What I’m referring to is AWARENESS of your surroundings, heightened senses. Ever feel someone staring at you, turn around and well, see someone staring at you? Ever finish another person’s sentence? Ever know who’s calling when the phone rings before you check the caller ID? Ever know it’s going to rain when you wake up on a sunny morning and by mid-afternoon it’s pouring sideways? Ever feel not-quite-right, not sick but not-quite-right, then go in to a doctor and find out there is a problem? Any really spooky variations of not wanting to get on that plane, making an excuse to be late and miss it, then it crashes?
Cops and military scouts, Special Forces and covert operatives survive by listening to that inner warning radar. Bob Mayer mentioned that celebrities are told, “If you feel nervous and twitchy, like someone’s watching you, pay attention. You’re probably being stalked.” Ever go on a blind date or meet someone that just made you uncomfortable, that gave you the creeps? Even if they looked perfectly ordinary and harmless? I’m surprised when I look at serial killer photos how plain and average and unremarkable they look. Their neighbors always say, “He was such a quiet boy.”
Yeah, quiet like quicksand.
I love the Firefly episode “Out of Gas” which shows all the characters’ first meeting with the captain and Zoe. When they met their pilot Wash, Mal asked Zoe what she thought. Her response: “He bothers me.” Mal asked for clarification, given Wash’s glowing recommendations, and all Zoe could say was, “I don’t know. Something.” Mal scoffs but Zoe sticks to her guns. “He bothers me.” (Wash and Zoe end up married. AWARENESS.)
You feel a tingle. They hair on your neck and arms stands up. Your heart starts to pound. You breathe faster. Your eyes dilate. Your muscles quiver. Anticipation. Awareness. Adrenaline pouring in. Fight or flight.
It doesn’t have to be as extreme as a verifiable threat, as in peril. Chemistry and sparks fall into this category. When your heroine meets your hero for the first time, she should feel threatened and uneasy. He threatens her status quo. Most of us like ordinary, predictable. It’s comfortable. Most of us would hesitate when someone threatens to rock our little world. It’s an unknown. It’s not predictable or controllable. Awareness. Attraction but . . .
Only a madman or a fool (or an adrenaline junkie) would rush headlong into danger without pausing. Most heroes don’t go looking for danger, let alone run toward it. They find themselves in a situation, they scope it out, they deal with it. They react afterward.
In your novel, hero and heroine meet. Awareness, threat. Maybe they flee the first time, or two. They “rub each other the wrong way.” But eventually the have to stand their ground. They investigate the threat, they “scope out the situation” and get to know each other. On one level it diffuses the threat, but heightens awareness and chemistry. They’re safe on an external level (heroine decides hero is not a serial killer) but he still threatens her emotional self. He “rocks her world” and suddenly nothing is certain anymore.
There’s the backbone of your story.
It’s not finding the killer or saving the president or crowning the true queen. It’s not plot.
It’s character. It’s chemistry. It’s awareness. It’s the courage to meet the threat.
It gives you the writer the opportunity to “skinwalk”, to put on your character, become your character. If you don’t shiver when you meet your hero’s eyes across that crowded ballroom, if your gut doesn’t tighten, you have a problem. You have to ramp up the danger. You have to know your heroine well. I don’t mean favorite color, I mean secrets fears and dreams. You have to find the type of hero that would be most threatening to your heroine.
In HEDDA’S SWORD, when Maleta and Cianan meet in Chapter 2, we have awareness, attraction, threat, and flight. Maleta starts out status quo:
Entering the Broken Blade, Maleta let her eyes adjust and scanned the flickering shadows for Black Wolf breastplates. No sign of her contact yet. The heat from the fireplace and smoking torches felt like a furnace after the breath-stealing cold night outside. Wood smoke, pipe smoke and the scent of burning tallow tickled her nose and stung her eyes. Wearied to the bone, she rolled her bandaged shoulder, testing the repair to her quilted jerkin.
It had been slashed in her strike against the late, unlamented Dealer, Rigel. The combined monies of the bounty and what Rigel himself had carried would hold Mother Tam and Nerthus’ Abbey for several weeks. It still amazed her that a peaceful goddess like Nerthus, Goddess of Family, of Hearth and Home, would deal with Hedda’s Own. Hedda’s assassin.
She reached up to squeeze the rainwater out of her short hair. It was almost long enough to curl around her fingers. Time to cut it. It would never again be used as a weapon against her. Thoughts of rough hands tangled in her once-long hair flooded her mind, making her skin crawl. She banished the images to her nightmares, away from the here-and-now where she needed all her wits about her.
She sat in a corner, her back to the soot-stained wall so she could see both exits. She tested the sticky wooden table; it wobbled. With effort, she could tip it over if someone attempted to trap her, but it was sturdy enough to shield her should she need cover.
She wrapped herself tighter in the gray woolen cloak she’d worn over her usual attire of tunic, breeches and boots. She’d hidden her setting-sun breastplate in a safe place, and her broadsword as well. Both were made of gleaming Goddess-metal, impervious to rust and the elements. If any here discovered her association with Hedda, the Great Equalizer, she’d be lucky to escape with her life. None but her prey and those she rescued knew Maleta’s true identity as Hedda’s Own. The former were dead. The latter owed her their lives and would take her secret to their graves.
Her close-cropped hair, blackened eye and scarred cheek were all dead giveaways to the other mercs in the room of her own shield-maiden status.
Enter Cianan, a warrior-priest for the Goddess of Light:
The door flung open, and three more men entered with the wind. “Heyla, Cary,” the tallest one called to the barkeep. “Any hot cider left?”
“Still whinin’ ‘bout th’ cold, pup?” Cary poured three dippers of steaming cider into a tankard, sliding it down the bar. “Ye ain’t e’en seen cold yet.”
The men in the room laughed, a sound of camaraderie, not mockery. Maleta stared at the newcomer. His aura was different from his companions. The shining gold of a pure soul was blinding in the surrounding darkness. That’s all she needed! What was a paladin doing in a place like this?
His head snapped around as if he could feel her probe. She cursed her curiosity as his piercing cobalt gaze locked with hers. Something shifted in his appearance, a mask of the mind that she couldn’t see past. Almost as if her eyes saw one thing and her mind another. Meal or nay, now that she had the information she sought, she should move on.
Too late. He strode toward her with the fluid swing of a lifelong horseman, tankard cradled in both hands as if warming them. The body of a sinner on a saint. Her breath caught in her throat. As he approached, she realized how tall he was. There were few men who could look her in the eye. She would come up to this man’s chin.
Goawaygoawaygoaway. She tensed as he stopped just on the other side of the table. Unable to tear her gaze from the unwavering intensity of his, she trembled as his scent, like fresh-cut fir boughs with a warm hint of musk, surrounded her. Who was this man? Trouble, that’s what he was. In more than the obvious. Why was he singling her out?
“Heyla, shield-maiden,” he began in a voice as rich and smooth as rare Drenieval whiskey. The underlying lethal heat in his voice could rob the unwary of their senses. “I have not seen you here afore.” He held out a hand. “My name is Cianan.”
She eyed that hand, unwilling to touch him, sensing it would give him too much knowledge, too much power. Long musician’s fingers, with an archer’s calluses on the first two. Even without their hands touching, the Truth of his name pierced the shadows around her soul, the shadows of lies and pretext that were her new identity. She stared up at him, helpless not to.
Those eyes drew her in, promising things she couldn’t even comprehend. They were not the eyes of a saint. Too blue, too knowing. Long raven hair glinted blue-black in the firelight. Foreign accent, not one she recognized, with a lilt she couldn’t place. Charm she trusted not at all. She focused on slowing her pounding heart, forced herself to breathe. “What d’you want?”
His lips quirked in a smile. “Many things, lady, but I would begin with your name.”
“And why should I be givin’ that out?”
He just smiled, but his eyes studied her. Watchful. Probing. Aware.
Too aware. Time to end this. “My name and my business are just that — mine.” She moved to rise.
He raised a hand. “Nay, finish eating. I shall go. But tell me your name first.”
She blurted the first name that came to mind. “Sonja.”
Knowledge of the lie flashed in his eyes, and she clenched her fists with impotent fury. Damn paladin. What game was this? “Then I bid you a good evening, Sonja.” He dipped his head and returned to his friends at the bar.
So much for getting a room for the night here. She downed the rest of her meal, gathered her pack and fled the tavern. The cold air cleared her head. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d been forced to camp out in the open. She didn’t enjoy it, but she’d survive. She always did. Please, Hedda, don’t let him follow.
* * *
She was the woman in his visions! The Lady of Light had led him here.
Elingrena. The other half of his heart, his soul. The urgency, the empathy, all made sense now. Cianan took a deep breath and fought the urge to charge after her. He still reeled. He knew she was beautiful from his visions; he had not expected her effect on him to be so immediate, so intense and profound. No wonder Loren had gone barmy when he had met Dara.
“Sonja” was everything he had imagined, and more; everything he needed to make him whole. He struggled to clear her warmth, her scent, from his mind. Glowing skin and flushed cheeks, the short flaxen hair that drew attention to aquamarine eyes, prominent cheekbones and a strong jaw. That sultry voice sent a flash of heat straight through him. Her lush full lips begged to be kissed, in direct contrast to the frost in her eyes.
Well, the frost and the fear, he amended. He had thought it fear-of-men at first, but it was not. It was fear-of-discovery. She was a bundle of contradictions but he meant to discover her secrets and soothe her fears.
Well, that was interesting, Kikeona commented.
The serving girl brought Cianan his dinner with a hopeful smile and a flash of
cleavage. He smiled back at her, but shook his head. Whores were not to his taste, but there was no need to be rude or insulting. He wrapped flatbread around a chunk of peppered beef and took a bite. What did you make of her, Partner?
Goddess-sworn, on a mission. Dark past, but of the Light.
“Sonja” had vibrated with hostility. Can you track her?
The mare considered that. Nay. Not with her shields.
“Cary! Who was she? The woman who just left?”
Cary shrugged. “Dunno, pup. Ne’er seen her afore.”
Cianan thought that statement a telling one. There were not many female mercs here in Soto, and Cary knew them all. Cianan eyed the brunette in the corner. Gayle, a woman whose appetites blurred the lines between sex and combat. He’d turned her down the first night he’d arrived at the Broken Blade, on Cary’s advice. The former merc had a gut instinct Cianan found worthy of attention.
“How did she strike you?” Cianan asked him.
Cary shivered. “Ice. Killer’s eyes. Full of hate, secrets and judgment.”
Judgment. That last word rang in the back of Cianan’s mind. He was missing something. Kikeona?
I have no idea. I am as new at this as you are.
Cianan closed his eyes and opened his mind and heart. Lady of Light, guide me now. Heart of ice, eyes of a killer, Goddess-sworn to Whom? Was there a Goddess of Judgment? Of Justice? That was one of the three Powers of the elven High King: Truth, Justice and Mercy. But here? Judgment… Her eyes had haunted his dreams. Pale clear aquamarine — cold, sad, vengeful, desperate. Was she the Ghost he sought?
‘Someone’s taking out the Dealers.’ Light, Dark. Action, Reaction.
Balance…Balance to…Equality. Equality, Equalizing.. .Equalizer. The Great Equalizer.
He opened his eyes. “Cary?”
“Do the words ‘Great Equalizer’ mean anything to you?”
A hush hung in the air. The men around him all took a step back as Cary stiffened. There was that whiff of fear again, a shadow of guilt. “We don’ speak of Her, pup,” the barkeep growled. “Where’d ye hear that Name bandied about?”
“Is She a goddess, then?”
Cary ground his teeth, and then nodded. “Aye, pup, an’ a Dark One, Hedda is. Goddess of Death and Judgment. ‘Tis She Who weighs a soul, Who decides Light or Darkness.”
Interesting, Kikeona commented. Wonder if She has Servants to “help” those souls on their way?
Like a beautiful Ghost? Cianan took a sip of his cooling cider, not expecting an answer. The men around him relaxed and went back to their conversations. Cianan returned to his now-cold meal, which still tasted better than anything he attempted to cook himself.
Considering how much blood they have on their hands, these men would consider the Guardian of the Gateways Dark, even though She would be Gray and Neutral.
Cianan sighed. We shall have to go looking for her in the morning. Wonder what her real name is?
Ask her again, the next time we see her.
And the chase is on!