I bumbled off to a “write-in” today, a peculiar NaNoWriMo tradition where a group of people get together at the same place and, well, write at one another. I wasn’t sure how this would actually work in practice, but today I wrote about 3400 words, and wrote probably 2500 of them at Orchard Valley Coffee. My guess is that this was about 600-700 words an hour. I’m still about 1250 words behind the benchmark, but I did get past the 10,000-word mark, a nice psychological milestone.
I’m aware I’ve been uncommunicative about the project, and, well, this’ll probably continue. The novel doesn’t have a title yet and even if it does get finished, there are details which I already know are going to have to change: I’ve set it in a mythical version of India, and I suspect the connection to the “real” India may have to be further obscured. Religion is very important in the story, but while I’ve appropriated Hindu names and some of the philosophy, the implementation—if you’ll forgive the geek term—is very different.
For those who might be curious and who have enough time on their hands to read a fairly long prologue, one scene that runs about 1800 words… (and which I’ve now edited three times in the two minutes since I posted, noticing stupid errors—the fun of high-speed writing!)
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Haruun squinted. The sky behind him remained a dark blue, but over the mountains the air brightened with the fire of dawn. It only hurt to look at if you stared directly into the sun, as Haruun was trying to get Nirali to do. “Right there,” he repeated, pointing.The older girl—nearly twice Haruun’s age, twelve years to his seven—would have none of it. “It is only the sun.”
“In front of the sun, Nirali.”
“A cloud, then. A dust storm in the mountains.”
He reached up and tried to push her face in the right direction. “Right there—”
“Stop it!” she said, giving him a hard shove. The spindly boy pinwheeled his arms for two full seconds, staggering, then tumbled back to sit down hard on the cold grass.
He whined, starting to reach for her leg, but Nirali stamped her bare foot once, then raised it threateningly.
“Children,” a stern voice said from above. Both turned to look up at the Brahmin, their guardian, who had just stepped out of the temple behind them. Nirali immediately lowered her foot as the tall woman leaned over to help Haruun back up.
“He’s trying to trick me to look into the sun,” Nirali said accusingly.
“I am not! There’s a dragon there.” Haruun pointed once more. “And it’s coming this way.”
The Brahmin narrowed her eyes. “We do not speak of the gods for games, Haruun.”
“I am not!” he repeated, tone more desperate.
She glanced back up, shading her eyes with a hand. “I do not see anything by the sun.”
“See?” Nirali said, looking triumphant.
“Wait,” the Brahmin said, raising her other hand. After another few moments passed, she whispered, “Perhaps it is a bird, and the light makes the distance seem greater than it is.”
Haruun leaned forward, not shading his eyes. “Right there?” he said after a moment. “Below the mountains, now?”
“Where?” Nirali almost shrieked, stamping her foot again. This time the Brahmin, not Haruun, guided her to look in the right direction.
“Birds,” Haruun pronounced, “do not glint.”
The object they watched was still far away, miles away, but had already flown down below the horizon to a point between the distant mountains and the far bank of the river, the line that marked not only the village boundary but that of their kingdom, the beginning of the vast, empty lands lying between the realm of humans and the realm of gods. And it tore through the air like a loosed arrow.
“Back to the temple,” the Brahmin abruptly said. “Now.” She grabbed Haruun’s wrist in her left hand and Nirali’s in her right, compelling them to follow as she hurried back to the temple. Even if she had not been pulling, her tone would have brooked no contradiction.
“It won’t hurt us,” Haruun protested.
“Dragons do not make themselves seen to us unless there is a reason, Haruun.” The Brahmin stepped from the grass onto the cobblestone of the temple’s courtyard. “If his business is with us, we shall know, and if it is not, it is best to stay well out of his way.”
Like the rest of the town, and some might say the Brahmin herself, Mehrapati Temple was modest but solidly built. Grass grew along the edges of most of the cobblestones, and for generations its only feature had been an oak tree and a stone pool in its center, a few golden fish swimming in water that leeched out the gold color from fallen leaves. What had changed was the coming of Haruun to the temple, a baby abandoned—like Nirali—on the temple steps. Haruun had, in the past two years, begun to carve simple but beautiful figurines, first for his amusement, and then, with the encouragement of the Brahmin, for others. Thirteen foot-high figures, representing thirteen elements, sat around the pond’s rim now.
“She,” the boy said. “I think it’s a girl.”
“You’re guessing,” Nirali said, still sounding angry.
“Enough,” said the Brahmin, before Haruun could fashion a retort.
As they reached the steps leading up into the back of the temple, the woman stiffened. She had heard tell of the hair standing up on the back of one’s neck at danger, but she had never experienced it before. She turned, keeping her arms in front of the children as if to protect them.
There was no longer any mistaking the approaching creature for a bird, let alone a cloud.
Dragons, it was said, could take many forms. Most often, they walked on two legs like humans, twice as high as a tall man, sometimes twice that. Wise men argued as to whether that was their true form, or one that they took on the rare times they needed to talk with mortals, adopting a more human look to put them at some ease. Many sages thought their true form was serpentine, a snake given legs and wings, far more graceful than a lizard. And far bigger, twice the size of their manlike forms.
She did not know if those sages were right that such was their true form, but that was what flew toward them, now almost to the bank of the river a half-mile away.
Then, before all three had locked their eyes on it, it was past the river.
The serpent’s body was held straight as a javelin, propelled by two great batlike wings, each one longer than its body. Blood-red scales transformed to glittering ruby in the sunlight.
Closer, rushing toward them, the shadow covering dozens of pace-lengths in a single second, a glimpse of the creature’s almost delicate-seeming jawline, the serpentine length not twice the Brahmin’s height or twice that but at least ten times her height, a downbeat of the wings as it passed the oak tree, barely clearing its top, the creature’s sudden roar, a groaning rattle—
The tree snapped backward, branches torn asunder, skating across the courtyard. The dragon was silent. The roar was the gale of its flight, and the rattle of the temple’s foundations being shaken. Nirali shrieked, blown off her feet down the steps; Haruun hung onto the Brahmin’s hand, feeling his own feet lifted off the ground for a second. The Brahmin had turned into the wind, though, and while she staggered, she lost neither her balance nor her grip.
Haruun looked up as quickly as he dared, but the dragon was already out of sight. The rattling became strange noises, sounds like paper being torn, logs being tossed onto a pile. Later, he would learn he was hearing the sound of roof tiles ripping off and hurtling back to the ground like hailstones.
As the noise of the wind faded, sounds of panic rose, screams, frantic cries of mothers to their children, the bustle of fright and confusion.
The Brahmin let go of Haruun’s hand and ran over to Nirali, who had sat up, screaming, holding her shoulder.
Then, abrupt silence from the town beyond the temple.
Haruun looked at the other two, then ran inside. His flight caught his guardian by such surprise that he had already entered the hall before she cried his name.
The temple was not grand even in the shrine, and the hall he ran down was almost pauper-like, leading past the small rooms where he, Nirali, and two other orphans lived under the care of the Temple Brahmins. A low stone ceiling covered a floor of packed dirt and straw mats, and rooms—whether for priest or child—had little furnishing beyond sleeping mats.
Haruun kept running, out to the front steps, out to the paved avenue that led down the village’s center, the only street in town wide enough for five men to walk abreast. And he skidded to a stop, his heart suddenly his mouth.
The dragon had slowed and circled, and just as Haruun burst out of the dark hallway into the morning light, its rear feet had touched down, the apparent lightness of the touch belied by the cracking of stone under them. A moment later, its left forepaw hit the ground with the weight of gravity, claws dislodging the cobbles to sink deep into the soil. The other paw—hand, perhaps, as prehensile as it looked—came to rest on the edge of the temple’s roof, right above Haruun’s head.
“Haruun!” the Brahmin yelled from behind him. She hurried through the hallway, Nirali in her arms. “Come inside!”
One of the dragon’s claws was as long as Haruun was tall. The creature—he wavered in his certainty of its gender—was beautiful, scales an unbroken armor of iridescent crimson, tinged with gold on its underside, claws of a deep, rich black. Strength radiated from it like heat from a blazing fire.
As the wings folded back along its length, barely clearing the tops of the low buildings, a long, sinuous neck arched up and the head tilted down. Haruun found himself staring into the dragon’s eyes. They shone like huge green lanterns, the luminescent color broken not by pupils but by constellations of swirling gold flecks.
Haruun took a deep breath, and bowed, deeply, then looked back up.
The dragon lifted its head, the foreclaw on the roof dropping down to land—gently this time—a mere arm’s length from the child. Its gaze shifted fractionally, and Haruun realized it was studying the Brahmin, who had walked up behind him.
Trembling, the Brahmin bowed as well, as deeply as she was able to while clutching Nirali.
The dragon lowered its head again in a return nod, until its chin nearly touched the ground. Haruun heard the Brahmin’s sharp intake of breath, Nirali’s soft whimper. All three of them knew the parables, when the gods passed direct judgement using their own unfathomable standards.
Then its head lifted back up.
“The temple is yours!” Haruun blurted.
“Haruun,” the Brahmin hissed.
The dragon’s head swung back down, closer to the boy this time. “Mine?” it said. Its voice was low and whispery but not sibilant, a resonant contralto that sank into the bones of the humans standing before it. “What would I want with a temple?”
“Please, he means no disrespect,” the Brahmin said, her voice quavering. “The temple has stood for many generations, a blink of an eyelid for you, built where it is said humans first met avatars of Brahman like yourself.”
“Like myself,” the dragon echoed. “And it is holy ground. When was the last time any of you spoke to a dragon?”
“Not for…many generations.”
“And I have never spoken to a human before.”
“How may we serve you?” the Brahmin breathed.
The dragon regarded her, and the still-frightened girl, and the boy whose eyes were filled with wonder. Then it took a step backward, cobblestones clattering out of place beneath great shearing claws. “I have no interest in your service,” it said, twisting its head around to look behind as it backed up another step.
Then it looked forward and fixed her gaze not on the Brahmin, but on Haruun. “I accept your offer.”
Haruun’s eyes widened.
Abruptly, the dragon unfurled its wings and leapt into the air. The Brahmin held onto Nirali tightly as the gale hit them once more.