My Work in Progress
The big problem that I've been trying to solve in my writing is structuring my stories so that they make sense. This is a super big and nebulous topic that some people just naturally grasp and others, like me, have to slog through in order to really understand. Sure, I can write something with a beginning, a middle, and an end, with characters and believable descriptions and world-building, but when it comes to tying all that together I have a hard time coming out with something that feels like a cohesive whole. It's just what it is, a collection of characters and scenes strung together in a somewhat logical manner, but not much beyond that.
That's why I've been sitting on the same novel for about a year and a half now.
As I read more and learn more about storytelling I have this constant struggle with comparing myself to others. In one way it's good, because I can learn from them. I'm always taking notes or mentally deconstructing books or movies to see how they work, in the hopes that I can learn something from someone who is much smarter than me. On the other hand it can contribute to me not working as hard as I should on trying to finish the thing I've been working on. It makes me feel like I might never be good enough.
I'm trying not to fall into the latter half of that paragraph. I've had about a month of not producing any tangible writing. Sure, I've been working on it by planning a new story and learning things, but I haven't created anything and that feels bad to me. So I'm trying to get back on it. I dusted off that manuscript that needs a ton of work and edited a draft of the first chapter. The rest of it is going to take some sweat to get it into shape, and will probably involve more re-writes than this first chapter (not to say this is perfect or anything, but it's close to where I want it to be, I think). It's just doing the work that is a struggle.
Have a read. Let me know what you think.
The sun rose red on the morning of the new year, cresting like fire over the wall that would be his. Ren stretched an arm out to shield his eyes from the glare as light poured over the immense gray structure before him. The structure was also behind him and to either side, though too far away to see from where he sat, but this had always been his favorite spot. It was something about the east side of the The sun rose red on the morning of the new year, cresting like fire over the wall that would be his. Ren stretched an arm out to shield his eyes from the glare as light poured over the immense gray structure before him. The structure was also behind him and to either side, though too far away to see from where he sat, but this had always been his favorite spot. It was something about the east side of the wall that drew him. Maybe it was the fact that each new day shone on this section first, or it might have been the fact that this part of the wall nestled itself away in a secluded corner of the Republic, it might have even been the trees all around him, growing wild and untamed almost like the land outside the walls.
He could see the faintest outline of someone standing there at the top of the wall. Of course, there were more than just this one person on the wall. The rest would be asleep in the guardtowers that rose above the otherwise featureless and colorless expanse, or patrolling somewhere Ren couldn't see at the moment. Just to the right of the figure a thin line rose. It was the point of a bow, no more than a string at this distance, but Ren had seen them up close before and knew they were seven feet long and strung tight. His chest fluttered at the thought of being even closer to one.
A bird screeched and flew past Ren, dodging away at the last second before it collided with his head. The sudden movement threw his balance off and he let out a yelp as he pinwheeled the arm he had been using to shield the sun, then caught a nearby branch to steady himself. The awkward position he found himself in shifted his view from the figure on the wall to the thirty foot drop that had very nearly been his fate. It didn't help that this particular tree was excellent for climbing, as it also made it a prime spot for nesting birds. There real problem was that those nesting birds were the territorial type, and he was almost literally on top of their home.
Ren swung his legs off of the branch he had been perched on and let his momentum carry him downward in an arc toward the trunk of the tree. He let go of the branch he was holding on with his hand and hit the trunk with his feet, tucking them in as he did so that he slid downwards and landed on another large branch, before slipping off the side of it and catching hold of another branch below that one with his hands. He continued in this manner, using a series of controlled movements that he had all but memorized at this point, until he was standing at the base of the tree in front of a bemused Jerika.
Jerika started slow clapping as soon as his feet his the ground. "As graceful as a razorback."
"I'll take that as a compliment?" Ren said, eyebrow raised.
"Never mind," Jerika said, shaking her head. "We're going to be late."
"Not possible," Ren said. "I've been waiting for this day my entire life. Everything's under control."
"Then why are we still standing here when it's almost third watch?"
Ren's heart pounded in his chest. Fourth watch was when he was supposed to be at the north gate to take the trial, which would have given him plenty of time to get there if he didn't have to do anything else that day. He'd estimated his morning deliveries to take about the length of a watch, so he'd been watching the sun to know when second watch started. He knew from years of sitting in that very tree and watching the wall that second watch began when the sun just crested over the top of the wall. It had only been a few minutes ago, but how long had he been sitting there, staring at the figure on the wall and daydreaming?
"Ren," Jerika said, placing her hands on his shoulders. "We need to get going."
Ren felt like he couldn't breathe, but he ran anyway, sticking close to Jerika's heels. She had always been a little bit faster than him, and it was for lack of effort on his part. Something about the length of her legs and how her body was built just propelled her faster than he could ever match. She was a little smaller than him, and where she could beat him in speed, he could more than outmatch her in strength.
Jerika laughed as she ran, amused by something that completely evaded Ren. He was currently keeping pace with her, but he knew that was because she was holding back. Her breaths were coming in collected, measured, and rhythmic time, whereas his were merely for sucking in as much air as he could in order to keep his muscles going.
"Can we save some for the trials?" Ren said. "We have a lot of running ahead of us today."
"That's only if we make it on time," Jerika said. A smile spread slowly across her thin lips and she started to pull away from him, slowly at first and then all of a sudden with a burst of speed that he had no hope of duplicating.
The rest of the run would be alone. Which was just as well since his delivery route was on the opposite side of the city from Jerika.
The route Ren was taking cut straight through the heart of the Capitol. At this time in the morning everything was still sleeping or slowly coming awake. The people that were on the streets moved slowly, loathe to start another day or just in need of some caffeine to slap them into consciousness. Ren's feet felt the transition from dirt road to cobblestone as he cut through the outskirts of the Capitol, passing housing and apartment buildings that rose up on either side of him and cast long shadows onto the streets. It made running on the uneven surfaces a little tricky, but he'd grown used to it when he started running all those years ago.
He was a Runner, carrying messages back and forth between individuals or on special occasion between politicians. The pay was hideous, but it was the only work he felt suited to. It was the only thing that had ever made him feel alive and he loved it. When he grew a little older and learned about the wall guard, nothing could stop him from doing anything and everything in what little semblance of power he had to qualify for the trials. He'd made it, barely, but it would all be for nothing if he was late.
Ren barely saw the citadel as he ran past it, barely noticed the sweeping expanse of the mall with its luscious grass and well-manicured trees. They weren't good for climbing anyway, so he'd never paid them much attention. Even if he had wanted to climb them, the city guard would have roughed him up and probably stripped him of his job as a runner. That was not something he could risk, not even for a chance to feel free for a moment.
His route started near the citadel, in a little hole-in-the-wall dropbox that was used by the working class at the city center. The politicians and high-powered people that worked around them had their own runners, senior level guys that had connections Ren could never dream of. The only way someone got that job was if you knew someone, and was primarily filled with upper-crust types that had run into a spot of bad luck. It wasn't a career path he fancied anyway, so he didn't think about it too much, but every time he made the run past the citadel he thought of what he could have done with that kind of money.
Ren shook his head and kept his pace. He'd worked his way up in seniority that the higher paying parcels would be waiting for him at the dropbox, so it wasn't the fear of missing out that drove his legs, but the idea that he might miss his shot to get out of the life he found himself in. With any luck, this would be his last day. Last day or not, he had to cover his runner's guild dues, which meant he had to make his deliveries or face the wrath of his colleagues.
The dropbox was on the corner directly across from the citadel, nestled between a bakery that served the most amazing breakfast rolls he had ever tasted and a clinic that he had been in more than once for sprained ankles and cuts that he amassed during his time on the ground. In the case of the latter, he was just glad that the guild paid for injuries in the line of duty.
He was about to duck into the bakery and drop his last coin on one last breakfast roll, when he saw the dropbox out of the corner of his eye. Something about it stood out to him, but he couldn't quite place what it was.
Ren's feet pedaled out once, twice, then slid across the stone sidewalk as he came to a stop. He rubbed at his eyes, moved closer to the rack, sure that it was some trick of the light or something stuck in his eye. But the strageness was still there, and this time he knew exactly what it was. High up on the rack where parcels marked for delivery were placed was a plain-looking envelope with a red flag.
No way was there a red parcel on his rack. His rack. The citadel racks, sure, but he wasn't allowed over there. If he got caught running a citadel parcel he would be instantly thrown out onto the street. It wasn't a thought that crossed his mind. But this was his rack.
He jogged the short distance to the dropbox and looked over the rack one more time. It was an array of seven by four circular slots that were just large enough to fit the allocated standard size deliveries mandated by the guild. Anything larger was a special delivery and cost more. Ren didn't get any of those. He'd heard of people getting large packages, and the payouts that came with those, but it was a rare thing.
On each of the little boxes or envelopes that filled slots in the rack there was a small flag that would tell the runner how urgent or important the delivery was, blue for the standard deliveries and up a scale of colors to red, which was the most urgent or important. Blue was all Ren ever saw in his rack. He still remembered the one day that he had a green tube in his rack, and how excited he was because it meant a little bit better meal for him that day, but never a yellow or orange, not to mention a red like he was looking at now. It seemed to almost pull at him, call to him in that unknowable language of runner parcels.
A child ran screaming past Ren, snapping him back to reality, back to the present. He was standing in the middle of the sidewalk just looking at his rack of deliveries. A quick scan of his immediate surroundings showed the same lifeless scene, aside from the little boy and his mother that were now entering the bakery, the child squealing in delight about the coming treats. Lucky kid.
Ren emptied the rack, shoving all of the blue parcels into his pack as he normally would, all the while keeping his eyes on that red envelope in fear that it might somehow magically change itself to the blue that it should be. He thought it had to be a mistake, but when he finally pulled the envelope and held it in his hands he couldn't deny that it was real.
A smile spread across his face and he ran as fast as he could to the closest dropbox serviced by some other runner. They were on nearly every corner, so it was hard to miss, and they were often run by more than one person, so it would be easy enough to to redistribute his load if he needed to. He couldn't leave them in his rack because the next guy to come along would assume he was too early and not want to get in trouble by taking what wasn't his. The system was far from elegant, but with a red envelope in hand, knuckles turning white against the pressure, Ren didn't care.
He slotted his blue deliveries into whatever random racks he could find along his route as he made his way to the destination for the red envelope. It was a relief, really, knowing that he would only have to make this one run and he could pay his dues several times over. He wouldn't have to waste all his time running all over town before the trials. Deliver one little envelope, run to the north gate, take the test, get out of this forsaken land.
And plenty of other runners would get a little boost by him passing on the excess blue parcels. It was a win-win-win.
The delivery was to a private residence. That was typically the case with anything above a blue flag. The size and cleanliness of this particular residence was a further confirmation that this parcel was, in fact, supposed to be delivered there. It was in the nice part of town, where the politicians lived. The only thing he still couldn't figure was why the envelope ended up in his rack and not in the citadel, which is surely where it should have been slotted. The house was massive. Bigger than any Ren had ever approached, though he knew there were others in the city that made this look small. The front was entirely white, trimmed with dark greens around the windows and the door. The door itself was multifaceted, carved into an intricate design that he didn't pay too much attention to as he reached for the knocker and clicked against the door twice, fast. The runner's knock.
It took close to a minute, and Ren was about to knock again, when the door opened to reveal a short girl, probably close to Ren's age. Her hair was dark brown and curled loosely, framing her face and falling just shy of the form-fitting light blue gown she wore hanging just off her shoulders.
"Hi," she said, the slightest hint of confusion in her expression. "Can I help you?"
"Delivery," Ren said, holding up the envelope. He felt like he should say something else, but nothing else came.
"Oh," the girl said, smiling. "That's probably for mother. Just a minute."
She disappeared behind the door and Ren felt a little disappointment building in his stomach. Maybe there was a price to being professional in that it made you look out of touch with reality. Ren tried to straighten his ever-unruly hair and dusted his tunic.
The door swung back open and revealed the girl's smiling face again. "She's on her way." She leaned against the doorframe and crossed her arms. "You don't look like our normal runner," she said. "I'm Aiyana."
She offered her hand and Ren took it in his, trying desperately to remember the customs of how long to hold and if there was anything else he was supposed to do. It wasn't something he used in everyday life. His mother would have been horrified.
"Ren," he said, finding it a little difficult to navigate around his own tongue. He felt weirdly out of body and unable to function like normal.
"Nice to meet you, Ren," Aiyana said.
He nodded, not quite able to meet her gaze. "I was just doing my normal rounds and found this parcel in my rack." She didn't care about any of this, what was he talking about? He shrugged his shoulders. "Just a lucky delivery, I guess."
Aiyana turned her head slightly, narrowing her eyes. "Lucky?"
"Yeah, it's a red parcel, so..." Ren said, holding up the envelope again and pointing to the flag. His mouth felt like a desert. "You know. I usually get blue parcels."
Aiyana laughed, a sort of soft chuckle that made Ren smile in spite of how stupid he felt in the moment. He must have sounded like the utter dullard that he was. Here was this girl who didn't have to think about running or routes, probably spent most of her day inside doing things that rich people did. Ren had no frame of reference for it, so he did the only thing he could do: smile and wait for her mom to show up so he could deliver the package and hope he never saw Aiyana again. He didn't think he could bear the shame of this one meeting.
"I thought you were going to say it was lucky because you got to see me," Aiyana said, and Ren's heart fell into his stomach. "That's what they usually say, at least."
"You wanted me to stroke your vanity?" He said, something snapping in him. She was pretty, he couldn't deny that, but he couldn't stop himself from feeling a little rage at the assumption that he would just reinforce whatever biases she had about being better than everyone else. Or maybe it was the knowledge that she was apparently a highly sought after girl that he was all of a sudden supposed to worship.
"No," she said. Her body shifted back millimeters, enough to notice but not enough to say that she was thrown on the defensive. "It was a breath of fresh air, if you must know." She crossed her arms and her face grew stony.
Ren held her gaze for a moment or two more that seemed to stretch on forever in the glow of her blue eyes. He couldn't figure her out and all at once had the feeling that he desperately wanted to. It didn't make sense, but maybe these things weren't supposed to.
"Aiyana?" A voice said from just beyond the door. "Everything OK?"
Aiyana stared at Ren for a second longer, then nodded her head and stepped back, opening the door a little wider to reveal Consul Varya ot Yana.
"Delivery?" Varya said, walking forward with a hand outstretched.
"Yes," Ren said, then remembered to add the "consul."
He placed the envelope in her hand, which was technically a breach of protocol. The runner was to maintain possession of the parcel until delivery was verified and the fee was dispensed. Any other house, with any other recipient, Ren would have held tight to that little envelope, but something about these two women made him trust them. It was probably the fact that they didn't need the delivery fee money and didn't seem like the kind of people that would stiff him.
Still, not having control over that sum of money put Ren on edge.
Varya looked over the parcel, turning the envelope in her hands and testing it. Whatever was inside was small but solid, and Ren could tell from carrying it that it was some small object along with a paper or papers. Even though the envelope remained sealed, he could see the relaxation on the Consul's face. It was like she had been pale before and now color returned to her with her deep breaths.
"Good," she said, taking another deep breath. "Good. Thank you..." her eyebrows raised in question.
"Ren, Consul. And you're welcome," he said, a little unsure.
Varya looked up, confusion on her face and a slight blush on her cheeks. "Oh, yes."
She pulled a small pouch from a hidden pocket in her robe and withdrew some coins. Ren knew he was due ten full pieces, so when he saw twelve full pieces come out of the bag he lost partial control of his hands and fumbled them as she dropped them into his palm.
He swore to himself and knelt down to pick up the coins that had bounced and scattered across the hardwoods. Aiyana stifled a laugh and plucked up three of the coins that had landed near her feet, adding them to the nine in Ren's hands when he stood back up. He wasn't sure, but it seemed like she deliberately placed them in his hands, her fingers running along the length of his. It must have been his imagination.
"Thank you again, Ren," Varya said, letting his name ring out.
He nodded, gripping the coins in his hand for fear of losing them in some undignified manner, and backed away from the doorway and down the steps back to the street. He checked over his shoulder only once as he jogged back toward the city center, just to see if Aiyana was watching him go.
As he wound his way through the city, always heading north, it grew more and more dense until he felt like it was pressing in on him. The difference between where he had been only that morning, high up in a tree secluded from the world, and where he was now on the gray and featureless streets of a city he hardly knew deeper than its surface, never ceased to astound him. That the people in this oppressive place could go on day after day was beyond understanding. Didn't they want to be free? Wasn't there more to life than just wandering around and hoping to make it one more day?
It was several more minutes before he was free of the city's grasp, and several more after that before the north gate loomed in his vision. He was suddenly glad that he hadn't decided to take the longer trip to the east gate, where he sometimes liked to watch the sun rise. The only reason he hadn't gone out of his way was that he liked the tree better. The view from the east gate was impressive, but it would have meant that he miss the sunrise altogether in order to make the run up to the north gate, as the split time between gates was at best a two hour journey. The runners had an unofficial standing challenge to see who could transfer gates the fastest, which taxed both mind and body in trying to find the best route all the while keeping a blistering pace. Of the four gates, one for each Cardinal direction, Jerika held the record on three of them, and Ren's time wasn't even close. The fourth record was held by a runner named Merrik that Ren didn't want to think about at the moment.
Ren slowed his pace as he came to the north gate and vectored himself toward the guardhouse doors that stood off to the side. It was a squat structure, gray like the rest of the wall but less weathered. And it was smaller than he remembered, but he had never been this close to it before and couldn't be sure if it was just his imagination of the place driving his memories. To him it was verging on the mythical, where the wall guard went to take up their posts, only coming down into the world below once every month or so just to keep from going crazy. Ren imagined that he could stay up there as long as he wanted. There was nothing down here that he could possibly miss, aside from Jerika, but she had a better shot at making the cut then he did. If he was up there, then surely she would be there too.
He was still cataloging his feelings and several yards away from the guardhouse door when it swung open and people began filing out. He allowed himself to slow down, taking long strides to scrub off as much speed as he could before he collided with someone. They were mostly runners, he noticed. They all wore the same mottled gray tunics and loose fitting trousers that he was wearing, combined with the thick leather reinforced shoes that were necessary for this kind of work. It made sense that they would be runners, as they would be the best suited to the trials. It was the only reason that he felt he had a shot in the first place.
"Look who decided to show up," Merrik said as he approached Ren. "Wonder Boy's a little late."
"Shut up, Merrik," Jerika said. She was just behind him, also closing on Ren quickly. "He's not late."
"You ain't early, you're late," Merrik said. "Or have you forgotten the runner's motto?"
Ren felt his face flushing red and tried to stand a little taller. Merrik closed the distance between them and stood only inches from Ren. They were nearly the same height, but Merrik was all sinewy muscle and looked wound as tight as a spring. His hair was long, but pulled back behind his head in a pony tail, and almost as dark as his eyes seemed. It was as if Ren was staring into a black abyss. He looked away after a few seconds and saw the corner of Merrik's mouth turn upward.
"Back off, Merrik," Jerika said, inserting herself between them.
Merrik laughed and turned away, rejoining a small group of boys that were gathered nearer to the gate. It was most likely his clan, the group of runners that he worked alongside. When you had a more than one runner working jobs through the city you could get things delivered faster and more efficiently by leveraging the network. While Ren had never actually met Merrik before, he'd heard stories and knew that his network was hands-down the most efficient running machine in the Republic. Ren had several potential clients turn him down or drop him when they were able to secure Merrik's services. It also didn't help his perception of Merrik that Ren had tried out for the network a little over a year ago and was denied.
"I don't need you to stand up for me," Ren said.
"I know," Jerika said, turning to face him. She held a straight face for a few seconds before cracking a smile. "I just like telling him off."
"Because of the records?"
"You're smart too," she said, her smile faltering only slightly. "Come on razorback, let's get in position."
Ren followed her toward the gate and took up a spot close to where the rest of the assembled were standing. They formed sort of a semi-circle around the still-closed gate and stood in nervous anticipation. The only sound was muffled voices and the distant calls of morning birds, chattering and chirping in the trees. The ground beneath their feet was paved with tightly packed gravel, and Ren took to slowly grinding it beneath his feet as he stood there, reveling in the satisfying crunch that it gave as he swept his foot back and forth in the smallest of circles.
A new figure appeared in the doorway of the guardhouse, then walked over to the assembled group. She was tall and built like a brick wall, with a frame that looked as if it could crush Ren without much effort. It seemed fitting that her hair was short-cropped and stuffed beneath a military-style cover and her attire was a stark difference from the runners, being entirely gray and designed for use in battle instead of for running. She had pockets and thick fabric, though like the runners none of it looked constricting.
"Looks like at least one newcomer," she said as she reached the center of the semi-circle and looked directly at Ren. "Glad you could join us."
Ren's face flushed once more as he felt everyone look at him.
"I'm Lieutenant Killian." She pulled a wooden pipe from the front pocket of her shirt then fished a flint striker from a pocket in her trousers. The scent of the smoke mingled with the flowers near the guardhouse and the morning dew to make something that was entirely atrocious to inhale. "I'll be overseeing the trials today."
This was it. Ren was finally here. All that stood between him and the outside world were a few words and a large, iron-barred gate. He was closer than he ever had been in his entire life. Sure, it was easy enough to imagine being out in the wild when he was alone up in a tree somewhere looking at the horizon, but there was no denying the fact that he had no idea what was out there. No one knew what was out there other than the wall guards, and they were sworn to secrecy. Not even a hint had dropped out of any of them, no matter how many libations the inquiring reporters or politicians had applied. The guard was as impenetrable as the door before him.
"This is only the first of many tests you will undergo before being named wall guards," Killian said. She took a long drag on her pipe and let the smoke pour slowly out of her mouth. "By stepping through this door, you agree to join the wall guard. You will be bound by law as we are bound no matter the outcome of the test. You divulge anything you see or do during your trial, we will know and it will not go well for you."
"What if we fail the test?"
Everyone turned to look at Merrik, standing there with a smug look on his face. Killian was completely unfazed.
"Don't fail and you don't have to worry about it." She took another pull at the pipe, savoring it this time. "If you don't pass the test you get all of the consequences of being a wall guard without any of the benefits. You pass and you will be part of the guard. Still interested?"
Ren let his eyes wander down the curved line of people standing around Killian. The runners in the group only seemed more determined than ever. This was a group of people that took offense when someone said something was difficult or not possible. Those who weren't runners by trade looked decidedly less confident. There were three or four men wearing what appeared to be lounging clothes, which Ren assumed was the most athletic wear that they owned. Or maybe they thought it was actually good for running in, and they really didn't know better. If that was the case, they should probably walk away now. The other few who weren't runners looked to be more prepared, and were even exchanging a few hushed words and knowing glances with one another. Ren made a mental note to watch out for that group.
"All right," Killian said. She shrugged and took one last drag on her pipe before removing it from her mouth to use as more of a prop than anything else. "It's your life, I won't tell you how to live it."
She walked to the side so that she wasn't between any one person and the gate, then held up her hand. "All the way around the outside of the wall," she said. "We're watching from above, so don't even think about cheating. We will not defend you from anything you come across out there, so be ready to fend for yourselves. The doors will open again at this time tomorrow morning."
A hush fell over the group. Where there was once nervous energy coursing through the air, now a sense of dread washed over everything. A trip around the entire wall would take more than a day to complete, which meant that they would be spending an entire night outside the walls. Ren's heart beat faster at the thought of being out there, of finally seeing it with his own eyes, of touching the land he had only dreamed of. And he was getting more of it than he had imagined. His mind was racing with strategy and pacing and the minutiae of how he would run with all of these other people around him.
"Good luck and Godspeed." Killian's arm dropped to her side and the large gates began to part, spilling light into the shadows of the wall.
The barest sliver of land beyond the gate appeared, and Ren's foot took an involuntary step forward. His entire body was being drawn toward the door, toward the outside like iron drawn to a magnet. He could feel the hair on the back of his neck tingling and his fists open and closed as his body prepared itself to run. More land was visible beyond the door, but it was not open wide enough to let anyone through, so they all stood there, waiting impatiently.
Jerika was the first off of the line, with Merrik fast on her heels. Ren didn't react until several more people had dashed at the still opening door, but he wasn't the last so that was something at least.
He counted down the steps to the door. Seven, six, five. He looked to the side and saw Killian's appraising glance, her still-smoking pipe in her hand, gesturing toward the door.
Four, three, two. The doors rose high above him and he could see the thickness of them for the first time. He had never seen anything so massive. They were at least as thick as he was tall and seemed almost taller now that he was standing as close to the wall as he had ever been.
One. He was inside the wall. It was thick enough that four or five people could stand abreast with room to spare. The door itself was wide enough now that the entire group of runners could pass through without hindering one another. The sun blazed in through the opening, forcing all of them to shield their eyes against the glare.
And then he was through, his feet touching alien ground for the first time in his life.