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Friday, September 18, 2015

Let's Start at the Very Beginning...

Maybe telling a story is a bit like running a race.  Hang with me, here.  It makes sense that you don't start your story or your race BEFORE you get the signal to start.  It's kind of like the writing advice I've heard a lot, which is:  begin your novel the moment when everything changes.

That would be like the moment you hear the starting gun go off and everyone starts to sprint.

Well, at least that's the lame analogy I came up with in my head.  Apparently, it's not a very good one.

Twice now, I've entered contests, and I've been given the same advice for two different novels. Basically, it was:  "You started your book too late."

In other words, I didn't begin telling the story right when everything changed in my main character's world. I started my story a while AFTER everything changed.

Oops.  I guess you can say I was trying to drop the reader into the middle of the action so that they'd be hooked on the story and want to keep reading.  Unfortunately, I may not have given the reader enough of  "set up" of the story so that they got an idea of who the main character was, what was going on, and established some stakes so that the reader would begin to empathize with the character and understand all he or she stood to lose (or gain).

So, to go back to that race analogy, I guess that sometimes it makes more sense to actually begin your story during the warm-up to the race, not necessarily the moment when the gun goes off. Trust me,  it doesn't have to be a super-long warm up.  The reader doesn't want to read in excruciating detail about everything you ate the day before and how long you worked out and prepared for the race and get a description of every single stretch, not to mention get a vividly detailed account of the fashionable racing gear you were wearing.  However, little set up is nice and lets you establish some stakes before the big action sets in.

To give an example, I'm going to post the original first chapter of a historical novel I wrote last year. The story starts with a young girl, Kenna, my main character (MC) who has been trapped within some narrow streets in 17th century Edinburgh, has no friends and no shelter, and doesn't know where she'll find her next meal.  She remembers finding her sister dead and knowing that her brother-in-law killed his wife, and is bent on revenge.  THEN, I'm going to post my "new" first chapter where I take the reader to the point a few days prior, where Kenna actually witnesses her sister's death and makes the discovery her brother-in-law is the killer and must flee for her life.

I can't decide if I like my new first chapter better or not.  It does give me the chance (in a following chapter) to show how Kenna becomes trapped where she is in the first place, and lets the reader get a glimpse of the life of comfort she had before she had to run away.  Hm.....please comment and let me know what you think.  Which Chapter One do you like better?

 (Note:  the format of the second chapter I posted is all screwed up.  I'm not bothering to change it, so if if the weird indentations bother you, sorry).  I would also apologize about writing in present tense, because I know it bugs some people, but I like it.  So there.

By:  Rebecca Bischoff

(Original:  the one that "started too late in the story")

When I find Oliver, I will plunge my knife into his heart.  I won’t trifle with potions, the method he used to murder his wife.  I will not allow myself the luxury of watching him die by inches, as pain fills his wretched soul.  What I have learned in this filthy place echoing with the squeal of rats and moans of the starving is that I will only have one chance.  I must not falter. 
I only want to see Oliver’s life breath leave his body.  Then my sister will rest, and so shall I.
Annie murmurs and fidgets in her sleep.  I place a hand upon her matted hair, and my light touch is enough.  She quiets and her breathing slows.  The child clung to me the moment she saw me.  Her eyes, like pools of clear water, pleaded with me, though she said not a word.  I could not bear to push her away.  Not in a place like this.  Here, I am certain she cannot survive without me. 
She told me her name, after I fed her a bit of stolen bread.  But she has said nothing else.  I blow my breath out in a long stream.  What shall I do with the child?  Why did she have to choose me, plucking at my skirts as I passed?  For it is not likely that I myself will survive this place much longer.  The Close is my prison.  If I am to live, and if I am to have my revenge, I must find a way out.
Dawn approaches.  I can tell by the feel in the air.  Early morning light doesn’t truly penetrate here.  Only during a brief hour at midday when the sun is directly overhead is it truly bright.  At daybreak, there is only a gradual lessening of the darkness, as though someone has pushed aside a curtain that covers a filthy window and allowed a few weak rays to filter inside a room. 
Careful not to disturb the child, I rise from my bed, and nearly laugh aloud that I could think of it as such.  This is no more than a worn spot on the cobbles, a tiny space between towering houses where I cower behind a barrel left ages ago to rot.  This corner has become a refuge of sorts, out of view and out of reach of the slops thrown at all hours from the upper windows.  I have but a single wall at my back and the stinking barrel to hide me from the street.  They provide no protection from the weather.  My bones ache with the cold. 
Stretching and rubbing my back, I close my eyes and count the hours in my head.  How long ago was I locked in the Close?  My mind is sluggish, a slow-moving river filled with thoughts that take an eternity to surface.  My eyelids fly open.  I am shocked when I realize that this is only the start of my third day here.  Already, I fear that I shall not last much longer.
A babe cries from somewhere above.  Then a dog commences a shrill barking and a man shouts to silence the creature.  I am surrounded by walls of dark stone that team with life, vile as it may be.  These tall houses hold many, many inhabitants, but every door is locked to me.  A roof overhead is the one thing I do not have. 
I pat my pocket, relieved to feel the solid presence of my knife.  I’d taken it soon after arriving in the Close.  Not many hours had passed before I knew I needed a weapon.
A sound like stone clattering upon the cobbles reaches my ears and I duck down beside the child, holding my breath.  Has the Watchman returned? 
I chose this spot so as to remain hidden at night, when The Watchman wanders up and down, up and down, his footsteps interminable, echoing.  He must not find me.  My captors spoke their warning as they pushed me down crumbling steps and locked the gates behind me.
“Make certain ye keep out of sight of the Watchman, lassie,” one of them had said.  “All keep to their beds sundown to sunup.  If he finds you, it will no’ go well for ye.”
They did not then tell me that I would have to find a bed in the first place.  Nor that no one in this dreadful place would take pity upon me and offer one.
            I hear nothing more.  I stand, take a deep breath and wrinkle my nose at the smells that invade my being.  I’m not yet used to the odor here.  Our latrine at home never smelled this bad.  Mrs. Harris kept it clean by pouring lime into it each week.  Drains carried away slops and kitchen scraps from the main house to the river.  Our home smelled of beeswax polish and herbs hung in the kitchen to dry.  Baking bread and fresh flowers.
            I fear the stench of this place will always be with me.
“Kenna?” Annie says. 
“Yes,” I whisper.  My heart lifts as I kneel beside her.  “I’m here.”  If she will now speak, perhaps I shall be able to find her family.
“Hungry,” she says. 
“Well then,” I say, patting her shoulder.  The feel of her thin frame, skin stretched over bone, calls to mind a starving cat I once found.  “Shall we find your mama?”
Her eyes regard me for a long moment.  I hold my breath.
“Hungry,” she repeats.  Her voice is not plaintive.  She knows far better than I that hunger is a faithful companion whose claws never let go.  I sigh.
“Let’s go, then,” I say, helping her to her feet.  She clutches her doll and smiles at me, and I force my face into what I hope is a cheery expression.  I adjust my dress, tightening the laces of the bodice and scratching at my dirty skin.  My hair must look much as Annie’s does, though I’ve tried to keep it braided and off my face.
            We ease past the barrel and pick our way into the street.  All is quiet, except for the continued squalling of the babe from a few stories above our heads.  The little one cries most of the time.  I’ve grown used to the sound.  Annie cradles her doll and shushes it.  The toy is no more than a scrap of tattered wool fallen from a clothesline high above that I’d wrapped about a bit of wood.   My heart turns over for a moment.  Where is her family?  I must find them, or someone to take her in.  And I must escape this place!
Though we need food, I first wish to ascertain that the gates remain closed.  It is a fool’s errand, I know, but I must see for myself.  Hurrying as fast as I can manage while my silly embroidered shoes slip and slide upon the cobbles, I drag the child behind me and move to the head of the Close.  The Close is not a street, but a long and exceedingly narrow alleyway between tall houses.  Moreover, it is not one but several such passageways, which all manage to twist themselves together into a labyrinth of sorts.  A carriage would be hard-pressed to pass through.  Not that I’ve seen one. 
The tall iron gates come into view.  Visible in the dawn light are the sharp spikes at the top, high above my head.  They are like black spears pointing to the sky.  The iron chains are yet in place.  Locked.  I knew they would be, but I wished to make certain.
            “Who goes there?” a voice calls from the other side.
            We melt into the shadows.
            My heart has slowed by the time we inch our way to the next gate, moving downhill.  This gate is located at the far opposite end of this stinking alleyway. “Stewart’s,” I think they call it here.  Annie and I return to our corner but pass on, following the twists and turns of the winding passage until we reach the northernmost end, many minutes later.  We pass a few souls already about: a servant emptying slops onto the cobbles, a shopkeeper placing what few remaining wares he has into his market stalls.  He eyes me with distrust as the child and I pass; certain, I am sure, that I mean to steal one of the two wilted cabbages he possesses. 
            I am considering it.  Though I have been raised to fear God, I never knew how hunger could make one turn to sin until now.
We reach our destination.  Tall gates bar our way as well.  I can see the soldiers encamped on the other side.  Smoke from their fires curls upon the cold morning air.  I smell something that makes my mouth water.  They are cooking meat over one of the fires.  Game, perhaps, or is it a goose?  I sniff the air, drawing in the scent like a hound at the hunt.  God, but I am hungry!
            The soldiers do not starve.  Why do they stand guard and keep us locked between these iron gates so that all within will eventually perish with hunger?  Who has given such orders?  The Town Council?  The King?  And why was I, a mere girl of fifteen, taken here?
            It was Oliver who caused the soldiers to lock me in here.  It must be!  Of that I am nearly certain, but the mystery of why the Close has been sealed off from the rest of the city outside is not yet clear to me.
            Hearing footsteps approach, I pull Annie to my side and sweep into a doorway.  Unfortunately, someone else was there before us.
            “Shove off,” a rough voice grunts, and a hard fist punches me in the side.  Gasping for air, I back away, trying to apologize but unable to form words.
            Annie whimpers as we move away, stumbling along uneven cobbles.  I turn back, straining to see who approaches in the pale darkness of early morning.
            A doorway opens and flickering light allows me a glimpse of the hard face of Mr. Shaw, the baker.  He is not one I’d wish to encounter alone.  His shop is back at the opposite end of the Close, not far from my sleeping corner.  He’s carrying what appears to be a heavy parcel in his arms, and his eyes dart about as though he fears something.  I know the look; I see it in the faces of everyone here.  I suppose I wear that expression most of the time as well. 
I back away, holding tight to the child’s arm, and we press ourselves to the wall.  Shaw passes by.  He pays us no mind at all, and I sigh in relief.  Once his footsteps no longer ring upon the cobbles, I move away from the wall but am stopped short when something seizes my foot.  I cry out as I struggle, unable to break free.  While teetering and flinging my arms out in a wild manner as I seek to retain my balance, I spy the thickly muscled arms that extend from between the bars of a low window.  Two large hands have a tight grip upon my ankle.
“Don’t be alarmed, pretty lass.  Fancy coming down here to give me a bit of company?  I’ll share my ale with you.”
“Let me be,” I blurt, tugging and straining in vain against the ever-tightening grip.  Annie begins to whimper.
“Use your blade, girl,” a familiar voice grunts.  It’s the person from the doorway who struck me!  Why should he wish to assist us?  Yet, with a gasp of relief, I remember my knife.  I’ve not yet had occasion to use it, but circumstances warrant its use, and quick!
The clutching fingers release me the moment I begin to slash at them.  Howls and curses emit from the low window as I hurry Annie away from the spot. 
“Best to stay on the other side from now on when you pass by here,” my doorway companion says.  “And keep your knife at the ready.”
“Thanks,” I manage to breathe, now able to turn my attention to the man who assisted us.  He is no taller than I and thin as a bundle of sticks, and though the day has but begun and the light is still grey, I can see the long years etched upon his face.  Annie clings to my side and I clutch my knife, wary of my so-called protector, the one who punched me only moments before.  I pray he can’t see how I tremble head to foot.
“You’ve naught to eat I warrant?  That child is like to blow away in a gust of wind,” the man says.  “Come.” 
He marches up creaking steps to the entrance of his home.  I hear the scrape and click of a key turning in a lock.  I remain where I am, unsure, but Annie tugs at my skirts, and my stomach is as empty as the tiny, crumbling chapel at the other end of the Close, so reluctantly, I follow.
Inside, the man lights a taper and sets it on a low wooden table.  He shuffles to another room and I look about me, keeping one hand on the knife and another on the child’s shoulder, ready to flee at any moment.  No telling what my protector actually wants.  It’s what I’ve learned in the Close these past few days.  Trust no one.
The room is bare and worn.  The stone walls weep with moisture.  There is no fire in the grate, though I am certain the man must feel the chill.  His beak-like nose is red with cold. 
“Eat,” the man grunts, as he shuffles back into the room carrying a trencher of bread and cheese, which he places upon a little table.  My mouth waters at the sight.  With a cry, Annie darts over and seizes a bit of bread, stuffing it into her mouth.
“Easy, little mouse,” the man says with a soft chuckle.  “Go slow or it’ll come back out.  I know that kind of hunger.”
“Do you,” I venture to ask, snatching a bit of cheese.  I wolf it down in a manner that I know would have shocked my genteel sister, so proper and dignified.  Pushing away the memory of her face, I reach for another piece.
“Aye,” the man says. 
That is all.  Then he takes his own bit of bread and sits upon a worn bench, the only other furniture I spy within the room.  Close-cropped white hair caps his skull like a sprinkling of ashy snow, and his face is crinkled as a shriveled potato.  He stares at me as he munches, and his pale eyes, peering out as they do from between folds of ancient skin, regard me with calculation.
What does he want?  I must be wary. 
Annie makes whimpering noises as she eats, taking bites that are far too large.  I shush her, though I can hardly blame her for eating like an animal.  We had naught but potato peelings yesterday. 
My shoulders sag as I chew.  I used to come here to give charity.  With my sister, I handed out food from baskets Mrs. Harris prepared each Sunday.  I was proud to say I fed the poor.  But I shrank from the grabbing, grubby fingers that reached for the pitiful offerings I so officiously gave. 
Now, my own filthy hands are grateful for any bit of food they can find.
A wheezy chuckle interrupts my musings.
“You don’t belong here,” the man says, dipping his head at me.
“How do you know that?”  
I curl my fingers around the handle of the knife in my pocket as I speak.
 “I know who you are, Poisoner.  We all do.  You’re that uppity granddaughter of Lord Ramsay who murdered her sister.”

(Newer one, where I move the story back to a few days earlier)

            Ladies do not scramble up the outer walls of their homes with their skirts hiked up and bound about their knees.  They do not cling to trellises filled with shriveled roses, pricking their fingers upon thorns and biting back oaths they are not supposed to know as they push open the windows of chambers they were forbidden to enter.
            How Grandfather would chide me, though always with a spark of amusement in his eye.  How Oliver would freeze me with his stern gaze!  He takes upon himself the role of father when it suits him, which is usually when Kenna has behaved in an unseemly manner once again.   He sheds the role of parent most of the time, though, removing it from his person as one flicks a bit of dust from his sleeve.
            I land with a soft thump upon the carpets in my sister’s chamber.  She moans and stirs but does not open her eyes.
            The room smells of dust and something sour like curdled milk.  Wrinkling my nose, I fling the curtains wide and leave the casements open, though the air is cool and filled with the gray autumn mist that descends upon our hills this time of year. 
            Oliver’s orders are that the heavy curtains are to be kept drawn tight in his wife’s chamber.  It is as though my sister is not allowed to know the day from the night.  Her husband insists the sunlight hurts her eyes.
            I do not believe him.  I need light, at any rate.  With my bare foot, (climbing is near to impossible wearing one’s slippers) I shove a stool close to Cinaed’s bed and sit, pulling the bit of parchment filched from Grandfather’s desk from my skirts.  And I begin.  Squinting, I sketch a few lines, regard them with more than a tinge of criticism, and add more lines to my drawing.  My sister is both mother and father to me.  She has been since the time our parents died, so long ago their faces do not come to mind.  I cannot bear the thought that one day I may no longer recall my sister’s image, either. 
            If she does not recover.  But she must!  I cannot lose her!
            I am only drawing her portrait because she has asked me to, so many times.  That is why.
            There.  That is much better.  I had first made the mistake of recreating in exactness what I saw before me, drawing the curve of my sister’s cheek, shrunken with illness.  Scrubbing with my fingers, I redraw her as I remember her before.  Round cheeks and clear eyes that dart about, quick like a robin’s. 
            Cinaed’s eyes are the color of storm clouds.  They mask her true nature.  Hers is a disposition far more akin to a day of bright sun than to a brooding sky filled with the promise of cold rain.  I shall never forget her smile.  Frowning, I trace the lines of my drawing with a smudged finger.  It is still not right!
            “Miss,” our maid, Lorna, says.  Yelping in surprise, I dart to my feet.  I had not once noticed her, sitting silent in the shadows in the far corner, her knitting in her lap.  Treacherous little snip!  She will likely flee and tell Oliver what I have done in her sniveling voice.
            I scowl at her, knowing my face betrays the frustration I feel, and caring not one whit. 
            Lorna rises with her yarns in her hands and bobs a timid curtsy.  “Please, miss,” she falters, “It is nearly twelve o’clock.  The physician will be here, and Sir Oliver says no one is allowed in.”
            “No,” I say from between clenched teeth.  My drawing is not right.  “I’ll not leave until I have finished!”
            “Yes,” Oliver announces, entering swiftly and sweeping me off my stool as our cook might shoo a kitten away from her favorite chair.   “You shall.  The physician has arrived.”
            I plead with my eyes, but my sister’s husband does not bother to look upon me.  He marches to stand beside the bed of his wife, whose damp hair clings to her glistening forehead, and whose pale cheeks have sunken into her face, giving her the look of a crone rather than a woman not yet thirty.  Her illness caused some of her teeth to fall out.  She lost another this morning.  It still lies upon the tray on the carved table beside the bed.  No one bothered to remove it.  The chip of bone tinged with red holds my gaze for a moment, and my stomach sours at the sight.  I am glad my sister does not appear to be aware of her surroundings.  For the past three days she has not.
            Dismissed, I close the door softly behind me and bite my tongue against the many retorts I would hurl at the man who calls himself my brother.  The thick carpets beneath my feet are a mockery to me.  Oliver’s fool idea!  They were unrolled in the corridors only yesterday so that my sister need not be disturbed by the sound of passing footsteps. 
            My sister is not dead.  Why does Oliver insist we creep about upon silent feet, as though we are in a church? 
            “Ah, Kenna,” Grandfather murmurs my name.  His tall form approaches from the direction of the stairs.  Thanks to the carpets, I had not heard his usually heavy, measured tread.  I flee to his side and he places his arms about me, holding me so close I feel his heart beating.  “Do not fret so, child.  No, do not fret, my dear.”
            “She is so ill,” I murmur into his coat.  He smells of apples and mulled wine, as though he has come from the kitchens.  Our paths cross often when we sneak into the larder searching for a bit of sweet or sip of claret.  Comrades in household thievery we are, causing no end of grief to Mrs. Harris.  Stepping back, I swipe at my tears and straighten my shoulders.  Aside from our clandestine meetings over midnight repasts, Grandfather does expect me to behave like a lady, after all. 
            “Grandfather, Cinaed is so ill!  What can we do?” I ask him. 
            Grandfather eyes crinkle as he smiles down at me.  He is weary.  I can see it in the dark smudges and bags beneath his great blue eyes, but I still feel comfort from the strength that emanates from him.  He squeezes my shoulder.
            “My good friend and physician, Sir Robert Ogilvie, is here, Kenna.  He shall help your poor sister.  I am certain of it.”
            Swallowing the lump in my throat, I back away and finally remember my manners in time to sink in an ungainly curtsy at the sight of the portly man beside Grandfather.  As I do so, I feel the air upon my bare legs and remember my knotted skirts and bare feet.  I do not even wear stockings!  Cheeks stinging with the flush that creeps upon them, I struggle to untie the knots I have made in the brightly colored stuff of my lemon-yellow skirts.
            Smoothing my crumpled skirts, I lift my gaze in time to spy the clear look of disapproval the esteemed physician wears upon his round and thoroughly unpleasant face.  His head is shaped like an egg; wider at the bottom than the top, as his chin simply dissolves into the folded flesh of his neck.  His coat is mussed and he wears a look of self-importance.  I do not like his demeanor.
            “I shall certainly do all within my power to help your sister, lass,” the man says in a smooth voice that is surprisingly high-pitched.  “Though I must say I’ve not heard of such a case before.”
            “Please, sir,” I begin to say, but that is all I can manage.  My throat closes.
            Grandfather pats my shoulder again.  “Go, Kenna.  The tailor and Mrs. Harris await you in your chambers.  Oliver has ordered you a new dress.  You must try it on.”  He pauses and wipes his brow.  “Go, lass,” he repeats.
            A new dress?
            I stare after Grandfather and the haughty physician who hurry down the silent hall and disappear inside my sister’s chamber.  My drawing falls from numb fingers. 
            Does Oliver truly believe that all shall be well with me if I have a new dress?  Never mind that my sister lay dying!  Kenna shall have pretty new clothes. 
            Does he believe that is all I care for?
            Rage surges like boiling oil through my body.  I shall show Oliver what I think of my new dress!
            “Kenna,” Mrs. Harris gasps as I burst through the doors of my chamber.  “What is it, my dear?”
            “Go!” I scream, pointing at the elderly woman and the straw-haired young man who waits with her.  His mouth gapes wide and he stares, giving him the appearance of a scaly herring lying in a market stall.
            “Leave NOW!”
            Our old housekeeper hurries out of the room with her handkerchief over her face. The tailor follows.  My entire body trembles.  I should be ashamed for how I have treated the kindly woman, but I can feel nothing but the anger that surges through my veins.  I am tipsy with the feeling, unsteady on my feet as though I have taken too much wine.
            The dress lies upon my bed.  It is silk, the color of soot.  Ribbons, lace, the finest of stitches, nearly invisible.    
            Mourning garb.  Oliver does not think to distract me with pretty things.  He sends a message.
            My shoulders sag at the sight and I bury my face in my hands.
            “She is not dead,” I say.  I raise my face and gulp air.  “She is not dead!”  I shout.
            The tailor left his satchel upon the table.  I rifle through it until I locate his scissors.  They slice through the silk with ease.  Within moments, the remains of my dress slither to the floor, slain by my own hands.  I step back to admire the sight, a pool of ink at my feet.
            A new black dress.  Carpets upon the floors to muffle our footsteps.  And even straw scattered upon the cobbles outside, to muffle the sound of passing hooves.  Oliver ordered it this morning.
            Slowly, I turn and move to the window.  A gust of early November wind tosses withered leaves against the glass.  They tap and hiss like the voices of spirits seeking shelter. 
            Were any lost spirits to entreat me for welcome, I should warn them they seek to enter a place that holds as much joy as a graveyard.
            My sister’s lute lies upon a table.  I took it from her chambers after she fell ill.  The hint of a song whispers in the air as my fingers brush against the strings.  A teardrop splashes against the polished wood. 
            Cinaed loves music and singing.  She loves the sound of the larks upon the branches outside her window; even the crows as they cark and caw in the fields come autumn.  She dearly loves to laugh.  Why must we remain so silent?  Though she lies weak and mute, perhaps she still hears what transpires around her.  Would she not wish to hear the voices of those who are most beloved?  Would that not cheer her heart and help her grow strong once more?
            I nearly trip upon my skirts as I pivot on my heel.   And as I fly to my sister’s chamber, I spy the heads of Grandfather and his physician as they descend the stairs, their voices indistinct.  Oliver’s low baritones murmur as well.  Good.  There shall be no one to chase me away. 
            According to our music master, my voice is not nearly so lovely as Oliver’s, yet it will do.  My sister’s husband no longer sings for her.  Well, then.  I shall.
            Her chamber is stifling.  The fire roars in the grate.  Beneath the coverlet, my sister’s body is slight.  I seize her hand, startled at how cold it is. 
            “Cinaed,” I murmur.  “It’s Kenna, come to sing for you.”
            She breathes in and out again, her lips quiver.  Her eyelids flutter.
            My voice is hardly above a whisper when I begin.  The lullaby is one my sister used to sing to me when I feared the shadows of night.
The swallows are gone, I manage to warble, quite off-key.  My wretched voice!  It is hardly more than a croak.  I breathe in and try again.
The summer has flown.  Dear little child, come with me.
My voice trembles and I must pause once more to draw breath.  Cinaed’s cracked lips part and I lean closer, but she does not speak.  I brush her hair from her face and stroke her cheek while I continue to sing.
The world shall await, ‘ere long you are grown, but for now you shall sleep
            “Oliver!” my sister gasps.  Her eyes open and she thrashes about, bucking and kicking like a new colt. 
            I leap to my feet and turn to call for aid, but before I utter a sound Oliver flings the door wide and hurtles inside. 
            “What are you doing here, Kenna?” he growls.  “Leave her be!” 
            Oliver flies to Cinaed’s bed and kneels beside her.  My sister seizes her husband’s waistcoat with one flailing fist and with the other hand scratches at his eyes; though I do not believe she is aware of what she does.  In vain, Oliver struggles to detach her hands and to hold his wife’s slight form still.  The velvet tears and he shrugs it off and flings the torn clothing to the floor.
            “Go, Kenna,” he calls, turning his head to me.  His face is contorted with pain.  A livid streak of red creases one cheek.  “Seek the physician!  He cannot have gone yet!”
            I do not move.  It is as though my feet are woven into the stuff of the carpet beneath them.  I cannot do what Oliver says, for I have finally allowed myself to admit what everyone else sought to tell me.  I know now that it is too late to call for aid.
            My sister is dying.
            The pain of my realization nearly causes me to sink to the floor.  I clamp a hand over my mouth and bite my lip to keep from crying out.
            Wrapped in her husband’s tight grip, Cinaed convulses once, twice.  Her eyes lose their wild look, and for a brief moment, I believe that she is coming to herself.  Oliver bends his head so that their faces nearly touch. 
            I step forward, holding my breath.  It is as though I am gazing at a painting, a tableau of tender intimacy, something I should not witness.  My heart turns over.
            My sister gazes into the eyes of her husband, so close at hand.  He murmurs words, too soft for me to hear.  Cinaed listens.  Her ebony hair spills across her pillow; her face is pale as chalk.  Her body is nothing but skin tight across sharp bone.  Her eyes, far too large, gaze at her husband with an intense longing.  The love she possesses for this man is written in every single pain-caused line on her wasted face.
            I take another step and my foot touches something upon the floor.  It is Oliver’s torn waistcoat.  Reaching down to move it aside, my fingers brush against something smooth and cold.  Beneath the fallen waistcoat lies a tiny bottle.  I close my hand around it.
            Oliver continues to murmur low words to his wife.  His eyes are upon only her, so that he does not see what I have found.
            I recognize the bottle at once.  It is the same poison we use to kill rats and mice in the barns.
            Cinaed gasps for air.  The sound pierces me.  Then my sister breathes out once more, a long, slow sigh.  And she is still, though her eyes remain fixed on my brother, a heartbeat away.
            For several long moments, I stay where I am, clutching the glass bottle, staring at my sister’s beloved face, willing her to breathe again.  But she does not.
            Oliver finally turns in my direction.  His eyes are dry and his face is a mask of utter stillness.  Until he sees what I hold in my hand.
            “Kenna,” he says in a strangled voice.   His eyes dart from the bottle to my face and back again.  Something dawns in his eyes.  Something cold and fierce.  And his face contorts and darkens.
            I stumble backwards, clutching the bottle to my chest.  He killed her.  He killed her!  This man has murdered his wife, my only sister!
            Oliver rises to his feet. 

            I scream.  

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