The Zero-Dark Legend
Of Thorns and Demons
Firebird Winner: Science Fantasy; Dystopian Fantasy; and Sword and Sorcery
The land of Erde is recovering from the Long War - twenty-six years of battle that have fractured the foundations of the ruling government at its core, leaving it bankrupt and unable to continue ruling.
After sixteen years of recovery, the government tender the resignation of their post to the Envoy; an undercover operative that has worked tirelessly to unravel the Administration Board.
Born in the death-throws of the ruling government, Rey spends her life growing up on an orchard in the idyllic countryside. However, the Envoy threatens the peace and turns her world upside-down, forcing Rey to come face-to-face with an enemy more evil than she has ever encountered. Whilst dealing with the death of close family, Rey has to endure being held prisoner, tortured and somehow devise a daring escape.
Only true friendship can save her from herself.
Every great warrior starts their journey somewhere, and this is her tale.
Follow Rey as the world tests her mettle to the max and she discovers who she is born to be...
I drew my sword, the electric rush engulfed me, as the sword glowed with blue plasma, "go!"
He didn't move, just stared at me in horror.
Of Thorns and Demons
Tales from Erde
That was what Cordis mortem meant.
The hand-printed words from the ancient book blurred as I let their meaning sink in.
Audri was dying.
She was dying, and she’d kept it secret -why?
Audri lay prone on the settee in the living area next to the hidden space where the contraband materials, books and scrolls were kept. A cursory glance at her reassured me she was still breathing.
As a surrogate mother, it was scary to see her this unwell. For my sixteen winters of existence, she cared for me as if I were hers and both our families lived on the same land. I had never known my birth mother, but it didn’t matter – Audri was as good as, and Elyas, her husband, was seen as a loving uncle to me, just as Pa was to Naeli. We were a family, and my family was in peril.
I inspected the page; there were pencil marks and scribbled lines which I could not make out surrounding line after line of printed text. How did she know that she had this? Why didn’t Audri tell anyone? This was her room; her solace: a place which Elyas pretended didn’t exist.
I looked further down to the symptoms section, skipping the specifics. There would be time to read that later. Coma or prolonged unconsciousness was listed as the final stage before death. My heart pounded as I reread the word.
The room spun, and I reached a hand out to steady myself against the bookcase. My throat burned from bile that had risen as the word echoed in my head. Forcing my eyes down to the page again, I moved my finger down to the treatment section, which had only one item listed; a specially prepared elixir mixture of medicinal herbs and chemicals. There was more of her writing next to this, ‘pretiosus; pedere omnia; non satis pecunia’. What did that mean?
The words brought a vague, and distant memory of it having something to do with too much, or not enough money. Was it too expensive or something?
Images of my lessons with Audri flooded my mind; when we poured over her tomes every night by the light of a single sconce that lit the windowless room. Of how she would read to me from the brown and flaky, ancient book with charred edges from years ago from the collapse; how I would handle each book with as much love and care as I did Naeli when she was born.
A deep ache in my stomach brought a wave of nausea; I swallowed the feeling of nervousness and anxiety. What would Audri want me to do?
A tremendous boom of thunder reverberated around the room, causing everything to shake, and I slammed the book shut without meaning to as I jumped. After apologising to it, I replaced it as carefully as I could on top of a small stack of antique books that rested on top of one of the waist-high shelves.
For some reason, Audri’s ancestors felt they were important enough to risk everything for and so created this scholar’s paradise in which to store them.
Closing the fake wall behind me, I rushed out to Elyas, who was now pacing the floor next to the couch where Audri’s lifeless body lay in purgatory between life and death.
The icy chill hadn’t left me and the fear that now gripped me made my heart pound hard in my chest. I shook my shoulders to rid my body of its cold grip encircling my thoughts. How could I tell Elyas that the love of his life was dying? He was agitated, pacing back and forth in front of the large settee.
“Well?” he froze mid-step, his back to me, “what did you find out? Can you help her?”
His voice was cold. Hard. Empty, but an element of pain too. Audri had tried to teach him how to read, but he was more interested in the farm and therefore had never learned.
Our ancestors fought and died to protect the lands we lived on from a relentless enemy; a conflict that had lasted years and aptly named the Long War. Pa had said that after the years of destruction and horror, it had ended with something beautiful with my birth. In the chaos that only comes with war, how did they have the foresight to keep them?
The tomes were an eclectic collection of information ranging from fiction to non-fiction. Rather than all being original books from the first era (most of which were either burned or have since disintegrated), many were painstaking handwritten copies of complete books hundreds of pages in volume.
Despite loving the contents, the reading itself was pretty tricky for me as most of the letters and words jumbled up, and I found it difficult to concentrate for any length of time as it made my eyes tired. It didn’t seem to bother Audri, so perhaps her vision was all right.
Anyway, she was always telling me off for not focusing enough, but often the daydreams about the next hunting adventure Naeli and I planned crept into my thoughts any time my focus waned.
Whilst Elyas was fearful of the books, in comparison, he had no qualms about Naeli and I camping and hunting on our own. This was even when the night-lurkers that loomed in the shadows at the very edge of the county — often heard, rarely seen – came closer to the town during mating season. Their shrill mating calls were disturbing, and Naeli and I had spent many a sleepless night hearing their terrible noise.
At least that was only during the autumn months, so camping was much more restful in the spring and summer. I supposed this reflected the actual threat the contents of this cupboard harboured. Elyas was calmer now, though more than I would be if it were Pa, who was safe at home, working.
I opened my mouth to speak, but no sound came out. How do I tell this haggard-looking man, this broken man, that his wife of over twenty years had something that caused heart death and the medicine that might save her they couldn’t afford?
“It’s not good news, is it?” he folded his arms in front of himself, wrapping them tight and used his hands to cling onto his top, but still didn’t turn around to face me. He must have feared what I was going to say; scared of losing Audri. He lifted his hands to his face to rub his temples, showing the sweat stains under his arms that had dried more than once, leaving a slight yellowing at its edges. How long was it since he’d slept?
Maybe I should’ve gotten Pa: he would’ve answered these questions that he kept asking and stopped the doubts that flooded my thoughts. He could’ve sorted Elyas out; he would’ve been able to get him to turn around. Pa would have been brave enough to speak. But maybe I was being unfair to Elyas.
I pulled a strand of hair from my braid and twirled it, the natural curls coiled around my finger, and the silence lingered, casting a heavy darkness in the room.
The scrawled words pretiosus; pedere omnia; non satis pecunia appeared at the forefront of my mind. Why didn’t Audri tell him? Indeed, he would have done everything he could to get her better. And then another thought occurred; why did she not write it in regular dialect instead of the language of the Old Ones?
“Rey?” his voice broke into my thoughts, disrupting their flow.
“Treatment?” He asked, not turning around.
I swirled the hair around my fingers first one way and then another, biting my lip as he remained frozen and trancelike.
“Maybe, but it might not even work though…her body might be too weak to be able to take it and-.”
I bit into my lip, drawing blood; the copper taste filled my mouth. Sixteen winters was too young to be giving news like this.
“B-but it might be too expensive… I’m not sure if-.”
He turned around to face me, his glazed eyes boring into my soul and spoke with a sharp tone.
“A lot...I don’t know, but-.”
“How much,” his voice was harsh and desperate.
He already knew the answer but seemed to want to prolong this torture.
“Could I sell some furniture to afford?”
“I-it said something about herbs and an elixir crafted from some rare ingredients...something we might be able to get from the Apoth’s store in town, but that’s only if they stock them.”
“How exactly do you know that?” Elyas shook his head in frustration and then grabbed a bowl of dirty water from the sideboard and walked into the kitchen, indicating for me to follow.
The large window with panoramic views of our country estate was a welcome sight from the darkness and old decor of the sitting room. Darkened clouds made the trees illuminated, with bright shades of green from the full force of the storm with forked lightning as it struck the trees on the horizon, followed by the roar of thunder that boomed and reverberated in the dark home.
There would be no fires from its sharp tendrils as they pierced the sky, as large raindrops splashed hard against the pane, trickling down, slow at first until the thundering of the rain all but drowned out our voices.
His back was to me, as he maniacally chopped vegetables for soup and used the pump for freshwater.
“Have you eaten anything, Elyas?”
He shrugged and shook his head.
“This was for you and Naeli. I’m fine, do not fuss, Rey…I’m fine. I’m not hungry…” his voice trailed off, and I nodded; my stomach was in a knot anyway, and was closer to vomiting than eating.
“It was in the books, written in it by Audri...that the cost of the elixir might be expensive…but she didn’t write how much.”
“What?” He spun around, and glared at me, “why would she have written that there?”
He stared at me; his eyes wide.
Unable to hold his gaze, I chewed my lip and scrutinised the flagstone floor.
“She knew, Audri knew and didn’t tell me...why not? Did you know?”
He jabbed a finger at me, as he paced back and forth, shaking his head the entire time.
“No! I had no idea she’d written that.”
His brow furrowed, and he stopped walking to stare at me, “why didn’t she say anything? When was the last time you worked through that book with her?”
“Erm, I dunno, long before she left for her expedition,” I shifted position, uncomfortable with the direction of this conversation.
Pausing to wash the bowl clean, I wracked my brain to see if I had missed something when I’d read, or by her demeanour before she had left. Audri went on expeditions regularly, leaving Naeli and I to get up to as much mischief and adventure as possible whilst in the evenings, Elyas tended to the selection of hand-crafted ledgers that were filled with short stories that rhymed – no more than a page long each.
His steady hand enabled him to paint intricate designs on hardened cloth which wrapped around the hand-sewn pages, binding them, ready for Audri to write her prose.
“Why would she lie?” I wiped the soot from my hands, onto my trousers which created large, black streaks all over the material, but they were my old work pair, and I had managed to save enough material to make another pair so I could keep these as the ‘old’ pair.
“It’s not the first time...” his voice trailed off again, and he stared at me a moment and then turned his back to me again to prepare the pot for the brew.
“Rey!” The loud shriek was followed instantaneously by Naeli throwing her arms around me, squeezing me tight, nuzzling her head against me. I’d seen her earlier in the morning, but she had gone to sit with the goats and the donkey, not wanting to be in the house whilst her Ma was poorly.
I wrapped my arms around her, the mass of black curls bounced in every direction, tickling my nose. She smelled of wood smoke and cherry blossom. We clung to each other in silence.
“Stop smelling me,” her voice was muffled from burying her head into my shoulder. Her wiry frame trembled, and I pulled away to find that her eyes were glassy and bloodshot. She’d been crying, which was something that was not a common occurrence for her due to her happy-go-lucky nature, so I stroked some strands of hair from her face and wiped the single tear that carved a streak of clean, walnut skin out of the dirt that smeared across her cheeks.
Elyas remained with his back to us, with no acknowledgement of Naeli, his body clenched and taut.
“Have you come to fix her? Will she be alright?” Naeli’s voice pleaded with me.
“I hope so, Lil’ Bear, I do. Hey, do you fancy helping out here for a little while?”
Naeli shrugged, stealing a glance at her father who remained frozen with his back to her and ignorant to her silent plea for comfort.
“I need you to help me. You need to make sure your Ma is comfortable with a blanket and then light the fire for warmth and switch the argon lanterns on?”
“Fine, but I’d rather help you,” her shoulders slumped.
“That is helping, Lil’ Bear, I promise. And it’s only for a little bit, and then I’ll...”
I stole a glance out of the corner of my eye at Elyas. He was stirring the brew in the pot on the stove.
“...I’ll be in soon. I need to get her the best medicine, to make her better, okay?”
“Alright then,” she shrugged, but her face was crestfallen, and I kissed her hand as she turned away from me, the sharp pang of guilt stinging as I bit my lip and watched her go. How was I ever going to tell her that her mum was dying; that I had no idea whether Audri would wake up; that I had just lied?
“Four days ago, I had watched as my beautiful wife told me how much she loved me, then lost all colour in her face and collapsed in front of me. Audri knew she was going to die. She was right, wasn’t she?”
Elyas’ voice broke my thoughts and turning away from the direction that Naeli had just exited, I frowned at him, unsure of what to say.
“She’s going to die unless we get that medicine for her, won’t she? I can tell by your face, Rey, that she will, so don’t start pretending otherwise, or try to tell me it’s all going to be alright. I get it.
All I needed from you was to use the knowledge Audri taught you from those blasted books. You’ve done that now, and now it’s my turn to make the decisions.”
I said nothing.
“But…,” he turned to face me and stepped closer, wringing his hands, his face pallid and his eyes vacant with a wildness to them I’d not seen before, “tell me. H-how exactly do I choose between my wife of more than two decades; purchasing the elixir that might save her life but cannot afford; or the home Naeli needs to live? The Admin Board won’t release any more properties – we’d be homeless. What do I do?”
The juxtaposition of his statements was not lost on me and as I stared up at his puffy eyes, the conflict within him was obvious. Just how in hell could I answer that? Choosing between your wife or your daughter was an impossible decision to make: I couldn’t do it. As his question rumbled around in my mind like a large boulder, knocking over all the good feelings I’d woken with earlier, a notion struck me: perhaps there might be a way that we could do both.
As I observed him carry a clean bowl of hot water and some fresh linen to her bedside, I pondered the idea: would Elyas accept it? He was a proud man. Considering all the options; that was the only one option available to him. I sipped the hot liquid as it burned my mouth. Could it work?
Without looking at me, Elyas said, “I know that silence, Rey. What is it you’re thinking?”
I chewed the inside of my cheek, “what if I ask Pa to pay for it?”
Scowling, Elyas regarded me for a moment, his face blanched. It would leave me and Pa without money, but we’d still have a home and family: it was worth it.
His eyes widened, “that could work. Do you think he would? I mean, it’d be for Audri.”
“And Naeli,” I added, unable to hide the surprised tone in my voice, “you’re not angry at me for suggesting that?”
“For us all,” he shrugged and tilted his head a little, “how could I be? Of course, I’m not, whatever made you think that?”
“I just…I don’t know…you and Pa…because it’s for Audri-.”
“Ah,” he waved his hand brushing aside my remark, “that’s the reason he will do it. It’ll be for her.”
Which ‘her’ did he mean? Indeed, was he suggesting that Pa would do it for them all? The muscles in his cheeks clenched tight as he ground his teeth - it was not something he wanted me to do, that was obvious too from this motion alone.
Had I been a stranger, he would appear perfectly alright with this. I knew though that we had no choice: and so did he.
“I’ll go as fast as I can, Pa is sure to help, and we’ll make it in time, okay? I promise.”
A slight bow of his head signalled his reluctance, but I kissed him on the cheek and ran back toward the door, flinging it open with such a force it banged against the wall.
“Whilst I am gone,” I shouted to him over my shoulder, “keep her cool, drip some water into her mouth every few minutes – she mustn’t become too dehydrated – and brew some tea.”
“Will that make her feel better? What’ll I do if she won’t drink the tea?”
“No…Elyas – the tea was for you, not her.”
Narrowing my eyes to the brightness outside, and my heart thumping hard in my chest, I ran from the house. The rain was heavy and ran down my face in wide rivulets, and soaked through my hair and clothes, but it was irrelevant now because the next time I would be dry, would not be until I got back with the elixir. Audri’s time was running out, but I couldn’t tell Elyas that, downplaying how serious it was, was the right decision considering how much he was panicking.
I needed to speak to Pa.
And I needed a ride.
I needed to get into Seurri as fast as possible, but running toward me with a huge bouquet of purple flowers that were beaten down by the downpour and falling away in a trail behind her, was Naeli, and the deep furrows on her forehead were apparent: she looked scared.
I hugged her tight as she reached me. She’d been crying, and her eyes were red. I needed to go, but I couldn’t leave Naeli upset like this, she was too young to have to think about her mum dying.
“I thought that Ma would want something pretty to help wake her up and that these are her favourite so that she would wake up quicker.”
“Hey, they’re beautiful. Ma’ll love them.”
A grateful smile shrank the worry lines, her face lifted, and her youth materialised, but her eyes betrayed her true feelings.
“Was Da, right? Is she going to die?”
“Li’l Bear,” I hugged her tight, before releasing her, “Ma’s unwell, but we are going to get her the medicine that will make her better.”
I gave her my best ‘everything will be alright’ smile and crouched in front of her holding her shoulders in my hands with a gentle squeeze.
“How brave are you feeling today?”
“Not very,” she frowned and wrinkled her nose, “what do I have to do?”
It was unlike her to admit that.
“I need you to keep making lots of brews to keep us warm, especially your Da, okay?”
A slight shrug affirmed her answer, “can’t I come with you to get the medicine?”
Shaking my head, I smiled at her, “not this time. Go on, go, and help inside. I’ll be back soon, alright?”
Her bottom lip quivered, “fine. See you later.”
Naeli ran into the house, and I sprinted up the footpath with goosebumps crawling up my arms and back. If it was from the coolness of the heavy droplets that fell on me or whether I had never seen her so frightened, I had no idea, but right now, I didn’t have the time to think about her as well.
The paddock was empty, so I raced up to the cottage, where the familiar warm glow of light shone from every window as they always did when there was a storm; Pa wanted to light the way for his beloved, so she knew he was home and safe. My Ma would never come home, though, not from where she was.
“Pa! Pa! We need to go into town, we need to get help for Audri, she’s not well,” shouting as loud as I could over the furore of the rain that pounded on the corrugated roof of the barn and stable, I cupped my hands to my mouth to increase the volume as much as possible.
“Pa? Where are you? I need to speak to you, we need to go,” I ran around the house, the stable and the paddock, calling out for him in every space, but there was no sign of him.
Where was he? I tightened my braid, pulling hard on the stray strands of dark auburn that fought against the unnatural smoothness of the braid.
Now what? I had looked everywhere for him but - ah - of course: the den. Running back to the barn, taking giant leaps, and almost falling into the pit that he had dug out as a shelter for us, I continued to shout for him.
“Pa, you down there?” Peering over the edge and down into the sizeable self-contained bunker with concrete walls and furniture, I shouted down to the man hunched over the workbench, entirely focused on his task.
“You need to come, we need to go into town. It’s urgent!”
He did not look up or even respond. At the far end of the dug-out, along the side wall of the space, he was perched on a stool with telescopic eye-glass, working with something on the table.
The table stood, nestled among an array of hunting weapons that leant against it and on the wall above, he’d put on the display rack, his pride and joy: his sword and his bow. The weapons were the only ones I wasn’t allowed to touch. They were beautiful, with detailed carvings that adorned both the limb of the bow and the blade of the sword. I’d often asked him about them but he’d never wanted to talk about them.
It was where he always went when he was worried about something or needed time to think. Usually, he’d be tinkering with the weapons, horses’ bridle or writing in his journal – but today he was working with something I’d never seen before.
“Hey,” I raised my voice over the din, “we need to go, right now.”
“I’ve got this to finish,” he hollered back and continued scrutinising every part of the strange-shaped object that he turned in his hand, his fingers running over the surface, as he peered through his eye-glass at it as the irregular surface glinted. It was a tiny-shaped disc, about the size of his thumbprint and he seemed unable to take his eyes off it as he turned it over and over in his fingers. The green-blue metallic glint from the item was enchanting, and it transfixed my attention as much as he.
“It’s Audri… she’s dying.”
The glass fell from his eye, bouncing on the tabletop several times until it rolled to a stop as he stared ahead of him, frozen.
“When Elyas had asked you to come help, I thought it had been figured out and she was recovering. How d’you know this?” His voice wobbled as he spoke, the news hitting him hard.
Clamping his prosthesis to his leg stump, he clambered up the tall ladder to me, panting and pausing at the top of the steps. Whilst access to the dug-out might have been accessible when he was ten years younger, being over sixty winters old, the climb was mountainous for him now.
I grabbed his hand, pulling him up, “I thought I did figure it out, but I found something that she’d written a few minutes ago and…c’mon, we need to hurry, I’ll tell you on the way.”
He limped behind me as I ran to the exit and whistled for our mounts. Pony whinnied, trotting toward us, her vast tufts of hair bouncing around her hooves. Whistling for Duke, I grabbed the tack from the stand, ready to put on him, as Pa was already tacking up Pony, a massive Clydesdale.
Duke, my majestic Shire, cantered over, restless from not being ridden that morning; both horses had the freedom to roam our land and both Naeli and I spent most of our time with them cantering across the countryside.
Once a large farming estate, it now boasted an apple, cherry and pear orchard. Every spare section of land was covered in lush green grass and trees. Our family home had been built several centuries ago, and the flint and sandstone had stood the test of time, including through the Long War.
“Easy, boy, easy,” stroking his muzzle, I slipped the bridle on him, then the saddle. After the horses were ready, we mounted them and trotted side-by-side along the narrow path that led away from our land. As we left the gated entrance, the path widened and we increased our speed.
“Now, tell me what is going on,” he clicked his tongue, and we cantered across the open meadows, side-by-side, “Audri’s dying, you say?”
“Yeah, Audri’s not moving, and her body systems have shut down. She wrote something in one of the tomes that might help, and Elyas was doing his best but, I think she’s in a coma.”
“You’ve been going there for three days to help around the house; how come you’ve only just worked this out?”
“Elyas kept saying she was asleep. He probably thought she’d have woken up by now.”
But it was clear he didn’t believe me, though I really did believe she was sleeping, at least for the first couple of days. Chewing my lip, I tried to think of the best way of explaining how every time Audri was teaching me, it was from forbidden lexicons rather than by just her alone.
“What else do you really know?” He asked, his bushy, grey eyebrows wrinkled into a deep frown, “what did you find out from their secret room?”
He knew about the books! My raised eyebrows and sudden guilty face gave me away. He could always tell when I’d been lying.
“What? You thought I didn’t know? If I did not know before, you gave it away when you said she’d written on something. However, I’ve always known. I was never happy about it, but I kept quiet because you loved learning and it’s going to prove invaluable now, and I s’pose that if it saves her life, then it has been worth it.
Believe me; I’ll be making sure that Audri gets better so that I can tell her exactly what I think of her getting you to break the law like that. Out with it now. What do you know, Rey?”
I sighed, “Cordis mortem. It’s a…profoundly serious illness that needs a specific elixir; called glybaron; it’s expensive and very rare.”
He swore under his breath, “shit. I know the one. The ingredients can only be found in the cave’s way up north on a tiny isle in the Shade Sea archipelago. That’s why it’s so expensive - no-one will travel either on that sea or to the isle’ cause of how rough the sea is always.”
He clenched his jaw, “fine, I’ll see what I can do,” his voice was low, “I’ll work it out somehow.”
Frowning, I opened my mouth to ask him what he meant, but he spoke first.
“When we get there, wait outside.”
“What?” I glared at him, “in this?” I jabbed a finger up to the purple and grey sky that continued its downpour.
“Just…please, don’t make this any harder. Just for once, do as I ask.”
“And if I don’t?”
“You’re pushing me today, Rey. Not today, okay?”
I fiddled with the silver pendant that hung around my neck with a leather cord, its rectangular shape, and curved corners familiar and soothing. It was all I had of her - was all he had until he gave it to me when I was four.
I’d been so consumed with nursing Audri, I’d forgotten the anniversary was today. Heaviness enveloped my heart from the pain I had just caused him.
Clicking his tongue, he led Pony ahead as we reached a section of the route which was a small, unmade path and we rode in silence for the rest of the journey to the town.
As I watched the empty sprawling fields and woodland transition through to inhabited land, I focused on the twitching ears of my beloved Duke. Found abandoned on a farm several miles from my home, it hadn’t taken much persuasion for Pa to allow me to take him in and care for him.
As soon as Naeli had been old enough to sit without support, I had, with glee, taken her for a short ride around the paddock. But he was much younger and smaller then and as Naeli grew, so he did too. I stroked his neck, patted it, and a familiar pang of guilt hit me: I had everything, yet always wanted more. Why wasn’t I ever satisfied with what I had?
Troubled by the weight of responsibility I found myself in, I chewed the inside of my cheek; where a sore was beginning to form from the frequency I did that. Our orchard had been going strong since before the Long War, and it was all I had ever known and loved every part of it, yet the nagging thought of being on the brink of something terrible kept clouding my mind with doubts. If I had read the information wrong; if I had been too slow to understand the tomes – too reticent in sharing my information there was the real chance that Audri would die and it would be my fault.
If I’d known all this time that Pa knew Audri was teaching me, then I would have spoken to him as soon as I’d realised that when she’d returned home three days ago and collapsed, he could have helped me figure this out. Instead, he had not said anything and left me to it. Maybe he did not want me to know.
“We’re here,” his voice was flat but cut through my thoughts like a hot knife through butter, “stay out here with them.”
I brought Duke parallel with Pony and caught Pa wiping his face with the back of his sleeve. He cried every year on the anniversary, and I was a monster because I had no memory of her and nothing to miss. Audri was pretty much my surrogate mother, and even that brought him pain from time to time.
But that was precisely why this was so important – I already killed one mother, I couldn’t kill another.
The ancient town of Seurri was an eclectic mix of wood, mud cement, stone, and metal buildings that were built close together. They were two, three or four stories tall with neon lights that lit up shop signs, bare bulbs draped across from building to building like bunting. The street lamps ran along the ground, lighting the way as you walked along the flintstone path. Glass was handmade, and so the windows were made from multiple square-cut glasses held together in a metal framework.
There had been a considerable town sitting adjacent to the Nydella River for hundreds of years. Still, most of the buildings had been destroyed in the Long War and sixteen years after the government signed the Peace Treaty between the Admin Board, or AB for short, and the Guv’nars, the town was still in a state of disrepair.
Wars cost money, and our government was now so broke, the only rebuilding that we did was what we could afford or manage ourselves. Pa and I were lucky to live where we were.
Grabbing his hand, I smiled at him and kissed him on the cheek.
“Look, Pa, I want to come in with you. I know you don’t want me to but-.”
He opened his mouth to protest.
“But I have been an adult now since the last winter moon, and that was four phases ago. Please give me a chance to show you that I am ready.”
He sighed, “fine, but you must stand in the corner and say nothing.”
Nodding, I grinned up at him.
“I mean it, Rey. No talking. Not once,” he rested his hand on my shoulder, “there’s one more thing that’s even more important.” He stared down at me, his eyes dark and foreboding, “I need to know that you can do this.”
“How can I promise something if I don’t even know what it is?” I folded my arms like a petulant child.
“You asked me to accept that you have moved past your childhood. I am, and this is what I am asking of you as an adult.”
I sighed and picked at a scab that had formed on the back of my hand from something I had no memory of. Was this what adults did? Made promises for things they had no clue about and kept secrets about things that were kept secret from them.
“Fine, I can do that,” I nodded, not sure that it was something that I could keep secret.
“What you see or hear, no matter what you think, will never be discussed again and you must tell no one. Ever. Even if you think you can trust them. Do you understand?”
No - not really, I didn’t understand at all, was what I wanted to say, but instead, I nodded.
“Good. Let’s go. Time’s wastin’,”
Audri’s pale face came into my mind, and as I tied the reins to the post, peering up at the sign for the Apoth which flickered in pink and blue, I chewed my lip. Adulthood - here I come.
“What do you want?” croaked a weathered old man who pushed himself up from an ancient swing chair and sneered at us both, spraying huge globules of spit everywhere through the gaps where his teeth should have been.
“I haven’t got all day,” the man spoke with impatience.
“Jonas,” Pa said, with a curt nod.
“Teller will do, Thane. I do not go by that name anymore. Nice to see you again, and I see the brat is of age now. Shame that - she was better lookin’ before.”
Teller leered at me, peering around Pa to oggle me: it made my skin crawl. I shifted my jacket so it covered my body, and moved away from the creep, using Pa as a shield to block his line of sight and instead, peered at the overcrowded shelves stocked full of alchemy ingredients. The rickety wooden shelves bowed at the centre from the numerous jars full of linctus, spices, herbs and some were stuffed full of animal body parts stored in a sort of slime. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched with bated breath as Pa approached the disgusting stall that served as the only barrier between this vile man and my father.
“We need glybaron,” Pa placed his hands on the metal counter, causing it to creak under the pressure, and I glanced at the men who faced each other.
The wiry man’s eyes bulged as Pa leaned in closer, focusing his gaze solely at the ancient-looking man who was the only thing standing between us and the medicine, and yet his presence was more powerful than my father’s.
Keeping his hand on the counter, Pa tapped the side with the fingers on his other hand, creating an awkward rhythm that enhanced the uncomfortable mood in the space.
“All of it,” Pa’s tone was flat.
“What? All of it? Why?” The man’s eyes narrowed, his face scrunched into itself, making his eyes appear even more dangerous as the white that surrounded the pupils, producing the image of a madman.
“There are only a few grams on the whole of the island, and most of that is not here; and even if it was, half must be kept for the AB, as you well know.”
“My reasons are not your concern, ‘Teller’,” Pa growled at him, repeating the man’s name in a sarcastic tone.
Teller folded his arms, leaning back to rest on the wall behind him, “if you’re having all of my stock, it is.”
Pa did not move.
Teller remained still.
The atmosphere was a heady mix of tense aggression, ready to explode at any second.
“Thane,” the man spoke in a sing-song voice, his lips curled around every letter, accentuating the phonemes, “forgive me, but just what am I to say to the AB when they do their stock check? You, of all people, know that this ‘ere is my bed and board.”
Teller flicked his eyes in my direction before glaring at Pa again, “d’you know how difficult this was to get. Hmm? Well, perhaps there is one way…but you already knew the cost before you came here, didn’t you?”
“Aye, I do. So, can we stop playing games and just complete this transaction?” Pa snarled the words at Teller whose cheeks blanched, then reddened to a deep purple as he just stared at Pa, then his ice-cold beady eyes scanned every inch of me, as his tongue licked his lips.
His eyes moved slowly, taking in everything he could and what he imagined he could. I forced my eyes away from him and ignored it, turning my back on him. But, despite that, I could still feel his eyes boring into my back, so I focused on pretending to be interested in the strange items on his shelves, repeating in my head Pa’s words to me about remaining silent.
“I know how to replenish your stock, Teller. If you give me it all, you’ll get it back by the end of next week, with extra, and I will pay the full asking price,” Pa nodded his head to Teller, “as was written.”
Teller’s eyes grew wide as he raised his eyebrows at this, “mmm, you’ve got this all worked out, haven’t you?”
He peered over his spectacles at us both, “and what if I decide to decline your offer? Right now, I see no reason to accept this…that is unless you give me a better offer.”
“No,” Pa’s voice was calm but flat, “the offer remains as it stands and you’re just wasting my time. I need the glybaron now.”
“We all need things, Sir. I, for instance, need—”
Pa slammed his fist onto the counter, making a clattering sound that reverberated around the room, making me jump. The older man recoiled with a smirk on his face. He looked at me again and clasped his fingers into the shape of a steeple, resting his elbows on the counter just an inch from Pa, scrutinising every line and crease on my father’s face.
“I will give you the whole stock, the location, and the recipe to brew enough glybaron to last you as long as you need,” his tongue moistened his lips as he stared at me, “yes, I would give you everything…for one hour with the brat-girl over there. One hour and that will do for the transaction, nothing else needs to be paid.”
He chewed his tongue, and a cold shiver crept up my spine, and I took a step closer to Pa again, ensuring he was between me and the disgusting, older man who was reaching his hand out to touch my wild, dark-auburn hair.
“No,” Pa said, his voice firmer than before and he snarled at the man, “I will pay the required asking price and nothing more.”
“Fine - pay up,” Teller’s voice was cold and hard and snapped my attention back to the room.
Rummaging in his long coat, Pa brought out a small wooden box and placed it on the counter in front of him, tapping it, “in here.”
“Show me,” Teller’s eyebrows raised, and he waved his hand toward Pa, “once I am satisfied, we can then discuss terms.”
With deft fingers, Pa pushed and pressed all sorts of different parts of the box until it gave a loud creak as the lid opened, presenting a small metallic blue disc.
Teller’s eyes glinted wide, “is this what I think it is? Is it activated yet? I never thought I’d see one of these in my lifetime.”
“I will activate it once we have the glybaron. I think you’ll find this payment more than exceeds your requirements.”
Teller gazed down at the shiny disc, his eyes wide and mouth open and reached a bony finger with dirty nails, out to stroke it, “this comes with everything, correct?”
“It does,” Pa snapped the lip shut and placed it on the counter, resting his hand over the top of it, encasing it within his palm.
“Sir,” Teller tilted his head, rubbing the tips of his fingers together, “I will begin the process for you. Wait here.”
He disappeared from the counter behind a large shelf full of bottles, jars, pots and implements, where he rummaged through them all until he found whatever it was he was looking for. Once in his grasp, he stepped through into a side area that was out of sight, leaving only the tinkling sound of glass and porcelain clinking.
What was the disc? It’d looked identical to the one my father had held in the den earlier. If the medicine was so expensive, Elyas and Audri could not afford it, then that disc must mean something incredibly special or be worth more money than I'd ever seen.
The tinkering of the flasks and bubbling of the liquid as Teller distilled the solution, floated into the shop area and Pa’s face tensed as he clenched his jaw several times; an unfamiliar motion. At least we only needed the elixir, and then we will be back with Audri and Elyas in no time.
Not long now, Audri, just a little while longer.
The image of when I fell years ago; my grazed knee and her kind and gentle smile as she tenderly cleaned and dressed it, warmed my chilled body. But it was soon replaced by her pallid, sweaty face that she now wore as she lay, unmoving on the settee. I’d been an idiot to believe Elyas when he’d told me she was asleep; why did I? It was something an ignorant child would’ve, but an adult would’ve asked him questions and would’ve not taken his lame excuse for granted.
I shook my head to rid it of the scene and thoughts from my head, and wrung my hands together instead, massaging the tender joints which ached from the cold caused by the wet clothes I wore.
Teller stepped out from the nook to behind the counter from his lab, a small, leather flask in his hand, and a wry sneer on his face.
He did not offer it to Pa, but instead, held it out as if teasing an invisible dog that was sitting next to him.
“It’s ready,” he said in a tone that filled me with dread.
Pa held his hand out, the box with the disc resting on his palm but Teller wrapped his long, bony fingers around his container and shook his head slowly.
“You must activate your payment, then, and only then can you have this.”
“I don’t think so,” Pa growled, glaring acidly at the man.
“Oh really? If you don’t activate it, I’ll have to hold onto it until I’m ready to deliver it to you, and with my legs, as they are, that could take days or weeks, even.”
No! Audri needed it. I glared at Teller and then at Pa who remained still, as he observed the strange behaviour of the wizened old fool. Teller’s eyes moved to me again, twitching, as they scrutinised my developing body and heat flushed my cheeks and made my stomach wretch. His eyes left me and returned to Pa as a smirk formed on his face. Placing both arms on the counter, he leaned forward, close to Pa.
“Indulge me, Thane. Many people come in here. Sometimes they want to buy things, and occasionally, they offer me something instead of the usual payment when they realise its true worth. But every item bought or sold was for an urgent reason, of life or death, something they alone cannot fix. Whatever their need was, I made sure there was enough reparation from the transaction to ensure I could keep the supplies coming in.
“You already know the cost of one such item. Still, there are some items for sale here where the cost was only open to clientele, and for…let us call it, a certain type of pay. Now, the point of the matter is, we both know what your reason is for this item. But one of the questions you must ask yourself is: how important or urgent is it? Can it wait and if not, how much is it worth to you? I’m a decent man, so I’ll make a deal with you.”
Teller pushed himself upright, and his mouth grew wide in a snarl as his eyes did not move from Pa’s pale face.
“Ten minutes with her, right now, and in return, I will give you the whole stock of glybaron, the recipe and its precise location. Or,” he paused, a sardonic expression on his face, “you wait for me to deliver it to you, which would take about three or so weeks, give or take.”
The air was palpable, and a loud whoosh…whoosh…whoosh in my ears morphed with the view of slow motion of Pa leapt over the counter and grabbing the man by his throat, making the old man shrink as Pa slammed him against the wall behind, making the jars rattle.
Pa’s knuckles paled to white, lifting Teller from the floor, who’s face contorted in horror and had turned a deep plum shade. And then the view came rushing back to the moment, and Pa was growling in Teller’s ear.
“You bastard. How many?”
Pa shook his hands as Teller’s feet dangled, “how many?”
Teller’s eyes went to the ceiling, “I-I d-don’t k-know. L-lost count.”
“Give the medicine to me, or I will continue to squeeze until there is no more breath in your body, and you beg me to let you go. And then I’ll keep squeezing some more and watch as your blood pours out of your eyes, a trickle at first, and the harder and harder until it runs out and your lips turn blue and then grey. Is that what you want?”
Tellers’ eyes bulged as he tried to shake his head.
“I can’t hear you,” the skin on Pa’s hand became even more ashen as he tightened his grip on Teller, who made choking noises as he grabbed at the hands that held him and swung his arms up to try to hit Pa’s face. But Pa pulled the man towards him, so his face was nearly touching.
“Give it to me or else I am going to make you sorry I ever came into this place.”
“Okay…okay,” Teller’s voice rasped, and Pa let go, making Teller drop to the floor in a heap, gasping and coughing for air. The corner of Pa’s lip lifted. He had won. We could go now, and Audri would be alright. I watched Pa with an eagerness to grab the elixir and leave the shop but the coughing got louder and louder until it turned to moronic laughing as Teller dragged himself up from the ground.
“I am not at liberty to give you anything now, but you, Sir, are required to give me payment nonetheless.”
“What? Under what grounds?”
“You have assaulted, nay, tried to murder a said member of the Envoy.”
My stomach dropped, and I stared at him - what was the Envoy, I’d never heard of them before? Pa stood mouth agape and glared at Teller. Pa’s eyes were wide, and he stepped away from the vile man; his face drained of colour as he stared at the decrepit man in front of him.
“It’s your word against mine, Teller. It will never stand up in law, especially when they find out about the other girls. You can prob’ly guess that from outside, but the people that do come here for a reason. You have no evidence that I threatened you. No one would believe you anyway,” Pa stepped back, an appearance of satisfaction flickered across his face.
Teller sneered, “but, that was where you are wrong, Sir.”
He placed an arm out in front of him, swiping the air above it and a blue image appeared with writing and other strange markings I had never seen before.
“You see,” Teller continued, moving the blue glow around, “I always record my transactions, and I can tell by your face that you don’t. I should also inform you at this stage that I am not only a member of the Envoy, but I am also on the Privy Council for The Collective. So, you see, Sir…”
He peered over his spectacles at us, and the room filled with the sound of Pa’s angry voice as he shouted abuse at Teller, the fierceness of the words made me recoil.
“Ah, this was it,” Teller’s voice was cruel and menacing as he flicked his finger to move the words to access a specific section he was looking for and I could not take my eyes off them.
What were they? Where had they come from, and why did Teller have them? Why did Pa seem to understand the implications of it? Even burning hate could not steer my curiosity.
Pa’s voice interrupted my thoughts, “…deal then. That’s my final offer.”
What? He was giving my body away to that…oh no.
Vomit retched up to my throat, I raced out the door, as it flew from my mouth over the cobblestones. I had to stay here with that man, and even if it was for ten seconds, I couldn’t do it. A cold sweat swamped my body which burned with heat. What had Pa done? Why? The door behind me flew open as my father exited.
“Come on. We’re leaving,” Pa’s voice was crisp and cold, “Rey. Wake up. We’re going. Get on Duke.”
The world spun as I reached for the reins and stepped into the leather straps.
“I’d never give you to that man, c’mon we need to go.”
His hand grabbed mine, and he gazed at me, the warmth in his eyes dispersed the waves of nausea that made me feel wretched.
“I would never give you to that man. Not ever. Do you understand me?”
I nodded. I was reeling from disgust at the man inside the Apoth.
“Keep these safe,” he handed me the wooden box and the flask with the medicine inside, “look after them. I came too close to losing someone particularly important to me today, I’m not about to let my luck go and lose something and someone else. Keep them both and keep them safe.”
I nodded again and put each of them in their enclosed pocket on the inside of my coat.
“Let’s go,” Pa clicked his tongue and tapped Pony’s sides, and we cantered the shortest route away from the town. If Pa had not sold me, but we had the medicine anyway, then what had happened? Teller had evidence against Pa; would that mean Pa would have to go to court, or worse. I felt unclean again, and the image of Pa leaping at Teller replayed in my mind. Did Pa hurt Teller? No, Pa would never do something like that. But the question burned deep, and a strange churning in my stomach and tingling that reached until the tips of my fingers would not let the problem go. This was all wrong. Something was not right about any of this: Audri; Teller; the elixir.
I needed to know, but, what if Pa had hurt Teller? What then? Could the information from Teller’s blue thing be used? Where had that come from? I bit my lip and stared at the back of Pa’s head as it rocked with the motion of cantering. How do I ask him?
The stone cottage came into view, and Pa slowed Pony down, allowing me to ride next to him, and I was close enough to see his jaw was set, hard, his eyes focused on the way in front. What should I say?
“You obviously have something you wish to ask me, Rey, so spit it out.”
“Did…did you hurt him?”
I furrowed my brow, and the relief lifted the heavy weight that had descended onto my shoulders, “then…”
He turned to me, eyes dark and skin pale, “I gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”
“What was it you gave him?”
His face was grim, “totum.”
Leaving a trail of water from our soaking clothes, I ran through to the sitting room where the fire was blazing, and the argon sconces flickered, casting their familiar dancing shadows across the walls.
Elyas was by Audri’s side and turned his head to look at us as we entered the room. Naeli was by the window, sweeping up small piles of ash which must have dropped as she tried to pour it onto the flowerbed right outside. I smiled at her and nodded: yes, we had it.
She closed her eyes in silent prayer, mouthing, “thank you,” and then continued with her task. I knelt next to Elyas, placing my hands on Audri’s neck, shoulders and forehead. Her skin was still hot and sweaty, and her pulse, though weak, was still regular, but at least there was no change or progression in her condition that I could see. I closed my eyes, bidding my own silent ‘thank you’ to whoever might be listening.
“Did you get it? Is she gonna be alright?” Elyas rested his hand on my arm, and I opened my eyes, nodding.
“We did…I hope so,” I squeezed his arm, “Pa has it, he’s in the kitchen.” I bit my lip and silence fell between us as Elyas placed his hand on mine and bowed his head.
“Come,” he stood and reached out his hand to pull me up. I grabbed it and was pulled into the air before I stood. I followed him to the hallway, where he pulled out the airing cupboard dry, and warm clothes.
“Here,” he held them out to me, “I can’t afford for you to be sick too, and Audri taught me that staying cold and wet too long will make you very ill. I may not understand all the stuff she taught you over the years, but at least I know some basics. Has she,” he glanced to where Audri lay, “got time for you to get changed now?”
“Has she moved at all? Had some water? Any changes?”
He shook his head, so I took the clothes from his hand, “I’ll get changed, and you get Pa to pump fresh water into a pan.”
The flagstones chilled my feet in Naeli’s small bedchamber as I peeled off my clothes, dropping them into the large metal tub before putting the cosy hunting apparel on. It was all a bit loose, but they were better than being cold and wet, and the boots at least kept my feet dry and warm. Tugging my hair out in tufts from the collection of knots that now formed, I re-braided it, squeezing out the water, as I walked to the kitchen where I found Elyas, his back to me, just standing in front of the panoramic window which framed the moody sky.
“Mm,” he did not move.
“Uh…where did the elixir go?”
He pointed to a hand-carved, wooden bowl, where the little flask rested. Were there instructions with it? I picked up the leather bottle, its sides smooth, and a stopper in the end. Was the information on it somewhere? There was none that I could see. No rolled linen, no note, nothing. Now what?
I replaced it in the bowl. How was this supposed to be made? Were we supposed to get her just to drink it? Or add it to her brew? How much would she have to have each time? Was that what Audri had done each time I was poorly? Audri had come to me each day with another dose of medicine mixed with elderflower water. Why did she mix it with that? To get rid of the taste. But how would she have known it would taste bitter?
Painful throbbing pounded in my temples. I rested my head in my hands as a wave of tiredness washed over me. It was so unfair, all of this. Why was I the only one who could help? It was not my responsibility any of this, and yet Audri’s life rested in my hands. I rubbed the tiredness from my eyes and stared at the sweat patches on Elyas’ shirt, nothing I had done so far had made any difference. I ground my teeth and rolled my eyes, my head shaking from side to side slowly. Think. What would Audri do if it were me, or Naeli lying there?
Audri would do what she could to learn about the illness first and then find out about the medicine needed to heal it. But how would she even know where to start?
“Any ideas, Pa?”
He shook his head, “none, Teller saw to it that he was never going to help us truly. You?”
His question surprised me, and I cleared my throat, “maybe. Audri had left some clues in one of her, erm, books, which could also explain how to administer this.”
Gesturing toward the small container, I peered at him out of the corner of my eye; what was he thinking?
He nodded, “do it.”
My jaw dropped a little, though I did not need to be told twice.
Elyas remained fixed, staring into oblivion whilst sitting next to Audri. There was no point trying to talk to him. I raced through to the small room with the books, and their pleasant odour calmed my thoughts.
The lamps were still burning, and the book I needed was just how I had left it. It fell open to the page I’d read before and I read through the information that was capitalised. At least these titles should provide a rough idea of which part of the book I should be reading, but the loud rumbling of thunder and the adrenaline that coursed through me made my handshake, and the letters wobbled even more than usual.
Dammit! I stomped my foot as heat simmered in my chest. Audri had always read through each passage with ease and had never struggled like this. I closed my eyes.
Deep breathing…in…and out…in…and out…concentrate.
The ancient text read: CAUZIZ; SIMTOMS; DYAGNOSTYCS; PROGNOSYS; TREETMEN; FARMACY; DYFERENSHAL; DYAGNOSIS. Which one would have the answer? I scanned the ‘treetmen’ section, and it at least explained how to administer the medication, but I still needed to find out how to make the medicine up.
Glybaron was the first word I could see under ‘farmacy’, so I ignored the other titles; they were not significant. Whilst Audri had not written anything, and she had underlined some keywords. And it was then a cold sweat crept up my back and then over all my skin, crawling down each arm and leg until it reached the tips of each finger and my stomach twisted into a tight knot. I knew we were in very, serious trouble.
If I understood the script, I couldn’t see a way of ever saving Audri. Head spinning from the information I had just read, I raced back to the kitchen. Elyas had moved into position in front of the window, and the floorboards creaked as I entered the room. Just how was I going to tell him this? It was difficult when I had to tell him about the illness, but this…this was far worse. Butterflies flapped in my stomach.
“Well?” his voice was gruff, but he remained transfixed on the horizon.
My heart thumped in my ears, “uh…I know how to brew the medicine, is there water on to boil? Ah, I can see some there,” I stepped toward the stove where a large pot of water simmered, my voice wobbled and high, “great, it just needs to be mixed with the boiled water…half a pint of water, to be precise and then…”
“How do we give it to her? She’s not drinking anything, and any water we try to drip on her lips just rolls off….and at least be honest, Rey, I know there’s a problem.”
“Do you have a measuring jug in here? I need to pour out a half pint of boiling water…” I rummaged through the cupboards, ignoring his plea.
“Rey!” The loudness of his voice caught me off-guard; he had never raised his voice to me before. I bit my lip as his eyes burned into my back.
“You need to tell me. That’s my wife in there, and I have a right to know. If I could understand those damn things, then I would know exactly how and what to do, but I cannot. And nor can anyone on this estate save Audri. She was the only one fluent in reading and who was dying in there, and you. You are the only person who can help us right now, so you have got to tell me what we need to do to save her.”
His voice was persistent, and heat burned in my chest.
“Ely, that’s enough, she’s trying to help.” Placing his hand on Elyas’ shoulder, who shrugged it off, Pa cast me an apologetic smile. Shrugging I glanced at the red and puffy face of Elyas and watched as several tears dripped from his chin.
I sighed, “the flask is a container as well as a pipette, look,” I held it out so he could see the tiny pinprick hole that was in the lid and the vial was supple and could be squeezed. It meant nothing to him.
“It means that the medicine is used as an eye drop.”
“Well let’s give it to her—”
I held my hand up to stop him, “it has to be given in exact amounts…every thirty minutes…exactly thirty minutes…until the medicine has run out which could take several days.”
Waiting for the inevitable calculation to sink in as it had me, his furrowed brow shadowed his eyes as they moved erratically with his thoughts. Lightning flashed across the sky, lighting up the darkest corners of the kitchen and a heaviness, unlike any other, descended on my chest and shoulders, pushing me to the ground, as his face darkened at last with understanding. Pa and I exchanged a look.
“Rey,” he came to me, resting his hand on my shoulder, tears welling in his eyes, “tea-lights…we could use tea-lights…”
I shook my head, “which are not precise, besides – do you have any half-hour ones?”
He bit his lip, his brow furrowed again, “…we could take turns in counting each minute…” Desperation and panic flooded his eyes, “maybe we could use the water pump cycle? Or the…the medicine could be given in larger amounts?”
I shook my head, again, “it would kill her - glybaron is a poison.”
He panned the room; his eyes imploring me to provide the answer.
“There must be someone…anyone who has an accurate timepiece?
Anyone at all?”
I shook my head, “you know there isn’t.”
“Does it have to be accurate?” his face lightened; his eyebrows raised with fraught hope.
Bile burned my throat again, and I stepped away from him as his hand grew heavy on my shoulder.
“I-I can’t accept that…that this is…it..please, Rey, you’ve got to help us.”
The heaviness pressed on my head and chest, making it hard to breathe. Why was I being held responsible for this? There was no way to keep accurate time, and without this, there was no way to save her. Audri was going to die, and there was nothing anybody could do
“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works”