Splinters of wood sailed into the air, some reaching as high as the wooden fence that enclosed the side-yard of the blacksmith’s shop. The hot, humid air was thick, clinging to the skin; the fine dust from the parched ground choked. Yet none of this deterred the small figure who was working tirelessly to perfect the ancient sword technique. Steel rang with each strike, rivaling the sound of heavy hammer on anvil beyond the wall of the shop. The once majestic tree trunk was now an asymmetrical hourglass shape, becoming more shredded and distorted with every blow.
The figure paused; sweat dripped down brow and neck as the thick cedar post continued to stand a proud challenge to the onslaught. The workout started again with a determined air to get it right. Dust swirled in clouds around boots of faded, dark leather, and clung to brown trousers that fit nearly two sizes too big.
“Martin!” The loud booming voice called a second time, barely audible over the bellows of the furnace.
The figure stopped again and frowned in irritation, blowing at a wisp of short, copper hair that had drifted into eyes of bright blue. The stray hair stubbornly resisted, clinging to a damp nose. The elegant long sword was lowered in exasperation, its tip coming to rest in the powder-like dirt.
With a sigh of resignation, the figure, appearing to be a young boy of only sixteen, turned a curious eye toward the shop and shuffled the few feet to the worn wooden door, where the paint, long since peeled, had given way to a glistening silver sheen. Dark-stained redwood beams held the shop together and stood in high contrast. Weathered window panes, caked with soot on the inside, made the moving shapes within indistinguishable, yet one or two broken squares still offered the chance to survey the blacksmith’s urgent need for assistance.
Two men stood just inside. With a nervous swallow, the figure took a step back. The pair were well known in the town of Serhena Valley. The older was tanned and weathered from years of hard work outside. The younger, in his early twenties, had dark brown eyes and hair. His build was tall and muscular. His skin darkened slightly from doing the same work as the older man.
Hesitant to enter the shop and heed the blacksmith’s call, a slender hand tugged absently at the loose-fitting linen shirt as though irritated by something beneath—even in this heat the shirt was laced all the way to the top. A finger scratched at a lightly freckled nose, leaving a dark soot smudge behind.
“Martin! Where are ya, boy?” The blacksmith called again.
Flinching at the anger in the voice, and after a deep breath to steady the nerves, the figure called Martin pulled open the door and stomped into the shop, nearly tripping over the uneven stair. The forgotten door slammed shut behind Martin and then bounced open again, rattling on squeaky hinges as he stumbled to the counter.
The blacksmith watched silently from his anvil and a look of sympathy passed through his dark, sparkling eyes, which always seemed to hold a mirthful countenance, even on the darkest of days. Martin avoided his gaze, not in the mood to be cheerful at the moment. While he slouched at the counter, the door continued to rattle loudly. Pretending not to notice, Martin set the sword down on the counter none too quietly.
“Morning,” the voice had an innocent and sweet quality, even as the words were mumbled and barely audible.
“Hello, Martin,” Horavol Finlon answered in his usual quiet and deliberate way. He tilted his wide-brimmed hat and shifted closer to the counter. He leaned an elbow across its smooth surface with the ease and familiarity of a man who had been coming to this blacksmith shop for several years.
The younger man behind him was his son, Raiff Finlon. He shuffled his feet, eager to get on with their business and clearly uncomfortable in the added heat from the furnace. He stood far enough away from his father so he could be near the open shop front, where four large redwood posts held up the roof—though on a day as hot and still as today, not much air passed through. The place where all the work was done cast its iron-hot breath outward, away from the walls that enclosed the back half of the building. It was late afternoon and the only light issuing forth was from the furnace, as nearly every window was not only covered in a heavy layer of soot, but was made near to useless by the configuration of shelves stretched across them, filled with tools and jigs of every kind both piled and hanging. The building looked like a torture room pulled up from the underworld of Dehorc—or at least the way the intricate drawings in all the books would have depicted.
“Can I help you, sir?” Martin asked, risking a shy glance up.
“Well, I’m hoping you can. We have a few horses ready for shod. Some of the new yearlings you and your father came out to see last spring. Of course, the army wants to take ‘em—for the war effort they say…” Horavol frowned.
Martin nodded, not needing to be reminded. For the last three years, everyone in town had been called upon to donate to the war effort, though most people didn’t completely understand what this war was about. No one really believed in it since they hadn’t heard so much as a whisper from anyone living beyond the Anwhar Mountains. Being the closest town to the immense northernmost range, they had neither seen nor heard of anyone venturing up into its dangerous peaks—or coming down from them. Yet this fact hadn’t stopped the mysterious and dark men, cloaked in crimson and charcoal and bearing the sigil of a dragon blowing fire across its back, from spewing their promises of great reward to any who gave of themselves.
Thankfully these men had not come back in over a year. Now, it was only the occasional patrols heading to and from the stronghold of Bren Hill that came into the Valley, where they often pressed their weight around ordering donated supplies and drinking free ale.
“We’ll take care of it, Mr. Finlon. How many?” Martin’s eyes darted hopefully between Raiff and his father, anxiety all but gone.
Horavol sighed heavily, thinking to himself. The look on his face was more telling than usual. Again, the Emperor’s Army would not be paying for the supplies. It was another huge loss to a once thriving business in Serhena Valley. People were starving, the draught was destroying what the Imperials hadn’t already stolen, and the ridiculous fear of the Sceleste was spreading like a disease through every town.
“I’ll do it for free, Mr. Finlon. Don’t worry, Johnquil and I understand. You can pay us back another way.” Martin’s gaze seemed to hold a sympathy beyond his age.
Relief fell across the old man’s features, yet the sadness remained. He would be losing some of his best horses. He could always raise more, but that took time and money, and like so many other things, money was becoming in short supply.
“Thank you, Marty, you don’t know how much this means to me. I’ve got twenty-five that need shoeing…” Horavol hesitated, his pale blue eyes began to water and his countenance dropped, making him look much older. The wind-blown roughness of his years pressed his skin into worn leather, his shoulders were slumped, made heavy by the burdens of the past year.
With a comforting hand, Martin touched the toughened skin of the older’s arm. A look of complete understanding, a knowing smile, and a warmth like that of a father regarded Martin in return. Horavol’s huge hand brushed the delicate one gently, and then the fleeting emotion was gone.
Raiff twisted his mouth impatiently. He had not seen the quiet gesture as he waved a hat to cool his sweating face. “So… we done here, pa? I’m to meet Tad and Davies for fishing, they’re expecting me.”
“Go ahead, son, we’re done here. Marty is kind enough to take care of all our needs.”
Raiff stopped waving his hat long enough to glance at the boy, who was much smaller than the men in the shop. “Hey, Marty,” he said as though he had just now come to notice that he was there. “You’re welcome to come with us…” he shrugged, “next time, I mean. I’m sure a little extra meat in your meals would do you some good,” Raiff grinned at his own joke as though the tease was meant in a brotherly way.
Martin had trouble looking Raiff in the eye. “Th-thank you, Raiff, I would like that,” was the stammered reply. Used to such taunts, Martin ignored the remark about his size.
Raiff nodded once and threw a lopsided grin, his brown eyes sparkled…
…The room shifted, the ground heaved, and a buzzing in the air crescendoed into a woman’s terror-filled scream. Darkness shrouded the young girl. Why am I crying? She thought as a whimper of fear filled her chest with heavy sobs; she couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t even move.
A man stood before her—Raiff. A woman lay stretched and twisted at his feet. Dark hair swirled around her face, while a pool of crimson blossomed from her body.
The woman was dead.
His horrified gaze lifted to meet the blue eyes of the girl who was weeping. Do I cry out of fear? Anguish?
Copper hair trembled against pale cheeks as she shook beneath his terrible scrutiny; his expression was fear and pain. Darkness shifted across his features, and the look on his usually handsome face became pure hate and rage. Raiff was seeing directly into her soul. He knew her secret, the truth she sought to hide from the world.
Her heart stopped and she stumbled back a step. All of his hate and his rage—his blame—was directed at her.
Raiff moved toward her with long menacing strides, his eyes never once drifted from hers. The cold ringing of a blade being drawn echoed from the shadows that were closing in. There was a glint of steel. He was closer, the sword began to rise.
Raiff was going to kill her.
The girl rushed to take a step back and her head hit the hard, dusty floor…
…She was back in the shop. Her blue eyes opened to see her father, Raiff, and Horavol hovering above her, expressions of worry on their faces. She looked to each of them, more than a little confused—and extremely foolish. Did I just have a dream?
“I’m sorry,” she said, trying to sit up in a hurry. “It’s this dark-awful heat. I must have been out in the sun too long,” She stammered, hoping to make up some kind of excuse that made sense.
Raiff and Horavol helped her to her feet, lifting her under each arm as though she weighed nothing. She swayed a bit as the ground began to settle. A sudden headache forced her eyes shut—it was enough to take her breath away.
“Are you all right?” Riff asked. His chocolate brown eyes were filled with genuine concern. His hand still gripped her arm as though he was thinking she might fall again at any moment.
“Thank you, I’m fine now. I just need some water.”
He let go of her arm, and a flash of a thought made her want to fall down a second time, just to have his hands on her again. Foolish girl. Raiff sees the awkward boy, Martin, not the woman I really am. He must think me so weak.
Afraid to see another vision, she was reluctant to meet his gaze, but all that stared back this time was his warm smile.
Seeing that she would be all right, Horavol backed away and shook hands with her father. “Thank you, John. Marty will take care of our needs. He’ll give you the details.” He turned to her, “Get some rest, don’t bother coming out to the ranch tonight. We can wait until tomorrow morning before the heat of the day settles in. The dehan army can wait another day or two.”
Johnquil’s concern had not wavered, he continued to watch her and she tried to smile back with confidence, hoping to convey that she was fine.
His long examination finally shifted back to his oldest friend, though the worry and not left his face. “Fine by me, Horavol. But please let me know if you need anything else. Don’t worry about the cost, we’ll make do as always. That’s what friends are for,” John forced a smile.
The two men shook hands and John added a parting squeeze to the older man’s arm.
Horavol and Raiff left the protection of the shaded shop. She watched them step out into the unrelenting sun to retrieve their horses. Raiff already had his fishing gear strapped to the saddle of his.
“Mahren?” Johnquil Mason laid a comforting hand, heavy and familiar on her shoulder. “Are you sure you are all right? What happened just now?”
“I’m not really sure, father.” She frowned as the horrible images played through her mind. She really did not want to repeat them. “I imagined I just overworked myself outside before coming in is all,” she shrugged. “I’ll be fine.” She touched a finger to his large, soot darkened hand that still rested on her shoulder. A knot of shame twisted her insides. I shouldn’t have been so irritated before—he is the world to me, and I am his. We are all we have, alone in our plight: we must stick together.
John squeezed her shoulder one last time, and she caught the questioning look still floating in his eyes. There was a hint of fear there too, as thought he knew what she had just seen.
“I’m all right… really. Just the heat is all. I’ll go get us some water and then get dinner started.” She watched him move back to his large anvil, where he had been hard at work pounding on what would be yet another donation to a war that seemed to never end—if it even existed at all.
Hoping he was satisfied with her explanation, Mahren slipped out the side door that she had stumbled through earlier, careful to keep it from slamming shut behind her again.
Following the well-worn path along the side of their shop, she paid little attention to where she was going. The property was divided into two yards, a tall weathered fence around both, offered the seclusion that they preferred. She passed through the gate into the second yard and tried to avoid checking the remains of their meager and wilting garden. Normally it would have been thriving—the fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, and even strawberries would have been ready for picking soon. But they were in dire need of rain this year and what had started to grow had finally succumbed to drought. In her efforts to ignore the sad garden, she instead noticed the empty stable and corral. It was probably a good thing they had lost their mare to illness last year, as this year they would not have been able to feed her.
The house was attached to the back of the shop. It was basically one long building with each end facing a different street. She went up the three steps to a round-topped door; its peeling blue paint so weathered it looked more like the color of a sunless, dreary day rather than the blue sky it was intended to be. A small storage room and pantry divided the living area from the shop. To her left and up two more stairs was the kitchen. Theirs was a simple home, only one large room and their two bedrooms, with a large porch stretching across the front.
She sat for a moment at the table big enough for four, and glanced at the large stone fireplace that was the entire west wall of the house—the idea of starting a fire in this heat was unbearable. Just the thought made the long strip of material she used to bind her breasts feel even tighter. She pulled at it in frustration, hating it all the more… it itched something awful when she sweated, but there was little she could do about it.
Mahren was trying to avoid the one place where her thoughts were drifting. She really didn’t want to think about the strange dream she’d just had—made all the stranger by the fact that she had been awake. She wanted to shrug it off as just the heat, mixing with the current state of affairs in not only their town but the whole region, even the whole land. Not much happened here—well, not until recently…
Theirs was a small town—only a few hundred people. They were off the beaten trail and far to the north, tucked within a valley beneath the vast Anwhar Mountain range. Serhena Valley didn’t have many visitors, for few ventured across the wide and fast moving Kehnell River—a constant hazard as it was fed by snowmelt and spring rain flowing down from the mountains. It carved a winding path around the town’s western border before snaking its way to the east to feed the deep and frigid sparkling waters of Lake Kehnell—a good source for norther Pikefish and Hoodseye Trout, including the ever elusive bottom-feeding Great Sturgeons. From there the river continued its long trek south to meander across the lower regions of Ahrune. There were only two ways in and out of the valley, keeping them well protected. Serhena Valley was just as its ancient name implied, ‘Peaceful’. At least, until three years ago. Trouble finally made its way into Serhena Valley, thanks to a small command post that had been set up near the town of Bren Hill. Soon after, the Imperial Army started to exert their power within these seemingly forgotten Northern towns.
She pushed back the wish to get away… No, Serhena Valley is really the safest place for me. The troubles that had just recently come their way, had been visited upon most other places tenfold. For the last twenty years, fear, war, and a tyrannically run regime had slowly begun to swallow the land. Any town or city worth the effort had been called upon to do their duty, leaving many places full of crime and ruin, barely livable for their disheartened and starving citizens.
This year, the drought was only adding to their slow decent into poverty. Many people were losing their livelihoods. Farmers were dealing with weakened or dying livestock and crops.
The old men talked of Dehorc risen, ascending from its hot depths to come and claim the world of the living. Everyone prayed to the Gods for a relief that didn’t come. She didn’t know what to believe, but it was clear that the Balance was shifting. And this fact only managed to fuel the worst of the troubles that had visited Serhena Valley and the rest of the land—the fear that the Sceleste had come back.
Later that evening as they relaxed on the front porch, enjoying the slightly cooler breeze, she chewed over the meaning of the dream. All through dinner she had remained silent, and so had her father. He had watched her closely, but he didn’t ask. He never asked and for this she was grateful.
She took a deep breath and tried to let the night air dispel her anxiety, but her father was worried… she could feel it. And when he was worried, it only added to her own.
Ever since she was little, they had shared several sunsets this way, relaxing after a good meal and letting tired muscles unwind from a long day of work. Yet tonight she just could not settle her nerves. The weather, along with the fear that was palpable among their neighbors, only added to the sense of foreboding that this latest vision had conjured. She couldn’t stop thinking about it, and she was reluctant to mention it.
She had never told him of her strange dreams. And though she’d had similar visions in the past, this was the first to have come upon her while she was awake. The moment she had looked into Raiff’s eyes she had seen, and even felt, the emotional turmoil he was in. A pain and a sadness that she had always been aware of. Yet today it had been different. Today something had triggered this vision. Why? And who was the dead woman on the ground?
As if reading her thoughts, John stopped the movement of his chair. The quiet and constant creak of his rocker had been more soothing than the silence. He was watching her in that way he always did, trying to read what was behind her eyes, trying to understand… perhaps even wondering if she was really ready to know the truth; the real reason she had to live this lie.
Mahren had never asked why, because she could always see the remembered pain in his eyes. He had already lost her mother, and he would do anything to protect her. As far as she knew, this was the only way he knew how.
He took a long slow drag from his pipe. The puff, puff, puff was a quiet sound, nearly drowned out by the crickets and the singing night cicadas. The distant cry of a calling nighthawk came and went nearby.
H was about to ask. She could sense his question hanging there, waiting to be uttered. She could feel his emotion too, something she had always been able to do with most people, and tonight that emotion was nearly as tightly wound as her own.
“Mahren… I know you saw something today,” he sighed the admission as though it had been a long time coming. “I know you see things now and then.” He shook his head in disdain.
There was resentment there, but for whom was it intended?
“If you want, you can tell me about it. Maybe I can help you to interpret it…” he was full of understanding and sympathy. So the anger was with himself… not me.
She swallowed hard. How could he possibly know that she had visions? Telling him of this one would only bring up that pain again; that terrible memory of last year. She shook her head slightly, not wanting to talk about it. Yet the fact that he knew she had visions continued to swirl in her mind. How does he know?
“Perhaps it was a flashback? We all still suffer from that terrible event. I can understand if you need to talk about it. But remember, as terrible as it was for us to witness such a thing, the pain is tenfold for Horavol and Raiff. Maybe this is what you were picking up on today?”
She thought about the dead woman lying on the ground, her dark hair. Could that have been Emily? A shiver went through her as the images from that horrific night were already beginning to swarm, unwanted yet needing to have their say. She remained quiet and looked away, her throat too tight to voice her thoughts, even if she wanted to.
She had dreamed of it, and then it happened… Ever since that night, she’d had several dreams that never come true, but today had been different. There was something eerily familiar about the strange, waking dream she’d had of Raiff, and this is what worried her most. She could feel it in the air—something was coming.
She shivered despite the hot breeze—even with the sun down, the heat was oppressive. This fact reminded her of the present. She could sense that it was becoming increasingly difficult for the people to ignore their fears as their world began to die around them. The heat of this drought was making everyone a little more on edge. Perhaps that was all she was feeling.
She peered up at her father. When she didn’t answer he had become quiet again himself, smoking his pipe and rocking slightly in his chair, while looking out at the night. She could feel the regret, the anger, the sadness that was just beneath the surface. He always kept it in check, but just barely.
So he was aware of her dreams… How? Did he know why she had them?
There was something more to everything, she was sure of it now. What happened to Emily had something to do with why they were here. It had to be connected to the real reason she was living this lie.
Father had always promised to tell her someday, and she had always remained patient because she didn’t like to see the pain of those memories move through his eyes. But tonight she decided it was time. She needed to know the truth.