I hope you're all well and happy. This is going to be a quick post today. I just have some new news and a bit of a request.
New news: Blood in Stone is now out on audio. Fleet Cooper did a wonderful job narrating the story and giving my little characters life. Thanks Fleet!
And here's the request....
As you know, I'm working on two new manuscripts. One is about Kravel from Riddle in Stone. The second (Quests of Kings) is something completely new.
I'm finished with the first full draft of Quests of Kings, but... I'm worried about it. I'm not sure if the story or the characters are compelling enough.
So, if you have time...and the interest... could you read through the first chapter (below) and let me know what you think??? Again, it's the first draft and there are tons of typos and I need to wordsmith it a great deal. Still, I'm wondering if the main character (Natalie) is worth pursuing. I'm afraid she is boring or too stereotypical.
What do you think? Should I keep working on her or focus more on Kravel?
Thoughts? Suggestions? Dirty limericks?
Quests of the Kings
"Oh, hurry up you two!" Natalie elbowed her way through the growing crowd, but her friends, Hadley and Ida, fell further behind, unable to keep up with the surging tide of people filing into Upper Angle's village green.
"Wait!" Hadley shouted from somewhere in the mass of moving bodies. "Nat! Wait up!"
Natalie passed through the iron gates and stepped aside, letting the crowds stream past her to the stage from which the heralds would read King Michael's latest proclamation.
"Nat!" Hadley shouted again. Natalie reached into the crowd and seized Hadley's arm. "Ow!"
Hadley grabbed Ida's hand. Nat pulled them both out of the flowing line of people.
"Thanks." Ida doubled over, sucking in air. "I thought we'd get trampled for sure!"
Natalie stood on her tip toes, trying to peer over the crowd of mostly men and young boys. "Blast it! We're never going to see anything from back here. Damn it for being short!"
"Being short has its advantages, you know," Ida said, being barely over five foot herself.
"Being short is a plague." Natalie scanned a nearby tree, considering its possibilities. "It's worse than being a woman."
"What? You'd rather be a tall man?" Hadley scoffed, following Natalie along the wall enclosing the city's park.
"Then you'd surely stink more than you already do!" Ida added.
Natalie turned and glowered.
Ida recoiled. "What? I'm just saying that you reek of horses and manure. That wouldn't happen if you took a more sensible job."
Natalie waved them to follow her. "Mucking stalls puts money in my pocket."
"But it's boys' work!" Ida insisted.
"That's exactly what I've been saying, Nat. Why don't you get a more feminine job? I hear Boris is hiring young women at the Dead Dog."
"Boris told me I wasn't pretty enough to be a serving girl." Natalie studied the wall and then the stage around which thousands of Upper Angle's townsfolk were gathering. "Let's go a little more this way."
"He didn't say that!" Ida said in disbelief.
"He most certainly did. He told me to come back after this"—Natalie slapped her round thighs—"moved up here." She hefted her petite chest.
"He then said that he had boys working in the kitchen who looked more like a girl than I did."
"Well," Hadley said as if not wanting to bring up the subject standing right before them, "you could work on a few things. You're hair for example."
Natalie brushed the strands of mouse brown hair back behind her ear. "Oh, Had, don't get started about that."
"I'm just saying it'd look far prettier if you didn't pull it back into a ponytail. You need to let it grow and fall forward."
"Yes! Let it grow longer so it curls over your shoulders like water cascading over falls," Ida added, helpfully. "That's how all the noble women wear it nowadays."
"To hell with the nobles. And my hair doesn't curl; it"—Natalie shot her fingers out in all directions—"Besides, long hair is hot and it gets in my way. Remember what happened with the loom?"
The other girls giggled. Natalie slid them an annoyed glance.
"You have to admit," Hadley said, "that was funny! How long were you stranded there?"
"I don't want to talk about it." Natalie waved a dirty hand again. "Come on, keep up! I want to find someplace where we can see the stage before they start."
Hadley and Ida hurried after Natalie as fast as their billowing dresses would allow.
"And then there's your choice of clothing," Hadley went on.
Natalie turned, exasperated. "I've told you, boy's clothes are more functional. Do you think I could muck out the stables in a dress?"
"Then get a different job!"
"Look. Henry pays me more than I could get anywhere else and besides, he lets me tend to the horses. He's even let me ride them from time to time. I'm actually getting good!"
"But you'll never meet a man dressed like . . ." Hadley gestured to Natalie's entire body. "And smelling like—"
Natalie clinched a fist. "I don't want to meet a man!"
Hadley laughed. "Of course you do! How else will you get married?"
"I'm not getting married."
"Oh, that's right." Hadley rolled her eyes. "I forgot. You want to die alone."
"I'd rather die alone than to live with a chain around my neck. Now, come on."
Ida raced to catch up. "What about Artis? He's nice enough. And he worships everything you touch."
"Oh, gads! Let's not talk about Art. I've been trying to knock that lovesick look off of his face since we were kids." Natalie made an exaggerated expression that resembled constipation more than love. "Hurry up. They're about to start."
Hadley and Ida struggled to keep up as Natalie jogged along the interior of the park's wall. Natalie stopped and peered toward the stage, shielding her eyes from the late morning sun rising over the forested hills, the autumn canopy a hundred shades of red and yellow.
"Honestly, I don't know what's wrong with you." Hadley panted. "Don't you want nice clothes and a decent roof over your head? If you found the right man who is willing to overlook your, well, your . . . uniqueness, you wouldn't have to work so many different jobs."
"Men also keep you warm at night." The others turned to Ida in surprise. "Or so I've heard!"
Natalie grunted. "The only things men are good for are getting you pregnant with lots of babies and then dying on you when you need them the most."
Ida and Hadley's strides faltered as they exchanged pained glances.
"I'm sorry, Nat," Hadley said, trying to catch up. "How's your mother doing?"
"She's fine." But the anger in Natalie's voice and stomping step indicated otherwise.
"And how about your brothers and sisters? How's Robbie?"
Natalie turned again. "Look. I know where this is going. We're fine, alright? I'm fine. My mom's fine. Robbie and the others are fine. We're all perfect. In fact, we're better than ever. I'm making more than enough to get us everything we need. So just drop it. Okay? We're fine!"
Ida shrank back. "We're just trying to help."
"You know, Nat," Hadley said, her voice calm, "there's a reason why we're you're only friends."
Natalie exhaled, her shoulders sagging. She rubbed her tired face. "I'm sorry. I . . . I don't mean to be like this all the time. It's just really hard right now, you know? Some days I feel like I'm about to explode." Then she muttered as if to herself. "Sometimes I feel like a trapped animal."
Ida put her hand on Natalie's shoulder. "Is there anything that we can do?"
Natalie shook her head, hair slipping out of her ponytail again. "No. We'll be fine. I'm taking care of everything." Then she added begrudgingly. "But thanks for caring."
The three girls hugged.
"Whew!" Hadley pulled away and waved her hand under her noise. "You do stink!"
Natalie laughed despite herself. "Sorry." On the stage, several minstrels began playing a bouncy tune. What might have been a dwarf in a brightly colored hat was dancing a ridiculous jig, his feet and hands flying everywhere. She could barely make him out through the swelling crowd. "Alright. This is good enough. Let's climb up."
"Climb up where?"
Natalie nodded to top of the stone wall.
"Up there? Are you out of your mind?"
Natalie leapt, seized the top of the wall, and scurried up it like a disheveled squirrel. She grinned down at them. "There you go. Easy as getting out of bed! Here, let me help you." She lowered a hand to the other girls. They blinked at it as if it she were holding feces.
Hadley shook her head. "If I fell from there, I'd break my neck!"
"So don't fall."
"I"—Hadley cringed—"I couldn't. Besides, we shouldn't be up there."
"Why? Other people are doing it."
Around the village green, a score of younger children were also perched on top of the wall to get a better view.
Hadley tossed her hands as if her point had been made. "They're all boys!"
"What does that matter? It isn't like they climb with their pricks."
Hadley and Ida both gasped and then giggled.
Ida's face deepened to a light shade of scarlet. "The things you say!"
"It's what people do that matters, not what they say. Now give me your hand, I'll help you up."
Hadley glanced at the dirt-encrusted fingers again.
"Oh, come on. It washes right off. I promise Your Royal Highness won't smell like the poor peasant girl." Natalie's expression turned mocking. "Or don't you think you can climb this high?"
Hadley's frown broke into a wry grin. "So help me, if any boys come over to look up my dress!"
"Just keep your legs together for a change and you'll be fine."
Hadley and Ida gasped again and then roared with laughter.
"I'll have you know, I'm not that kind of girl!" Hadley replied, still laughing.
"That's not what Richard is saying," Ida said.
Hadley huffed in feigned indignation. "You do it a couple dozen times with a boy and they think you're a whore!"
"Whore or not"—Natalie wiggled her fingers—"give me your damn hand. I'm getting dizzy leaning over like this."
"Fine! But my death is on your head." Hanley took Natalie's hand and, with a jump and a pull, found herself sitting on top the wall circling the park. "Ew! I'm sitting on bird poo!"
"Oh, you've sat in much worse."
"But it's sticky!"
Natalie helped Ida up.
"Well!" Ida looked around. "This is much better. We can actually see the falls from here!"
They watched the Green River tumbling down from the rocky bluffs and plunged hundreds of feet into a cloud of shimmering mist before forking around the hills upon which the city of Upper Angle was built.
Natalie nudged Hadley. "What did I tell you? Now even us short folk can see."
"Speak for yourselves." Hadley tried to wipe the bird dropping from the top of the wall without getting more on her hands . "I'm completely average—in height that is!"
"It is pretty up here," Hadley admitted. "Maybe we could go walking in the woods today. I love smelling the trees. There's nothing like the earthy smell of autumn."
Natalie surveyed the surrounding hills with regret. It would be a nice day for a walk, especially along one of the rivers. The smell of the trees, the soft wind rattling their colorful leaves, the peace of being out of the city. "You two can go. I have to get to work in a little bit."
"When was the last time you've had a day off? I mean a real day off where you didn't work at any of your jobs? When was the last time you did something for yourself and had fun?"
Natalie knew the answer. She'd been working every damned day since she was twelve, ever since her father died from an infection.
"Let's not talk about work," Ida said, coming to Natalie's rescue. "It's too beautiful a day!" She closed her eyes and tilted her head back, letting the bright sun warm her face. "Pretty soon winter will be here and everything would be cold and dreary. Oh, how I wish I could live further south."
"By Elsmyer," Hadley agreed. "Could you imagine being able to walk along the beach and swim in the warm ocean all year round?"
"And the Elsmarian men are all muscled and have deliciously brown skin!"
"Deliciously brown skin?" Natalie chortled.
"What? They do! It's very appealing."
"I'll remind you two the reason why the Elsmarian men are so muscular is because they spend their days working on boats, rowing. Notice I said working! Not strolling about, buying everything that strikes your fancy."
"Oh, I don't mind if my husband works!" Hadley corrected her. "As a matter of fact, I'm going to require it. That way he'll get out of the house long enough for me to spend some time with the houseboys!" She bounced here eyebrows suggestively.
"You're going to have houseboys, are you? What's your Prince Charming going to do to pay for all of this, pray tell?"
Hadley gave an exaggerated shrug as though the question was asinine. "He'll be a prince, of course!"
Ida smoothed out her dress. "I think marrying some sort of shopkeeper would be best. They can make a lot, but they don't come home all exhausted and stinky."
Natalie clinched her fists and shook them to the fluffy white clouds drifting leisurely by. "Can we please stop talking about boys and marriage? There are no Prince Charmings! There are no knights in shining armor who will rescue you from the tops of towers. The only person you can count on is yourself."
"And good friends!" Ida added.
Natalie put her arms around Ida and Hadley and pulled them closer. "And good friends. That I believe in!"
They each sat on top of the wall, studying the restless crowd and listening to the music. The wonderful scent of fresh cinnamon bread wafted from a nearby bakery. What an exceptional day.
"It's amazing how many people come to these things," Hadley said eventually. "I had no idea the Quests were so popular."
"What? This?" Natalie made a dismissive grunt. "You should see when they're burning a witch or strangling a thief. The place is so filled, you can't move."
"You watch that?" Ida asked, horrified.
"Not the burnings. Anybody who believes in witches nowadays is an idiot. The witch hunts makes me sick to my stomach."
Ida appeared even more mortified. "But the hangings?"
"I don't sit up close. At least, not since the incident with the eyeball."
"Well . . . " Natalie dithered as if determining whether to tell them something. "There was this one time when I was right up front, practically pushed against the gallows. Talk about being crushed! Anyway, when the trapped door opened and the rope jerked taut, the thief's eyeball popped out. Hit me right in the forehead." She felt her forehead as if remembering it hitting her.
"Oh gods!" Ida and Hadley cried out together.
"It wasn't too bad." Natalie kicked her feet leisurely. "I made it into a nice stew."
"You're lying!" Hadley said.
"I knew it! I knew you were lying!" Hadley shouted. "You poser! You fib!"
"Oh, come on, you guys. Did you honestly think I'd come to watch somebody being murdered? You obviously don't know me very well. I detest all of that blood and guts stuff. A little blood and I'm nearly as bad as Ida."
"Hey!" Ida elbowed Natalie. "And we know you well enough never to guess what you'll do next!"
"Honestly, Nat!" Hadley held her heart. "You scared the crap out of me. Eyeball popping out! How do you think of those things?"
"I was going to go with his entire head being ripped off, but I didn't think you'd buy it."
Hadley fanned her face. "So help me, if you make me faint!"
Natalie pretended her eyeballs popped out and was blindly searching for them.
"Stop it!" But Hadley was laughing. "By the gods, you should have been a boy."
"That's what I've been telling you." Natalie glanced about the park. "It'd certainly make things a lot easier."
For many moments, they sat on top of the wall, listening to the minstrels' music, tapping their fingers against the cold stone.
Natalie thrust a finger toward the stage. "Look!"
"What?" they asked, straining to see.
"There's Randell and his men."
"Right there, by the front left corner. See them? He has a dark green cloak. The one with red hair!"
Hadley and Ida squinted.
"That's him?" Ida asked doubtfully. "He looks older than I would've thought."
"Who's he talking told?" Hadley asked.
"I"—Natalie struggled to see—"I think it's Lord Arnold."
"The fat lout," Ida muttered. "Have you seen that man eat? He eats like a pig!"
"All men do." Natalie searched the murmuring crowd for anybody else remotely famous. "There's Sir Percival! I bet you anything he's going to join the quest this time. I hear he's been training up in Hillshire."
Hadley shook Natalie's arm. "Who's that?" She pointed to a solitary figure standing by the east wall far from the stage.
"Geez!" Ida said. "All the King's adventurers are here!"
"They should be." Natalie scanned the faces she could see. "Evidently, King Lionel proposed this quest."
Hadley attempted to dust off the bird pooh she accidently put her hand in. "So?"
"Lionel always picks easy adventures."
"King Lionel is an idiot," Ida said. "Good looking, but an idiot."
A group of men passed by, glancing up at them. One of them mentioned something about "stupid girls."
Natalie shouted back, "That's right! We climbed up here all by ourselves without a prick between us!"
Unnerved, the men hurried away; but Hadley and Ida went ridge, eyes wide, mouths open.
"Nat!" Hadley whispered.
Natalie shrugged. "What? Do you ever hear how men talk? They say far worse, believe me."
"I know, but . . . honestly, aren't you worried what people will think? How're you ever going to attract a boy with that mouth?"
"Anybody who really loves me will love my mouth too. I'm not going to change just to please somebody."
Hanley shook her head. "There you go about love again. You know, you can be quite content marrying somebody you can tolerate. Look at my mother!"
"I don't want to look at your mother. And I don't want to be content."
"What do you want, Nat?" Ida asked.
Hadley grabbed Natalie and pointed at the nearby gate. "Nat!"
In the middle of a mass of people entering the village green strolled the hulking figure of Sir Edris, crimson cloak floating behind him in the wake of his long strides.
"Edris!" Nat yelled.
Mortified, Hadley and Ida tried to cover her mouth as the knight turned.
"A silver piece says Randell wins this one!"
Sir Edris saluted Natalie. "I'll take that bet, young man!"
Surrounded by his well-wishers, the knight wove his way closer to the stage.
"Nat!" Hanley exclaimed. "He spoke to you! Sir Edris actually spoke to you!"
"I can't believe it!" Ida said. "Never in my life would I have thought he would've stopped to talk to me. Never!"
Natalie huffed, arms folded in front of her. "He thought I was a boy."
"What do you expect? Like we said, stop wearing boys' clothes and talking like a boy, and people might actually see you as a woman."
"Even you have to admit, Nat," Ida said, "Sir Edris is gorgeous! I mean, look at him!"
Natalie blushed. The others noticed immediately.
"See!" Hadley cried. "See! You think he's attractive! Don't deny it."
"I won't deny it." Then Natalie added, "But there's more than just broad shoulders and nice hair."
Ida snickered. "Are you going to talk about pricks again?"
"What? No! I just mean, it isn't about looks or how much money a man has that matters. It's what he dreams."
"Dreams?" they both repeated, doubtfully.
"What the hell does that mean?"
"Oh, never mind." Natalie started scanning the crowd to find any other adventurers.
"No you don't, Nat!" Hadley said. "For once in your life, you're going to open up and tell us what you're really thinking. Now finish what you were saying. And don't make anything up. What does a man's dreams have to do with anything about how good a husband he'll be?"
Nat thought for a moment. They leaned closer.
"I want somebody," she said, trying to find the right words. "I want somebody who wants something, something that he's willing to work hard for. Something he'd dedicate his life trying to get. You know?"
"What? You mean like a nice house or something?"
"No! Not a thing 'thing'." She shook her head. "I don't know. I want a man with some sort of—"
Horns blared from the stage in the center of the park.
"Shut up!" Natalie said, relieved. "It's starting!"
Ida groaned. "Right when you were about to say something interesting."
"I don't know why you even care about these silly games." Hadley smoothed out her skirt. "Look around. We're the only women here!"
"There are a couple standing over there." Ida pointed out three women standing by the east gates.
"Shhh!" Natalie said. "Here it comes!"
A herald strolled to the middle of the stage. The din bubbling throughout the crowd diminished somewhat.
"In the days of old . . ." the herald called out, his voice high and clear in the cool air.
"I wonder how he projects his voice like that," Ida said. "I wish I could—"
Natalie hushed her.
". . . there was one hero who repeated faced danger at behest of his King . . ."
"I bet you it's Ivan the Bald," Natalie said, excitedly.
Now she was hushed, though more out of retaliation than actual interest.
". . . one hero who was so revered by kings and commoners alike, that he was known as the Minstrel of the Gods!"
"He's talking about Balen!" Natalie told them.
". . . I am talking about Balen the Bard!"
At once, the crowd erupted in conversation.
"Now," the herald cried louder, his voice booming above the tumult, "we've all heard of the Minstrel's many exploits. However, there was one tale that is particularly important." He paused, letting the tension percolate. "The tale of Balen and the Monster of Black Wood!"
Another murmur swept about the commons. The tale of how the minstrel killed the ogre of Langston Forest was a favorite fireside story of the region. At no other time in history had an ogre ever been killed by a lute.
"If you recall," the herald continued, "three centuries ago, the Minstrel was rewarded by King Harold The Elder of Ettenburgh with a harp of gold and sapphire."
The murmur grew louder, the anticipation of what was to come building.
"You may also recall that said harp was lost shortly after the Minstrel's tragic death."
"How did Balen die?" Ida asked.
"Nobody knows," Natalie replied sharply. "Now be quiet."
"By royal decree," the herald announced, "His Majesty, King Michael the Magnificent, will bestow upon any person, or persons, who brings Balen's golden harp to His Highness . . . " Another pause. "Four-thousand Culvarian gold coins!"
There was a collective intake of breath.
"Four . . . thousand . . . gold," Natalie, Hadley, and Ida all repeated together.
"Gods!" Natalie exclaimed. "I wonder how much the other kings are offering for it!"
Now everybody in the commons was talking. Attempting to be heard over the clamor, the herald shouted, "And be it known, anyone aiding or otherwise assisting adventurers from other realms, or turning over Balen's harp to other kings, will be dealt with in the harshest manner possible." He nodded to the minstrels standing behind him. "Good luck to all of you who dare its undertaking! Let the quest begin!"
The minstrels resumed playing as the dwarf cart-wheeled across the stage, ribbons in hand; however, groups of men were leaving the commons, headed this way and that, talking eagerly to one another. From atop the wall, Natalie, Hadley, and Ida watched them go.
"Four-thousand gold," Ida said again. "Well, that's something to dream about, now isn't it?"
Hadley stared at Natalie.
"What?" Natalie jumped to the ground and helped her friends down.
"You're going to go after that harp, aren't you?"
"Me?" Natalie laughed. "Don't be stupid. One, I'm a girl; although others may doubt that. And two, adventuring is a complete waste of effort. Think about it! Think about all the money Sir Edris and Brago and Randell and his men spend running here and there trying to obtain whatever the kings fancy. Think about how much gold they spend on supplies alone. They'd be better off saving their money and buying a business or something. That's where the real money is."
"A business! Some place where you can make your own rules and run things the way you see fit."
"You're dreaming again."
"Better than begin stuck in this place." Natalie picked the dirt from underneath her fingernails. "So where you two off to?"
"Oh, I don't know." Hadley watched the men file out of the village green. "Maybe I'll go to the markets or something."
"Want to go walking in the hills?" Ida asked. "It's such a beautiful day!"
"It is that, isn't it?" Hadley examined the blue sky. "Alright. Let's go along the Lesser Green and up into the pine trees. You coming, Nat?"
Natalie gestured dramatically to her stained and soiled overalls. "I have to work, remember?"
Hadley grimaced. "Sorry."
"Why?" Natalie tried to hide her irritation. "I enjoy working. Everybody should work!"
The others didn't say anything, knowing exactly what would happen if they disagreed.
More people streamed past, talking about what they'd do with four thousand gold coins.
The girls stood staring uneasily at each other.
"Well," Natalie said, eventually. She jabbed a thumb toward the west gates. "I've gotta get to Henry's. I have a lot to do this afternoon. But maybe we can get together later?"
The others agreed eagerly.
"Of course!" Hadley hugged Natalie. "Maybe we can go on a picnic!"
Natalie hugged Ida. "That's fine, if you don't mind eating under the stars. Thanks to all these adventurers, Henry's stables are full, which means I won't be done at the livery until late evening." She noticed their reactions. "Oh, don't look like that. I don't mind. I really do enjoy working. I mean, I'm around horses all day! What's not to like?" She laughed, though it sounded strained. "Plus more work means more money!"
"I'll tell you what?" Hadley said. "Tomorrow night, let's go to a nice tavern. I pay."
"None of that, Nat! I just got my allowance and it's either getting drunk or buying a new dress. I'll let you choose how I spend it."
Natalie laughed again, this time more sincerely. "Alright. We'll see. But I do have to get going." She hugged them both a second time. "Thanks for caring."
"Hell," Ida said, "somebody has to look after you."