Have yourself a Ghost Raven little Christmas

Christmas time is here
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all that children call
Their favourite time of the year

Actually, wait a second – jumped the gun on that. Christmas is still about 2.5 weeks away, which is kind of a relief because I haven’t brought any presents yet.

But I come bearing gifts nonetheless – a gift for you! The gift of words!

Having just knocked off another good chunk of work on Raven’s Blood this morning, I thought it was a good time to show y’all a bit of what I’ve been working (far too slowly and haphazardly) over the last 18 months. So here, in its entirety, is the entire first chapter of Raven’s Blood, offered as an exclusive preview to all you folks who’ve stuck with me and this here blog for so long.

Hope you like it.

(Note: extract is short on Christmas cheer and long on horrible things.)

ONE

Two Warrant-guards had Kember in their grip, each one holding an arm, and she was trying to come up with an escape plan when the body fell from the sky and smashed through a run-down market stall in front of them. Screams and cries erupted throughout the Carnaby Court fruit market as blood and apricots spilled out across the cobblestones, panic washing across the crowd like a shock of cold river-water.

The guard on Kember’s right let go of her elbow to draw his sword. ‘Blood of the Host!’ he swore as he advanced on the wrecked stall. ‘What was that?’

In a finer world the one on her left would have done the same, but as in all things this world was less than it could be, and the grizzle-faced guard on her left was Sergeant Jesseck, a woman all too familiar with Kember and her habits. Surely this was what led her to not just maintain but tighten her grip on Kember’s upper arm in the face of such distraction. The milling crowd buffeted them like waves, and Kember tried to let them pull her away in their wake, but Jesseck stood resolute and her hand tightened like a vice.

‘Damn you, Jesseck,’ Kember said, ‘no need to rip my blessed arm off! How about you let me go and attend to your swordmate like a proper Warrant-leader?’

‘Quiet, girl,’ Jesseck replied. ‘We don’t need none of your lip this day! No disaster or murder will stop me from delivering you to the Mayor for judgement – and ’tis better you face his wrath than I do!’

‘Sergeant, come here! You’ve got to have a look at this!’ the watchman called from the smashed stall. Jesseck made her way across, dragging Kember by her side – without much difficulty, since she too wanted to see exactly what kind of disaster had livened up an otherwise ordinary early-spring day in Crosswater.

Before looking down, Kember looked up, just in time to see a figure silhouetted against the sky atop the nearest rooftop, three storeys above the street. A figure shaped like a man except for its massive left arm and shoulder, bulging out from its torso like a gargoyle jutting from a tower. But before she could utter a word the shape drew back and vanished from sight. She thought for a moment to tell Jesseck, but then forgot about that as soon as she looked down to see the body lying in a heap of broken fruit boxes and crushed apples.

The dead man was wrapped in a cloak of feathers, mostly grey but speckled here and there with shades of black or white, all stitched unto a silk backing – and all tinged red with spatters of blood. Two crossbow bolts protruded from his side, plunged deep into brown leather that had proved too thin to deflect them. The hood of the cloak had fallen back to show his face, but it was hidden under a black mask, a broad domino that flared sharp by his temples.

The younger watchman took a step forward, slowly, almost like a step taken to genuflect in the Lunar Temple. ‘He’s dressed like… do you think it’s him?’ he asked.

‘Pull your head from your arse, boy,’ Jesseck snapped back. ‘He’s been gone for ten years and more!’

‘But I’ve heard stories…’

‘Swive your stories! Do your damn’ed job! Here, hold this rascal girl while I take a proper look!’ And with that Jesseck thrust Kember forward into her subordinate’s arms. The watchman staggered back, his grip loose as he fumbled with his sword, and if there was ever a time for Kember to escape it was now.

But she did not take it.

Jesseck bent to the side of the corpse, pears and gooseberries breaking to pulp under her knees, to peel away the mask from the man’s face. Under the black felt was the face of an Easterling man in his early twenties, his eyes closed, his checks pocked with freckles and a few acne scars. ‘I know this man,’ Jesseck said under her breath. And Kember said nothing, because she thought she recognised the face too.

The face that suddenly sprang to life, eyes snapping open to fix on her, mouth opening to gasp and then croak: ‘Tell him! Tell him! It was in the river! The golem-men of Bridgedown, they found it! They –’

Whatever he had left to say choked off in his throat, though his mouth stayed open. More, it opened wider and wider, as did his eyes that rolled in terror and agony. He locked eyes with Kember and she could not look away as a light began to burn in his sockets, in his mouth, through his skin as it outlined his bones.

A light that blazed white through red, so bright and pure that Kember had to pinch her eyes near-shut to stand it. A light too bright for the world to tolerate.

She knew what would happen next. Every child knew what would happen next. The light would burn and burn, burn away the flesh and blood of the man, burn his bones till they fused to red glass, and then the skeleton would rise to its feet and kill and kill and kill until smashed to glittering pieces. Just as they did during the War.

Kember screamed in panic, tried to wrestle herself from the watchman’s grip, but he was already backing away as fast as he could with her arm in his hands and screaming himself. Everyone left in Carnaby Court was doing the same, long-dead terrors rising from oblivion to wipe away all courage and thought.

But it didn’t happen. The light began to ebb, white fading into red and then to nothing, leaving only an awful heap of cooked flesh in the shape of a man, wrapped in a shroud of smoke that stank of blood and burnt feathers. No blood-glass skeleton ripped itself from the remains. It was only a lone man’s death, his terrible and grotesque death, and Kember knew she should feel sorry for him but she was too relieved at her own survival to spare him much thought.

As the remaining crowd slinked back into the market square and hubbub began to arise, Kember slowly, carefully slid her arm from the young watchman’s grasp. He was too fascinated by the impossible corpse to pay her heed, and she quietly turned to escape into the confusion. Only to find Sergeant Jesseck ready for her, clapping her wrists in gauntleted fists and pulling her in close.

‘Let’s go, girl,’ Jesseck said, and there was nothing forgiving in the woman’s eyes. ‘We need to go see the Mayor.’

A few notes, if you’re interested.

The core of this chapter has stayed the same since I first wrote it, but it’s gone through many iterative changes – as has pretty much the whole book, as I’ve been revising as I go rather than write discrete drafts. (Should probably write a blog post on that one day.) I’ve changed details and dialogue, fleshed out the descriptions of place a bit (and probably will again) and tried to make the scene more arresting and horrific – but still, this is largely what I wrote just after getting the idea for Raven’s Blood, and I can’t see it changing markedly.

Actually, wait – one major change is that Sergeant Jesseck was male in the first iteration of the story. But I got to a point later in writing where I felt that too much of the story revolved around male-female interactions with a paucity of female-female interactions, and that I couldn’t see a place to introduce a significant new female character in the story space I set up. So Jesseck changed gender – and became way more interesting to write about. In a setting where gender equality is standard – because stuff writing either gender as secondary citizens – it’s super fun to have the hard-bitten veteran also be someone’s grandmother, and for that to just be the way it is. I love it when Jesseck makes her way into scenes; she kicks all the arse.

This is a very different writing style than something like The Obituarist, or indeed pretty much anything else I’ve done. It’s a very direct style, with the story pointed right at the reader, and with more description than I usually prefer. But I think that’s a style that’s more appropriate for a YA audience, and as I continue with it I’m finding it more comfortable and enjoyable to write. It’s also got a few florid touches, both in dialogue and in voice, and that’s my attempt to conjure a slightly old-fashioned vernacular – nothing too authentically Elizabethan, but with just enough mannerism to convey that it’s a fantasy story. Hopefully it works; will find out soon enough.

Anyway, work continues apace on Raven’s Blood, and I think I’m on track to finish it by February. Assuming I keep at it.

And I think I will.

3 thoughts on “Have yourself a Ghost Raven little Christmas

  1. I like it!

    I love that Kember’s situation escalates from the serious problem of her arrest to the startling arrival of the body and the mystery of the rooftop figure to stark horror – and then all the way back to the arrest, but now with heightened tension. Great little arc of action. Sergeant Jesseck is an attention-grabbing character for sure.

    Good fun, would turn to the next page.

    The only thing I would quibble with is that there is maybe not enough of Kember in there other than her situation, hints of her reputation and one line of dialogue. Of course, as it’s a very short chapter of a longer that’s not a real problem. (Also I have a tendency to overengineer characters, so maybe don’t listen to me at all).

    1. Hey Dave,

      Sorry to not reply to your comment sooner – somehow I managed to miss it until now. Must check for replies more often!

      I’m glad to hear you liked it – if you of all people had been lukewarm it’d be back to the drawing board.

      And you bring up a really interesting point about Kember’s engagement in the chapter. For me, the scene is filtered through her POV, which embeds her in the narrative just as much as action and dialogue. But I know going in that the whole book will be from her POV, because I’m a stickler for maintaining a consistent core viewpoint even in third person – the readers don’t know that yet, and if you come in cold then it does seem like she’s not defined enough. I might come back and do some more tinkering in these early chapters, give her a little more dialogue and interaction with the scene.

  2. Finally got around to reading this! It’s great stuff. Personally I was happy with the tiny glimpse of Kember here, given we’re bound to hear a lot more about her when we get to the mayor.

    On changing Jesseck’s gender, you no doubt saw the post doing the rounds by Geena Davis on specifically doing this very thing…

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