NOTE: This is an adapted excerpt from the forthcoming full-length fantasy adventure novel, The Romance of Eowain.
The Romance of Eowain:
The sun rose over the summit of Gluín, more than a thousand feet high. Fiery dawn light framed the enclosure and watchtower there.
More than a hundred Cailech-men, and as many women and children?
It wasn’t just a raid. It was a land-grab. They meant to hold the hill and the other three settlements on its compass points for their own.
Eowain’s own men had only held Drúchtmil through the quick action of the garrison at Bántobar.
If the Cailech held the hill, there would be a dangerous bulge into Droma. Horse and cattle herds in the midland hills would be easy targets.
But a fight over a mile uphill to the crest of Gluín is no easy task.
“Your Grace, we entreat you!” Crimthann Nine-Eyes, chief of Drúchtmil, was a skinny man of thirty-odd years. The leather cuirass and greaves of his father ill-fitted him.
Behind him were the chief-holders of the other thorps around Gluín Hill. They’d all been at Dúnsciath for the spring fair when the assault came, so they’d escaped injury themselves.
Their lands, however, had surely been stripped bare of treasures since the incursion began.
Lord Gwerfyl of Gluintír whispered to another lord, “Really, after the way my wife was treated, I shouldn’t be surprised.”
Eowain snapped at them. “Am I not considering the tactical situation?”
Indeed, am I not?
Eowain stroked at his chin. The enclosure and watchtower were up there for a reason. And this was the steepest side of the hill, with part of the way blocked by a six-hundred foot cliff.
The Cailech king’s own men weren’t on that hill. Only a rabble of farmers, herders, and other tribesmen, with little more than spears, clubs, and short hunting bows.
But they held the heights. Soon they’d entrench themselves.
“Their chief, Toryn the Stout?” Crimthann Nine-Eyes shook his head. “He’s a man of some reputation. With a dozen fierce companions.”
Eowain had heard only rumor of Toryn. He was like a tree-trunk, they said. And twice as tenacious when rooted.
The Cailech held the other three trail-heads and the settlements near them. He couldn’t advance up the hill along one of those trails.
But if he seized the height directly from Drúchtmil? The remaining Cailech would break and run.
By the First Hour, Eowain’s men had made little progress. The only trail up Gluín from Drúchtmil was rough and offered good footing, but narrow in many places.
The rough and rocky cliff, coated with mosses and lichens, blocked progress. While not strictly vertical, the slope was severe. While he’d certainly surprise the Cailech that way, Eowain guessed only three or four men in ten might be able to make that climb and live to see the top.
He wasn’t certain he was one of them.
Aside from the cliff, the rest of the hill was grassy, with slippery morning dew over which to advance.
He ordered his men up the Drúchtmil trail. Archers advanced point to point and offered cover to the infantry that followed.
By Third Hour, attrition had claimed its first victims.
Cailech archers used the heights to improve their range. Eowain’s men maneuvered around the base of the hill and looked for advantage.
Eowain’s own archers made the Cailech pay for their effrontery. But their range and accuracy were compromised by their lower position.
His men found an opening. From Third Hour, his sorties up the hill began to skirmish with the foe. A troop of Eowain’s men narrowly won their first engagement and drove a dozen Cailech-men up the hill.
The second skirmish stalled by mid-day. A dozen Cailech-men held a narrow way between two heights against Eowain’s troop. His sortie against their position proved inconclusive.
By Ninth Hour, the third sortie proved a decisive loss. Toryn the Stout brought the full weight of his tribesmen to bear and drove Eowain down the hill with heavy casualties.
Eowain sent away the grumbling local lords. They were alone for the first time since morning.
Lorcán, grimaced at him. “They have us in a bad position.”
Eowain examined the map of Gluín on the table in his pavilion. “Yes, brother, thank you. That’s very helpful.” Carved stones represented his troops and those of the enemy. They stood—inscrutable—on the map. Like the coelbreni, they foretold a future he couldn’t seem to read.
Behind the Scenes
This scene from The Romance of Eowain was very challenging to write and revise. There was already a lot going on tactically, with the movement of troops, and the potential hazards. The rival Cailech tribe has threatened Eowain’s kingdom in a very serious way, and at a very critical time.
There was also a lot going on politically as well in the scenes leading up to this:
- Gluin Hill is where the thorp of Gluintír is located, as well as other vulnerable settlements on Droma’s eastern frontier. The Lord Gwerfyl of Gluintír is husband to the Lady Gluintír, who insulted Lady Eithne during her visit there not a week earlier, and received a stern rebuke for her discourtesy.
- The rival tribe of the Cailech are threatening the integrity of Eowain’s kingdom and challenging his nascent administration.
- And there are suggestions earlier in the text that the Cailech may have been encouraged by Eowain’s own cousin, Tnúthgal.
There’s also a lot going on for Eowain personally. He’s been made to feel like he needs his wedding to happen, to secure his throne and the goodwill of his people. Lady Eithne’s behavior, while faultless, has left him at wit’s end regarding her own intentions toward their wedding. But every time, before he can get her answer, something intervenes.
And a clock is ticking as well. Eowain’s been informed that the wedding must take place some fifty miles distant, and in less than two weeks. In order to get himself and his wedding party to the church on time, they have to be on the road within the next two days. So the appearance of the Cailech on his eastern borders is more than inconvenient.
As you can see, this presents a number of challenges for the writing of the romance-adventure novel in terms of character development. How does one compress all of those elements into a tightly knit package that holds the reader’s attention?
First, Eowain is introduced, reacting to the plight revealed at the end of the last scene. He is set in conflict with his sub-chiefs, the lords of his tribe who live in the region. Then the appearance of a character with known anti-Eowain sympathies is featured, adding the political thread to the scene.
A new adversary is set-up: Toryn the Stout, to put a reputation on the threat ahead. And then short, staccato micro-scenes break the cardinal rule of writing: show, don’t tell. These brief paragraphs highlight everything the reader needs to know about the conflict in summary form, like a rapid-fire succession of tactical reports to Eowain himself as king and commander. A brief high-level report leaves the reader sufficiently informed to appreciate the frustration of Eowain and his brother Lórcan at the end of the day.
How do you handle important exposition without bogging down the narrative? Let me know in the Comments.