Authors: Emily Williams
The Burning Sword
A fantasy novel
TABLE OF CONTENTS
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead is coincidental and not intended by the author. To the extent, any real names of individuals, locations, or organizations are included in the book, they are used fictitiously and not intended to be taken otherwise.
Copyright © 2014 by author Emily Williams
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His face was deathly white. Should you squinted you might almost predict him, though perhaps the truth that he was violently shaking with fear had something to do with his transparency.
They watched, apprehensive, curious, scared. Some covered their eyes, others steeled themselves to look at, knowing they will be next.
His stomach cramped, as though it were a cloth being wrung to acquire every one of the water from the jawhorse. He stepped forward, bare-chested and vulnerable, hoping his knees wouldn't collapse with terror.
“Close your eyes.” There was no sympathy in that voice. He obeyed, plunging his world into cold darkness. His arm was seized, fingers pressed onto something rough.
An intense icy pressure touched his chest, he felt the skin there part, and a warm feeling melted the cold one, trickling down to his stomach.
The pain reached him, and his breathing sped up, panicked. He heard a loud crack, magnified in amplitude by the fact that he had been robbed of his sight.
They said I wouldn’t die. They said I wouldn’t be in danger. He realized suddenly that ‘they’ might not be as trustworthy as he had previously thought.
Something was pressed against the fresh wound- he felt sure it wasn’t a clean bandage- and the pressure of it sent spiky darts of fresh pain across his body.
Suddenly he felt his legs go numb, and the numbness spread, shooting up to his chest, swallowing his body. Then it seized him, and he crumpled to the floor, his eyes rolling back, convulsing as he lost all control, and the last thing he heard was his own terrified heartbeat drumming in his ears.
"Good." The cold voice rang out amongst them, icier than midwinter frost.
The silence that met him did actually chime with fear, as all who stood before him avoided his full attention, staring at their feet like these folks were essentially the most interesting things that they have seen. The voice gave a merciless laugh. "Which one of you desires to go next?"
She sat and fumed. Ignoring the sharp rocks, along with the impracticality of fuming with a rock face in a gale force wind, she folded her arms and muttered to herself angrily, determined to never let herself shiver.
Her father's shout after her, as she had stormed away only moments before, still echoed around her head. "Oh, that's it! Go and sulk as being a two-year-old very mature of you!”
She has not been sulking. She was fuming. There was an important difference.
It wasn’t fair. She had only wanted to help, to prove herself worthy, to show that she was not as weak as they all thought she was. Instead of being thanked for her kindness, she had been ridiculed.
Even her hair had turned against her; it blew violently in the wind, whipping her across the face. She scraped it back fiercely, staring out into the stormy sky, as if glaring at the wind would calm it.
The rocks surrounding her were treacherous, as she well knew. The small ledge she had sidled along to get onto here was slippery with moss, and eroding at a very fast rate, so fast in fact that several large parts of it had cracked and tumbled down just as she had passed them. She had been too angry to care.
The wind growled around her, and she huddled into a ball, it now being too cold to pretend that she was immune to it. The rocks behind her were poking into her back, and as she looked up above her, she saw that she had done rather badly in selecting her place to sit. Here it was unsheltered, the rocks as bumpy and spiky as a mountain range. She’d been lucky not to sit a little to the right, for a huge boulder had just sheared itself off from the rock above, and crashed down, bouncing off the place that she would have been sitting.
Yes, she had been very stupid to sit here, but she found that being angry rarely led to sensible decision making. Her pride abandoned, she got up, balancing in a rather precipitous way, the wind snatching at her as if it was deciding whether to dash her against the rocks, or whether to let her fall. Reaching out for something to hold on to, she grasped a nearby rock that she realized only too late was actually extremely unstable, and slipped from her grip almost at once, tumbling down the rock face, and smashing into smithereens. She tried not to think about the mess she would make if she took a similar route.
“Faith!” A voice carried to her over the wind, and she turned to look, her hair flying around in her face, somewhat obstructing her vision. Flicking it back, she saw the familiar dark haired girl she knew so well standing on the ledge she had crossed, her face almost green in color as she clung onto the rocks for her life.
Martha. Faith scurried across the rocks, knowing that her best friend had come all this way, despite being terrified of heights.
Martha’s fear gave her a reason to stop thinking about the ways in which she was going to die, and she dashed onto the ledge, just as a torrent of rocks pattered down behind her.
Martha seized her arm, pulling her onto the safe green grass of the mountain slopes. They both collapsed on top of it, breathing in its fresh sweet smell. Faith thought she had never smelt anything so nice.
Martha rolled over to look at her as soon as she had recovered her breath. “What did you think you were doing?!” she shrieked. “Did you go completely out of your mind?! I know you wanted to prove yourself, but a mangled mess at the bottom of the mountain was hardly going to make your life better, was it?! I thought you had brains in that head of yours!”
Faith lay flat on the grass, listening to Martha’s rant. She thought she probably deserved it.
The rant stopped, and Faith decided it was safe to sit up. Turning to face her best friend, she gave her a weak smile.
“Well?” asked Martha, impatient.
Faith sighed. “Yes, I was stupid, yes, I’m an idiot, and no, I don’t seem to have brains in my head. Or at least my father doesn’t think I do.” She muttered the last bit darkly, and Martha’s expression softened her kind brown eyes anxious.
“You didn’t really think he’d let you fight, did you?” she asked, reaching out to give her a one armed hug.
Faith shrugged, feeling tightness in her throat that probably meant she’d end up bursting into tears if she attempted speech. Had she expected the answer she wanted? Well, no. But she knew she’d be angry with herself if she hadn’t even tried asking, so she’d risked humiliation, and gone to her father. And she had been humiliated.
Chewing her bottom lip, Faith pulled herself up. The wind seemed feeble now, lightly playing with the hem of her gown. Martha squinted up at the faint sun, almost completely hidden by clouds.
“It’s getting late,” she murmured. “Come on.”
“Do we have to?” Faith couldn’t think of anything she’d like less. Having left so dramatically, she was likely to attract stares and gawking upon re-entering.
Martha tutted. “We can’t stay out here all evening, as you well know.” Faith raised an eyebrow, considering it. “We can’t.” She let out a sigh. “I suppose we could sneak back in, but that’s hardly a show of pride, is it?”
Faith sighed as well. “Martha, think about it. The ogling I’ll get if I attempt walking in with my head held high will quickly get rid of any pride.”
Martha chuckled. “Alright then, we’ll sneak in. As long as you come back, I’m happy.”
The warm candlelight chased the dark evening away as Faith gazed into her bowl of stew, her appetite vanished by her father’s stony expression at the end of the table.
Her six brothers all steadily chewed their way through their food, spoons moving up and down, bowl to mouth, bowl to mouth, without a pause to enjoy the taste. Faith saw them eyeing her stew with interest, and so she tipped a little of it into her mouth, pretending she was hungry.
The stew was lukewarm, and as it trickled down her throat, she tried not to grimace at the taste. More and more now, food had to be watered down as their stocks grew low; the rabbits that had previously overrun the place were dwindling, and the traders who usually marched up the mountain slopes twice a year hadn’t been seen for months. The village leaders (of which her father was one) had had many discussions about this, hurried and urgent in tone, for none of them had much time for meetings nowadays.
It was obvious why the traders hadn’t been. Faith wasn’t stupid enough to fall for her father’s lies; he patted her on the head when she mentioned it, and told her to run along, the traders would be here soon. Faith snorted at the thought. Run along? She was sixteen, for crying out loud.
For the past five months, those who lived on the ground surrounding the mountain (known to the villagers as the ‘squatters’, due to their position at the foot of the mountain) had been attempting to get up the mountain, claiming they wanted to dig for jewels. Despite Faith ’s father’s assurances that they were more likely to find
fossilized unicorns, they had threatened the village with their swords and bows, until they were permitted to climb the mountain.
It had been a rather amusing sight, really. The spindly group of squatter men trying to get up the mountain, tying themselves together in an attempt to steady their clumsy feet, but in fact just hindering the more stable of the group. Overall, the effect had reminded Faith of when a deer had sprung in front of her one wintry day, landing on some ice and slipping around, her legs crisscrossing as she attempted to stay upright.
The villagers had scoffed at their attempts to climb the mountain, and had retreated back to the comfort of the village. As soon as they were out of sight and earshot, the squatters had begun to cut down the trees that grew up the side of the mountain, trying to clear themselves a large space to start to dig for the jewels. Outraged upon discovering this, Faith ’s father had led an attack, chasing the squatters down the mountain, telling them never to return again.
For a month, they had stayed away, but recently had been clamoring to get back up again, sending messengers up to the village to bargain, offering the villagers all sorts of gifts, and eventually, as the villagers showed no sign of cooperating, threatening them.
It had become clear after the traders hadn’t arrived, that something was wrong. Sending spies down to the base of the mountain, it had been discovered that squatters were not letting the traders pass, and, disgruntled that they had no one to buy their goods, they had moved on. The squatters were trying to starve them out of their mountain.
“They must really think they can find jewels here,” Martha had said, when she and Faith had discussed it.
“They’re idiots!” Faith had replied energetically. “Surely we would have found them if there were any?”
Martha had twisted a dark curl around two fingers absentmindedly. “Faith , you know the squatters. They think they’re invincible, and that we’re stupid and weak.”
Faith thought back about this, as she pushed her stew towards her eager brothers. The squatters had not seemed fazed when the villagers had told them to either move, or they would declare war upon them. They had simply stood their ground, meaning the villagers were now in preparations for war against them. Hence, the stony solemnity of this last dinner before all the men and boys aged over thirteen went off to fight the squatters. Faith was not impressed by this.
It seemed stupid to leave perfectly good villagers back at home, to darn clothing and sew things, whilst all the men fought for survival, outnumbered, even if the squatters were a weak force. Faith wanted to fight, like her six elder brothers, she wanted to get rid of those thrice-blasted squatters too, and so she had gone to her father, and the other village leaders, and asked if she could join the army of village men, and go to fight.
Some of the leaders had looked sympathetically at her, as if she was to be pitied; others had coughed suddenly to conceal a laugh, but her father had looked at her, expressionless.
“What makes you think you can fight?” he asked. Faith could not answer that, for what could she say? That she’d been practicing with fallen branches ever since she was small? That would just give them cause for more laughter. Martha had bravely come with her, and had squeezed her hand for support.
“I can fight!” she had declared. “I’m just as able as some of the boys! Surely it’s worth me having a go?”
Some of the village leaders had looked kindly at her, trying to find the least offensive way of explaining to her how worthless she was in battle.
“My dear child, you must remember that you are not quite built the same way as those of the male gender are. I’m afraid you simply wouldn’t have the strength.” The condescending way in which they had explained it had angered Faith , and she had balled her fists furiously.
“I can help!” She had realized that her voice had gone horribly high-pitched, and she had bitten her lip, looking towards her emotionless father for support.
A laugh had come from the village leader Faith liked the least- Henry. He had been lounging in his chair, silent until now.
“What did you expect, letting her race around the mountain like a wild goat? The presence of women in our army, however unfeminine they may be, will shame us.”
Faith had been shaking with rage at this point, and had turned to go, head down, arms limply by her sides.
"Oh, that's it! Go and sulk being a two-year-old very mature of you!”
Her father's call had just made every last rational thought inside her head dissolve, hence her decision to take a seat on the treacherous rocks. It hadn't just been a chance for her to prove herself, prove that they wasn't a worthless little sister. She wanted to go out there, after dark chickens she'd to give each day, beyond the endless piles of stitching and darning, past the reality that women were just a shadow with their husbands and fathers. She wanted something totally new, something adventurous. It could be like getting a blast of crisp, fresh winter air, after taken from a stuffy, dark room like having a sip of sweet, frosty water as soon as your throat was dry and parched. She wanted to have an adventure she thought about being free. None of the seemed likely now.
Getting up in the table, Faith made her excuses, and went to take a nap on her behalf straw mattress. Her head was heavy with the thoughts of her humiliation, and she thought maybe her dreams offers an escape.