I’m in the throes of revision of a manuscript that will be the third, and final, book in the sequence set in and around the Later Lands. The story is pretty well worked out and now I’m now thinking about structure and patterns. As I’ve said previously, I like prologues and, to fit in with its predecessors, I’d like this book to have a prologue. Thing is, as the prologues of After the Ruin and The Crooked Path were set in the past and present, respectively, this one needs to be set in the future (hence, This is what will happen).
That offers a problem: a prologue is set in the future will almost certainly give a glimpse into how my story unfolds, and people can be very sensitive about spoilers. I’m not myself, by the way. I’m not going to tell you who killed Roger Ackroyd but most of the time I reckon it’s not what happens that matters, but how and why it happens. If all the merit in a book is lost because one knows a twist or ending in advance I think it a pretty one-dimensional book. I’ve reread The Murder of Roger Ackroyd several times, not because I forget whodunit but because I enjoy its cleverness and sleight of hand. Likewise, I came to A Song of Ice and Fire late enough to be aware of most of the major plot turns, but the detail of how the story reached those points was interesting enough in its own right to keep me reading. But readers’ opinions on these matters differ, and sufficient people do care for me to be wary. The solution, I think, is to set this prologue far enough beyond the end of the story that it gives very little away as to the what, and nothing at all about the how and the why.
If you should happen to be someone who cares about spoilers, by the way, don’t worry. The text below is something I wrote to amuse myself as a distraction from revision. Whilst it’s a future, it’s almost certainly not the future, and though it’s a prologue, it’s almost certainly not the prologue. The fun of writing – and revising – is that these things are not set in stone until a very late point in the process. Between now and then, almost anything could happen.
Twilight in Ittachar, a day not long past midsummer. The cool blue of a summer’s evening thickens into dusk in the hollows of the hills, though the western sky above the sea is still wreathed with the fading glory of the sunset. Oystercatchers call, one to another, as they probe for mussels ’twixt rocks and weed. A dog seal hauls itself ashore and rests at the water’s edge, its scarred flanks lapped by the waves of the retreating tide. The birds, no doubt, mark its appearance but a seal is of no concern to them. They are more wary of the boy walking the shore. A little less than a man, this bright-haired boy, a little more than a child, gangling and awkward in his newfound length of limb but filled with the promise of strength to come. He stoops now and then to pick up little things that catch his fancy: a shell, a curl of driftwood, a pebble round and white as the full moon. A stranger, seeing his homespun shirt and leather trousers, his short cloak of unwashed wool, would mark him as a fisherman’s son. At the second sight, a stranger with a careful eye might pick out the ring on his right hand.
The seal stirs with a shiver and a shudder. An oystercatcher whistles a warning and all the birds lift as one, pied wings beating away across the halflit water, as a man rises to his feet at the tideline and shakes saltwater from his hair. He flings up an arm in answer to the boy’s wave, then strides up the shore with a grey seal’s skin draped across his arm and a crunch of shingle ’neath his bare feet.
At a hawthorn bush at the head of the beach, he cocks his head towards the land. ‘If you are there, show yourself.’
A shadow detaches itself from the gloaming and clots into a man. He is garbed as a fisherman, with a fisherman’s wooden charm hanging round his neck. His black hair is touched with silver and his black eyes are filled with laughter.
‘I was sure this time I’d catch you by surprise.’
‘You?’ An amused snort. ‘You walk so loud across the lea you might as well beat on a drum and shout aloud, I’m here!’
The seal scrabbles beneath the thorn, turning stones aside to find a shirt and breeks and trousers, heavy socks and a pair of seaboots. He folds the sealskin in their place and piles the stones atop it. Dressed, he calls out, ‘Lad, your father’s back.’
The boy runs towards them, his pockets rattling with his treasures. ‘What did he say?’
‘What did who say?’ The fisherman lets his son’s impatience beat against him like a fluttering bird. ‘Can you mean the potter?’
‘Ach, don’t tease him,’ says the seal. ‘Of course he means the potter.’
‘Be easy, lad.’ A quick smile conjures another from the boy. ‘He’ll take you on as ’prentice. If you’re certain. You’re sure you wouldn’t rather wait a year and join the whalemen?’
The boy shakes his head, his answer shining in his eyes. The seal pulls him into a hug, ruffling his pale hair as if he were yet a child and not a great lad taller than himself. ‘That’s settled, then. It’s a good trade, if you’ve a knack for it.’
‘Neither a ship nor a sword,’ his father mutters, low enough for only a seal to hear, if that seal be standing very close, ‘but I kept my promise all the same.’
The seal glances at him, quick and hard, looking for regret, perhaps, or bitterness. Seeing neither, he lets the boy squirm free and says, ‘I watched the mercatship come in. What news from the west?’
‘No news at all, unless you count a song out of the queen’s hall in Lyikené. I had it from the fat mercatman as we sat together in the alehouse.’ The fisherman whistles a jaunty tune, breaks off his whistling to say, ‘Mostly it’s about the fall of the Black Rocks. Should be to your taste.’
‘Far more than that lament you had of him last year.’
‘Brought tears to my eyes, that one did, first time I heard it.’
‘Aye, so I recall. Could scarce keep a straight face myself.’
The boy looks from one to the other, reading the expression on their faces, their shared ease born of long familiarity. His face curves into a sly, sweet smile. His voice has broken in the twelvemonth since he learnt the song and its tune no longer soars into the tall sky, like a gull into high sunlight, but each note still chimes clear and true. Above the hills, the stars prick into life, by one, by two and three.
The seal grins and hums along to the boy’s lament for a young king, drowned in the flower of his youth through his nightwatch’s treachery. The fisherman sighs, a man sorely tried by the fools about him, though the glint in his black eyes threatens only laughter. After a half-dozen verses, he snaps his fingers in his son’s face. ‘Enough of that dirge. Sing something to warm the blood.’
The boy obliges, and the men take up the chorus. Then, together, they walk up the path towards the village, sad stories of the death of kings driven from their minds by a song of vengeance and of glory.
And far away, the other side of time, the quiet queen stands in the shadows of the apple tree. Her cloak is tattered and her feet are bare but there are stars tangled in her hair. About her and around her, the dancers of the borderlands whirl and swirl to the music of the stars and sea, singing the song of the wind upon the water. Longtimes she watches, knowing all things of all men, the living and the dead, until the three of them, the fisherman, the seal, the boy, reach the low, thatched cot and step inside out of the night, and close the door behind them.
Did this night happen? Not yet, perhaps not ever. There is as yet no fisherman, no half-grown boy to be apprenticed to a potter, no queen across the water. The future is a tale cannot be written, not even on the air or in running water. It lies forever out of reach, less tangible even than a dream. But, as stories link together, like beads upon a chain, like dancers joining hands to form the figures of a dance, the future is shaped by the present and the past, and so – if the world is kind and hearts are strong – this eventide in Ittachar is what will happen.