Week 4 Finalist

TITLE:  Butterfly Swords
AUTHOR:  Jeannie Lin
CATEGORY:  Historical Romance

Tang Dynasty China, 758 A.D.

The palanquin dipped sharply and Ai Li had to brace her hands against the sides to stay upright. Amidst the startled cries of her attendants, the wedding sedan lurched again before crashing to the ground with the splintering crack of wood. The ceremonial headdress toppled from her lap as she was thrown from her seat.

The clash of metal upon metal rang just beyond the curtain. Sword strike, a sound she woke up to every morning. She struggled to free herself from the tangle of red silk about her ankles. This skirt, the entire dress was so heavy, laden with jewels and a mile of embroidery thread.

The shouting outside sent the blood rushing through her ears. She fumbled behind the padded cushions of her seat, searching frantically for her swords. Where were they? She had put them there herself, needing some reminder of home while she was being sent so far away. The way another girl might find comfort in a doll.

Her hand finally closed around the leather wrapped hilt and she tightened her hold to stop the shaking. From outside the sounds of fighting grew louder.


She ignored the inner voice and pulled the other sword free, straightening as much as she could. The short blades barely fit in the cramped space. She had no time for doubt, not when so much was at risk. With the tip of one sword, she pushed the curtain aside.

A stream of sunlight temporarily blinded her. Outside, the servants scattered like ants in every direction. A hulking figure with sword in hand stood before her. She raised her own blades in defense until a familiar voice cried out.


Old Wu, the elder lieutenant, rushed to her while she faced off against the stranger, neither of them lowering their weapons. All around them, the armed escort struggled against a band of attackers.

Old Wu pulled her behind the cover of the palanquin. The creases around his eyes deepened. “Gngzh, you must go now.”

“With them?”

She stared at the thugs Wu had enlisted to help her. He had been a bit too successful at finding men to pose as bandits.

“There are clothes, money.”

He spoke the instructions hastily and directed her towards the woods. Everything was unfolding so quickly. A knot formed in her stomach, but she had known there would be no turning back.

“Your loyalty will not be forgotten,” she said.

There was no more time. The ragged strangers followed her through the trees. Were they soldiers? Mercenaries? When she looked back, Old Wu was standing beside the toppled sedan, his shoulders sagging as if he carried a sack of stones. Ai Li prayed that she could trust him.

* * *

God’s teeth, the scent of cooking rice had never smelled so sweet.

Ryam’s stomach clenched as he stared across the dirt road. An open air tavern stood empty save for the cook stirring an iron pot over the fire. The old proprietor stood at the entrance, whip-thin and wily in his black robe as he squinted down the vacant trail.

The establishment was little more than a hut, four beams propping up a straw thatched roof. Bare wooden benches offered weary travelers a place to rest and partake of food and drink. Travelers with coin, of course. The only metal Ryam had touched in months was the steel of his sword. He was nearly hungry enough to eat that.

With a sharp tug, Ryam pulled his hood over his head and retreated further into the shade. He was too big, his skin too pale, a barbarian in the Chinese empire. Ghost man, they called him. White demon.

While he wrestled with his pride, another person appeared around the bend. A mottled shape in the glare of the afternoon sun. The proprietor jumped into motion to wave the newcomer into the tavern.

Huanyng, guz, huanyng,” the proprietor gushed. His head bobbed as he bowed and bowed again.

Welcome, my lord, welcome. The simple Chinese phrase was easy to understand.

Four men followed the first traveler inside and tossed their weapons onto the table. Their presence forced Ryam back beneath the branches. A heartbeat later, he realized what was bothering him. That was no man at the center of this rough bunch. Not with hips that swayed like that. He was wrong about many things, but there was no mistaking the stir of his blood.

The woman wore an owl gray tunic belted at the waist over loose-fitting trousers and a woolen cap hid her hair. She had the height for the ruse and could have passed for a lanky youth. Shoulders back and head high; she projected a lofty confidence while she addressed the proprietor. Behavior appropriate for a male of superior status.

Ryam knew the rules of status. As a foreigner he was the lowest creature on the ladder, a hair above lepers and stray dogs. It was one of the reasons he skirted the backcountry, avoiding conflict. Today the promise of a hot meal tempted him into the open like a siren song. The sight of this woman tempted him in another way entirely. Beneath the formless clothing, she moved with a fluid grace that made his heart pound. He had forgotten that soaring, tumbling sensation; the irrational pleasure of being distracted by a pretty girl.

He wasn’t the only one paying such careful attention to her. The proprietor cast a scrutinizing glance over his shoulder while he spoke to the cook, then donned his previously submissive demeanor as he returned to the table, balancing bowls of soup on a tray. Apparently, the woman overestimated the effectiveness of her disguise.

To Ryam’s misfortune, the proprietor looked up as he set down the last bowl before his customers. His gaze shot across the road and his mouth twisted into a scowl.

“Away with you.” The man padded to the edge of the stand. “Worthless son of a dog.”


Jeannie, you’ve definitely thrust me into the middle of the excitement. What imagery! I could almost hear the metal clanging — and I could feel Ai Li’s anxiety.  In this short opening scene, you’ve shown so much with so few words — not only do I see the palanquin crashing, Ai Li tumbling, and then leading her rescuers away into the unknown, you’ve given lots of clues about her. I know she’s wealthy, (some kind of royalty, perhaps), she’s brave,  smart,  strong, and fair. And I love the way she viewed her swords “…the way another girl might find comfort in a doll.” I can’t wait to discover whether Old Wu is trustworthy.

And, Ryam – his foreigner status is wonderfully depicted, his hunger is palpable, and his financial status is summed up nicely by “…the only metal Ryam had touched in months was the steel of his sword.” Though Ryam is motionless, the scene feels active, as I truly feel like I’m viewing the action through his eyes. 

Your entry brims with danger and conflict. I’m dying to see Ryam and Ai Li meet. Great job, Jeannie!


33 responses

4 02 2009
Week Four Winners Announced « Chase the Dream Writers Contest

[…] Week 4 winner Week 4 mini-critique winner […]

4 02 2009

I’m so excited! Thank you for the wonderful comments Rachelle!

(Sorry the weird characters showed up…)

4 02 2009

I love this story, Jeannie. And those are some great comments.

4 02 2009

Congratulations, Jeannie!

I am so thrilled for you.
And not even a little bit surprised. 🙂

4 02 2009

This is such a great open – so excited to see you here!

4 02 2009
Leigh Michaels

Jeannie, this opening scene just sweeps me into the Tang Dynasty — you bring it to life with wonderful images and language which makes me feel I’m right there watching and listening, smelling and tasting — and I’m breathless to read on. (It’s also great to read about a hero who takes one look at a heroine masquerading as a man and isn’t fooled!)

4 02 2009

Wow, cool opening! I want to read more…

4 02 2009
Charlotte McClain

Ooooo, you are soooo good!

4 02 2009

God’s teeth, I loved this one!

4 02 2009

Congratulations Jeannie. You definitely deserve to be a finalist.

4 02 2009

Fabulous! Wonderful descriptive narratives and a terrific beginning. You’ve definitely left me wanting to read more! Thanks!

5 02 2009
Belle Scarlett

Very vivid writing, lovely!

5 02 2009

Thank you everyone for the comments. This has really given me a boost today! Thanks again to Rachelle and Leigh for running this contest.

5 02 2009
Megan Kelly

Jeannie, I loved this. So vivid, with great details. Congratulations.

5 02 2009
Romy Sommer

Jeannie – the setting feels fresh and original and your story is engrossing. I would definitely want to read more of this!

5 02 2009
Rachelle Chase

You’re very welcome, Jeannie. Yeah, I’m not sure where the weird characters came from. But, obviously, it didn’t stop me from enjoying the story. 🙂

5 02 2009
Michelle (MG) Braden

Well done, Jeannie! This is an excellent excerpt!

6 02 2009
Butterfly Swords finals in “Chase the Dream” « Adventures in Romance

[…] Excerpt from Butterfly Swords […]

11 02 2009
Darlene Torday

You grabbed my attention and pulled me into the story immediately. I could hear the swords, the feeling of they must hurry. Two such different people meeting even has me wanting to know more of what will happen next.


4 03 2009
Theresa Stevens

This is very strong. My only suggestion for improvement is that in the opening two paragraphs, you might provide the reader with an emotional cue. Her attendants are surprised, but Ai Li never has a direct emotion until she reaches for the comfort of the swords. Is she also startled?

But overall, the writing is vivid and dynamic, and Ryam’s viewpoint is strong and clear. Ai Li’s is good, too, once it gets going. You’ve built a strong world in a seamless manner. Good job!

Good luck!

5 03 2009

Theresa – Thank you for the feedback and for taking the time to read the entries.

6 03 2009
Laura Bradford

I thought this was nicely done. The heroine seems spunky and the hero seems complex enough to keep thing interesting. Since his circumstances seem so unusual (how did he come here? why is he so down and out?), he makes for a compelling character. I think you could do more with describing the setting as the story opens… I read that she heard the sound of swords behind the curtain and it took me a while to realize the curtain was enclosing the sedan. I couldn’t initially tell whether she was inside a large hall or outside, either. I liked how you started things with a bang, so the piece had nice energy. My final comment is kind of a nuance-y thing, but I will nonetheless throw it out there…Ryam comes across as being somewhat down and out, poor, reviled, starving, and as such, his emotional/sexual interest in Ai Li doesn’t necessarily read as being specific to her. Obviously she is the one he is looking at, but I can imagine ANY woman might spark some interest for him. The romance lover in me wants to know that he’s not so hard up that for him, all women are the same in the dark. Being desperate enough to eat his sword notwithstanding, I want to know that he is still discriminating and that it is THIS woman who has specifically stirred his interest.

8 03 2009
Elaine Steinberg

Dear Jeannie- Your writing wisks me away to another century, another custom. You poetically put us in a place that’s dangerous, but full of passion. There is no doubt in my mind that this would be a best seller.

8 03 2009
Raelene Gorlinsky

What great twists and unexpected elements in this! I was so entertained by the image of the heroine in her jewels and red silk dress whipping out swords – which she surprisingly knew how to use. Wanting to find out what she was running from or to made me eager to read more. And I’m anxious about the hero – how and why is he here, in this land where he doesn’t belong? I cared about him immediately, wanted to bring him some food, hoped he and the heroine got together soon.

Excellent descriptive text, a vivid setting.

10 03 2009
Faith Black

This is certainly action-packed and it brings us in nicely in media res. The opening scene I found a bit confusing as to what exactly was going on and who was on what side. A couple of explanatory sentences would easily eliminate that issue. The second scene unfolds in a much less confusing, though no less interesting manner. Again, an unusual time period for a historical but one which I find fascinating and would like to see more of.

10 03 2009

To Laura Bradford:
Thank you so much for the detailed critique! This definitely helps me know where to smooth out the opening and which character points to work on. I really appreciate you taking the time to comment on all the entries.

10 03 2009

To Raelene:

I was thrilled by your comments! Thank you so much for taking the time to do this.

10 03 2009

To Faith:
I’m always concerned with writing in such an usual setting and I’ll definitely work on clarifying the opening. Thank you for the really helpful feedback.

16 03 2009
Elaine English

By the end of this, I was really into the story and the characters and definitely wanted to read more. The first few paragraphs, however, seemed to lack emotion. “Blood rushing through her ears” didn’t convey to me a clear sense of what was happening or what she was feeling — anger, fear? Also, it appears from her comments to Wu that she may have been involved in setting up this raid, but then he simply has her voluntarily go with the purported bandits. I would think that at least to make this convincing for the servants who accompanied her, there should have been some struggle or something more than her simply running off with them. But you definitely have me intrigued about where this story is going.

17 03 2009

To Elaine English:
A struggle–Of course! Thank you so much for the insightful feedback and taking the time to do this. This has really helped.

17 03 2009
Katie Gilligan

I was initially very disoriented–for example, I didn’t understand that there was a curtain around the sedan, so that initially threw me. Then I was confused that Wu was actually on Ai’s side–I thought he was a lieutenant for her future-husband. However, after that, you really get into the flow of things and it becomes very captivating to read. I think you develop a rhythm and pacing that seems more fluid when you narrate from Ryam’s perspective. Even looking at the sentences themselves, Ai’s narration is choppy and short, whereas Ryam’s is more lyrical. Overall, a very unique setting and a story that seems destined for an epic battle and love.

20 03 2009
Megan McKeever

What a great setting! Bonus points right there. I think this is a good effort and I’m certainly impressed. I do think it got a touch confusing at times, so becareful that you’re not being too evasive in your writing. By the end, I was really looking to read more. Good job!

25 03 2009

Congratulations to Jeannie Lin! I just saw that this is a Golden Heart finalist. This is the most wonderful story and I wish you the best of luck with it.

Forgive me for posting here. I didn’t know how else to reach you.

Gail Zerrade

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