My latest book from my Scarlet Bastard series, The Bone Witch, sits with my editor – one of many projects on her particular slop chit, and even though she is my wife, I am unable to exert any influence to nudge it forward in the queue. I’m not particularly bothered, for I suspect I’ll sit down and give it another run through even as I begin to sit down and give the first two books in the series another run through as well. Nothing better than taking an opportunity to tighten up the writing. It has also given me plenty of time to work on book four, The Scarlet Bastards – The Rule of Nine.
The Rule of Nine was a National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) Project that I completed in 2017, and it sat for a solid eighteen months while I finished another project and fiddled around with another. When The Bone Witch went in for editing, I figured now was a good time to blow off the dust and begin a rewrite. I had envisioned the project as being a little bit light-hearted, more of a return to the first book in the series, A Company Soldier, which mixed the darker bits of service in the Off World Legion on the colony of Samsāra with the a more cheerful and fun style of story telling. It was hardly a dark comedy; more so an adventure that was not reticent about the telling of that which would bring a smile to your face, or a tear to your eye. The second book, The Cardinal of Gleann Ceallach, was deeper, more sombre, and in the end, a little bit darker. The Bone Witch was much darker still, tackling some uncomfortable themes for me as a writer to inflict upon my title character, seventeen-year-old runaway, Alexander ‘Sikunder’ Armstrong. All that to say, my original plan for book four was a return to the more light-hearted adventure.
What was written so far could not be further from my vision.
Themes change, that much I’ve learned as I carry out the process of weaving a tale, and the events of The Bone Witch have played havoc on both the vision of my book, and the character of Alex.
It became uncomfortable, his squinting eyes pouring over me and penetrating the weak and permeable protection that I had surrounded my damaged soul with. I winced under his gaze and wondered what he thought of the son he hadn’t seen in nearly eighteen months. The carefree and baby-faced lad was gone, replaced with a mute, savage-looking creature shorn of hair and with a tattoo of Let not hatred of a people incite you not to act equitably written in sprawling Arabic around the circumference of his head. My one ear was a centimetre below the other and was covered in scar tissue after a near death encounter with a ferocious Et’moru Gliesiun warrior and I had a deep scar across the bridge of my nose and along one cheek. My beard had begun to come in, scraggily and thin, though there was enough length there for a small braid nearly lost amongst the rest of the reddish whiskers. In short, I was almost surprised that he recognized me when he picked me up at the airport a month before.
My mother, on the other hand, had cried out in horror.
The son they’d known eighteen months before was gone.
“So, what happened to you?” he finally asked.
Our waitress appeared, and I had to clear my voice a couple of times before ordering a chicken and avocado wrap. My father, his eyes never straying from me, ordered the same. Once she left, a silence fell between us again. It didn’t last long.
“So, what happened?”
The theme of The Rule of Nine had originally been about risk and taking chances in life to achieve one’s dreams. I think most of us look back and wonder what would have changed had we taken that risk, had we flouted convention and all those social pressures to conform, and simply did what we wanted to. In the case of Alex, his risk of running away from the plans of his overbearing parents and joining the Off World Legion, his unknowing risk I might add, was his life.
“Don’t be shy about taking chances, Alex,” Graham said after a long silence. “Don’t you ever be shy. If you do, you may end up seeing Elinor Lake when you’re eighty-two years old and at the end of your life.”
I felt a lump in my throat as I looked upon Graham joyfully gazing into that night sky. “I won’t Graham.”
“Good, lad, Alex. You’re a good lad.”
Of course, the other aspect of risk, is that sometimes the chance you take has a terrible cost. Several times in the series, Alex has found that to his great peril.
“I reached down and pulled out my hatchet and Khyber knife, then dug my feet in for grip.
“What do you say, Iris?” I cried over the cacophony. “Are you ready?”
Iris Ngowa; greying, weak chinned, and with fleshy jowls covered in days of grime, flashed me a look of absolute horror.
“No,” she replied as her wide eyes took in the roiling mass of Gliesiuns. She pulled out her own Khyber knife, looked at it for a moment, then focused on me again.
I gulped, allowed the tinniest flicker of a smile. “This is what happens when you take chances.”
“You die?” she asked in a sickly half smile which disappeared in an instant. I nodded.
“Yep, you die. Just don’t be shy about it.”
With the events of the previous books, it felt bizarre to return too closely to the oft flippant form of story telling of A Company Soldier where tales of canoe trips, cattle wrangling, and prehistoric mammal rustling paired well with an assault on a Tong fort. No, the experiences had built up on Alex, and now that I’ve exposed him to so many horrors, I must reflect on what they had done to him.
My father was always up with the dawn. He was a man of routine – wake up, pour himself a large cup of strong, black coffee, and when the weather was nice, he would go out to the porch and sit in his favourite Adirondack chair. It was weathered with much of the red paint peeling off, but for some odd reason he would not refinish it. Perhaps he appreciated its unpolished maturity, much like his own, or perhaps he was simply too busy with the vineyard and life in general to bother with such a little thing. It didn’t matter really, for he enjoyed it as part of that consistent morning routine that began his every day.
My first night home on leave was a tempestuous one. A weeping mother that held my battered face in her hands as she looked upon the son she barely recognized, and a father, stolid and aloof, who gazed upon me with something undefinable – not worry or joy, just something I couldn’t quite fathom. Their relief gradually moved to concern, then anger as they ran the gauntlet of emotions as they welcomed home their wayward son. In the end an argument concluded that first night, and I stumped off to bed in a pout.
Not that I slept at all.
I lay there awake in the darkness with the horrors so recently experienced rolling around in my mind.
“I am a monster,” Lejaub had said. Yes, she was, and so was I.
Unable to sleep, I gathered my kitbag and made my way out into the darkness of our backyard. With my scarlet salwars rolled up into a pillow and my heavy wool sharwani coat used as a blanket, I bedded down on the soft lawn of our backyard overlooking Okanagan Lake. The darkness was much different than Samsāra’s – no utter blackness in the Okanagan night as Penticton and Naramata cast their eerie ochre hues into the sky. It was also warm, being late May, but at least it was outside in the fresh air. I’d spent so much time sleeping on the hard ground that often a soft bed gave me a sleepless night – it still does to this day – and it can only be remedied by a blanket and a pillow on the grass.
I finally fell asleep sometime in early hours before dawn, but it was the creak of my father’s chair that brought me awake. He was there, watching me as the first hints of dawn broke over the valley. I tried to ignore him, tried to force myself back to sleep, but I couldn’t. I wondered what he thought of his son, curled up in a coat on the lawn after being away for over a year. I could see him in my mind’s eye, a cup of coffee in his hand, his battered fedora pushed back on his head, the deep crow’s feet of his eyes as he considered me in silence. He had said little the previous night, and I wondered if he was terribly angry. My mother was the vocal one, chastising me for my decision, haranguing me for the worry I had put them through, and demanding I end all this nonsense and stay home. My father, on the other hand, was mute and just gazed upon me with what I wondered might be an air of disappointment. That perhaps hurt more than my mother’s bitter words. I couldn’t quite read him – hurt, disappointment, anger, worry – all these conclusions passed through my mind, but I couldn’t pin him down in the end.
I sat up in the dull light of dawn and shrugged off my sharwani. Okanagan Lake was still dark and Mount Nkwala was a duller shadow in the night. I ran my fingers over the fuzz of my shaved head, scratched the scraggily beard on my chin, and then dropped my hand to my stomach as the last pangs of nausea from hyperspace sickness passed. All that time, I could feel my father’s eyes upon me, and after breathing a deep sigh of resignation for another day of conflict, I stood up, turned around and walked towards him.
What he thought of me, pale, slender, and battered after my experiences on Samsāra and sleeping in the backyard instead of my bed I didn’t know, but I was shocked to the core when I walked up to him to say good morning and saw the tears running down his weathered cheeks.
My father said nothing as I stood there in dismay, he simply reached out his hand and grasped mine. A gentle squeeze, a nod of his head as he gazed upon the dawn beyond me, and that was it. My own tears fell quickly, and I fled the scene.
That was the moment that I truly understood what I had done to my parents.
I would forever feel terrible about it.
So now as I conduct both a rewrite, and a completion of the draft of The Rule of Nine (I was not so far along as I thought) I reflect upon the change of themes of my character and of the story he is now writing. It’s a wondrous thing as a writer to imagine this most basic person, weave a story around him, and then watch as he grows so much more complex. It makes my role a little bit more difficult as I must now tell a more complicated story, and it makes my job a bit easier when he begins to tell his own tales.