Gathering Commentary 2: Chapter 1 (Spoiler free)

Brian G Turner

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The second part of my commentaries on Gathering (Chronicles of Empire 1) continues with chapter 1:


PART 1: DANGEROUS PEOPLE

^ The sudden break after the opening chapter, then switch to a new character, should hopefully alert the reader that the opening chapter was actually a prologue.

^ GATHERING is split in 4 parts, and each of the other 3 section titles is named after a section of text within. However, due to a rewrite, the text that gave Part 1 it's name was moved to Part 2.




A Walking Dead Man

Sirath

^ As introduced in the prologue, the POV character is named after the chapter title.

Sirath stumbled along the dirt track — if they caught him, they’d hang him.

^ Again, aiming for a strong opening sentence of [character name] + [action] > [stakes]. I aim to do this at the opening of most chapters.

Sleet lashed him, stung his face, and left his ragged clothes clinging icily to his skin.

^ I made a point of taking the dogs for a walk in horizontal sleet, to see what would stand out most from the experience. However, there's no need to drag out the description past one sentence.

Taking the seven mules had been his drunken revenge, and should have compensated for what he’d been cheated from at cards. But now he realised it’d all been a stupid idea.

^ It was a struggle to frame the words for Sirath's context. As usual, feedback on chrons (I think Harebrain) helped a lot here.

He looked behind for signs of pursuit. Only the wind came at him, howling down the valley to drive the cold through his bones. Grey cloud smothered bleak hills. Thunder rumbled. The storm was growing worse.

^ IMO it's important to get some idea of the setting, especially as we're going to be here for a while. However, the description of the environment connects to Sirath's experience.


His legs cramped and he was becoming dizzy. He'd fled through the night and needed somewhere to stop, hide. Rest a little. At least to recover his breath. But he didn’t know where he was, and he’d seen no sign of shelter since morning broke. He might have to abandon the animals to move faster. Then he’d have risked everything for nothing.

^ We've pretty much infodumped as much as we need to establish Sirath's context in only a few short sentences.

A dark line crossed the foot of a hill ahead. It could be an overhang. Sirath picked up his pace. As he drew nearer his heart rose in hope — that was a split in the rock, and might just be deep enough to bring the animals in.

^ In being the only obvious shelter, other people might also find their way there...

He scrambled up a boggy incline toward it, willing the mules to move faster. The lead animal tossed its head — Sirath slipped from his feet and fell on his back. Fearing to be trampled, he rolled aside. Only the stink of the mule’s coat assaulted him. “Bollocks!” He stood and wiped off black mud that now smeared his clothing. He grabbed the rope. “Come on you stupid bloody animals!”

^ This could be cut without losing anything from the story. But IMO Sirath saying "bollocks" tells us so much more about his character than I could possibly describe - not least that he's low social class, and probably something of a rogue. Although "bollocks" is a Britishism, it's internationally familiar through characters such as John Constantine and anyone in a Guy Ritchie film.

He continued up. His eyes watered from the sleet and frustration. His boots dragged through mud, slid on gravel. Then the ground levelled and he staggered into the cool, still air of a cavern. He blinked and exhaled with relief. Then breathed in the smell of wood smoke.

^ I sometimes apply sentence fragments to help with impact and pace. In this instance, a comma instead of a full stop between the last two sentences would have been long and flowy. By separating the clauses the prose becomes staccato and jolted, which IMO better reflects the tension.

^ I additionally excuse this by the fact that each scene is inflected with character voice, so the more flexible rules of dialogue apply - we will see slang terms and grammatically incorrect phrasing quite a few times from Sirath's viewpoint, to reflect this. Originally, I had wanted to write third person much closer to first person, which would have made these issues more extreme - but the danger was doing so might be too ambitious for a first novel, and also have a jarring effect on readers. So instead, it's subtle for each POV character.


Faint with panic, barely daring to move, he turned.

^ In earlier draughts so many words were wasted on describing the landscape and explaining Sirath's circumstances. IMO it's important to get him to this moment of tension as quickly as possible - and in the paperback, this is the end of page 1.

A bear of a man, clad in black wool and furs, sat ahead by a small fire. A broken bow lay in his lap. A leather sack and a sword sheathed in sheepskin were near his feet.

^ A simple description, without giving away too much detail, other than he's big and armed. The broken bow was part of backstory, now removed, but allows me to keep bringing this character forward later in this scene through his actions with it.

Sirath’s guts sank. He couldn’t stand against someone like this at the best of times, let alone when exhausted.

^ We imply a lot about Sirath's character here - not least that he prefers to avoid confrontation.

But the big, white northerner looked up with friendly eyes, and smiled.

^ This is such a small but important point, and makes it clear that "white" is not the default skin colour in this world. In fact, by Sirath using it, implies that he himself probably isn't. It's subtle enough that white readers might not notice it, but is intended as a clear signal to everyone else not to feel excluded by this world, or its narrative.

There was no turning back now without creating suspicion. Sirath faced him with what felt more like a grimace than a smile. “You don’t mind ... if I shelter in your cave, do you?”

“Aye, share my fire if you will.” The voice was deep, the accent rustic. “I’m Ulric. Blessed be you.”

“Er, blessings, too. I’m Sirath.” He cursed under his breath for giving out his name without thinking. Gutter Jack might not follow this far out from Canalecht, but with the merchant likely somewhere behind, it was a careless mistake. Still, Sirath dared to challenge his fear. This might just be some harmless traveller, happened upon the only cover for miles. With shaking knees, Sirath risked guiding the mules to the back of the cave. He remained with them, pretending to check the rope that tied them together. All the while he stole furtive glances at Ulric, keeping every sense open for the first strike of movement. And readied to run with whatever breath he had left.

^ It's difficult to balance real world reactions with the need for brevity in fiction. Here Sirath casually introduces the beginning of a backstory, without explaining further - we will see a full account through the sum of Sirath's chapters. Better to remain with immediacy and tension than stop to explain too much of anything.

But Ulric didn’t stare or fidget, or glance at his sword. He seemed more concerned about unstringing his broken bow. And his blade was out of easy reach. If Ulric was tracking for a bounty he was either very clever, or very stupid. He was also dry — he couldn’t possibly know about what had happened at the inn.

^ Which makes it clear that Sirath knows he's done wrong

Sirath kept back as long as possible, then tentatively approached. Closer up, Ulric looked younger — perhaps only a couple more years from boyhood than himself. Still much stronger, though.

^ It's difficult to find a way for characters to naturally tell readers their age. Here, Sirath effectively states he's probably in his mid-teens, and that Ulric is nearer 20-years old - by his guestimate, which may not actually be correct.

Sirath had to find a safe way to engage the big man. “This weather’s a sod.”

Ulric nodded. “Just like back home.”

“You’re not local, then?”

“No. Travelling.”

“Why? Hunting someone? No one dangerous around here, I hope?” Even as Sirath tried to joke about it, he could feel his scalp prickle with tension. He might be pushing things too hard, but he had to figure out if Ulric was a danger, and fast.

Ulric burst into hearty laughter. “Hunt someone? No, just game. Rabbits, birds. And boar, when allowed.”

Sirath pretended to share the man’s humour. “You must face some vicious bunnies to need a sword?”

Ulric shrugged. “Auntie got that at market. Was worried about me being attacked by outlaws.”

^ My observation is that two strangers meeting will commonly talk about the weather. However, rather than remain on that topic, it allows me to reveal a little bit about each character through dialogue, without stopping the narrative to explain their backgrounds.

Sirath dared to edge nearer the fire. If Ulric was concerned about robbers, he might welcome company. Better to keep the big man relaxed and talking. “So ... where you going?”

“City of Corianth.”

“Sounds like a long way for you?”

“Just felt I should. Time to seek my place in the world. Walk away to find my fate.”

Sirath could tell there was a story not being told, but wasn’t about to pry. “Don’t get your hopes up. The gutter’s where most people end up when they seek their fortune. That’s where life puts them when they ask for too much. I’ve seen plenty of that. Ask for nothing, expect nothing, and you won’t be disappointed.”

“I’ll remember not to ask for too much, then.” Ulric glanced aside. “You headed there?”

“Suppose I must be. I should sell them animals in the city hay markets. Get more coin than in some village backwater.”

“Weren’t you already going?”

“I might have been thinking about it. I just wandered, see where I ended up. Seeking my fortune, if you like.” Sirath smiled. He realised he’d relaxed a little. Ulric had an honest manner that was disarming. But Sirath still needed to remain on his guard.

^ The danger is that this dialogue could run on too long and end up as chatter, thus cancelling out the earlier tension - so it finishes quickly, while also turning full circle.

They shared an awkward silence. A burst of hailstone rattled outside. Water dripped over the cave mouth.

^ And so we underline that they remain strangers, and the moment of familiarity is gone.

Ulric threw a piece of his broken bow shaft onto the fire. “You see any wood back there?”
“No, but I’ll look again.” Sirath stood, glad for the chance to walk off his nerves. He found scattered ashes from previous fires, but nothing useful. So he wandered about the cavern, getting a measure of it. He looked for nooks and cracks he might sneak into if needed. But the walls were smooth, and there were only a few rocks that could provide any hiding place. He should move on, and soon, with or without Ulric — before someone less welcome appeared. Sirath checked on his mules to make sure they were settled and still tied together, and able to leave quickly.

^ Sirath shows alot about himself through his actions, not least his habit of fleeing danger.

Voices sounded behind.

Sirath spun around as two figures entered the cave. He ducked behind rocks, his throat tightening like he was going to be sick. He should never have taken those animals — they’d slowed him down and now he was a walking dead man.

^ IMO it's important to return to tension. The last sentence is where this chapter title is taken from.
 

Brian G Turner

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Ulric spoke with the strangers. Sirath dared to glance up and saw a finger pointed his way. What a fool he’d been not to realise Ulric might be with company! No wonder the big man hadn’t looked worried, with accomplices close by. There was no point hiding now they all knew where he was.

Sirath planned to step forward with a cheeky wave and attempt some charm, hoping to win over some goodwill, even mercy. Instead he tripped and almost fell, his legs stiff from fear and the biting cold.

^ Sirath's fear of danger helps keep up tension here. It underlines how alone and out of his depth he feels, especially as we already know from earlier that he's a city boy and that he has bigger enemies somewhere behind him.

Two young women stood with Ulric, both about his own age. Sirath didn’t recognise them from the inn, and with a flutter of hope realised Ulric was introducing himself — he didn’t know them, either.

The nearest was pretty, sun-kissed bronze and blonde, with bright eyes. She had money and class, judging by her blue velvet jacket, white shirt, black breeches and boots. She carried nothing more than a leather satchel, and showed no sign of a concealed blade. “Merry meet! I’m Jerine. How do you do?”

The other wore a simple wool habit, with a bag at each shoulder. She pulled back her cowl to reveal the face of a black southerner, framed with short curls. “My name is Erin. I am an acolyte for the Order of Omicron.”

^ And here is the only other time that skin colour is mentioned in this book. Sirath's observation of Erin shows that "black" is normative and doesn't carry any modern social stigma. I'm using the Roman Empire as a template for prejudice here - which means that social status is everything, and skin colour itself isn't an ordinary basis for prejudice.

^ It's also a plot point that Jerine has no travelling equipment with her. Originally it was explained here, but was cut out and instead is referred to later on.


“Warm yourselves by the fire,” Ulric said. “You’re welcome to share.”

Erin put her bags down by her boots, water dribbling to the dust of the cave floor. “The light be with you, thank you for your hospitality. I did fear I might never escape this atrocious weather.”

Jerine seated herself on a rock beside Ulric. “We saw a mule train in the distance, and followed it here. We may not have found shelter, otherwise.”

Sirath kept back and gritted his teeth. He cursed his bad luck to have led the women here.

Jerine smiled too easily, and he distrusted privilege on sight. But it was the acolyte who unsettled him most — he’d suffered enough of the Order’s gang violence on the streets of Canalecht. Sirath wanted nothing more than both women gone. But he’d enemies enough, and willed his mouth to stay shut against making more — if he could manage that.

^ And here the point of predjudice is underlined - not least that Sirath is used to being victimised for being low class, and fears the two women for the social power they represent.

Ulric took out a mean hunting knife and began to carve the remaining piece of wood from his bow. The first shavings sparked as they fell into the fire. The women chatted with him about the weather.

^ As mentioned before, Ulric's broken bow allows a point of focus for that character, and excuses him getting out a big knife - the sight of which plainly puts Sirath on edge.

Sirath twitched, watching in case anyone else appeared. Jerine might have servants following, and it would only take one to have heard talk of a mule thief. No one came. But he needed to know if he should just run now. “You two travelling alone?”

^ If Jerine has social status, it makes no sense to Sirath as to why she's travelling alone - and might suggest something about Jerine's character.

Jerine nodded. “We met a short way back along the track.”

^ And so it's mentioned that both women have been travelling alone - something that, when I first began writing this, would have struck me as utterly unrealistic. However, my research into the mediaeval period showed that it was a lot more common than might be imagined. Even in this modern and violent world, I've met women who think nothing of travelling the world alone.

Sirath’s stomach uncoiled with relief — but it was clear he should leave. It might be better to sell the mules to Jerine, and escape with coin in his hand. He pointed to the animals. “If you’d prefer to ride instead of walk, you could always buy them.”

Jerine followed his gaze and appeared thoughtful. “If they’re broken in for riding, I may like to borrow them.”

^ As we'll learn later on, Jerine has her own reasons for this action.

“Borrow?” Sirath repeated. You couldn’t trust anyone, but the rich even less. “I rode one for a bit. Didn’t want to get rubbed raw. Why?”

“There’s a road in these hills that leads to Arris Town. I’m going there to meet my twin sister, at an inn. She’s offering work in Corianth.”

Sirath narrowed his eyes. “What sort of work?”

“I’m not sure. It’s for a city councillor, so the pay should be good. If any of you are interested?”

Ulric shrugged. Erin looked away.

^ Why should Jerine offer employment to people she's only just met? Again, her reasoning will be explained later. Also, feedback showed it important not to have any other characters simply accept her offer - they need to have their own paths and goals, and not bend too easily from them.

“Sounds tempting,” Sirath said. Solid work meant a full purse, and was better than being lost and hunted in these hills. Especially as he remembered cities as expensive places. If she was telling the truth. “Why did you say borrow? You don’t want to pay for the mules?”

“We can’t be far, so I wouldn’t need to buy them. However, there are all sorts of expenses for maintaining healthy animals. Stabling, feeding, grooming, the cost of a surgeon — ”

“Alright,” Sirath snapped, annoyed because he didn’t have a penny for their care. “What’s your offer?”

“If you allowed us the use of your mules, I would pay for their costs.”

Sirath tried to find the trap in this arrangement. Jerine could just disappear with everything. When you stole horses in Canalecht you used stealth and luck, and if it all went wrong, the speed of the animals. Sirath looked at the mules — they hadn’t moved fast for him. Jerine was right about the expense, though. Either she was a dangerous trickster, or a potential patron. At the moment he couldn’t tell which. “That's all good talk, but do you have the money for it? I don’t mean to be disrespectful or nothing, but words are more easily said than done.”

^ Again, we get constant small reveals about Sirath's character and background, without stopping to explain anything.

Jerine picked up her leather satchel and unstrapped it. She pulled out a bag of black velvet, tied up with string, and passed it to him. “Take a peek in there.”

Sirath frowned — no sane person handed over a purse to a stranger. But his greed was fired and he took it anyway. It was heavier than he expected. “By, that’s a weight ... you must have a few rocks in that!” He laughed, trying to cover his feelings of unease and excitement. He loosened the string — awkward with cold fingers — and pulled it open. His smile froze as he found the bag filled with money. Sirath slowly lifted out a decate sovereign, almost as large as his palm, and whistled involuntarily. He held gold in his hand!

^ Although I've had someone give me their wallet, it's still an unusual thing to do. It potentially suggests something about Jerine's character, or lack of - but later on well discover a more surprisingly reveal about this situation.

That alone would allow him to live like a king for months. The rest was mostly silver guilders, Irithian issue, so more highly valued for their purity.

^ As casually as possible, I've pointed out the lack of standardisation in this world - even with money. It's a subtle world-building point, that will have greater meaning in later books.

He wondered whether he could get away with palming the sovereign — probably not as he'd drawn attention to it. He might still be able to slip a guilder or two into his boot, though his hands were still too numb to risk deft movement. In fact, why not just run with the purse out of the cave and have it all? Sirath looked up and saw Jerine smiling through him. Ulric’s knife glinted as he whittled beside her. Sirath shivered, and this time not from the cold.

^ Originally I explained Sirath's thinking here - but Teresa suggested I cut it out and let the reader figure it out. This is also where Ulric working on his broken bow allows him to come to the fore a little more and appear more threatening than if he were dumbly sat there.

So why did Jerine allow Sirath to hold her fortune? Ah, but she was offering opportunity. Hiding and stealing was a way to survive on the streets, but in Jerine's world, you used promises backed with gold. That was the whole point of money.

They could both travel in the safety of a group. Sirath had the transport, and Jerine the coin to pay for it. Everyone won. The revelation only took a moment, but it left him feeling awkward.

“You’re going to get robbed if you keep offering your purse. Quick, get this lot out my face before I’m tempted myself.”

And that was that. Sirath had made his decision. No more running.

Jerine smiled. “Oh, I knew you wouldn't.”

Sirath fumbled with the string. He sighed and returned it with the purse to Jerine. “I’m afraid I’m not very good at doing knots. I’m a lot better at undoing them.”

^ A potentially stupid boast outside of Sirath's normal company. Which is part of his character, and something we'll see again.

“So, Sirath, do you trust my word now?”

He put on an agreeable voice, “Jerine, I liked you lots already ... now I like you even more. If you’re paying costs then you’re welcome to use my animals.” Sirath waited until she’d tied her purse, then with a wink flipped over the guilder he’d palmed.

^ Boneman suggested this, as it worked well with his character while appealling to the reader to like Sirath for it.

He didn’t enjoy the thought of travelling with Erin. And Ulric was more likely to listen to Jerine than him. But Sirath would have to risk it. Better to leave with a group who knew where they were going, than be lost alone and hunted in these hills. He could only hope Jerine made good on her word. Otherwise life was going to get very dangerous, very fast.

^ And so we end with a lot of questions, few answers, and a continued sense of tension.
 

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