Last week, we finished off the prologue. I did intend to re-write the prologue with the changes I have specified, and post it for your edification, but I haven’t got around to that yet. So let’s just move straight into the body of the book.
Remember, the first half (before the execution) is from Ro’s point of view. The second half (after the execution) is from his daughter’s point of view. Ro dies. The reader should be very clear on that. There is no ‘hey, we swapped the bodies’ nonsense, he dies.
Ro Manus rode back to the City of Brass almost one year after he had left it to go south, further even than the Citadel of the Dog-Headed, which was now just a jackal-haunted ruin.
As his caravan came out of the foothills to the east and entered the Forest of the Dead which sprawled now for long miles on either side of the main road, he left the train of camels to his eminently capable assistant and the full complement of guards, and walked through the forest northwards, but not as far as the river.
Plenty of new trees, he noted, but not unduly many for a full turn of the seasons. He reached that section of forest where all the trees, hundreds upon hundreds, were of a height and crowded close together.
Ro pushed his way through the trees. He was ashamed that he would not have found the right tree if not for the unmistakable landmark of the tight circle of seven trees that stood just that much taller than the rest.
He knelt before his tree, kissed the soft mulched soil and breathed the words of a prayer meant to be chanted. He sat back on his heels and looked up at the tall silvery trunk and dry green leaves of the tree. Beyond its crown, the eternal sky sought to crush him. He looked down again.
‘Has it been this long?’ he asked. ‘It was yesterday, my love.’
In saying it, he had a spasm of guilt and closed his eyes. His thoughts had already turned ahead to the City of Brass, to Ninevah whom he saw as frequently as he visited this tree – once yearly.
With his eyes closed, Ro clearly saw this slope as it had been fifteen years ago. Women clad all in black, from head to wrist to toe, and even their hands and fingernails gone black with soil and ash. Some wept, but many did not. They buried their husbands, their sons, their daughters, their mothers, their fathers, even their cousins and nieces and nephews if the extended family had no other woman surviving to do it. Only the men who had no female relatives to do this task, like Ro, ventured the Forest of the Dead, and he had been the only man on that slope.
He had not chosen his place wisely, for his single tree. Beside him, a woman, tears falling into each hole, mixed ashes and soil for seven trees, seven. Ro had no words to say to that, and could not find the way or will to prevent her as she dug her holes and planted her trees in a circle she formed the centre of.
Now those seven trees grew just a little taller than the trees around them, and Ro was never at all curious, each year he visited, to peer between their trunks and see what he might see.
But the plague had passed, as all curses of the gods passed eventually, and the City of Brass had not yet seen a recurrence. It would eventually, Ro knew, traveller who had seen other cities come under the blight time and time again.
First, the name has to change – not through any fault of Ro’s but I used the name in another book before I got around to start editing this one, and I prefer it over there in the other one. So first step, change the name.
Secondly, the tone is wrong. It’s a bit formal or stilted or whatever, and I pretty quickly relax from that (as I noticed in my first comple re-read through before I started this editing process).
Thirdly, as an opening to a book, it’s probably a little too meandering. OK, so we find out that he’s returning from a successful trading year, had a wife, she died in the plague, and he has a thing for another woman now. We also learn something of the customs of the City of Brass (that they mark their dead by planting trees).
You know what would be better? We find out later that the Shah, the king of the city, is planning to plough under these trees because the city needs room to grow. (A lot of the time, Ro spends his time wondering if the Shah is actually a tyrant, or just extremely practical; that’s why he vacillitates about whether or not to join the people planning to overthrow him, and why he doesn’t pick a side – which in turn is why he kind of deserves what he gets. No place for fence-sitters in this world!) So, wouldn’t it be better if the trees are already ploughed under? If Ro comes home to bare earth where his wife’s grave once was? That would be better.
I don’t know if that image of the woman surrounding herself with her dead should stay. Maybe it can be slotted in somewhere else later.
Remember I was writing this for NaNoWriMo, so there’s going to be scenes that I lovingly dwell on, just to get my daily word count up. I think this was one of these scenes and it needs to be much shorter and with more stuff happening in it rather than remembrances that amount to backstory.
Writers often start the story too early, and I think this is one of those times. The huge benefit of putting distance between yourself and one of your stories is that you are more able to look at a patch of writing, even a patch that you’re fond of, and say – that is unnecessary. Delete it.
Next week, the next page…