Of Blood and Briar is my upcoming adult fantasy novel, part one of a two part duology. I’m currently aiming for a September/October 2021 release date, but it all depends on how smoothly editing goes. Below you can find the first four chapters. Please note, this novel is still being edited and the below content is likely to change before the official release.
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CHAPTER 1 – THE BEGINNING OF THE END
“Aren’t you excited, Calder?” Isabel asked. His mother sat by his side at a rickety wooden table, holding a squirming baby in her arms, dark hair wreathed in an orange glow from the nearby hearth. A tiny hand rose to grasp a lock of dark hair that had the misfortune of getting within reach and yanked down hard. His mother yelped and Calder stifled a laugh, not wanting to upset his father working nearby, his gnarled hands fussing over a pile of netting. Calder glanced at him nervously, to the half-empty bottle at his feet, a familiar dread squirming to life in his stomach. His father’s cheeks were red, his brow furrowed, lips curled back in a grimace, dark eyes fixated on his work.
“Why is everyone so excited?” Calder asked quietly, shifting his attention back to his mother, gooseflesh rising on his arms. He’d seen the eagerness of the villagers, had heard the way they whispered to each other, their excitement spreading like a plague. Even his mother had been infected by it. He’d heard talk of an important visitor, someone royal, a thing unheard of in their little slice of the coastline. Calderon hugged the Gulf of Arista, was known only for the plentiful bounty of fish and crab hauled out of it to be sold to cities far bigger than their little hamlet. He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to visit. It was a place that perpetually smelled of salt and fish, of water and rot. She arched a brow, giving him a look of disbelief.
“The king will be here tomorrow,” she chided, leaning in close, her voice edged with annoyance. “From what I’ve heard he’s showing off the coastal route to a foreign delegate. You’re quite lucky, you know. Some people go their entire lives without meeting their king, and you get to see him before your fourteenth birthday. He’s an important man.”
He opened his mouth to reply but a loud grunt from his father cut him off. “Don’t fill his head with that horseshit,” his father, Raul, grumbled. “He’s useless enough as it is without you filling his head with nonsense about nobles and kings. Rastus is a worthless bastard. What’s he ever done for us down here on the coast, huh? What’s he ever done for us?”
The words struck Calder like a slap and he winced, biting his tongue to stop the burning tears flooding his eyes. His mother had gone still, her lips drawn in tight as she glared at Raul. She reached out and took Calder’s hand and gripped it tightly, her other hand gently patting his sister Neva, held firmly in the crook of her arm. Her thumb made reassuring strokes across the top of his hand, soothing his anxiety.
His father looked up from the netting, the harsh lines of his face etched deep by the light from the flames flickering in the hearth. He was a rough man, shaped and molded by salt, and sand, and sea. Hours spent in the sun had brought out a warmth in his olive skin that could not be found in his eyes, and he stared at them coldly. He glanced to their clasped hands and his frown deepened. “If you’d quit coddling him, he might be of some fucking use to us.” He reached for the bottle at his feet and brought it to his lips, drinking deeply. The bitter smell of alcohol floated through the air, stinging Calder’s nose as he sucked in a shaky breath. Raul wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and stood, mumbling curses as he tripped over the netting he’d been trying to fix.
His irritation was a storm cloud filling the room, stifling in its intensity, making it hard to breath. Fear churned in Calder’s gut, squeezing his lungs tightly as he looked for a way out, an escape from the seething disappointment scorching him from across the room. His mother shoved Neva towards him. “Calder, why don’t you take your sister to your room, okay?” She looked at him intently, pleading for obedience, for silence. It was a look he’d grown accustomed to, a silent warning that his father was on the verge of teetering over a ledge he so often straddled.
He pulled Neva tightly to his chest and fled, keeping his eyes on the ground as he shuffled down the hall to his room. He’d learned years ago not to make eye contact with his father, to never challenge him, to make himself small. It was safer that way. Afraid the sound might break that fragile peace, he shut the door as quietly as he could and tucked himself and Neva into the corner, not bothering to light a candle. He wanted to wear the dark like a blanket, to have it drown out the venomous words he knew he’d hear from the other side of the door. He was never truly safe from such spite, safe from the damage those words would cause.
His mother had once told him the day he’d been born was the proudest his father had ever been. He’d begged Vidalis for a boy, a son that he could take on the long voyages out at sea, a son to support the family, a son that could be anything other than what Calder was – weak, scrawny, useless. He had too gentle a soul for that life, barely able to stand the sight of a gutted fish or the feel of the ship as it rocked in the waves. What use was he to a man that lived for the sea, that had placed all his hopes and dreams on having a son to take over his legacy?
“You bore me an idiot,” his father spat, his bitter words echoing down the hall. “A useless, stupid idiot of a son.”
“Don’t say that,” Isabel retorted, her voice trembling. “Calder is your son. Your son. Why can’t you accept that? Why must you hate him? He’s just a boy!”
His scathing laughter was a dagger straight through heart and soul. “No. That is no son of mine. A son of mine would have been strong enough to support this family, to work, and hunt, and provide for us, Isabel. We would have been better off drowning the boy, and Neva for all the good she’ll do us.”
The sound of a palm colliding with weathered skin made Calder wince. He sucked in a breath, held it in tight, held Neva tighter.
“You stupid fucking bitch…!”
He squeezed his eyes shut, but he couldn’t close his ears, couldn’t escape the heavy thud of fists on flesh, the pained whimpers of his mother, the shattering of a bottle, and the inevitable slamming of the front door as his father fled into the night.
It felt like years before he heard the soft sound of footsteps in the hall. His bedroom door creaked open, and he heard his name whispered in the dark. “Calder?”
“I’m here, mom.”
She sank down beside him, wrapped her arm around his shoulders, and pulled him close. He knew she was hurting, but he also knew she’d ignore it as she had time and time again, that she’d disregard her own pain to stave off his. “I love you, Calder. You are everything to me, you know that? Everything.” She kissed the side of his face with a ferocity that broke through the hurt, a gentle salve for a wounded soul. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” he replied, his voice breaking. He clung to her in the dark and wept; for her, for himself, for the pain his weakness had caused his family.
If only he’d known what lurked out in the vast sea, what shadows gathered, they would have held each other longer, would have cherished that moment more, would have clung to each other just a little tighter as they wept together in the dark.
But it was too late.
It was always too late.
CHAPTER 2 – THE WARNING
It hadn’t been a clean death. She could have killed him a hundred different ways – with poison, with a blade slipped between ribs, with a pillow over his face as he thrashed in the dark – but she hadn’t. Those weren’t her orders. No. His death had been meant to be messy, to be noticeable, his entrails strewn out amongst the rest of his organs a warning that while the power in the North was fading, it wasn’t gone. These people still had a king to answer to, and Anlaf was angry.
Amari carefully cut the heart from her mark, warm blood pooling in her hand, slithering over her wrist and sliding down her arm. The plump merchant lie spread eagle on his bed, naked and wide-eyed, surprise coloring his features even as death stole the color from his lips and skin.
She carried the heart across the room, carefully set it down among the rest of his organs and entrails and began her work. With his blood she drew a circle, then filled it in, adding lines and runes, a bright red handprint in the middle. His organs were arranged around the circle, his entrails coiled beneath. It was an ancient symbol, a warning of retribution and death. The South might have forgotten their vows, might have cast aside the old ways, but this they’d remember.
Her work done, she gathered her things and slipped out the window. It was a frightfully steep drop off the ledge, a fall that would send her plummeting towards a glimmering stone street far below. The wind whipped back her hair, rustled her clothes, the sounds of the city lost in the rush of air past her ears. She felt the force of the impact, felt the way her bones would have cracked and splintered if it weren’t for the heat burning across her back, coating muscle and bone and sinew with a protection she’d never fully understood. Even the sound of her fall was muted, her impact with the street sending up a swirl of golden sand.
She slipped out of the city just as easily as she’d slipped in, unnoticed, and a short while later she sat at the edge of a creek, washing away the blood of the merchant in the light of the moon. She watched his blood spread through the lazy creek, picked up and carried downstream in crimson ribbons.
Stripping out of her soiled clothes, she cast them aside and pulled on fresh clothes, fur-lined and warm, preparing for the chilled night and the journey back to the frozen hell of Vermund. Pulling a cigarette from a leather pouch, she struck an alchemical match, the flame burning a bright blue in the dark, and sucked in a mouthful of flavored smoke, a blend of spices that reminded her of another time, another life.
Weaving through the trees, she found a cart waiting for her just off the main road, the driver hunched and quiet, face buried in a giant beard, curls of smoke rising from a pipe clenched between his teeth. Another large figure shifted in the back of the cart, long white coils of hair falling over leather armor, a giant axe shining in the moonlight filtering through the canopy above. “Took you long enough,” a feminine voice called. “Honestly, how long does it take to disembowel a man?”
Amari smirked and pulled herself up on the cart, settling in opposite Fen. The woman regarded her with one icy blue eye, shining with amusement, the other hidden behind an eyepatch. “Don’t start with that,” she retorted. “It isn’t so simple as just slicing open his belly and tearing out his entrails.”
“They should just send me to do it next time,” Fen said before grinning like a fool as she patted her axe. Her grin faded, eye wandering over Amari, searching. “You’re all in one piece?”
“I’m fine, Fen. All is well.”
She nodded and breathed a sigh of relief. “It always worries me, you know, when you’re sent to Tyrathin.”
Amari smiled. “I know. But I always come back. There isn’t anything there that can hurt me.”
“Just let me worry about you, damn it,” Fen chided, but she returned her smile and reached out to gently touch her hand. It lasted but a moment, the fire within making Amari draw her hand back. Fen couldn’t hide the wave of sadness that crept over her features, not from her. Amari swallowed past the lump in her throat, grateful for the crack of leather announcing their departure.
The giant beasts of burden groaned as they shuffled forward, hooves shaking the ground as they pulled the cart back onto the road. The journey to Vorvaldir was a long one, but the greater the distance they put between themselves and Tyrathin, the better. She’d given them a warning, she just hoped they wouldn’t soon forget it.
She looked through the forest, the glowing lights of Tyrathin twinkling like stars in the distance. As they crested the rise, the lights winked out of existence, leaving only the swaying lamp of the cart to accompany them on the long journey home.
CHAPTER 3 – THE BRIAR KING
From his perch atop a rocky cliff, Calder could see the procession winding across the landscape, a blend of dark armor and fur clashing with the green and gold worn by King Rastus’ soldiers. Banners whipped back and forth violently in the strong coastal wind a blur of greens and golds and vibrant reds, moving too fast to make out the sigils embroidered on their surface.
It wasn’t as grand and mighty an affair as he’d thought it would be, nothing more than a few dozen soldiers, a handful of carts overflowing with supplies, and a lot of horses. Two men led the procession, but they were too far away to make out details. It lacked the fanfare and gilded exuberance he’d been told to expect. With the way the people in Calderon had talked, he’d half expected them to ride in on horses made of gold. Still, he wanted to see them up close, to see what made a man like the king so special. He raced back down the hillside, dark curls lashing his skin as he ran. He could taste the salt on his lips, the breeze heavy with the smells of the nearby sea, a strange mix of salt and decay.
The main thoroughfare was already clogged with people, their excited conversations filling the streets with a low buzzing hum. Calder darted between them, pushing his way through the crowds as he searched for the perfect spot to get a good look when the king arrived. He spotted his mother across the way, rocking Neva as she chatted with the elderly Mrs. Farson, a gruff woman that lived just a few houses down from them. The image of his mother standing in a flowing yellow dress, black curls carried by the wind, her bright smile filled with such joy and warmth – it was an image he wanted to keep with him always, an image to cling to that could help him forget the darker reality they lived.
She spotted him and graced him with a wide smile, the corner of her dark eyes crinkling. Calder smiled back, his heart filled with such love for her. He couldn’t imagine a world without her, how different his life would be without her love and kindness. He gave her a small wave, his smile mischievous as he moved further up the road. He hunkered down at the feet of strangers, visitors from surrounding villages lured to Calderon to see the king. Patience was rarely a virtue gifted to the young, and Calder rooted around, finding rocks and a stray piece of driftwood that he played with while he waited, the excited conversations around him a droning buzz he paid little attention to.
It wasn’t until he heard the clop of hooves and the creaking of wheels, the clanking of armor and the snap of banners in the wind, that he looked up. The two riders that had been leading the procession were close enough to see, and he watched them approach, eyes wide with wonder. The rider furthest from him was tall and lean, sitting straight in his saddle, surveying the gathered crowds with eyes the color of honey. His hair was a dark brown, his skin as warm as his smile. He wore a beautiful dark green doublet trimmed in gold, his cloak fanned out over the back of his horse, looking like dozens of autumn leaves carefully stitched together. He could tell from the familiar colors alone that it was none other than King Amadis Rastus, but the man traveling at his side was a mystery.
The rider closest to Calder was a giant of a man, a hulking form that reminded him of a bear. He wore dark brown leathers lined with gray fur that looked very out of place in a seaside village. He had a broad bearded face and wide shoulders. His thick hair and beard were a strange inky black streaked through with bright white, his skin frightfully pale, as if he’d never seen the sun a day in his life, and his icy blue eyes darted this way and that as he looked over the crowd with a solemn expression.
Sitting in front of him, clinging to the saddle horn and looking disdainfully at the crowds, was a boy no older than Calder. He shared similar features as the hulking man behind him, his hair dark and his skin light, but his eyes were black as the night sky and he had the gangly build of a boy yet grown, all limbs and little substance.
They rode by slowly, Amadis waving cheerfully while the strange man and boy gave cursory nods to the people of Calderon. Calder locked eyes with the boy and he stared back with pointed interest, as if he were seeing a strange creature for the first time, his brow arching. Calder flashed him a smile and the boy looked away quickly, turning his attention back to the road, nose pointed to the sky.
He stayed for a while, watching the soldiers and carts pass, but when he realized they had no intention of stopping, he slipped away to find something more interesting to do. Barefoot, he ran through the village and down the hill until gritty sand shifted beneath his feet and wedged itself between his toes. The wind had died down, giving his tousled locks a break from the onslaught. The crashing waves were a dull gray, the sand a harsh white, littered with driftwood, rocks, and seashells that had been dumped on the shore during high tide.
Calder combed the beach looking for trinkets – a green stone streaked with white, a few intriguing shells, a scraggly piece of driftwood – and hauled his finds further down the beach. He spent time building sandcastles, knocking them down only to rebuild them after they’d fallen. It was only when a flash of bright purple slipped past his peripheral that he stopped, launching to his feet to give chase. Just ahead of him, a bright purple crab, smaller than his hand, scuttled away in a hurry, moving fast to avoid pursuit. Unfortunately for the crab, Calder was faster.
He caught up with it and bent down, carefully picking it up and bringing it back to the ruins of his sandcastle. With his foot, he made a large depression in the sand, plenty big for the crab, and set it down. He watched it, enthralled by the way it moved, by its many legs and small, but ferocious, pincers. Each time it tried to climb out of the hole, he’d gently redirect it, pushing it back the other way with a piece of driftwood. He’d learned early on those pincers were for more than just looks.
“What is that?” a shrill voice asked. Calder glanced over his shoulder, surprised to see the same dark-haired boy that had been part of the procession. He was staring at the crab, dark eyes wide with wonder, his lips parted. An older boy trailed after him, looking about nervously as they approached.
Calder glanced at the crab, quickly redirected it, and turned his attention back to the boy. He didn’t look any older than himself, but his clothing was finer than anything he’d ever worn, a dark doublet over dark pants, his boots well-made and rising almost to his knees. The fur around his collar was ruffled by the wind, looking like a living creature around his neck. Calder looked to his own clothes. He didn’t have shoes and his pants were cut at the knees, hours of rough play having left the edges frayed and tattered. His shirt was too big, though it was freshly cleaned for the big day.
Only important people wore clothes like the boy wore, and it was obvious by the way the boy carried himself that he thought he was someone important indeed. Who are you? He strode forward with purpose, stopping at the edge of the pit, hands on his hips. “It’s so…purple. What even is that?” he asked again, glancing at Calder with a carefully held expression, as if it any moment Calder might lash out and attack him.
“It’s a crab,” he answered, unable to hide his confusion. “Have you never seen one?”
“A crab,” the boy said slowly, tasting the word. “Dren, come over here and look at this…this….crab,” the dark-haired boy yelled, waving his friend over. The older boy approached slowly, tugging down his sleeves as he crept closer, casting cautious glances between Calder and the roaring ocean. He was blonde, thin, and heavily freckled, his cheeks red as tomatoes. “Come on! Look at it!”
“Henrik, we really ought to be heading back. This is foolish. We shouldn’t be here.”
“Oh, shut up. My father won’t even notice. Too busy with his kingly duties,” Henrik scoffed, his dark eyes locked on the crab. Before Calder could comprehend what he was intending, the boy bent at the waist, his pale hand darting out to pick up the crab.
“Carefu-” he tried to warn but was cut off by a shriek as the crab’s pincer clamped down on Henrik’s finger. He cursed and flailed, flinging the crab to the ground. It hit the sand and righted itself, scuttling away as fast as its legs could carry it.
It wasn’t fast enough.
“Stupid crab,” Henrik spat. He chased after it, his face red with fury. “Stupid thing.”
“H-hey,” Calder called. “What are you doing? Leave it alone.”
A fine leather boot was raised high and brought down with terrifying ferocity as Calder watched, horrified by what he was seeing. There was an audible crunch as his heel smashed into the shell of the crab, crushing it into the sand. A pincer reached out, twitched, and fell still.
Calder sat in silence as the realization of what the boy had done washed over him. He looked at the twitching pincer, at the leather boot keeping it pinned to the ground. He was flooded with an uncharacteristic rage, an emotion he’d long stifled, and he leapt towards Henrick with a growl.
The sudden ferocity threw Henrick off-guard and as Calder slammed into him, they fell to the sand in a flurry of gangly limbs and flying fists. Henrik was shrieking again, screaming for help as Calder’s fist connected with his cheekbone. Calder was too wrapped up in his anger to hear the words of warning being hurled at him, to hear the approaching steps. The air was getting colder, the breath in his lungs freezing as he wildly flung his fists down at the pompous boy. Is this what dad feels?
It was only when something solid smashed into his brow, knocking him onto his back, that he returned to his senses. His head was spinning as he propped himself up on an elbow, and through squinted eyes he could see Dren standing over him, holding the green and white rock he’d found in the sand, only now it was streaked with blood – his blood.
Calder swiped his fingers across the expanse of skin above his right brow, and his fingers came away drenched in red. His mouth opened, closed, opened again, and suddenly he was a fish fighting for air, bleeding heavily as he struggled to move, to speak. He could see the two boys talking, could see their lips move, but their words were lost in the dull ringing filling his head, drowning out all other sound. They looked like demons in his blurred vision, Henrick’s eyes a bright and blinding blue. He watched as they retreated, kicking up sand as they fled, leaving him bleeding on the beach.
He managed to stagger to his feet, stomach lurching as it threatened to upend his breakfast. His limbs were growing weak, vision dimming as he forced himself to take a step. Blood was soaking the edges of his shirt, sliding down his chest in warm rivulets. He became overly aware of the gritty white sand stuck to his bloody fingers and the need to wash them off scratched just beneath the surface of his panic. He tried to speak, tried to call for help, but his voice had turned to a whimper. He managed a few more steps before collapsing, and he watched as his blood turned the white sand around his head a nightmarish crimson.
As his vision darkened, he thought about finding Henrick again, about taking the green and white rock in hand. He’d raise it high and let it fall, descending again and again until nothing remained of the crab killer but blood-soaked sand.
CHAPTER 4 – THE ASHES OF CALDERON
“You goddamn fool.” It was the only warning Calder got before his father yanked him from his bed, roughly gripping his arm and flinging him to the ground like a ragdoll. “Vidalis drown you in the depths. What were you thinking?”
Over the years his father had only ever taken his fury out on his mother. He’d never dared turn that fury on Calder, no matter how badly he’d disappointed him with his continued existence. Something had changed, his anger a maelstrom ripping him out of bed and swallowing him whole. His father had been at sea when he’d gotten in the fight with Henrick, when he’d been bludgeoned with a rock and left bleeding on the beach.
He’d spent days battling nausea, a constant ringing in his ears, and sharp throbbing pains that pulsated behind his right eye. As he was slammed into the ground, the world spun, the ringing getting louder as he tried to raise himself up on weakened limbs. A fist brought him back down again and as it connected, Calder wondered how his mother had ever survived, how she’d spent so many days nursing bruises from the monster looming over him.
His fist descended again and again, pummeling him while he cried and curled into himself, trying desperately to escape his wrath, the reek of alcohol as his hot breath blew over his face. Hurried steps carried down the hall, and then Isabel was there, screaming like a banshee as she shoved him away.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she screamed, putting herself between them. “Calder is hurt, you bastard! Your son is hurt. Don’t you touch him. Don’t you dare.” She reached out, grabbed a nearby length of driftwood Calder had dragged home on one of his many adventures along the beach, and gripped it tightly in her trembling hands. He’d never seen her threaten him, and Calder feared his reaction, what he might do to her because of her defiance.
His father stumbled back, his dark hair disheveled, eyes burning with disappointment. He looked down at Calder, whimpering in a ball on the floor, and stared. Something died in him then, some final hope he’d been nurturing like an ember in his heart. It flickered out, going dark after so many years. His arms fell limp at his sides, the creases of his brow smoothing as his expression went still as an undisturbed lake. The anger and disappointment melted away until there was nothing left at all. His dark eyes were flat and emotionless, devoid of life. The silence in the room swelled, filling the corners and pressing down on Calder as he waited for the rage to return, the malice that had brought his fists down on his own son.
But the blows never came, and the vacancy in his eyes remained steady. He turned away without a word and headed for the door. They heard it creak open, winced as it slammed shut, rattling the frame. He fled into the night, just as he had time and time again, and he remained gone for the rest of the night. For the next day. For the next week.
And two weeks later, his father still gone, dark ships came gliding through the night to wash upon the shores of Calderon, bringing an army of terror: dark armor, fur, glistening axes, and skin the color of freshly fallen snow.
Raul leaving had left Isabel a shell of a person, filled with a pain Calder couldn’t begin to comprehend. He’d never understood how she could love someone so cruel, how her heart could break over a man that had hurt her, that had wounded her mind, body, and soul. But Calder also knew that in his own strange way, he missed his father. He’d spent years trying to live up to his expectations, years trying to prove that he wasn’t useless, that he was worthy of his love. It had never been enough and, over those weeks, he struggled to come to terms with his feelings. Did he really miss the man, or did he miss the pressure he’d come to expect from him? His sudden absence, and the absence of his expectations, was like breathing fresh air for the first time, but his lungs were still adapting, the new environment burning their tender interior even as it filled him with life.
He was lost in such thoughts, watching the fire in the hearth crackle and spit, burning bright in swirls of red and yellow and burnt orange. His mother sat by his side, her hair pulled back away from her face, kept well out of reach of the small bundle wrapped in a pink blanket on her lap. Neva reached up, tiny fingers grasping the air, wanting desperately the locks just out of her reach. Calder looked at his mother in the shifting light, admiring the softness of her, the warmth and vulnerability in her beautiful brown eyes. His father had been as rough as the rocky crags edging Calderon, but his mother was the gentle softness of a warm breeze caressing the land on a sunny day.
She glanced his way, smiling softly, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes, the wrinkles at the corners of them undisturbed. Her attention drifted back to Neva and she cooed to her softly. A loud thump sounded from outside, making all three of them jump. Calder looked to the door in a panic, heart racing wildly in his chest. His father had surely returned, would come through the door smelling of salt, and smoke, and bitter spirits, swaying like some demon as he swept in from the dark.
But nobody came through the door. They waited with bated breath, the only sound the crackling of the fire. And then they began to hear noises, heavy footsteps and screams, shouts carrying through the night. A horn echoed through the still air and Isabel hurried to her feet, clutching Neva tightly to her chest.
“Mom, what is that?” Calder whispered nervously, slowly rising to his feet, his eyes locked on the door.
“Hush, Calder. Just stay there,” she said sweetly, but he could hear the nervousness threatening to break her control, causing her words to waver. She crept towards the door, hand shaking as she reached for the doorknob. She turned it slowly, cracked it open just wide enough to peer out into the street.
Smoke drifted in through the cracked door, tiny wisps whispering a warning. Another scream pierced the air making Calder take an involuntary step back. Through the cracked door, he could hear other sounds; the clanking of metal, the sound of something heavy scrapping across the ground as it was dragged. He looked to the closest window, watched the colors outside shift and change, shadows bursting to life with colors that mimicked the flames in the hearth.
She closed the door ever-so-slowly, keeping her back to Calder while she steadied herself against the frame. She turned slowly and crept back across the room towards him, her face strained. Bending down, she reached out and gripped his arm tight enough that it hurt, and he winced as her thin fingers dug into his skin. He was about to complain when he noticed the brightness in her eyes, the tears reflecting the nearby flames, and he was filled with a sudden and terrible stillness.
“Calder, I need you to listen to me,” she whispered, her lips quivering as she spoke. “We’re going to go down in the cellar and we’re going to hide. We have to hide, okay? You need to be brave, do you understand? Let’s go. We have to go.”
She shoved Calder towards the cellar door, hidden beneath a faded blue rug. He felt numb as he bent down and pulled back the carpet, struggling to breathe through the panic. He didn’t know what was happening, and he didn’t know what to expect. He focused on what he did know; that his mother was scared, that they needed to hide, and that something was happening outside that he didn’t understand, that his mother didn’t want him to know about.
The cellar door was exposed, and he reached for the rung, scrawny arms straining as he pulled it open. He was just stepping back when shouts rose from outside and something heavy hit the side of the house. The smell of smoke tickled his nose, and he could clearly see flames dancing along the nearby buildings as he looked out the window. He nearly jumped out of his skin when that window cracked and caved inwards, sending shards of glass and swirls of smoke bursting into the house.
Isabel was behind him in a flash, shoving him forward and down into the cellar. “Go, Calder. There is no time. I’ll be right behind you. Go. Please go.”
He descended into the dark and once he’d reached the bottom of the stairs, he turned, expecting to see his mother just behind him. She wasn’t. She stood at the top of the stairs in a halo of orange light, clutching Neva tightly to her breast. She’d started to cry, her sobs mixing with the other sounds coming from outside. Calder stood in stunned confusion, too scared and confused to move. Isabel turned her head to look at him intently, her eyes bright with tears. “Calder, stay quiet. No matter what you hear, you don’t leave this cellar, no matter what, you hear me? Just stay there. I love you. I love you, Calder. Always. Stay quiet.”
With a stifled cry, she lifted the cellar door and slammed it shut, drowning him in darkness. He wanted to run back up the stairs, wanted to pound on the door and scream until she opened it, until she followed him to safety, but he was trapped by fear, by the words she’d left him with. Stay quiet.
He hunkered down and crawled through the cellar on hands and knees, feeling his way through the dark, his own breath painfully loud in the confined space. Each inhale brought the musty smell of vegetables and the tang of ripened fruit just on the edge of rot. He stopped briefly, losing his dinner on the floor as he fought down his panic. Tears came, great sobs that shook him to his core and he dragged himself through the cellar as quietly as he could, the cold press of the stone seeping through his hands, the thin fabric covering his knees, filling his bones with ice.
Heavy boots creaked the floorboards above his head and a shrill cry pierced the night. Muffled screams carried down into the cellar, the guttural growl of a man following close behind. Calder collided with a shelf and tucked himself against it, clamped his hands over his ears and pressed down tight. He could hear the blood pounding in his veins with each terrified beat of his heart, smashing against his ribs hard enough that he thought they might shatter, that the sound of their breaking might carry to the ears upstairs and the monsters above would know, would find him trembling in the dark.
He cried, even as the smell of smoke pressed in thick and heavy, filling his lungs with each heaving breath, making him dizzy. He knew that the fires were close, that if he stayed in the cellar, he’d burn up with the house, but he couldn’t bring himself to move, to face whatever waited in the room above. In the end it didn’t matter. The choice was made for him.
Something collided with the cellar door, raining dust and debris down on the stairs. A second later, the door was ripped off its hinges, flooding the cellar with flickering orange light. Someone descended the stairs, their monstrous form outlined in oranges and reds. Firelight glinted off an axe edged in crimson, and before Calder could move, before he could scream, the figures leapt towards him, a meaty hand clamping down on his arm.
He fought and flailed and screamed as he was hauled to his feet, fighting with tooth and nail, thrashing wildly against the iron grip that held him. A hand clamped down tightly over his mouth, the skin smelling of salt and blood and smoke, stifling in their intensity. His cries muffled, Calder was hauled up the stairs like a sack of grain, his captor heedless of the pain caused as his shins slammed into each step as he was dragged out of his burning home.
What he saw as he was dragged through the front room etched itself into his mind, burrowing deep into his memories. His mother lay in a halo of blood, her yellow dress ripped and bloodstained, dark eyes open and staring at the ceiling, devoid of life and warmth. And the pink bundle burning in the fireplace, that he could not even comprehend, the smell of burning flesh so bitter and acrid in his nose.
A weariness settled over his soul and he went limp in the stranger’s arms, his soul vacating his body as he struggled to understand what he was seeing, what had happened to his family, what was happening to him. His fingers brushed over the hand of the monster holding him tight, and he felt a great patch of puckered skin, some injury that had branded the man forever. He marked it in his mind, marked the weight of his steps, the sound of his breathing, and the smell of his skin. And he vowed to remember him, to remember what he’d done, to find him again and make him suffer just as Calder suffered, the ashes of his home heavy on his tongue.
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