Despite working nightshifts in a factory I’ve been working on the novel everyday (partly through the magic of Habitica) and I have finally hit 10 000 words. I only feel like I’ve covered 1% of the story, but still, it’s a tiny milestone. So, as promised, here is another excerpt. This will be somewhere in the first book and is the first scene set outside the walled city where our hero Audrey lives:
Richard started awake. It was just before dawn; crisp air, darkness thin through the windows. The sound of kookaburras in the distance. Light rain. Magpie song closer by, like a familiar melody flowing through water, warped by pebbles. Richard’s body was sore, but comfortable. He wondered why he had awoken from such deep, dreamless sleep. An immense cracking sound made him jump. That’s what had woken him. They were cracking the stone. That meant the hole was dug. Adrenalin pulsed the length of Richard’s body as he remembered why he was sore. He had failed three re-initiation tests, painfully, which meant he had only had one chance left: the Split Stone. He’d watched it many times, seen brave warriors fail almost every time, joined in and laughed along. Considering the trial this morning felt very different.
But Richard was brave. He would greet the guards bravely, walk toward his task without fear, and he would fight his hardest to succeed. The sound of metal striking stone, somehow sharp and dull at once, assaulted Richard’s ears once more, followed by a harsh cracking as the stone fully split. There would still be a little preparation to do, but he knew once the stone was cracked the prisoner was always brought out. Richard stood and brushed dirt and leaves from his face and beard.
He was a tall man, almost two metres from his calloused heels to the fuzz on his head. His frame was well filled out with muscle and sinew. In most places, he would have been the strongest man for kilometres, but not here. Here he was something of a runt. Tall, yes, but not nearly as broad, strong, or scarred as the rest of the mob. He did have one very prominent scar, though, stretching from the very corner of his left eye, down his cheek, and deforming his lower lip under the scruffy whiskers. The scar stood out white against his dark skin, like a ghost gum on a moonlight night. He had been sleeping naked and he stayed that way. Law demanded he be naked for the trial – nothing between him and the pain. Richard stood tall and proud. But fear was flickering in his chest and he couldn’t seem to quiet it.
He tried to remember what his grandmother had told him of the dreaming. The details were fuzzy – she’d died when he was just six – but he could always remember the feeling of comfort in her arms, visions of giants melting the country into being through song and story, and that word – dreaming. In his darkest hours he’d always found comfort in the thought that the world itself might just be a particularly vivid dream in the mind of some ageless sleeper. But, as he heard footsteps approaching outside the hut, the thought seemed dry and impotent against this wet morning that lay quiet before him, in wait for his blood.
Richard had tried to steel his mind against thoughts of the trial. Just be in it once you’re in it, he’d thought. But the armour was leaky it seemed, for visions kept streaming in. It didn’t help that he’d seen it a dozen times before. He would be brought out – standing tall, unlike some of the worms who had to be dragged – and led before the crowd while his crimes were listed, yet again. If he spoke or cried out he would be stabbed somewhere non-lethal; a handicap for the trial. If he cried, the punishment would be the same – but the rage of the crowd at such weakness had driven them to beat prisoners to death in the past. Richard remembered such a time, a few years ago. Remembered stomping Louisa’s head until mush squelched like rotten fruit between his toes. He would not cry. Had not, in decades.
Once his crimes were spoken and the crowd had taken their fill of jeering and spitting at him, Richard would be led before the stone. Five strong warriors would wait there for him, and he would fight them one by one, until he defeated them or submitted. Once he submitted, he could only be struck five more times. He’d seen people hold on until their arms gave out. He wouldn’t be so stupid, he would drop straight down. Because that’s when the real trial started. After the fall, assuming he was still conscious, he would start climbing. Wedging his body between the two halves of the stone, using whatever purchase his bloodslick tired hands could find to wrench himself towards the light. For a few minutes, then the rock would start to close. The few people he’d seen survive the trial had escaped in those few minutes. After that, there would be strong hands pushing the crevasse closed. First one pair of hands, then two, then three. Every two minutes, another man or woman or child rushing forward to add to the crush. When the prisoner screamed or cried out, another pair of hands joined. If that was all, many more would survive, but as it was often said ‘break the mind, break the body.
Tied to that branch above the crevasse was a bucket. And it would be filled and emptied, over and over. Filled with spiders, desert scorpions, piss, shit, rotted food, snakes, bull ants. And there would be items chosen especially for that prisoner, usually based on a phobia, but sometimes far crueler. A wedding ring cast off by a shamed spouse. The prisoner’s favourite pet hurled down to join them. Clothes from a loved child long dead. These were usually the items that broke them. Richard was glad, for once, that he had never made a match and borne a family. The more you loved the more you could be hurt. He had an unusually strong disgust for slugs. No one knew that, though, except Jacob – he seemed to know everything.
Against his better judgement, Richard imagined slugs oozing in and out of his ears as he tried to climb. He went cold all over and shuddered. A heavy knock at the door and three men entered. They grabbed Richard roughly and walked him out of the darkness. The light burned white for a moment and Richard covered his eyes as a roar went up from the crowd – cheers, booing, insults, war cries. Richard breathed deeply. He kept his eyes opened but let them go soft and unfocused. Nothing but his breathing and his goal. The recounting of his crimes sounded foggy and indistinct, as if heard from underwater. His body registered spit and stones from the crowd, but not pain or even anger.
Finally they stopped walking. Richard let himself come back to his surroundings. Before him stood the stone, rising a metre and half above the top of the hole. Five men separated from the crowd and walked to stand between Richard and the stone. He could choose who to fight first. He took his time choosing; time to remember what he could about each man and how he fought. They were all fine fighters, but so was Richard. At the end of the line he recognised Colin. His best friend since childhood. Colin had a weak ankle and, though very strong, unconsciously signalled his strikes before making them, if you knew what to watch for. In a fight against a stranger these things wouldn’t matter. But for Richard, they would be a huge advantage. Dodge the first strikes, stomp on his ankle. That huge rock, smash his skull. Dead. Done.
“Colin,” Richard announced, and stared into his friends eyes for the last time.
PS. Here is my Habitica avatar. That is my purple dragon I ride around while taking care of daily tasks in mighty fashion!