This scene is how it all started. I was taking a fantasy writing class at NYU in 1999, and we were given a homework assignment to “write the first scene of an original fantasy novel”. I wrote a little story about a young boy named Arlen who was never allowed to go farther from home than he could get by midday, because he needed to get back before the demons came out at night.
To be honest, I kind of pulled the idea out of my ass and knocked the story out in one night. More than that, after I got my grade on it (an A, natch), I threw it in a drawer for years before coming back to it and working on it in earnest. It was just one of a pile of other ideas I keep lying around that may or may not ever become an actual project.
At the time, I was writing a very different book called Snowcrest, but Arlen was never far from my thoughts, and every once in a while I would jot down a few notes on his world. The entire Painted Man/Warded Man series grew out of this 4-page story.
Why It Was Cut
This opening was one of the biggest points of contention between me and my editor. She felt quite strongly that prologues in general were obsolete, and that this one was also told in a very different voice than the rest of the book and didn’t fit. She also thought it didn’t add anything that couldn’t be shown elsewhere. I couldn’t have disagreed more, believing that it set the mood and scene perfectly, and was a view into young Arlen’s personality that was essential.
We had some… lively debates on the subject. I have a great deal of respect for my editor, and I tried very hard to see her side of things. It took me a while to separate my personal attachment to the scene to the point where I could consider things impartially. When I finally managed to do so, I realized that she was right, and the scene should be cut. Another flaw in the scene which didn’t bother my agent or editor but bugs the heck out of me is the kind of ambiguous tense, where it’s hard to tell if it’s talking about a specific day in Arlen’s life or his childhood in general. It kind of drifts back and forth.
For all the above reasons, I think the book as a whole works better without the scene, but on a personal level, it is still very near and dear to my heart. It makes me really happy to be able to share it with people here.
When Arlen was a boy, he would play outside until the last moment of dusk before answering his mother’s calls. There was nothing worse than being locked inside each night, and he was determined not to let a minute of daylight be wasted indoors.
He would rise while darkness still reigned, stepping over the threshold of his family farmhouse before even the cock could crow; just as the first beams of sunlight topped the hills, brightening the reddened sky and sending the shadows scurrying away for another day. His mother wanted him to count to a hundred after that, but he never listened.
Adventure awaited, but Arlen knew his chores came first. Snatching the cloth-lined wicker basket from where it lay by the door, he would run to the chicken coop, ignoring the squawks of protest as he gathered the eggs, handling them as deftly as the colored balls of a Jongleur.
With a dash back to the house, he left the eggs for his mother to find and was outside again in a moment. Before his father could pull on his overalls, before his mother had changed from her nightdress, Arlen was on a stool beneath the first of the cows. He left the milk and rushed to the rest of his chores while his father ate breakfast. The wellhouse, the curing shed, the smokehouse, the silo, each was paid a hurried visit, as if he were but a breeze passing through the farm.
There was something comforting about the morning ritual. It reaffirmed his bond with the land, a bond severed each night as his mother locked the doors and his father checked the wards on the windows.
He let the animals out of the barn, guiding the pigs to their day-pen and the sheep to the pasture with cracks of a switch. He fed the swine and the horse, paying the sheep little mind. Even without the dogs to mind them, they would not venture past the wardposts, for the grass beyond was scorched and ruined.
There were other chores, less frequent, less comforting. Once in a while it happened that some animal or another was not where it was supposed to be by dusk, and was lost. He would find it the next morning, torn to shreds, and bury it behind the outhouse.
Arlen had done it all a thousand times, and he went about his duties with such practiced efficiency that by midmorning, he was usually done. By then, his father was well out into the fields checking the wardposts, and so he went back to the house for the familiar breakfast: oats, eggs, and bacon kept warm by his mother. He’d wolf it all down without a pause for air. A gulp of milk to help him swallow, and he was bouncing from his seat.
His mother caught him. She always did. There was always something for him to do in the house, the chores he hated most. But there was no denying his mother, and complaining would not fill the firebox, or sweep the floor, or put fresh charcoal sticks in the warding kit. “Yarn doesn’t make itself,” she would tell him.
By midday, he was free. Before his father returned from the fields with new chores for him, Arlen would snatch some bread and cheese and dash off to eat his lunch. Like his breakfast, he hardly tasted it. Food was sustenance, nothing more.
How far can I get today? he would ask himself as he ate his lunch. With nearly eight hours until dusk, he could head off in any direction he wanted for four. The sun’s place in the sky would tell him when to turn back.
It was a dangerous game, one the other children of Tibbet’s Brook dared not play. It was one of a thousand ways Arlen differed from them. All of the others were content to live in the Brook, never caring what lay over the next hill. It was a safe way to live. His father called it a smart way, but Arlen thought differently. The people of Tibbet’s Brook were too content to take someone else’s word for what lay up the road or through the woods or past the river to the south… if there even was a river. Arlen preferred to see for himself.
How far could I get if I had all day? he always wondered. How far, if I didn’t have chores in the morning, if I didn’t have to turn back and run halfway to dusk? Could I make it to safety before they came? The thought thrilled and terrified him. What lay beyond the point of no return?
Maybe today I’ll keep going.
But his resolve always faded as the sun rolled across the sky, and halfway to dusk, he inevitably felt his feet turning him around.
He slowed down when the house was in sight, despite the cries of his parents, despite the terror in their voices. This was the time of day he felt most alive. He watched the sun dip in the sky, eclipsed by the turning of the world beneath him. Shadows began to lengthen. He waited until the last minute, and then ran to his house as fast as he could, the exhilarating tingle of fear sweeping over him, making his heart pound and his hands shake. Air tasted better in those few seconds, his body alive with sensation. No sight was more beautiful than the reds and oranges of dusk, no sound more exciting than his parents’ warnings. He tumbled over the threshold, careful not to disturb the wards, and turned to watch the corelings rise.
As the last warm rays faded from the horizon, and the heat leached from the ground into the air, the flame demons rose up from the Core to dance.
He was soon yanked inside and the heavy door shut, its bar thrown (as if it could stop a coreling!). Arlen’s father would then check the wards on the sills and threshold again, making sure they had not been scuffed or scratched. He told Arlen that a triple-check was all that was needed, but he could never help checking a fourth time.
He was always scolded. Sometimes with his father’s belt. But Arlen’s parents knew deep down that no punishment could ever make him give up his wandering.
After punishment came supper, and then, while his mother knit and his father carved wardposts, Arlen could sit by the window and watch the corelings dance. They were so graceful, even beautiful. Sometimes, he caught a glimpse of a wind demon, its shadowy form swooping on leathern wings, illuminated by the blazing eyes and mouths of its fiery cousins.
Less beautiful and thankfully less common were the rock demons; their hulking, sinewy forms encased in a carapace that could break the hardest spear tip. No dancers these, they stalked the yard slowly, flashing their rows of razor teeth as they searched for prey.
Arlen had never seen a water demon, but he had heard Jongleurs’ stories. They could tear through the hull of a boat, dragging unfortunate fishermen underwater. Arlen shivered as he imagined the depths of the town lake swirling with dark, terrible forms. The idea terrified him, yet he longed to go out and try to glimpse one.
On some nights, the demons attacked the wards. They flung themselves at the doors and windows, only to be sent hurtling back by the flare of magic. Arlen’s parents seldom flinched, having witnessed this all their lives.
“Why do they keep attacking when they can’t get through?” Arlen asked his father once.
“They’re looking for flaws in the net,” his father replied, joining him by the window. “Every warding has them. Every one. Corelings aren’t smart enough to study the wards and reason out the weak spots, but they can attack them and look for holes that way. You’ll never see a coreling attack the same spot twice in a night.” He tapped his temple. “They remember. And they know that time weakens even the strongest wards.”
The night would light up over and over as the corelings tested the wards, magic flaring like tiny lightning flashes to momentarily illuminate the features of the yard as the demons tried to crush the wellhouse, or reach the meat in the curing shed.
They attacked the barn as well, but the wards there were just as strong. Arlen could hear the livestock bleating in fear. The animals never got used to the demons. They knew, instinctively, what would happen if the corelings ever got through.
Arlen knew, too. When he was seven, he had watched helplessly as the demons tore apart one of their sheepdogs, spreading its guts all over the yard.
Corelings took great pleasure in killing.
It was said there had been a time when the demons were not so bold. A time when the greatest wards had not yet been forgotten; when the demons feared the power of mankind and stayed within the Core. But those days, if they ever truly existed, were long forgotten by the great-great-grandfathers of the oldest men alive. Now, those wards were nothing more than a Jongleur’s tale.
As he watched the creatures that had stolen his world for another night, Arlen dreamed of bringing those wards back. He dreamed of traveling beyond Tibbet’s Brook, and resolved that he would leave one day, even if it meant spending a night outside.
With the demons.