Following some feedback I’ve played with the introduction to my upcoming novel. I think it’s much better than it was, but then I (wrongly) thought it was pretty good beforehand too. I’ve got a lot more work to do throughout, but I’m hoping this is a good start.
Please let me know what you think:
Prophecy of Power: Prey – opening of Chapter 1
Princess Caroline duFandelyon jolted awake, unable to breathe from the pain cramping every muscle. Perspiration broke out despite the cold.
It took an excruciatingly long moment for the pain to pass, but when it did she managed to roll to her back with a soft moan. Dreading she knew what to expect, she slowly raised her bare arms above her face. “By the Higher Realm, no,” she whispered as she stared at her skin. A luminous bell-shaped alimoth flower marked each wrist like an artist’s sketch ready to be filled in. The softly-glowing flowers were the symbol of Marnier du Shae, Goddess of Healing.
The Goddess had put a claim on her.
It had to be punishment for her temerity in coming to consecrated ground under false pretences, though the abbey wasn’t her choice. At her parents’ command she’d travelled under the guise of piety, secretly hiding her pregnancy and later the birth of her illegitimate child. Now that she was preparing to leave, the Goddess of Healing had taken her revenge by demanding lifelong service as if Caroline had been genuinely seeking it.
“Please, don’t ask this of me,” she whispered, unable to take her eyes from the luminous markings. “Your abbey…” Was what? Little but a convenient deception? She’d even lied to her best friends about her reasons for coming here.
And now she was being made to pay for her deceits. If Caroline denied the Goddess now she’d be deprived of the Goddess’s graces her entire life, but if she accepted the outlines would fill in and she’d be bound to serve the Goddess forever. She wanted neither.
A blessing to anyone else, she couldn’t imagine a worse rebuke, not even death. The luminous outlines were a punishment almost as heartbreakingly harsh as the loss of the child she’d had to give up.
Fortunately, the King’s Guard had arrived with orders to return her to Fandelyon City immediately, a perfect solution to defer the unwanted choice. She meant to be mounted and out the gates before a Divine Servant noticed her markings and forced her to confront her calling.
Hands trembling, she took a deep breath and pulled her heavy covers back, the cold hardwood floor smooth under her bare feet. She quickly removed her yellow nightgown, pulled on her warm grey riding dress and boots and threw her royal-blue travel cloak around her shoulders.
Her clothes were tight, but there was no time to get them altered. She’d worn only the order’s pale yellow robes since last autumn and she’d grown several inches taller in that time. Wider too, thanks to her child.
Footsteps approached along the corridor as she tied her hair back. She tried not to show anything but the grace of a princess as the novice Bharise stopped at her open doorway, the acolyte’s olive skin and dark curly hair setting off her pale robes.
Caroline caught her breath when she noticed the shimmering alimoth flowers on the insides of the young Servant’s wrists – something she’d never been able to see before. A nightmare. It had to be.
“Everything’s prepared, Your Highness,” Bharise said, staring up at Caroline as if she noticed something different.
Caroline felt her cheeks flush. The girl knew, somehow. “Thank you, Bharise. I’ll be down in a moment.” As the acolyte’s footsteps retreated, Caroline buried her face in her spare riding dress as if she could smother her growing distress. She needed the support of her mother or sisters to comfort her.
“It’s ironic, don’t you think?”
Caroline jumped, a loose strand of her curly red hair drooping over her face. She dropped the dress on her bed as Tarine, the abbey’s High Priestess, entered her room in a swish of richly embroidered golden robes. Easily a foot shorter than Caroline and barely half her weight, Tarine’s presence nevertheless intimidated. The severely pulled back greying hair didn’t soften her image.
With her clan heritage Caroline had always been tall. Now she stood a head above almost everyone, yet still felt like a child as she confronted Tarine. “Ironic?” Caroline almost stammered as she hurriedly stuffed the heavy dress in her travel pack, making certain her sleeves didn’t slip and expose her wrists. She felt like she couldn’t breathe.
“How you came here under the pretext of finding your calling?” Tarine glanced pointedly at Caroline’s wrists, her expression suggesting Caroline was no more worthy of Divine Service today than she’d been half a year ago. “Did you even pray to our Goddess while you were here, guile aside?”
“Of course. Devoutly.” It was true – what woman wouldn’t beg the Goddess’s blessing while pregnant?
Tarine pulled her own sleeves back. Like Bharise, a single bell-shaped alimoth flower glowed on the inside of each wrist.
Caroline kept her eyes on the swarthy woman’s face, determined not to acknowledge what she saw. If she did, she’d probably cry. Only three Servants knew why she was really here, and Tarine was one. “I’ve imposed upon you too long, High Priestess,” she said, hoping to divert the woman.
Tarine’s eyes narrowed. “You’re ready for your journey then?” The words were cold. Precise. Direct.
Caroline felt her cheeks flush again. “Thank you for your patience and the kindness you’ve shown me.”
Tarine produced a tight smile, her skin crinkling at the sides of her mouth if not her eyes. “Our Divine Lady doesn’t grant her favours lightly, Princess.”
It was another opening, a chance to acknowledge her divine marks without being called out. Caroline raised her chin slightly. “High Priestess, please understand that this abbey only holds bitter heartache for me.” Humiliated at being forced to acknowledge the Goddess’s apparent blessing, she revealed her luminous alimoth outlines. “I’m not prepared to accept these. They’re a punishment, not a blessing.”
“They’re never a punishment!” Tarine said, but quickly composed herself. “I’ll pray to our Divine Lady. Perhaps she’ll give you the time you need to come to terms with her offer.” She sounded as if the words were being forced upon her.
“I shall pray for the same,” Caroline whispered. She’d always assumed that if she were ever called to Service it would have been the Divine Lady Kindra du Erim, Protector of Warriors, or one of the Elemental Gods. Haram du Heth, Lord of Fire, perhaps.
“Before you depart, you should know that Lady Rhonda duPrey also discovered the healing flowers on her wrists this morning. She has accepted her calling and expects to return to begin her training this summer. Her flowers are fully formed, not outlines like yours.”
“Rhonda will make a wonderful priestess.” And she would. She had a gentle nature, as did her younger sister Kirsty. She would be well suited to the Goddess of Healing.
Tarine stared as if measuring Caroline’s words. “Rhonda’s loyalties run deep. She’s only leaving because she’s been asked to remain with you.”
Caroline hesitated, suddenly curious. “I made no such request.”
“Our Goddess did.”
Our. The word felt like a slap. “But…”
“The Divine Lady speaks to all of us at the moment of our choosing. You’ll eventually have to make a choice; walk the Divine Lady’s path, or step from it forever.”
An easy decision. “High Priestess-”
Tarine grasped Caroline’s hands, squeezing painfully. Although there was conflict on her face, Caroline had never seen her shirk her duties to her Goddess. “I understand your doubts, but She won’t give you another chance if you deny her.”
For a heartbeat Caroline considered refusing anyway. The woman clearly wanted Caroline to walk away despite the words. Yet to deny the Goddess in her own temple… “As you wish, High Priestess. May peace and health always be yours.” Caroline’s alimoth outlines flared warmly at the ritual blessing. She gasped and pulled her hands free as Tarine’s eyes widened. What did that mean? Only Devoted Servants could invoke the Divine Lady’s blessing.
Taine backed a step. “I must pray for understanding. Perhaps you’re being called to greater things than this abbey.”
With her wrists still tingling from the invocation she picked up her pack and swept out of the room, wishing she could leave her regrets with Tarine’s shocked stare.
Within the hour she was a mile along the road toward Fandelyon City in the company of her friends Rhonda and Kirsty duPrey, all three escorted by the King’s Guard. Two maids, a priest, and the duPrey brothers sent to chaperone them all rode behind. Overcast and gloomy for the most part, Caroline suspected it might rain despite the occasional patches of sunlight. The clouds were getting heavier.
“How are you?” asked Kirsty, the younger duPrey sister and Caroline’s best friend. Although pale-skinned like most nobles, she had dark hair like a commoner, but straight. Almost blue-black. Little Raven, her siblings called her when they wanted to tease. They hadn’t seen each other in months due to Caroline’s so-called illness.
Caroline kept her eyes forward, uncertain how to reply without revealing her heartache over giving up her child. No doubt she’d have similar trouble keeping the secret from her sisters when she got home. The number of nights she’d woken up crying, a phantom baby in her arms… She took a calming breath, slowly releasing it. “I’m fine, Kirsty. Fully recovered. Truly.”
The baby would be long gone from these parts anyway, a month old now. For the first couple of weeks Caroline had fantasised about seeking out the child and running away with him or her, perhaps to live among the clans. She was sure to have kin there if she could find them. After watching Tarine swear an oath of secrecy to her Goddess, Caroline was certain the priestess would neither divulge the child’s location nor Caroline’s indiscretion.
Caroline stared ahead, blinking to keep tears at bay. Best not to think about it at all. Obsessing would only lead to more heartache.
“But you were sick for so long. The High Priestess said you only began to recover a month or so ago. Are you sure you’re well enough to travel?”
Lying to her friend didn’t come as easily as she wished. “High Priestess Tarine is cautious, and probably made it seem a worse illness than it actually was.” She’d almost died, certainly, and for days afterward had muffled her sobs under her sheets, wishing she had. It shouldn’t hurt so much to lose something she’d never held.
Wind caught Rhonda’s long honey-coloured hair, but the older girl didn’t pull her hood up to protect herself. She had a distant look as if she’d rather be somewhere else. Back at the abbey, no doubt.
“High Priestess Tarine said you plan to return,” Caroline said as a means of changing the subject. “That the Divine Lady marked you?”
Something like fear passed across Rhonda’s features, but it was gone in an instant. Rhonda held up her wrists and her sleeves fell back a little. She stared at her alimoth flowers as if she wasn’t sure she’d made the right decision. The fully formed flowers were clear to Caroline, and very lifelike.
Kirsty frowned. “I wish I’d been called,” she murmured, staring at Rhonda’s wrists as if wishing she could see the divine marks too.
Despite the wistfulness, Caroline heard the hurt in Kirsty’s voice. Rhonda was tall, graceful and confident, and now she’d been called into Divine Service. Kirsty, probably prettier except for her raven hair, was small, timid, and awkward, younger than Rhonda by more than a year.
“You’re expected to make a sacrifice when entering a Divine Lord or Lady’s service to show your dedication. What was yours?” Caroline asked.
Rhonda paled, her posture stiffening. “Nothing I wouldn’t give a thousand times over. More.”
Lightning flashed bright before thunder pealed across the sky like a God crying out in anguish.