Long-time readers may remember that for NaNo 2011, I wrote the first draft of a novel based around the fairy tale of The Twelve Dancing Princesses (or The Shoes That Were Worn to Pieces). I’ve finally completed a revision of my other major writing project, The Wanderers, and I’m now about a month into revising the princesses’ novel, The Storyteller and Her Sisters.
Since it’s rather occupying my life how about an excerpt? You can read this post if you want more context on the fairy tale, but you don’t really need it. This is roughly Page 3 of the novel, and begins to introduce some of the principle characters…
I think the real beginning of the story, for my sisters and me, was the day the Gate opened.
On that day, Vira, the oldest, was twenty-four. The youngest, Talya, was fifteen. I was seventeen. We are each spaced a neat year apart, except for the two sets of twins.
It was evening when the Gate opened, and though that evening proved momentous, I remember little about the day that preceded it. I assume it was the usual round of embroidery, penmanship and dancing lessons—we are all excellent dancers. Whatever we did, it had to have been inside my father’s castle. We were never allowed to leave. The day no doubt closed with supper in the banquet hall with Father. Such ran every day.
And in the evening, all my sisters were in our bedroom, brushing hair, pursuing hobbies, and chatting about a thousand different topics. Rather like most girls, I think—not that I’d had a great deal of experience with a great many girls. But I had read things.
Twelve of us shared a single bedroom, and there were days when it felt incredibly cramped. In reality it was a large room, long and with a high ceiling. There was a door at one end and a fireplace at the other, beds stretching in two rows down the length of the room. I suppose we didn’t undergo that much hardship in our living conditions—though I defy anyone to share a bedroom with eleven sisters for fourteen years and not come up with a few complaints.
Such as the problem of eternally being interrupted in the good parts of stories. On this evening, I was stretched across my bed, halfway through a story with the heroine just about to unmask the hero. Mina chose that moment to put down the book she had been reading, sitting cross-legged on her own bed, and ask, “Has anyone else noticed what today is?”
“Tuesday,” Talya said promptly, hopping on one foot as she pulled a stocking on. Inevitably she tumbled back onto her bed, next to mine.
Our beds were not the enormous four-poster beds that stories like to say princesses have—the room wasn’t that big—but they were comfortable, with carved wooden bedsteads and piles of quilts and pillows. We did not sleep in order by age. That would have been far too obvious.
I didn’t have to look up from my story to know that Mina was rolling her eyes. I could hear it in her voice. “No, I didn’t mean Tuesday. I was talking about the date. It’s the seventh.”
There were several groans from around the room. “Oh, not this again,” Rayna said, to the accompanying clatter of jewelry she was sorting at her dressing table. We all had just a little bit of our own space, if having our own dressing tables next to each bed qualifies. The compartment below my table was full of books and bundled papers, scrawled with my own stories. We each had a wardrobe too, but there was nothing personal about those. Every wardrobe had the exact same contents. Anything that didn’t fit into the wardrobes went into the large closet adjoining our room, and no one bothered if things got mixed together there.
Mina pushed on with her pet topic, over the groans. “We agreed, we try the Gate on the seventh of each month. And we especially have to this month. It’s been exactly fourteen years.”
It had been exactly fourteen years since the Gate was last opened, which meant it had been thirteen years, ten months, two weeks and five days since our mother died.
“Fourteen years and we’ve never been able to open it,” Laina said. I glanced up to see if her expression matched her curt tone. I couldn’t tell; she was leaning on the sill at one of the two narrow windows on either side of the fireplace, looking out over the moat. “I vote we give the whole business up.”
“We can’t,” Mina said in her most scandalized voice. “It’s a sacred trust. And I’ve spent years trying to understand it; we can’t just give it all up now.”
“So you can go,” Laina said. “I don’t feel like trekking down all those stairs in the dark, and then back up again to no purpose.”
“And it’s creepy down there,” Talya put in.
I could see Laina’s side, and Mina’s too. There was something fascinating about the Gate…but we hadn’t been accomplishing anything all these years. If it had been left up to me that evening, I would have stayed on my bed reading. Which makes it fortunate that matters weren’t in my hands.
“Mina’s right,” Vira said, standing up from her dressing table in a sweep of gray silk. “We decided a long time ago, we try on the seventh of each month. And it has to be all of us. When we come up with a better way to get out of here, a way that succeeds, then we’ll give up on the Gate.”
When Vira put her voice in, we all knew we were going to visit the Gate that night. Vira is the oldest, and when she says something, it happens.
There were a few more complaints for form’s sake, but my sisters began drifting towards Vira’s bed, the closest in its row to the fireplace. Mina paused by my bed, and shook my foot. “Come on, Lyra.”
I still had my book open, though I’d been marking my place with my finger for several minutes now. “I’m in the middle of a story.”
“So what? You’ve read it before.”
Our castle library had exactly seventy-one books of stories. I had read all of them. Repeatedly.
“That’s not the point,” I sighed, but I pushed the book aside and slid off the bed to follow Mina.
Once we were all clustered around her bed, Vira pushed against one bedpost. The bed slid a precise four feet to the right. We’ve never quite been able to work out how it moves so easily—none of the others do—but it does and always has. When it slid over, it uncovered a trap door beneath. Vira lifted the door, and the room’s light fell onto the stone steps below. Sasia handed her a lit candle, and Vira led the way down the stairs.
Talya slipped her hand into mine, and we descended together, at the back of the group.
There are exactly 366 steps. They go straight down, with a wall on one side and no railing on the other, so that I’m grateful they are as wide as they are. Talya and I could easily walk side-by-side without tipping off the edge. The stairs end in a dark tunnel carved from stone, not so narrow as to feel tight, but small enough for Vira’s single candle to light it easily. Even though it was late summer up above, the stairs and the tunnel are always cold.
A hundred yards along the tunnel, we reached the Gate. The Gate was a great beast of iron bars and curling decorations, cutting across the tunnel, blocking the path to anything beyond it. Vira’s candlelight didn’t reach far enough to show anything but more tunnel on the other side. There’s a lion’s head molded into the top of the Gate, and I’ve never been able to escape the feeling that it’s looking at us. I’d never seen it move, unless you count one very disturbing dream.
For fourteen years, the Gate hadn’t moved at all, not even the rational way gates are supposed to move when someone tries to open them. There wasn’t any lock visible, but the Gate simply wouldn’t shift no matter how we pushed. Not even a wobble.
Until the night in question. I already told you it was the day the Gate opened, so you won’t be surprised that Mina, the first to push, thought she felt it move. The rest of us gathered around, and the more of us who tried, the more it seemed to sway and give. Finally, when all twelve of us took hold of a bar and pushed, the gate swung neatly open, like two wings sweeping to either side.
You may not be surprised. For us, it could hardly have been more shocking if a blank wall in our bedroom had opened.