Saturday, April 20, 2013

Darkspire Reaches - Elizabeth Hull HOP

Her birth mother left her as a sacrifice to the Wyvern, believing a second born twin had no soul.

Her foster mother thought Raven possessed the magic of the First born. She believed she raised a slave.

The emperor of all the lands believed she knew the secret of his birth and that he must silence her.

Her tribe thought they could trade her for safe passage out of the emperor’s lands.

The Wyvern knows better. He is coming for her. His fury has no limits. 

Raven worked on a poultice, trying hard to ignore the sound of children’s laughter from the forest. The ill-luck child they called her, and she hated them for it. A patch of sunlight crept across the hard-packed dirt floor of the rickety shack to while she pounded a root between mortar and pestle. Her arms ached, but her foster mother needed the crushed remains ready that day. Old Margie’s spells to the Earth Spirits would bind together healing magic with the waxing light of a full moon as the final ingredient. This was a new spell for Raven and one she must commit to memory if she wanted to be a healer, too.
The table wobbled, sending the implements slithering across it. Dropping the pestle, Raven grabbed Margie’s scrying bowl, now dangerously near the edge. An ice-cold tingle ran up her fingers into her arms as she held tight, biting her lips until she could push the table back into a better place with her hip.
Ever since Raven could remember Margie had warned never to look into her scrying bowl when it bore the water of sight; the water that now slopped in the bowl, swaying in a shaft of sunlight. Her reflection wavered against the black interior of the vessel. It was a face the village youngsters said belonged to the witch’s bastard offspring. Not fair of skin with corn-colored hair like the other children, but a darker coloring and night-black lock. ‘Sins of the mother’, they had yelled when she tried to join in their play as a little child. Yet she wasn’t Margie’s child.
The reflection altered, becoming a woman grown, shifting and maturing. Raven shuddered—this wasn’t her face anymore, not with those hollowed cheeks under brown eyes, and those full lips. The image changed perspective until all of the woman’s body showed against a moorland landscape. Wind howled between boulders that stood like giant bones in scraggy patches of grass and scrub. A gust tugged at the ankle-length green and brown tunic to tease the fringes decorating the strange attire. The figure hurried to a large flat rock, and placed a bundle in the center. Now the thin wail of a newborn carried on breeze.
The great shape of a wyvern blotted out the stars as it swooped closer. Wings as big as the meeting-hall roof flapped with the sound of wet leather smacked on rock, and a huge head on a long neck snaked back and forth, searching. Wicked talons extended from birdlike feet, and flames erupted from the beast’s mouth. Stars, the thing wasn’t even close, and it was clear it could swallow a person whole.
Was this her future? No, for she’d die before she let a wyvern take a child of hers. This was her past.
“Raven! What are you doing?”
The image dissolved into blackness. Shaken, Raven backed away from the table, far from the tang of water magic. She hadn’t meant to touch the bowl. She knew Margie didn’t want the magic weakened by the feel of another hand.
“I didn’t be looking on purpose. The table lurched, and I afeared your scrying bowl might smash.”
Margie took the bowl outside to dump the contents on a radish patch near their door. Her old, jowly face wobbled as she shook her head.
“Peasant talk.” Margie slammed down the bowl with such force that the table creaked in protest. “How many times must I tell you not to copy their talk? It won’t make them like you any better, and why would you want to be friends with peasants? If we don’t sound better than them why would they trust us to know more?”
“I wasn’t looking on purpose,” Raven said, concentrating on proper words.
“Afraid and never afeared, too. Now put some water to boil. We eat of the beasts of the earth tonight.”
Water for boiling and no talk of a roasting spit? Not a feast, by any means, yet the meat needed a slow boil. Raven tried to guess the contents of the small sack Margie carried.
“Chicken feet.” Margie looked in the direction of the village, scowling. “The headman wanted a son birthed and got himself another daughter after I’d told him when to try for a boy. We pay the price for his lust.”
“Poor payment for a lying-in,” Raven agreed, not looking forward to watery soup thickened with the few shriveled carrots left from the last payment. Herbs would give more flavors, though.
“I saw some turnip-tops growing by the old healer’s place in Delvin’s Hollow.” Margie settled in her chair by the hearth, ready to keep an eye on their soup. “You’ve seen the wild garden by the burnt-out ruins?”
Raven’s skin crawled. The wise-woman’s shade haunted that rubble-strewn hollow where a stone cottage once stood, and some of the villagers claimed to have heard the echo of the woman’s shrieks when she burned alive. How had a fire started in a house built of stone? If it had been more intact, she guessed it would have been home to her and Margie instead of where they were.
“After you have drawn water, go and get us something filling for our soup,” Margie said.
Once she’d set the cauldron over their hearth-fire, Raven collected their broken-handled shovel—what was left of the shaft served her shorter frame better than a full-sized implement. While she dreaded Delvin’s Hollow, she wanted to get outside and into the forest. The cool greenness called to her in a way she had never been able to explain to Margie.
Raven liked walking the deer tracks, away from any people, all except one. Only Tomar, the baker’s son, had welcomed her whenever she had happened on the village children, and when they wouldn’t play, he’d walk with her in the forest. Since he’d grown to a man’s stature this year the sight or even just the thought of him brought a blush to her cheeks, for she liked his looks along with his care for her feelings. His growing beard fuzz had tickled her when he’d given her a shy kiss in thanks for one of Margie’s healing potions.
Thinking of Tomar helped dim the image of the wyvern in the scrying bowl. Margie had often said Raven was left as a sacrifice to the wyvern and the vision of the woman in the water gave truth to Margie’s claims; although Raven had never really doubted them, for she had heard the call of the beast in the night many times. The sound burrowed into her soul, trying to compel her to go to the nearest clearing. Her magic fought it off each time.
Fern fronds rustled, tugging at her long brown skirts, and the leaf-litter underfoot released a pungent odor of dirt and toadstools. A white-tailed doe and her spotted fawn ambled across Raven’s path, pausing to savor her scent. Liquid eyes stared into hers without a trace of unease. Raven smiled at the beautiful fawn, not sure if the doe understood or not. None of the beasts of the earth feared her, yet they ran away from old Margie. Maybe the creatures disliked her bright clothes. Raven preferred the earth-tones Margie left to her when they got a barter gift of cloth.
She continued into the dappled greenness until she stood on the brink of the hollow. High-pitched nervous laughter rippled through the sunlight. She crouched in a tall bank of ferns. If the young villagers were here, she preferred to keep out of sight. From her leafy screen, Raven scanned the area to see if the people were staying. Tomar’s blond head came into view and Raven started to stand up, her heart beating faster.
He was just a few yards away, holding hands with Katra, his long strides shortened to keep pace with the girl. Katra, always fond of showing her importance as the headman’s daughter, had often made her dislike of Raven plain. Raven guessed what might be coming next if they caught sight of her. She didn’t want Tomar to hear the cruel words and so called within to a place of power, imagining herself fading into the forest colors so that none could see her; a trick she had learned accidentally when hiding from Margie.
“Where be your little black mongrel today?” The girl giggled. “Off the leash?”
“Our dog is brindle-colored.” Tomar paused, a half-smile lighting his face. “Unlessen you did mean Raven?” He joined in the laughter, catching Katra to him. “I keep her sweet in case I do need herbs. She’ll give me what others pay to get.”
Raven’s heart contracted painfully. Where was the friend she trusted? Who was this stranger in his body? Was he just lying to please Katra? But Tomar didn’t lie, did he?
“Please me well to stay away from the First Born savage. She isn’t fit to mingle with pure-bred Angressi folk.”
“She did saved my dog from a poison he’d eaten. All it costed me was a kiss.” Tomar pulled Katra closer. “What’ll you give me to shun her?”
Katra stood on her toes to kiss his lips, but Tomar turned his face away. He slowly unlaced the front of her bodice. When she didn’t stop him, he reached inside.
“I’ll do be wanting more than this.” He pulled down her chemise to bare her breasts.
Katra, her face flaming, didn’t move away. “Is this what your black dog lets you be doing to her?”
“That and more if I do want. Shall I get my needs from you or from her?” He bent to kiss her nipples, first one and then the other.
“Not here, someone might come.” Now Katra pushed him away, but she didn’t cover herself. Instead, she took his hand and led him from the path into the trees.
Raven didn’t cry, no tears came to give an outlet for her grief. Fifteen summers old with a life holding no purpose after this moment. Her heart pounded while a lump in her throat threatened to choke her; yet her eyes remained dry, her lack of tears another bitter reminder of being different. As the forest grew quiet around her, all those oddities separating her from others came to haunt her.
She moved into the dappled shadows to become a creature of the forest.
Tomar didn’t care for her. She was the pet dog who gave him herbs, only useful until a pretty village girl caught his eye. She had loved him so much, still loved him. How could he say such a thing? And the way Katra said the name ‘First Born savage’.
She speared the ground with her shovel, thinking all the while of Katra’s face on the dirt. Several turnips suffered for her anger before she saw what she had done with her savage thrusts.
Sounds of movement brought Raven back to the present. She peered out of her green sanctuary. Tomar stepped back onto the forest trail with Katra hanging on his arm, talking quietly with a whine in her tone. Catching the smug look of triumph on Tomar’s face, Raven melted back into her quiet shield of fronds. The couple headed off in the direction of the village.
A cloud slid over the sun, darkening the day. From deep in the forest the lone howl of a wolf left ripples of silence in its wake. Raven stashed her tubers in a sack, hefted it over her shoulder and made for home, burning with questions, but not about Tomar. She’d seen and heard enough to know he wasn’t the person she thought was her friend. He had laughed at her, he had told lies about her and now she wouldn’t think about him anymore. Better to feel nothing than to give a man a weapon to carve a path of misery through her life. Raven wouldn’t run after him like Katra. Those two deserved each other.
“Truth cuts sharp and straight to the bone, Raven,” Margie said, her rheumy eyes filling with ancient injury. “Aye, I’ve heard them, cruel little devils. People fit into who they think they are. First Born tribes aren’t civilized like us, they are wandering nomads to the north east of our lands.”
“But why am I here? Why so far south and out of their range?” The image of the woman with black hair haunted Raven. Why would a tribeswoman come into Angressi territory to abandon her child?
“The stars only know why someone of the tribes would leave a babe here. Our hunters kill any of their kind on sight, and the same holds true for them. Their warriors loose their arrows at the first glimpse of any Angressi.” She sighed. “I knew you were First Born and should have left you when I found the bundle of misery you were, laying out on a rock on the moor. But the wyvern hunted overhead, and by the time I had hidden us… well, it was too late when I found you had been left as a sacrifice.”
“Margie–the First Born tribes?” Raven wriggled on her stool, dying inside from Margie’s opinions of the nomads. Surely Margie could remember one good trait? Would she remember, though? Sometimes the old woman didn’t seem to know where she was.
Margie set out their soup in wooden bowls on the rickety table and picked up a stale crust of bread that had been left on their doorstep. She broke the bread in unequal portions, putting the larger piece by her own serving.
“They arrived here before the Angressi people.” Margie spat on the earth floor; a stream of saliva clumped over one hapless roach. “They’re a wandering race who worships the wyvern. They’re hunters, not warriors, who flit through the forest glades with no more sound than a butterfly.”
“The women plant crops when the tribe makes camp for the warm season. Then there’s Samara Maidens dedicated to the mysteries. I’m reckoned a wise woman, but them …”
Margie gummed a piece of chicken skin, rolling it around in a futile attempt to find a place in her mouth not hurting. “My family turned me out when they caught me scrying. They said I must have witch blood. Never proved it. We got away, my brother and me. No justice and no home except what I found—”
Raven knew by rote how the rest of it went. She’d get no more sense until the old woman had finished her long list of grievances against those dead for so many years that even Margie couldn’t remember their names. Raven continued picking at her meal to the sound of the old woman’s drone.
“Just as well I took you, for you’d have fed the wyvern and I’d have lost the dark magic inside you,” Margie said, rolling self-justification into her list of woes, as if one balanced off the other. “Even if we had been at peace with the tribes, taking you to them would have meant the terrible life of a Samara Maiden for you.”
“Samara Maidens?” Raven seized the opportunity to stem the flow before Margie slipped back into her memories again. “I’ve never heard tell of such women. What are they?”
“The First Born maidens keeping the festival of Samhain are never-mated women. They can bring storms strong enough to destroy a harvest, or drown a village under floods. All their life-giving force is channeled into magic till the day they die, unless some man defiles them. Angressi men make much sport of a captured Samara Maiden.” Margie snickered. “An arrow or a thrown rock, any pain to stop the woman focusing her power will bring her down and at their mercy. Didn’t steal my powers with their nasty tricks. Not First Born power–something else. Thought they …”
Raven let the rest roll over her head. Margie’s voice had taken on a singsong tone, a sign that the old woman’s sorrows buried her for another evening. The tongues of flames from their fire drew Raven’s eyes and gave her a form of comfort. A Samara Maiden with magic? How different a life from living with Margie: no one to taunt her for being strange and no need to hide what little magic she had.
Margie liked Raven using her healing hands to soothe old and aching bones, but her foster mother wouldn’t let her touch any of the villagers to cure sickness. Did Margie think they would be frightened of her, or was it because Raven couldn’t abide the touch of iron? It froze her to the bone and drained her power. What if a man came to her with an arrow wound? All of the village men stole game from the Imperial forests, risking the warden’s retaliation.
Raven rolled her thumb and forefinger together, idly kneading a fireball into existence. The ball tingled with a need for release, and yet Raven held it captive. Looking at the flaming sphere, she hid an urge to transform it into a lightning ball; this was a newly learned skill and Margie got angry if she thought Raven knew more about magic.
Samara Maidens lost their magic if they mated, did they? The village lads didn’t like her anyway, and Raven had no mind to be used like Katra. The girl had become Tomar’s creature in her desperation to keep his attention after giving him her body, her greatest gift. Katra meant to trap him into marriage, and yet who snared who? Tomar would gain much wealth from Katra’s dowry. Ashamed for him and relieved she now knew his true feelings, Raven wondered if he would have abused their friendship if she had golden hair. How could she trust men after Tomar had let her down? No man was going to strip away her life by such a selfish act. Determination awoke inside her to dull the pain.
Now she understood the vision in the scrying bowl. Her mother had abandoned her, left her as a sacrifice to the wyvern, a creature Margie said dined off living human flesh. Raven wouldn’t be an easy target now. Feed the power, nurture the magic and take the gifts given, until she had all the strength to fend off the evil beast if she ever encountered it.

Elizabeth Hull, writing under the by line of C.N.Lesley, lives in Alberta with her husband and cats. Her three daughters live close by. When she isn’t writing, Elizabeth likes to read and to paint watercolors. She is also a keen gardener, despite the very short summers and now has a mature shade garden. Once a worker in the communications sector, mostly concentrating on local news and events, she now writes full time.

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