CC.010–012.L.2 | Chaos at the Summit

CC.010 - Chaos at the Summit

I think, so far, this is my favourite Lucinda memory (the one at the end of this section). Moments like that are why I want to be a writer. Oh, the big set pieces, those are great, action and adventure and what not, but the image in my head of Charlotte sitting on the ground, remembering Lucinda and whispering along to her childhood self—those “small” moments mean so much more to me. Everything else is just context to make those, so it’s really exciting to have one in this section and feel like I pulled it off.

As you’ll see in the notes, we had conversations about the concept of “chaos” as it pertains to what’s going on here. I started writing with one idea in mind, and never felt quite comfortable with it (i.e. I didn’t quite capture what I was going for properly); James, on the other hand, had a different image of chaos entirely. In rewrites we’ll find something in-between, and that’s the place Charlotte will run through in search of a symbol.

Charlotte felt weak. She wanted to scream, but there was no air in her lungs to expel. Her fingers made it halfway to fists before giving up and laying in her lap like two murdered spiders sucked of the will to live. Her eyes clouded with tears, she felt both ice and fire burning inside. I want to lie down and die, she thought. There is nothing left in this world for me. First my parents,1 my heritage and now my mentor, my future. Family twice over destroyed and, a tiny voice screamed in her head, soon her home and very way of life was forfeit, too. For a moment, she saw inside the tent as the flickering lights returned to normal and there he stood, gloating, and a spark of righteous fury ignited in her soul quickly consumed by the overwhelming crush of grief. Her mind shattered.

Charlotte closed her eyes and the misery fell upon her, an emotion inside fed by an external fuel. Her skin creeped, she tasted tin. The air she pulled into her lungs suffocated rather than sustained, and her internal monologue became stuck on a looped refrain, beating her down. There is only pain there is only pain there is (rage) nothing for me I am left in this world alone retribution is useless pain is forever there is only pain this is (rage) me now there is only pain pain (rage) pain I am nothing I am fury I am only pain there is nothing but pain I am depleted I am alone I am gone (I am rage!) I am alone I am alone I am (a barbarian queen…2

Charlotte’s eyes burst open. She felt a rush of something leave her body and return to its source inside the tent. Inside, she still felt her grief, a giant rock sitting in her stomach, but she was still there, too. It had felt an eternity, but judging from Vilnius’ stance, only seconds had gone by.

That goat riding fool is going to attack him, Charlotte suddenly realized, her arm immediately lashing out to grab his arm. He was standing, a cold, hard look on his face. He was reaching for the hole in the tent, hand gripped tightly around the letter opener.

“Raul,” she whispered, “stop.” Arrest, abjure, forgo. 3

Charlotte felt exhausted. The feeling of oppressive weight upon her had been horrible, but the farther time took her from it, the less she remembered about being in the moment. Her memory was getting foggy, as if she were conscious for the moment when a memory was repressed. Strange, though, she thought, I could barely move, but Raul seems ready to open Vilnius like an envelope. Her hand tightened on his arm.

Without looking at her, his eyes glazed over yet focused on the inside of the tent, Raul whispered back. “Not to worry, Charlie. My prowess with the blade extends to all types. It’ll be but a moment’s work to right this wrong. I look forward to gutting this cowardly murderer for you.”

For me, Charlotte noted. She tightened her grip yet again.

“Not like this,” she whispered. “The Count just committed an atrocity; broke our oldest Taboo. There is justice he must face. We have a way of doing things in Fort City.”

“As do we in the Forest.” He started to pull on her arm.

Charlotte was running out of ideas. This wasn’t fair, a small voice in the back of her head suggested—advised, informed, prompted. 4 She just saw—just watched—witnessed… Lucinda was gone, and now she had to play babysitter to this ignoramus. She should be free to wallow in her grief, yet Raul and his gall were about to wind up as ash on the floor and only she was there to stop him. And she was going to fail again.5 Inside the tent, Vilnius had slowly circled the spot where Lucinda stood only a moment ago. He had the faintest smile on his face, turned into a shadowy grin in the flickering light. With one boot he poked at the ash pile, causing several clumps to crumble. Suddenly, viciously, he let out a laugh. 6

Charlotte’s fury rose. How dare you… Charlotte thought, but of course Vilnius’ would dare. He had always dared. That smug—conceited, egotistical, pompous!—bastard had always felt superior and now he stood on the ashes of those that stood against his belief.

Charlotte’s hand loosened on Raul’s arm. She felt him move forward, as if that was the request made. Vilnius’ was still laughing, and Charlotte felt an external pull willing her to let Raul go.

I do feel it, she thought. An actual pull, wrapped around my anger. Moments ago was still foggy, but she could remember her grief pulling her hard down into despair. She still felt grief now, but it was much more manageable. Her rage, on the other hand…

Vilnius’ hand still glowed faintly. It’s because of that.

“Raul,” she tugged on his arm again, willing him back.

“Charlie, please—you want him dead, don’t you?”

That’s it, Charlotte thought. I do want him dead. For her words to Raul about justice and a proper way, she did want the Count dead. And Raul, ever so helpful, was being pulled to make it happen.

That glove was doing something to them. It…pulled?…on what they were feeling, and right now, that was a dangerous combination. She had to get Raul and herself away. But Raul seemed unable to shake off the lure as Charlotte had. He was focused on a singular task, and Charlotte’s own feelings were contributing to it. They had to get away, to tell someone what they saw, because if Vilnius got out first there was no telling what lies he’d begin to weave. But try as she might, Charlotte could not shake her feelings. I want him dead. Poor Raul was going to be uselessly helpful right unto the grave.

Charlotte despaired, and felt that tug again. How could she stop someone as single-minded—stubborn, relentless, steadfast—as Raul, when an outside force was making him even worse.

Use the force against itself, a voice said. When you are outmatched and overpowered, turn your opponent’s strengths upon them. Let them do the work for you. It was one of Lucinda’s favourite lessons. Charlotte nearly burst into tears then and there, but the tug of Raul in her hand helped her focus on the here and now.

“Wrestling,” Charlotte whispered. Raul stopped tugging.

“What?” he asked.

“Wrestling,” she said again. “You’re the best wrestler in all the Cottonwood, aren’t you?”

Raul’s face contorted. Now that she knew what to watch for she could practically see the pull urging him into the tent. Inside, Vilnius’ was composing his clothes. It was now or never.

“But I say Augusto is the greatest yet.”

Slowly, methodically, shifting from one thought to the next, Raul said, “Aye, he is a worthy opponent.”

“And the only way to become the greatest is to keep beating your most worthy opponent.”

Raul nodded, though his feet remained planted.

“Raul,” Charlotte said, trying not to grit her teeth, focusing her mind on her desire to be away and tell Augusto, “I want to see you wrestle Augusto.”

“Wrestling,” Raul said.

“Yes,” Charlotte said slowly, holding tight, but trying not to break the spell. “Wrestling.”

“I’m…. a good wrestler.”

“One of the best. But not the best yet.”

“I want … to wrestle?”

“Good enough.”

Charlotte didn’t wait. She was up and away, through the cut in the tent dragging Raul behind her. She didn’t understand the—magic. It’s real magic—that7 was was happening, but if she had Raul turned away from Vilnius, she was taking the opportunity. The tent they stepped into was unchanged from a few minutes before, but Charlotte felt a difference. Strange. What was that feeling? Unchanged, but it felt oppressive, heavy, the air muggy and clammy8 against Charlotte’s skin. The dark cradled her, shook her, but the shaking would become more, she could feel it. It would crush her chest until every last ounce of air was gone.

She needed time, even just a bit, to process, contemplate, think. But there was none. Just the consuming darkness—

—No. She could already feel the tug of Raul slowing. No time for that. She pushed thoughts out of her head and continued to drag Raul out of the tent.

The air was cleaner outside. The ambient light head clearing.9

“Better,” Charlotte whispered to no one but herself, ignoring the image of Lucinda standing before her, skin curling back before dropping to ash on the ground. But not good.

A noise—a raucous, a cacophony—filled the camp for a moment, then subsided, but its presence, then sudden absence, belaboured the subtler noise clashing beneath it. Charlotte pushed down her current feelings with a sense of overwhelming dread. Are we too late? she thought.

Beside her Raul was shaking his head. For a moment, she thought he had read her mind, but he just kept shaking it again and again. As she watched, a milky haze that clouded his green eyes10—one she had not noticed before—faded. Not entirely, but the intensity slacked until he seemed more himself. She wondered if she had a haze, too, and wished she had the presence of mind to carry a pocket mirror next to her tiny tinder kit.11 She thought back to Vilnius’. Were his eyes cloudy? Her memory wanted to say yes, and even more intensely at that.

Proximity, she thought, watching Raul shake his head again. That may be important.

“Charlie, I… don’t feel myself.”

“Who does? Come on, we need to go.”

Without waiting to see if he would follow, she took off for the central tent.

That—clanging, ringing, clamour—grew louder, from something beneath attention to the front of the stage.

“Raul,” Charlotte said, “Something is going on.”

“I know. I saw it too. That count of yours—”

“He’s not my count. It’s more than that, though. I think—”

They rounded a corner of the tents just in time to see Sandy, horrible grin spreading, unsheath a knife and use it to gut a Fort City soldier.

Charlotte nearly threw up. It was the shock of seeing the fallout of a broken Taboo12 so quickly. Just as all the old stories said, her people were turning upon one another. It was a complete shaking until shattered of the world she knew.13

Next to Sandy’s victim, equally stunned, was a Cottonwood guard, mouth agape. Wheels turned but there was no horse to guide the cart.

Sandy took the knife by the bloody end and carefully tossed it to the shocked Cottonwood soldier. Cradling the gutted man, Sandy held his face. To a new observer, it would be seen as a comforting moment; but to Charlotte, it looked as Sandy was holding the soldier’s mouth shut, just as two more soldiers, Fort City, appeared….

“It’s a ruse!” Sandy yelled, “They’ve turned on us. The Cottonwood has turned!” They stared at Sandy, the dying soldier, at the Cottonwood soldier with the bloody knife. Charlotte had one moment to act, only a second to undo this right here, right now, before sheer chaos broke out.14

But Charlotte was too far away and still too stunned from minutes ago—was it still only minutes?—when, when Lucinda…

Sandy spoke first.

“Get them. Kill them all.”

The two soldiers were trained well. In absence of understanding, they fell back on following orders. Sandy, after all, was a sergeant15 in their guard. They attacked.

The Cottonwood soldier had no chance against two enemies clinging to orders in chaos, while he was still asking, “Are we not allies?”

They had him beaten and neutralized within seconds. Before anyone else could happen Sandy grabbed the bloody knife back and slit the Cottonwood soldier’s neck.

“Kill or be killed, folks. Go! Get the rest. This isn’t over.”16

No, thought Charlotte. “It isn’t.”

When the two soldiers leapt at the Cottonwood man she had grabbed Raul again. In her rational brain she knew this wasn’t the way.

The sound she had been hearing—the clatter and clanging—was still there. Vilnius’ plan—Charlotte knew it was him, though not its scope—didn’t hinge on one moment. Sandy had a black arm band tied around a bicep. Charlotte remembered a similar band around several guards in the great tent.

How many points would it take to destabilize an agreement? Three? Seven? How many blackbands did the Count have? When the plan is already in motion, how do you stop it? Who would—

“Raul, we have to get to Augusto. He might be next, if we’re not already too late.”

For Charlotte, the moment slowed, making it impossible for her to catch Raul, who’s moment had sped up. In a blur, he was gone.

Charlotte stood on her own amidst a rising din of what she could now identify as violence. The clank of weapon against armour, and the soft, wet whistle of steel across flesh.

As the soldiers ran off, Sandy turned, and from across the row spotted Charlotte, standing there.17 It was then Charlotte’s fear overwhelmed her. She was rooted in spot as Sandy smiled, raising the dagger not bothered to be sheathed after—murdering, Sandy murdered that man, right in front of me—thoughts of Taboo still clinging to her thoughts.

I’m afraid, Charlotte thought, I’ve never been comfortable near Sandy but now I am afraid. Down the line, Sandy was continuing to advance. Charlotte was backpedaling, each step behind her potentially her last. If she tripped, or stumbled, that would be the signal. She had to stay steady or the murderer would leap. Fifty metres still gaped between the two of them, but Charlotte felt like Sandy’s knife was already at her throat, slitting across. Her fear bridged the gap, her overwhelming, uncontrollable…18

Charlotte turned, and ran.

She ran with everything she could muster in her ridiculous dress, thankful for the boots she never let Lucinda talk her out of.19 She used the fear as fuel, each plant of her foot pushing harder to bring more distance between her and Sandy, every exertion of energy plumbing depths she didn’t know were possible. If this was to be her last flight, then she would fly.

She didn’t watch which way she went, focusing instead on away.20 She needed to get to the centre of camp, needed to follow Raul, but the fear she felt was a power unlike any she had felt before and she knew that it was also unnatural. It was a normal amount of fear, echoed back upon itself and amplified by that thing that Vilnius wore. So she ran. She ran until the fear subsided.

Winded, nearly choking on her own saliva, she came to on the other side of camp. The ringing of metal upon metal was still there, now a call returned by the soft thwip-thud, thwip-thud of arrows. She came into a small clearing where a small, bloody group of Fort City soldiers stood back to back, cowering. Only a couple had swords, their grips on them like death. Charlotte called out, but her voice was drowned by the ululation scream of the Forest Folk as they descended upon the Fort City huddle. Half a dozen men and women, knives drawn, collided into the soldiers from all directions. Their movements were to quick to track. Soon, blood was everywhere.

Charlotte turned, making her way to the centre.

Her fear had returned to regular amounts, and part of her mind noted her hypothesis correct. The farther she was from the device, the less sway it had over her. Still, as she passed soldier fighting Forest-folk, she started to see familiar faces, those she’d seen smoking together in the night. Faces from inside the big tent, that had joked and snuck drinks together, opening stomachs and impaling blades.

At a crossroads, between a meat cart and a soldier’s’ tent, there were two Cottonwood warriors, huddled together, one propped up onto the other. They were shuffling through the structures, their eyes wary and fearful. They were both covered in blood already, but Charlotte couldn’t tell if it was theirs. The one looked to be holding in his own guts. They weren’t ready to attack anyone, and yet, from nowhere again, soldiers descended with steel drawn and the massacre was complete within moments, though the Cottonwood folk were dead within seconds. Charlotte threw up by the side of the road, the graphic violence too much, the knowledge that her own people were capable of such horror. She looked for black arm bands, but saw none.

This was the end of civilization, then. This was what Taboo warded them against. There was so much violence inside them, like a mighty rolling wave from the ocean. Only Taboo stood against the force, a dam that blocked it from washing them all away. She had always scoffed, she realized. She saw Taboo as just another rule that kept unnecessary order in check, the king and all of Fort City’s leaders keeping their boring life together. But it was more than that. It was skin keeping the blood inside the body.21

Charlotte moved. Stuttery, slow. She hobbled between tents, around the violence, aimed at the centre tent. Weighed down by a loss she couldn’t even fathom, she sought out a single voice of reason.

Finally—winded, panting, breathless—shuffling, with the taste of vomit in her mouth—Charlotte turned onto a path that led straight to the central tent. In her way was a trio of Cottonwood soldiers—those she had words with earlier—staring her down. The middle one stepped forward with empty hands. “What’s going on?” he asked, voice quivering. “I thought… I thought this was all over. Miss—what’s happening?”22

Charlotte wasn’t allowed to answer. Another Cottonwood warrior appeared, leafy clothes splattered with blood, a sword in one hand a dagger in the next. “I’ll tell you what’s happened, they’ve turned on us! Kill her, you fools, she and her kind have led us into slaughter.” The first warrior to speak looked back and forth quickly, trying to form words, but he, too, was not allowed to speak. The sword was thrust into his empty hand. It was only then that Charlotte realized the warrior wore a black armband, just like some of the Fort City soldiers.23

She opened her mouth to speak but was drowned by armband screaming, “KILL HER!” The three stepped forward. Charlotte shook her head, tears threatening in her eyes.

“Please, don’t do this.”

“She’s slaughtering our kin, do you hear!? All her talk, just a screen for blood and death. Well we won’t just lie down in mud made from our blood—we’ll fight! En taro a dun, executor!”24

Charlotte saw death in their eyes, then. Her words were done.

She turned to run, the fear inside her returning but the smell of wet blood clouding her thoughts, unsure if it was the device or just the nearness of death…

From around the corner three Fort City soldiers turned. They saw the tableau laid out and charged, weaponless, screaming at the top of their lungs. They recognized Charlotte, and saw their enemy in the Cottonwood.

Six fighters, Charlotte thought, with only one sword between them. Armband had faded away again, work done. The violence was almost worse when it was fist upon flesh. It was slower, too, and Charlotte could hear the rage inside them. It wasn’t the device, not this. This was years of stories, of cultural aggression fueled by anonymous hatred. It was palpable, heavy, thick. Charlotte started to cry, then, shocked at herself. This was Lucinda’s legacy unravelling before her, and there was nothing she could do. She wasn’t crying for the loss of her teacher, not yet. She was crying for failing her.

Charlotte ran. Past the chaos in the alley, the soldiers fighting for and against her. Past pockets of violence that got thicker the closer she got to the tent. She hadn’t seen Raul, but she knew where he’d be. He had purpose; a friend still to save.

Charlotte couldn’t protect Lucinda. But perhaps she could protect something else.

Without stopping she barrelled into the large tent, from which she could hear, even outside, the slash and clang. Charlotte pictured every scene of war she’d ever read from the Barbarian Queen and was wholly unprepared for the stench of blood, the ringing of sharp metal, and the soft, wet death as women and men fell to the ground. Inside was nothing like her stories.

The heat from the torches combined with the number of bodies had made the space muggy, but now that people were sweating and bleeding it was even worse. Some of those bodies were now literally nothing more. Pockets of resistance to—each other, Charlotte finally settled on, were everywhere. High ranking officials, dignitaries, Fort City hanger-ons, the rich folk that had followed her and Lucinda into the woods to witness history. Some were being defended by the Guard, while others were cut down. There’s the dancing man, Charlotte thought, a dagger cut across his neck, red stains down his fancy tunic. Beside him, toppled onto him, was the Cottonwood woman that had asked for a dance.

Charlotte had stepped to the side of the entrance soon as she entered, to hide in the shadows. That was one thing, at least, that her stories had taught her. It was a bad idea to stand in silhouette of an entrance.25 Especially during a fight. Everything was movement inside, like a horrible dance where a single misstep caused death. Charlotte watched for black armbands, but by this point, it didn’t matter. She saw frustration, anger, vengeance on the faces before her, Fort City and Cottonwood alike.26

So close to the entrance, Charlotte heard a larger commotion outside. I need to move, she thought. Her feet were frozen though, her body finally reacting to the fear of the situation. Her arms started shaking as more fighters plunged into the fray. The last group unslung bows from their back and Charlotte wanted to scream, but couldn’t. It’s almost all over. But the group, even at the entrance, were finding it hard to draw in the tight quarters, especially with a new batch of fighters pushing in behind them, some cutting, others fending them off. There’s too much movement, too many… things, going on. No chance to think let alone act properly. Why would anyone ever go to war?27

The mob shifts28 for a moment and Charlotte can see, far across the room, Augusto, mighty Augusto, Lord of Parties, Uniter of the Cottonwood, two daggers in hand holding back seven men. Someone his size shouldn’t be able to move like that, and someone as drunk as he was shouldn’t be that fluid and coherent; yet he was. For a brief flash Charlotte could see Raul, tackling one of the seven surrounding Augusto. They tumbled into the circle around him but then the mob shifted again and Charlotte’s view was gone.

Raul found Augusto, she thought. If that buffoon can reach his goal, then I can reach mine. Steeling herself, she started inching along the perimeter, waiting for a gap large enough for her to pass through. There was a row of tables a dozen metres away that had been tipped over. Rather than being used as a barricade to arrows, or vantage point to fight—as any decent barbarian would—it was tipped over, discarded; forgotten. It carved a natural line through the battle into the deeper end of the tent. The fighting near it was furious, but if she crawled over and through the legs, she might be left alone.

Easier said than done, especially in a ridiculous dress. Charlotte dropped to the floor and started crawling along the table, her skirt slipping under her and catching on the legs as she moved through. She was halfway along when a body was hurled into the table a metre ahead of her, a dagger sticking from its neck.

How can so much violence go on for so long in such a small space? She recognized the face of the fallen soldier, though she didn’t know her name. The soldier’s eyes were still, her mouth hung open. The dagger had been slammed up to its hilt, then left with the body. Charlotte stared at the weapon, no longer a tool, for several seconds before slowly grasping the hilt in her hand. She pulled, but the blade was caught in bone, and all that came out was a stream of gore as she wiggled the knife. Charlotte’s gag reflex caught and she was afraid she’d throw-up again, so she left the knife behind. I can’t even save you the offense29 of the knife sticking out of your face. All Charlotte could do in that space, at that time, was continue to her goal, hoping not to throw up. She moved quickly as she crawled over the body, and the urge passed, but that face would linger in her mind’s eye for a long time.

Finally, amidst the chaos, Charlotte reached the foot of the dais. The sword had not been touched. There were no bodies littered over the stairs, not even a wayward blood stain thrown from across the room. The magic was holding, but Charlotte knew it would not last for long.

Still, she paused, and found herself looking around the room. There, across the crowd, she could see Augusto and Raul again. Augusto was down a knife but seemed to take to the fight even more. Raul was at his back, the two circling each other like before, only this time their fight was on the outside. As she watched, Charlotte realized she knew what had to be done. Bring Augusto the Sword. If he were to hold it up, and claim peace between Fort City and the Cottonwood, it would be enough. This close to the sword, she could feel its magic.30 It would be enough.

She started to turn to fetch the blade when the first arrow landed in Augusto’s chest. It burrowed deep before settling still, the feathers gently blowing in the breeze of combat. Augusto stopped fighting, and looking down. He seemed confused, rather than hurt. As another body flung itself at him—Charlotte was sure pushed by a black armband, but from her position, there was no real way to tell—Augusto parried and pushed it away with ease. Then the second arrow hit him, and the third. Only seconds went by, but he fought off another two, three soldiers, one for every arrow in him. Charlotte knew that any moment now, he would let out a great scream and barrel through the enemy, taking them down left and right. He was too strong not too.

But three arrows were three too many; he went down. Raul turned, saw the arrows, and he raged, throwing back the enclosing circle. He knelt by his master, but the mob shifted again and Charlotte couldn’t see them. Tears welled in her eyes. She turned back to the sword.

CC.011

There was no more thought for her. Her feet moved of their own accord, slowly, one step after the other, raising her onto the dais and towards the sword. Through her tears she saw it there—the Accord, etched in steel, consecrated in blood, and destroyed from within. A stray thought flitted across her mind. It’s so much bigger than I remember. For what felt like forever, but she knew was only seconds, she stared at the sword and all that it represented. The sound of violence felt distant, quiet, but the longer she stared the louder it got until it was a grinding pulse all around her, drowning all other thoughts. The sword was a symbol, Lucinda had told her.31 Why a sword instead of a length of chain, or a pair of drinking steins? It didn’t much matter now.

Charlotte reached out to touch the sword, the tingle of its magic nipping her fingertips. Without Augusto, it was no better than an actual sword. Perhaps, if she could get it into the hands of a warrior, someone that knew how to use…

No, she thought. That’s wrong.

Vilnius’ attack is secret, as per the armbands. He attacked Lucinda privately, in her tent, where no one could see. He’s not all powerful, otherwise he would have walked into this tent and started shooting. He’s put a lot of work into keeping his role secret. Charlotte thought back to the officials scattered around. Some were dead, or doomed, while others had been protected, shoved out of the tent to a defensible position. Lord Taverock, Lady Steward… High players, but mostly neutral. Controllable, but with klout over people. It’s a coup, alright, but it doesn’t end here. Of course it doesn’t, it can’t! The king still has control of most of the army, and he—

Charlotte gasped, realizing the extent of what was about to happen. If Lucinda’s murder was attributed to the Cottonwood, then the act, especially in the middle of the Accord, would be an act of aggression. And the king, for all his cleverness, would have to go to war.

Unless someone delivers the sword to him, with an eye-witness account of what really happened…

Charlotte reached out again, but this time she took the sword by the hilt, her other hand carefully on the etched blade. It was heavy, heavier than she would have guessed, and it looked damn heavy to begin with. It collapsed in her arms and she dropped the blade to the floor. She hefted again, both hands on the hilt, balancing for the awkward length. It rose into the air, wobbled around, then fell. With a sigh, Charlotte shifted her grip so the sword could drag in the dirt.32 It’s not worse than either of the blood baths it’s seen today, at least. She headed for the door.

A bulbous cloud of black smoke was floating to the top of the tent. Several torches had been knocked over and finally caught things on fire. Charlotte coughed twice, looking around her. This is probably for the best, she thought. It’ll help cover my escape. Not that I need to worry, apparently, as no one’s seen me yet…

There was almost a straight line from her to the door, and just as she stepped into the aisle Sandy walked into the tent. There was no hiding where she stood, and no way to dodge quickly enough to avoid being seen; not carrying the sword. So Charlotte stood there, her legs locked, the fear creeping back in. From across the tent Sandy smiled, drew a dagger, and started forward. Charlotte swallowed to keep herself from screaming, the word move, move move repeated over and over in her head. The first thing to happen that resembles Suzannah’s adventures, and it hits me in the face. If I were Suzannah I’d use this sword to cut Sandy’s head off, but I can’t even lift the damn thing!

Slowly, Charlotte stepped out of the aisle dragging the sword behind her. She tried to hide in the crowd, but every step Sandy took pushed back the swirling mob, either from fear or the steel that Sandy used to cut throats and bowels while walking through. There was laughter, and Charlotte’s lungs squeezed tight. Sandy was getting closer, clearly enjoying the moment. She wouldn’t be able to hide for long.

She was near the back of the tent. She cursed the designer for not installing a second entrance to what was, through primary research, an extreme fire hazard. Death trap, I believe it’s called. Charlotte almost laughed. She’d been reading those two words since she was a little girl, a thousand times it felt like, and for the first time did she feel what they meant. Stuck, with no way out, waiting for death to sidle up and draw a sharpened blade across your throat. Charlotte wanted to cry, the tears welling, but she wouldn’t give Sandy the joy. She wouldn’t give Vilnius the satisfaction.

Several arrows flew over hear head nearby, and she smelt the oil and leather, the blood and steel of the room. It left a metal, tangy taste in her mouth. She pictured Sandy getting closer, knife dripping, closer, that horrible grin curling lips; was it better to die not knowing the blow was coming or to face it and watch it happen? Closer, one step after the other, dagger raised high.

Escape seemed impossible, especially with the sword. Where would she go, anyways? She wasn’t really safe now, was she? Lucinda was… She was…

Lucinda was dead.33 Murdered, in her own tent, surrounded by soldiers. The City’s most ancient Taboo broken like a stick picked up off the forest floor. There would be war now, too. Not just skirmishes, or small patrols cutting down raiders. It would be full out war.

Two figures hurled themselves into Charlotte. All three went down. Charlotte scrambled across the ground, the sword still in her hand. There was a flurry of movement and then both people stopped, collapsing on one another. Blood started pooling under them, thin arms slowly flowing across the ground toward Charlotte.

She shook her head. No. I can’t do this. She tried to rise, but could only manage a crouch, which quickly collapsed; she crawled her way to the edge of the tent and sat there huddled upon herself. It was too heavy. The sword, the fight. Her books did nothing to prepare her for this. They talked about brimstone, and dirt. The effervescent feel of blood in the air; poetic. But this, this was gore and mud and physical violence forced upon bodies. They stank34 with sweat, and when you opened one up you could smell the rot already sinking in, urine and feces ripening in the stank air. And this was just the start. There would be so much more.

“Why did you leave me, Lucinda? This has all gone to hell. It’s too much for me. I don’t even know where to start to fix this.”

“Not knowing a thing is the first step in conquering your own ignorance, child.” From across the gulf of years Charlotte heard Lucinda’s voice. “The second is agreeing to conquer that ignorance.”

Charlotte was ten years old,35 an enormous piece of cake sitting half eaten in front of her. It was her birthday. She’d just learned about her apprenticeship to the City’s First Ambassador.36

A broad, short woman in a pretty dress had sat down across from her uninvited. She was the only adult Charlotte had ever met that took a full piece of cake; Charlotte admired her ability to keep its elegance as it was cut and scooped onto her plate. This woman’s piece sat tall and composed, while Charlotte’s—aside from the gouging as she ate it—had collapsed immediately into a pile of cake and icing. Charlotte was even more impressed when the woman used her fork to carve off an enormous bite without ruining its structural integrity. Several minutes passed as the woman chewed, obviously enjoying the dessert. Finally she swallowed, and patted her mouth with a napkin.

“You’re to be apprenticed to me, Charlotte Hargrave.”

“Yes.”

“How does that make you feel?”

Young Charlotte considered. Not many adults had asked her that recently.

“I don’t know anything about ambassadoring.”

“Don’t be facetious—what does an ambassador do?”

“She makes deals with people on behalf of the City?”

Lucinda smiled. “See? You know something about being an ambassador. Not knowing a thing is fine. Truly, it is the first step in conquering your own ignorance, child. The second is agreeing to conquer that ignorance. So? How do you feel about learning to be an ambassador with me?

“I don’t know,” Charlotte said. She looked up and smiled. “But I’ll try it.”

“A very good place to start.”

Young Charlotte sat there considering her cake for a while as Lucinda ate hers. Her face was scrunched up as she thought. Finally, she asked the question.

“What’s the third?” Charlotte whispered from the future, inside a tent full of death.

“Why, taking action, of course,” Lucinda said. “Using what little you do know as an educated place to start doing.”37

Tears came down Charlotte’s cheeks as she remembered that first lesson. That very evening she had followed Lucinda around as she kept up familial relations with those in attendance at the party. Never a moment to be wasted on plain rest.

I know what must be done, Charlotte thought in the here and now. I just have to clear this hurdle. She stared hard at the thick fabric blocking her path. If only I had my letter opener…

She looked down at the giant sword in her hand. Of course.

It took every muscle she had in her arms to raise the sword. Knowing what to expect from its weight, she was better able to balance it, but she had no control. When she tried to tip its point towards the wall she lost control, and the tip fell back into the dirt. She did laugh this time, and the tears did start.

“Lucinda…help me. You were always there—help me. I can’t do this without you. I can’t do this alone…”

Suddenly there was a hand overtop hers on the sword hilt. She nearly screamed in surprise, but her rational brain reacted first, squashing the scream. A second hand took the pommel and together, she and Raul lifted the sword vertical, plunging its point into the fabric two metres high. Though forged to be a symbol, the sword was sharp and true. The fabric split like butter, the weight of the sword doing most of the work to rend.

Without words, still holding the sword together, Charlotte and Raul ran through the gap and into the night.38

CC.012


  1. James: Is Charlotte upset about her parents? I mean, there’s no reason why she shouldn’t be, but I had always thought of it as kind of a non-entity for her – its sad she didn’t have them but she never knew them, so the grief isn’t really overwhelming or anything. Am I an awful human being?

    Luke: She’s not upset on a regular basis, no. But she grew up around other kids (i.e. her roof jumping crew, at least) and is aware / knows about parents—and the fact that she didn’t have them. Her surrogate mother didn’t come along for a while, and the King…well, he’s the King; I imagine he couldn’t be around much.

    So when V’s thing starts amplifying stuff–i.e. emotions–then I think a little bit of what she never had would be dredged up. The thought of parents she lost probably isn’t far from “I have Lucinda, I don’t need parents.”

  2. Luke: I purposefully left the second bracket off. This is the thought that breaks the cycle and brings her back to the world.

    James: If I’m honest, I’m not particularly fond of how this whole internal monologue is presented, but I do really like what you’re going for here, in that Charlotte sees inspiration in her other role model. It makes sense that she would turn in Suzannah’s direction when Lucinda is necessarily out of the picture.

    Luke: I’m open to changing it, but I wanted it to be a little different because this isn’t wholly a natural thing that’s happening right now. V’s tool is taking magic and snapping it over his knee—that’s rattling the whole natural order of something!

  3. Luke: So I’m trying this thing, as part of Charlotte’s grief / shock, where she thesaurus-es words.

    James: neat! But, it behooves me to mention that although those are all synonyms for stop, none of them are actually appropriate in context.

    Luke: She’s in shock! She just saw her surrogate parent / teacher / future obliterated, in the breaking of a Taboo a trillion years old!, and everything is coming down around her but she’s the only one left to hold it up!…

    Brain does weird things at a moment like that.

  4. Luke: It may be too much to have a 3fer IMMEDIATELY before another. And I like the saw/watched/witnessed one more.

  5. James: I’ve been telling you not to do this for fifteen years 😉

    Luke: Not to do what? Start with “and”?

    James: Change the context of one sentence by adding a modifying sentence fragment immediately after. I know you’re going for shock/emphasis, but it doesn’t work well (you also do it a lot – granted, not nearly as much as when you were 16, but still, often). It feels like a cheap trick that is trying to manipulate my feelings as a reader rather than fluid prose that does manipulate my feelings (which is our job as writers, I suppose). Plus, I hate sentence fragments, but thats a secondary consideration in this case. 

  6. James: Man, I think you’ve really nailed Vilnius. He’s, like, categorically evil. His vile presence is uncomfortable.

    Luke: Thanks!

  7. James: flows a bit weird here, probably because Charlotte’s thoughts use two sentences inside one narrator sentence. Break out the iron!

  8. James: Muggy and clammy are both dampness, but at opposite ends of the heat spectrum.

  9. James: These don’t need to be two separate sentences

  10. Luke: Put the milky haze over V’s eyes too? Closer you are to the source…

  11. Luke: So, I want to give Charlotte a belt, and I want her to have a very tiny tinder kit on it. You know, for fire, should she ever end up on an adventure. (Could be a good bit later, too, if Raul can’t get a fire started because it rained so much, and BAM! Charlotte…hmm. But then she’s succeeding where she was supposed to be “out of water”. Maybe she tries, and it doesn’t work? But Raul, with nothing, easily starts. Or uses the damn tinder and starts it. Let’s see.

    Need to mention the tinder kit earlier in the story.

    Also, I’m talking, like, a really tiny, practically useless kit. Charlotte’s never made a fire herself before? She’s read about it…

    James: this’d conflict with later bits. even if it was shitty and small, Raul would be able to use it effectively given his ability with forest craft. Keep in mind, in following sections, they actively avoid using fire, and struggle when they need to.

    Luke: How about…at the end of the story, she’s wearing a belt, and on said belt is a small mirror, a small tinder kit, and implication of a few other useful devices?

  12. Luke: We never really fleshed this out. Some thoughts:

    Death is for soldiers, to be used against the Other. Cottonwood is part of us now.

    BQ book at start: L- “Violence, so unsettling. How can you read such disgusting trash?” (our intro early on to Taboo.) C- “It’s just story, Lucinda.”

  13. James: I’m not picking up what you’re putting down here.

    Luke: Here, let me get that for you. * picks it up, brushes it off, hands to James *

    Does he:
    A) Smile thankfully, and take it
    B) Throw a fit and knock it out of Luke’s hand
    C) Stand there unmoving as Awkwardness descends upon them both, forever, in eternity.

  14. James: This is a simple but very effective solution. I wondered how you’d pull it off, and I have to say, I dig it

  15. Luke: I’ve forgotten what rank we said she was. Looking up later.

    James: It may have been corporal, but I don’t think it matters… its the look of things, the cottonwood soldier with a bloody sword. Chain of command be damned, somebody in our uniform says somebody in their stuck this guy? It’s time for a fight!

  16. James: This doesn’t feel like a Sandy word.

    Luke: It didn’t to me either, but I didn’t come up with a good one. This whole thing, actually, didn’t feel right. Except for “This isn’t over.” I still want that.

  17. Luke: So this is the moment. Charlotte runs, and Sandy seems to pursue, but then stops. Why did Sandy stop? Vilnius rounded the corner and started talking, but we don’t know that until his section.

  18. James: bruh, this echos so well with the next confrontation the two have int he section I just wrote. Exciting!

  19. Luke: Should mention these early on, when we first meet Charlotte. I’m picturing her sitting under a tree in her fancy dress, legs crossed, boots boldly sticking out in the world.

  20. James: I get what you’re doing, but can we just use a couple ore words to satisfy grammar?

    Luke: No! Never! You’re the one that taught me grammar was a lie! (Or was that me that tried to teach you?) How long have we known each other? How long have we been friends with Grammar?

    …I’ll just go ahead and add a word or two.

  21. James: I think you’ve handled chaos really well up till this point, and I really like how you’ve brought it down to a lesson Charlotte can learn. Two points – first, can we put our finger on a delicate point: this chaos is not at all what she thinks it would be judging by the stories of the barbarian queen. (don’t need too much detail, but we can and do pick that up later)

    Second, all the chaos so far has been violence. I think it’ll pay dividends to have confusion and separation in there two. We’ve got soldiers on both sides, but we’ve got a lot of other people too. (I guess the cottonfolk are all kinda combatants, but ehhh). Have some clerks running around like chickens, a meat vendor trying to pack his shit and leave, screaming matches between Cottonfolk and Fort City, questions of ‘what is going on?’ etc.

    Luke: Yup.

  22. James: yeah, this right here!

  23. James: hold the phones! Is this a disguise, or has vilnius really got somebody on the inside of Cottonwood culture? Because I don’t feel like he would

    James: I see below that he is in disguise. Lets make that overt.

  24. Luke: How about a rallying cry, very historic for the Cottonwood people. Something that speaks to an old tale, an emotional connection to the land and their past. Freedom, defiance, purpose, and whatnot. Something to push these folks just a little bit, enough to fall over the edge into violence.

    Later, Charlotte can reflect that that means Vilnius either knew enough about CW culture to train his men posing as them, or—he as able to sway some actual CW to work for him.

    Luke: He’s invited along to the accord because everyone knows he’s had many dealings with the Cottonfolk, so, yeah. I guess it’s just noting that he was able to turn some of them, too.

    James: I’m not sure there would even been a single cottonwood cry. Keep in mind that all the clans have had distinct cultures and are only unifying for the first time ever now.

    James: Also, terrans are way better than protoss

    Luke: Terrans were so overpowered I could poop. And just kept getting so with each new expansion! Poor Zerg. So cool, so shafted.

  25. Luke: except it wouldn’t be silhouette, because it’s night. Did I write the sun was set by this point? Have to double check in redraft.

    Luke: Or…well, Charlotte’s not thinking 100% straight yet, right? And she remembers her stories always saying “Don’t stand in silhouette when you enter a tent” so she doesn’t even register it’s night.

  26. James: I feel like by this point one side or the other would be trying to move out rather than fight. Like, the cottonwooders should be headed for the trees – I know we’re fomenting violence and chaos or a reason here, but I’m thinking maybe we should dial it back a tad. People aren’t naturally inclined to just murder the shit out of each other. Magic might be helping them along, but is Charlotte can have a cooler head, than some others must, too. Augusto particularly. I know he’s going to die, but I feel like once he saw what was happening (a betrayal and violence) his order would be to get everybody out. Let shit cool down with minimum loss of life and start talking again. Or, maybe capture and eject. In the face of so much wanton violence, especially with so many non-combatants being killed, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to believe that its escalating rather than mellowing.

  27. Luke: Jeez, I feel like I’ve gotten a little preachy towards the fallacy of war. Not something I intended. If you’re picking up on that too, let’s make sure we tone it back.

    Luke: In other thought, we’ll definitely have to replace it, with something important to Charlotte’s character (which could still totally be what’s there now). She’s SEEING this violence for the first time; it’s not just a story. That’s got to have an affect upon her. Is this what it means to be a Barbarian Queen?

    James: You’ll see a note somwhere above where I suggest we draw that out!

  28. James: … (heh heh heh) tense

    Luke: There always had to be at least one…

  29. Luke: What is the actual word I’m looking for? The:
    – disgrace
    – embarrassment
    – humiliation

    There’s a word, but I can’t remember!

    James: “insult”

    Luke: …exactly :-S

  30. Luke: So, she can’t, not really. But she thinks she should be able to, and that’s what she’s “feeling”.

    James: Its powere as a symbol is palpable, so yeah. Incidentally, I think this’d still work if dialed back the violence considerably and had Augusto covering the evacuation of his people with Raul.

    Luke: Actually, that helps a lot with a problem I had—why is no one attacking Charlotte? She just wanders right into the heart of it, and nothing bad happens to her?

  31. Luke: Wait, or was it Augusto? Damn my stunted ability to convert short term to long term!

  32. Luke: Too heavy?

    James: A bit. She can lift it, swing inaccurately, and carry it for miles every day. Going back to the very inception of the idea: her inability to use it stems from the fact that it can’t be blooded without becoming useless rather than it just being too big and heavy. But it is big and heavy!

  33. Luke: Redraft, double check—is this the first time Charlotte has allowed herself to say dead / murdered in regards to Lucinda.

    (I’m less concerned about “murdered”, but dead, I want to save for here.)

  34. James: good word, not sure of its usage

  35. Luke: I couldn’t find an age written down when we said she started with Lucinda; ten seemed good. First time you get a second digit to your age (until you’re 100). We can adjust as needed.

    James: I’m on board. Its worth remembering that they would have met before (Lucinda knew Charlotte’s qualities prior to this cake meeting), but nothing in this bit precludes that.

  36. LukeIt’s a title, not a description. There have been other ambassadors, but right now Lucinda is the First Ambassador.

    James: dig it

  37. James: This is great

    James: I mean the whole memory bit. Its the start of processing grief, and its happening amidst all this chaos, AAAAAND it links charlotte’s memories or Lucinda to the magic that’s going on during the chaos, which kinda explains how Lucinda’s voice stays so real and feels like a character with agency in later parts of the text (of course, we don’t need the magic for that, since Charlotte has a sharp memory Lucinda was real important to her, so)

  38. James: Definitively dig the section over all, especially the Lucinda bit. You’ve done an admirable job of capturing chaos here, though I do feel it’d serve our story better to dial back the violence a bit. Less wanton killing in the non-armbanders (although more than zero!), more confused flight, scuffles, fists before swords, misunderstandings and miscommunication. I don’t think it’ll be hard to do that in another draft, especially within the frame you’ve got here.

    Worth noting that I think we’ve finally got our versions of Charlotte to align, too! Aww yissss

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