I apologize if this isn't the right place to post something like this - and please tell me if it isn't! I have written about 100 pages that I believe would ultimately make up between a quarter and a third of a complete fantasy novel. It's been very slow going and I'm hoping that if I start sharing it and getting feedback (constructive and/or encouraging) I'll be motivated to keep going. Anyway, this is a little less than half of the first chapter, titled "The Bahtu". If you decide check it out, thanks, and let me know what you think!
Autumn had arrived in Windle. After more than two years of drought there were few signs to mark the change in seasons — few leaves to change color and fall, and no harvest to speak of for the handful of farmers still trying to make a living in the shallow rocky soil of the eastern region. The sun hung a little lower in the sky, though, and the awful heat of summer was giving way to cooler temperatures, which Horsley was enjoying immensely as he sat on the covered balcony in front of his home having dinner with his daughter, Saira. They sat at a small, ornately carved square table that had been a wedding gift of sorts for him and his wife, Alensa. Horsley had actually made the table himself at the very end of his apprenticeship with Alensa’s father. He told Horsley that it had been ordered by a very important customer, so it had to be truly exceptional, and it would serve as a final test to complete his apprenticeship. When the table was finished, it was as beautiful as anything Alensa’s father had made himself (or at least he told Horsley that it was), and Horsley and Alensa, who were engaged at the time, turned out to be the very important customers. It was a very fine gift, somehow even more so because Horsley had made it himself, and Alensa loved it dearly. Shortly after she died, Horsley moved the table out onto the balcony, knowing that it would always cause him to think of her. It was about that same time that Saira began asking to have dinner on the balcony almost every night.
Tomorrow would mark the one-year anniversary of Alensa’s death, and as Horsley looked at Saira now, he was struck by how much she looked like her mother. She was growing into her ears, which had always been narrower and less furry than Horsley’s but had still seemed comically large when she was younger. “Every puggin has big ears when they’re little,” Alensa had assured him, and of course she was right, but Horsley had always been a little self-conscious about his own big ears, and he feared what inheriting the trait might do for the prospects of an otherwise lovely daughter. Now Saira, who had just turned twelve, looked far too much like the beautiful piksin Horsley remembered meeting in Pagston so many years ago. He remembered how he had felt about Alensa then, and found himself wishing that Saira’s funny ears had not been so quick to recede.
“What are you thinking about, Daddy?” Saira asked as she poked at the dried tomato that served as the highlight of the evening’s meal. “You look kind of sad.”
Horsley took a long breath and gazed out toward the hills that lay just east of town, taking a moment to think before answering. He had decided not to treat the anniversary as a special day, but he was having second thoughts about it. After all this time it seemed like he and Saira were just coming out of the worst of the grief, and he was reluctant to invite it back. On the other hand, what would Saira think if she remembered and he said nothing about it?
He settled on a simple, half-true response. “I was just thinking about how much you look like your Mom,” he said.
Saira smiled an embarrassed smile that lit up her whole face. It was one of Horsley’s favorite of her many smiles, making it one of his favorite things in all the world. Then Saira shifted a little nervously in her chair, looking up at the ceiling like she wanted to say something more but was having a hard time finding the words. Horsley didn’t press, enjoying the quiet evening and the light cool breeze. Alensa had always wanted to know every thought in Saira’s head, but Horsley didn’t have that kind of courage.
“Daddy?” Saira said at last.
“You know tomorrow is the day that Momma died, right?”
Well that answered that. Horsley gave a long sigh. “Yeah. I was thinking about that too. I wasn’t sure if I should say anything. Sorry, I probably should have.”
Saira brushed the apology aside. “No, I understand. I was just thinking…” She looked up toward the ceiling again.
“What is it? Is there something special you’d like to do tomorrow? Maybe we could light a candle for her during the Ceremonies, or say a prayer?” Horsley instantly regretted this last bit, having avoided praying out loud at the Ceremonies his entire adult life.
“Actually...” and now Saira seemed really nervous. “I was thinking… maybe we could miss the Ceremonies tomorrow?” She pulled her knees up to her face, barely peeking above them as she waited for Horsley’s response.
He was startled by the outsized rush of anger that he felt at this request, and he did his best to check it. He knew that he shouldn’t be angry, at least not with Saira, and she was obviously already worried about how he would react.
“Why would you want to skip the Ceremonies?” he asked, forcing a smile and trying to sound only curious. “I think we even have a Singer visiting tomorrow, so it should be pretty good.”
Saira peeked out a little from behind her knees. “Well, you know, Momma didn’t always go to the Ceremonies. Sometimes she liked to go up into the hills and just spend time by herself singing and praying. I feel like that was really important to her.” Saira was looking directly at Horsley now, and he could see tears beginning to well up in her pretty brown eyes. “She only took me with her a few times, but I have really good memories of it.”
Horsley wasn’t prepared for this at all. He was flooded with the emotions he had felt at those same times - fear, anger, and suspicion of betrayal. He thought he’d gotten past it all, but it seemed that he had just learned to stop thinking about it. Now Saira was asking to mark the anniversary of Alensa’s death in a way that would be sure to dredge it all back up.
Horsley was struggling to answer when he noticed Malti Dibbins stepping out from her small house just across the narrow cobblestone street from theirs. She seemed very upset, and it occurred to Horsley that he hadn’t noticed her son, Geldon, return home from the mines yet. It wasn’t all that uncommon for him to get back as late as this, or even later, but the evenings were growing shorter, and Malti was quick to worry anyway.
“Daddy,” Saira asked tentatively, “what do you think?”
“Just a minute,” Horsley said, glad to be able to dodge the question for the moment. “It looks like Malti’s upset. Hi Malti,” he shouted, trying for her sake to sound more cheerful than he felt just then. “Is everything all right?”
“Oh, hi Horsley, Saira,” she said, glancing in their direction before looking anxiously back down the street toward the hills. “I was expecting Geldon by now. It’s going to be dark soon…” Geldon was Malti’s only child, and though he was twenty-five years old, they still lived together in the home where he had been born. Geldon was past the age when most puggins married, but fathers were reluctant to give their daughters to a miner these days, preferring arrangements that provided opportunities outside of Windle.
“I don’t think it’ll be dark for another hour at least,” Horsley said. “I’m sure he’ll be back any minute. Do you want to come join us up here, and we can wait for him together?”
Malti continued to peer down the street, not answering right away. She was only about ten years older than Horsley, but he had always thought of her as older than she was. She was an “old married piksin” with a four-year-old son when Horsley left to apprentice in Pagston at the age of fourteen. When Horsley’s mother died, not long after a sudden illness brought him back to Windle with his new family to care for her, Malti became like a mother to Horsley and Alensa, and like a grandmother to Saira. She also had a habit of worrying, made worse when her husband died in a mining accident ten years ago, that had added years to her face.
“Thank you, Horsley,” she answered at last. “That would be nice. I’ll just get some tea for us and be right over.” A year ago, before the drought had made flour as precious as gold, it would have been tea and cookies. Now even the tea was a luxury.
As Malti disappeared back inside, Horsley was left alone with Saira again. He looked at her and sighed. “Let me think about it,” he said at last. “I understand why you would ask. I really do. But the Ceremonies are important, especially here in Windle. Especially now.”
Saira frowned. “I know they’re important to you, but I want tomorrow to be about Momma.” She looked away from him, probably fighting back tears. “I don’t mean I never want to go to the Ceremonies again. Just not tomorrow.”
She made it sound so simple, but it wasn’t really simple at all. Maybe Windle was no longer the important city that it had been when Horsley was little, but it was the sacred birthplace of Sabahl, and the bahtu still roamed the nearby hills at night. The former continued to be a source of great pride for the residents of Windle, while the latter meant that they were never really free of the fear that was so central to the earliest worship of Sabahl. It might be possible to treat religion casually in Pagston, but not in Windle. Alensa could never seem to understand this, and her absences from the Ceremonies made her the frequent subject of gossip around the village, and among the first to be blamed whenever Sabahl allowed any misfortune to befall its residents. Horsley couldn’t bear to think of Saira being talked about that way.
“Please go with me to the Ceremonies tomorrow, Sai. We can leave the minute they’re over and do whatever you like to remember your Mom. We can even have a picnic out in the hills if you want to.”
“But Daddy, that’s not the same thing at all,” Saira protested, as Horsley noticed Malti reemerging from her home with a teapot.
“It looks like Malti’s heading over now,” he said, catching Saira mid-breath. “Could you please get the door for her and bring up three cups? We can talk more about this before bed.”
Saira clearly didn’t want to step away from the conversation, but with an exasperated huff and a dramatic eye roll she wiped a tear from her cheek and semi-stomped down the stairs.
Horsley shut his eyes and took a deep breath. “Sabahl, you know she’s a good kid,” he said quietly. “Please help me figure this out!”
If Malti noticed any tension between Horsley and Saira when she arrived, she gave no indication of it. She set the teapot on the table and took a seat that offered a clear view of the hills. Saira set down a cup and a spoon for each of them and placed a small dish of sugar in the middle of the table before also sitting down. After some initial pleasantries they sat together for several minutes in silence, except for the sound of hot tea being sipped. Both Malti and Saira could usually be counted on to carry a conversation, requiring little more of Horsley than to listen and occasionally express his agreement, surprise, or whatever other reaction was called for. Right now, however, Saira was probably plotting how she would win their argument when it resumed later that evening, and Malti was obviously preoccupied with her son, so it was up to Horsley to get the conversation started.
“Malti,” he began, “I wanted to thank you again for all of your help with Saira’s party last week. The decorations were great, and the cake was the most delicious thing I’ve tasted in a long time!” He looked at Saira but wasn't able to catch her eye. “Don’t you agree, Saira?” he said.
Saira looked up at Horsley, startled. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I guess I wasn’t listening.”
“I was just telling Malti how much we appreciated the party she gave for you last week.”
Saira looked at Malti, nodding. “Oh yeah. It was terrific! Way better than Daddy would’ve done.” Her face showed no trace of the frustration that had been there just minutes before. Horsley didn’t know how she did it, but Saira had always had a talent for whatever was the opposite of sulking. She wouldn’t forget about their argument, but she would probably be perfectly pleasant until they got back to it, especially while Malti was with them.
Malti pulled her gaze away from the hills, seeming to slowly process what Horsley and Saira had said. “Oh, that was my pleasure,” she said at last, smiling a little. “It’s been a long time since my son wanted a real birthday party, and I’ve missed it.” At the thought of Geldon her gaze was drawn back toward the hills, but she continued distractedly. “Speaking of your birthday, Sweetie, are you excited about the Spring Ceremonies this year? It would be such an honor if you were chosen to serve in the Temple!”
Because Malti was looking toward the hills, she didn’t see the look of disgust on Saira’s face, but Horsley did, and he spoke quickly before she could answer.
“Well, actually, we’re both kind of hoping she isn’t chosen,” he said, cringing a little as he waited for Malti’s reaction.
Once a year, in the spring, all puggins are required to travel to Pagston for the Ceremonies. This used to take place in Windle, but it was moved to Pagston when Horsley was just nine years old. There are two times in the life of every puggin child when they must be presented to Sabahl during these Ceremonies. In the spring after their first birthday, a very small number of male puggins are chosen to be Sabahl’s future priests, and an even smaller number of piksins are chosen as Singers. These are lifelong commitments and are of course considered a very great honor for both the children and their parents. Then, after a puggin’s twelfth birthday, they are again presented to Sabahl, and about one child in twenty is chosen to serve for seven years in the Temple in Pagston. Males serve as caretakers, doing manual work around the Temple, while females work as nannies, taking care of the young future Priests and Singers until they are old enough for formal training. This is also considered a significant honor, but Saira had often said she couldn’t imagine spending seven years of her life wiping sacred noses and changing holy diapers, and Horsley couldn’t bear the thought of being apart from his daughter for so long.
Malti looked surprised, but her face showed none of the righteous horror that other residents of Windle often displayed at such mini-blasphemies. “Well, I guess I can understand that,” she said, turning to Saira. “Still, we’ll all be very proud if you are chosen.” Then she turned her attention eastward again. “It’s getting awfully dark now, isn’t it?”
Horsley had noticed several lamps shining through the windows of homes across the street and was starting to get a little nervous himself. “Yeah, I guess it’s a little later than I thought. Do you think he might have stopped at Pitt’s house for a drink or something before coming home?” Pitt was a good friend of Geldon’s, and his partner in the mines. About thirty years old, Pitt was divorced and lived by himself.
“I suppose so,” Malti said, “but he said he’d be home for dinner, which we’d have had by now.” She set down her tea and began to get up. “I think I’m going to go ask the night guard if he’s seen him come in. I’ll check in at Pitt’s on the way.”
Horsley stood up too. “Okay, but let me come with you. I feel like a stroll anyway.”
“Can I come too?” Saira asked. “I don’t want to just wait around here by myself.”
Horsley wanted to leave Saira at home. He didn’t want her to hear the worst-case scenarios that Malti would surely suggest if they didn’t find Geldon quickly, and he was afraid that Saira might bring up tomorrow’s Ceremonies - a topic he did not want to discuss with Malti or anyone else in earshot.
Before Horsley could figure out what to say though, Malti answered for him. “Of course you can come with, Dear. I always enjoy your company.”
Saira looked at Horsley who tried to give a look that said, “Okay, you can come, but don’t worry, I’m sure Geldon is fine. Please be careful what you say, though, and don’t bring up the Ceremonies. We can talk about that before bed.” The bemused look he got back from Saira told him that he hadn’t succeeded in getting much of this across.
“Yeah, sure,” he said at last, not feeling like he really had a choice. “Why not?”