Am craning my head over the metaphorical parapet and putting the first chapter of my children's book, The Dawn Herald, online for your delectation. All comments/suggestions would be most appreciated. And of course, I'll acknowledge you once it's published!
There is a world just over the horizon which nestles in the topmost branches of a great tree.
If you pluck a hair from your head and look through it in bright sunlight, you might be able to catch a glimpse of this world. But you must be swift, for after you have seen it once it will not reappear again for seven years.
Woven into the gnarled roots of the great tree that cradles this world in its boughs is another world, all fire and ice; and beneath that world there is another tree. A strange shadow-world hovers around roots that grow deep into the foundations of the universe itself.
The world at the top of the trees is called the Third World. After twelve thousand years of argumentation and two serious wars, the philosophers could not come up with a more poetic name for the bowl-shaped world with its twin suns and great Sky Goddess whose nebulous body stretches from horizon to horizon.
On the edge of the Third World’s largest sea there is an angel-shaped city named Ellyra. Many years ago, in a time when dragons and two-headed men and talking Tygers roamed the land, it was home to a very unusual princess.
She was supposed to be a boy.
Her name was Isolde. She was the last of the Dîn dynasty which had ruled the Kingdom of Gerena for six thousand years; the last descendant of Belial, a fallen angel and Alnair, a fallen star. Alnair and Belial had thirteen children, all boys, who went out and conquered the lands of the Third World. Some kings were like their star-mother and were wise and just. Others were like their beautiful but wicked father and used dark magic to slay their enemies. All their descendents, only one in every generation, were male. Their fathers arranged marriages for them with beautiful girls whose families were happy to sell their daughters in exchange for wealth and power. There had never been a female descendant of the fallen angel and the fallen star. Until Isolde.
It was customary, while awaiting the birth of the Heir, for the King to divert his attention from his wife’s agonies by playing a game of chess with live pieces. At the moment of Isolde’s birth King Halliam dispatched his opponent’s screaming bishop to the afterlife. He turned, smiling widely, as an angel drifted across the giant chessboard and hovered before him. In the brilliant sunlight it looked grey and sombre. Its face was downcast and its wings drooped.
‘Your Majesty,’ it begun. King Halliam spread his arms wide.
‘Let me guess. My wife has given me… a boy!’ he announced. A ripple of laughter and a smatter of light applause ran through the crowd surrounding the monarch. The angel was silent. ‘A boy,’ King Halliam prompted. The angel looked at the ground. After a very, very long pause it shook its head. King Halliam stared at it incredulously. His eyes began to bulge and his face turned bright red with fury. ‘A GIRL!!!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs and evaporated the entire chessboard on the spot.
In a dreadful panic the King’s Sorcerors sent out envoys to every court in the Third World, from fire-bright Oriel on the Dawn Sea to dark and tricksy Trimmaeus in the Dragonspine Mountains, to find a star-born consort for the future queen. They slunk back to the angel-shaped city of Ellyra empty handed. All the little princelings had already been promised in marriage. The Lady Claire, lying exhausted in her ivory bed, watched helplessly as King Halliam raged back and forth.
‘Our royal line will come to an end!’ he stormed, his handsome face red with fury. ‘Six thousand years lost! All because you had to bring a wretched girl into the world! You are a disgrace!’
‘I am sorry,’ murmured the Lady Claire, rocking her newborn child. King Halliam snarled.
‘Had she been a boy she could have married anyone and their bloodline would have been cancelled out. But no. You had to spawn a wretched girl, a girl who will never be allowed to wed a commoner. Why in the Goddess’s name did I ever marry you? Damn you!’ he bellowed, great veins standing out on his neck, and bit his knuckle hard enough to draw blood.
‘Perhaps you could… change the law. If you allow her to marry a commoner she—’
‘The blood of stars does not pass on through the female line!’ bellowed Halliam. He slammed his fist on an ebony coffer, sending a tray of goblets flying. With a great effort he reined in his temper. ‘After Belial died in the First Great War,’ he said through clenched teeth, ‘Alnair wed again. Another fallen angel, even fairer than Belial. Alnair brought two girls into the world. They wed but never bore an heir. They were barren.’
‘Why would that be?’ asked the Lady Claire, tucking a fold of blanket carefully around the sleeping Isolde’s ears. King Halliam glared.
‘I do not know or care. Keep your theophysical questions for the Court Philosopher and tell me what is to be done! If we do not find a boy to wed your brat the entire kingdom will fall!’ he hissed.
‘We do not need to give up hope. A star-blooded boy may yet be born. I hear that Queen Mittuan of Gandolfia is increasing.’
‘Getting fat, more like,’ King Halliam sneered.
‘Uangnaq of the Seal Fishers—’
‘I will not merge my kingdom with the Ice-Realms!’ shouted King Halliam.
The Lady Claire winced. ‘Does not the law change,’ she pursued valiantly, though her lips were white with pain and fatigue, ‘if she is Chosen by the Sky Goddess to be her Dawn Herald? May not she then wed a commoner and continue the line?’
King Halliam snorted. ‘Chosen? She? I should like to see a child of yours Chosen to be the most powerful person on the Third World!’ he spat and slammed out of the room. The Lady Claire looked thoughtfully at the closed door. The elderly nurse who had been fussing over the infant’s crib bustled over at once, clucking with disapproval.
‘Give the little lamb to me now, there’s the poppet,’ she said, holding her hands out for the baby. The Lady Claire looked at her beseechingly.
‘Just one minute more, Nursie. After tonight I will have such little time alone with her,’ she coaxed. The nurse tutted.
‘Just one more minute, then. And mind it’s not a moment longer!’ she warned. ‘I’m going to make you a nice milky drink and when I come back, you’d better be ready for a good long sleep.’
‘Oh, I could sleep for a thousand years.’ The Lady Claire stretched lazily, watching the nurse bustle out of the room. ‘Perhaps you will be Dawn Herald one day,’ she whispered, kissing the little crescent birthmark on the baby’s ivory-fair brow. The baby sighed in her sleep, small hands flexing. ‘Perhaps you will. Indeed, why should you not? Any girl who is completely pure of heart may be Chosen.’ She smiled as the child awoke and looked up at her. ‘Behold your world, my little one,’ she murmured and held the baby up to the window. Outside little cascades of snow drifted from the darkening sky. The Lady Claire pointed to the Sky Goddess, just visible through the clouds, slumbering in her rainbow Arc of matter beneath her cape of stars. ‘There she is,’ she said to the tiny child. ‘There is your destiny.’ Her eyelids fluttered and she yawned. ‘You must make her love you so much that she wants you and only you to serve her.’ As she yawned again so hard that tears ran from her eyes a great snow goose swooped from the sky and hovered outside the window. A basket was securely tied to its back. The Princess Isolde, safe in her mother’s arms, awoke and reached out a small hand to the goose which tapped on the window with its beak, looking at the child with a dark, intelligent eye.
‘That’s quite enough of that,’ said the nurse, whisking into the room and drawing the curtains shut with a clatter. ‘Time for mother and baby to rest.’
‘Oh, Nursie, can’t I just… All right.’ The Lady Claire relinquished her daughter and snuggled down on the pillows. Outside in the dark the goose tapped on the window again. She frowned. ‘What’s that noise?’
‘Must be some nasty branches. Nothing for you to worry your pretty head about.’ The nurse bustled around damping down the fire and snuffing out candles, casting the Lady Claire a wary look every now and then from her sharp old eyes.
‘That’s funny… there aren’t any trees outside my window…’ sighed the Lady Claire as she fell into a deep and dreamless sleep. The nurse waited for a moment and tiptoed from the room, closing the door tightly behind her. She hurried along the corridor to a round chamber with a pointed glass roof that glittered in the light of the falling snow. There, waiting for her in a shaft of radiance, was an angel.
‘That wretched bird gave me quite a turn, tapping at the window like that. Has it gone?’
‘Yes. The snow goose is even now flying towards the Sea of Forgetfulness on its journey to the Witchlands. It pains me,’ said the angel who had come into being when Isolde was born, ‘to send a soul away from its mother.’ The nurse tutted.
‘One of them had to go. You know the law. The Queen can only have a single heir. If there was twins the King’d know my poor lady played him false and then where would we be? He’d send my poor lady to have her liver pecked out by the Carrion Crows on Traitor’s Rock. She doesn’t deserve to suffer any more, oh no: being married to him’s enough of a burden for anyone. The other baby’ll be safe in the Witchlands. She’ll have a good and happy life. It’s better this way.’
‘I am guardian to both the souls,’ said the angel.
‘Then you’re going to have to be in two places at once, aren’t you?’
‘How is it possible that the Lady Claire does not know she has a second child?’
The nurse looked a little ashamed. ‘When I felt there was two babies I had to put her into a deep sleep. She never knew a thing, bless her. I was afraid that this might happen, I did try to warn her—’ She looked into the distance, her face pensive, and gave herself a little shake. ‘When all’s said and done, least said, soonest mended and you can’t help who you love. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to see to Baby. You should be down in the Infinite Library. Life-books don’t write themselves, and you don’t want to be leaving out any of Baby’s story, do you?’ She glared at the angel and bustled off, forgetting the little lost girl at once. All that mattered now was the Princess Isolde.