Excerpt: The Ember Child, Chapter 1

Kirea watched from her hiding place in the undergrowth as the legend that was Civius worked in the clearing ahead, cutting wood for the coming winter.  Even now, approaching his sixties, the man struck an imposing figure.  Stripped to the waist, his powerful frame glistened with sweat in the midday sun, his bronzed flesh crisscrossed with the scars of a thousand battles.  It’s him, she thought, barely believing it.  It’s truly him.

The old man worked in silence; placing chunks of wood on the cutting log, then splitting them with a rhythmic swing of his axe.  He was missing a finger from his left hand, but it did nothing to hinder his swing.  Nor was his accuracy affected by the scrap of red cloth covering the ruined socket of his right eye.

As soon as she laid eyes on him, Kirea knew why the queen had chosen this man above all others.  She might have been born too late to witness the days of glory, but she had always listened to the whispered legends of her elders.  They spoke of a Danara that shone like a beacon against the darkness of the world.   But they were just words, Kirea had always thought, told to inspire hope in young hearts.  It was only now, watching Civius, that she could actually see the truth behind the stories.

Here was a man who embodied everything Danara stood for: strength, honour, and glory.  It was only fitting that Danara’s last hope should rest in the hands of such as him… and so far the old man had done everything they could have asked.  It had taken Kirea almost four months to track him to the land of Killian, and a further three days to find his cabin sitting in the shadow of Mount Garash.  Even drawn by the bond it was like searching for a twig in a forest.  Now it’s just the boy, thought Kirea, excited.  What has Civius made of him?

She scanned her surroundings, searching for him.  The autumn sun shone brightly in a clear blue sky, cutting shafts of light through the half barren greenery of the tree tops.  To Kirea’s left, the land fell away to form a cliff overlooking the forest at the foot of the mountain, while to her right, the mountain climbed to the heavens where the snow-capped peak scraped the sky itself.

The cabin sat between cliff and mountain, nestled in the embrace of a small clump of oaks, just beyond where Civius was working.  It was a modest structure built from logs, no doubt by the old man himself.  Kirea knew without question there would be three rooms: two bedrooms leading off a main living area.  The bare essentials, she thought.  That is the soldier’s way; the Danaran way.

Though there was no sign of the boy himself, he would be close.  There was no way Civius would not let him out of his sight for long.

Catching the scent of woodsmoke in the air, Kirea shifted her gaze back to the cabin.  A chimney was built into the thatched roof, from where a trail of smoke drifted lazily into the sky, dispersed a little on the way by the semi-naked branches overhead.  He must be inside, she thought, edging forward, so close now she almost wanted to run…

Yet before she had moved an inch, Kirea felt the cold bite of steel press into her throat, freezing her to the spot.  Slowly, very slowly, she turned her head.

Standing behind her was a handsome young lad with grey eyes and black hair.  He looked almost apologetic about the sword he was holding to her throat, which was enough to melt Kirea’s fears.  It’s him, she realised, her heart leaping for joy even more than it had at the sight of Civius.  It’s the Ember Child!

‘Bring her out, boy,’ called the old man’s haggard voice.

With a sad smile and a nod of his head, the boy urged Kirea to her feet and followed her out into the clearing.  As they stepped into the open, he took Kirea’s leather satchel from over her shoulder and tossed it to the old man, who caught it deftly.  Civius emptied the contents to the floor, where he inspected the remains of Kirea’s supplies.  Not that there was much to inspect; just a half empty water skin, a hunk of bread, and a few slices of ham wrapped in cloth.  Civius grunted at the collection, before turning his attention back to Kirea.

She felt small and insignificant under the scrutinising gaze of that lone, sapphire-blue eye.  Here was a man who had dedicated his life to the Danaran cause, his sole purpose now to ensure the survival of his people and their way of life.  What am I, next to that, Kirea wondered?

All she could think to do was bow her head in respect – something no daughter of Osisi had ever done to any man, save the Emperor Coren, with whom such an act was little more than self-preservation.

The gesture was lost on Civius, however, who simply stepped forward and grasped the pendant hanging around Kirea’s neck.  The piece featured a silver sword wrapped in golden flame.  ‘The Sword of Fire,’  he muttered, releasing the pendant as though it burned him.  ‘A priestess of Osisi.  Explain yourself, girl.’

Straightening, Kirea brushed herself down in an effort to regain some respectability.  ‘My name is Kirea,’ she said, ‘servant of the Temple of Osisi.  I bring word from Mother Blessing.  Danara calls, Civius.  She calls for her king.’

The old man winced as though struck.  ‘It’s too soon,’ he said, glancing at the boy.  ‘He’s not ready.’

‘It is him then?’  Kirea’s heart began to race as she looked at the boy afresh, weighing him up.  He was smaller than she had imagined; nowhere near the heroic champion hinted at in the prophecy.  He’s still young though, she told herself.  Two years younger than you.  And those eyes…

Those eyes were the pale grey of steel, as piercing as any sword.

‘Aye, girl,’ answered Civius.  ‘This is Halasan.’

Kirea fell to her knees at the youngster’s feet, overcome with relief and emotion.

This is Halasan.

Those were the words Kirea had been searching for since the day she left Danara.  They seemed impossible words when she first set out, charged with crossing the world to find an old man and a boy who had been missing for sixteen years.  The task would have been beyond most people, let alone a woman barely of age who had never set foot beyond the borders of Danara.  The praise goes to Osisi, whispered the voice of Mother Blessing, echoing from Kirea’s memories.  She has a gift for making the impossible possible.  I knew she would guide you here.  I knew she would lead you to the Ember Child.

‘There’s no need for that,’ said the boy, helping Kirea to her feet.

‘You see?’ muttered Civius, shaking his head.  ‘He’s not ready.’

The old man took a seat on a bench beside the cabin, where he invited Kirea to join him.  She accepted the offer gratefully, sitting beside him, while Halasan sat himself on the cutting log opposite.  There they sat in silence for a while, looking at each other, each knowing their world was never going to be the same again.

‘You’re a long way from home,’ Civius said at last.  ‘You came this far by yourself?’

‘I did,’ said Kirea.  ‘I paid my way on ships and caravans when I could, stayed low and kept myself hidden when I couldn’t.’

Civius offered a grunt of admiration at that.  ‘A risky venture for a girl so young,’ he said.  ‘It’s a shame you wasted your time.  Mother Blessing said I had until the boy reached manhood, and that’s still two years away.’

Kirea swallowed hard.  No tears, she told herself.  He’s old Danaran, this one.  He’ll have no time for weakness.  ‘Mother Blessing is dead,’ she said without flinching, though the truth of the words still clawed at her heart.

‘Dead, you say?’  Civius’s mouth curled in distaste.  ‘What happened?’

‘The Purge.’  This time Kirea failed to keep the quiver from her voice.  ‘They came to the temple at Dana… killed everyone… and burned the temple to the ground.’  Twice she almost broke, but somehow she held together long enough to get the words out.  ‘I was the only one who survived.’

‘Slowly, priestess,’ Civius said softly.  ‘We’ve been away from home a long time.  Who are “the Purge”?’

Kirea took a moment to compose herself before answering.  ‘Since you’ve been gone, Coren has declared himself the one-true-god.  All other deities are outlawed, on pain of death for those caught worshipping them.  The Purge are the enforcers of that law; a brotherhood formed from the lowest men the Empire has to offer: hunters, vagabonds, and murderers mostly, with hearts as black as that of the Emperor himself.’

In her mind’s eye Kirea was back there, standing on the temple steps beside Mother Blessing, watching the Purge approach.  There were a score of them riding at pace along the road from Danara, their mounts trailing a cloud of dust while sunlight gleamed off spear tips and burnished helms.  At their head, a white banner fluttered in the wind, the crescent moon of scarlet emblazoned upon it warning all of who they were: men above the law, answerable only to Coren himself…

‘So they come at last,’ whispered Mother Blessing, her voice wavering.  That was the first time in her life Kirea had seen fear in the woman’s ancient eyes.  ‘Run, child,’ she urged.  ‘Hide yourself!’

Kirea wanted nothing more than to obey, to save herself if she could, but word of the approaching riders had spread fast and her sisters were gathering to Mother Blessing like sheep to the shepherd.  They were all dressed in the same sky-blue robes as Kirea, marking them for servants of Osisi; robes heavy with the weight of duty…

‘I’ll not leave you,’ said Kirea.  ‘I belong with my sisters.’

‘You belong where I tell you!’ barked the old woman, eyes flashing with anger.  Then her expression softened and she smiled sadly.  ‘You have work to do, my child.  You’ll understand soon enough, but for now you have to run.’  She caressed Kirea’s face.  ‘Hide, girl.  Don’t let them find you.’

Back on Mount Garash, Kirea fought back the tears as she told her story.  No time for weakness, she told herself again.  They need to hear it all.  ‘So I ran,’ she continued.  ‘I found a closet in the temple and hid inside, burying myself deep beneath a mound of robes.  I couldn’t see them, but I could hear their laughter as they tortured my sisters.  I could hear the screams, Civius.  Such terrible screams…’

‘And they killed her?’  Civius spoke softly, but his lonely blue eye burned with fury.

‘No,’ said Kirea, her resolve almost cracking.  No time for weakness.  ‘They butchered her.  They put out her eyes, cut up her face, and nailed her to the temple doors…’

It was then that Kirea finally broke, unable to stop the memory from overwhelming her self-control.  Mother Blessing had been as a mother to her, and they had left her hanging from a door, mutilated beyond recognition.  Kirea squeezed her eyes shut against the memory, tears flowing freely down her cheeks.

Then something happened she did not expect.  Civius drew her into him and held her close.  ‘Easy, girl,’ he said soothingly, a hand caressing her back.  ‘Their day will come, I promise you that.  All men pay their debts in the end, and the cruelest pay it worst of all.’

Kirea struggled for a few moments to regain control of herself, before she was able to speak once more.  ‘She was still alive, Civius.  Despite everything they did to her, she was still alive.  That’s when she told me to find you.  She said they came to the temple looking for the boy.  She said Coren knows of the prophecy.’

‘Coren does not believe in our gods.  What would he care of their prophecies?’

‘It’s enough for Coren that we believe,’ said Kirea.  ‘The prophecy offers our people hope, and hope is a dangerous thing to a man trying to control the conquered.  He hopes that by killing Halasan he will end Danaran hope once and for all.’  Kirea turned to the boy.  ‘He will stop at nothing to see you dead.’

Halasan nodded.  ‘He wants to see my head mounted on a spear outside the gates of Danara.’  He spoke calmly, but Kirea was both surprised and impressed by the hard tone that gave his young voice an edge.

‘The boy knows his place in this world,’ Civius explained.

‘Then he is ready to answer the Call,’ said Kirea.

‘He’s not…’ Civius broke off as a bird erupted from the forest below, screeching in annoyance as it took flight.  The old man’s face lit up, and he grasped Kirea by the shoulders.  ‘How did you find us, girl?’ he asked. ‘Quickly!’

‘A blood bond,’ said Kirea, nonplussed.  ‘Mother Blessing kept the remains of your eye in a jar and I used them in a bond-casting to track you.  It’s an old talent.’

Civius surged to his feet, swearing.  ‘Halasan, fetch the weapons.’

Without question, the boy disappeared into the cabin.   Civius swept up a brown shirt lying on the ground near the cutting log, pulling it over his head and sliding his arms through the sleeves.  The axe he had been using to cut wood had been left standing half-embedded in the earth beside the cutting log, and Civius grabbed the haft and pulled it free. ‘What is it?’ Kirea asked him.  ‘What’s wrong?’

‘It was no mistake you were overlooked at the temple.  If the boy is as important to Coren as you say he is, the men he sent to find him would be better than that.  They left the old woman alive as bait.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘They’ve been tracking you from the beginning, girl,’ he said calmly.  ‘You’ve led them straight to us.’

*     *     *

ii

Each of the weapons mounted on the cabin wall had played a part in Halasan’s growing life.  The impressive armoury contained every style of blade the known world could offer, every form of shield and spear, every kind of bow and crossbow.  Civius had spent years training Halasan in the use of each, so it could be no surprise the boy found it almost impossible choosing which to take and which to leave behind.

Sadly though, the choice was necessary.  They were found.  Civius knew it, and so did the boy he had raised as a son.

The Purge, Kirea called them.  Coren’s chosen elite.  He must have low standards, thought Halasan, still smirking at the birds disturbed by their approach.  Civius would have beaten me bloody for a mistake like that.

Yet it would be dangerous to underestimate them.  Weeks tracking an easy target might have made them sloppy, but it would make their swords no less deadly.  Halasan wondered how many there would be.  Five, at least, he figured.  Not too many to move with stealth, but enough to deal with one old man and a boy…

Or at least that’s what they’ll think.  Civius could take five by himself.  We should stand our ground and fight.  Danarans never retreat, and they never surrender.

Yet before that thought was fully formed, Civius’s reply was already ringing in Halasan’s ears.  You’re not ready, the old man would say.  Flight is our only option here.

Halasan sighed, refocusing on the weapons.  If running was truly the only option, there was no point weighing themselves down with steel.  Better they be light on their feet to cross the difficult terrain of Garash.  With that in mind, he chose the weapons practicality demanded: two swords, three knives, and a longbow with a quiver of goose-feathered arrows.

Halasan would carry the longbow and one of the swords.  Civius said he was good with the first, and exceptional with the second.  The other sword was Civius’s own – the Lion’s Pride, featuring the lion-headed pommel that marked him King’s Champion.  The knives, lastly, would be divided amongst the three of them.

With that decided, Halasan moved back to the cabin entrance, where his gaze fell on the set of antlers hanging over the door.  They had belonged to the great stag Civius liked to call the King of the Mountain.

They would stumble upon the beast occasionally during their hunts, but each time Civius would let him go.  ‘Look at him,’ the old man would say.  ‘Proud and majestic, like a king of old.  Let him live, boy.  His meat is too good for the likes of us.’

But that last winter had been different.  It was the worst Halasan and Civius had ever faced during their time on the mountain, when they had come close to starvation.  They ran into the stag near the western river, finding him pawing at the snow, trying to reach the grass below.  Somehow, with icicles gleaming from the branches of his antler crown and a silver sheen to his frozen coat, he still looked every inch the king… but his powerful flanks were gaunt and bony.  It had been a lean winter for the King of the Mountain too, it seemed.

‘Take him, boy,’ Civius had whispered this one time.  ‘Every king has his day, and if you are to have yours then his must end.’

Whether he had meant to test Halasan’s hunger for food or for the crown, the boy was never sure.  Whatever the answer, it was the hardest kill Halasan had ever made.  Has my day come at last, he wondered as he looked up at those antlers?  Or will these hunters end it before it begins?

Halasan paused at the cabin door for one last look back.  He had spent much of his life within the walls of this cabin and his mind was full of memories of the place.  When he was not outside training, he would be inside recovering, usually enjoying the exquisite spoils of a successful hunt.  Most nights would be spent sitting beside the fire, listening to Civius’s tales of Danara.  But there was a sharp side to the memories too, cutting at the goodness.

Life on Garash had never been easy.  It was hard and lonely more often than not.  There were no friends for Halasan; no time for the adventures so craved by the young.  Even when they made their monthly supply runs to Port Killian, Civius would be filled with doubt.  Their visits would be short and their time spent with just a handful of known merchants.

Halasan knew this protection was for his own good, yet that made it no easier to bear.  All he wanted was to see the world.  To touch it.  To smell it.  To taste it.  Perhaps now I’ll have the chance…

Knowing he would never return, Halasan turned his back on the cabin and pulled the door shut behind him.  Time to go home, he thought, with more than a sense of liberation.

He found Civius and Kirea waiting for him outside, the old soldier scanning the tree line while the priestess stood nervously in his shadow. That was the first time Halasan really looked at the woman.  She was nothing like what he would have expected.  Civius had warned him that women of the altar were either old and bitter, or had their minds twisted against men.  Kirea was neither.  Young and beautiful, so far she had shown Civius nothing but the utmost respect.

Beneath the travel stained green cloak she wore, Kirea was dressed in a brown tunic and dark leather leggings, both of which were so closely fitted to her slim figure that Halasan found his gaze lingering there for a moment.  Though his experience was limited, this was without doubt the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

And then she was looking at him, smiling.  Like sunlight through a cloudy sky…

Halasan turned away from her sharply, blood rushing to his face.  Feeling awkward under her gaze, he crossed the clearing to Civius and handed over the man’s sword and one of the daggers.  Civius grunted his appreciation, though he never took his gaze from the trees.

‘I’m telling you there’s nothing out there,’ said Kirea.  ‘It’s impossible they could have followed me from Danara.  I would have seen them.  I would have seen something!’

Buckling the sword belt to his waist and tucking the dagger into his right boot, Civius shook his head.  ‘You’ve spent your life in a temple, girl,’ he said.  ‘You’d be easy prey for a skilled tracker.’ The old man turned to Halasan.  ‘We’ll not be coming back here, boy.  You got everything you need?’

Halasan nodded, patting his own sword hilt and the bow slung over his shoulder.  ‘I’ll miss this place,’ he said, with one last look at the cabin.

Civius only grinned.  ‘No you won’t, boy.  Not where we’re going.’

Halasan offered the spare dagger to Kirea, but the woman only looked at it blankly.  ‘I can’t use that,’ she said after a moment.

‘It’s for your protection,’ Halasan told her.

The priestess raised an eyebrow.  ‘The daughters of Osisi do not fight,’ she explained, as if talking to a child.  ‘When Osisi took up the mantle of Goddess of War, she did so that her daughters would never have to shed blood in combat.  Your teacher should have taught you that,’ she added, casting an accusing look at Civius.

‘I’ve taught the boy everything he needs to know,’ the old man replied.  ‘What you need to remember, girl, is that Osisi isn’t here.  She’s half the world away… and some fates are worse than death.  You might be glad to have that blade before the end.  Even if you haven’t got the stomach to use it on them, you might want to use it on yourself.’

Kirea’s face grew pale at that, but she accepted the blade without further complaint.

‘Good,’ said Civius.  ‘Then let’s be on our way.’

Halasan offered Kirea a sympathetic smile, and together they followed the old man into the trees.  Civius led them toward a cliff in the direction they had seen the birds take flight from, hoping to get a glimpse of what they were up against.  Once at the top of the precipice, the old man dropped to his stomach and crawled to the edge, where he looked out over the trees below.  Staying low and making as little noise as possible, Halasan moved up beside him.

‘They have the woman’s trail,’ Civius whispered.  Halasan looked to where the old man pointed, eyes squinting as he searched for their foe.  Below them, the wood followed the decline of the mountain until it reached the Killian flatlands to the east, where the trees gave way to grassy plains.  Usually anything making the climb towards the mountain would have been hidden beneath the canopy of the trees, but with winter drawing in, most of the coverage had died and fallen away.  It did not take long for Halasan to spot the men making the steep climb towards them.  He counted six in all, dressed in black and heavily armed.  ‘They’ll reach the cabin before long,’ Civius muttered.

‘What do we do?’ asked Halasan.

‘We’ll head for the waterfall, then take the southern path from the mountain.  We’ll need to reach the city before they can run us down.’

‘Can we not face them?  There are only six.’

Civius laughed.  ‘Yes, only six.  Six trained killers.  How many men have you killed, boy?’

Halasan felt his face flush.  ‘None.  But you’re…’

‘…old, boy.  Old is all I am.’  Civius smiled fondly.  ‘In my prime, with you at my side, I would have fancied our chances.  But there’s too much at stake now to risk it all on a green boy and an old man.  Getting you off this mountain alive is all that matters.  Let’s move.’

They followed an old deer trail as it wound its way up the eastern face of the mountain.  The temperature dropped as they climbed, growing gusts of wind buffeting them from every direction.  Then they began to hear it, first as a low guttural growl, but growing steadily into a powerful, ear-splitting roar.    Eventually the waterfall came into view, a never-ending torrent of water spilling down from the highest peaks of the western mountains and tumbling down Garash’s face into the river at its base, from where it flowed east towards Port Killian and into the sea.

Breaking from the deer trail, Civius led the way through the trees to the waterfall’s edge.  There, between the wall of water and the wall of rock behind it, they found a gap wide enough for a man, where, in a summer long past, Civius and Halasan had fashioned a rope bridge to cross the ten-metre expanse of the falls.

Three ropes made the bridge.  Two, acting as hand rails, were tied to posts on either side of the crossing, whilst the third was secured to the ground by stakes on both sides.

‘Quickly now,’ said Civius.  ‘You first, boy.’

Halasan knew the bridge was sturdy enough, but he had never found the crossing easy.  The ropes, already wet and slippery, would sway from side to side under the force of the falls, and Halasan knew one misstep could see him plunge into the white, misty abyss below.  There were other factors too, which made the crossing more difficult.  The splashing water drenched a man to the bone as he edged out onto the ropes; the thick vapour filled his lungs and nostrils as he tried to breathe; and the never-ending thunder of the falls threatened to crush his confidence with every step he took.  Every inch was a challenge, but it was one Halasan met with relish.  These were the moments he had been training for.  The enemy is afoot, he told himself.  No time for fear or doubt.

He moved across the bridge without pause, holding firmly to the rails as he inched forward one step at a time.  It seemed to take an age, but at last his foot touched solid ground on the other side, where he almost collapsed in relief.  By the time he looked back, Kirea was already halfway over the chasm, a look of terror growing on her face as she eased out beneath the falls.

The priestess kept her eyes fixed on Halasan as she made the crossing, not daring to look down into the gorge below.  Finally, with the worst behind her and a desperate need to feel solid ground again, Kirea leapt the last few feet.  Halasan stepped in and caught her, saving her from a heavy fall.  For a moment she lost herself in his arms, holding to him tightly while she caught her breath.  Only when the excitement had passed did she pull away, looking slightly embarrassed.

Halasan looked back across the falls to see Civius standing his ground.  ‘Come on!’ he called to the old man, shouting to be heard over the weight of falling water.

But Civius shook his head.  ‘Those men will have horses nearby,’ he called back.  ‘They’ll ride us down long before we reach the city…  unless I can buy you some time.  Cut the bridge, boy.’

‘He will,’ replied Kirea, ‘once you’re across!’

‘That will only slow them,’ said Civius.  ‘I have the chance to stop them.  Cut the ropes, boy.’

‘I can’t!’ called Halasan.  ‘I won’t!’

‘You can, and you must.  You’re a king now, boy.  It’s time you learnt the price of that crown.  Sometimes sacrifices are needed for the greater good.  Today, it’s mine.  The Warlord of Kasis is done running.’

Halasan couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  ‘I need you, Civius.’

‘No you don’t.  You need to get to Port Killian.  You need to find Borga.  He’ll get you passage on a ship to Nuran, and from there you’ll need to seek an audience with Kiliakus.  He’s a good man, you can trust him.  He’ll tell you the next step.’  Civius smiled.  ‘And now I’ve given you everything I can.  Go now, boy.  Before it’s too late.  Go fulfil your destiny.’

Halasan’s mouth was dry as he drew his sword.

Kirea stared at him incredulously.  ‘You can’t do it,’ she said.  ‘We can’t leave him behind!’

Halasan knew she was right, yet with a heavy heart he raised the sword over his head.

‘Please, Halasan…’

Kirea reached for him, but Halasan’s sword fell cleanly and the bridge toppled into the abyss.  It felt to Halasan as though he had hacked away his own heart when he gazed across the falls to where Civius stood, the old man’s lone sapphire eye glistening back at him.  Was that a tear in his eye, or just water from the falls?

‘Proud of you, boy,’ called the old man.

‘We’ll wait for you in Killian,’ Halasan called back.

Civius smiled.  ‘Don’t wait too long.  I’m not the man I used to be.’

And with that, the old man was gone.

© Anthony Mitchell 2018


 

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Thanks for reading!

Tony
9th October 2018

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