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  • A new novel on its way to a major revision or the shredder.

    I've already started a revision of this opening chapter but want to post it here to see if others see the flaws, or can point out ones I haven't seen. Thanks in advance for reading something that I'm sure will never see the shelf of a bookstore without some help.

    Chapter I
    THE CASTLE MUCWIEL
    In the village of Ornia, at the foot of the Humbar hills, they came with the morning fog, like demons out of the mist, thirty and six, dressed in black leather breastplates, with swords and spears; the tax soldiers of the High Lord in Tenmanchent came. They were followed by an empty grain wagon, which was drawn to one end of the cobbled square. The women of the village hid what little grain they could as the soldiers began to rout them from their huts; sacks were shoved into the hiding holes and quickly covered with straw sleeping pallets. In only one hut was something other than grain hidden; a woman hid the red-haired child.

    Guards with long spears were sent to each side of the village to prevent escape. Swordsmen went to each hut and called the people out. Finally, the huts were emptied and the villagers stood mute upon the moist cobblestones of the square, their eyes downcast as they listened to the words of the captain. His black boots pounded against the stones as he strutted back and forth, pulling the spiked gauntlets from his hands and slapping them against the sheath of his sword.

    From within the thatched huts forming the square, the villagers heard the sound of swords ripping through their sleeping pallets and the heavy boots of tax soldiers smashing their storage bins. While sacks of grain were carried out to be placed in the waiting wagon, they watched as their belongings were thrown from doors and windows of the huts. A wooden spoon carved by a loved one, a worn shawl handed down from daughter to daughter, an urn brought from the old land, such were the things thrown down as the search for grain went on.

    A hut at the end of the square crackled into flames. The grass roof went up ablaze all at once, and the inner frame of poles smoldered like a dark skeleton. A woman standing in the line wept into her hands. At this, Captain Bandamik stopped his speech, laughed, and shoved her to the ground. “But we need that grain to get through the winter,” she murmured.

    “Quiet beast! Or you’ll join your filthy hovel,” he said. “You don’t know when you have it good,” he went on. “Ten paltry wagons of grain this village sent the High Lord. Ten wagons of worthless chaff!” He spit upon the stones. “At the mercy of our hand we’ve allowed you parasites to live. But you won’t live longer unless you triple the harvest by....”

    A shout came from behind. Captain Bandamik turned to see one of his soldiers in the doorframe of a nearby hut, a wriggling child locked in his arms. A woman broke from the line and ran toward the captain. The soldier dropped the child at Bandamik’s feet as the woman reached him and fell upon her knees. “Oh great lord, pity,” she cried. “She is only a child.”

    The captain gripped one arm of the child and lifted her up. She was a slender girl child, no more than twelve winters, pale, dressed in a sack of soiled brown cloth, with a tight fitting head cover tied about her chin. She hung in the air, legs dangling, and stared wide-eyed at the captain, her dark blue eyes revealing neither fear nor malice.

    The soldier who had found the child put his sword hand to his breastplate in salute. “It was in a hole under a sleeping pallet,” he said, pointing to the hut. The woman at the captain’s feet moaned and whimpered, “Pity sir. She sleeps there. The hut is small. She did not wake. It’s not her fault.”

    “And why not a sack of grain but a child?” the captain asked, ignoring the pleas. He pushed back the tightly tied brown cloth head cover with his free hand and flame red hair fell to the child’s back. The soldier stiffened. With a jerk, the captain put the child down and held a wisp of the hair in his hand. “Now we see it,” he said. “These animals are not just parasites, they are outlaws!”

    His hand fastening on the child’s hair like a tether, he turned to the line of villagers. “You know the proclamation; On pain of death, red-haired children to be brought to the High Lord....” A boy on the edge of manhood broke from the line and ran toward one end of the village. A long shafted spear met him halfway and his body crumpled. His mother screamed, her knees buckling, as she sank to the ground, weeping. The woman who stood beside her knelt and wrapped her arms around her. “Lieutenant, command the men to the square,” ordered the captain.

    The fog in the fields surrounding the village clung motionless to the ground. All looked in fear upon the captain and the child. Her dark blue eyes stared into the fog, her jaw clenched tight, a steel-like band beginning to form at the core of her being. “You’ll make me a great marshal, my pretty,” said the captain, looking down at her. “The High Lord will be more pleased with you than a hundred wagons of grain.” He looked to the lieutenant. “And you, I will make you a captain. And you, you men will be lieutenants after this day,” he said, gesturing to the gathering soldiers. “Now kill them all. Burn this sty.”

    The sobs sliced through the heavy morning air across the gray fields. Shattering in a fit, the fog boiled over the village. Blood ran into the cracks of stones. The red-haired child continued to watch the fog, detached, transfixed, her skin pale, her eyes turned from the carnage. Within, she felt a hardening, like a shield that surrounded her core, its making not of her own doing, but placed there by a greater power, under whose protection she now stood. The captain, seeing that she was not trembling in fear, felt within himself a fear rising, a feeling of uncertainty and dread. ‘This is the one,’ he thought, ‘she of such power that the High Lord has offered a helmet filled with gold to he who brings her.’ Yanking her hair, he turned her head back to look upon the square. The woman, who had run to him and fallen at his feet, was crumpled there. The captain looked to the girl’s face, hoping to see fear, tears, or horror, but she did not cry out. He dropped his sword, its metal clattering to the cobblestones, and grabbed the child by both arms, shaking her, “What is the matter with you!” he shouted. The girl looked into the captain’s eyes without malice or fear, a look of indifferent recognition, and then she returned her gaze into the pitching fog. The captain trembled. He would not dare speak to her again.

    “My horse,” he yelled to one of the soldiers. “Move man, get me my horse!”

    Torches were set to the huts. Orange flames licked up and a dark smoke towered over the village, looking much like a tower of the Castle Mucwiel, from which these soldiers came. A group of peasants, tilling the ground in the fields of the next village, watched it rise.

    “Sorcery,” said an old woman.

    “Evil has come,” said another.

    “It’s the tax soldiers. They’ve found the girl,” said one who knew the villagers of Ornia.

    “Dark sorcery I tell you!” said the old woman.

    The peasants turned their eyes from the smoke and went back to work. But as they did, a wind boiled through the tower and the smoke turned white.

    As the last hut was set ablaze, the captain mounted, seized up the girl, placed her before him on his horse, and rode for the heart of Tenmanchent. Through the day and on into the night they rode, over the Humbar Hills and into the mud flats of Tenmanchent.

    As the horse bounded along the inner stone causeway, the girl tightened her grip on the saddle, fearing to fall into the darkness moving like a swift current beneath her. The night was without stars and she trembled as a low moan came from the blackened swamp, not a human sound, but the groan of something caught between the mud and water. Her body ached from the long ride, ached until numbness and fatigue made every part of her seem to dissolve into night. Her eyes teared in the wind, but she did not cry. She had resolved not to cry. The leather-clad arm of the warrior behind tightened, pulling her against the cold of his breastplate.

    The dull light of dawn crept across the swamp, revealing the water to be dark, and coated with scum. Little vegetation grew here and there, a few dry reeds and stunted brush. Like snakes attempting to escape the fouled liquid, thin wisps of mist rose from the water. The swamp extended as far as she could see to the east, and in the north, jagged crags of mountains rose. All that she knew of them was that long ago some of the men of Ornia, her village, had been taken there to work in mines by the soldiers. They had never returned. With a shiver, running through her so violently that she lost her grip on the saddle and would have fallen if the warrior had not held her, she saw something ahead on the causeway. Like a dark clot or a hole within a shadow, it towered over the swamp. It grew ever larger and darker as they approached. Slowly, it took form, tiers of black stoned battlements, ledges, parapets, and towers. It blotted out the mountains behind from a great distance; every stone of the castle was black, some rough and dull, others smooth and depthless. At its base was a wide moat, its sheer walls plunging to an empty darkness, and at its summit, topping the highest tower, was a statue; vaporous clouds clung to it like a veil.

    A heavy drawbridge of slate lay across the moat, leading to a cavernous basaltic mouth. The portcullis, which lowered from above, was of hewn obsidian, spiked at its base. Trembling still harder, the girl saw that they were riding straight for this open mouth. As they came under the shadow of the walls, she saw the head of the statue on the high tower turn to peer down at her. Her body shook, the hooves of the horse clopped onto the drawbridge, a quaking ran through the stone, as though her entry had disturbed something deep beneath the walls. Shivers ran through the towers and halls. Even the High Lord, sitting on the throne at the center of Mucwiel, above the founding pit, felt the tremors. His sorcerers ran to him, their robes flapping like wings, saying spells of protection.

    The captain dismounted at the steps of the black marble hall where the warriors of the High Lord’s guard stood in a line across the bottom stair. They were beyond the size of mortal men yet they were men, half again the size of the captain, men made larger and more powerful at the sorcerer’s hand. Armor of black steel covered their bodies and their faces were hidden behind visors with the eyes and mouth of a demon etched into the plate. Their swords were double the size and weight of normal swords. They carried no scabbards for them and held them constantly ready for use. “What is a potato collector doing at these steps when the castle is in peril?” demanded one.

    “I bring an end to peril,” answered the captain, shoving the girl forward. “I bring her of the prophesy, she of the flaming hair.” The guards stiffened. “And you’d best sheath that tone to me after this day,” he added, deepening his voice to match that of the guard’s. One of the warriors turned and ascended the stairs to the dark marble hall. At the top stair, he bowed as a gray robed sorcerer met him. The creased face of the sorcerer leered past him to the waiting captain and girl, his face flinching as he spoke to the guard. He then hurried back into the hall.

    “Bring the prisoner up,” commanded the warrior.

    Circled with swords, she was dragged up the stairs. Sorcerers with long robes of tightly woven cloth came from the dusky interior of the hall. They swarmed around her, stroking their beards and pondering. Then, from their wrinkled mouths came incantations, the tone rising and falling, as they danced around her like moths around a torch. They wavered inward as they conjured, but did not touch her. She stood still, her jaws clamped and knuckles white. As they danced, her red hair glittered in the half-light.

    When the chanting ended, whispered orders sent her to a chamber on one side of the hall. There, they sprinkled her head with black powder, took her frock, and dressed her in a gown of black. She was ringed, not with swords, but with the incantations of sorcerers as they led her into the cavernous hall of the High Lord.

    As her eyes grew accustomed to the dimness, she became aware of a long narrow hall with pillars rising to vanish in darkness. On the walls beyond the pillars, stone creatures were visible. They were carved into the stone, winged demons, their bodies contorted, each bending around the other, peering into the hall. Twisted into grimaces, their faces cast venomous stares at those approaching the throne. The girl felt their eyes burning into her and she could almost make out a sizzling whisper passing from one stone face to the next as she walked beneath them. She tried to avoid their stares by looking up into the darkness of the hall’s vaulted ceiling, but there, on the stone cross beams, sat the same carved creatures, with thin hairless bodies, spiked wings, and needle sharp talons. Flapping and rustling came from above them, but she could see nothing more. The entire hall sat, dead as stone, staring at her.

    Dominating the end of the hall, the towering throne of the High Lord, was a block of smooth stone, rising high into the vaulted ceiling. It was of dark stone, but its color was elusive; it seemed to be beyond color, to absorb it. On the seat atop the stone, hidden within the darkest shadows of the hall, the High Lord could not be seen. As the girl looked there, she felt a coldness wrapping her, and at her core she felt something very strange for one of her age and circumstance, being a prisoner, her village burned, her mother murdered, under the spells of sorcerers, surrounded by stone demons, and being brought before the cruelest of all tyrants; for whoever sat alone in the cold darkness atop of that throne, she felt pity.

    Carved into the base of the throne was a face of stone. In revulsion, she stared at its features, and at once experienced the most horrible dread and sadness. There was malice in the chisel that had carved the face. The eyes were narrow, sharp at the corners, and gave out a never blinking stare. The nose was a smashed and twisted lump. Only the mouth’s upper lip was above the floor. It was not that the upper lip was the base of the throne; rather, it was as though the remainder of the mouth was hidden below, sunken into the floor. At the seam, where the upper lip touched the floor, were black stains. She tried not to look at them.

    Before the throne, the sorcerers said incantations that would keep her still and in place. She felt her body grow rigid and cold. Her skin was white and tightly drawn, her fists frozen at her sides. Deep within she felt something harden like a column of stone. It was not of her making, she knew, and she thought at first that it was from the spoken spell, but as she became more aware of it, she could almost feel the words of the sorcerers being repulsed by that hard inner core. The face in the base of the throne glared at her, its eyes smoldering.

    The eldest sorcerer stood in front of her, an obsidian staff clutched in his hand. The circle of sorcerers fell back to stand on pentagrams etched into the floor before the throne. The elder leaned toward her, placing his bony fingers on her shoulder. “You’re in the presence of the High Lord, child,” he whispered, as though speaking with a friend. “Tell him your name.”

    She stood motionless, her jaws clamped tight, and did not speak. “We are friends, child. I am Merthark. There is Surderm. That is Darthank.” He named each sorcerer one by one, pointing them out, and then put his face near hers. “And what is your name pretty child?” he asked quietly. The hall waited in silence, every stone seeming to lean toward her, listening. She did not speak. Merthark stood straight and backed away. The sorcerers went to the side of the hall. They huddled there, whispering and casting strained glances in her direction. After a time, Surderm went to her, circling and touching her with his staff. The sorcerers watched silently as he said a spell of name finding and sprinkled black soot onto her lips. Still, she did not speak.

    The others joined Surderm, gathered around the girl, and said their own spells of name finding and speaking. They said their most powerful spells, known through the ages, without effect. Then the eldest said spells, little used, almost faded from memory, in hope that one of these would break her silence. They tried the spells of the ancient Afarit, sorcerers of the east, long passed from existence to another world. The girl stood mute. Finally, they stepped back, sweat drenching their robes, their spells exhausted.

    Surderm peered to the seat of the throne. There, the darkness boiled in a turbulent shadow. He made a sign with his hands and the sorcerers moved away. The High Lord would use his power. They went to the far end of the hall and pulled their hoods over their heads, saying spells of protection.

    The girl stood alone before the throne, staring at the face chiseled in the stone. Her body smashed to the floor and stood upright. It smashed down again, her head falling against the stone. Stiffly, her body lifted from the floor as though heaved up by ropes, slowly rising to the darkness surrounding the throne. She could feel him within her, his mind probing, tearing open her every memory, ripping her thoughts as one would rip the pages from a book, examining them one by one, and then discarding the torn out pieces, one by one. His mind connected with her, she felt his thoughts, his memories, and his fears. He sought a name, Karolyn, a name that he both loved and feared. She felt him calling to her and then that memory too was torn from her mind. She hung suspended in the pall beneath the crossbeams, without movement, and then swiftly she fell and lay crumpled. Her eyes glazed and her body bolted upright. From her throat came a cry, but there was no word in her cry; it was a vacant gasp, an unutterable sound without naming.

    The sorcerers cowering against the floor, felt the force of the High Lord subside, and then crept forward. The girl lay limp on the stone, barely breathing. Her eyes showed a mind torn at its deepest fissure. Merthark stood stone still, looking to the seat of the throne, waiting, silent, then he nodded grimly. “She has no name,” he said to the others. “The sow that bore her did not name her.” He turned to the circle of sorcerers now standing around the girl, his face ashen. “She is not the one prophesied ---- not Karolyn,” he said. “We will send her to the Breathless Lands.”

    “We have never sent a life without a name,” said Surderm.

    “A nameless one could do great harm in their realm. How would the Breathless Ones rule her and give her soul rebirth?” asked Darthank. The other sorcerers nodded, mumbling agreement, as they stared upon the crumpled body.

    “The ones who are forever will know her,” said the eldest.

    “And if not?” asked Darthank. “The prophecy isn’t clear. It could be by our hand that the High Lord loses power.”

    “The Breathless Ones are waiting. They will name her,” said Merthark.

    “But how do we give to them a life if we don’t know its name?” asked Darthank.

    “We will name her then!” said Surderm. He knelt by her side and drew a long thin blade from the sleeve of his robe. Gathering her hair in his hand, he pulled it taunt and sheared it from her head. The strands in his hand, he went to a gray altar beneath one of the carvings and laid it in the depression at its top, gargling the words of a spell to the winged demon that leered from the wall. The hair burst into flame, the smoke of it obscuring the face, and its stench filling the hall.

    The eyes of the throne grew white and a grinding sound emitted from the stone. The throne stone lifted, revealing the black stained lower lip of the mouth and a bottomless throat below. As an executioners’ block was brought before the open mouth by guards, the sorcerers chanted around the body and Surderm touched the tip of his staff to her forehead. “I name you Ornia,” he breathed, using the name of her village. A humming went through the walls. The Breathless Ones would be pleased. The sorcerers took her by the arms and dragged her to the block where her head was placed on the blood-wet stone. They droned incantations of offering and death over her, anointing her head with inky liquid. The spells rose to a fevered pitch, then ceased. The hall was silent.

    Staffs held rigidly forward, the sorcerers formed a tight circle. A red robed man came from the shadows of the hall, fingering the spiked teeth of his ax and looking to the seat of the throne. A toothless smile came to his lips and he nodded. Slowly he lifted the blade. It hovered, its dull edge absorbing the flicker of the lamps. The girl opened her eyes, seeing only the open mouth and depthless pit beyond. At that moment, something welled up from within her, from the stone core of her body it sprang with a force beyond her own, a sudden word, “Gaff,” she breathed. At that word, the hall gasped. The throat slammed shut. Surderm leapt before the ax. It gashed into his chest. Frantic whispering went through the hall. A thunder of rustling came from above. The altar, where her hair had burnt, cracked and split apart, pieces of stone scattering across the floor. Surderm fell beneath the blow of the ax. He lay bleeding and looking into the darkness above the throne.

    The High Lord, who had leaned forward from his throne to peer down at the execution now jumped from his seat and ran across the rafters of the hall until he entered the inner sanctum of his chamber.

    “Get her out of here!” shouted Darthank. The others hesitated, reluctant to touch her. “Get her out I say! Do you want the hall to fall?” They grabbed her arms and dragged her from the throne.

    Surderm laid bleeding and gasping for breath at the base of the chopping block, his robe stained red. The light of the lamps had been snuffed out. The stone demons had turned their faces into the walls, dark wings spread behind as though to shield themselves. Surderm’s dark blood formed a pool at the lips of the throne, and though he said spells to stay its flow, the pool increased. His hand trembled as he touched it, and with his forefinger drew a pentagram on the base of the throne with his blood. In a whisper he spoke to the empty hall, the voice seeming to come not from him but from beyond. “She is the one, nameless.... ” His last gasp had no echo. The mouth beneath the throne opened.


    * * *

    The child was dragged up twisting stairs until the darkest stair ended at a single iron door. It swung open and a foul odor emitted from the shadows within. It was not a large cell, not nearly as large as the dungeons below the castle, but one could stand in it, if the chains were not too short. The walls were rough, but the floor worn smooth with use. The far wall contained steel rings with chains attached to them. The other end of the chains held the wrists of men, ragged, gaunt men who cowered from the torchlight.

    At the order of the High Lord the girl would be held with chain and spell until an inquisition could be held. The name of the enemy had been spoken in his hall and it had shaken the foundations of the kingdom. In seeking her name and shifting her memories he had found no knowledge of the dragon of Azmerith. No spell of the Mekoria, the closest kingdom where Gaff was known, could have been on the girl or his sorcerers would have discovered it. Long he had suspected that there were traitors in his realm, spies in his service sent by the Mekorian wizards, now he knew that even into the heart of his keep they had spied. Someone or some several in his service had made the girl utter the blasphemy. He would ferret them out and have them all burnt at the stake.

    The girl was taken to the wall and chained with heavy cuffs. The sorcerers chanted and evoked. They waved their staffs, drew pentagrams, cast spells, called demons, and spread about her the ashes of offerings. She watched in bewilderment. In seeking her name, the High Lord had rent her mind. Her memories were few, a village of people, her mother’s voice telling her why she had no name, a woman hiding her beneath a sleeping pallet, a ride on a horse. She remembered nothing more and felt nothing, not fear, nor grief. Her mind contained only the walls of the room and beyond them, she did not look.

    The last sorcerer left the room and said a spell as he closed the door. In the world beyond the walls, the High Lord sent his soldiers to Leurianland. The villages were razed and the inhabitants slaughtered. Subjects of Tenmanchent took over the grain fields of Leurianland. The ruler in Mucwiel would take no more chances of traitors in the borderlands.

    First to be executed in the inquisition was Captain Bandamik, for it was he who had brought the girl and who had killed the surfs of Ornia without questioning them first. Two stable boys were next for they had been found dabbling in magic, trying to persuade the castle maids to give them service. An inquisitor was brought from outside the castle, an Akvan demon of the north, cruel and cold of heart. Most of the questioning took place in the dungeons beneath the castle where implements were available to speed the work of loosening tongues that claimed to know nothing.

    Sapling trees in the world outside grew three rings, and the newly wrought chains that bound her wrists rusted to a thick brown while the girl remained within the cell. During the first annum of her captivity, she was little more than an animal, her mind torn and drained; the black cloud of the sorcerer’s spells blotting out her thought. She felt herself a part of the darkness, nothing more, a stirring of a shadow within the gloom of the tower room. Then came the kitchen maid.
    This article was originally published in forum thread: A new novel on its way to a major revision or the shredder. started by Woodroam View original post
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