the depths of the crowd.
The veins of pale fire sought upward across the surface of the statue, probing, retreating, dimming, brightening, casting off occasional crackling sparks. More crows angled in swiftly from here and there across the city.
As the veins of lightning crept up the statue’s neck toward its defaced face, the messenger returned, elbowing his way through the crowd of onlookers to clear a path for two scholars in long flapping brown robes and broad-brimmed hats. The scholars carried writing-trays laden with paper and pens, which threatened to spill, but they managed to reach the base of the statue without mishap, or as close to the base as they dared go, and unlimbered their writing implements.
The statue’s mouth opened and it began to speak.
Kyura was standing at the leading edge of the crowd, not more than fifty feet from the cube of stone on which the statue sat. Its eyes ought to have been leveled at the city skyline, but though its features hadn’t altered or its head tilted forward, she was awash suddenly in a queasy feeling that it had dropped its gaze to look down at her, the eyes (angry? amused? indifferent?) drilling holes straight through to her soul. Her back and neck and shoulders prickled. Less curious suddenly about what Tyvik might say or do, she suppressed an urge to run.
The statue’s voice was impossibly deep, a grating rumble punctuated by long pauses and what sounded like inarticulate groans. The crowd had fallen silent, and hundreds of faces gazed up at the seated figure, rapt. The utterance went on for some time, and the scholars scribbled busily. Kyura thought perhaps she recognized the words “dragon” and “tower,” but if Tyvik was speaking Garathian, it was an archaic dialect.
Eventually the pale lightning veins retreated into the base of the statue and then into the ground. The cool smell dissipated, and the crows lost interest and flew away. Conversations started among the crowd, and people drifted warily closer to the pedestal. A few moved in to peer over the scholars’ shoulders, but most people drifted off, back to their business, whatever it was.
A bold little merchant went straight up to the scholars and said, “What’d it say? It’s a prophecy, ain’t it? What’d it say?”
“It’s not for the likes of you,” one of them said. “It’s for the king. Get on.”
“We got a right to know, don’t we?”
“You have what rights the king says you have.”
“The king don’t care. He sits up there all high and mighty—” The merchant waved his arm at the royal palace, which crouched atop a steep-sided rock that all but abutted the south side of the plaza. “—and when there’s trouble, we’re the ones who catch it in the teeth.”
“Get on, now. We have work to do.”
After a grumble aimed back over his shoulder, the little merchant marched off. The two scholars put their heads together (their hat brims colliding), murmured, and scribbled. The trout she hadn’t yet bought were calling to Kyura, but her curiosity was a burning itch. Soon she and two or three others were the only onlookers who remained.
One of the scholars said, “That’s it, then. Let’s see what we’ve got.” Holding up a piece of paper, he read aloud from it, not making it a proclamation, just reviewing the text for the benefit of his colleague:
Come far and his kin with a horn that is broken,
Their birthplace Sa’akna as it is hers, bringing
A part of the wheel a heedless boy shattered
To her, the boy’s cousin, who labors obscure,
An unknowing hope, the savior of thousands,
Conversing with dragons and known by the sea,
In the hostelry signed by a pitcher of silver.
An old one is freed from the tower of pain
By her and two others. The tower collapses
In flames, the city in turmoil, the blood
Of innocents paid for in blood of the wealthy.
Pursued by a priest and an ogre, they flee!
“Sounds about right,” the other agreed. “‘Wheel,’ though; are you sure ‘disk’ wouldn’t be better? Or ‘circle’? And ‘tower’? I still think he said ‘vault.’”
They dithered for another minute, crossed out words, and made corrections. At last the first scholar handed the paper to the messenger. “You’re for the king. Off with you.” The messenger trotted away. The scholars stoppered their ink bottles.
Most of the prophecy made no sense to Kyura, but the bits she understood terrified her. The statue had been looking down at her! She had been born in Sa’akna — and a shattered disk — and a pitcher of silver? Her uncle’s inn was called the Silver Ewer! But the blood of innocents? The tower of pain? Conversing with dragons??
Trout and onions receded into the dim and misty distance, and she turned to run, but after a few swift steps she faltered, though her heart was still pounding, and turned to look back at the statue. Tyvik certainly wasn’t looking in her direction now. Her imagination must have been playing tricks on her, that was all. The statue couldn’t possibly have been talking about her. What a ridiculous idea!
Act like a grown-up, she told herself sternly. Do your marketing. It will come to nothing, you’ll see. In a few days you’ll be laughing about it.
But right now she didn’t feel like laughing. Worry, obscure but implacable, crept through her the way the veins of pale fire had tickled their way up and down the statue. Fortunately, crows weren’t buzzing around her head, those were only flies. She waved the flies away and went on about her business.