This is a well-written opening. There are a few proofing errors, but not enough to quibble with, not enough to deter an agent who is engaged by the story. But will the agent be engaged? Does the submission tell them everything they need to know about the whole story, in the format they’ve requested?
Language: British English
Synopsis: The woman of Wolf Clan are cursed to birth only stillborns, unless a blood relative of the child is sacrificed during the birth. Brunhilde wrestles a tough decision as her daughter enters labour.
Brunhilde rested her head against the outside of her daughter’s hut and wondered if she could drink herself deaf. As an icy wind stirred yellow hairs free of her warrior-knot, she picked up the tankard between her knees and gave it her best effort.
Ale lathered her tongue, cold but tasteless now. The first round had been for courage. When courage wasn’t forthcoming, she drank three more for numbness. This round ran down the sides of her mouth, dampening her ill-fitting robes and chilling the scar along her poorly mended collarbone, but she did not stop until she was staring at the bottom of the tankard. It stared back, a dark eye piercing right into the heart of her cowardice.
She launched it halfway across the yard into the roost.
The crunch of feet over snow came from her left. She wiped her chin with a white sleeve as Willun came around the corner.
Her protege stood in her old armour. The padding added five years to his sixteen and gave his shoulders the width of a veteran axeman. His hair was a brown mess, though, and his eyelids had the rash of someone who had rubbed them raw.
“Mort says you called me,” he said.
She had said nothing of the sort, but if Mort doubted her resolve then he wasn’t the only one.
She brushed a dusting of snow from the cloak she sat on. “Sit.”
His smile wavered. “But Lagertha–”
“–will not lose the baby if you and I share a drink.”
Lagertha seemed to give protest with a drawn out groan.
Brunhilde watched him weigh up the mother of his child against his adoptive mother. Half his smile gave way to worry, but he eased himself onto the cloak and clutched his knees.
She kicked the empty tankards away and handed him the last full one. Not ale but mead with juniper berries; the best barrel Lagertha ever made.
“Why are you in armour?” she said.
Willun stared down into the tankard and smoothed his hair back. “My daughter will see me for the first time today. This is the nicest thing I own.”
“You fill it out well.”
He coughed up a laugh. “I’m actually wearing three shirts under this.”
Brunhilde winced as a chuckle betrayed her. She held her tongue, afraid the next words out of her mouth would tell him to flee, flee and never come back.
“I’m sorry,” he said after a fashion. “I know you think Lagertha deserves better than me.”
None better, she thought, but gods, why not anyone else?
“Why would you think that?” she said.
“She told me what happened when she gave you the news.” He drank again, deeply, as she had taught him. “She said you only nodded when she said she was with child. When she told you I was the father, you splintered your chair against a wall, took Ashakahn and disappeared into the woods for three days.”
“That was months ago.”
“And in all that time I haven’t apologised.” He unclipped a sheath on his belt and held out a dagger with a dirty ivory hilt. “I carved this for her, for the next great Valkyrie of Wolf Clan. I slew a wild boar for the hilt, offered up the best meats and the hide in sacrifice, and prayed the gods make me worthy of fathering a warrior as great as yourself.”
Brunhilde sighed. “There are no great warriors–”
“– only old ones, I know, I know. Still, it’s a cheap blade and a poor father’s gift. I was… I was hoping you’d hold onto it until the babe’s old enough to use it.”
Willun cowered under the dark look she pressed him with, but the blood in her face did not boil for him. She unknotted her fist and took the dagger. She would have smiled to reassure him, too, had not all her energy gone into keeping the tears behind her lids.
“You’ve grown into a good man, Willun.”
He sat a little straighter. “No choice. You saw the good in me… and beat the shit out of everything else.”
Lagertha’s wail covered her cough.
Brunhilde reached for an empty tankard and settled it between her thighs. She looked down at the dagger in her hands, then up to the heavens where the gods must have stared down expectantly, knowing she was too far down to reach up and throttle them. Her daughter cried again but not out of pain. As a woman of Wolf Clan, Brunhilde knew the difference. It was a cry of mourning that had stifled itself for nine months and went before her granddaughter like a storm.
It was a cry she had last heard on her own birthing bed, before Mort and her mother…
“Finish your mead.”
Willun lifted up his tankard and drank; the rim was large enough to cover his face. Brunhilde untied her warrior-knot and let her hair fall all the way down to her lap, as it should for any ritual. The gold seemed strange against her the pure white of her mother’s robes. Dirty like piss on snow.
The apple of Willun’s throat worked tirelessly as he took his last drink. With a deftness earned from three decades of slaughtering lambs, swine, and Man, she sliced the blade across the thick vein in his neck and clamped her hand over his mouth so Lagartha would not hear his gurgled scream.
He thrashed and flailed but she was larger and stronger. She locked her arm around his head and brought it down into her lap. The blood sprayed her robes in a red rain before it flowed into the tankard. Without a roof to hide her kinslaying from Willun’s ancestors, Brunhilde bent over him. Her hair fell over him like a curtain as his limbs went limp. Her only solace was that her own face was hidden too; nothing was so blessed as a Valkyrie’s blood but nothing so cursed as her tears.
Editorial comment: This author has submitted this story before to The Opening Lines, but because it was a substantial rewrite, I’ve allowed a re-submission because I think the whole process of submitting again deserves some scrutiny. Let’s get the actual opening out of the way first.
It’s well-written, if a trifle overblown (“a dark eye piercing right into the heart of her cowardice”) in parts. There are a few proofing errors, but as I said at the outset, not enough to worry an agent who really likes the voice, the premise and the story. The scene is full of drama, a girl giving birth, and the brutal slaying of the father-that-almost-was by the girl’s mother, Brunhilde.
Why am I not awarding a gold star straight off and be done with it? Because as a submission package as a whole, this has somewhat lost focus.
What does the synopsis say? It mentions this curse of the women of Wolf Clan, that their babies are stillborn unless a sacrifice is made, and goes on to add; “Brunhilde wrestles a tough decision as her daughter enters labour.” By the end of this scene, Brunhilde has made this tough decision. She sacrifices Willun, whom she likes and is also the father of her daughter’s child, so that the baby will avoid the curse. Well … what’s the rest of the book about, then? The submission instructions are clear. Describe your book in 50 words or less. You’ve described your opening. Consider the whole point of submitting to an agent. They want to know whether they can be confident about selling your book to a publisher. They can’t sell it if they don’t know what it’s about.
Your questions on this opening were: Have you started the story in the right place? I don’t know, because I don’t know what the rest of the story is. Have you written it from the right PoV? I don’t know, because I don’t know who the rest of the book is about. Do we get enough insight into the character of the protagonist? I don’t know, at this stage, if the protagonist of your book is Brunhilde, Willun (hopefully not), Lagertha or the infant (again, hopefully not), so I can’t help you.
I’m not going to reject the submission on such a “technical” fail, but neither can I give it a gold star because if this package landed in an agent’s inbox, I think they might be left nonplussed. You might be lucky. They might be intrigued enough to ask you for more, and to send them a proper synopsis, but they are used to being handed things on a plate, in the format that they have requested. You run the risk, if not complying to the letter of their submission requirements, that they reject the submission out of hand. In this case, that would be a real shame.
Thanks for posting.