This week continues the story of Ahrs Brandson, who was introduced last week in the premier edition of First Draft Fridays. For everyone who has stumbled across my blog without reading that opening scene, I suggest you back out, find it (last blog entry before this one), and return to this post once you've seen the bleak background Ahrs hails from. To reiterate, this is a segment where I show you what my first drafts look like—before I've made corrections, shifted around character details, and either shored up or trimmed down my worldbuilding elements. Some of these excerpts have never seen the light of day, so I look forward to any comparisons drawn between them and my "clean" (nothing is ever truly clean and perfect) published work. For any writers in the audience, I'll let you in on a secret: this scene was the original starting point for Side Story: Ahrs. Only after I finished the entire "boy leaves home" sequence to his journey, some 8.5k words, did I go back and pen the manse "bloodletting" focused on Lord Brandson. Why did I do this? I look forward to seeing your opinions in the comments!
Side Story: Ahrs—Part Two You have got to be kidding me.
Breathless, Ahrs Brandson stopped in the middle of the empty street, placing his hands on his knees as he surveyed his quarry. "Quarry" may have been too kind a word. Though the barmaid at the Indolent Iris had told him to expect a traveling wagon, Ahrs had imagined something other than . . . this, especially considering the notoriety of its rumored owner.
To begin with, the driver who parked the wagon must be lazy, drunk, or some combination of the two. It listed at a precarious angle, two wheels on the mottled street cobbles, two in the filthy gutter that ran the length of the thoroughfare. Most carriage-masters would be appalled at the scrubbing they'd need to give their vehicle after tracking it through such an odious collection of feces, rotted produce, and other unwashed runoff, but the shade of the spokes—many of which were missing—matched that of the grime almost too well.
Ahrs pinched his nose even though it strained his already belabored breathing. How did the wagon occupants, hidden from sight by a slapdash cab of garish, psychedelic boards of various shapes and sizes, stand the smell?
A jet of pitch black smog erupted from the bent smokestack on the rusted tin roof. Seconds later, a circular hatch on the rear banged open hard enough to shake the entire construct, and a nobleman wearing a soot-stained suit bumbled out. Red-faced under a solid layer of ash, he turned to accost whoever was still in the wagon before seeing Ahrs standing nearby.
"Bah!" he grunted, wiping down his ruined clothes—a futile act if ever there was one. "You aren't worth the curses, you old coot!" The man pulled an equally soiled pouch from his belt, shook out a few glittering coins, and flung them through the still open portal. "Half! That's all you're going to get, and count yourself lucky to be getting that, given what this silk is worth. I'll have you know that this is the very latest fashion out of Sarconia and—"
"Do I look like I care an arse-lick about what those prudes are covering their pale, wrinkly flesh with?"
Another blackened head poked out of the wagon, this one wearing smudged, centimeter thick spectacles and greasy coveralls. "That Engraved dowser I made ye is worth enough o' those cheap suits to hang ye five times over, pardon the metaphor. Yer farm will never want fer water, so I expect the proper payment I'm due—ten Qunari."
The nobleman had one arm free, the other wrapped tightly about a velvet-covered package as long as his leg. The former reached for a silver chain dangling from his coat pocket while the rest of his body shifted to hide the motion. Ahrs was no soldier, but he knew a mage when he saw one. He took three quick steps back to the far side of the street, easing carefully into a small crowd assembling to watch the ruckus.
Ahrs recognized the tavern-master by his mead-splotched apron. "Five Nirosi on Savion," he whispered to a wiry man with a well-trimmed beard beside him, the proprietor of the inn Ahrs had stayed in the previous night.
"You think I have geldars to spare on a foolish bet?" the inn-keeper retorted, folding his arms.
Sure, Ahrs thought, considering you charged me for dinner, bed, and breakfast, then were nowhere to be seen when I woke up. Instead he blurted, "That's Savion? The legendary Engraver? The Talisman-making genius unmatched in all of Lozaria? That plump, foul-mouthed runt of a man?"
Noticing him, the innkeeper flinched away, pretending to examine the chipped stonework of the neighboring tax-office. His larger friend favored Ahrs with a beaming grin. "For a kid, you've got a pretty harsh tongue yerself—not that I mind."
"So is that Savion or not?" Ahrs pressed. He didn't bother to tell the brutish man he was sixteen—almost an adult, by Sarconian standards. The fewer who knew his age, the better.
The tavern-master's grin widened. "Watch an' see, watch an' see."
Huffing, Ahrs did just that, nearly missing the action in the split second it took to turn his head.
Silver flashed. Ripping the casting catalyst from his belt, the nobleman flung the long chain and attached weight at Savion and his wagon, chanting throughout the motion.
He didn't get to finish. Savion—if that was indeed his name—popped the clasp on his breast pocket, yanked out a strip of paper as wide as three fingers and tall as a hand, and held it toward his foe. Bright light filled the street, seemingly radiating right from the blocky script on the small scrap. Ahrs shaded his eyes; he would not avert his gaze and miss this moment of triumph.
Water gushed from the paper, a literal torrent of coursing white rapids. It was like the headwaters of the Sydari River: strong, savage, and unforgiving. Ahrs had seen stout bottomed barges shredded by similar flows while trying to make the transfer from Lake Lovare to the river. This nobleman shared their fate.
He, his package, his once-fine vestments, and all the muck built up in the storm-drain went sweeping off down the street, bucked back and forth between the stone foundations like a toy boat on a stormy sea. Ahrs winced each time the aristocrat struck a pole, a flight of steps, or some piece of flotsam. Stuck-up bourgeois or not, would he be alright?
Fortunately, the town of Identstalen was not overlarge. A few streets, several shops, and a small fishing wharf situated on the northwest bank of Lake Lovare. Within a moment, the nobleman and a week's worth of accumulated sewage washed onto the low-lying flats beyond the settlement, at which point Savion inhaled and crumpled the paper in his fingers. The deluge immediately ceased, reduced to a few drops squeezing from his fist. Any trace of its blinding glow vanished.
Stuffing the enigmatic wad of damp rubbish in another pocket, Savion jumped from his wagon and waved at the small gathering, many of whom whistled and cheered in response. Identstalen was a commoner's town. Nobility, Sarconian or otherwise, were suffered, not welcomed. Ahrs was fine with that; his blood was old enough, and dilute enough, that he'd walk whichever side of the fence suited him on a given day.
The applause died quickly, the townsfolk drifting back to their work as if this was a daily occurrence. Was it? Ahrs spun to ask the tavern-master, but he was moving away, striding toward Savion with an outstretched hand.
"Told ya I'd get yer storefront cleaned today." Savion swept his arm across the two-story tavern, its lower reaches—right up to the two colorful planters bursting with blooms on either side of the entrance—scrubbed free of dirt.
"A deal honored," the tavern-master said.
"A deal honored," Savion chorused, pocketing the proffered change. He made to return to his wagon, but the taller man tapped him on the shoulder, pointing at Ahrs.
"I think he's been lookin' fer ya."
And that was all the introduction Ahrs was going to receive. The tavern-master walked up the steps to the Indolent Iris, walked inside, and slammed the door such that the dingy, scantily-clad girl on his hanging sign danced in defiance of her name.
Savion stared at Ahrs as the lad's mind raced, hooking his thumbs about the straps on his coveralls so they ballooned even further than normal. What should I say? Where should I begin? The letter of introduction? My magic? No, absolutely not! That pitiful display will just make him refuse me outright. Should I bow? Go for a handshake? Gah! This was so much easier when I thought he was a doddering old codger with no-
"Ya saw what happened to the last one, right?" Savion flicked a finger at the far end of town where rivulets of happily gurgling water were still draining toward the lake. When Ahrs didn't respond, the mage gestured at his clothes. "That frippery ain't 'burn-my-eyes-out' tier like the last bloke's, but ya don't seem like ya belong round here. Ya ken?"
Ahrs glanced down at his outfit. It was just a simple robe over a two-piece tunic and trousers. What was so . . . He looked at Savion, then at the carpenter's boy up the road in the opposite direction, dressed in a frayed grey smock as he swept sawdust from his master's workshop.
"Oh," was all he could manage.
Savion nodded sagely, underestimating him like everyone else, treating him like the dolt— the untalented brat—he was. "Now yer seein' sense. Go get some curic-milk from the tavern —Sally will give ya some if ya ask real nice—and then come see me tomorrow if yer still determined to fetch whatever papa sent ya ta find. I have a strict 'one customer a day' policy an'," he paused to scratch his prickly chin, "Given how things are trendin', I'm considerin' lowerin' that down a wee bit more. Can ya have ha'f a person solicit yer services? I'm bettin' a noble without their ego would amount ta that much."
He was serious. The loon was actually contemplating how to divest a person of their personality, right here in front of a complete stranger he had just insulted and dismissed. Ahrs wanted to laugh, cry, and rage all at once. This man was his final chance; his last shot to pursue a career in the magical arts that didn't involve getting drafted and sent to fight and die in a war a million leagues away. Well, Ahrs considered, Varas Fortress is considerably closer than that, but my point still stands!
In just a few short weeks when he turned seventeen, the Sarconian pressgangs would come for him, test his magical aptitude, and find him sorely wanting. Then they'd give him a rifle, a useless helm and hauberk, and have him charge a Rabbanite gun emplacement with bullets whizzing all about. Shells exploding, men screaming, mud flying, and . . .
Ahrs shook his head. That was not his future. This man . . . this Savion, legendary Talisman-maker, infamous the empire over, would be his way out. Pedigree be blasted! He would beg, grovel, and pander in the most unsightly way to squirm out of the fate so many of his former friends had shared. His parents would not receive that coarse enveloped letter, sealed in red and gold, soon to be smeared with snot and tears.
Ahrs's neck snapped up. Coals burning in his eyes, he raised himself to his full height—a head taller than Savion—and locked gazes with him.
"Please take me as your apprentice."
Clenching his teeth, gripping the letter from his father in his sleeve pocket, Ahrs prepared to fight the inevitable refusal.
"Not my usual shtick, but sure."
The letter whipped into existence in Ahrs's right hand; he'd practiced the flourish for hours until he could make the envelope appear as if from thin air. "This missal outlines the benefits to taking me on, as well as the financial restitution you can be expected to—"
"I said, yes. Don't need to read yer fancy poetry. Liable to change my mind, anyhow."
Confidence evaporating, Ahrs froze. "You said what?
"Just like that?"
Savion's thick eyebrows furrowed, coming together like two wooly caterpillars meeting face to face. "I don't mince words, boy. My 'yes' means 'yes,' an' my 'no' means 'no.'" He threw up his arms and began stalking away. "You upper crust types, always beatin' around the bush, using two-hundred words to say what two will do for."
"Ain't no one ever asked before." I wonder why, Ahrs mused sardonically as Savion snorted, bulky glasses bouncing along with his mirth. "Anyway, I got plenty of work to do, so I'm happy to have you, neat nails and all."
Staring at his hands—which were, admittedly, immaculate and damage free—Ahrs nearly planted his nose into the side of Savion's wagon. His new master caught him by the train of his robe, and he breathed a sigh of relief that his dress clothes, worn to make a good first impression, would not be sullied today.
"So I'm your apprentice now . . ." he said hesitantly, trailing off as the implications hit him. Was this pile of mobile ek-dung to be his new home? Surely not! Savion likely worked out of it and stayed in inns at night, thereby separating his livelihood from his living.
"Yep. Reckon so."
Ahrs's heart soared. He'd done it! His life was spared, and his path to the magical arts lay open wide! Scarcely able to contain his excitement, he followed Savion around to the still smoking rear hatch. "Where do we begin? What will I learn first? Runes? Cepyrus crafting? Men'ar mapping? I've heard so much about your work but can't even fathom which subject to begin with!"
Savion stretched his arm inside, rummaged around for a moment, and withdrew a rag and bucket. Ahrs's smile disintegrated.
"Ya start by scrubbin' the outside o' the wagon. Ol' girl hasn't had a rinse in . . . well, Sarcon was pro'lly still kickin' then."
Dismay etched deep lines in his pale face as Ahrs took in the smoke-warped, grit-caked, rust-lined disaster that was Savion's . . . now their . . . wagon. He gulped. "A-and after I finish?"
Savion clapped him on the back as he clambered up a three rung ladder and into the cab. "What follows naturally! The inside!"
You have got to be kidding me, Ahrs groaned inwardly, his morning coming full circle.