If you watch me on Twitter then you might have seen me talk a lot lately about writing this first draft of Roses of Ash, my sleeping beauty retelling. Oddly enough, it’s going way better than I expected. I wrote 10k this weekend and am close to breaking 32k on the story itself. I will, of course, hope to end at around 80k but we’ll see. The ending keeps wanting to spin off into a trilogy, yikes!
Anyway, because I’m thrilled to death with the story and the characters I thought I’d share an excerpt from the beginning. For context, our main character is Talia (Sleeping Beauty), and this scene takes place just after she’s woken up with no memory of the past, and the servant with her, Soren, has explained what happened a hundred years ago. They’re about to venture out into the winter to try and escape the frozen kingdom.
This is also pretty much the first fight scene I’ve ever written.
Soren extinguished the magical fire and packed up our supplies. He donned a black cloak of his own, made of a material I couldn’t guess at, but it was fine, and sleek. Light from the torch glinted off his brown hair. He looked like a true and noble servant. He looked handsome. Who was this man who had waited for me for a hundred years, patiently, never wavering? What could make a mere servant wait that long?
I tried to catch hold of his cloak as we descended the tower down a spiraling, dizzying staircase, but my fingers passed through it like a shadow. None of the halls seemed familiar. We passed rooms with tapestries frozen to the walls, weapons from long-dead guards scattered at the doorways, and furniture covered in icicles.
Soren led me out into the white land, and the cold caught in my lungs. The air was thick. I could taste the snow. Everything around us was still, peaceful, insulated.
We approached what used to be a courtyard, as far as I could make out, but it was covered unevenly with white drifts. Soren turned and beckoned me onward. My boots made their first crunches on the snow, and then I looked up into the sky. I couldn’t tell what time of day it was; the clouds were too dark with their bellies full of flurries waiting to be born. A few snowflakes fell towards me slowly, as if welcoming me back to the world, and one caught on my lips. I brushed it away, and then the memory fell upon me just as gently, the truth behind what had woken me:
I touched my gloved hand to my lips. It wasn’t just the feel of something on my lips that had been there when I woke; the familiar thing was a kiss, with all the implications and emotional connection that went with it.
I looked at Soren’s quickly retreating back, with the magical black cloak billowing, and felt the first strange touch of caution. He’d said I woke when the curse wore off. He’d said he waited for me for a hundred years.
“My Lady, we need to hurry! Please!”
I plunged after him, taking step after step into the snow, sinking in it halfway up to my knees. With a surge of gratitude I determined the boots did not leak. I caught up to Soren, pacing my breaths with my steps, finding an easy rhythm, marveling that I knew how to do this when I had no memory of learning it, or who taught me.
We approached the border of the castle walls, where the iron gate had been. Something had torn through it, leaving space for Soren and I to slip out since there was no one left to raise the gate. Beasts, or magic, I wondered? I saw claw marks on the iron. Beast, then. A nasty one.
I looked at the snow as we passed. No tracks. But judging by the falling rate, and the look of the clouds, any tracks made more than four hours ago would have been filled completely. This light snowfall was a break in the storm. It did not surprise me when the winds picked up and the snow fell in flurries, clinging to my eyelashes and making it hard to see.
Why didn’t it surprise me? With a start I realized I’d been using knowledge again that I didn’t consciously know I had. Tracks? Rates of snow fall? What kind of princess knew about that?
My heart panged. A princess with six older brothers, that’s who. Which one had taught me these tricks?
I remembered something… returning from the cold to the immense heat of flame. A general feeling of merriment, and someone upset that we had been out in the storm. But it was okay, we’d made it back. The problem was that I didn’t know who.
Soren’s black cape was the only thing that helped me see him in the flurries. We descended on what I figured had been a road a long time ago, winding its way down the mountainside.
My chin was freezing, and it made my neck hurt. I called out to Soren, and we paused while he magicked me a scarf, blushing with apologies.
“It’s all right,” I said. “I need to rest anyway.”
The confession embarrassed me, but the energy from the porridge had worn off. I knew I should have been able to go much longer without taking a break, but not using my muscles for decades had consequences. We paused, two statues in the wilderness while I caught my breath. The wind whistled around us, delivering snow in such quantities I could hear it touching down in great clumps.
Then, a change in the noise, like the tuning of the wind.
I whirled on instinct, but Soren was already shoving me to the ground. “Get down!”
Something screamed above me, and as I fell face up I glimpsed the fleeting shape of something with wings –and claws- graze the air where I had been standing. I froze in the snow though it chilled me to the bone. Heart racing, I knew I needed- something! Damn, but I needed it!
I heard Soren ripping his sword from its sheath, and sat up to see him standing in a defensive position, blade in both hands, weight on his toes, loose at the knee, backing up towards me. I struggled to my feet.
“Stay down!” he shouted again, voice clogged through the scarf.
“What is it?”
A shape loomed out of the thick flurries, its quickly-growing silhouette revealing the twin capes of black wings and eyes that caught the light –and glowed red. It swooped low, and Soren swung. I flinched as something screamed while a blackish-red liquid fell onto the snow, dissolving it in a hiss of steam. The creatures ran hot.
Heart racing, I rolled to my knees and crawled as fast as I could to the side of the road, ignoring the pain in my knees and praying for a boulder or iced-over drift or anything I could use for cover. Something that could withstand those talons but let me get a good shot off with my bow.
I dove into the ditch and scrambled to a crouch just in time to see Soren circling as wings swished overhead. Two sets. Two beasts bigger than the mammoth bed I’d woken in. I saw it before it happened and shrieked for him – one came at him from the front and the other from the back while he was distracted, slicing through his shadow cloak and the shirt beneath, exposing Soren’s blood to the white road.
His back arched and he missed the swing into the attacker from the front, and I felt its eyes focus on me next. Its bird-like talons flexed for me as it finished the swoop and I rolled as quickly as I could. They struck snow not six inches from where I lay.
This was not going to work.
I could barely see from the falling snow and shadows from dark clouds above, but I felt the wings of the Gargrayles riding the air and knew they were rising up to fall down on us again. Now was the time. I hurled myself from the ditch back onto the road, scrambling knee over arm for where Soren’s bags lay deserted in the snow. He yelled obscenities at me to get back but I’d seen flashes of what he was carrying, and knew the pack in which it lay.
The gold of the hilt glinted, beckoning, and my frozen fingers tore at the ties as the cry of the beast started above me. Knowing its claws would be opening wide, ready to pierce me through, I yanked out the blade, feeling the rush of strength as the muscles in my arms counteracted its weight, and held the sword aloft above my head, its hilt providing a strange warmth to my hands, twisting left at the last possible second and slicing through the air.
I connected with flesh.
The creature’s stinking blood fell down like a sheet of rain and it cried so loud I felt the noise reverberate down the blade to my hands. The blade sung.
“Damn it, get down! Get down!” Soren kept yelling over and over but I ignored him, stepping towards the circle he had stomped out with frantic twirling, and turning my back to him.
The snow bit into my eyes and I narrowed them to slits, grateful once again –again?- for my thin eyelashes, seeking the body of a beast within the gusts of wind and shadows of falling snow.
“They’re coming!” I shouted, and tensed, sword pointed above my right shoulder. It felt alive, like a friend who whispered to me to be confident. It would take care of me, tell me what to do.
I crouched down, pretending I was small as a sparrow, and felt the beast fall towards me. I looked up and my world narrowed to jaws filled with great needles, ears pointed like a wolf, and a body covered in fur, framed by its leathery wings. Its eyes were animal: consumed with greed. It fell towards me, an arrow pointed straight at a target. There was nowhere to hide, no time to run.
Those terrible talons opened.
I screamed a hoarse cry, leaping up and reaching as high as I could, my jump startling the beast, and though its talons closed around my chest I swung hard, slicing into –through!- its neck.
I had hoped for a gash; a complete beheading should have been impossible, but my shock didn’t have time to register. Headless, the body couldn’t break its fall, and it slammed me to the ground, claws biting into my skin. Its breastbone crushed my ribs and a smothering blanket of musky fur pressed into my nose and mouth. Dimly I could hear shouts of the battle Soren still fought with the other Gargrayle.
Something warm and wet touched my head and trickled down my face. Blood.
I squirmed, but the weight was immense. I pushed my head back into the snow to catch a breath, barely finding space between the creature’s body and the air. Pushing and pulling myself despite complaining muscles now reverting to their apathetic weakness, I slowly wriggled my way out from under the beast.
Snow got in my shirt and scraped at my neck as I freed my head and arms. Then Soren was there, pushing his whole body against the dead gargrayle and slowly rolling it off me. Its claws tore my cloak.
“Are you all right?!”
I gasped for air, blood chilling on my head and one cheek freezing against the snow. I nodded. He helped me onto my shaking legs.
“Talia, when I say get down, I mean it! You have to listen to me; the world is a lot more dangerous than it was in your time. Those things could have killed you!”
“You couldn’t fight two at once,” I chattered. “They would have killed us anyway.” I looked around. “Where’s the other one?”
“It got away,” he said grimly. “And we need to leave, too. There could be more.”
I kicked at the decapitated head of the Gargrayle, its red eyes still glaring, though still. I knelt to the ground to clean off my sword in the snow, then wiped it on the inside of my cloak to so it wouldn’t rust in the scabbard. It was a fine blade, expertly crafted and apparently sharper than my instincts told me should be possible. The hilt looked gold, but was too hard to be, adorned simply with a large sapphire.
Soren pulled a cloth from his pack, or maybe he conjured it, and wiped the blood from the side of my face.
“Thanks,” I said.
He reached out to take the sword from me, but I jerked away. His eyebrows raised in surprise. I had surprised myself, but I felt protective of the sword. I didn’t want to give it up.
“You shouldn’t be handling that,” he said.
“I guess I know how to use it well enough. I killed the Gargrayle, didn’t I?”
Soren dropped his hand and I clutched the sword closer to me.
“It’ll slow you down.”
“You were carrying two. I can be suffered enough to carry one.”
Snow fell between us, wind whistling through the tops of dead trees on either side of the road. What would I do if he insisted – draw my sword against this man who had watched over me for a hundred years?
He sighed. “Fine. Let me get you a belt for it.”
Stand-off dissolved, Soren cinched the leather around my waist, his body a warm blockade against the wind. I closed my eyes for a moment, and caught the unexpected scent of him. He smelled like fire, and the sweet sting of magic. I liked that.
He finished, and pulled back, watching as I slid the sword into the scabbard at my left side. The weight clung to me, and I caught my breath in pleasure. This was the second thing that had been missing. This is what I was reaching for back in the tower.
A kiss and a sword. Strange bedfellows to be the only two things I could truly remember. Soren observed me with his golden eyes. Perhaps he saw the recognition forming on my face.
“Why can I use a sword so well?” I asked him, still so close I didn’t have to shout over the wind. “Princesses usually don’t… they don’t carry these, do they?”
“You were a very remarkable princess,” he said softly.
Something moved within me. Maybe it was the look in his eyes, or the way my lips tingled when he drew near, but there was definitely something he wasn’t telling me. About us.
“Just how close were we?”
Soren’s eyes flinched away from mine, and he looked stricken for a moment before recovering. “Let’s talk about it later,” he said gruffly, walking past me to his bags. “We have to get moving. Night will be here soon.”
“I want you to tell me now.”
“Talia – Highness…” He picked up the bags and strapped them to his back once more. “I don’t think you understand how dangerous it is for us here. I’ll explain everything once you’re in Shalimar. Please. We need to hurry.”
I relented, and continued to follow him down the path, wrapping the scarf around my head again. We hiked until the sky grew so dark I could barely see the snow falling in front of my face, the mystery of the kiss and sword pushed to the back of my mind in the stress of hard travel.
We did not see the Gargrayles again, but I felt movement around us occasionally. Soren paused now and then as well, sometimes lighting up the road with a burst of red light emanating from his hand, and then the feeling of being watched diminished.
Traveling in this way, we encountered no disturbances until nightfall.