Long-time readers may remember that in 2011, I wrote a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” for NaNoWriMo. Recent readers of The Wanderers have also met those princesses from another angle. That NaNo novel is in the process of growing up into The Storyteller and Her Sisters, the companion novel to The Wanderers that I plan to publish in the fall of 2014. I’ve been working on revisions this past week, so an excerpt seemed appropriate.
In this early scene, Lyra (the narrator and the Storyteller of the title) and her eleven sisters have gone exploring beneath their father’s castle…
A hundred yards along the tunnel, we reached the Gate. The Gate was a great beast of iron bars and curling decorations, cutting across the tunnel, blocking the path to anything beyond it. Vira’s candlelight didn’t reach far enough to show anything but more tunnel on the other side. There was a lion’s head molded into the top of the Gate, and I had never been able to escape the feeling that it was looking at us. I’d never seen it move, unless you count one very disturbing dream.
For fourteen years, the Gate hadn’t moved at all, not even the rational way gates are supposed to move when someone tries to open them. There wasn’t any sign of a lock, but the Gate simply wouldn’t shift no matter how we pushed. Not even a wobble.
Until the night in question. Mina, the first to push, thought she felt it move. The rest of us gathered around, and the more of us who tried, the more it seemed to sway and give. Finally, when all twelve of us took hold of a bar and pushed, the gate swung neatly open, like two wings sweeping to either side.
You may not be surprised. For us, it could hardly have been more shocking if a blank wall in our bedroom had opened. Even though we kept trying the Gate, we were very used to the idea that it was never going to open. I turned to Talya next to me and grinned. She bit her lip and gave only a half-smile in response.
“Now what?” Laina said, the first to break the silence that followed the Gate opening. The amount of detail in our plans for this eventuality had about matched our expectations of it actually happening.
“Let’s go back,” Talya said, wrapping her arms around herself. “Let’s close the Gate and go back. It’s dangerous through there, you all know that.”
“Our whole lives are dangerous,” Laina said. I could see my own excitement reflected in the gleam in her eyes. “We have to risk this. It’s the best chance at escape we’ve ever had.”
“It may mean something that the Gate finally opened,” Mina pointed out. “Magical things rarely happen randomly, and if a magic door opens it only makes sense to go through it.”
“But you know what could happen,” Talya whispered.
“We’ve talked about this from every angle for years,” Laina groaned, “are we really going to do it again now? We’ve always agreed that it would be worth the risk if we ever had the chance. Besides, it was all right for Mother so it can’t be that dangerous.”
“Laina’s right,” Vira said, raising the candle higher. “In all practical ways, we decided this a long time ago. So let’s go on and see if it’s how we remember it.”
I didn’t remember it, at least not with any certainty that I wasn’t just imagining memories. But Vira had been ten years old, fourteen years before. She remembered.
We all went through the Gate, Talya clutching my hand again, though even she had given a reluctant nod in the end to going forward. I squeezed her fingers tightly, but for me it was anticipation, not dread. I had been hearing about this my whole life. I had always wanted to see it for myself. It was like an adventure, like one of my stories. People in stories didn’t turn back because the adventure was dangerous.
Beyond the Gate, we quickly didn’t need Vira’s candle anymore. Around two more turns in the tunnel, it opened up into a broad cavern. Shortly beyond the tunnel’s mouth, we came to the forest. The trees were set out in an orchard of orderly rows, and the trunks of every tree shone like moonlight, casting a shimmering light throughout the cavern. Above the trunks, the branches and the leaves were silver.
I don’t mean they were gray, or resembled silver, or were some variety of tree with silver in its name. I mean they were silver. They looked like some kind of elm, but made of a glittering metal.
It wasn’t a surprise. Vira had remembered the trees, and so had a few others of my oldest sisters. Hearing about it and seeing it, that’s two very different things. Somehow, I had never quite believed in this forest until I saw it myself. Talya’s hand got tighter around mine.
We slowly walked down a wide pathway between two lines of trees. The trees grew up out of the cavern floor, and if they had ever shed a leaf, it wasn’t visible on the bare rock around them. Mostly I was looking up. I stared at those silver leaves above us, and almost without my noticing, my thoughts began to drift towards all that I could buy with just a few branches.
I wanted to keep looking at the silver trees, but at the head of our group, Vira kept pushing onwards. Long instinct made us all follow her, and soon the moonlight-like silver forest gave way to a brighter stretch of trees. These trees shone like sunlight. These trees were made of gold.
They glittered and shone and enticed. With a handful of these leaves, I could buy dresses and jewelry and shoes… I blinked, momentarily confused. I didn’t even like shoes very much. It was Nila who was obsessed with clothes, not me. And yet I suddenly wanted gold, lots of it, to buy piles and mountains of beautiful things. So many beautiful things.
The gold trees ended too, and a third forest began. This one glittered like starlight. This one had trees made of diamonds. I looked at the nearest branch, seeing delicate sprays of flowers and buds, crusted with shining stones. A single branch had enough diamonds to make necklaces for all twelve of us.
With that kind of wealth, I could do anything. I could buy castles and horses and armies…and books, I could buy so many books…and entire countries if I wanted to…and I wouldn’t need anyone, not Vira, not Mina, not Talya…
I was still holding Talya’s hand. I looked down at our hands, then looked at her face. She was staring up at the diamond trees with a mesmerized expression. I looked around at my sisters. Vira and Laina, their expressions were grim. Mina and Rayna looked confused, as confused as I was feeling. The rest looked entranced.
I was thinking thoughts that I knew I wouldn’t think. Buying books, that was me. That was a constant wish. But buying armies, buying countries? And while I sometimes (all right, often) wished to not be dependent on my sisters, the thought had had a nasty undercurrent to it that I didn’t recognize.
I should have recognized what was going on right away, but knowing the theory of something doesn’t always help when experiencing the reality, especially when the nature of that reality is to twist a person’s thoughts.
There was something very wrong with those forests. They were beautiful. And they were poison. And it was an indication of how strong they were that they had pulled us in, made me completely forget the danger for a few moments, even though we had walked into the forest expecting it. Vira had remembered the poison too. It was the results of that poison that had reached into the world above, and had made our lives what they were now.