Not an excerpt, but a whole chapter! If you haven’t been reading my blog regularly, then start with Chapter One, then return here to read Chapter Two, in which I introduce Lody, Einur’s sweet little sister, and a number of distasteful persons.
You will perhaps notice, if you compare the ending of this chapter with the ending of last, that I delight in ending chapters with cliffhangers.
Seascape, Chapter 2
How am I to travel without Efrix?”
That was the question Einur had asked Chywion before they parted two days ago… and now here he was, exhaustedly pulling himself through the doghole on the north end of his family’s longhouse. Once inside, he collapsed onto the ground and lay curled into an inert ball, too tired even to wiggle a toe. Must say farewell to Lody bounced back and forth in his mind – and then he fell asleep.
He was alone in the longhouse: he and his sister lived by themselves. Over five years ago their parents had left on a trip round the Circled Hills to Mourvh, the nearest village, and they’d never reached there. A week after their departure, a farmer from the area of the Thema Pass brought the news that the couple had been captured by the savages of the Pass – savages notorious for their merciless cruelty. Rendered a suspicious child by his mother’s pronounced favouritism of his sister over himself, the nearly ten-year-old Einur had refused all aid from neighbours, electing to raise Aloden, almost seven years younger, alone.
In the late afternoon he was awoken by a soft kiss on his cheek. The same thought – Must say farewell to Lody – popped back into his head as he woke; and, opening his eyes, he found that Aloden herself was leaning over him.
“Why’d you go away without giving me good-bye?” she chirped. “But I guess you’re back. Let’s go tell Gernhr you’re back.”
Einur sat up and shook his head violently, sending his hair flying into a mess. “You mustn’t tell anyone I’m here, Lody!” he whispered. “I’m hiding.”
“From the Illyrië? Gernhr said they were after you. Is’t so? Why’d you come back if it’s so?”
“I had to give you good-bye,” he replied, echoing her own words. “I couldn’t go away forever without giving you good-bye.”
She dropped into his lap and flung her little arms around his neck. “Will you take me with you, Einur? Please take me with you, please? I don’t want to stay here without you.”
He detached himself gently from her grasp. “I’m sorry, Lody – I’m afraid I can’t.” A plump tear and trembling lips threatened a storm; he hastily continued. “You’ll be safe with Gernhr’s mother. She’ll take care of you ever so much better than I can.”
“No, I won’t be safe!” The storm began, relatively calm at first but gaining intensity. “They’ll pick me, Einur, they’ll pick me, I promise you!”
Einur stared at the eight-year-old, startled by the certainty in her tone. It wasn’t simply the tantrum of an affectionate little girl afraid of losing her brother; she sounded absolutely sure. This so disquieted him that he was unable to find words to reassure her.
“Don’t say they won’t, Einur, ‘cause they will. Please, please, please take me with you! I don’t want to stay here with Auntie Lyný, she plaits my hair too tight, and I know they’ll pick me!”
Einur dropped his head into his hands and drove the tips of his fingers into his temples. How in Kelyan was he to get out of this? He was adamant he wouldn’t take his baby sister away into the wild, yet it seemed – no, it was too unkind to leave her here when she was so frightened. Could he wait till she fell asleep that night and then…
Voices. Still a little distant, but not far enough, and coming closer: angry and loud voices; voices he feared… He froze, feeling like an ice statue as a horrible chilled feeling seeped from his heart throughout his entire body.
“Lody, get out of here now!” he hissed.
For a moment he thought she was going to ask why, but she closed her mouth and skittered through the doghole. Outside, she turned around and peeped back in at her brother, eyes wide.
He could hear them fiddling with the latch of the door on the other side of the longhouse; his heart grew colder yet and he flung himself towards the doghole. He shoved his head through it, then began to wrestle his shoulders after his head. The hole had been cut for a tall but lean dog, not for a well-grown boy. They’d be inside any second now. He closed his eyes and wriggled, tadpole fashion.
“Here he is!”
Einur’s eyes flew open, and he stared up into a craggy face. He knew the man; he’d worked for Einur’s father a couple times – years back, but Einur had never forgotten his harshness – the crude language he’d used, or his nastiness to all those over whom he was superior. What was his name again?
“Out you come, boy.” Galaser took hold of Einur under his shoulders and gave several sharp yanks. The method worked admirably; Einur popped out like a cork under a good deal of pressure. “Why’d you run, kid? Don’t you want to do your duty to the Great Achiel, hey?”
Einur gave a sudden, vicious kick backward, wrenched himself out of the man’s grip, and took off. As he came past the corner of the longhouse, however, another figure jumped onto him, knocking him flat.
“Thought you’d get away, did you?” Galaser added a few of the offensive words Einur remembered, and returned the young man’s kick. He and the other fellow rolled their captive onto his back and pulled him up by the arms in none too kindly a fashion. They paraded him around to the front of the building, where they were met by one of the Illyrië themselves, who spat at him and motioned for the prisoner’s hands to be tied. This was done, and Einur was led towards the east, towards the Temple.
He was completely on his own. The Ledmians stayed indoors, refusing as always to watch when sacrifices were rounded up and marched through the village. He looked for Aloden, but did not see her, for which he was thankful but hurt at the same time. Where had she gotten to, he wondered. Please the Great Ach – no, please the Master of the Harmony, he corrected the automatic prayer of habit – she was safe at ‘Auntie’ Lyný’s by now. He let his eyes go towards the ironsmith’s, where Gernhr’s father would be working. Was Gernhr too there? No, not a human figure in sight besides the rough men who hustled him along… but wait, a hand reached round the door of the smithy and waved slightly. Einur let out his breath and looked ahead again, not wishing to betray his friend’s acknowledgment to the Illyrië.
Not a man of them spoke, and thanks to their bare feet, there was nary a sound as they marched their prisoner up the road to the Temple. Einur was hustled through a small door around the side of the great stone building, and into a dank dungeon-like chamber. The place reeked with a frightening odour, causing Einur to gag as he stumbled in, encouraged by a kick from behind.
The door banged loudly as it met its frame, and he heard the heavy latch fall on the other side.
Einur backed up cautiously through the dark. He had no desire to trip over whatever might be on the ground of the chamber, nor to fall into this unknown. Feeling his way behind him, he came into contact with the back wall. He slid down it and closed his eyes. He was nodding off to sleep when he was startled by the groan of the door again enduring its opening agonies. A dirty head of hair was thrust through, followed by a face that was grimier still.
“They says I gotter take youse up to the House.”
Einur, completely resigned and apathetic now, forced his weary body to stand once more, and felt his way over to the boy. Outside, he could see that his small visitor was little older than Lody herself, and looked decidedly miserable. He said nothing, however, and gave Einur only a curious, unconcerned observation.
Einur docilely followed the child up the path towards the House of the Illyrië. He could not resist admiring the building, which he’d never seen before. It was a vast deal nicer than any of the longhouses in Ledmi itself, built of clay bricks – bricks that, it was rumoured, had been imported for the direct purpose of creating a fitting abode for the self-important Illyrië. He’d never expected to be entering the place himself.
The boy led Einur up to the front door and gave the knocker a sharp rap. Then he backed off the step, explaining, “I doesn’t go in here. Youse gotter wait for someone to come.”
Slowly the heavy oaken door eased open, and a man poked his head round it. The child scuttered away, and with his disappearance Einur felt that the last remnant of humanity had fled. He wrenched his expression into one that seemed indifferent.
“Follow, please.” The man’s accent was foreign, and he gave a jerky, compulsive gesture as he spoke the words.
Einur did as he was bid, slipping through the door and tiptoeing after the man through the massive lobby. The pillars, made of a material he did not recognize, shot up into the furthest recesses of the ceiling, where their tops were hidden in obscurity. Vague noises issued through closed doors on either side; voices and occasional small crashes as through something had fallen and broken.
He shuddered, partially from the chill. There was a draft coming from somewhere unknown; the cold stone of the building made it seem colder yet.
His companion glanced back at him, inclining his head just a little. “You will be warmer soon.”
At the end of the lobby, a stairwell rose majestically, and up this Einur was led. They went a short ways down the following passageway, then the man turned aside and knocked on a door to Einur’s left.
The man pushed the door open and stood aside for Einur to precede him. The chamber in which he found himself was bare, yet despite the stone walls it was not cold. Looking to his right he saw why this was so: a great fire snarled on the hearth in the outside wall. Inexplicably Einur felt a cold sweat envelope him in its uncertain terror.
A figure rose from a chair a yard or two from the hearth, and stared at Einur for a moment or two. Then he spoke to Einur’s escort.
“This is he, Lukil?”
Lukil nodded assent.
“Come here, boy.”
Mechanically Einur obeyed, approaching the stranger with caution.
“What is your name?”
“Give me your hand, Einur.” As he spoke the man reached out and took it, not waiting for Einur to follow the order. He drew Einur towards himself, towards the fire. “Sit.”
Einur sat, in the chair which the other man had vacated. After a moment of silence he realised he was staring deep into the man’s eyes. He made an effort to break his gaze away but found he could not. He felt himself growing dizzy, and struggled once more to look away.
His last memory was of the stranger’s eyes, black as a moonless night, and hard, so hard – as hard as the bones of the mountains which surrounded Ledmi.
Einur came back to himself lying under soft linen and cushioned by a squashy feather mattress. He spent no little time merely revelling in such luxurious pleasure. It was when he remembered where he was, that he leaped out of the bed as though he had been lying on the embers of the fire in that chamber.
A second later he imagined that he – or at least his right arm – was truly burning. He raised his arm and turned it to examine the underside of his wrist, which smarted intolerably. Branded there was a black mark: the initial letter of the name Achiel.
Sickness swelled up in Einur’s throat as he peered down at the brand, unable to think of anything else. All in one moment this nightmare became real to him: he was going to die.