I am currently focussing on writing my next novel, which means social media is a bit lower on my radar just now, so if you think I’m ignoring you, please believe me, it isn’t deliberate!
I’m never going to be a quick writer, I think I’ve made that clear before, but I’d like to be quicker than I am now. To that end, I’ve invested some time in learning more about plotting before sitting down to write. I’m still not good at it, and I don’t believe I will be – possibly ever, definitely for some time to come.
However, I do have a better idea of the points along the story arc than usual by this stage.
So why the plea for help?
Well, I have 55K words down, which is almost the midpoint (I don’t write small books!), and I’ve realised the rest will be
easier better if I do some developmental work on my main protagonist before going any further.
Of course, being epic fantasy and third in series, I have an ensemble cast with multiple plot lines ongoing (hence the need for more serious plotting), but with each book I focus more on one central character than the others, and I’d love your opinions on how this one is shaping up, so I’ve decided to share the prologue as it stands and request some feedback.
All opinions welcome, just one thing you should know – I’ve given this poor lad a rather tricky personality trait which I won’t be changing as it’s integral to the storyline.
Thank you in advance, and if you’d rather send me your comments privately, just use the contact form.
The Prince’s Protégé
Marten flinched as the sword blade flashed past his face. He despised himself for that small show of weakness, though he doubted anyone else noticed—they were all too busy scrambling to escape the burning Great Hall.
The sword slammed into the dais beside Marten’s knee, and the screech of parting metal assaulted his ears as it sliced through the chain pinning him to the floor. Abruptly, the pressure on his neck eased. He staggered to his feet with the heavy metal collar dangling a couple of remaining links. His numb legs refused to hold him and he stumbled, crashing into the diminutive figure holding the sword. Night black hair and white skin identified his aunt, Queen Leith, but despite being nearly knocked from her feet, Leith didn’t react. Marten snatched a breath as her eerie red eyes stared blankly past him.
“What—?” he croaked, throat too sore to form more than a single word. Then a coughing fit seized him, every inhalation drawing more smoke into his lungs.
The roaring whoosh of flames sizzled overhead and Marten’s skin smarted as the temperature rose another notch. His heart raced; how long before the roof collapsed?
Beside him his uncle, Prince Halnashead, rose shakily to his feet, a hand span of metal links trailing from a collar matching Marten’s. Without wasting time on words, Halnashead wrapped an arm around his daughter, Princess Annasala, and seized one of Marten’s hands. He jerked his chin towards Leith.
Avoiding her magical elvish sword, Marten grabbed the queen’s empty hand and clung to it even as Uncle Hal dragged them into the clouds of acrid smoke obscuring the rear of the dais. There was a doorway there, somewhere, if only they could find it.
With a thunderous crash, the roof behind them collapsed. Marten yelped as something hard struck his calf and pain shot up his leg. Heat flared against his back, and he lurched forward, dragging Leith clear of the falling debris even as his knee buckled and he fell forward, saved from tumbling to the ground by Halnashead’s strong grip.
“Steady, lad, you’re safe.”
Blinking his watering eyes, Marten peered at their surroundings. Wisps of smoke curled around them, but the air his scorched lungs sucked in was pure and mercifully cool, and ahead of them, on the far side of a large gravel courtyard, he recognised the portico surrounding the king’s private wing of the palace.
The ragged party staggered across the open space, putting a safe distance between themselves and the burning building. By the goddess’s mercy, no wind stirred the flames in their direction. A handful of men and women in servants’ and guards’ uniforms rushed past them with buckets and beaters to discourage the inferno from spreading.
The royal family was safe for now, but what of those behind the failed coup? Had any of them escaped too?
Halnashead released Marten’s hand and wrapped both his arms around Annasala. Leith tottered over to a stone bench and sank down, shaking her head in a dazed fashion. Her fist relaxed, allowing her elvish sword to fall to the ground with a clang.
A male figure trod past Marten back towards the raging inferno, and Marten recognised Rustam Chalice, a Craft Master he’d only been vaguely aware of before today. He narrowed his eyes to study the lithe dancer. Clearly Master Chalice was injured. He held one arm protectively against his side, leaning over to protect either the arm, or more likely his ribs. Dark hair plastered the man’s head, and his shoulders slumped in despair.
“Risada,” he called, pain cracking his voice, and Marten glanced quickly around. Lady Risada, slayer of the would-be usurper, was not present.
“Where is she? Where’s Risada?” Marten turned towards Halnashead.
Chin resting on top of Annasala’s head, Halnashead stared at the burning building, his eyes filled with anguish. “She was the other side of the roof beam that fell. She would have had to get out the far end of the hall.”
None of them voiced what they were all thinking; how unlikely that was to have happened. Rustam Chalice collapsed to his knees.
“Rusty, son, help me with your sister,” Halnashead implored.
Marten felt his eyes widen. Had his uncle just acknowledged the Dance Master as his son?
Rustam struggled back to his feet with the appearance of a man carrying a load far too heavy for his damaged body. He limped over to Halnashead’s side, and it was then Marten noticed although Annasala was upright within the protective circle of her father’s arms, she hung limply. He made a move to help, but Halnashead shook his head.
“See to Leith, will you?” Halnashead frowned. “I assume she was drugged. Rusty?”
“Yes,” confirmed Rustam. “Hestane, to block her magic. The bastard gave her an overdose, but I think the sword is dealing with that, otherwise she’d be dead by now.”
Marten shuddered. In a kingdom that forbade magic on pain of death, he’d seen more than he’d ever anticipated in the last few days. And some of that from the man Marten now realised was yet another relative, even if illegitimate. Marten’s feelings swayed between outrage and gratitude—without Rustam’s intervention they would all be dead by now.
With Annasala supported between them, Halnashead and Rustam moved awkwardly away, heading towards the princess’s rooms. Obedient to his uncle, Marten offered a hand to Leith, but she shook her head.
“I’m fine where I am, Marten. Leave me to get some sleep. Go. Shoo.” She waved a hand at him in dismissal, and stretched out on the bench, shutting her eyes.
Dismissed, Marten stood indecisively, wondering what he should do.
He was the king. He was never alone.
Since ascending the throne at the age of fourteen—three whole years now—free will had taken a permanent leave of absence from his life. His days followed prescribed routines, with duties and meetings and studies, and he was always surrounded by guards and advisors.
Uncle Hal would know what to do, he thought, and then gave himself a mental shake. You’re old enough to make your own decisions, so make one.
Marten glanced down at his dishevelled appearance. His clothes were ripped and soiled, patches of reddened skin peeked through some of the holes, and the stink of charred fabric filled his nostrils. He nodded briskly. One of his earliest lessons sprang to mind: no matter what, always give the appearance of being in charge.
Clean up first. Won’t do to have the subjects see their king dressed like a beggar. He ran his fingers round the rim of the metal collar encircling his neck. And after that, find someone to get this dammed thing off me!
Leaving Queen Leith to her restorative slumber, Marten set off towards his suite. The normally familiar corridors proved disturbingly different. The tapestries that once lined the walls were nowhere to be seen, and all the furniture was missing. Marten’s boot steps echoed off the blank walls, sharp taps as he strode along. A mustiness tickled his smoke-irritated throat, reminiscent of the smell of a long-abandoned building, and Marten wondered uneasily what he would find when he reached his own rooms.
His footsteps fell silent as he stepped onto one of the few remaining rugs, soiled with goddess-only-knew what. Marten had no wish to inspect the russet stains too closely. While there had been at least one traitor amongst the guardsmen, some of the men had been as near to friends as Marten allowed. Now many of them were dead, and others missing. Sorting out this mess wasn’t going to be a quick—or painless—affair.
Perhaps, though, I’ll finally be able to make some decisions of my own. It’s not that I don’t value all my advisors, and Uncle Hal most of all, but I have to start ruling on my own at some point, and now seems a good—
The whisper of silk against tender skin gifted Marten with a fraction of a second’s warning; just enough to get three fingers beneath the elegant noose before it pulled snug against his throat. He grunted, yanking hard at the delicate fabric that nonetheless tightened around his neck above the metal collar with a grip as strong as twisted wire.
Stupid, stupid! The king must never be alone; how many times have I heard that?
“Don’t fight it, little man,” crooned a low voice beside his ear. “It’s better this way. If you die now, you’ll never grow into a monster like your grandsire, and our girls will be safe from your perversions.”
Despite a smoke-induced huskiness, the voice was unequivocally female.
A woman! Surely I can fight a woman?
But whoever she was, this woman held every advantage. Her slight body pressed against his back, so he could not see her. The silk scarf tightened further, forcing his knuckles against his throat even as a delicate cinnamon fragrance caressed his senses. His vision darkened and his legs trembled. Shame sapped his remaining strength—that the king should die by the hand of a woman.
Marten staggered backward, stepping on his assailant’s foot. She yelped, and the pressure around Marten’s neck eased just enough for him to catch a breath. He seized the opportunity and stamped down hard, rewarded with a loud crack as he broke the woman’s instep.
“Charin take you!” The croaked imprecation close beside his ear set a ringing in his head to join the swimming effect brought by the lack of air. Marten gathered his last shreds of strength and jabbed an elbow backward. It sank into soft flesh, causing a sharp exhalation. He pressed his minute advantage, yanking at the deceptively soft fabric garrotte. His assailant clung on, yanking back in turn, pulling Marten off balance. He landed on one knee.
Uncle Hal, forgive me. I should have paid more attention to your training. Chel, sweet goddess, take me in your arms…
Blood pounded through his head, tapping out a beat that expanded to fill his awareness until it blocked out all else. He was dying, he knew it.
But why, then, did his heartrate not slow down?
Realisation came at the same instant the pressure on his neck vanished—the rhythmic tapping wasn’t his heart beating its last, it was the sound of bootsteps approaching along the very same bare flagstones he himself had trodden only moments before.
Without the support of his assailant, Marten fell to his hands and knees, gulping air past his abused larynx. When he was able to glance up, the would-be assassin was nowhere to be seen. Marten pushed himself to rise, unwilling to be found grovelling on the floor.
“Sire! Praise Chel, you’re alive! Are you injured?” The voice moved swiftly from jubilant to concerned, and Marten shook his head, setting off a coughing fit. He doubled over, gasping. The boots that hove into view were those of a guardsman, and relief flooded Marten. A hand hovered near his arm, the guard obviously uncertain whether to follow the protocol which forbade anyone from touching the king without his express permission. The frightened boy in Marten ached for the physical support, but the recently crowned king drew on an inner strength that was new to him, and he straightened, waving the man back.
“I’ll survive. Too much smoke,” he croaked, and coughed again. He was relieved to find he recognised the dark haired young man. Not one of his personal guards, but one who’d stood by his door on many occasions; one he’d barely acknowledged, but familiar nonetheless.
“Did you pass anyone just now?” he managed to ask when he’d recovered his breath.
The guard shook his head. “No one, sire. At least, not in the royal apartments.” The man glanced anxiously back along the corridor. “Beg pardon, sire, but did any of the rest of the royal family escape?”
Marten nodded. “My uncle, Princess Annasala, and Queen Leith.”
“Praise Chel! We feared you all gone.”
“It’ll take more than a pretender to wipe us out,” Marten declared. His defiant words bolstered his confidence, and he assumed his customary regal posture. While his assailant had successfully avoided being seen leaving the scene, he would have spies seeking her identity before the day was done.
He beckoned. “Come with me, we have work to do, traitors to find and execute.”
With the bitch who just tried to kill me top of my list.
As Marten resumed his interrupted journey, he mulled over the mystery woman’s few words. He comprehended them all too well for he, too, feared turning into his grandsire. For the most part, Marten considered King Belcastus’s legendary carnal practices abhorrent.
If only he hadn’t discovered the thrill that a little pain could add to a dalliance.
Marten thought carefully about the girls he’d been with. Had they really enjoyed those rough sessions, or had they merely told him they had because he was the king? Was that what the woman had meant?
Marten tightened his jaw. There was no one he could ask, he was too embarrassed. Perhaps it would be better if he abstained, but he knew he was too weak; before long the urge would turn from itch to demand, and he would acquiesce.
He determined to take greater care in future with his choice of partners; he had no desire to inflict his shameful appetites on anyone who did not share his tastes.
He would also be vigilant, keeping his senses open for the distinctive cinnamon scent worn by the would-be assassin. Such a pity her voice had been affected by the smoke, or she might be easier to identify.
Just thinking about the encounter made him cough again, and he paused, leaning against the wall. He knew he should tell Halnashead—his uncle was, after all, his spymaster—but at this time, Halnashead had far more immediate things to worry about. His daughter, Annasala, had been ill used during the coup, and somewhere along the line Halnashead had gained a son. No, this was not the time to burden Uncle Hal with things Marten felt he could handle by himself. He was certain the attempt had been opportunistic. Before the woman had the chance to plan and execute another—assuming she had the temerity to try again—Marten had every confidence his spies would find and deal with her.
Marten also shied away from thought of how to admit he’d totally ignored all his years of training and put himself in the position whereby a woman—a woman—had nearly killed him.
No, that was never going to happen. This was one security issue he would manage on his own.
There. My first solo decision. I pray it won’t prove to be one I regret.
At the doors to Marten’s suite, his new bodyguard stepped in front of him before he could enter.
“What are you—”
“Begging your pardon, my liege, but I should check inside first; make sure it’s safe.”
With a nod, Marten waved him on. Damn, but I need to get my head around this. People are really trying to kill me. He shuddered. The threat had always seemed so distant before, so unlikely. But not now.
The royal rooms had been ransacked but proved empty of intruders. It crossed Marten’s mind there was always the possibility of lethal traps left behind, but if the usurper’s plans had been concluded most of the royal family would have been executed by now, making it unlikely anyone would have gone to the effort. He wandered through his private apartment, pushing chests of drawers back against the wall, righting overturned chairs, scowling as he inspected the wanton damage inflicted upon pieces that had been in his family for generations.
Moving a downed tapestry revealed the remains of a mutilated portrait. Marten lifted the damaged frame and set it on top of a listing cabinet with a shattered leg, propping the broken bits of wood together until it stayed upright against the wall. He frowned at the image staring back at him—his own image, with a great knife slash diagonally across his painted face.
Perhaps someone did me a favour with this one, he considered as he held the canvas edges together. He inspected the slender visage with its slightly aquiline nose above thin lips, and the unremarkable light brown hair that always kinked the wrong way on the left-hand side. Even the artist hadn’t seen fit to correct that annoying detail.
I never cared for it, and I’m sure Uncle Hal will insist I sit for a new one.
He placed the offending picture face down on the cabinet, where it promptly slithered off the sloping surface and crashed to the floor. The crack of splintering wood confirmed the ultimate demise of the frame. Marten shrugged his shoulders and turned his back on it, heading for his dressing room.
I wonder if I have any clothes left, or if they’ve wrecked those too.
The guardsman cleared his throat, snagging Marten’s attention.
“Would you like me to call a locksmith, sire?”
Marten fingered the heavy metal collar still clasped around his neck. He nodded. “Yes, but please find someone else to do so—you are hereby promoted to the position of my personal guard. You are—?”
The man’s face coloured as he snapped to attention. Sharp blue eyes stared straight out from a smooth face only a few years older than Marten’s. “Davi, my liege,” he answered. “Thank you, my liege.” Davi’s dark eyebrows drew down as he peered at the offending collar. “I think an apothecary will be in order as well, sire. That’s a fearful nasty mark it’s made around your neck.”
Marten agreed, and waved Davi towards the door. He lifted the collar slightly away from his neck to finger the sore skin beneath, and a grim smile raised the corners of his lips. The collar was the perfect explanation for the marks left by the silk scarf. No one but him—and his assailant—would ever know he’d nearly been strangled.
* * * * * * * * *
And there you have it – over to you…
(This work is copyrighted, so please don’t share or ‘borrow’).