Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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And . . . changing directions

So . . . last week, I finally sent Caitlin, my fabulous agent, seventy pages each of two new works in progress and basically said: Pick one.

I thought it was about time, since when you’re seventy pages in, it’s about time to fish or cut bait — or in this case, press ahead or set the WIP aside.  I wanted to press ahead with one or the other, but which?

Naturally Caitlin picked the one I was afraid she wouldn’t like. That was fine by me!  I sort of thought she might say, “Okay, yes, I know it’s the fad right now, but werewolves?*  Don’t you know werewolves are a dime a dozen?  Go with the other story, ’cause there’s no way this one will catch an editor’s eye in all the clutter.”

But she didn’t!  She said, “Great, a fresh look at werewolves!  Editors will love this!  Get ‘er done!”

Well!  Nice to know I’m doing something different enough to count as a ‘fresh look.’  It’s harder than you might think to be sure.  Plus, added bonus, I had a couple of good scenes in mind, so it was easy to pick this story back up.  And I know the ending!  The middle’s a little vague at the moment, I admit, but that will work itself out.

Here’s how the story starts, more or less:

*     *    *    *

Alejandro tried to decide whether Natividad was all right.  She smiled at him out of the engulfing fur-lined hood of her coat, but he thought the smile took a deliberate effort.  His little sister’s dark Mexican eyes were still bright, but her round, pretty face looked pinched and . . . not exactly pale, for of them all she most had the look of their Mexican mother.  But there was a subtle ashy tone to her skin that he did not like.

Miguel, hovering protectively at his twin’s elbow, did look fine.  Miguel had spent his whole life trying to keep up with Alejandro.  He was not tall, but he was sturdy and strong for an ordinary human, and though he, too, had his hood pulled up around his face, the cold did not seem to bother him very much.

Alejandro himself, of course, did not really feel the cold, as he did not really feel the effort of breaking a path through the knee-deep snow.  First he broke the path and then Miguel widened it, so Natividad might not get too tired.  But Natividad was thinner and more easily wearied than she had been before – well, before.  Sometimes she tired more quickly than her brothers expected, and they had all discovered over the past days that she suffered from the cold.  And of course the Puro, the Pure, could freeze to death as easily as normal humans.  Alejandro suspected it was cold enough for a normal person to freeze to death right now, no matter how brilliant the afternoon sun.

Natividad gave Alejandro a look that was at once wry and amused and patient.  She said “I’m fine.”  Her breath, like Alejandro’s, hung in the air, a visible echo of her words.

“She’s fine,” Miguel said, falling back a step to put an arm around his twin’s shoulders.

She leaned against him, her smile taking on a quirk of humor.  “See?” she said to Alejandro.

Alejandro said nevertheless, “We could stop, rest.  We could make a fire.  You have those cerillas?  Matches?”  He looked at Miguel.  “We could boil water, have coffee.  Eat something.  Then you would have not so much to carry.”

Miguel grinned, a flash of white teeth in his dark face.  His smile was their father’s.  Just recently, as Miguel had shot up in height and lost the plump softness of childhood, Alejandro had began to see echoes of their American father’s bony features emerging in his younger brother’s face.  “I’m fine, too,” Miguel said.  “But I wouldn’t mind carrying some of this weight on the inside instead of the outside.”

Alejandro nodded without comment.  Miguel, though young and human and much less strong than Alejandro, was the only one of them carrying a real burden. They had not known how long it might take to walk out to the Lanning house in the middle of Dimilioc territory, so they had brought the things the twins might need for several days of cold hiking.  And more than that, they had not wanted to abandon every last trace of their past.  Buried in the middle of Miguel’s pack, Alejandro knew, was also Natividad’s one photo of their mother, and her wooden flute, both wrapped up in Natividad’s favorite dress, the one with all the ruffles.

They had not had to argue out who would carry the heavy pack.  Last year, when the twins had been fourteen, they might have argued.  Natividad would certainly have argued.  Miguel might not have complained out loud, but they would both have thought Alejandro should carry the pack because he was the biggest and had black dog strength.  But they had all gotten much older over this terrible past year.

They all knew Alejandro could not carry any burden because he needed his hands clear.  Alejandro carried only a knife.  If worse came to worse, he would fight.  If he was strong enough, good enough, maybe the twins would be able to get away, back to the car they had left hidden near the highway turnoff, get all the way off Dimilioc territory.

The truth was, if worse came to worse, probably they would all die.  But that had been the truth since the day their father had been killed.  Since before that, in fact, though they had not known that when they were younger.  When they were younger:  last year, so short a time ago, when they had all been children, before the Dimilioc war with the blood kin, and Papa’s death.  Last year, when the world had changed.

“I’m not too tired,” Natividad said.  “I can go on.”  She looked at her watch, a cheap one with a black plastic strap and a pink face, with a white kitten to point out the hours and minutes.  She put back the hood of her coat and looked at the sky, where the sun stood high above the horizon.  She shook her head.  “That’s not the same sun that shines in Mexico,” she said, giving voice to a thought Alejandro had also had, repeatedly, while traveling north.  How could it be the same sun when it put out so little heat?

The coat was the best and warmest they had been able to find for her.  It was a good coat, better than Miguel’s; neither cheap nor pink.  Buying it had taken nearly all the rest of their small store of American money.  Alejandro remembered how rich they had all felt when they had counted that money, before they had left Mexico.  It had seemed like so much, then.  He said, “You are not too cold?  You two should eat something.  Is that not what you said, Natividad?  People need to eat more in the cold.  You told us that.”

“I’m not –”

“You did say that,” said Miguel, so placidly that Natividad could not argue.  It was not a knack Alejandro had ever mastered, but Miguel was very hard to argue with.  Miguel said now, “Of course you should eat something.  Some jerky, maybe.  I’ll take one of those nut bars with the chocolate, if you’ve got any more.  And we should drink some water.”

Natividad shrugged.  “Matón,” she said, but without heat.  Then she remembered her rule about English and corrected herself: “Bully.”  She swept out of her face several wisps of raven-black hair that had worked out of her neat braid and began to search through her light pack for something to eat.  Miguel walked a little aside from the trail they’d been following, kicking knee-high snow out of his way, and swept more snow off a fallen tree so she could sit down. “I really don’t need to rest,” Natividad protested, but then shrugged.  “But I suppose I wouldn’t mind coffee.”  She followed him, peeling the wrapping away from one of her nut bars and handing her twin another.

“Well,” said a new voice, sharp and quick and nasally American.  “Black pups trespassing.  Do you know, when I caught your scent, I walked out in the middle of supper.  If I’d known it was a pack of puppies, I’d not have troubled myself.”

Alejandro swung around and took several quick steps to put himself between the newcomer and his younger brother and sister.  He did not dare turn his head to see what Miguel and Natividad were doing – he had to trust they were doing as they had agreed, that Miguel had shed the pack, that both his younger siblings had got back on the snowy road, ready to run.  He could hear them behind him: the quick rush of their breath, the rapid beating of their hearts, the crunch of snow as they moved – yes, back toward the road.  He did not look back, but stared directly into the newcomer’s face for a breath and then made himself lower his eyes.  Even then he continued to watch the other man covertly through his lashes.  The newcomer was a black dog; Alejandro could scent the bitter ash of his shadow.  But then he had already known that.

The newcomer was a tall man: taller than Alejandro.  Taller even than most Americans.  He had a very American face:  bony and narrow, with a thin, unsmiling mouth and an expression that was desdén – disdainful, as though nothing he looked at pleased him and he didn’t expect it to.  There was no color to him.  His hair was pale as bleached straw.  His light blue eyes seemed to Alejandro to be the color of the winter itself.  The lines around those eyes spoke of impatience and an inflexible temper.  It was a bleak, hard face.  It was not the face of a man who would be easily touched by anger or fear or grief.

But Alejandro had already known that, too, about this man.  He took another step forward and then dropped to one knee in the snow, trying to strike a balance between respectful acknowledgment of the other man’s superior strength and his own pride.  It was harder to find that balance than he had expected.  He did not allow himself to reach for the knife he carried.  That, too, was harder than he’d expected.

“Well,” said the American, looking them over with leisurely derision, “It’s a little late for courtesy – and that’s a rather half-hearted courtesy, isn’t it?  What is this?  One black pup and a human boy and a girl Pure as the white snow – is that right?  One doesn’t expect to find such a mixed pack of strays in the winter woods.  Still less walking straight into Dimilioc territory.  There are quicker, kinder ways to find death, if you seek the fell dark.”

“We ask to speak to Grayson Lanning,” Alejandro said, fighting to keep his tone meek against a dangerous edge of rising temper.  “We ask for that, and is it your place to call the fell dark if we ask for a proper entrevista?  Audience?”

The tall American tilted his head to one side, his thin mouth crooking in ironic condescension.  “Oh, it is.”

Alejandro hesitated.  Behind him, Miguel said unexpectedly, “Of course it is, but, Ezekiel Korte, would the Master of Dimilioc thank you for exercising your prerogative?”

The tall man’s winter eyes went, unamused, to Miguel.  “You know me, do you?”

“Everyone knows you, sir.”

“Black dogs.  Not human youngsters, generally.”  Ezekiel’s pale gaze shifted back to Alejandro.  “Your brother, is he?  And the girl’s your sister, I expect.  She’s pretty.”  His tone was perfectly indifferent.  “You think you can fight me, pup?  Give those children time to run?”

“She’s Pure,” Alejandro said sharply. “Why should she need to run from you?”

*    *    *    *

*  This one is Patricia Briggs’ fault.  She’s the one who made me enthusiastic about werewolves — I love her books.  Fair warning, though:  my werewolves are NOTHING like hers, so don’t expect that!

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