For a long while I’ve been writing in relative obscurity – there have been a number of short stories floating around unpublished on my hard drive, and it was only today that it occurred to me… why not share them as I go along?
This particular year in training at my day-job has been difficult. I’ve had little energy or inspiration to devote to my work, and when I have managed to get words on the page, I’ve lacked any ideas of what to do with them. Only recently this has started to change, as my experience of this year has become more bearable and I have started to see a real end to this stage. In six months’ time I will be back at something I actually like to do, after a year away from what I feel is my place in the world. That… that is hopeful. Somehow this hope translated into a renewed interest in blogging and sharing my creative life, hence this post.
The following short story, Nivenea’s Shield, takes place immediately after the events in Forsaken Lands Book I: Tragedy. The story is from the perspective of Les, who becomes infinitely more important during books two and (per the plan) three. Forsaken Lands III: Redemption is in very early stages… but hope remains that a finished copy will miraculously appear before the end of my residency training. We shall see.
Without further adieu I give you Nivenea’s Shield, Part I (if it’s any comfort, parts II and III already exist, I just need to format and post them in the next couple of weeks).
My name is Les, Baron of the village called Pelle in what I know as Elseth’s Land. People say a lot of things about me, not all of them entirely true; they say I’m smart enough, well-spoken, and I make people feel at ease. Some people called me a child prodigy back when I was younger; at 23 I still feel like I’m 16, and I’m not sure I can agree with that part of it. The rest of that, though, might be true.
No one ever said I was a runner, however, including me…least of all me.
“Hurry up!” The woman running behind me was short with frazzled, curly black hair, warm brown skin and as sharp a tongue as I’d ever encountered. She punctuated her command with a shove. Her name was Adria – Lieutenant Adria, a Justice, ranking member of the law and military force of my people. I’d known her for all of three hours and she’d already made up her mind about me: I was the weak link who was going to get her killed.
The shove knocked the little breath I had going for me straight from my lungs. My hand hit the dried grass on the hill we were foolishly trying to use as an escape route. Adreth (who I learned was Adria’s same-ranking twin brother) was leading our rag-tag band of escaped fugitives away from our capitol city, Nivenea, towards some ranch in the hills. The line went that if we could get to this gods-beloved ranch we could rest and meet up with the other fugitives. Then…
Well, I hoped he had a plan for the afterwards part of that story. I surely didn’t.
“It’s not much further,” Adria was out of breath, too, but when I glanced back at her she didn’t look to be as sweat-soaked and exhausted as I was. The woman was in better shape than me – she always would be, given our relative positions in the world. Baronry wasn’t supposed to include any measure of physical fighting or long-distance traveling.
Of course, I was stuck in some outdated world from three hours ago when I thought I would return to Pelle before the year was out. No time to correct that, not yet.
“Easy-” I huffed, my heart pounding so hard in my throat that I could swear it was making my head bob, “for…you to say…” I trembled and paused in my tracks, which caused my disgruntled running companion to slam her body into mine. I was dizzy with fatigue and lack of oxygen. I could still hear the shots of pistolets – the apparently magical weapons of our heretofore unknown enemies – ringing out in Nivenea, beyond her city walls. We were at least a kilometer or two into the hills, Nivenea’s circular footprint sunken into the valley behind us.
They called these the God’s Hills – formally Layvin’s Embrace. As the sweat cascaded over my eyebrows and my skull throbbed, I said a silent prayer asking whatever gods may exist to save my sorry, slow ass.
“We have to go,” Adria hissed. The dozen-or-so others, including her brother, were already over the top of this particular hill and out of sight.
“You…” I tried to yell and failed rather miserably, “don’t…have to…wait for me.”
Adria’s brow furrowed. I had my hands on my thighs halfway bent over, and she saw fit to put both hands on my shoulders and shove me again. I’ve never been the kind of person to lash out with rage or anything like it, but my nerves were frayed all to hell and I felt helpless… I threw all my strength into it (which wasn’t much) and shoved her right back.
She barely swayed. “Adreth put me in charge of you,” she seethed, a finger pointing up the hill. “I don’t know why, but I’m going to get you up that damn hill, Baron, so MOVE.”
I didn’t see the point in running since it was just the two of us and I couldn’t see any more people in blue uniforms anywhere near us, but then I didn’t think it was quite the time to get into a battle of wills with a woman who could probably break my neck in a lot less time. When she grabbed my arm and hauled me along beside her I didn’t protest or fight it. I just went. If I died of exertion, well, that might be an improvement.
It was an eternity and a half (or approximately ten minutes) before we crested the last hill and faced an old barnhouse. There were a number of horses in the stable and several dozen escaped prisoners walking around inside the expansive fence, looking as defeated and lost as I felt. Lots of them were bloody and bruised from the conflict in the capitol.
I scanned the crowd and saw only two faces I knew by name. The first and most obvious was Adria’s brother Adreth, a tall, dark man with shoulders twice my width and a presence that put even my best stage performance to shame. He was the leader of this fiasco, whatever that meant. The man’s size and demeanor reminded me of Garren, which was at least in part a comfort.
Garren, the Kaldari mercenary who picked me up in Pelle not three months ago; a man who I was afraid of, at first, and whom I now called a friend. One who betrayed his own people in favor of mine, gave me a bow and taught me to use it.
Garren, a man likely dead. The Celet shot him once in the hand and once in the leg, Garren’s blood as red as my own when it flowed from his wounds. He stayed behind to save Teveres…
I found myself shivering, though I was not cold. The hairs on my arms stood up, prickly and painful against my sweat-slick shirt. My ears were buzzing and I was exhausted. I leaned on the fence with both hands, trying to remember to breathe.
“Well done, kid,” Adria tapped my shoulder, this time with some measure of kindness.
When I jerked up to look at her she was already hopping the fence, shouting something at her brother. Part of me wanted to know what she was shouting, but the more pressing part didn’t have the energy to care.
I didn’t have the energy to do anything. It was a struggle just to stay upright, shaking, feeling…fear? Anger? Grief?
I couldn’t even tell what it was. It was something like the flat nothing feeling before entering a debate; knowledge and words were present in my brain, but they were locked away beneath a blank slate. Usually anxiety of that sort gave me some comfort – it was predictable, even necessary to boost my abilities.
Nothing about this was predictable.
“Baron?” It took me a moment to place the voice with an identity. Slowly I turned toward the only other face I recognized in the crowd. The young Healer was tall and thin, with warm brown skin, close-cropped black hair and a welcoming, easy energy about him.
I swallowed hard, struggling with the distinct lack of moisture on my tongue. “Kyren,” I croaked, trying to speak as normally as I could.
Kyren’s dark eyes were hooded, serious. We’d met the day before when Aia, Teveres, Garren, and I came into Nivenea to stay at Aia’s home in Layvin’s Embrace. Kyren was a divinely gifted Healer, Aia’s best friend from her time at the University. She trusted him implicitly, and given that Aia was a mind-reader, I had plenty of reason to trust him, too.
My guts clenched. He’s Aia’s best friend. How could I tell him? My eyes swelled with the burden of tears. I was either too scared or too dehydrated to let them fall.
It took Kyren less than a second of silence to see what I could not say. His jaw clenched.
“What happened to her?” he asked – demanded.
“I…” I shook my head. The look on her face when they dragged her away… “She’s gone, Kyren.”
“Gone?” He stepped closer to me, and the handful of centimeters’ difference in our relative heights was ever more apparent. “Gone where? And where was Teveres when this happened?”
Kyren had it out for Teveres from the moment they met, I knew. Something about both of them being invested in the same girl, though I think Aia was telling the truth when she said there was nothing romantic between she and Kyren. Her and Teveres, however – that was a hot topic. They might never have the chance to let that turn into something.
Probably wouldn’t. Definitely wouldn’t. There was no way Teveres survived.
“Gone,” I said. The hills spun around me. “They’re all gone. Garren too.”
“I don’t know,” I tried to straighten up, a hip cocked on the fence to keep me from falling over. “The Celet have them. There was…nothing I could do. Nothing he could do. Teveres was shot before Aia was taken. Probably dead.” Probably dead. The thought of it made me sick – of seeing Teveres on his knees with a hole in his chest. If Teveres had been there when they came for Aia he could have kept her safe. It was just me, and because I was so damned useless…
Skies above, I could hardly finish my thoughts. It wasn’t like me. I was supposed to be a leader. What kind of leader was this, shaking and bumbling through his explanations? What sort of leader would want to curl up and cry in the face of conflict?
I was a fake. Anyone could see that.
Kyren clenched and unclenched his fists, angrily pacing in a circle like he wanted to hurt someone. I couldn’t blame him. I wanted to kill the bastards who took them, too. Pity I lacked the necessary skills.
“You could hit me if you like,” even when I was halfway to a panic attack I tried to be witty. Fucking pitiful is what it was, and I couldn’t stop. “Better than hitting one of the useful people.”
Kyren glared at me. He had an admirable ferocity to him, that one. He was anything but a meek, mere Healer.
“I took an oath,” he spat, “the gods say people like me shouldn’t hurt others, then they put me here, in this. What kind of justice is that, Baron?”
“Les,” I corrected. I couldn’t take being addressed by my title, let alone by a man in every way my equal. “The good Baron wouldn’t allow you to see him like this. He’s on vacation.”
Kyren almost smiled before reality took hold. “She’s dead, isn’t she?” his voice was small. “You said they’re all ‘gone,’ but you know the truth.”
I couldn’t stand to look at him, to feel his pain. What I felt – the sting of losing my sudden and newly-acquired friends – was still a pale reflection of Kyren’s loss. Aia was special. All three of them were.
Instead I studied Nivenea’s spire from afar. The spire stood upon the top of the university pyramid, tall and smooth, wide at the bottom tapering up to a glorious tip, a message of hope and pride. The spire was my peoples’ crowning monument, the highest man-made peak in the whole world… or, I supposed, the world as I knew it. These Celet came from somewhere else, and I could not speak to what they might be hiding.
“I won’t believe she’s dead until I see it myself,” I said, partly to Kyren and partly to the spire.
Kyren said nothing. The Justices and prisoners (some of whom were probably murderers and rapists, but I didn’t have much time to think on that) murmured in the background, making plans. I stood still and plan-less.
As I stood silent the ground began to shake. At first I thought it was just me – my own shakiness translating to my feet, making me feel unsteady. The hush that came over the farmstead implied otherwise. Kyren and I locked gazes.
“TO GROUND!” Adreth used his large, loud voice to his advantage, commanding those inside the barn to come out. The horses shrieked and whinnied, refusing to be calmed.
“Earthquake,” I breathed. I’d experienced small earthquakes once or twice on the coast – this was not stopping. Kyren and I crouched to the ground. There was nothing near us which could fall, save for the fenceposts.
The rumbling reached a crescendo, and the sound…
The screams from Nivenea echoed through her little valley up to our ears. I clenched the dried grass in my hands, and under my breath I muttered, “Radath the honored, god of stone, god of earth, I call you; Radath the honored, god of stone, god of earth, I call you…”I couldn’t say it fast enough, couldn’t throw enough of my energy into the dirt, begging Radath – begging any god – to show us mercy.
Mercy, mercy, mercy. Haven’t I shown mercy to my enemies? Why couldn’t the gods show us the same kindness? What had we done to deserve this?
Wood cracked, the barn losing integrity – I watched in terrified awe when half the structure came crashing down, the barn pushing up against the farmhouse, distorting it to one side. My throat tightened when a horse was caught underneath the boards, surely seriously injured, maybe dead. For all that I was terrified of horses, I never wished a living thing to suffer.
Our gods had surely forsaken us. It was the only explanation. That, or Teveres was right – perhaps there were no gods after all.
The moving of the earth stopped, though not soon enough. Every last person was frozen, and for a moment they were as scared as I was. We were all victims of the same tragedy. Our home had been assaulted not just by our hidden enemies, but by the very earth itself. I glanced back at Nivenea, and what I saw could be no coincidence.
The spire I’d admired all my life was cracked, its perfect tip now a wounded, jagged edge. Parts of Nivenea’s wall had tumbled to dust. Buildings were collapsed and collapsing.
Anger built in my chest. This couldn’t be happening – shouldn’t be happening. It didn’t seem possible that the Celet people could have dominion over the earth and the weather, and yet I had to wonder if it was them behind this, too.