A few more chapters following on from the Book 1 preview…
3. Another Girl:
With the first rays of sun illuminating Linuina valley, a lively city came into focus against the hazy dawn sky. Fortress towers soared mightier than ever, while adjacent fields glowed a verdant green, as though assuring prosperity for the coming year.
Many had already risen to prepare for Midsummer Day, and now more people streamed out onto the decorated streets. Everyone was buzzing with excitement, the festival promising to be the greatest since the Henalas invasion.
For generations, war and famine had crippled the world of Meridisia. But three years since the last siege, and Linuina was recovering. The progress was especially visible today. Minstrels lit up the shadows with their melodies, where beggars had once lurked. Children squealed in delight as they watched clowns and magicians perform, their mothers making no effort to calm them.
And today, another young woman would stroll down the streets.
* * *
Fingers fumbling on the knob, she closed the door of the little terrace house belonging to her grandparents, and began the descent to the bakery below. One hand trailed along the wall for support as she negotiated the steep, uneven steps. The other held up the hem of her dress so she wouldn’t trip.
As she descended, the familiar, comforting scent of bread wafted up the staircase to greet her. There seemed to be a touch more spice in it. Or maybe that was simply an illusion, which came from the thrill of dressing as a woman again.
“Adrian ’ad ’imself a gurlie last night ’ey?” the stout, middle-aged baker called to her.
Meeting his beady eyes, her cheeks flushed to match the red of her dress. But the words rolled quickly off her tongue. Years of disguise had forced her to be alert and ready for anything, lest someone discover her identity.
“I’m a visitor from the West, his grandparents are family friends,” she murmured.
The baker raised one of his scraggly dark eyebrows, and gave her a wink that made her shudder. Suppressing her disgust, she simply nodded in polite greeting.
As she left the bakery, darker thoughts eased away in the fresh summer air, tantalising skin that rarely saw daylight. But she was not pale; a childhood on the coast had dyed her complexion the tint of rich, golden honey, which retained its colour despite confinement.
Smiling, she walked towards the smithy. Today, unmasked. Truthfully, she could honour the Gods, who had filled her empty heart with dreams and hope.
But upon reaching her destination, she hesitated. Was this foolish?
She tossed the thought, summoning her courage to knock on the wooden door. Before long a bolt slid out of place, and a burly blacksmith emerged on the threshold.
“By the Gods!” he spluttered. Making no further move to speak, he simply stared while the breeze caressed her bronze ringlets, glinting with flecks of gold in the midsummer sun.
She cleared her throat to break the barricade of silence between them. “May the Elements bless you,” came her greeting.
A pause. She quivered, silently begging for him to say something.
“Well, Happy Midsummer Day!” he replied at last. “Er…” The huge man glanced over his shoulder, before turning back to her with a frown. “What brings ye ’ere, young miss?”
She lowered her head timidly, feeling like a young girl about to ask her father an embarrassing question. “I’m here to see Cain, although he won’t recognise me. Please, he has not already left for the markets has he?”
“Nah, but…” He wavered, his face grim.
“Father!” Another voice.
The blacksmith turned, blocking the entrance. She waited, as whispers of their hushed conversation teased her ears. It seemed like they were making a fuss over something. Perhaps she should leave now, while their discussion occupied them. She still had a chance, before the truth erupted out of her.
But to spend a life in disguise is to spend a life alone. And it is to spend a life in conflict with oneself. Voices hissed through her mind, reminding her of the reasons for her decision. She needed this for her sanity.
And then the opportunity to flee disappeared; the huge blacksmith stepped back from the doorway.
She inhaled as Cain took his father’s place, and his gaze fell upon her. Warm brown eyes shone in alarm, along with a hint of some other emotion she could not define.
“So tell me, ye said ye were ’ere for me?” His lip twitched in what appeared to be a grimace more than a smile, and unruly eyebrows curved downwards. “Young miss, I can’t say I know ye. But er… if ye ain’t got company on this fine day, well I won’t leave ye to celebrate the Gods on yer own.”
Something flashed across his eyes. Not dissimilar to the embedded distress of a mother, who had just seen the ghost of her lost child.
But the words came gushing out. “Cain, I have to tell you something. The storyteller Adrian… I am he.”
Cain froze as astonishment replaced all else, and she used the opportunity to hurry on with her rehearsed explanation. At least storytelling in rowdy taverns had developed her confidence.
“Please, I did it for safety! If people knew I was a woman they would think less of me, not to mention give fewer coins, steal my earnings, or follow me on my way home. But last night, when you stopped me at the door, I just knew I needed this today. Please, let it be our little secret. For once in my life maybe I can have a true friend.” The voice of a storyteller hovered in the air, commanding attention with its mesmerising quality.
She swallowed, as the doubts rose within her. Foolish girl. She clenched her hands into fists, searching for her strength.
A life in disguise, a life alone, has no meaning. No point to existence. No one cares who you are.
And the Gods: she preached to others to be truthful, to themselves and to others. Her own hypocrisy beat her conscience like a whip. She would pray for forgiveness today.
She cleared her throat, prepared now, ready to face Cain…
“Ma lady. What’s yer name then?” he managed to utter before she spoke again.
She twitched, then prayed he had not noticed, that he would not be suspicious of another betrayal.
“I’m Adrianna. Only for today, you promise?” Her heart jumped with an unnatural beat. But it was necessary to be cautious. Truthful but cautious, the Gods would understand.
Cain nodded, although his eyes appeared misty and she wondered if he had even registered her words.
“It’s nice to see who ye are,” came his response, though his forehead was still creased in a doubtful frown. Well of course. She could expect nothing else.
She waited, and finally his expression softened. But doubts of another kind made her tremble now: she hoped he would not simply see her as a pretty girl and nothing more.
Part of her wished she had never experienced better living. Then maybe she could settle for the current situation, and the way most men treated women around here. Maybe that was the real reason she had shed her guise today, as an act of defiance against reality.
No, it was more than that.
She also craved human interaction. And Cain hadn’t seemed all that bad. Certainly he never behaved like the greasy men who lustily grabbed the buttocks of serving-girls and dancers.
“Please, Cain,” she murmured, her voice quavering with the myriad of emotions storming inside her.
As though he sensed her discomfort and wanted to lighten the mood, Cain bowed like a gentleman. Scruffy chestnut curls bounced around his ears as he bent, giving him a comical look.
“I always thought ye a smart young man tellin’ tales, but even though ye’re a woman, ye’ll still be me damn brilliant storyteller.”
The muscles in her jaw relaxed, and Adrianna silently thanked the Gods that her judgement of Cain had been correct.
“Thank you,” she said softly.
“Well, ma lady, let’s celebrate.”
With that, Cain took her arm in his. Her skin tingled from the energy of that simple physical contact. After so long without, her heart leapt forth in her chest like a bird taking flight.
This was freedom.
This was truth.
Stumbling across ashen fields, jerked along by the ruthless chain around her wrists, Taalin walked on.
It was dusk. A thick veil of mist from the nearby mountains hung in the sky, choking the air like the fear and despair that bubbled up from her stomach and into her throat.
She squeezed her eyes shut to stop the tears oozing out. She had to hold on. Be strong.
Remember who you are.
Her entire life she had trained as a warrior, like all the northern women. But no training had prepared her for this.
Why did they spare me!
She wanted to scream, to wail, to let a gurgling howl rip from her throat and make the Gods aware of her anguish. Maybe then they would notice her. Maybe they would send a bolt of lightning to strike her, and end her life before the hell began.
Her insides shivered. Fear tore through her body, eating away all courage and hope, leaving nothing but a girl. A weak… little… Woman.
One of the soldiers barked, pulling the rope attached to her chained hands. The metal scraped against her chafed wrists, opening up the cracked skin, blood seeping out and staining her flesh. Ruby droplets. Gems. Beautiful pain.
His face leered in front of her. She spat. Flung a ball of spittle at that smirking, pasty excuse for a human. Human. But humans had souls. He had none.
She felt the hand whipping across her cheek, before she saw it coming. Spots appeared in her vision, strands of gossamer white globules forming a web in the darkness.
She blinked. Licked her lips, tasting something salty and metallic.
Legs trembling, Taalin sank to the ground. Her knee struck a rock and daggers of pain fractured her last vestiges of resolve. A whimper escaped from her lips into the cruel night, as the heavy weight of her loneliness descended down upon her.
She did not lift her head. She just stared down at the earth that had failed her.
No more flowers. No more colours.
“Please.” The word slipped past her lips, and immediately a pang of self-loathing coursed through her. She had been so much more than this, yet now allowed herself to be reduced to a weak and helpless girl. Her warrior spirit had deserted her, and she was begging the enemy for mercy.
The next thing she knew was the impact of a boot in her belly. She tensed, struggling to stop another cry erupting from her throat
Be dignified. Be strong.
Blinking back tears, Taalin staggered upright. She kept her gaze averted from the soldier, staring meekly at the ground, unable to look the essence of repulsion in the eye.
She clenched her teeth to fight the agony, as the metal edge of her broken boots scraped the flesh from her heels. Scratching the skin, peeling back the layers, engraving hideous marks, reminders of weakness.
She winced, but no one noticed. The soldier holding the rope had returned to his position, some metres ahead. And she was the only captive.
Time. Marked by her winces. Broken footsteps.
She focussed on the steps. Succumbed to the feeling of her feet being torn apart. It dulled the other pain – the agony of loss and her failure, her weakness. She was a captive.
Nothing more than a weak little girl, now she was pleading for the Gods to kill her.
Life had nothing left to give. She was done with it, finished.
Time now, to close off to the world.