The Marvelous Adventures of Sebastian Smith: The Four Finalists for the First Five Pages

Dear reader,

I’ve been diligently working (and also playing Pokemon) to try and come up with a really stellar first five pages for my first novel, The Marvelous Adventures of Sebastian Smith: To The Dragon’s Lair (Title in progress).  All in all, I’ve written about 75 total first five pages, between editing back and forth and making tweaks, and throwing the whole thing out and starting over.  But ultimately, I have come up with four possible finalists (and probably will end up blending some of them anyway).

What I need from you, my faithful supporters, is to give these four options a read and let me know what you think.  I’ve included at the END of each section what I feel like are my concerns, and also what I view as the strengths of the sections.  Some of them do reutilize paragraphs and passages, so if you are reading along and want to skip a bit, I’d understand.  Thank you!  I hope to have this edited and prepared so I can begin the great agent hunt on Monday!

Exciting times!  Hit the jump for option #1

Option #1  The Original!

RosietheRiveter

Prologue

In which a maiden is not saved

The sun was just beginning to rise when the Dragon crested the hillside.  It was an accepted fact that any maiden, offered to the Dragon, if she survived from sundown until tea time the next day, would be freed and a new, more pleasing sacrifice chosen.  You can imagine Millicent’s disappointment then when the great scaly beast came looming over the top of Hagar’s Hill.

The huge body was held aloft by great wings which looked to her as if they were two sheets of unspoiled night, preserved unharmed from the killing grasp of dawn’s first light for the specific purpose of bearing the monster to her.  It was a poetic thought, and Millicent was proud of it.  When she survived the Dragon’s visit, she resolved to become a roaming poet instead of a house wife; though she was certain the town would feel as great a sense of loss for her wanderings as they would for her death.

The Dragon, most often, was merely offered a small tribute of common items.  Once a year the signal would come that the scaly hoarder was ready for his annual donation of old furniture, excess bric-a-brac, and unwanted itchy knit sweaters.  Of course, the villagers gathered together in their finest mourning clothes and wailed over the useless trash, to be sure the Dragon thought they were offering him their very most prized possessions.  However, once in a great while, the Dragon would indicate its thirst for something more valuable than the overflowing contents of a junk drawer, and which the villagers were, in fact, rather reluctant to part with.  Sometimes the Dragon demanded a maiden.

As the Dragon streaked through the pre-dawn sky, Millicent thought it was odd that her heart was beating so hard.  It was a formality that she was out here at all. She was the mayor’s daughter, and if it hadn’t been for certain farmers (with droves of perfectly dull daughters just perfect for sacrificing) pointing out that her family hadn’t offered a maiden to the Dragon in twenty-five years, she wouldn’t be tied to a stake in the middle of a field at all.

The Dragon seemed to be getting awfully near now, and Millicent wondered just how close it could get to her in light of the extraordinary measures her father had taken to ensure the beast left her alone.  Despite the fact that the Dragon had, for the past fortnight, been ceaselessly demanding maiden sacrifices which he then ignored entirely, her father had insisted on hiring a specialist; a traveling doctor with extensive dealings in draconic physiology who had consulted the family immediately upon her selection to be sacrificed, and developed a complete plan of action designed to deter the devouring intent of any reptile great or small.

The specialist had given her every countermeasure imaginable.  She had no less than six amulets and charms designed to ward away various aspects of draconic myth, from talons to fire breath.  She was wearing a dress made of strictly died green cloth, a color which the doctor assured her father dragon eyes could not detect.  She was bound to a stake made of yaupon wood, the oil of which was said to irritate dragon scales.  She had even washed her hair, the most beautiful blonde hair in three counties, with shampoo made from vinegar, rosemary, and calf’s blood, so that any dragon noses she encountered would be stunned by her stench, and any dragon stomachs would be nauseated.

It was unfortunate for Millicent that none of these remedies would prove effective against this particular Dragon.  Indeed, I would be quiet surprised to learn they had worked against any Dragon at all, though perhaps they would prove quite effective against common garden snakes, or tree lizards.  At any rate, I could not encourage attempting any of these remedies as prevention of any kind, especially against lethal threats, particularly monstrous lethal threats.

The Dragon landed with a great rush of wind.  The ground shook beneath its sudden weight, and Millicent let out a maidenly scream in spite of her supposed invulnerability.  The sky was just changing from pale black to dark grey, but Millicent thought she could see the Dragon’s dark scales sparkling none-the-less.

The long neck snaked out, the gigantic head hovering mere feet above Millicent.  As the two great nostrils flared wide, Millicent thought very stinky thoughts.  However, the Dragon did not recoil.  It lowered its head so that its two glowing red eyes could lock onto Millicent’s own.  She tried her best to look green.  One great claw lifted up slowly, talons glittering as the sun finally crested the edge of Hagar’s hill, lighting the great Dragon from behind.  As it gently wrapped its great fist around Millicent (and the Yaupon stake), she waited for the instantaneous appearance of hives or boils or cracks or…something…on the dragon’s forearm.  And as the Dragon opened its toothy mouth wide, and Millicent saw the flames glowing in its deep throat, for the very first and last time in her life thus far, she was too stunned to think one single thought about herself.

CHAPTER 1

In which we find our hero in a rather important alley

Sebastian Smith lived in a small village, on a small island, ruled over by a small barony, in the otherwise large nation of Gregoria.  Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to have heard of Gregoria, much less the small village of Hillsbac.  And I assure you, this story spends but a few brief, if rather important moments in its dusty little streets.  But it is important for you to understand how small Sebastian’s world seemed back then, so that you can also understand why what he did seemed, back then, quite as large as it did.

Sebastian had stolen a shirt.  The shirt belonged to Roland Baker, a boy of about Sebastian’s age, but twice his meager size.  It would have, as you might imagine, looked ridiculous on Sebastian, and owing to the above mentioned smallness of the town, been quite an obvious theft had he chosen to wear the garment.  But Sebastian had not stolen the shirt to wear it.  In fact, while not often invited to join the more dangerous of traditionally male village activities (like hunting), at thirteen winters of age, Sebastian was already hard at work in the community as a cook’s boy, amateur tailor, and one day, he hoped, as a carpenter like his father before him.  He also, on particularly boring weekends, offered to help the village matron with the management of the community laundry for a few spare coins.

It is important for you to see two things out of this: The first is that Sebastian was perfectly capable of providing for his own clothing needs, and the second is that by virtue of this very productivity, he had been put in a place to procure the very ill-gotten shirt which I was telling you about a little while back.

By itself, you might have come up with any number of reasons why Sebastian had stolen the shirt; that is of course if you had noticed him as anything out of the ordinary while he was walking home with it.  However, if you had come across Sebastian in the midst of his current activity, you might have had a very different set of questions entirely.

Sebastian was sniffing the shirt. He was crouching in the moist snow, in the back alleyway between the blacksmith shop, and Mrs. Holand’s new two story family house (a gift from her husband, upon the birth of their tenth child, a house his father had overseen construction of), with the light blue, still soiled fabric of Roland’s large shirt practically jammed up his nostrils.

Now, you might have memories of sniffing in a wide variety of situations.  You might, for example, have walked into your grandmother’s house on a particularly happy holiday, and caught the smell of warm apple pie, dancing through the air and right up into your nose to tickle your nose hairs and tug at your tummy.  This is sniffing at its most effortless.

You might also have walked past your very own bathroom, after your father, or perhaps your older brother, had occupied it for a longer-than-normal span of time and tiptoed your way past the doorway, plugging up your nose with breath, hoping that the smell didn’t overpower you, but secretly testing the air to make sure the scent wasn’t following you down the hallway and into your bedroom.  This is advanced sniffing.

None of these things would adequately describe what Sebastian was doing with Roland’s shirt.  Firstly, the winter air was cold, and smells are made much duller by the cold, requiring a much more vigorous working of the nose to detect them.  Secondly, Sebastian knew that he wasn’t supposed to have the shirt, and if you think about it for a little while you will remember that never was a cookie more desperately devoured than when it was taken despite the express prohibition of your mother.  And lastly, Sebastian was in love with Roland.

These things when taken together, might have given a neutral observer, who happened upon a small Sebastian with the large shirt, cause to describe the youth’s activity more accurately as huffing.  And while I, of course, agree that I might have used the word huffing instead of sniffing all those paragraphs ago, you might not have quite understood what I meant, and more than that, it is still very early in our story, and I can take the time to lead you on these little adventures with ideas.  And you will see very shortly that we will not have as much time to spend with one another, you and I, as you will be far more interested in Sebastian and the adventures he is about to have.

It might also interest you to know that Sebastian was crying.  He was huffing and crying.  You see, Sebastian felt very bad for stealing Roland’s shirt.  In fact, more broadly, he felt very bad for loving Roland.  In Sebastian’s small village, as is true in many other larger places, it isn’t precisely permitted for a boy to be in love with another boy, especially when they were supposed to be of the age to start loving (and marrying) girls; and Sebastian was still very interested in the people in his village accepting, and in fact liking him (A prospect unlikely were they to know how he felt for Roland).

Yet Sebastian found he couldn’t help himself; with the theft or the love.  When the familiar blue garment had passed into his hands to be run down the wash rack by the town matron, he felt his heart might climb out of his throat, and quite contrary to his earnest desire to aid with the town washing, he found his hands stuffing the shirt under his own, and now, nearly an hour later, he was feeling giddy and guilty as he stole little intimate bits of Roland he really shouldn’t have; like the way the nape of his neck smelled on his shirt collar, or the odor Sebastian imagined his belly button gave off in the heat of the day.  Sebastian’s heart was aching, even though each breath caused his stomach to flutter with joy and desire.

Now, I expect at this point there are many ideas, some might even call them opinions, racing through your mind.  I think we have all felt as Sebastian felt, kneeling in that alley.  Each of us has wanted something even if we suspected it might not be good for us or would get us into trouble. Some people who feel this way will argue that Sebastian should have, like them, turned always away from the things that might have gotten him into trouble, and to have denied the truth of what he felt in his heart.  And if Sebastian had followed their advice, he would never have stolen the shirt, and as you will see, the wondrous adventures that ensued would never have come to pass.

However, there are others still who would argue that Sebastian should not have been upset by his choices at all.  That the theft of the shirt, and the love which motivated it, were not wrong in any way, no matter what the other villagers might have thought, and that Sebastian would be healthiest and happiest were he to have accepted himself just as he was, and that he should have helped others to accept themselves as well.  And those people would be right, of course, save for the fact that if Sebastian had not been slowed by guilt, and tormented by the feelings inside of him, his excitement to have procured an item belonging to the object of his love would have propelled him quite beyond the dirty alleyway, and into the relative safety of his own home, wherein he might have used the shirt to fan the embers of love in his heart into a flaming courage with which he might have finally confessed his love to Roland, and forever changed the way the small village saw people like him.

But he would never have stopped in the alleyway.  And stopping in the alleyway is, in fact, the decision which made all the difference for so many more than just the people in the small village of Hillsbac.  You might, in fact, have found it difficult to let Sebastian sit in the alley, huffing a shirt and crying, feeling quite awful about himself.  You might have wanted to make him feel better, or feel worse; to make him return the shirt, or proclaim his love.  But if he had not stayed, just as he was, caught between his love for the life he lived in his small village, and the secret longings of his heart, he would never have heard the words that started it all:

“Hey Girlie!  Give us a kiss eh?!”

Why Change It?  Basically because the Book Doctors said to change it.  Their advice was to focus more on Sebastian, and to axe Millicent as a first five pages character.  They wanted to focus entirely on the protagonist.  Of course, what I didn’t know to tell them then was that my novel is an ensemble piece, in which Sebastian is a hub, but not the protagonist, and therefore my book has many many characters in it.

What I Like:

I feel like this one is the cleanest of the three, in terms of the simplicity.  It introduces the problem of the Dragon, and also gives us a glimpse OF the Dragon, which I feel is very much a reader hook, and it doesn’t muddy the emotional impact of Sebastian with Roland’s shirt by giving a lot of needless exposition.

My Concerns:

It doesn’t show much of Sebastian.  It feels a little preachy and the narrator doesn’t feel polished.  In particular, after sitting with it a long time, I do feel like Millicent’s prologue needs to be edited to be much more engaging if it is to stand as my best foot forward.  Also, later passages that I have written as an attempt to move past this feel more vivid and precise.

Option #2  Mrs. Gelblat’s Undergirdle

The second time I've used this picture to display bullying

The second time I’ve used this picture to display bullying

CHAPTER 1

In which

The fingers of twelve year old Sebastian Smith gently grazed the stiff fabric of Mrs. Gelblat’s under-girdle.  Feeling his face flush, he strained further until he was able to barely hook his fingertips into the white lacing which would normally pull the garment tight around Mrs. Gelblat’s round stomach.  With a tremendous effort he heaved himself to the side and tugged the oversized underwear close to his chest, panting as he pressed his face into the rough shingles of the roof on which he lay.

From the ground below, Mrs. Gelblat barked, “Don’t just lay there Sebastian!  If my girdle isn’t flapping like a flag in the breeze, then get back down here!  You’ve still got to clean the rest of this mess up!”

Sebastian sighed, carefully raising himself up on his hands and knees to crawl towards the edge of the roof where he could drop down onto the balcony below.  He found the bulk of Mrs. Gelblat’s girdle made his journey down much more complicated than his climb up.  Though he found himself very frustrated with Mrs. Gelblat, not only for her large garments, but also for her ceaseless stream of comments and orders, he knew that really he had no one to blame but himself for the disaster strewn over the village square below.

In the small, seaside village in which Sebastian lived there were, in fact, a great many problems.  As the thorough reader already knows, these problems included giant fire-breathing reptiles among others.  And had you seen Sebastian, a boy of meager size, with ears that were just a little too large, and feet that were just a little too small, I imagine you might have thought he wasn’t capable of handling very many problems at all.

In fact, the other people who lived in the small, seaside village with Sebastian shared this very opinion, and as a result, Sebastian Smith was not allowed in the general vicinity of many problems at all.  He was not, for instance, permitted to go out hunting with the men as most other boys who had lived more than ten winters were.  Nor was he welcome on the swift fishing boats that cut through the waves near the docks.  He was not trained to stand watch in the high towers of the village wall, nor was he skilled with the heavy iron swords of the village guardsmen.

However, though he quite understood the reasons he was not allowed to help with so many of the problems facing his village, Sebastian still felt he should do his best to help with the problems he could solve.  It was this very thought which had caused Mrs. Gelblat’s girdle to be launched to the top of the baker’s shop in the first place, not to mention Mr. Sander’s work coat, or Mrs. Threshton’s best sun dress, or little Amelia’s patch-kneed play clothes, all of which were scattered about in equally unique and inconvenient locations around the town square.

Sebastian, as you may have guessed, had attempted to solve the problem of the village laundry.  It might seem strange to you that the village had a laundry problem, all together.  Laundry in the world you and I live in is a very personal problem, consisting of machines, and sinks, and soap.  It is a problem most often solved by mothers or fathers, and older children, or all by yourself, in homes behind closed doors.  However, in the world Sebastian lived in, laundry was still a very public problem.  In order to save time, and water, most villagers brought their clothes to the village square once a week, and a group of sturdy women and awkward young girls (as well as Sebastian), gathered together to wash all of the laundry together.

The specific problem which Sebastian had so recently, and disastrously, attempted to solve was the problem of drying.  It was a small problem really, but one that always caused at least one small argument amongst the old women in charge of making sure every family had clean clothes for the coming week.  You see, there was only one corridor down which the salty sea breeze almost always blew, which was also not darkened by the shadow of a nearby building for most of the day.  This section of street was naturally the most effective at drying clothing hung within it.  It was not nearly large enough for all of the clothes to be hung in it though, which meant that most of the clothing had to be dried either in the shady breeze or the windless sunshine.

It was nowhere near as big a problem as fire-breathing reptiles, but nevertheless, it was the problem Sebastian attempted to solve.  He had done so with great effort on his part.  Not only had he constructed a massive and complex system of rotating ropes, lashed together through rusted old pulleys salvaged from the castoff bits of ships that had long since set sail from the docks, but he had also convinced Mrs. Gelblat to allow him to attempt to solve the problem at all.  Mrs. Gelblat, who had been in charge of laundry for as long as Sebastian had been alive, had been very difficult to convince.

As he scrabbled over the open attic windowsill of the baker’s shop and into the narrow stairway which led to the floor below, trying hard to keep the white fabric of the girdle he carried from trailing in any more dust than it already had, Sebastian was certain he would never be able to convince Mrs. Gelblat to let him try anything ever again.

While concealed safely in the staircase, Sebastian tried to puzzle out what had gone so terribly wrong.  He was so sure the idea was a good one.  It had seemed so simple to him.  If the problem was that only some clothes got to be both in the sun and the breeze, the solution was to make it easy to rotate all the clothes equally through the good spot.  It seemed fair, and he thought it would make the whole process of doing laundry faster for everyone.  And at first, it had gone so well!  The clothes had started rotating into the sweet spot on their ropes just as he thought.  But then somewhere between Mrs. Thurston’s best sun dress, and Amelia’s patch-kneed play clothes, one of the garments hit a snag.  Sebastian thought it was just a little bump, and so had continued to tug valiantly on the rope, never realizing how much tension he was building, until, with a crack like a whip, the main line snapped and still damp garments exploded in every direction.

After the initial shock of the disastrous laundry upheaval, Sebastian now sorely wished that he could have prevented the sudden snort of laughter he had let out when Mrs. Gelblat had discovered her enormous girdle flapping in the wind, caught on the highest corner guttering of the baker’s shop.  But he hadn’t, and with Mrs. Gelblat’s face turning roughly the same ruddy red shade as Mrs. Tawning’s favorite blouse, Sebastian had scurried into the baker’s shop to retrieve the embarrassing garment, though he did note it was flapping directly into the sweet spot.

Though he didn’t realize it, while he was concealed in the Baker’s staircase, Sebastian had slowed his hurried pace quite a bit.  If anyone were to look at him, they might in fact of judged him to be standing still completely, huddled on the middle step of the narrow attic stairs, mostly due to the fact that he was not moving at all.  He was avoiding the awkward moment in which he had to hold Mrs. Gelblat’s underwear out to her and listen to her inevitable torrent of blistering criticism.  However, the reason he chosne to continue moving at his woefully underwhelming speed was not out of fear for Mrs. Gelblat, but because he heard the hushed voices of the baker and his assistant filtering up through the loose boards of the shop below.

“Did you hear about poor Millicent Cobblestop?”, came the furtive voice of the young baker’s assistant.  Sebastian thought his name was Brennan or Brandon or Bradley.

“Aye, boy.  I was there when the poor Thrushton boy had to give the report to the mayor himself.  Was delivering the morning pastries to Mrs. Cobblestop.  You’ve never heard such terrible girlish sobbing in all your life…”, replied the Baker, who Sebastian only knew as the Baker.

Brennan or Brandon or Bradley gasped, “Oh…was Mrs. Cobblestop there too?”

The Baker snorted, “Nay.  Twas the Mayor’s girlish sobbing I’m referring too.  But who could blame him after what poor Henry Thrushton had to report.  Twasn’t just her death…but the manner of her death…all ash and grease on the field…it’s just not right.”

Brennan or Brandon or Bradley was silent for a long moment, and then asked with a catch in his voice, “But…sir…if the Mayor set his daughter out for the Dragon to come claim…wouldn’t he have expected that sort of report from Henry?”

The Baker let out a sigh, “I suppose you’re too young to really remember how a maiden sacrifice works.  It only happens once every ten years afterall.  You were what…five the last time a maiden was offered?”

“Four, sir.  I was four winters then.”, Brennan or Brandon or Bradley said.

“Then you probably don’t know how they normally go.  If the Dragon finds the maiden…well…suitable, I suppose, then he swoops down out of the sky and grabs her in his huge claws and off he flies with her.  He’s never…uh…done the deed right there in the field.  And some years, if he flies over a few maidens and doesn’t like it, he just stops asking.”, The Baker said.

Brennan or Brandon or Bradley  asked, “You mean the Dragon Stone stops glowing?”

The sound of the Baker pulling a heavy stone plate out of the enormous oven muffled his reply to Brennan or Brandon or Bradley, and the strong smell of freshly baked bread wafted up into the attic staircase, causing Sebastian to shift with sudden hunger.  He had been listening with such rapt attention to the latest news that he had almost forgotten to breathe.  Feeling suddenly silly, he began to descend the latter half of the stairs, hearing as he reached for the door handle out into the shop itself, the Baker’s last reply, “Nay, it hasn’t so much as dimmed.  Even after charring poor Millie worse than a loaf left in the over all afternoon, the Dragon still wants another sacrifice.  This hasn’t happened ever before.  There’s a special council in two days’ time to decide what to do.  It’s the biggest problem we’ve ever had.”

Sebastian twisted the handle to the attic door and stepped out into the back room of the Bake Shop, quite disturbed by the news he had heard.  Without thinking about the way it would seem to the Baker and Brennan or Brandon or Bradley, who were completely unaware that he had heard their conversation, Sebastian walked directly out into the main room and said confidently, “I’m sure we’ll figure something out!  I mean, with all of us together, we’ve just got to!”

The Baker and Brennan or Brandon or Bradley turned to look at Sebastian, both of their hands covered in enormous fluffy looking oven mitts.  They had been in the process of transferring hot muffins into a large basket, but they stopped in their tracks, staring curiously at the small figure of Sebastian, looking very determined for a boy struggling to hold a massive girdle in his small arms.  After four very awkward moments of silence, the sturdy features of the Baker were split open by a sudden sharp barking laugh, and Brennan or Brandon or Bradley soon joined him.  By the time they stopped laughing, their guffaws were joined by the muffled sound of their oven mitted hands slapping their respective thighs.  After a long moment, The Baker stood up straight once more, leaned on the counter and slid his right hand out of its mitt which he used to smudge the tears from the corner of his eyes.  Still gasping slightly for breath he said, “Aye, young master girdle.  I do believe we will figure out something.  And we’ll be sure to tell you all about it when we do.  Especially if we need to decorate anymore streets with lady’s underthings!”

As the Baker and Brennan or Brandon or Bradley returned to their laughing, which was actually quite a relief from their earlier grim conversation, Sebastian retreated silently into the back room of the Bake Shop.  He felt very small, clutching in his hands the evidence of his laughably poor attempt to solve the village’s smallest of problems.  And now they would face the largest problem they’d ever faced, and Sebastian wanted to help too.  But the townspeople planned to solve the problem together.

Of course Sebastian knew what the Baker meant when he said together.  When the Baker said together, what he meant was the strong men of the town, and the clever women, and the brave young people.  He meant the hunters, and the sailors, and the guardsmen, and the matrons.  He didn’t mean awkward laundry boys, whose ears were slightly too large, and whose feet were slightly too small.  Together didn’t mean Sebastian.

It stung, of course, but it didn’t surprise Sebastian.  He made his shuffling way across the stock room floor, and reached the rickety wooden door into the alleyway behind the shop.  He had unconsciously twisted the white fabric of Mrs. Gelblat’s girdle into a tight knot in his fingers, and as he stepped out into the alley, still slick with late autumn snow the sun had not melted, he looked down to his throbbing fingers and tried to turn his attention back to the problem at hand, back to the problem of laundry, back to the problem of his own making.  Surely he could solve that much.

What happened then might seem very strange to you if you were only to read it, just like that.  What happened next was that Sebastian found a shirt.  Not an exciting event by itself; and one that might even be expected given the already unfortunate events surrounding clothing that had so recently occurred.  However, this shirt was one that Sebastian recognized.  It was a shirt Sebastian liked very much.  Not because of the color or the cut, but because of who it belonged to.

And suddenly, Sebastian found that he had forgotten all about the shame of his failed invention or the anger of Mrs. Gildeblat, or even the humiliation of his mocking at the hands of the Baker and Brennan or Brandon or Bradley.  Sebastian had found something which his brain very much needed at that very moment.  He had found an escape.  Leaving the shirt where it lay, atop a snowy stack of firewood, Sebastian scurried into the village square to clean up his mess as quickly as he could, returning and rewashing every last piece of exploding laundry; every last piece except one.

What I Like:

I think especially the conversation between the Baker and Brennan or Brandon or Bradley is an especially effective way of getting the reader acclimatized to Hilsbac.  I think this chapter focuses on some serious action, and is the closest to the gold-star standard of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone that I have written.  I like that it interweaves exposition and action together.

My Concerns:

I feel like I make Sebastian seem too pathetic in this chapter.  Especially his confrontation with the Baker where he is laughed at.  I fee like it states the villagers rejection too plainly and thusly removes that as something for the reader to discover later.  I also dislike that it doesn’t deal directly with Sebastian’s crush on Roland in the first chapter.  As an introduction to Sebastian, I feel like the alleyway shirt scene has always been the way I saw the audience coming upon Sebastian, and it is hard to let go of that intimate and compassionate presentation of him.  There is about one page left to add more content to this version.

Version #3  The Hybrid (IMAMONSTER!!!)

imamonster1

CHAPTER 1

In which we find our hero in a rather important alley

Sebastian Smith lived in a small village, on a small island, ruled over by a small barony, in the otherwise large nation of Gregoria.  Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to have ever heard of the large nation of Gregoria, much less the small village of Hillsbac.  And I only mention the size of these places because Hilsbac was a place where big and small were a surprisingly complicated matter.

For instance, you might never imagine the very large number of problems the very small seaside village of Hilsbac could have.  Of course, there were all the little problems you would expect of a village; gossip, and garbage, and girls.  And there were also a fair share of medium sized problems, which the small villagers in small Hilsbac felt quite large when they solved; like hunting for winter meat and organizing a complicated marketplace for passing ships, who often stopped in Hilsbac on the long journey from one end of Gregoria to the other.

Sebastian Smith, whose story I am so excited to tell you, was neither the largest nor the smallest of the villagers in Hilsbac.  He, himself, was also a complicated mix of big and small; his ears were just a little too big and his feet were just a little too small.  I imagine, had you seen him, that you might have thought he wasn’t capable of handling very many problems at all.

The other people who lived in the small, seaside village with Sebastian shared this very opinion, and as a result, Sebastian Smith was not allowed in the general vicinity of many problems at all no matter what the size.  He was not, for instance, permitted to go out hunting with the men as most other boys who had lived more than ten winters were.  Nor was he welcome on the swift fishing boats that cut through the waves near the docks.  He was not trained to stand watch in the high towers of the village wall, nor was he skilled with the heavy iron swords of the village guardsmen.

In fact, out of all the problems Hilsbac had to deal with, Sebastian was allowed to solve only his own. He was permitted, without exception, always to choose his own clothing, and to eat all of his own food.  He was allowed to bathe when he smelled, and to sleep when he was tired.  On the rare occasion of a scraped knee or a bad winter fever, Sebastian might be forced to ask for some small help, but by and large he helped the village by doing his very best to solve the only small problem they would let him solve: himself.

Of course I am telling you about the problems which Hilsbac and Sebastian had because it is a rather closely guarded secret of powerful men and women everywhere that the bigger a person you wish to be, the larger the problem you must attempt to solve.  Of course tackling big problems is not the only thing one must do to become big (there are, in fact, three things in total).  But it is important for you to understand how small the problems Sebastian was facing were, and as a result, how small his world seemed back then.  And then you will understand why what he did seemed, back then, quite as big as it did.

Sebastian had stolen a shirt.

The shirt belonged to Roland Baker, a boy of about Sebastian’s age, but twice his meager size.  It would have, as you might imagine, looked ridiculous on Sebastian, and owing to the above mentioned smallness of the town, been quite an obvious theft had he chosen to wear the garment.  But Sebastian had not stolen the shirt to wear it.  In fact, while not often invited to help with the more dangerous of traditionally male village activities (like hunting), at almost thirteen winters of age, Sebastian was already hard at work in his own way as a cook’s boy, amateur tailor, and one day, he hoped, as a carpenter like his father before him.  He also, on particularly boring weekends, offered to help the village matron with the management of the community laundry for a few spare coins.

It is important for you to notice two things out of this brief glimpse into the life of a small village boy thus far: The first is that Sebastian was perfectly capable of providing for his own clothing needs and was in fact expected to do so, and the second is that by virtue of this very pursuit, he had been put in a place to procure the ill-gotten shirt of Roland Baker, a young man who was expected by many people in the village to solve a great many problems; not simply small problems but even a fair few medium sized ones as well.

By itself, you might have come up with any number of reasons why Sebastian had stolen the shirt of Roland Baker; that is of course if you had noticed him as anything out of the ordinary while he was walking home with it.  However, if you had come across Sebastian in the midst of his current activity, you might have had a very different set of questions entirely.

Sebastian was sniffing the shirt.

He was crouching in the moist autumn snow which had fallen that afternoon, in the back alleyway between the blacksmith shop, and Mrs. Holand’s new two story family house (a gift from her husband, upon the birth of their tenth child, a house his own father had overseen construction of), with the light blue, still soiled fabric of Roland’s wadded up shirt practically smashed into his face.

Now, you might have memories of sniffing in a wide variety of situations.  You might have happy memories of the smelling warm apple pie at your grandmother’s house, or troubled memories of slinking past your own bathroom when your father or brother had occupied it for five minutes too long.

None of these things would adequately describe what Sebastian was doing with Roland’s shirt.  Firstly, the late autumn air was cold, and smells are made much duller by the cold, requiring a much more vigorous working of the nose to detect them.  Secondly, Sebastian knew that he wasn’t supposed to have the shirt, and I’m sure you’ll agree that never was a cookie more delicious than when it was stolen despite your mother’s sternest warnings.

And lastly, Sebastian was in love with Roland.

These things when taken together, might have given a neutral observer, who happened upon a small Sebastian with the large shirt, cause to describe the youth’s activity more accurately as huffing.  And while I, of course, agree that I might have used the word huffing instead of sniffing all those paragraphs ago, you might not have quite understood what I meant. More than that, it is still very early in our story, and I have the time to lead you on these little adventures with ideas.  And you will see very shortly that we will not have as much time to spend with one another, you and I, as you will be far more interested in Sebastian and the adventures he is about to have.

It might also interest you to know that at that very same moment Sebastian was crying.  He was huffing and crying.

You see, Sebastian felt very bad for stealing Roland’s shirt.  In fact, more broadly, he felt very bad for loving Roland.  In Sebastian’s small village, as is true in many other larger places, it isn’t precisely permitted for a boy to be in love with another boy, especially when they were supposed to be of the age to start loving (and marrying) girls; and Sebastian was still very interested in the people in his village accepting, and in fact liking him (A prospect made far more unlikely were they to know how he felt for Roland).

Yet Sebastian found he couldn’t help himself; with the theft or the love.  When the familiar blue garment had caught his eyes, crumpled in the washbasket atop a stack of otherwise uninteresting and equally dirty garments, he felt his heart might climb out of his throat, and quite contrary to his earnest desire to aid with the town washing, he found his hands stuffing the shirt under his own.  Now, nearly an hour later, he was feeling giddy and guilty as he stole little secret bits of Roland he knew he shouldn’t have; like the way the nape of his neck smelled on his shirt collar, or the odor Sebastian imagined his belly button gave off in the heat of the day.  Sebastian’s heart was aching with fear, even though each breath caused his stomach to flutter with joy and longing.

Contrary to what you may believe, it was not his secret love for Roland that motivated Sebastian to steal the young man’s shirt, however valuable his affections made that blue piece of cloth to him.  It was in fact a different problem entirely, the shadow of which Sebastian found terrifying and sad.  It was his desire to find some quiet way of dealing with his own sadness and fear, problems which you may recall he was allowed and even expected to solve, which drove him to snatch Roland’s shirt.  He was seeking in that fleeting and desperate moment to bring himself some comfort in the dark days which had now come to Hilsbac.

You see, far and away the very biggest problem the very smallest village of Hilsbac faced was not commerce, or cooking, or even cancer.  No, their biggest problem most certainly did not begin with the letter C, or any of the letters before it.  To find their very biggest problem, you would have to move just one letter further in the alphabet so that you could spell the word Dragon.  Or as the villagers of Hilsbac sometimes referred to it, the D-word.

I want you to understand, dear reader, that I mean exactly what I say when I say Dragon.  In the world in which you and I live, dragon is a word very often used to describe something terrible and unknown.  On particularly old maps the phrase “Here there be Dragons” was used to describe the presence of strange beasts like Elephants, and Whales, and the North American Pygmy Ocelot (now extinct of course, but whose cry was remarkably hideous, especially at night).  Our world long ago ceased to be a home for real Dragons.

The people of Hilsbac, on the other hand, shared their small island with a very real, very large winged fire-breathing reptile.  Their world, like ours, was quickly becoming a place where fantastic things happened less and less frequently.  But the Dragon which made his home in the coastal mountains near Hilsbac was particularly stubborn and simply refused to fade into legend.  While he was truly a fearsome monster to encounter, he had not chosen to force the people of Hilsbac off his island. Instead, by using a rather ingenious system involving a magical stone and a color based communication code, the great flaming tyrant had elected to demand a yearly tribute from his small fleshy neighbors.

The Dragon, most often, was merely offered a small tribute of common items.  Once a year the signal would come that the great scaly hoarder was ready for his annual donation of old furniture, excess bric-a-brac, and unwanted itchy knit sweaters.  Of course, the villagers gathered together in their finest mourning clothes and wailed over the useless trash, to be sure the Dragon thought they were offering him their very most prized possessions.  However, once in a great while, the Dragon would indicate its thirst for something more valuable than the overflowing contents of a junk drawer, and which the villagers were, in fact, rather reluctant to part with.

Sometimes the Dragon demanded a maiden.

Most recently the maiden who had been offered in response to the Dragon’s demands was none other than Millicent Cobblestop, the mayor Harold Cobblestop’s eldest daughter, and the closest thing to a real princess the town of Hilsbac had.  With her long blonde hair and high chirping voice, she was like a golden songbird flitting about the small village streets, bringing beauty wherever she went.  And, at least in so much as Sebastian had ever seen, also cutting complaints and fury.  Yes, Sebastian thought of Millicent Cobblestop as a very beautiful, very angry golden bird.

Yet even though he could never remember her uttering a kind sound in his direction (which was really quite an achievement given how often sound was coming out of Millicent), Sebastian still didn’t think that she deserved the fate which had befallen her.

As he took another shameful sniffle into Roland’s stolen shirt, Sebastian tried hard not to think about those three days between the time of Millicent’s shocking selection as the village tribute, and her slow somber procession out of the village gates and into the field at the base of Hagar’s Hill (where all sacrifices, garbage or girls, were placed).  Everytime he did, he felt a sick knot form in his stomach.

At the time, no one expected anything bad to happen to Millicent Cobblestop.  It didn’t stop her father from hiring a foreign specialist to help dragonproof his daughter, but the truth was that no maiden sacrifice had been actually taken by the Dragon for as long as anyone could remember.  Of course it didn’t stop the experience from being terrifying for the girls and their families, but in the back of their mind, everyone including Sebastian, had thought that the worst thing to come from Millicent being offered to the Dragon was the excess complaining about the weather she was likely to do after spending a night in the field exposed to it.

Then came the awful morning after, when the poor young scout who was assigned to observe the sacrifice came hollering through the village gates, so shaken he could barely stand as he choked out the news that Millicent Cobblestop was now nothing but a stain of grease and ash on the meadow.  And the very worst part of all was that the Dragon’s magic stone still glowed a bright red.  The Dragon was demanding a second maiden.

Sebastian had secretly climbed the village wall that very same afternoon, peering fearfully into the far distance, imagining he could just barely make out a dark gray stain on the otherwise green horizon.  He felt like the dark spot was looking at him, accusing him of being everything he was afraid he was: small, weak, and cowardly.

Though he knew in his mind that no one in the village would blame him for being unable to save Millicent, and would have been shocked if he had even tried, Sebastian still felt a secret responsibility for having done nothing to help.  In fact, Sebastian wanted nothing more than to be known as a problem solver.  Now, with the village facing a second, and far more terrifying sacrifice, Sebastian felt miserably powerless.

When he had climbed down the wall, a dark shadow fell over his heart.  It followed him everywhere, through the numb hours that followed in which Sebastian went about business as usual, unsure what else he could do.  Until he had come upon that fateful shirt.  The shirt of Roland Baker.  The shirt of a boy Sebastian earnestly believed could do anything, who was everything Sebastian wished he was.

Now as he desperately sniffed the dirty shirt of the boy he loved, Sebastian tried to focus on how excited he felt to be so close to Roland, and to use that smell to forget all about the big problems of the village, and his very small part in them.  Each desperate whiff made him think of another reason why he loved Roland; his courage, his strength, his kindness.  He tried to make his world so small there was only room for his nose and Roland.  No maidens and no dragons.  Only his secret love.  Of course what Sebastian didn’t know then was that it is impossible to feel love without also feeling hope.  And though his mind was very confused, his nose knew that hope was exactly the cure he needed.

I think that all of us can understand the way Sebastian was feeling at that time.   Each of us has wanted something even if we suspected it might not be good for us or would get us into trouble. Especially when we are sad or afraid.  There are some people who feel that temptation is better ignored will argue that Sebastian should have, like them, turned always away from the things that might have gotten him into trouble, and to have denied the truth of what he felt in his heart.  And if Sebastian had followed their advice, he would never have stolen the shirt, and as you will see, the wondrous adventures that ensued would never have come to pass.

However, there are others still who would argue that Sebastian should not have been upset by his choices at all.  That the theft of the shirt, and the love which motivated it, were not wrong in any way, no matter what the other villagers might have thought, and that Sebastian would be healthiest and happiest were he to have accepted himself just as he was, and that he should have helped others to accept themselves as well.  And those people would be right, of course, save for the fact that if Sebastian had not been slowed by guilt, and tormented by the feelings inside of him, his excitement to have procured an item belonging to the object of his love would have propelled him quite beyond the dirty alleyway, and into the relative safety of his own home.

But he would never have stopped in the alleyway.

And stopping in the alleyway is, in fact, the decision which made all the difference for so many more than just the people in the small village of Hillsbac.  You might, in fact, have found it difficult to let Sebastian sit in the alley, huffing a shirt and crying, feeling quite awful about himself.  You might have wanted to make him feel better, or feel worse; to make him return the shirt, or proclaim his love.  But if he had not stayed, just as he was, caught between his love for the life he lived in his small village, and the secret longings of his heart, he would never have heard the words that started it all:

“Hey Girlie!  Give us a kiss eh?!”

Why I like It:

This version, I feel like, most clearly sets up the interesting world of Hilsbac.  I like the first bits about big vs small, and I enjoy some of my discussion of what Sebastian is and is not allowed to do.

My Concerns:

I feel like this delves TOO deeply into Sebastian’s mind about the recent unpleasantness.  I think it takes away the punch of Sebastian having stolen Roland’s shirt, if he did so to take his mind off of Millicent.  And I felt those two narratives clawing at each other as I wrote.  They don’t feel well blended here, and as a result, the pure and simple emotional punch of a little gay kid feeling bad about himself in an alley for liking another boy is kind of diluted by the larger problem.  The whole idea is that Sebastian’s self-loathing is what had him stop in the alley so he could get swept up in things, and this version feels like it doesn’t keep that clearly in focus.

Version #4  Just give us Chapter 2 already!

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CHAPTER 1

In which we find our hero in a rather important alley

Sebastian Smith lived in a small village, on a small island, ruled over by a small barony, in the otherwise large nation of Gregoria.  Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to have heard of Gregoria, much less the small village of Hillsbac.  And I assure you, this story spends but a few brief, if rather important moments in its dusty little streets.  But it is important for you to understand how small Sebastian’s world seemed back then, so that you can also understand why what he did seemed, back then, quite as large as it did.

Sebastian had stolen a shirt.  The shirt belonged to Roland Baker, a boy of about Sebastian’s age, but twice his meager size.  It would have, as you might imagine, looked ridiculous on Sebastian, and owing to the above mentioned smallness of the town, been quite an obvious theft had he chosen to wear the garment.  But Sebastian had not stolen the shirt to wear it.  In fact, while not often invited to join the more dangerous of traditionally male village activities (like hunting), at thirteen winters of age, Sebastian was already hard at work in the community as a cook’s boy, amateur tailor, and one day, he hoped, as a carpenter like his father before him.  He also, on particularly boring weekends, offered to help the village matron with the management of the community laundry for a few spare coins.

It is important for you to see two things out of this: The first is that Sebastian was perfectly capable of providing for his own clothing needs, and the second is that by virtue of this very productivity, he had been put in a place to procure the very ill-gotten shirt which I was telling you about a little while back.

By itself, you might have come up with any number of reasons why Sebastian had stolen the shirt; that is of course if you had noticed him as anything out of the ordinary while he was walking home with it.  However, if you had come across Sebastian in the midst of his current activity, you might have had a very different set of questions entirely.

Sebastian was sniffing the shirt. He was crouching in the moist snow, in the back alleyway between the blacksmith shop, and Mrs. Holand’s new two story family house (a gift from her husband, upon the birth of their tenth child, a house his father had overseen construction of), with the light blue, still soiled fabric of Roland’s large shirt practically jammed up his nostrils.

Now, you might have memories of sniffing in a wide variety of situations.  You might, for example, have walked into your grandmother’s house on a particularly happy holiday, and caught the smell of warm apple pie, dancing through the air and right up into your nose to tickle your nose hairs and tug at your tummy.  This is sniffing at its most effortless.

You might also have walked past your very own bathroom, after your father, or perhaps your older brother, had occupied it for a longer-than-normal span of time and tiptoed your way past the doorway, plugging up your nose with breath, hoping that the smell didn’t overpower you, but secretly testing the air to make sure the scent wasn’t following you down the hallway and into your bedroom.  This is advanced sniffing.

None of these things would adequately describe what Sebastian was doing with Roland’s shirt.  Firstly, the winter air was cold, and smells are made much duller by the cold, requiring a much more vigorous working of the nose to detect them.  Secondly, Sebastian knew that he wasn’t supposed to have the shirt, and if you think about it for a little while you will remember that never was a cookie more desperately devoured than when it was taken despite the express prohibition of your mother.  And lastly, Sebastian was in love with Roland.

These things when taken together, might have given a neutral observer, who happened upon a small Sebastian with the large shirt, cause to describe the youth’s activity more accurately as huffing.  And while I, of course, agree that I might have used the word huffing instead of sniffing all those paragraphs ago, you might not have quite understood what I meant, and more than that, it is still very early in our story, and I can take the time to lead you on these little adventures with ideas.  And you will see very shortly that we will not have as much time to spend with one another, you and I, as you will be far more interested in Sebastian and the adventures he is about to have.

It might also interest you to know that Sebastian was crying.  He was huffing and crying.  You see, Sebastian felt very bad for stealing Roland’s shirt.  In fact, more broadly, he felt very bad for loving Roland.  In Sebastian’s small village, as is true in many other larger places, it isn’t precisely permitted for a boy to be in love with another boy, especially when they were supposed to be of the age to start loving (and marrying) girls; and Sebastian was still very interested in the people in his village accepting, and in fact liking him (A prospect unlikely were they to know how he felt for Roland).

Yet Sebastian found he couldn’t help himself; with the theft or the love.  When the familiar blue garment had passed into his hands to be run down the wash rack by the town matron, he felt his heart might climb out of his throat, and quite contrary to his earnest desire to aid with the town washing, he found his hands stuffing the shirt under his own, and now, nearly an hour later, he was feeling giddy and guilty as he stole little intimate bits of Roland he really shouldn’t have; like the way the nape of his neck smelled on his shirt collar, or the odor Sebastian imagined his belly button gave off in the heat of the day.  Sebastian’s heart was aching, even though each breath caused his stomach to flutter with joy and desire.

Now, I expect at this point there are many ideas, some might even call them opinions, racing through your mind.  I think we have all felt as Sebastian felt, kneeling in that alley.  Each of us has wanted something even if we suspected it might not be good for us or would get us into trouble. Some people who feel this way will argue that Sebastian should have, like them, turned always away from the things that might have gotten him into trouble, and to have denied the truth of what he felt in his heart.  And if Sebastian had followed their advice, he would never have stolen the shirt, and as you will see, the wondrous adventures that ensued would never have come to pass.

However, there are others still who would argue that Sebastian should not have been upset by his choices at all.  That the theft of the shirt, and the love which motivated it, were not wrong in any way, no matter what the other villagers might have thought, and that Sebastian would be healthiest and happiest were he to have accepted himself just as he was, and that he should have helped others to accept themselves as well.  And those people would be right, of course, save for the fact that if Sebastian had not been slowed by guilt, and tormented by the feelings inside of him, his excitement to have procured an item belonging to the object of his love would have propelled him quite beyond the dirty alleyway, and into the relative safety of his own home, wherein he might have used the shirt to fan the embers of love in his heart into a flaming courage with which he might have finally confessed his love to Roland, and forever changed the way the small village saw people like him.

But he would never have stopped in the alleyway.  And stopping in the alleyway is, in fact, the decision which made all the difference for so many more than just the people in the small village of Hillsbac.  You might, in fact, have found it difficult to let Sebastian sit in the alley, huffing a shirt and crying, feeling quite awful about himself.  You might have wanted to make him feel better, or feel worse; to make him return the shirt, or proclaim his love.  But if he had not stayed, just as he was, caught between his love for the life he lived in his small village, and the secret longings of his heart, he would never have heard the words that started it all:

“Hey Girlie!  Give us a kiss eh?!”

CHAPTER 2

In which Chickens come up at the oddest times

“Hey Girlie!  Give us a kiss eh?!”

Sebastian’s heart froze in his chest, the moist fabric still pressed incriminatingly to his face.  He waited for the first blows to come, sure that the familiar voice of the town’s most notorious childhood tormentor, Gregor Tailor, was aimed at him.  However, a second voice, tainted with all the same fear that was bubbling up in Sebastian (and more) answered before he could move.

“No!  You stay away from me!”

It was the voice of a young woman.  Not one that Sebastian recognized.  A third voice, one belonging to another of Gregor’s kind, barked.

“You ain’t goin’ anywhere Girlie!  You heard the man!  Give us a kiss!”

Gregor spoke up again.

“Yea, its ‘cause of your stupid master we got ourselves one less set of pretty girl lips in this town.  So I reckon your lips are gonna have to make up her fair share, ain’t that right boys?”

A chorus of teenaged male voices, edged with excitement, like young wolves, starved too long and circling a helpless rabbit, echoed in the alleyway just around the bend.  Sebastian swallowed the lump in his throat, forcing his heart back down into his chest.

“No!  It isn’t our fault!  We had no idea that girl would die!  The Professor’s remedies…”

The girl’s words were cut short by the dull slap of Gregor’s meaty hand making contact with flesh, most likely on the unknown female’s face.  Sebastian heard a body crush the snow as it fell.  Gregor’s voice was lower now, tinged with genuine anger.

“Her name was Millicent. Millicent Cobblestop.  She was the most beautiful girl in the whole town, and I was gonna make her my wife.  Now she’s just ash on the meadow. And your Professor’s gonna hang for it.”

“No, I…”

A second blow rang out.

“And you thought you could just sneak off like nothing ever happened, eh?  Figured no one would care that the girl who fed, and cleaned, and cared for that murderer was popping off without even a slap on the wrist?  Well I don’t think me and the boys can stand for that!”

A third dull slapping was joined by a pained female yelp.

And then a strange thing happened.  Sebastian, who mere moments before had thought that his life would end over another boy’s pilfered laundry, forgot completely about himself.  He forgot about Roland.  He forgot about his plan to sneak the shirt into next week’s laundry so no one would suspect it was missing.  He forgot about the cover story he would tell his father in case he was asked about the strange garment.  He forgot about his fantasies of one day feeling Roland wrap his arms around him and really mean it, like Sebastian meant it.  Sebastian had quite forgotten that he was ever afraid for himself at all.  All that Sebastian could feel now was a tiny glowing warmth in his belly; the kind of heat which threatened at any instant to force its way up his throat like fire up a chimney.  He slipped only once in the melted snow beneath his knees, as he sprang to his feet and launched around the corner, into the middle of six large boys and one scared girl, and hollered at the top of his lungs.

“Leave her alone!”

No one said anything for what seemed like hours.  Sebastian shuffled until he was standing over the collapsed girl, staring up into Gregor’s stunned face, small fists clenched by his waist, breath coming in short puffs of steam.  Gregor’s sudden laughter punched Sebastian in the stomach.

“Sebastian?  Is that…little Basty?  Little Basty-wasty come to save the princess?  Are you seeing this boys?  You gotta death wish Basty?”

Sebastian could feel his face starting to burn red as the others began their familiar jeering.  When he spoke next his voice cracked.

“Just leave her alone ok?  She didn’t do anything!”

Gregor shoved Sebastian, but he didn’t fall.  The bully looked surprised.

“Didn’t do anything?  If she hadn’t taken care of the lying scum bag, we’d still have Milly!  You think we’re gonna just let her walk away?!”

Gregor shoved Sebastian again, harder now; hard enough that he fell to one knee.

Sebastian felt the hand of the girl below touch his calf.

“Don’t worry kid.  Just go.”

Sebastian looked down to see the young assistant to the mayor’s “specialist”.  He brown eyes were dark with despair.  Sebastian felt his jaw tighten as he stood back up.

“I’m not gonna leave you.”

Gregor snorted and spoke in a mocking sing-song voice.

“Oh I’m not gonna leave you.  I’m Sebastian! I’ll shield you with my big strong muscles!”

Sebastian was shoved again, and this time second pair of hands joined.

“Except you haven’t got any muscles huh?  Why don’t you just go crawl back into a laundry basket!”

Sebastian balled his small hand into a fist and took a wild swing.  He felt a strong hand close around his wrist, as an even larger hand closed around his throat, lifting him up.  He was nose to nose with Gregor now, who looked so much more dangerous now than he ever had before.  The town’s rage and grief at losing Millicent to the dragon’s fiery wrath burned bright in his eyes.  He sneered.

“Look at you.  You look like you’ve been crying already!  What’d you do?  Crawl into the alley to cry about Milly?  You’re what’s wrong with this whole stinkin’ village.  Softies like you that won’t do what’s right!  Well me and the boys are doing what’s right here.  We’re gonna make sure Milly’s murderers come to justice…all of them.”

Sebastian coughed, struggling to speak through his constricted throat, the tips of his toes barely grazing the ground now.

“What’s right?  Beating…up…a girl?  I thought it was…the Dragon…killed Milly.  Don’t…see you…and the boys…doing anything about that…eh…Greggie…poo.”

The last word barely hissed out of Sebastian’s throat as a low sound like a growl had started to come from Gregor the more the smaller boy spoke, until finally, Gregor turned from the crouching girl to throw Sebastian into the alley wall, hollering as he began to thrash his limbs at Sebastian’s now crumpled body.

“You shut up!  You don’t know anything!  You’re just a stupid, worthless pansy boy!  You’re an embarrassment to this village AND your father, and I’m gonna teach you your place when you are talking to a man!”

As Gregor hollered his insults at Sebastian he continued striking him with fists and feet, over and over.  Sebastian could only think to make himself smaller now, and perhaps, that was ultimately what gave him those precious moments he needed.  If he hadn’t curled just as small as he had, Gregor might never have aimed a particularly vicious punch at the smaller boy’s head, only to catch the sturdy stones of the blacksmith’s shop instead.  He staggered back with a howl like a hurt animal, and fell onto his backside in the snow.  It was the absence of the girl’s fallen body that truly startled the raging bully though.  Still cradling his hand, he rolled to his knees, following the frantic footprints left by the intended victim of his rage as they disappeared out of the alley.  He cursed out loud and turned back to the still curled body of Sebastian, and spit on the ground.

“Well what’s the matter you lot?!  Do I have to do it all?!  Teach that limp-wrist a lesson!”

The seething teenage rage and excitement boiled over in the other boys then, unleashed by the single phrase from their bruised ring leader.  They moved as a single creature, intent on tearing Sebastian apart for his insolence, and in vengeance for the escaped prey they would likely never catch again.

But, as you might have guessed by now, though things seemed to be going very poorly to Sebastian, who was silently counting his teeth with his tongue in an effort to distract himself from the pain of his impending death, they were actually happening in exactly the right way.  For had Gregor not paused for the pain in his hand, the beating which had only just started, might have been much further along, and the figure that entered the alley might have come upon a very different story.

But as it was, the long walking stick clicked on the stones behind the group of rowdy boys just as they lunged for Sebastian.  A kick or two might have landed, but the sharp elderly voice of the man froze each and every body into the alleyway in its tracks.

“What!”

The stillness that followed hung like a spell in the air.  Sebastian opened one eye, spying a strange figure whose billowing ragged clothing seemed to entirely fill the entrance to the alleyway.  He didn’t realize he was holding his breath until the man spoke again and he found air rushing into his lungs.

“…in the world are you doing?”

The first word had sounded monstrous and loud, like all the sound in the world striking the boys in their chests.  But the end of the question sounded like it belonged to the hunched old man, frail and perhaps a little confused, who now hobbled further into the alley, and into the group of frozen ruffians.

The group seemed mesmerized by the soft scuffling sound the old man’s uncertain steps made in the snow.  As Sebastian watched, still crouched in fear, the strange intruder slowly parted the bodies of the older boys with the end of his walking stick, and stood before Sebastian, who recognized him, all at once, as if cold water had been splashed upon a dreamer.

“Graybeard the Peddler!”

The craggy face of the old man was festooned with a wild sprig of gray whiskers from which the old man drew his name.  Graybeard, though of course you wouldn’t know him, was known by many more people than you might imagine.  He travelled from town to town, through much of the kingdom of Gregoria, selling various trinkets and supplies to the villages and towns he came across.  He was also known to be a most excellent story teller, and children who had never met him in their short lifetimes were sure to know him, if only by reputation of his tales among their peers.

Sebastian was startled then, as you might have been, when Graybeard’s walking stick quickly jabbed him in the thigh and the old man snorted.

“He looks scrawny, don’t he boys?  Back in my day, we would’ve called him a sissy, a jenny.  Knew a girl named Jenny once.  Lovely girl.  Unfortunate name, but her parents were old fashioned.  Of course, she murdered chickens so it never would’ve worked.  Chickens are nature’s purely innocent creatures.  Now wait…where was I?  Oh!  Lookie here.  He’s scrawny, ain’t he boys?  Why…he looks like a jenny to me!”

Sebastian made a small choking sound, and recoiled from the old peddler whose ramblings were, if anything, more alarming than the beatings he had only recently endured.

However, the ranting by the little old man had a strange effect on the other boys, whose rage and exhilaration seemed to get as tangled up inside them as Graybeard’s own words.  By the time he had finished, each of them was clasping their hands behind their back or digging the toe of one boot into the snow.  Gregor stood slowly, his eyes now hooded by guilt.  He cleared his throat.

“Ah..we were just…uh…we were just…listen, uh, maybe we got a little out of hand.  We…we should go.”

Graybeard reached out and gently patted Gregor on the shoulder, nodding his head in a most amiable way.

“Yes, son.  Never trust a rooster with a blue feather.  Just remember that, and you should be fine.”

A chorus of murmurs accompanied the single minded exodus of the once vicious gang, who now slunk from the alleyway like dogs with their tails between their legs.  Only once the last footsteps faded did Sebastian slowly stretch out from the tight ball he was curled into, cautiously using the wall to stand, testing each movement for injury.

The soft touch of the peddler’s hand on his shoulder brought Sebastian’s eyes up to meet Graybeard’s own.  There was something strange and deep in them that frightened Sebastian for only a moment and then Graybeard clapped him on the shoulder with surprising strength.

“Of course, you are quite right Sebastian Smith.  Quite right indeed.  It WAS the dragon that murdered Milly.”

Why I like It:

I just subtracted Millicent, and added Gregor to the original.  I think it elegantly shows Sebastian’s desire to save others, and it introduces the really complex emotional landscape of the village.  I particularly like Sebastian mouthing off to Gregor even when he is about to get beat up.  That is a quintessential element of Sebastian’s character

My Concerns:

I feel like this version doesn’t have a lot of the polish of later versions.  It doesn’t set up Hilsbac as well (leaving that work to do later), and it doesn’t give a good context for who Gregor and his gang are beating up in the alley.  Also, we miss Millicent entirely until later, and the Dragon is hardly mentioned at all.  I’m afraid this version lacks the punch to carry young readers through to the next chapters.

That’s all folks!  Lemme know what you think, either on Facebook or in the comments below!

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