by Eirias Emrys
This is a semi-current rendition of chapter one of my fantasy novel. In Progress.
|I laid Papris' body into the ground gingerly. My breath was hot, though my mind was unmistakably clear. Everything seemed so focused to this moment.
Our mentors push us, raise us in a way that parents never do. They are harsh, tough, but always willing to teach. And so, I start my story with his passing. In truth, however, his death would be forever my cause, and I have bared that unceasing guilt in my mind. I killed him, my mentor. Perhaps not directly, not with these hands, but it was my fault. One moment of stupidity was enough to shatter the world-I vowed not to forget that.
I placed a sprig of oleander on his breast-his flower of choice as long as I had known him. From the stream's edge I carried armfuls of rounded stones and piled them over Papris' grave. The rocks were still cool in the morning air, the stream water and icy blanket, trickling over their long-polished surfaces.
Footsteps echoed in the woods, and I waited as their originator drew closer. A figure moved though the vapor to the decrepit mill. I watched them knock on the door. They looked through the shattered window, peering inside. What they were doing this far out in the hazy morning was beyond me, but they were no doubt along to procure one of my master's elixirs or tonics. That was the only reason we were ever visited. The village feared us, we were all but ostracized from little, isolated Vale. The two of us were a mockery, the bastard son of an ambiguous man, and a blind urchin. We were subject of many of the town's paranoid conjectures.
A few drops of rain fell on my outstretched hand, of course it would rain. However, it was a warm rain that felt strangely comforting to my chilled skin.
I looked up. The stranger that was walking towards me was a woman, plain in appearance. She avoided looking directly at me. "Yes?"
"Where is your master?"
She shivered and pulled up the hood of her mauve cloak, "When will he be back?" When I did not respond, she continued, "What are you doing?"
I hesitated, scattering stones over the pile before looking up darkly, saying nothing.
The lady seemed to suddenly understand as she let out a soft, "Oh..." I saw her take a few steps back from me and linger awkwardly at the edge of my vision. "Well, I am...sorry, boy."
"Don't be, you didn't know him."
The woman fiddled with the clasp of her cloak before she turned around, walking off. Tendrils of mist obscured her in moments.
I clutched my knees to my chest, gazing out into the summer night's portrait of the landscaped valley below. There in the shadows lay the nested village of Vale, a place I had never called home in all my fourteen years living there. Little lights shone dully from the buildings' windows. The scene looked out of place in the encroaching woods, whose trees were enormous, forbidding, and wild. The forest had been my home, but there was no purpose left for me back in those shaded refuges.
In my fist I gripped the crumpled note of my father. For fourteen years Papris had kept the letter. For fourteen years he had let me hate my father, but now my feelings were muddled. I looked at the yellowed parchment. It was an explanation, the listed reasons of why he left me so long ago. That is all I had wanted, just to know why.
My mother was dead, as I had wondered as a child. My father gave no explanation of the cause, just a confirmation of what I already knew. Maybe she died in childbirth, or perhaps she became ill?
The letter revealed something else that had taken me by surprise, my father-as it turns out-was an important member of the King's circle, a position that I was now given charge to fill by his request. It made sense now-why Papris had devoted so much into his teachings. He was grooming me, but for what exactly I did not imagine. This position in court, it made me nervous. I had scarcely spent much time with any sort of people outside of Papris and his patients. Who was I to belong to any sort of society? What would the King expect of me? What if I was unaccepted in his court?
I chewed my tongue, and then there was the war. Even here in Vale we could feel the ominous cloud of conflict. Stories from the south filtered through travelers, spreading through the small town like water in sand, instantly absorbed and modified by all. The truth of the matter, however was that no one really knew what was going on.
Part of me wanted to ignore my father's request. I could leave; go west, where I heard stories of grand cities, where the populace was a mix of races from all over the world. But most of me wanted something else. Most of me wanted to see my father again, and somehow, in following what he intended for me, was the hope that I would see him again.
It is what I had to do. I was bound by the honor owed to my father.
"Let's just say I'm calling in your debts," the man said grimly, thrusting his silver blade into her father's body.
"M'lady! M'lady! It's nearly morn."
Aleyne blinked wearily, glaring towards her bedroom door as Merrywyn rapped on it with the same insistency as she had maintained for the duration of Aleyne's existence. More like a self-fancied mother than anything.
"I'm up Merry, that's quite enough. Make yourself useful and prepare us a traveling basket, I want to take a walk before I leave."
"But, madam, you've delayed the trip long eno...."
Aleyne pulled the door open pointedly, "I'm going to see my father."
Merry looked down, suddenly finding interest in the wood floor of the upper landing. "Oh," she responded quickly, briefly floating at the doorstep before scuttling off down the hall. Merrywyn was getting old; her once shimmering white hair was a mess of wry strands that clumped about her head, demanding the attention of anyone looking in her direction. She could have retired a long time ago, but Merry chose to stay with the family, serving as everything Aleyne's parents were unable give in their absence.
Aleyne closed her door and ventured to her small mirror. She examined the dark patches under her lids. Sleep came hardly often, and troubled at that. Memories tainted dreams, dreams tainted memories. In the mirror, she could see the darkness of morning, ever-prevalent on the land through the opposing window, left open in the warm evening the night before.
In a short while later there was another tap at the door, "My lady, I am so sorry to disturb you at this hour, but Merrywyn said you had changed our plans?"
She spoke through her sleeping gown as she pulled it over her head, "Merry was mistaken. I have full intention to leave as planned, but I am making a personal visit before we go."
There was a pause. "Ah, well, will you be requiring my services in this...visit?"
Aleyne forced a false laugh as she slipped into a simple traveling dress-an article of clothing quite agreeable to the young woman, as it was comfortable around the waist and the hem was tight enough to that it was much more sensible for walking without catching on everything. "I hardly think I am likely to be assaulted on my way." She opened the door to face her surly guardian Ethan Habeck, tucking her dark tangled locks back behind her ears and ironing out her dress wrinkles with her palms. "Have our shipment prepared. Oh, and did you let the right people know that we are leaving ‘tomorrow' afternoon?"
Ethan did not roll his eyes; the escort did not need to. His physic emulated a host of flippant remarks, even if his expression remained neutral, "Yes."
"Good. I will not lose another shipment to rogues. I'll be back at sunrise."
The day had yet to break, but when it did the sun would rise gloriously over the shimmering ocean and set fire to the lush shore of the cliffs. It was still damp; moisture clung to the land in little droplets that soon too would shimmer with radiant flames. Gulls were still silent, nestled in their perches unseen as they warmed their precious eggs, ebony eyes still clouded with sleep.
Aleyne pulled her traveling cloak about her lithe frame; the air by the sea was chilly in the fogged morning. She followed the road that lead from her father's estate to the cliff-side where a grassy chunk of land jutted out high above the churning waters below. Broken cart wheels formed a long un-kept fencerow, deteriorating with what was left of the family land. There was only a single grape plot remaining, nothing compared to the infamous south orchards beyond the fencerow her family had once owned. In a few years the wine stock would run low; and the vintages from the last couple years would not be enough to supply the Crown any longer-Aleyne's debtors would seize her holdings entirely.
A gentle breeze whipped locks of her hair into her face, but she carelessly tucked them back and continued up the lane to where the path unnoticingly ended, mixing with the soil and the grass until it became green turf alone, the change invisible to the unconscious passerby. Here a rock fence encompassed a little plot of cliff-side; wherein there rose a dozen or so stone memorials, jutting from the earth like the weathered knuckles of blackened limbs.
Aleyne walked among the dark stones until she reached the end of a row, stopping before a newer, less-blighted stone. Aleyne stared at the epitaph carved into the coarse rock:
CHARLES F. HAFWEN
Wrynti Wrynid OMRIE JAQUES
The last line was a phrase in the old tongue, born when Eyrymnor was sculpted from the earth by the hands of the Eyrymnati. It was a language lost and feared. Few families passed it down, and Aleyne had not even learned it fully when her father was taken. It was the only way they had communicated, father-to-daughter through the words of Eyrym. Dream a dream, my little flower, he always said, and someday you will bloom as a divine blossom. And that all the other flowers in the garden might look upon you with envy.
Aleyne pulled a little bottle of oil out of the basket Merry prepared and anointed the stone, wishing her father was here, respecting him in death.
Out to sea, the airborne ships could be seen, gently gliding from the cove further north and disappearing into the tendrils of mist of the resounding ocean. They head for the eternal hunt. The great Bronere were feeding off the cloud vapor at this hour and, therefore, at their weakest. Ivory made from a Bronar was the most valuable resource that came out of Lypayrle, followed by wine. A single Bronar, if killed and retrieved could feed the town for days.
Turning away from her father's grave she moved to the one next to it. Her mother's body was not buried here, she had never even returned home. Aleyne's mother was buried not far from where she was killed, in the forest roads between Lypayrle and Tearney. There was still a grave here, empty and simple. She would visit her mother's true grave today. The shipment of wine Aleyne was taking would make just enough to satisfy the debts of this year, but the road was perilous, filled with thieves. A band of them slaughtered Aleyne's mother when she refused to give them the wine.
Sun glared through the fog, casting everything in a sudden shade of brilliant ochre. She promised Ethan to be back by sunrise, and he was no doubt getting impatient to leave.
Something was wrong. I sat upright at the smell of smoke. The sun had barely risen in the morning sky, and already there was a buzz of commotion from down in the valley. Clouds of smoke billowed through the air, black, obscuring the land below and stinging my eyes. The forest was silent, its inhabitants no doubt fleeing from the consuming intoxication deeper into the surrounding hills.
I scooped up my cloak and fastened my father's sword to my waste. It felt good, to have a sword at my side, as if I had never been whole until I put it on.
The descent into the valley was difficult; smoke had filled the air to almost un-breathable levels. I sputtered and coughed, climbing down the rocky slope of where I had slept. My hand split open as I slipped on the loose gravel and reached out to catch myself. Crimson dripped from my palm as I swore loudly.
The noise from below became distinguishable; the village's cries and yells all too revealing of the fire's source. I quickened my pace, though more careful of my footing.
The smoke changed, it became darker, hot. My clothes would smell of it for the time to come. The dry fields I ran through would be consumed if the fire went wild. The summer had been unforgivingly dry these last few weeks, scorching the fields to bone-white skeleton crops. A fire was inevitable.
Blackened rubble loomed into view and I stopped, awestruck. The entire village was ablaze, the windward side was a withered collection of smoldering charcoal piles. A figure ran toward me out of the haze, screaming out with all the terror I had ever heard from a man. My heart froze as the man suddenly fell forward, an arrow quivering in his back. I stood rooted to the spot, not sure what to do, my eyes wide.
Heavy voices shouted commands over the screams of the townspeople. Cries echoed out over the morning. I just stood shaking, disbelieving.
"BOY!" The yell came from behind and I whizzed around to face a man I knew as a tanner come racing towards me, waving his hands wildly in the direction of the north woodlands, "GO! Go you ignorant mule!"
I turn and ran, through the spiky wheat-field, hearing the tanner's thunderous foot-falls behind me. Arrows whizzed overhead, burying themselves in the ground just paces ahead. I veered to the right, glanced back, and saw a group of men, cloaked in furs sending another arrow volley towards us.
"I SAID GO BOY! DON'T STOP TO LOOK AT WHO'S KILLIN' YA!"
I quickened the pace, my lungs killing me as I sputtered on the smoke. Arrows landed on either side of me. I heard a sickening thud. I did not need to turn around to know, I just kept running, confusion filling my mind. Nothing like this had ever happened in Vale. Who were they? Our enemy in war was supposed to be a race of deformed, lowly creatures. Not men. There had been no warning. War was far off I had thought.
My left arm was going numb with the loss of blood, still steadily streaming from my hand. I pushed my tired legs harder and harder. I would lose them if I made it to the woods. Years of forest life had kept my tracking and stealth skills sharp. They would not catch me. Arrows whizzed by and I dashed right again, avoiding the fresh wave of missiles screeching in my left ear.
In a great leap I jumped into the tree line and hit the ground sprinting. As I ran my mind calmed, I breathed deep, unlabored breaths, taking in the scents of the land. There was power in the forest, a deep, unabiding magic. It was a raw power, rooted in the heartwood of the ancient trees. I could feel its touch and I sent out a silent plea to the surrounding trees for protection.
At first there was nothing, no powerful response that I was accustomed to. There was fear, fear of fire that was spreading from the village and would soon lick their trunks. The fear changed into rage, I darted around a tree as it groaned branches sculpted into menacing claws. The sound of creaking groans filled the woods and tree limbs began smiting the earth in a frenzy. An ear-splitting yelp escaped my pursuers as I heard the sound of breaking bones. Then silence. The northern woods went back to feeling fear.
I looked down into the tree line; more men were gathered, surrounded by the wheat fields that had suddenly caught fire. They had not seen me, but when they found their battered comrades, I might be forced to watch my tracks.
I continued at a hurried pace northward, there was no sense going back, and there would be a road ahead that would take me to Tearney. I had planned on hiring a mount in town...but now that was out of the question. I would travel by foot.
I pulled up burdock root and stowed it in my cloak for when I could find a brook or spring. The stench of smoke filled the air still, clouding what would have been an otherwise gorgeous sunrise.
Aleyne watched the road idly as little squirrels and other creatures darted across the decrepit lane. She had grown tired of watching Ethan's dark figure from behind, rigid on his equally dark mount. Mr. Haberk always seemed inclined to wear that depressing black cloak, in whose folds and hood he could disappear quite entirely. She might scoff at his clothing, but he was the most accomplished swordsman she had ever met. Her father had trusted the man, and that was good enough for her. If there was any danger, he was most certainly only male in the world Aleyne could trust. Other than that, she was quite self-sufficient.
The road she traveled formed the physical border of Eyrymnor and Arcanea, and each side was to be feared. Arcanea was a wild place, a place lost to a decaying race that sealed its borders long ago. No one had seen the Ayrenese in over a decade. On the other hand, the Eyrymnor side to the south was a forest infested with thieves, cut-throats, and mercenaries. They all waited for the opportunity to strike cargo wagons like Aleyne's, ready to take opportunity for their gain.
Another oddity about the road, which was Lypayrle Way by most, was the physical obviousness of the border. For, if one looked to the south side of the road, Aleyne mused, there were Eyrymnor's northern forests, wild and tall. Although, if one looked to the north leeward side of the Way, there grew an ominously dark and tightly knit forest that rose silently from the ground like a twisted hedgerow in want of trimming. Aleyne looked away from those shaded hollows, more worried about what might come from the other side. She glanced down at the parcel in her lap, pinioned tight under her gloved arms holding the cart's reigns. Wrapped in the length of canvas was her father's bow, a safety precaution. Should the occasion arise, she would protect the wagon of wine barrels with her life, just as her mother had done.
Soon the salty scent of the sea died away, encroached upon by the odorous smells of the forest, trees, flowers, fungus, animals-all repugnant when compared to the rich aromas of the seaside. Aleyne scanned the tree-line again and turned to look behind, walls of trees disappeared far into the horizon, the ocean long-since swallowed up by the sea of trees. Frowning, she returned her gaze ahead, only to be met with the same view. Eyrmnor's unruly forests were all but impregnable, filling almost the entire face of the land.
"Mr. Habeck, ah, do we plan to make this excursion in a day?"
Ethan's stone-like figure remained rigid on his horse, "Yes my lady."
"Well, I think I would be more comfortable at a quicker pace."
For a while the escort did not reply, as if thinking over the repercussions of hastening their travel. "Very well." He clicked his tongue loudly twice and his mount speed up without hesitation.
With a flick of the reigns, the two grey horses increased their speed to that of their leader, glancing around skittishly as if the cause for the sudden haste came from some alien source. Aleyne shook her head, the greys were always looking for things to be scared of, and, more often than not, found the most fear in passing butterflies. She should have used blinders she thought remorsefully. At the first sign of trouble they would bolt, or at least try. The leather harnesses were old, yet another legacy of her dwindling estate, and they would snap with too much strain.
Her mother's grave was not much further; she always remembered where it was by the little turn in the road.
It was midday before the road finally curved at that all-too-familiar wayside. Aleyne disembarked as Ethan stood guard by the supplies. She carefully strode through the brambles and entered the trees. The lingering stench of smoke met her nostrils as Aleyne crossed the forest threshold, her eyes narrowed.
Stabbing pain shot through my ankles as I pushed myself further away from my assailants. The pack of men that attacked our village had followed me relentlessly all morning, no doubt to avenge their comrades. I could feel their fury; they did not bother to mask their heavy footfalls or jeering voices.
Crows darted overhead, calling out in their dismal voices. I pushed onward, fighting off the pain.