Chapter One

22 May

Karia, glancing back as she pushed through the brush, crashed into a clearing. She fell, her left shoulder slamming hard into the ground and almost knocking the wind out of her. She lay still for a moment.

Battling the feeling of fear tingling at the back of her neck, she lifted her head and listened. Hearing Narek crashing through the brush was no problem. She needed to figure out how close he was. When the rustling stopped, she knew.

“Oh, poor Karia,” he called out, taunting her. “Left your shoe wedged under this root, did you? It’s hard to run with just one shoe, isn’t it? You stay right where you are, and I’ll bring it to you!”

Now she heard only an occasional crack and a gentle swish of leaves. She decided that meant he was now moving more slowly, deliberately, following her trail. From the start, she had pushed directly into the bushes and shrubs and vines instead of sticking to the paths. She knew she could fit through places Narek could not, and more importantly, slip through small spaces between the vegetation without leaving much of a trail.

It’s not that Narek was large. Karia was thin. Thin to an extreme. She wasn’t particularly tall for her age, but since she had also shot up in the last year or so, and was now taller than most of the boys her age, she felt too tall. Combined with her thinness, she felt very awkward and clumsy. In her mind, she was a stick.

But that wasn’t all. She was pale. Not just fair, but pale. Her dad had taken to calling her Tsilinki. It was a play on the pet name he had for her as a child, Tsil. Her mom told her once that it was short for an Inamali word, Tsilinakaya, and that it meant something like “hope.” She wasn’t sure why her dad called her Tsil, but it was his special word for her and she liked that. On the other hand, tsilinki was the name of the grain her family grew – a pale plant with only a hint of green, which grew up straight and tall, rod-thin, to five or six, or sometimes even eight feet, before it ever started filling out and coloring, budding and setting grain. A pale, thin stick.

Thanks, Dad. She hated her new nickname.

At the beginning of this chase her slimness worked out for her. She fit through the gaps in the brush, and was confident she could elude Narek. Then the brush closed in and she had to press her way through. It snagged on her dress and tugged at her long auburn hair. It had snatched off one of her shoes, and more than once she accidentally let a branch snap back across her nose – my ugly little sharp nose – or into her very blue eyes, which were starting to water a little. No, she wasn’t crying. Her eyes were watering. At least, that’s what she would say. Karia did not cry.

But the worst part was that she was now leaving a clear trail for Narek to follow, and he seemed to be catching up.

She rolled onto her stomach so she could push herself up onto her hands and knees, unconsciously digging her fingers into the sandy soil. Still looking down, she silently cursed herself for letting Timbal kiss her when he found her the last time the three of them played hide-and-seek. She whispered a curse at Narek for spying on them. Losing her temper, she loudly cursed Timbal for telling Narek he could have a kiss if he caught her this time. At least, she tried to. She didn’t recognize the word that came out. But she had no time to think about it.

“What was that?” Narek called out. “Did you call for me? I’m coming, Karia!” He laughed.

Her fear had turned to anger and now embarrassment burned into determination. She had to escape, but where? And how? Already the bottom of her right foot was bruised and throbbing. Her shoulder was sore and she was still trying to catch her breath.

She could not run. She needed to find a place to hide.

She lifted her head and looked around, and her fear returned. For this was the one place in the forest that she dreaded more than a kiss from Narek.

She was looking down a dirt lane wide enough for a horse-drawn carriage, hard-packed and rutted as if from past use, now covered with silt, dirt and dust from misuse. It ran no more than a hundred feet, ending abruptly in trees and brush at one end, where she was, and at the opposite end. All along the lane on her left grew a neat, orderly hedge, several feet thick, with tiny round waxy leaves and, in spring, fine white flowers that had a sour scent. It was late summer now, and the flowers had become tiny beads of green, some already ripening into the yellow berries that the birds left alone. She had sniffed one once, crushed it and sniffed it again. It smelled sour, like the flowers. I wouldn’t eat them either.

The hedge even had a wide opening and a stately gate sculpted in some kind of grayish-white metal that did not rust, attended by two square lamps in similar patterns – like interlocking vines – and apparently wrought from the same material. Beyond the hedge, where there should have been at least a cottage – if not a manor house, judging from the majesty of the gate – was only forest.

And now she recognized the feeling at the back of her neck for what it was – not fear of Narek catching her, but that feeling that always crept up her neck near the hedge. The hedge and lane by themselves would have been strange; the sensation on the back of her neck told her there was dangerous power here – though how she knew that, and why Timbal and Narek had never felt it, she did not know.

Here on her hands and knees, she saw something she had never noticed before. A short distance up the lane, on her side of the gate, she could see a space to crawl under the hedge. A dark space – a place she could hide. It looked inviting.

She did not question why she had never seen it before. She did not wonder why the place that had repulsed her in the past now seemed to draw her. She reasoned, quite simply, that she needed a place to hide and had found it.

Swiftly Karia crawled to the space and under the hedge, the shadows growing deeper as she crawled. She was about to question how she could still be crawling under the hedge for so long, when suddenly she was not under the hedge anymore. She was inside a room.

Amazed, still on her hands and knees, she looked up and around. The room was perhaps eight feet square and equally high, the walls white with plaster or whitewash. Narrow windows very high on the walls bathed the room in light. A doorway in front of her opened into what looked like a parlor beyond.

She wanted to explore – even felt compelled to look around – but she also felt wary. The feeling at the back of her neck was acute, and had spread to a tingling in her scalp.

She looked left to a desk made of thick, dark wood, carved with winding knots of snakes and with a lighter colored writing stand atop it. She could tell it was carved as well, but the carving was so fine and intricate it was difficult for her to make out what it was from where she was. A quill was still in an inkwell, as if someone had stopped writing just a moment ago. Behind the desk was a bookcase set into the wall, its top shelf filled with a large number of books, some quite big. Because of the desk, Karia could see only the top shelf, but she had never before seen so many books, or books so big.

She turned to the right, and saw there was a coat rack on the wall.

Odd, she thought. Who would use an entryway as a study?

Her eyes scanned almost to the corner when she saw something that took her back from curiosity to fear again. The rest of the coat rack had been empty, but there, on the last peg – or was it the first? – almost to the corner, nearly touching her right shoulder, was a deep brown robe, edged in red, and a very broad brown cap. The kind of robe and cap only a great sorcerer wore.

The stories she had been told as a little girl flooded back to mind. A sorcerer wanders the forest, she remembered Grantik, the dry goods shopkeeper, saying. It wasn’t the first or last time she heard that.  He eats little children, his wife added, seeming to find pleasure in Karia’s reaction. Never play in the forest, her mom told her. It’s dangerous. When she pressed her mom, she would only say, There’s magic there, Karia. Somehow not knowing anything more specific was even more scary – and tempting. And now she was growing up, and she was old enough to start thinking they were just stories adults used to keep children in line, and keep them from playing in the forest, where some had gone lost.

But no – what they said about sorcerers and magic was no story. She knew that now.

All that flew through her mind and she was now terrified. She spun on her knees and launched herself toward the hole she came in through, and saw only a whitewashed wall hurtling toward her. She realized in a split-second that the wall was actually standing still and she was hurtling, but not in time to stop before the hurtling, whoever was doing it, came to an end. A sudden, painful end.

And everything went black.

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2 Responses to “Chapter One”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Let’s take over the world! | by Ian Fallis - June 3, 2013

    […] Once they start reading, they won’t want to stop. There’s a sample for Kindles on Amazon.com, or they can read the first chapter on this blog. […]

  2. 2 … | by Ian Fallis - November 16, 2013

    […] The first chapter of Book 1, The House in the Old Wood […]

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