Empire’s Hostage: Status update and an excerpt.

Yesterday I typed the last words of the first draft of Empire’s Hostage, Book II of the Empire’s Legacy series. Beginning about eighteen months after the end of Empire’s Daughter, the book opens with Lena serving at the Wall, as the war with the north continues.

Now, finishing the first draft isn’t the same as having a publication-ready manuscript; there’s a lot of work to do still. I will now go through the book scene by scene, adding detail (or taking it away), delving further into the emotions and reactions of my characters. Then I’ll do an analysis of each scene: what purpose does it serve? Is it consistent with previous action, reaction, character traits? (including what happens in Empire’s Daughter) – and make the requisite changes. Have I carried themes and images through the book? Is Lena’s horse the same colour in every scene? Large things and small: they’re all important. Finally, I’ll do a copy-edit, looking for formatting errors.

Once I’ve done that – all on the laptop – I’ll print a copy, go through it at least twice, and then and only then, prepare the copies for my beta readers. I’m hoping to have that all done by April.

I’ll do a cover reveal in a couple of weeks (that’s a little dependent on my cover artist), but for now, here’s a look into the opening scenes of Empire’s Hostage.

Chapter 1

The rain slashed down unceasingly, half ice, stinging exposed skin and making it nearly impossible to see anything in the grey light. When the sun, hidden now behind the thick layer of clouds, set–not long now, I estimated–the stones of the Wall and the native rock would lose what warmth they held, and begin to ice over. Night watch would be treacherous, tonight. I counted it a small blessing that my watch had begun after the midday meal.

I wiped a gloved hand over my eyes yet again and scanned north and eastward, not focusing on anything, but looking for motion, or for something that didn’t belong, as Turlo had taught me; something that moved against the wind, or a shadow that hadn’t been there yesterday. I listened, too, to the sounds beyond the noises of the fort and the babble of the stream behind me: the hoarse cry of a raven, the soft chatter of sparrows settling into their roost: no alarm calls. I walked the few steps across the watchtower and began my scan again, to the northwest.

Footsteps sounded on the wooden steps. I did not turn; only when my relief stood beside me, looking out, could I look away.

“I think the minging gods have forgotten it’s the first day of spring,” Halle said. “Anything I should know?”

“There’s a raven in the usual tree,” I answered, still looking outward, “but it’s not alarmed, just making conversational croaks occasionally. I saw a fox about an hour ago, when I could still see, and its mind was on finding mice in the rocks. No owls today but maybe they’re not hunting in this rain. But there could be forty northmen out there, and as long as they moved with the wind and stayed low, I wouldn’t know. But I don’t think so; I’m guessing there is one, or maybe two, watching us, no more.”

“Wrapped up in their cloaks, under some rocks or furze,” Halle said. “I’d rather be here.”

“So would they,” I reminded her.

She laughed, but without mirth. “Go and get warm,” she said. “The hunting party brought back a deer, so there’s venison stew to be had.” I glanced over at her; her eyes were on the land beyond the Wall, watching.

“Good luck,” I said, and turned. I took the stairs down from the watchtower as quickly as I felt safe; the movement warmed me, slightly. At the bottom, I stepped over the gutter, running with rainwater, and onto the cobbled walkway that ran along the inner side of the Wall. The Wall itself broke the wind, and the rain fell with less force. Still, I pulled the hood of my cloak over my head as I walked to the camp.

All the discipline of the Empire could not build a finished fort in a time of war, and while the tents and a few stone and timber huts stood in orderly rows, the roads and pathways between mostly were earthen – or mud, right now. Since the skirmishes had died down, some weeks earlier, work had begun on paving the main thoroughfares through the camp. A narrow, cobbled track ran from the Wall to the centre of the encampment, just wide enough for two people to pass, and I noticed it extended a few feet further into the camp than it had when I had left for watch duty. I stepped off its comparatively clean cobbles onto the slick surface of the hard-packed earthen path. It had been built to drain, and two ditches ran on either side of it, but I could feel mud sticking to my boots.

At the kitchen tent, I scraped the mud off my boots on the iron blade mounted outside, and shook the worst of the rain off my cloak. Ducking inside, I met a blast of welcome heat. I stripped off my gloves and cloak, and the thick tunic I wore beneath the cloak and piled them on a bench. A gust of cold air told me someone else had come in; I turned to see Darel already loosening the clasps of his cloak. He’d been on watch duty at the tower east of the camp.

“Quiet?” I asked. He nodded, concentrating on pulling his tunic over his head.

“Very,” he answered, when his tunic was off. His red hair, streaked with rain, stood up in clumps. He sniffed the air. “I hear rumours of venison stew,” he said. Caro, on servery duty, spoke up.

“More like thick soup,” she said, “but, yes, it’s venison. With some root vegetables and barley in with it. Sit down, and I’ll bring it over.” We did as directed, and soon enough two bowls of soup, or stew, stood in front of us, with a loaf of dark, hard bread. Darel cut the loaf in half with his belt knife, and passed one piece to me. I ripped off a chunk, and dipped it in the soup, and ate hungrily.

Caro brought over two mugs of thin beer, and for a space of some minutes we did nothing but eat. Others had come in as we ate, and the smell of damp wool began to overpower the scent of venison stew in the tent. No-one said much; another day of rain and cold and mud dampened spirits as much as it did hide and stone. The rain drummed on the tent, ceaselessly.

Caro put more fuel in the brazier and then slipped onto the bench beside me. We had ridden north together, from Casilla, half a year earlier, when Dian had come south to requisition food and horses and other supplies for the army. I hadn’t really known her there; she had worked at one of the small food stalls near the harbour, and sometimes on my way to or from my work on the boats I had bought something from her.

“How’s the soup?” she asked.

“Fine,” I said. It was; thick enough to be satisfying, and reasonably spiced.

“It was only a yearling,” she said. “Not enough meat to go around, really, so we had to make soup.”

Food, I knew, was becoming a problem. At the end of the winter, with almost all the army ranged along the length of the Wall, game within a day or two’s hunting was scarce. Sending men – or more likely women – south to the villages for provisions meant fewer of us to defend the Wall if another raid occurred. The truce, called ten days ago, could end at any moment; the Emperor and his advisors spent their days at the White Fort, east of our camp, negotiating with the leaders of the northmen. Fifteen months of war: eight to drive the invaders back beyond the wall; another seven, now, keeping them there, until the ravages of winter, little food, and the deaths of so many, on both sides, had led to the request, and agreement, to parley.

“Who brought it in?” I asked idly.

“Dian,” Caro replied. “They got two, both yearlings, but one went to the White Fort. Have you had enough to eat?”

I shrugged. “Enough,” I said. “Is there any tea?” Darel looked up.

“I could eat more,” he said, “if there is any?” In truth, I could have too, but knew I shouldn’t. Darel was so young, and growing, and thin as a starveling cat. All the cadets looked the same.

“There’s a bit,” Caro said judiciously. “Give me your bowl, and I’ll bring it back, and your tea, Lena.” She slid off the bench and went back to the servery. Darel stretched. “Dice?” he suggested. “After we’re done eating?”

I shook my head. “Not tonight,” I said. “My tunic needs repairing; one of the shoulder seams is splitting.” Caro came back, and Darel fell on his bowl as if he hadn’t eaten the first helping. I curved my hands around the mug of tea. It smelled of fruit: rosehip, I thought.

I sat, sipping the tea. Darel finished his soup, wiping every trace of liquid from the bowl with the last piece of bread, and pushed his bench back. He took his beer and joined a pair of cadets at another table, pulling out his dice. They would sit here, playing, all the rest of the evening, if Caro let them; the servery tent was warmer than the barracks, and there was always the chance of some scraps of food.

I finished the tea, idly watching the dice game. “Minging dice,” one of the cadets growled.

“Language!” Caro warned. She allowed no obscenities in the kitchen tent: another slip and she’d make the cadets leave, and they knew it. I’d got used to the casual swearing among the troops; ‘minging’, a lewd term for urination, was one of the most frequently heard. I even said it myself, now. I stood to take the mug back to Caro, along with Darel’s forgotten bowl. Suddenly, the clatter of hooves on the cobbles rang out in the night. “Who?” Caro breathed. The cadets dropped the dice, and stood. The tent flap parted, and Turlo – General Turlo, now, and advisor to the Emperor – strode in. Darel straightened even more; the presence of his father always made him conscious of his decorum.

Turlo blinked briefly in the light of the tent. “General?” Caro said. “Would you like food, or drink?”

He smiled at her. “We ate well enough at the Fort,” he said, “but thank you. No, I came in search of two soldiers, and I’ve found them. Guard Lena; Cadet Darel: please go to your barracks; pack your possessions and come back here as quickly as you can. You two – Cadets Lannach and Samel, am I right? – go to the horse lines, please, and bring back two mounts. And then retire to your barracks,” he added. “Go!” he said, not unkindly; Lannach and Samel scurried to do his bidding.

Darel had not moved, but looked over at me. “General?” I said. “What is happening?”

“I will tell you,” he said, “when you return with your packs. Bring anything you cannot live without, and your warmest clothes and boots, if you are not already wearing them. Quickly, mind!” It was mildly said, but still an order. I glanced at Darel; he had already turned to put on his outdoor clothes. I did the same, conscious of the racing of my heart.

If this has piqued your interest, follow this blog for upcoming information on the release. The first book in the series, Empire’s Daughter, is available from Amazon as an e-book or paperback.