This week, I’m sharing out the current drafts of the prologue and first chapter of The Book with a little bit of commentary. Click here if you’d like to to start from the beginning!
In the third scene, we go back to Xenasi and try to get more of a feel for her as she stumbles deeper into events at large.
As Xenasi patrolled the woods around her grove, she could not quite shake the uncanny sensation that she was being followed.
Stopping for the third time in as many hours, she stilled herself and listened, eyes panning around for anything unusual, but catching little aside from the small birds in the web of boughs high above. She slipped a canine over her lower jaw and blew, then continued onward, convincing herself again that she was simply imagining things.
She had discovered some of the human tracks which had gotten her sister so worked up, but they seemed confused and aimless. Hardly worth the fuss. She had not seen Kaliska herself in the few days since their argument, but this was nothing unusual; they had not lived together since their father’s death, and often went a moon or two without meeting up. Xenasi was used to being alone; she had always been something of an outsider and had come to terms with what that entailed. She could take care of herself, and was better off for it.
After another few minutes of walking, she caught the faint smell of deer ahead, and her stomach offered a pointed reminder that it had been neglected long enough. She idled a moment, reluctantly forcing her mind to switch gears, then followed the scent until a gentle rustling cued her in to her prey’s position.
Keeping downwind, the dragon lowered herself and crept closer, stalking silently over a carpet of twigs and leaves until she spotted the small tawny doe grazing on a lush patch of long grass, still oblivious to the fate which awaited her. Xenasi folded her wings in tighter and shifted slowly toward the animal, positioning herself behind the thick rotted trunk of a fallen birch.
Slowing her breath to a calm and steady rhythm, Xenasi stretched carefully out, acutely aware of the tension in each muscle and tendon, an electric charge running through every joint in her limber frame. She flexed her claws and her eyes focused, taking in every detail about the animal and its immediate surroundings, watching for the slightest movement. For a moment, nothing else existed.
The doe looked up, then bolted. She was fast, but Xenasi was faster. The dragon leapt into her prey’s path, colliding with the doe and taking her down in a whirling tumble which ended with her jaws around the back of the animal’s neck and her claws deep within its flanks. With a sharp twist of her head, she heard a wet snap and felt the doe give a violent shudder and kick which devolved into a spurt of jitters before stopping entirely.
Xenasi took her time with the kill. She carefully peeled back the skin on its sides, cooking the choicest sections with short controlled bursts of dragonfire, and filled her stomach with as much as it could take before folding the remains up neatly, having eaten evenly from both sides to preserve its symmetry. Satisfied with the pleasant but painful weight in her gut, she sat and cleaned herself thoroughly, her saliva making short work of the blood on her arms, snout, and anywhere else it had splattered.
Grogginess began to set in, and she was tempted to nap after gorging, but before she could commit to the notion a faint wheezing from deeper within the woods caught her attention. The sound was accompanied by what she only now noticed to be the hint of a peculiar odor. She listened intently, and the noise came once more. Leaving the doe’s carcass behind for whatever lucky scavenger would chance across it next, she cautiously slinked amidst the trees to investigate, keeping low and alert as she twisted around their trunks.
In another moment, she came upon the body of a human, leaning motionless against a gnarled birch, covered in a torn, drab garment caked in dirt and blood. Xenasi watched for a few moments before approaching the body. So far as she could tell it seemed female, older with long matted tresses of a faded earthy hue. So there are still men here… It could not mean anything good. What happened to this one?
As the dragon leaned in for a sniff, the woman’s eyes snapped open and her body shook with a ragged gasp. Xenasi recoiled instinctively, lifting a clawed hand.
“Demon…!” the woman rasped, her eyes wide and quaking with revulsion.
Xenasi bristled. “I’m not a demon…” she responded quietly, with a bit more indignation than she intended. She narrowed her eyes but lowered her claw. This creature was no threat.
The woman tried futilely to push herself away with one arm, struggling to raise the other to point an accusing finger at the dragon. “You took…killed…” She shook her head feebly, gnashing her gums together as she struggled to bring forth the words. “My hus…the f—the whole…whole village… We were…good people. We—we said our prayers… Why?” The tears welling up in the corner of her eyes began trickling down her cheeks. “Why?” she sobbed, letting her finger drop as she turned her gaze toward the sky.
The dragon averted her eyes for a moment, feeling oddly stricken by force of the allegation. “I didn’t—what was—what happened?” She looked around. “Is there anyone else?”
“You defiled them!” the woman cried, spattering loose strands of spittle down her chin, her breath growing heavy and increasingly labored. “The White…the White will see retribution done.” Her frail hands coiled into trembling fists and her eyes fluttered shut. “They will tear…the black heart…from your breast…” That notion brought a crooked smile to her face, and it was thus her countenance remained when her chest collapsed and she ceased to move.
Xenasi stared for another moment, feeling her full stomach knot and turn sickly. Her thoughts drifted toward the village a couple days’ travel to the east as the implications of the woman’s words gnawed at the edge of her mind. It couldn’t…she wouldn’t… She tried ardently to shake away the darker suspicions that began to crave recognition, and she found herself clutching at the pendant around her neck.
Another sound from the north pulled her focus away. This one was fainter by distance, yet had more weight behind it. It was not the weakening struggles of one, but the purposeful motions of many. She strained to make it out. Is it getting closer?
Xenasi began a careful stride toward it, wanting to get a glimpse at what she was hearing without being seen herself. The sound was getting louder. Footsteps. Travelling. Xenasi made her way on what she hoped to be a course parallel to the approach, so as not to intercept it directly. She listened again to confirm her path, then took another step, and felt her arm go through the ground.
A sudden burst of pain exploded below her elbow, and she had to clench her throat shut to avoid crying out. Her vision swam in a blurry haze as she looked down, seeing leaves, dirt, and twigs piled around and caved in below her arm. She quickly but carefully scooped them away to reveal the jagged metal clamps which had seized her. Holding her breath, she tried to free her arm and the contraption from the hole they were in, but it did not budge, and moving her trapped arm hurt so badly that a rush of dizziness threatened to rip away her consciousness.
She tried to pry the trap open from where it was, but could not get enough leverage with only one arm, and the hole was too narrow to get her teeth down in to assist. She tried to dig it larger with her free claws, but the ground was still cold and stiffly packed, and what little progress she was able to make was counteracted by the tension it caused on the trap itself.
She stopped struggling for a moment and took several long, ragged breaths, noting that the passage of footsteps was nearer still. The cold of the ground was beginning to numb her arm, creating an unpleasant contrast with the warm trickles of blood slipping down it and pooling at the bottom of the hole. She lay down gingerly, trying not to strain her arm, and felt her mind go fuzzy. Her foremost thought was suddenly that she wanted Kaliska very badly, and would even welcome the stern reproach she was sure to get for being so careless. But such futile wishing would not do; she could not rely on another to solve her problems.
Panting, she closed her eyes and tried desperately to focus. I can get myself out of this… Panic and pain were demanding her attention, but she needed to think clearly to get herself free.
Yet as she forced herself to relax, conscious thought began to lose coherence, and indifferent to any efforts she put forth toward escaping her predicament, her mind drifted off to the sound of footsteps.