SO! GOOD NEWS! I have officially written the first chapter in ‘The Shadows Fall,’ and I think it fitting that you, my splendiferous readers, should get to see it – a prelude of things to come, so to speak. Therefore, without further gilding of the lily, I present you with –
The Shadows Lengthen: Chapter One © Mirriam Neal 2012
“I know I’ve said this before, Sienna, but they aren’t axes. They’re kelehb sticks. They are not used even slightly in the same way.”
“I’m doing the best I can,” was Sienna’s tired reply, frustration flowing into her movements and turning grace into clumsiness. It had been hardly more than a day since their encounter with the Faren on Elmsvaer Isle, where the ethereal creatures had given them each parting advice before flatly refusing to help. To Sienna, it seemed that they were simply abandoning Elmeria to its fate.
Don’t they realize it’s their world, too?
The encounter seemed to have affected Eristor – he had still been disagreeable and snappish, but to a lesser degree. He had even agreed to give Sienna kelehb stick lessons, something she had wished for months but had never had the courage to request.
“The best you can do apparently isn’t good enough,” the elf prince retorted in response to her declaration. He held one of the sharp silver weapons in his right hand; his left arm still bound in a sling while it healed from an encounter with his step father. Sienna jammed the tip of his other kelehb stick into the scuffed and scarred deck. “I think,” she said, taking a deep breath, “that we should call it quits for today.”
He opened his mouth, but closed it after a moment and grunted instead. He replaced the kelehb sticks in the sheath on his back and glanced at her. “Your stance is better,” he said gruffly.
Sienna felt a thrill of pleasure tingle through her in spite of herself. “Thank you,” she said, struggling to contain her wide smile. She walked away from him, rotating her shoulders and stretching. Already her muscles were protesting.
“That looked hard.”
She turned and smiled briefly at her brother. “The lesson, I mean,” he added.
“Oh, it was,” she assured him.
“Was it fun?”
She paused to consider. “I think it will be when he’s in a good mood,” she said finally.
He raised an eyebrow. “He’s never in a good mood.”
“Well, this is the first lesson,” Sienna argued in the elf’s defense, surprising herself. “Who knows? Maybe by this time next year, he’ll be an old softie.”
Alec looked over at the elf, who was talking to the captain of the pirate vessel, Marcus Gale. “Soft? Eristor?” He grinned and shook his tousled head. “I’d hate to see that. He just wouldn’t be the same.”
“You’re right,” Sienna amended with a brief laugh. “I’d miss his grouchy side.”
“You mean his grouchy better half,” Alec corrected her. He looked up at the sky as a cold wind suddenly rippled across the deck, snapping the sails like a taskmaster’s whip. “Brrr! That came up fast!”
“Yeah,” said Sienna, shading her eyes from the sun as gray clouds rapidly overtook it. “Doesn’t look too good, does it?”
Something hard and wet stung her cheek. She reached up and wiped it off. “Rain.” The word had hardly left her mouth when the skies tore open, unleashing a torrent of rain that hit the sea in sheets. Almost at the same time, a rough voice called out-
“Ship off the port bow!”
Sienna’s eyes turned to the crow’s nest. The pirate inside leaned out, hands cupped around his mouth and called again “Ship of the port bow!”
Marcus was scaling a rope, his hands and feet propelling him up at squirrel-speed. He leaned out, grasping the rope with his right hand, and pulled out his telescope. From her view below, Sienna could see his jaw clench as he looked through the glass.
There was only one person she happened to know of who could bring that look to the captain’s face. Lavinia Redgrave. Pirate, competitor, and arch nemesis of Marcus Gale, she had chased them across the ocean to theDeep Circle. There they had lost her, assuming she had not wanted to risk an attack from the vicious sea-dwelling merrows.
Sienna saw Salebeth come up from below and jogged over to meet him, a frown creasing her forehead as her boots thumped on the wooden deck. “Lavinia,” she began, but he interrupted with a nod.
“You knew?” Sienna stared at him in confusion.
“I suspected.” He tilted his head to look out at the other ship, a dark shape against the blue-gray of sky and water. “It would make sense for her to wait for us here, away from the Isle. She has the advantage of surprise.”
“What does she want with us so badly?” Sienna planted her hands on her hips, exasperated.
“My guess is she thinks we went to Elmsvaer for some sort of treasure,” Marcus broke in, landing on the deck with a thud. His countenance was grim, but his visible eye held the fire of excitement that came with a challenge. “If we don’t hand it over to her, she’ll try and board us.”
“But we didn’t go there for treasure,” Sienna pointed out, wrinkling her nose. “The only thing we took away was food!”
“Yes,” he said, unperturbed. “Your point?”
“Is that the only reason she’s chasing us?”
“No. She’s mad at me for busting her ship up during the last run-in. As if I started it,” he scoffed good-humoredly. “Not that it matters why she’s chasing us; she is, and that’s the main thing. Like I said, she’ll probably try and board us.”
“And then what?” Sienna looked over at Alec, who had already been wounded in one aboard-ship fight. She did not want to see him hurt again.
Marcus grinned and ran a finger across the blade of his curved sword. “A fight, I hope.”
She looked at him askance. “There’s something wrong with you, captain.”
“Never doubted it a day in my life,” he said cheerfully. He turned and began barking orders at the crew.
Twilight fell. The Siren’s crew and passengers were damp, tense, and armed to the teeth, waiting for a sign from the Vengeance. Any sign.
Sienna found Marcus at the helm with his first mate, Shasar. The big sea-elf has frightened Sienna at first, but now she knew that behind the sharp teeth and wrestler-like muscles was a kind, loyal soul.
“See anything?” Sienna asked as she walked up next to them. She gripped the hilt of her small sword until her knuckles turned bone-white, but tried to keep her tone light.
“Nothing aside from that blight on the horizon called the Vengeance.” Shasar pushed his thick-stranded, spiky hair away from his face and growled. “Give it half an hour. Then we’ll be close enough to shout over.”
Sienna waited, fidgeting with anything her fingers could snag – her shirt, her sword-hilt, her hair. I hate waiting. I wish Elmeria had canons so we could just start firing. That would be better than just sitting like this, waiting for them to make the first move. She tested the edge of her blade with her thumb for the fourth time, making sure it was still sharp.
She sighed and leaned her head against the mainmast. The rain had slowed to a cold drizzle, and there was no getting away from it except to go below deck. Amar, I know I used to want adventures and stuff, but this is ridiculous.
“Don’t grip your hilt so tight. You may need to use that hand.”
Startled, Sienna lifted her head and looked over at Eristor. Cool and unflappable, he leaned against the mainmast with his good arm.
“Oh.” She released her hold and flexed her fingers. They tingled, and she realized they must have fallen asleep. “Sorry.” She licked her lips and began to drum her fingers along her thigh.
He gave something between a snort and a scoff. “You’re nervous?”
She looked at him with raised eyebrows. “Aren’t you?”
“Why ever not?” She planted her hands on her hips and tossed a damp strand of hair from her eyes. “We’re probably about to battle another pirate crew, in case you haven’t noticed. I think that’s reason to be a little scared.”
He shrugged one shoulder. “Not really.”
She let out a loud huff. “Well, then, you’re either brave or stupid,” she muttered in a tone that had intended to sound defiant, but somewhere the defiance slipped away and left naked worry.
His eyes softened a little bit. “Both, probably. Most people are.”
“Well, I’m just stupid.” She scuffed the deck with the toe of her boot. “Every time I hear the word ‘war,’ ‘battle,’ or ‘fight’ I start shaking.”
“I used to,” he said, his indifferent tone belying his unusually empathetic words.
Her eyes widened. Eristor opened up about as often as a clam. “You did? Why don’t you anymore?”
He turned to look at her. Gone was the faint softness she had seen a moment ago. His eyes were as hard and cold as the blade she held. “I stopped caring.”
Sienna felt a drop of darkness puddle somewhere inside her. “What do you mean? How can you stop caring about life?” she asked. “How is that even possible?”
“Step back and look at it.”
The strange conversation with Eristor left Sienna feeling empty and unsatisfied, like an unanswered question. She wove her way around various pirates and stopped in front of the first truly familiar face.
“I just had the weirdest talk with your friend over there,” she began.
Tylir turned to look at her, the tension on his face easing a bit. “Oh?”
She relayed the discussion to him word for word, and then stood with a hand on her hip, waiting for an explanation.
“Ah,” was all he said.
“What does ‘ah’ mean?”
“It means ‘I don’t know what to say,’” he answered. “That’s all.”
“What I don’t get,” said Sienna, settling her elbows against the railing, “is why he thinks he’s got nothing to live for. I mean, he’s got an entire kingdom, right? And he has friends, doesn’t he?”
“Well.” Tylir leaned on the railing next to her, his expression thoughtful, trying to search for the most helpful answer. “It depends. He hasn’t really got a kingdom until Caranthir is dead. And as for friends… yes, I suppose he has them, though he doesn’t make them very easily.”
“Got that right,” Sienna agreed. It was, after all, true. The prince was about as friendly as a mace on a chain. “But that still doesn’t explain… I mean…” she let her voice trail off with a sigh.
Tylir echoed her sigh and scratched the back of his head. “Caranthir killed his wife, Eristor’s mother. He did unspeakable things to Eristor himself. And then, what with his sister, well…”
“What’s the whole story behind that?” Sienna asked, straightening as her curiosity awoke. “I’ve heard some of it, but it’s kind of confusing.”
“You know a little about Raéta, right?”
She nodded. “Yeah, I heard some about her when I was at Caranthir’s place.” She waved her hand, motioning him to go on. She did not like to dwell on Caranthir.
Tylir smiled a small, sad smile and faced the wind. It blew back his wavy blond hair and he squinted, as if watching the past. “He would have done anything for her. When they lost their father, he took that role upon himself as well.”
He sighed. “When Caranthir finally attacked the castle, the first thing Eristor did was try to get his sister away, to Cansrel, where they have an alliance with the ice-elves of the north.” He stared down at the wood beneath his hands. “She never arrived. When Eristor got to Cansrel, Melchior – the ruler of the ice-elves – told him. Together they searched, but even after Melchior gave up Eristor continued. For three years he sought her, but…” his voice trailed off. “He never found her.”
Sienna stood rooted to the deck. She remembered something Caranthir had said to his stepson while she was there. She could still hear the scathing sneer in his voice as he asked “Why did you join this pathetic band; was it to rid you of the guilt of murdering your mother? Or perhaps, your failure to rescue your sister?” She knew Eristor had not really murdered his mother. Caranthir had offered to let the prince join him in serving Oscariath – if he had accepted, his mother might have lived.
He had refused. She had died.
She wondered what she would have done, had the same offer been made to her. Well, it was, she reminded herself. But the murder of her family had not been threatened, either. Musing, she ran her thumb along the wood and winced as a splinter stuck under her skin. She lifted it and squinted at the tiny drop of blood. What’s the price of doing the right thing? Would I really give everything, just to stand by my convictions? As she lowered her hands and looked out at the ever-nearing Vengeance, she realized with a mixture of surprise and worry that she did not know the answer to her question.
She hoped she never had to find out.