Excerpt: The Ember Child, Prologue

Hi folks,

Just to confirm, The Ember Child is still available on Amazon and can be found here.

I’m still desperate for as many reviews as possible, be they good, bad, or anything in between.  So, if you’ve read the book and would like to share your thoughts with the buying public, don’t forget to swing by the Amazon page and drop a review.  I will be forever in your debt!

Alternatively, if you’re still not sure whether this particular adventure is for you, hopefully this extract will convince you that you need to take the plunge!

Enjoy.


THE EMBER CHILD

PROLOGUE

Walking into the wind, her face lashed hard by the icy rain, Queen Luxana held the hood of her white cloak tightly in place and glared at the heavens above.  She ignored the pain of the cold as it seeped into her fingers and cheeks, focusing instead on the dark, forbidding clouds rolling overhead.  The full moon of the previous night was gone now, hidden behind a blanket of swirling shadows.  Luxana shook her head.  Down on the cobbled streets of Danara, where she walked, only the narrow shafts of light at boarded windows offered any hope of respite from the storm.  Why, she asked of the heavens?  Why would you choose such a forsaken day as this to call upon me?

A jagged streak of lightning crossed the sky in answer, followed closely by a roar of thunder.  It left Luxana’s eyes burning and her ears ringing.  Never question the gods, she scolded herself.  Their reasons are not ours to know.

Ahead, the priestess paused and turned back, her young face pale and small within the shadows of her hood.  ‘We’re nearly there, highness,’ she called over the wind, pointing along the road ahead.  ‘The temple lies beyond the northern gate.’

‘Yes girl, I know where the temple is!’ snapped Luxana.  ‘I was serving Osisi long before Leanor weaved her magic over your mother and father.  Just lead on!’  The priestess bowed nervously, before turning back towards the gate.

‘The poor girl doesn’t know who to fear more,’ said Civius.  ‘The queen, or the gods?’

Luxana glanced at the soldier walking beside her, his wary eyes scanning the shadows of nearby doorways and alleys, alert for any hint of danger.  Tall and powerfully built, there was something indomitable about the old man.  The silvering of his hair, hidden now beneath the hood of a dark cloak, hinted at his age, yet even at forty Civius bore the title of King’s Champion.

War is a realm for the young, the king once told his queen.  In battle, strength and speed are everything.  But old Civius defies that logic, for he is neither the fastest nor the strongest.  It’s his spirit that sets him apart.  Above all else, the man’s unyielding!

Looking back now, Luxana was glad she’d finally agreed to let the old man follow her.  Caraborn had wanted the honour himself, of course, but he soon relented once Luxana reminded him that only the truly faithful could answer a summons to the temple.  ‘You’re not a godly man,’ she told him.  ‘You believe too strongly in the idea that a king makes his own destiny.’  That much was true, yet, despite that belief, Caraborn had never once stood in the way of his wife’s faith.  Not even tonight, when the summons arrived late and a storm raged outside.  One reason amongst many that she loved him so completely.

‘Then at least take Civius,’ was all the king asked.  ‘The man pays his dues every prayer day… and he’s still alive, despite the best efforts of half the world!  There must be something Osisi likes about him.’

Luxana smiled at the memory.  Thank the gods for his stubbornness, she thought, glancing once more at the thick clouds swirling overhead, wincing at another clap of thunder.  Nothing good can be waiting for us at the end of this journey…

War was coming, Luxana knew that much.  She could almost taste it in the air.  But while the men of Danara hungered for such delights, their queen dreaded the prospect.  She had heard tales of the Basillian hordes running riot to the northeast, nation after nation falling to their insatiable hunger for war, held back now only by the mountains and the sea, which could both be conquered by determined men.

Then there were the reports from the Lucian Empire, whose burgeoning wealth grew by the day.  The Emperor Coren had watched his father fail to conquer Volga in the frozen north and now there was a very real danger he might turn his gaze south, to the fertile lands of Pelonia and the crown jewel that was Danara…

Pushing the dark thoughts away, Luxana peered through the gloom to the wall of Suri and felt some of her confidence return.  Encircling the entire city, the wall stood some forty feet tall with ramparts wide enough to hold ranks of soldiers five deep.  She was Danara’s first line of defence and she had never fallen.  Even if she did, there would be three more walls waiting for the aggressors, protected by men forged for war.  It was with good reason that the elders called Danara “the Unbreakable”.  Luxana refused to believe there was a force in the world strong enough to prove them wrong.

As if echoing that confidence, the northern gate stood open.  The mark of a free land, thought Luxana, with a touch of pride.  A handful of sentries stood watch on the ramparts above the gate, and they signalled a greeting as the queen’s party passed by.  Luxana and Civius followed the priestess beneath the great arch and out into the surrounding country.

The temple stood on a small hill a mile from the city’s outskirts, nestled in the shadow of Mount Dana.  It was an arduous journey through the storm.  The road was thick with mud, lost in some places beneath a foot of water.  Still, Luxana declined the pestering aid of both Civius and the young priestess.  The gods had always set such trials for the faithful, and Luxana was determined to reach the temple by her own strength.  An uncomfortable journey is a small price to pay for whatever guidance Osisi can offer.

The queen was soaked to the bone by the time they reached the temple, her clothes heavy with mud.  The priestess knocked twice on the great oak doors, but it seemed to take an age before the sounds of unlocking bolts drifted from the other side and the ancient door finally creaked ajar.  A hooded woman appeared, peering through the crack between door and frame, her face worn by age and weariness.  Mother Blessing smiled when she recognised the queen, her features softening with obvious relief.

‘Welcome, child,’ she said, stepping aside to let the travellers in.  Warmth enveloped Luxana as she stepped into the shelter of the temple, Civius and their escort following closely behind her.  Once they were in, Mother Blessing threw her plump, yet wizened frame against the heavy door and heaved it closed behind them, shutting out the wind and the storm.

The only light within the temple’s great hall could be seen at the far end, where a sea of candles had been laid at the feet of Osisi’s statue.  In their glow, the goddess stood as proud and defiant as ever, the Horn of Danisi pressed to her lips, the Sword of Fire held aloft.  It was not the statue that held Luxana’s gaze though, it was the flock of priestesses huddled in Osisi’s shadow, speaking in hushed whispers.  The sight made Luxana nervous.

‘What news, Mother?’ she asked.

Mother Blessing followed the queen’s gaze.  She nodded solemnly.  ‘The time of prophecy is upon us, my child.’

Luxana’s heart sank.  It was the news she had dreaded.  ‘You are sure?’

‘Only as sure as any mortal can be when it comes to the work of the gods.’  The old woman took hold of Luxana’s hand and guided her towards the gathered women.  Only then did Luxana see the young woman in their midst, lying naked upon a bed of blood soaked blankets.

The queen recognised the girl immediately, though it had been at least three months since she last saw Trilia.  Back then there had been no sign of the life growing within her, but now the queen’s gaze lingered on the woman’s swollen belly, her stomach turning at the sight of the blood soaked bandages pressed there.  They had failed to staunch the wound below, proving powerless to stop Trilia’s lifeblood seeping away.  Now the poor girl’s breast lay still, her empty eyes staring into nothing.

Luxana turned away, unable to bear the sight any longer… only to find the grief tearing at her own heart etched on the faces of the assembled women.  They had come to witness the birth of a new life, yet it had ended in blood and death.  It should have been a perfect moment, she thought.  It should have been magical, but instead the Gatekeeper came and danced his dance, and now Trilia is gone.  And the child…  Gods, not the child as well!

‘Did you save the babe?’ she asked desperately, turning to Mother Blessing.

There were tears in the old woman’s eyes, but somehow she held them back.  ‘Let her see,’ she told her girls.

A young priestess kneeling beside the dead woman got gingerly to her feet.  She turned to face the queen, revealing the bundled, woollen blanket cradled in her arms.  When Luxana moved closer, she saw the tiny pink face of the newborn baby wrapped inside.

‘We could only save one of them,’ Mother Blessing said sadly.  ‘Trilia chose to sacrifice herself so that the child might live.  Beautiful, is he not?’

Luxana could only nod her agreement.  There was an air of familiarity about the boy that sent her stomach lurching.  Reading the queen’s pain, Mother Blessing sighed.  ‘I’m sorry, child.  You see his father in him, I wasn’t sure that you would.’

‘So this is why she ran…’ Luxana muttered.  ‘Foolish girl.  I have always known Caraborn has… a weakness for beautiful women and soft flesh.  It pains me, but I have never blamed the women he beds.’

Mother Blessing laid a hand on Luxana’s shoulder and spoke gently.  ‘They never gave him something you could not.’  Though the words were softly spoken, they cut Luxana deeply.  ‘Take the child, my queen.  Hold him.’

‘I cannot,’ hissed Luxana, stepping away.  The thought of even touching the baby was like a stab at her heart.  For nearly nine years of marriage, she and Caraborn had tried without success for a child.  It was the reason she was so forgiving of his infidelity.  Caraborn, she believed, blamed himself for Luxana’s failure to conceive.  His bedding of other women was a test of manhood; an attempt to prove to himself that he was able.  But here was the truth, even before Mother Blessing put words to it.  A serving girl has given him something his queen never could.

‘You must hold him,’ Mother Blessing pressed.  ‘For he is the Ember Child.’

The words stunned Luxana.  ‘That’s impossible,’ she heard herself mutter.

‘How can you even doubt it?’ countered Mother Blessing.  ‘You know the words of prophecy as well as anyone.’  And then the old woman recited the words Luxana had heard a thousand times before:

 

“From the blood of sacrifice shall come the child,

Pelonia’s Doom.

He will herald the fall of kings,

And the breaking of the Unbreakable.

 

Yet from the blood of Osisi shall come the man,

Pelonia’s Hope.

He alone can restore the Throne of Lions,

And set aflame the fires of resistance.”

 

With a nod of satisfaction, Mother Blessing reached out an age-weary finger and stroked the infant’s rosy cheek.  ‘This child lives because of his mother’s sacrifice.  His father’s line descends from the goddess Osisi.  There is no mistake, he is the Ember Child.’

Though her body screamed out for her not to, Luxana reached out and took hold of the baby.  For a moment she held him up before her, staring into a face so different, yet so similar to the man she loved.  The boy had the same broad nose, the same heavy brow, and the same dark hair.  Luxana wanted nothing more than to hate him for the betrayal and truth he represented.  Yet she could not, for he was a part of Caraborn…

…and Caraborn is everything.

‘If this is truly the will of the gods, then so be it,’ she said bitterly.  Folding her arms beneath the baby, she held him to her bosom and turned to Mother Blessing.  ‘What must we do?’

‘He will not be safe in Danara if… no,’ the old woman corrected herself, ‘when the city falls.  He must be taken far from here, beyond the reach of our enemies.  Whoever takes him must be strong and loyal, capable of protecting him, ready to teach him what he needs to know to one day fulfil his duty.’

Civius.  The name came unbidden to Luxana’s mind, yet it was the perfect answer.  If there was one man in this world who could achieve the impossible task they would ask of him, it was Civius.  And the king’s champion was standing not ten feet away, his face an unreadable mask.

‘What were your king’s orders?’ Luxana asked him.

The soldier hesitated.  ‘To serve my queen as I would serve my king.’

That is enough, she thought.  He is mine.  ‘Then I bid you serve this child as you would serve his father.  Give him the oath, Civius.’

For a long moment the soldier contemplated what his queen was asking of him: to leave his homeland and his king in service to an infant boy.  He looked pleadingly at Luxana.  ‘I am Caraborn’s man, my queen,’ he said.  ‘If war is coming, my place is beside my king upon the walls.’

‘You are Danara’s man, Civius,’ Luxana told him.  ‘If the prophecy is to be believed and we cannot win this war, then this child may be our only hope for a future.’

‘The prophecy means nothing to the king,’ countered Civius, desperate for anything to keep responsibility for the child away from himself.

‘No,’ said Luxana, knowing she had him.  ‘But it matters to you.  I told Caraborn that only a true believer could enter the temple tonight, and here you stand, with orders to do my bidding.’  Luxana laid a hand on the man’s mighty shoulder.  ‘I know this is hard for you, Civius.  Caraborn is your friend as well as your king, and you would not abandon him to whatever fate is heading our way.  But this boy is more important than any of that.  He is the future of our people.  He is the Ember Child.  So you will do what I ask, not for your king or your queen, but for your country.’

And there it was.  Civius’s resistance broke with a sigh of resignation.  He was duty-bound to do whatever the queen asked, and when her words called into question his national pride, he crumbled.  Stepping forward with a bowed head and a heavy heart, he gave the child his oath.  ‘My sword and my life,’ were the words he spoke.  The Danaran words.

The bundle in Luxana’s arms stirred at the sound of the soldier’s gruff voice.  A tiny hand reached out from the blanket in search of some comfort.  After a moment of simply watching, Civius tentatively moved a finger within reaching distance.  The child gripped the offered finger like an eagle swooping on prey, and, despite himself, Civius smiled.

Mother Blessing nodded, a strange gleam in her eyes.  ‘Aye,’ she said, ‘this one will do.  But we will need others too.  There is not much time to make our plans.’

‘Caraborn will give us what we need,’ said Luxana confidently.

‘You still believe his love for you runs deep enough for him to look beyond his scepticism?  Even given this… affair?’

There was not a doubt in Luxana’s mind.  ‘We love each other; nothing in the world will change that.  Caraborn will do whatever I ask of him.’  She looked down at the sleeping face of the child.  The boy gurgled, shifted against her, then settled again.  ‘And if not for me, he’ll do it for his son.’

‘Does he have a name?’ asked Civius, his finger still held firmly in the child’s grip.

‘Halasan,’ replied Mother Blessing.  ‘That was his mother’s dying wish.’

Civius and Luxana shared a glance.  ‘A good name,’ observed the soldier.  ‘A name of strength.’

The queen turned back to Mother Blessing, searching her pale blue eyes.  ‘Do you truly believe this boy can save our people?’

There was a moment’s silence before the old woman answered.  ‘Nothing is written in stone.  Not even the will of the gods.  In life we leave just one path behind us, but there are many that lie ahead, the path we take determined by our choices.  The prophecy speaks only of what could happen, if the right path is chosen.  In the end, the boy offers nothing more than hope.  He is the Ember Child; either he will resurrect the Danaran fire, or he will burn out and Danara turn to dust.  The only thing I know for sure is that without him we are doomed.’

Just then, barely audible above the storm raging outside the temple, a distant horn sounded a single, haunting note.  It was followed a moment later by a second taking up the call… then a third… and a fourth,  each one closer than the last.

With a curse, Civius withdrew his finger from the child’s grip and placed his hand on the hilt of his sword.  As Luxana’s heart began to race, she held the child tighter to her.

‘Aye,’ whispered Mother Blessing.  ‘It begins.’


 

If you enjoyed this extract you can find the full version of The Ember Child in both paperback and e-book format, here, on Amazon.

Stay tuned to Stories From the Cave for further extracts from The Ember Child, details on any future work, the occasional bonus content, and my musings on the real-life struggles of a wannabe writer.

 

Tony
1st October 2017

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