This page is for the work in progress I’ll be using for my various exercises, showing the editing process as I take a story from start to finish. I will continue to add drafts, which will make the page quite long, but is done so the reader can compare drafts and see what changes were made.
I suppose it was my sense of responsibility that saved my life, or that if I missed a day of work my family might starve. Ironic, considering I work in the Findel’s kitchen. I wouldn’t know my family was dead, along with most of the village, until well after the ground shook and the Findel’s castle crumbled above, trapping me in the pantry. I wouldn’t know the Findel’s were dead until Throle dug me clear and we surveyed the damage. I wouldn’t know a lot about what happened or what was going to happen for many days, and I’m glad I didn’t, or I never would have agreed.
The air was thick with stone dust and flour, but the lower levels of the castle were built to hold three stories of wealth and extravagance, with the added bonus of separating classes so that the real work within the castle was confined to its bowels. I had worked in the Findel’s kitchen since I was six, spending year after year washing what blended into one ornate dish. Though the patterns of the fancy kitchenware wore down after time and were replaced with modern-style plateware, the images of dragons and knights, geometric cuts and raised gold leaves that adorned the dish had become an amalgamation, one giant dirty dish that represented two decades of my humble life.
Now all those dishes were shattered. The vegetables and fruit, provided fresh daily from the locals as a tax to their lord, were flattened, their ripe insides squeezed into the rubble around them. My oldest friend Throle was out collecting taxes for the Findels when, as he explained, “God decided we’d had enough of the day, and something large burst from the forest and plowed the town like a fallow field.
“Gladys rared up in a start and turned our cart clear the other direction. I might have seen a flash of a toe before I was turned about, speeding like fire from the destruction. Took me an hour to calm the girl and set her back this way.”
My head hurt and my lungs still struggled to bring air past the floating debris, but we searched the castle and houses as best we could for survivors. My own home was smashed right down its center, the outer walls standing like flickball posts. My in-laws were still in bed when the village was attacked.
“You think it was a giant?”
“Dunno,” Throle said, throwing mud bricks through his legs like a dog. We were at the Marshes. Nancy had five children and we were hoping the chilling silence was due to piles of dampening rather than lack of life.
I pulled the frame of a painting from the pile, tearing the canvas across the faces of the Marsh family portrait. Nancy and Mark embraced the four kids (it was done before little Aaron came along) and I stared into Nancy’s one green eye, rippling on the breeze.
“I’m glad Laura wasn’t home,” I said, more to myself than Throle, but he heard.
“Little chance of that, Barro.” Throle found the frame of a bed. It was small. “She’s been gone two years now, almost as long as my own dear wife.” ‘Dear wife’ was what Throle said in place of expletives and degradations, a practice he adopted after being scolded by his sister when the nieces and nephews took to calling Aunt Greta colorful terms beyond their years. “Good thing we’re terrible husbands or both our wives might have been killed. After we clean up this mess I think we should go see ‘em, tell ‘em they owe us a bit of gratitude.” Throle chuckled, pulling the blanket free from its bed. Then he collapsed and put his head in his hands.
“What is it?” I asked.
“You can stop digging,” he said. “I found the kids.”
Everyone congregated at the town meeting hall, well, outside what was left of the town meeting hall. Throle and I had cleared ten homes, accounting for nine dead families. Had the hour been later folks would have been out in their fields, hawking market wares or haggling over the price of a turnip, but as it was there was nine of us standing. Nine people in a village of 112.
“The Littens were away,” said Grove, soot smeared over his face, his hand crushed and bloodied.
Alexander held a baby over his shoulder like a half-full sack of corn.
“Whose baby is that?” asked Throle.
The squat man, scratches across his neck and tattered clothes dangling from his chest, shrugged and grunted. “Hell if I know. Found it in the street if you can believe.”
I stepped to Alexander and held out my hands, then I pictured the old bachelor throwing the baby to me with careless indifference. “Wait,” I said, and I took the child gingerly from his shoulder. Its breathing was weak, but it was alive. There were three newborns in town. Yeb Triker and his wife were dark skinned. This baby was pale like buttercream. I held the small thing up and delicately opened one of its eyes. Its pupil slowly shrunk with the sun, but around it was a vibrant blue.
“It has blue eyes,” I said.
Throle stepped to my side. “All babies have blue eyes, ya wooly turd.” He squeezed the child’s arm, as if measured density was going to scientifically prove its origins. “Looks like Archie to me.” Throle looked around the group. “Anyone seen Archibald, the smithy?”
The Trank sisters shook their heads. Others were still sorting through rubble or lying on the ground, coming to terms with truths they’d rather dismiss or sending their thoughts away from fresh injuries. Archibald was the town blacksmith. Among us was Throle the tax collector, me the cook, a cobbler, a seamstress, three farmers, a carpenter, and an old man.
“Ain’t seen tha mister, but the missus sits over here.” Darten jabbed an arthritic, weathered finger at the stone stoop of the meeting hall.
Archie’s wife sat, eyes glazed, mumbling, picking at the skin of her thumb. I leaned down and held the unidentified baby near her. “Maisy. Is this your baby?”
Maisy’s eyes shifted and she looked at the baby like she’d never seen one before. She stroked its cheek and was lost in thought again, peeling skin from the edges of a wound of her own making. “I’ll ask you again later,” I whispered, then stood and faced the small crowd. “So did anyone actually see what happened?”
We exchanged similar stories, of being woken by noise or by the roof collapsing over us. No one really saw anything, but we shared a sense of a single presence that trampled our town like a wild horse in a vegetable garden. We knew that whatever caused the disaster, it was malicious.
There were five houses that still needed clearing; we owed an accounting for everyone, dead or alive. We all knew the folks under the stone and brick and mud were beyond saving, but we grabbed shovels and picks and set to work with blind hope. And hope is a powerful tool all its own.
When we heard the girl calling, her faint, soft voice like a bird song in the breeze, we dismissed it. Only after what must have been a half dozen pleas did the group look at each other to confirm the sound to be more than in our heads.
Maribel was sitting legs crossed with her dog in her arms under a thick oak table, completely untouched.
“That’s my table,” said Darten, a smile on his face like a slice of watermelon. “Quality craftsmanship saves the day.”
The group ignored the carpenter, pulling free the girl and her dog. The dog sprinted from her arms to lift a leg on the shambles that was formerly the house of Maribel’s neighbors. The girl stood on the pile of her toppled chimney, turning in small degrees until she understood the position of her own home’s remains. She pointed to a corner, now splintered wood beams and smoothed stone.
“That’s ma and pa’s room,” she said. Throle and I began clearing the pile. “I heard ma moaning for awhile, but it’s been a longer while since she stopped.”
We confirmed what the girl already knew, her parents were dead, and the full account of Randgren Village was complete. The west wing of the Findel’s castle was partially standing and we made our way there, silent, covered in grime and blood (some not our own), like moths to a torch.
The main dining hall had three walls and no roof, but the hearth was intact despite the chimney being clogged higher up with its own pieces. Grove started a fire while Alexander, Throle, and the Trank sisters helped me clear and search the kitchen for food and cookware. Darten brought in well water and we filtered it as best we could given the walls had shook loose and the soil and its residents crept in the spring.
The Tranks sisters volunteered some of their crops, already upturned from their fields. I managed to make an unlevened bread and a vegetable stew in a broken pot over the fire. Two stacked shields pulled from the wall were bound together to from a small oven for the bread. We each did our part to prepare a feast, no one ever agreeing on what needed to be done or why. We were hungry, sure, as no one had yet had breakfast and it was past lunch, but mostly we just needed something to do, something normal after our lives had all been changed. Mostly, we just didn’t want to talk about it or face the sadness and anger that was rolling around inside us, but of course we eventually had to talk it out. We had to move past the shock and the carnage and talk about what was next, and when we sat to eat our survivor’s feast, words flowed. The tears would come later.
“Least we won’t have to pay taxes no more,” said Darten, running his hands along the grain of the Findel’s grand dining table, “now that are lords are… squished.”
“That’s good news for you,” said Throle, “but I’m the taxman. I’ll need to find a new job!”
Alexander had a mouthful of stew, but it didn’t keep him from speaking up. “You needed a new job anyway, you twat.”
Throle answered back with a “hmph,” pulling free a wedge of bannock and stuffing his cheeks.
“I have no particular sorrow over Lord Findel’s death, but taxes or not,” said Callie Trank, “I’ve got crops I can’t sell, and nobody to sell them to anyway.”
“We supposed to go clear over to Mashta?” asked Shellie Trank. “That’s a four day trek one way over them retched hills.”
“I make that once a month,” Throle said. “Ain’t so bad.”
I cradled the baby, giving it cooled stew broth and soaked bread. It still hadn’t cried, but it stirred as if waking, only occasionally opening its weary eyes. I watched Maisy, hoping she would come out of her daze and claim the child. I don’t know what I’ll do if she won’t. I was never keen on being a pa, just one of the reasons Laura run off. Maisy hadn’t touched her food, but she bit her lip so much it was bleeding.
“You folks disgust me.” The old man, Farson, had said little until now, shuffling around in his nightshirt like a phantom. He slammed his fist on the table, though, weakened with age, the effect was a soft thump. Still, the group respectfully listened. “We just lost our families, our friends, our fellow brethren, and you’re going on about taxes and crops and hills.”
“I don’t think anyone was trying to be disrespectful, Mister Farson.” Grove had his hand bandaged, but stubbornly unwilling to switch to his other hand to eat. “We’re just…coping, you understand?”
“I understand that I need to bury my wife, and I’ll need to bury dozens of townsfolk who ain’t got anybody else to bury them. They got no family left to even mourn them or know what terrible fate has befallen them.” Farson trailed off into quiet sobs. Darten squeezed the old man’s shoulder, his wrinkled hands just a few years shy of the same frailty.
“We still don’t know what fate has befallen them,” I said. “The best guess we have now is giants, which makes little sense to me. Giants are recluses, keeping to themselves. I don’t know what would have driven one through the village and with such careless regard for our brethren.”
Alexander grunted. “I knew a giant once. He was an asshole. Maybe this giant is just an asshole.”
“What if it comes back?” asked Grove. “Our paltry nightwatch was crushed in the guard house.