The best piece of writing advice I ever received was write the book you want to read.
The kind of books I love have a huge cast of characters, often starting in completely separate, exotic locations, whose narrative strands gradually interweave.
I think readers – of any genre – like some kind of puzzle in the story. They like figuring out where things are going to go next. One of the writer’s jobs is to give them enough information here and there, and then pull the rug out from under their feet.
If you do it too often though, you will piss them off. But if it’s all predictable, it will get boring too. This tension is one of many things you have to manage.
One of the struggles I have with this book is that I have seven main characters whose narrative strands don’t even begin to interweave until a third of the way through the book.
It’s a nice puzzle for the readers – wondering how the hell all these characters are going to meet up – or at least, it’s one I used to really enjoy. But it leads to some structural issues.
I decided to follow the template of Gone To Soldiers, where author Marge Piercy introduces one character, keeps the chapter relatively short, then moves to the next – hoping to keep them all fresh in the reader’s head.
The difficulty lies in keeping it brief enough so that the reader remembers everyone, but compelling enough so that the reader isn’t hankering after one character over another and skipping through the pages to get to the character they like, and that is something that required huge effort on each succeeding draft (of which there have been too many to count).
In Chapter One, I introduced Catalina, the feisty innkeeper’s daughter who had to handle some unwanted attention from a lecherous Spanish sailor. In Chapter Two, you met Captain Thomas Cochrane, a rebellious Scot who was tangling with both Napoleon’s navy and his conservative superiors.
Here, in Chapter Three, I introduce two further characters, Diego and Jorge. As usual, none of this has been edited, or even beta-read, so it’s probably a little rough.
Chapter Three—A Pact in Blood
In north-western Argentina, in the foothills of the Andes, settlements were remote, consisting of just one or two houses, separated by hours of hard riding. News from the outside world was rare, brought only by the occasional wayward merchant on their way to the markets of Tucuman and Salta.
Inez Ramírez de las Rozas always considered herself luckier than most. After all, she had a faithful, hard-working husband, enough animals that food wasn’t a constant worry, and two strong sons—although, in truth, only Jorge was her own. Her sister died in childbirth almost seventeen years ago, and little Diego’s father, gripped by a grief so great he couldn’t even hold his son, had abandoned him. Inez had raised Diego as her own, thankful that the Lord had seen fit to let her sister live on in this little boy.
She worried about Diego, though. There was too much of his father in him. Jorge was a good, serious boy. But Diego? His head was in the clouds. Often she would see him gazing off into the distance, lost in a world of his own making. It would get worse on the rare nights a traveler passed through. Diego would pester them from the moment they arrived. Tucuman, Salta, Buenos Aires—Diego wanted to know everything. The buildings, the clothes, the food, the mechanical contraptions; it was impossible to get the boy to sleep afterwards, as he lay there in a fevered state of excitement, imagining these exotic places. On those nights she would lie awake worrying, hearing Diego whispering to Jorge, putting crazy notions in his head.
She worried that Diego would leave one day, just like his father. It’s not that he wasn’t a hard worker, and he was as good, if not better, than Jorge with the horses. What she had come to accept was that just as Diego was given to her by the will of God, he might be taken away again. After all, someday he may wish to find his father. His real father. Her greatest fear was that Jorge would go with him—that she couldn’t accept and she didn’t care whose will it was.
She made the mistake of letting her husband, Miguel, take Diego to the market at Tucuman one spring. Miguel had hoped that seeing the noise and filth of the city would scare him a little and put some of his dreams to bed. But Diego was fascinated, plaguing Miguel with questions on the two-day ride home. She knew it would only fire the boy’s imagination, but Miguel was stubborn, especially where Diego was concerned. Sighing, she collected the last of the eggs from the chicken coop then crossed the yard to watch the two boys saddle up their horses.
“I’ll race you to the top of the hill.” Diego spurred his horse. Jorge kicked and sped after him. Miguel had sent his two boys to track down a mare that had escaped from the paddock during the night. He could have done it himself, but the boys were good riders, and he suspected they knew where the horse was anyway.
He shook his head in dismay as he watched them in the distance grappling for each other’s reins. His wife walked towards him. “Those boys,” she said, smiling.
“I heard Diego creep from his bed last night. He lets those horses out just so they can go off for the day.”
“Miguel, they are young. They need a little excitement.” She put her hand on her husband’s arm.
Miguel frowned and silently disagreed. He knew Diego was a bad influence on Jorge. He vowed to keep that boy under control.
As the sky darkened, Jorge began to worry. “Diego if we don’t find this horse soon, we are going to be in big trouble. Papa had a funny look on his face when we were leaving, I’m sure he knows what you are up to.”
Diego slowed his horse. “I haven’t lost one yet. Come on, let’s keep going.”
“Yes, but this time, you didn’t tie the rope properly. She could be anywhere.” They zigzagged their way up the steep slope.
Diego followed Jorge’s gaze across the crest of the foothills until his eyes fixed on the granite wall beyond. Sometimes when he looked at the mountains that encircled the smaller, flatter hills of his home, he could almost feel them closing in on him. Most mornings, when he went out into the yard, he swore they had inched closer in the night and he cursed them for taking another little bit of his freedom away. But on mornings like this he didn’t care; it seemed like the rolling green hills would go on forever, and he would never reach those grey mountains, no matter how fast he rode.
As they crested the hill, they spotted the black mare munching on some thick grass at the edge of the woods.
“There she is, I told you!” Diego charged down the hill, drew up beside the startled mare and dismounted. He approached her carefully, putting his arms around her neck and whispering in her ear. He picked up the end of the rope that was dangling from her neck as Jorge drew up beside him. “Next time I should bring a lamp, one of the knots must have slipped.”
“What do you mean next time?”
Diego tethered the mare to his own horse. “Are you telling me you would prefer to clean up pig shit and chop wood all day?”
“Don’t worry; I will wait a little before we do it again.”
“Two months at least, promise.”
Diego laughed as he climbed back into his saddle. “All right, I promise.”
They started the long ride back.
The two boys got a good scolding from their mother when they got home. Miguel boxed their ears and sent them to bed without any dinner, promising further punishment in the morning. Inez was more relieved than angry when she saw the two dirty shadows approach the fire. Miguel was always too hard on them, she thought, especially Diego. She promised her sister in her prayers that she would raise Diego as her own, and that is what she did. But the truth was Miguel never really got on with her sister, and had little respect for her husband, especially after he left so suddenly. She brought the boys some empañadas and made Diego swear to behave.
“You are too soft on them,” said Miguel as she returned to the fire.
“They need to eat. And why do you think Diego does it? Well?” She continued before her husband had a chance to reply. “Ever since you told him we weren’t his true parents, he has been doing everything he can to prove himself to you.”
Miguel looked up. “What are you talking about? I told him what he needed to know. He’s a man now.”
“He was only fifteen, and for the last year he has doubled his work around this place, trying everything to please you.”
Miguel poked the fire. “I don’t see what you mean. I told the boy he would still inherit half the farm.”
Inez placed her fists on her hips. There was no use talking to Miguel when he was in a mood like this. Stubborn as a burro, and smells even worse, her sister used to joke. He always closed in on himself when she brought up the subject, but she could never forget what he did to Diego that day.
In the beginning, Miguel was full of love for Diego, thankful that God had blessed their union at last, even if it wasn’t strictly their own child. But when Jorge was born almost a year later, Miguel grew cold towards Diego. It still shocked her to recall what Miguel said to him that day, or rather the way he said it. She always knew he had to be told, but surely not like that. She held Diego for hours afterward as he cried for the mother he could never know and the father he would never meet; it broke her heart. She left her husband by the fire.
Later on that night, Jorge and Diego lay awake in their room when Miguel entered with a brazier. The glowing embers lit up his face, and Jorge could see that he was still furious.
Diego sat up. “Papa, please don’t punish Jorge. It’s all my fault. I let out the horses, I convinced him to keep quiet about it.”
Miguel grabbed Diego by the arm. “I want you to stop this. I am sick of you getting my son into trouble.”
Jorge winced as he heard that, and Diego spent the night unsuccessfully stifling his sobs. He wished there were something he could do.
Two weeks later, Jorge was shaken awake from a deep but dreamless sleep. He sat up, wiping the sleep from his eyes with the back of his hands. “Before you start, I don’t care what you say, we are not letting a horse out tonight. You promised, remember?”
Diego waved away his objections. “It’s not that. I have something special to show you. Or at least, I was going to.” Diego pouted. “I’m not so sure now.”
Jorge got up. “All right then.”
The two boys slipped on their boots and overcoats and tiptoed out into the yard. At the large beech tree on the far side of the horse paddock, Diego stopped. “Close your eyes.”
“Just close them, Jorge.”
“Good. Now, I know it was your sixteenth birthday last month, and I didn’t give you anything.”
“Is that what you woke me to tell me, I knew that already,” said Jorge, still annoyed at being pulled from bed.
“No, you fool. I want to give you your present.”
After scrabbling through the undergrowth, Diego removed a piece of tattered cloth. He unwrapped it. Inside was a knife, its sharp blade glistening in the moonlight. “Feliz cumpleaños.”
Jorge turned the knife over in his hand. “It’s so heavy… it’s beautiful.”
The two boys stood in silence for a moment before Jorge sat down with his back to the trunk of the tree. He thought about his brother. His cousin, he corrected himself. It didn’t seem right that Diego wasn’t his brother anymore. He was his brother his whole life; someone can’t just take that away. It was hard for him to come to terms with, but he knew it must be harder for Diego. He had lost a lot more. He was only half listening as Diego was babbling about some story he had heard.
A plan formed. Jorge looked at Diego and then at the knife. “Do you remember the traveler who came by during the harvest?”
Diego’s face lit up. “Of course! How could I forget? Why?”
Jorge splayed his left hand. “Did you see his scar?” He took the knife from Diego. “While you and Papa were cleaning his horse, he told me about it.”
“He said it was a burn.”
“It wasn’t. He told me that him and his friend made a pact when they were young, and they sealed it by cutting their hands and mixing their blood.” Diego’s eyes widened as Jorge continued. “It means they are friends for life. Brothers. Blood brothers.”
Diego eyed the knife. “But we are already brothers.”
“Not real ones,” said Jorge, a little too quickly. “Sorry, I didn’t mean that. Listen, being blood brothers is more important and it’s forever. Come on, let’s do it?”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure. How… I mean… do I cut myself or do I cut you and you cut me?”
Jorge handed the knife to Diego. “Don’t worry. Just make a small cut here. We only need to mix a little bit and it still counts.”
Diego trembled as he held Jorge’s left hand. “Don’t blame me if it hurts.”
“I won’t, just be quick.”
Jorge winced as Diego drew the blade across his palm. “Diego, give me your hand, hurry, we have to do it before all the blood drips away. Come on, it’s not that bad.”
Diego handed him the knife and held out his left hand, closing his eyes. He stifled a scream as he felt the cool metal of the blade slice his skin. He opened his eyes, Jorge was beaming. They pressed their palms together and the warm and sticky blood mingled, binding their fate together.