Chapter-by-chapter Novel Friday starts with Arkhan, Days of Fire…
The City of Arkhan was ransacked and burnt to the ground. In lands now torn by black magic, Kamira must find a way to save herself, or surrender to the dead.
A Rain of Stones
Kamira remained still for a while, her fingers playing absently with the coins on the table. Niris had hid them well. There was no use for them in the woods. Still, she believed she was entitled to know about the concept of money. Just as she had the right to know what the world looked like beyond the Haunted Woods.
She looked down at one of the coins – the iron circle was flanked with animal symbols that for most were unknown to her. Small fragments of gem embellished the centre. The one she was holding now had a crystal pink precious stone in the middle. She pressed on it to feel its sharp edges. She wanted it to hurt, she wanted to ache and cry, but found only emptiness instead.
The sun was setting on the cabin. If she decided to leave, she ought to do it soon. She looked down at her reflection again, lost in her black tea. Niris had forbidden mirrors. She held her cup tightly, narrowing her eyes once more. The only thing standing out was her gaze. Clear and blue.
There were sounds coming to her head sometimes. Memories had turned to ghostly visions of what could have been. Niris could have been gentler. He could have granted people to come see her. He could have showed her the world outside. He could have loved her. But perhaps it was too much to ask of someone who hadn’t asked for anything.
He found her, wounded and alone in the world. He healed her, made her rise from the frail corpse she had become to the young woman she was now. Only he never wanted a child. He didn’t know how to behave. He had spent his life training a lord’s three sons and so that’s what he did, he trained her for combat. Day and night, through snow, mist and rain. He didn’t offer compassion for he had none. And she didn’t ask for anything for she feared him.
It would be easy to leave, she often told herself at night. She had tried once or twice. But the Red Oaks kept her in, like a poisoned fence. The cabin was built at the heart of some old woods, seldom visited by the outside world. The reason, mainly, was this odd ring of half dead trees, encircling the woods in some peculiar atmosphere. She had lingered before them, tempted to cross but never being able to.
The oaks were hundreds of years old, and seemed caught in between seasons, never fully alive or dead. The air was dry, the mist and leaves crimson. Even the tree trunks were covered in some odd red dust she had never found an explanation for. Niris remained quiet about it. The few times she had spoken about the Red Oaks, he had said the same thing. ‘It’s a protection. For us from the world, and for the world from us.’
It made no sense to her. But she obeyed, as she always did.
Kamira didn’t finish her tea. She took the back door to reach the tool-shed outside. With a shovel she started digging a hole at the back of the cabin. She kept eying the clouds and hurried, her chest tightening as night came closer. Once satisfied with the size, she inhaled and took a quick moment for it to sink in. It was happening.
She dragged something out of the tool shed, a large mass wrapped inside white sheets. Struggling, she dropped it in the hole. She crouched near it, and pulled back the linen to free his expressionless face. It had been harder to move him around, as if trying to lift a block of stone. She wasn’t sure what to make of it. She had never buried a human being before. Animals in the woods became stiff after death, but their weight didn’t seem to increase, unlike Niris’ body.
Her late foster father had his hands crossed upon his chest, and his eyes wide and glazed. She felt uncomfortable, looking down on him like this. With a steady hand, she pulled back the sheet over his head and felt ready. She refilled the hole with dirt until the white mass had completely disappeared from sight and from her mind.
Niris never would have wanted her to leave. But nothing was stopping her now. She undressed quickly and washed her face with a cloth above the basin near the back door. She slipped into some old garments, and put on her leather plates. Dark and supple, solid yet light enough so she could move freely, they were finely done. They covered her bust until the nape of her neck, and followed the curves of her shoulders. The different parts tied at the front and back, as well as underneath her arms. These plates were much nicer than the heavy iron armour Niris had made her wear for years.
He had trained her to fight just about anything. He had taught her how to use swords, daggers and bows, and he had made sure she could master hand-to-hand combat as well. And even though her heart was now racing at the idea of being in unknown territories, she was certain of one thing: there was not a man she couldn’t defeat, or an animal she didn’t know how to tame, and should she get hurt, she knew what herbs and plants to look for and how to prepare them.
She laced her boots tightly, and packed up the coins still lying on the table. She hung two daggers at her belt, and brushed the pommels, surveying the room one last time. It was a small cottage, with only a table and two chairs near the kitchen fire. There was an upper level accessible from a ladder, where she used to sleep. Niris slept on the floor in front of the entrance door, with no cover and no pallet either.
She moved away and redid her hair, tying it into a large bun. She had never cut a single lock out of them. Niris had threatened her to cut it all off but had never done it in the end. She was thankful for that. She loved brushing them at night; it made everything else disappear.
She strapped her bundle across her shoulders and walked out, leaving the creaking door swaying behind. She walked until a well behind the cottage, and filled her water bottle before drinking what was left in the bucket.
She remained briefly still. She had stalled enough. She ought to leave. And so she ran. Her mind vivid and alert, her heart racing. She ducked under low-hanging branches, zigzagged in between trees and made this run as diverse as possible to keep her thoughts clear from the dread and doubts.
Creatures scattered from the trees as her feet stomped the ground, and she grinned slightly. One of the things Niris had told her was to turn fear around. Knowing things in these woods were scared of her, gave her momentum. And before long, she was there.
She paused to catch her breath and drink. The Red Oaks were surrounding her now, their crooked branches looming overhead. She felt strangely out of shape. Digging that hole had exhausted her more than she would have thought.
There was a presence in these woods. She could feel it now more than ever – animals, perhaps, hiding in shadows, or nesting in the height of the trees. Whatever they were, it made her feel uncomfortable.
She drew out one of her daggers, and surveyed the area. Breathing in, she set off, running faster. She couldn’t linger in a place like this. As she paced the ground, her steps felt heavier, as if moving against current. She didn’t understand why but her chest started to hurt, her pulse quickened. She was in a desperate urge to leave these woods once and for all, and feared more than ever that something was about to stop her.
A weapon was drawn. She heard it, she was certain, the clear whistle of a steel blade. She slowed and twisted her head around. There was nothing, nothing in the trees, nothing behind. And as her eyes moved around she saw she had reached the end of the woods. Her hand trembled, raising the dagger in front of her. Fresh air came in, sweeping her face with a cold breeze. It relaxed her a little and still carefully, she stepped out of the woods.
Outside, the lands were flat and vast. Nothing broke her line of vision for miles. She noticed lights and trees somewhere north of the plains. She walked towards them but took her time. The grass was soft and agreeable; her path was lit by soft moonbeams, and slowly elation surged, like a small taste of freedom.
Reaching the habitations, she approached the biggest house where the loudest noise came from. There was a sign above wooden doors, The Forgotten Inn.
She could hear voices and laughter; she could smell warm food and sugary beverages. She observed them through the windows. They seemed a bit boorish, talking loudly and eating without manners. She wanted to see the world but now that she was closer to it, it didn’t feel as tempting as she had imagined.
Maybe this wasn’t the right place for her.
‘You comin’ in?’ a woman in brown skirt asked Kamira as she was about to leave.
She remained idle. It wasn’t the first time she heard a voice that didn’t belong to Niris, it was the first time it came from a woman though. It felt sweet and gentle, although she swallowed her words in a way Kamira wasn’t familiar with.
Hesitantly she followed the woman inside without a word, suddenly curious. It was warm and pleasant, but the voices diminished as soon as she stepped in. People stared at her sideways, and she was brought back to reality. She was in unknown lands, with unknown people. Her senses screamed danger.
‘You sit her’ miss,’ a young man said, barely looking at her. He wiped clean a table with a dirty cloth, and waved at the chair when he saw she wasn’t moving. ‘You seem lost,’ the waiter observed as she sat down. She looked up and noticed his eyes – one was green and the other brown. How peculiar… She wanted to ask him why his eyes were like this but he spoke before she had a chance. ‘D’ you like somethin’ to drink?’
It wasn’t easy understanding someone who spoke so quickly. Yet there was something nice and comforting about him. He had a gentle gaze. His hair was light brown and cut short. He had fair features but looked rather young, the youngest among the crowd. ‘Maybe…’ she started, and heard her voice as if for the first time. ‘Maybe a tea?’
‘What kind?’ He asked before listing numerous teas she had never heard of.
If asking for tea was already so confusing, how was she going to cope with the rest of the world? ‘Anything would be fine,’ she said, cutting him off. She then gestured discreetly at him so he would lean over. ‘How does it work here?’ she whispered.
He narrowed his eyes. ‘First time at the tavern?’ she nodded for sole response. ‘D’ you have money?’
‘I have…’ she hesitated, was it safe to say what she was carrying? Niris had taught her to trust no one, and she had read about what money could do to some people. She nonetheless took a few coins out of her purse. The eagerness to find out the true value of Niris’ hidden treasure was greater than her reason. His reaction, however, was none that she would have anticipated.
He grew stern, eying rapidly around to make sure no one was paying attention. His gaze went back to the coins inside her palm. ‘These are not…’ he started, and licked his lips, watching her intently, ‘these are not our coins.’
His accent had faded. The look on his face was serious, serious enough for her to close her fingers over the coins, and hope no one else had noticed. But some people were looking. The waiter put a hand on the back of her chair. ‘You shouldn’t be carrying these,’ he whispered. ‘They’re banned, they’ve been for long now.’
She wanted to disappear and forget this ever happened. She felt so stupid. The waiter must have noticed how mortified she was for he relaxed and spoke a little louder. ‘I’ll tell you what,’ he said casually. ‘I’ll bring you a tea on the house, eh? No need to pay.’ She nodded feebly and he smiled, stepping away behind a revolving door at the back end, from which odours of food and bits of smoke came out.
There was a man looking at her from a nearby table. She knew it, though she wouldn’t look back. His stare was cold and hostile. He had muscled arms covered with tattoos, and a shaven head with more dark symbols inked onto it. She crossed her hands, and tried to distract her mind from this.
At that moment she noticed an old woman smoking a pipe at a round table ahead. Their gazes met, and the old woman’s eyes widened. That person didn’t speak, at least her lips didn’t move, yet words started invading Kamira’s head. Words from a tongue she didn’t know. The voice was warm, slightly hoarse, like a constant murmur at the back of her mind. It spoke an ancient dialect, with sentences ending abruptly, a swift course finishing in a thud.
The waiter came back with a mug of clay, and a warm tea with blue flowers. She looked down and could have sworn she saw the reflection of that old woman inside it. She jerked her head up but she had disappeared.
The voice whispered once. The candles flickered, and customers and waiters alike paused in wonder.
Aiva, the voice said again.
It came like a clap of thunder, a sudden thud, as if the veil of the night had been broken. People gathered at the windows, and things hit the roof repeatedly. Dust fell from the ceiling, and customers started screaming, running around in horror.
Kamira didn’t move. She observed instead. She had never heard thunder so loud, but she had been trained to stay calm under all circumstances. She stood up steadily and peeked through a window. There were trails of fire in the dark sky.
‘Stones!’ a woman shouted, her piercing cry sending chills to Kamira’s spine. ‘Stones are falling from the skies!’
More stones hit, and made everything shake, from the ceiling to the ground. Kamira was frozen. Her heart was pounding, her mouth was dry, and her fingers trembled slightly.
Niris had taught her many things. He made sure she could fight, hunt, and heal, and defeat any living creatures…but what was she left to do against a rain of stones?
Copyright©2016 by Jane W King
If you liked what you just read, the story continues next Friday…