Shattered, Part Two

(If you missed it, you can read Part One here)

MARCEL

Most consider me mad. Perhaps I am. I don’t really care what they think. Honestly, there are few I would trust with the truth.

I am Marcel, and like my sister, an Empath. More precisely, I am an Earthspeaker. The first to claim that title in more than a hundred years.

The dormitory was too quiet. The usual voices had apparently abandoned me. Even Jana had shut me out. That’s how I knew Andreú had found her up above the orchard.

A thick air of anxiety covered the entire Empath compound. The unusual quiet only added to the heaviness. I wished Jana would return. And not for the first time, I regretted telling Andreú where she could be found.

I paced back and forth across my tiny room. From window to door, four paces, turn, four paces back. One, two, three, four. Turn. One, two, three, four.

Something had happened up above the orchard. I could feel the shift in Jana’s mind. Would she come to me? I ceased my pacing, coming to a stop facing the door as I considered going to her instead.

Before I could make up my mind to go and open the door, however, the tower bells rang out, strident and insistent. Bong, bong. Bong, bong. Bong, bong.

My heart raced, as if it might burst free from my chest. I broke out in a clammy sweat, and I thought I might black out, or vomit. Maybe both. I wanted to scream, but couldn’t breathe. I thrust my hand into my pocket and gripped the tiny owl figure I carried there. A gift from Jana. It brought little comfort to me now, though, as the bells continued to ring. Bong, bong. Bong, bong. Bong, bong.

There was no choice, I had to go. With a shaky breath, I put my hand to the knob. I’d no sooner touched it, and there came a terrible pounding on the door. I jumped back, tripped on my own feet and crashed against the wardrobe. The door flew inward and there stood Andreú.

“Marcel,” he said without surprise. “Jana thought you might still be here. Come on. We’re all called to the Hall.”

Jana hadn’t come. And instead, she’d sent Andreú to fetch me. Like I was some sort of wayward child.

“I was on my way, Andreú. There’s no need—.”

“Come on.”

Andreú actually grabbed my arm and pulled me physically from the room. I shook him off violently and stepped away.

“Marcel, there’s no time for this. We must go.”

“Leave me be. I can walk on my own.” I paused to carefully close and lock my door before following Andreú into the corridor.

The Hall was filled with every Empath still at the compound. I hesitated at the door, but Andreú shoved me in ahead of himself. The cacophony that erupted around me was overwhelming. I clapped my hands over my ears in an effort to block out the sound but the voices in my head – the anxious thoughts of everyone in the room – assaulted me.

‘Jana, where are you?’ I wailed inside my own mind.

‘Breathe, Marcel. I’m on my way.’

I tried to focus on her presence in my mind. Tried to focus on my breathing, like she said. Andreú put his hand on my shoulder, directing my attention to the front of the room. Headmaster Anton had come to stand at the center of the dais, his hands upraised over the crowd in an attempt to silence the whispers.

I pulled my hands from my ears and shoved them into my pockets. Still focused on blocking the noise in my head, I didn’t hear what Andreú was trying to say to me. My hand found the owl, and I clutched it as if my life depended on it.

“I’m afraid I have grave news.”

Silence finally fell across the Hall as the Headmaster began to speak. The anxiety level only sharpened, however, and it was an effort for me to hear the Headmaster’s words.

“A rider has just arrived from the front. The Jut’ma have pressed south harder and faster than anyone anticipated.”

Headmaster Anton continued to speak, but his words were lost to me as I battled my anxious thoughts. My breathing had grown erratic and my heart pounded painfully.

When he was finished speaking, Jana still hadn’t come. As people began to filter out of the Hall, the Masters sorted each Empath into their respective groups – the Healers, the Sighted and the Speakers. Jana still had not come. I couldn’t breathe, my feet refused to move.

“Marcel, we need to go.” Andreú said beside me, giving me a light push as he tried to move me.

“But, Jana—. I can’t—.”

“She’ll catch up. You know she will.”

His voice was soft, but filled with impatience. I tried to ignore him, instead focusing on Jana’s presence in my mind. She said she was on her way. I would go to her then.

As we approached the door, I noticed a small commotion off to the side. It was Jana. She was here. I tried to push my way through to her, even as she was trying to push into the Hall. The exiting crowds prevented her.

“Jana, go to the barracks as you’ve been instructed.” Master Jorel was there directing Empaths as they left the Hall. “Get your team ready.”

“He is part of my team,” Jana insisted, still pushing to get to me.

“The Headmaster has another assignment for him. You must go.”

“Jana!” I called out.

“Marcel, there you are.” Headmaster Anton appeared at my side. “Come with me, son. I have a special task for you.”

“I was told he’d be assigned to my regiment.” Jana had managed to push her way to my side and I took her hand.

“He has been, child. Go on and prepare for your departure.”

I clutched Jana’s hand tighter, reluctant to let her go again. But Headmaster Anton grew stern and Jana had to back down.

‘It will be alright, Marcel.’ Jana’s voice whispered across my mind, though from what I saw in her eyes, I wasn’t convinced she believed that.

Andreú put a hand on my shoulder, startling me. Until that moment I’d forgotten he was still behind me.

“We’ll meet you back at the dorms when we’re all done,” he said as he moved around me. He took Jana’s other hand in his. His eyes held a confidence I knew to be false, belied by the fear I could feel trembling just beneath his surface bravado. “Don’t worry about a thing.”

Reluctantly, Jana pulled away from me and I was left to follow after Headmaster Anton alone. I felt unsteady on my feet as I followed him. When I glanced back over my shoulder, Jana gave me a brave smile and Andreú waved.

We arrived at Headmaster Anton’s study to find another of the Empath mentors bent over the desk studying a scroll or map. It rolled closed when the mentor straightened and turned toward us. My stomach knotted when I realized who it was.

“Ah, Marcel,” Master Tenzin greeted me, taking my unoffered hand and pumping it up and down. It was a strange western custom I’d never come to appreciate. “Good of you to come. The Captain will be with us momentarily.”

“There’s no sense in waiting for the Captain, Tenzin,” Headmaster Anton said, moving away to stand behind his desk. “Go on and show the boy the texts.”

“Yes, yes. Quite right. Come, boy.” Master Tenzin waved me over to the desk, indicating an untidy heap of scrolls. He picked one up, sending another careening off the edge of the desk onto the floor. It rolled to a stop against my boot.

“These scrolls have been in the archives for decades, maybe centuries. No one really knows.” Master Tenzin spoke all in a rush as he opened the scroll across the desk, shoving all the others to the side. I cringed inwardly, waiting for more to fall.

I bent to retrieve the fallen scroll, but finding no room to set it down with the others, I continued to hold it. With an end of the scroll in each hand, I spun it around and around as I tried to follow Tenzin’s discussion of the open scroll.

“See here,” he pointed to a passage of text on one side, “this tells of speaking to the wind, and here, to the earth itself. With this knowledge, you could move mountains.”

“Move moun—.”

“Mountains, boy! Think of it!” Master Tenzin’s face shone with a terrifying gleam I couldn’t identify.

“I can’t do these things.” I had glanced over Master Tenzin’s translations of the old texts. They spoke of manipulating the wind, the rivers and the earth. Hurricanes and earthquakes.

“Of course you can, boy. You’re an Earthspeaker. This is your power. Your Gift! These scrolls will tell you how to use it. You could change the course of this war.”

“But, how—?”

“Read, boy,” Tenzin thrust a fat finger at the scroll. “It’s all right here.”

There were no other living Earthspeakers. I was the first in a hundred years or more. If these scrolls could tell me anything about my gift, anything at all…

My heart was racing and my vision darkened around the edges. I stuffed a hand into my pocket and clenched the tiny owl as I struggled to breathe. The tiny reminder of my connection to Jana, was the only thing that kept me from shaking apart.

“I thought I was to join my sister.” My voice sounded hollow and far away.

“Do not worry for your sister. She is capable of looking after herself.”

“You don’ t understand,” I insisted. “She and I—.”

“Yes, yes,” Tenzin said with a sneer. “You share a bond. This bond holds both of you back. You are capable of much more. I can take care of that for you.”

Tenzin lifted his hand as if to place it on my head. I cringed away from his touch.

“Marcel, don’t be afraid. I can help you. Let me remove the bond. I’ll guide you. Help you with your gift.”

“No!” I took a step back away from him.

A sound at the doorway had us both turning as the grim-faced Captain Vaska entered the study.

“Captain,” Master Tenzin greeted him, turning his greedy eyes away from me at last. “Come in. Did you bring the map?”

“This is the one you spoke of?” Captain Vaska examined me, his eyes moving over me from head to toe, clearly finding me wanting. “This is the one who can turn the war in our favor?”

“Yes, yes. This is Marcel, the Earthspeaker.” Master Tenzin took the Captain’s arm, pulling him toward the desk. “Come, show us your plan.”

Captain Vaska frowned at the cluttered surface, not sure where to put down his map until Master Tenzin cleared a space for him. As he spread it out, I could see lines and marks, but had no idea what they meant.

“The regulars are entrenched here,” Captain Vaska said, indicating a spot on the map. A squiggly line moved through it, and a pair of strange marks flanked it. He traced a finger along the line from another spot. “We’ll march up the river here to join them. We’ll draw the Jut’ma into this valley. Once they’ve committed, you,” Vaska pointed at me without glancing away from the map, “bring down these cliffs here, and disrupt their advance.”

“Bring down…?” I stumbled over the words.

“You are the Earthspeaker, aren’t you?”

“I, uh—.” I looked back and forth between Captain Vaska and Master Tenzin. They both watched me with expectation. “I can’t do that. I don’t know how.”

“Read the texts.”

Master Tenzin scooped up the pile of scrolls and thrust them into my arms. One fell, and it rolled under the table. I watched it as it rolled, the seal turned over one, two, three, almost four times before it rolled out of my sight.

“Take them all.” Tenzin retrieved the fallen scroll, adding it to the pile in my arms. “Read through them tonight.”

“Tonight?”

“Yes, tonight. We march out in the morning. We are only two days from the battlefield.”

“Two—?”

“Yes, yes.” Master Tenzin turned back to the Captain, urging him to continue. Though I tried to listen to the plan he outlined, my mind spun with all I’d heard, with what I held in my arms. Could I really learn to use my gift? Before I knew it, the Captain finished speaking and Master Tenzin was ushering me out the door.

Two days. Two days. The words repeated in my mind as I walked back to the dormitory, Master Tenzin’s scrolls clutched against my chest. Two days. It was already late. The others, it seemed, had been given their instructions and released long ago. Two days. Two days.

Once I got back to my room, I set the scrolls down on my desk. I lined them up in a neat row, seals facing upward. I touched each in succession – one, two, three, four, five.

The fifth scroll was shorter, and didn’t want to lay flat alongside the others. Instead, it rolled away. I pushed it back, only to have it roll away again. When I examined it, I discovered one of the ends was bent.

I pushed it back against the others, holding it in place. This scroll was noticeably older than the others. The newer scrolls were likely translations from older documents that probably hadn’t survived.

With a bit of a start, I realized this scroll wasn’t one of those Master Tenzin had handed to me, but was the one I’d picked up off the floor. My hand trembled and a strange, guilty fear settled in my gut as I thought he hadn’t intended me to have this one.

I pulled my hand away and stood abruptly. I circled the room, lighting every lamp and candle I had. I stood in the center of my room and stared at the scrolls. I felt Jana’s touch brush across my mind and I pushed back, insisting I was fine.

Finally, with a deep breath I returned to my desk to learn my fate. A gust of wind rattled my shutters as I sat down, making me jump. But it didn’t seem like an angry wind, so I turned my attention to the scrolls.

I started with the newer ones. I skimmed through Master Tenzin’s translations before examining the original texts. I could feel the hidden power in the words, but I wasn’t sure how to put it to use.

Voices swirled around me, even within the protection of my own room. The compound was in uproar as everyone prepared for departure. Prepared for battle. Fear, above all else, made the air heavy. I felt it like a great weight on my chest, making it difficult to breathe.

The scrolls spoke of hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, stories that hinted at the power of the Earthspeaker. Master Tenzin’s translations were adequate, better than I could do myself. But still, I was missing something. They were all the same yet different.

I woke the next morning to a pounding on my door. I didn’t remember climbing into my bed. Perhaps that was because I hadn’t. I lay atop the covers, still fully clothed.

“Marcel! Wake up! We leave in an hour.”

I sat up with a groan. My head felt stuffed full of wool. I looked around the room, vainly trying to remember what I’d done the night before. Every candle had burned down to nothing, and even my lantern had guttered and gone out. The early gray of dawn peeking through the window shutters provided the only light, and everything appeared shadowed and unfamiliar. Finally, my gaze fell on the jumble of scrolls on my desk and I remembered my task.

I moved to the desk and began rolling the scrolls and packing them into my bag. Some I set aside. They provided no unique information, and would only take up space.

I splashed some water on my face and changed into a fresh set of clothes. I threw my cloak over my shoulders and swung my bag onto my back just as the summoning bells began to ring. I stood at my door trying not to let the panic overwhelm me, breathing as Jana would tell me to do.

We were two days out from the war front and the Captain pressed us hard the first day. I wondered how we could possibly arrive in any condition for fighting.

When we stopped for the night, camp was set up quickly and a meal prepared. Everyone was exhausted, but anticipation kept us from falling immediately into our bed rolls.

After eating, I moved away from the other Empaths gathered around the fire eating their supper. They laughed and sang a little too loudly, as if they could lift the oppressive air of impending doom by the sheer force of their wills.

I found a place as far from them as I could while still having enough light from the fire to see. I balanced my bag on my lap and pulled out one of the scrolls to read it again. My fingers traced the lines on the old parchment. It was a map of sorts, or more likely, a diagram. Tenzin hadn’t bothered to translate the Caulish words that defined the illustration, and I still struggled to make sense of them.

“Marcel.” Jana sat down beside me, bringing with her a lantern. I watched the flame flicker as she set it down at her feet. “Don’t you have those memorized by now?”

She leaned against my arm, examining the scroll I held. Still, I watched the flame of her lantern. Shadows danced around it like mad sprites seeking an escape from the aether. I shifted my foot away as one stretched toward me.

“Will you really do this?” Jana asked, tapping a finger on the scroll. The motion caused my bag to shift and when I tried to correct the balance, it fell open and another scroll spilled out.

“What’s all this?” Andreú joined us then, sitting on the log so that his knee touched Jana’s. He picked up the scroll that had fallen out of my bag.

“That’s not you concern.” I snatched it back from him, causing another one to fall. What was he doing here?

“Marcel,” Jana said with reproach, laying her hand lightly on my arm. “It’s all our concern. If you try this,” she tapped the scroll again, “without knowing if you even can?”

The laughter from the other Empaths grated on me, especially since it was in such contrast to what they felt on the inside. Every last one of them was anticipating the coming battle with varying levels of horror and terror. Jana, on the other hand, made no attempt to mask her fear. But her fear felt different, misplaced somehow. I realized with some shock her fear was not for the battle ahead, but for me.

“Jana, what else can I do?” I asked, my voice low and strained, wishing Andreú was not so close. “I can’t do what they do.” I waved the scroll in my hand toward the other Empaths. “What you do.”

“You can, Marcel,” she insisted. “And I’ll be right there with you. You know that.”

We didn’t march out the next morning as planned. Instead we were awakened before dawn by shouts and screams and the sounds of battle. I sat up with a start, grateful I’d left my boots on. I’d been issued a sword and I strapped this on, though it would remain useless at my hip.

I emerged from my tent into chaos. The soldiers ran through the camp as if chased by unseen demons. I could feel the tug of fear on my own mind forcing me to search around for the source of everyone’s panic.

Squad leaders scrambled to pull their teams together. I searched frantically for Jana. Our link told me she was nearby, but I could not see her in the chaos.

‘Marcel!’

‘Jana! Where are you?’

Jana called to me again and I let our link guide me to her. I was impressed at how quickly she’d managed to pull together her squad of soldiers. She pulled me into the center of the squad along with two other Empaths.

“You three, shield the soldiers. We’ve got to push back this Jut’ma attack before everyone flees.”

The battle wore on. The rain of arrows continued unabated. Jana and the other soldiers fought continuously, sword and shields swinging endlessly. I grew weary, drained of energy like I’d never experienced before.

I became aware of a particular presence as I continued. A presence at the heart of the enemy’s forces. One that seemed to have also taken notice of me. He was a powerful Empath, and I could feel him pressing against my mind, searching for a weakness.

It was Jana who pushed back, our minds working almost as one. While she continued to battle with sword. While she continued to pull her soldiers around her, constantly filling the gaps so that I remained surrounded. For a brief moment I marveled anew at her strength.

That’s when it happened. The focus shifted from me to her. I couldn’t protect her in the same way she protected me. I pressed back with everything I had, but it wasn’t enough. She couldn’t battle it all on her own. I felt her struggle.

Where was Andreú? I had lost track of him early on in the battle, though he’d fought to stay near Jana. I had no extra energy to reach out to him for help. Nor could I reach any other Empath who might be nearby. They were all busy battling within their own circles.

The Jut’ma Empath pressed harder. I fought against him, but it was not my strength that held him back. He pressed all the harder at Jana. He sent more soldiers against our little circle. All around me men fell to the sword and spear. He had found my weakness, but I could not find his.

If I couldn’t battle him in his way, maybe I could use mine. I thought of the plans laid out by Master Tenzin and Captain Vaska. I tried to pinpoint the enemy’s location. If I could just…

I stretched out my mind in a way I’d never done before. The voices of all those around me paled as I searched for the deeper, subtler voices underneath. The voice of the wind was one thing. It whistled all around, whispering, touching. The voice of the earth was buried deep beneath all the others, and when I found it, a thrill shuddered up my spine.

I reached out hesitantly to this new voice. Something hit me like a fist to the stomach, forcing me back a step. Jana recoiled from it as if burned. I reeled against the onslaught of voices as she fought to right herself.

The Jut’ma Empath sent his voice surging into my mind. At the same time, the invading army pressed forward with renewed frenzy. Men were falling all around Jana. Wave upon wave of arrows rained down on us, and I was unable to send them all back.

I felt, rather than saw it when Jana was first struck. I staggered back in unison as if the arrow had pierced my own shoulder. With a mad cry, I reached out again to that deep, earthen voice. This time I did not hesitate.

A low tremble began under my feet. I used my whole body to speak to the earth, stamping my foot as I surged forward, clapping my hands together in front of me. A rumble began at my feet and shot forward into the mass of battling warriors.

The earth rolled away from me like a wave on the sea. But the earth didn’t respond the way I’d expected. It was stronger than I anticipated. I had to wrestle with it to maintain control.

The recoil from the Jut’ma was intensely fierce. The warriors surged forward with renewed energy. Jana and the others were pressed hard. I saw more fall. Jana was struck again, a sword stroke to  her leg. And again on her sword bearing arm. I fell to one knee with the pain of her injuries.

We were surrounded. I sought out reinforcements, but I could sense nothing but chaos outside the ever tightening circle.

Jana went down, a sword thrust to her abdomen. The wall holding back the voices crumbled, and I was consumed with blackness and noise.

The voices clamored at me. Reached out invisible hands to grasp at me.

I may have screamed. I was no longer sure of anything except that she was gone. I was alone. Alone with all those voices, and no one to carry it with me. I had failed her. I couldn’t protect her. I had to end this. But the noise. There was too much noise.

I stepped past Jana, hardly knowing what I would do. I had to stop this. Had to put an end to all the noise. The air was too thick to breathe. My eyes burned.

I did the only thing I knew. I called to the voices I could understand. I spoke to the wind, and it swirled up and through the valley in a great rush. I spoke to the earth. I lifted my arms, and the earth answered. The ground shook, and a great roar filled the valley. I was aware only that this new sound buried all the other noise. All the other voices.

I spoke, and the earth answered. It swallowed their cries with its roar.

 

 

 

 

(c) 2018 T. A. Hampton
Read the conclusion in Part Three, coming next week!

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Havemercy, by Jaida Jones & Danielle Bennett: A Review

Havemercy, by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett joined my 2018 Reading Challenge as #18 – a book by two authors.

I think this is a book I picked up at a random used book sale some time back. I know it’s been on my shelves for quite a while. When I first planned to pursue a new reading challenge this year, my first goal was to read more of what was already on my shelves. With my goal to read books by women authors, it turns out this was the only book on my shelves that met the prompt requirement. Given that I’ve declared this to be the Year of the Woman, it’s a bonus that both authors are women!

This book surprised me. It isn’t the story I was expecting at all. A metal dragon graces the cover, and the blurb reads as follows:

This stunning epic fantasy debut introduces two exciting new authors – and a world brimming with natural and man-made wonders, extraordinary events, and a crisis that will test the mettle of men, the boundaries of magic, and the heart and soul of a kingdom.

It sounds like an epic adventure, an exciting, wild ride. I’m sure that’s what prompted me to pick it up in the first place. I mean, who doesn’t love dragons?

Havemercy isn’t that story. Instead, it tells the story of four men. Most of the book explores the relationships between these men—Royston and Hal, Rook and Thom. The book is told from the first person perspective of each of these four men. The plot itself unfolds so slowly, if you pause while reading, you might get the idea there is nothing happening.

Don’t get me wrong, by the end of the book the action has definitely reached a fever pitch. Jones and Bennett pulled me in so completely with characters I couldn’t help but care about. The story is woven so subtly around these four characters, I was simply drawn along for the ride.

This was a beautiful book. Unexpected, to be sure. But I truly enjoyed it.

Unlock the Muse – January 17, 2018

January is half over already! What progress are you making on your goals? For myself, I finally managed to do some writing this week. Not much, but it’s a start.

Inspire
Here’s your writing exercise to help get the words flowing this week:

Start with: “Never underestimate…”

What have you underestimated that turned out completely wrong? Extrapolate on that and turn it into fuel for your fiction. Ask yourself a series of “what if?” questions and see how far you can take it.

Whatever you do, don’t underestimate yourself!

Encourage
According to Walter Mosley in This Year You Write Your Novel, simply writing every day isn’t enough. Carve out a specific time for your writing. Put in the time even if you aren’t putting down any words. It can be too easy to suddenly give in to the need to wash the dishes, fold the laundry or mow the lawn. Make sure your family and neighbors know you aren’t available during this time. This time is for writing. As Mosley puts it:

Don’t write in the journal unless you’re writing a chapter of your book. Save the world at 8:30 instead of 7:00. Let the lawn get shaggy and the paint peel from the walls. For that time you have set aside to write your novel, don’t do anything else. Turn the ringer off on your phone. Don’t answer the doorbell.

Set aside the distractions. Don’t let procrastination derail your writing.

Equip
W
riting Question of the Month: Speaking of procrastination, what is your favorite non-writing activity?

My answer: If I discount reading (which I consider a writing-related activity!), Netflix has become my go-to distraction. I’m currently binge watching Once Upon a Time.

Please consider sharing your response to the writing exercise. Got a question? Just ask! Put it in the comments below, or send your question by email here:

Shattered, Part One

JANA

The universe doesn’t always warn you when your time is up. If it did, though, would anyone listen? Do things differently? Make different choices?

I am Jana, an Empath. Bonded since birth to my Empath brother, our minds work in unison. But as often as not, we are at odds with one another in our struggle to be separate but together.

I emerged from the overgrown brush beneath the trees and into a small clearing. The mid-morning sun sparked on dust motes scattered through the air. A grasshopper flew sharply away at my approach. At the center of the open space, I stopped. The new fruit on the trees behind me lent a sweet aroma to the air. I closed my eyes and turned my attention on my brother.

All the way out here, Marcel’s anxiety was like a swarm of bees in my head. Indeed, the whole of the campus was humming with the news from the war front. As I stood still, just breathing, I focused all my energy on my brother.

“Marcel.”

I spoke his name aloud as if I stood before him and not on the other side of the compound. It had little effect. His anxious pacing continued unabated. I could feel it rising in me as well, the need to move, to do something. It’s what had driven me here in the first place. If I didn’t gain some control of this, and soon, his anxiety would swallow us both.

Frustrated, I let go the way Marcel never could. I screamed at the morning sun, as loud and as long as I could manage. In the near silence that followed my outburst, an unseen eagle cried out as if in sympathy.

Pointing my body toward the north where the White River flowed out of the foothills, I drew my sword. Slowly at first, then increasing my speed with each rotation, I went through the forms Master Chen had taught me. Again and again I completed each motion, letting my body work while my mind remained focused on Marcel. I pushed him as hard as I pushed my body.

Marcel’s pacing slowed and finally stopped. He pushed back against my mind. The reports from the war front had him agitated, leaving my mind in chaos as well. On days like this, my connection with my brother was almost more than I could stand.

‘Enough, Marcel.’ I pushed the words along the bond, the way we’d communicated for as long as I could remember. ‘It’s time to stop.’

I let the sword drop from my hand in frustration. I leaned over, hands resting on my knees as I gulped in air. Sweat ran from my face and dripped onto the blade at my feet. The blade glinted dully in the sunlight. It was in need of cleaning. The idle thought was swept from my mind by another, and another. Marcel’s mind was never still.

With a sigh, I stood to my full height, taking in a deep breath as I did so. I brought my arms together in front of me, one hand poised over the other as if I held a small ball. I let go my breath in a long exhale.

I stood that way for several moments, breathing in and out. I focused on calm, sending it outward to Marcel.

At last my mind found some measure of peace, and I began to move through the meditative forms I’d learned long ago. I closed my eyes, breathing in and out as I moved in rhythm with the earth. I let the wind direct my body as I focused only on the peace of the hilltop.

Move, inhale, step, exhale. Turn, and start again.

I was so focused on Marcel, on trying to calm the chaos he lived in, I didn’t notice right away I that I was no longer alone.

“Here you are.”

I opened my eyes at Andreú’s words, hiding my startled response.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

Andreú pulled me into an embrace, spinning me around in circles. His joy was infectious and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

“Put me down!”

He stopped spinning and let my feet back down to the ground, but didn’t release me.

“I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“That was a waste of your time. You should have known I’d be out here.”

“And I would know that, of course, because certainly you’re not supposed to be in Elder Harlan’s philosophy lecture right now.”

“Ugh! That man is insufferable. I don’t know why he insists we continue to sit through his boring lectures when we should be learning something far more practical.What with the war going on.”

“Right.” Andreú looked down at me, his eyes twinkling with mischief. “Then, of course I should have known you would be beating up some poor lout on the training yard. Because what is more practical than that?”

“Andreú!” I slapped at his shoulder, trying to push myself away, but he held me even tighter. “I don’t beat anyone up.”

“Of course not. Still, you were not there.”

“Master Chen has his hands full with all the new recruits. I wouldn’t be able to get a real workout. And I didn’t feel much like getting beat up myself by a bunch of clumsy farm boys with sticks.”

“Fair enough.” Andreú pulled me down to sit on the ground beside the tree, keeping his arm wrapped around my shoulders almost as if he feared I might flee. “But then I should have known by your absence at the yard that you would naturally be with Marcel.”

“I’m not my brother’s keeper, Andreú.”

“Aren’t you?”

“That’s not fair. I look out for him, is all.”

“He’s a grown man, Jana.”

“I know that—.”

“Shh.” Andreú put a finger on my lips to forestall my words. “I’m sorry. Let’s not fight.”

When I would have protested further, he leaned in close and kissed me. I had come to like these stolen kisses perhaps more than I should. But I let it continue. And didn’t resist when he pulled me onto his lap so that I straddled his legs with mine, knowing he did it deliberately.

Andreú pulled away first. When he did, he kept his hands on my face, leaving me nowhere to look but at him. His eyes held passion, and I could see he very much wanted to continue our little kissing game. As much as I did. But when I leaned in to do just that, his hands held me back.

When I looked back into his eyes, I noticed something I had missed. Besides the physical hunger was something deeper, a more intense longing. Almost a desperation.

“What is it?” I asked, suddenly worried about his answer. Andreú dropped his hands from my face, moving them instead to wrap around behind my lower back. I felt a sudden, unexplainable urge to flee from him. But his arms held me in place. “Andreú?”

“Jana, you know how I feel about you.”

A sensation akin to worms wriggling inside my chest made me squirm on his lap, trying to pull away. I knew now where he was going with this, and I simply couldn’t sit still and let it happen. Not again.

“And I know you care for me too,” he continued in a rush of words. “Would you stop?” His hands shifted to my hips, trying to keep me still.

“Andreú, please don’t do this.”

“No, Jana. I will do this. Marry me. I love you.”

The words had been spoken. I quit fighting against him as the worms became instead a block of ice. I couldn’t breathe. Didn’t dare meet his gaze. I couldn’t bear to witness his pain when I refused him again.

“Nothing has changed, Andreú.” I didn’t dare speak above a whisper for fear I would choke and begin to cry.

“But don’t you see? Everything has changed.”

“What? What has changed?”

“The war, Jana.”

“The war!” I said in disgust. I pushed away from him, but moved only so far as to settle on back on his knees. “Is that all anyone can talk about?”

“It’s worse than they’re telling us. They will send us all out.”

“Send us? To war? What are you talking about? We’re all that’s left here. They can’t send everyone.”

“If we don’t go there, the war will come to us. It’s only a matter of time.”

When I’d pushed away, Andreú’s hands had remained, resting lightly on my knees. He moved them away now, rubbing his face before dropping them into his lap. He looked away too, so that he no longer held my gaze. I could see the tension in his jawline. I wanted to reach out to him, to touch his face and somehow soften the hardness that I saw there. But fear for my brother held me back.

“Marcel can’t go to war. It would destroy him.”

“He’s a capable Empath. You need to give him room to do what he’s capable of. He’s your brother, Jana, not—.”

“Yes, my brother. And he needs me.”

“He’s a grown man. Why do still protect him? Why does he need you so badly you can’t find your own happiness?”

“You don’t understand. Marcel is different. He can’t… He’s not…” I fumbled for the right words and failed. “He is not like you, Andreú. He’s different.” My words sounded harsh even in my own ears. “I’m the only one who can help him.”

“Then help me understand.”

I stared back at him, trying to read what I saw in his eyes. All I saw was pain. I pushed to my feet and stepped away. I needed the space as I tried to rein in my wild thoughts and emotions. I turned my back on Andreú, looking up the river toward the hills. It was hard to believe that war and death and ugliness waited just beyond this peaceful scene.

Marcel had picked up on my distress despite how I’d tried to keep it from him. He was pacing again. I needed to end this. Quickly. Before things got out of control once more. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly before turning back toward Andreú.

“You and my brother were friends once,” I said. “I just wish it could be that way again.”

“I’ve tried, Jana,” he said with a weary voice. “He hates me.”

“He doesn’t hate you, Andreú. He’s afraid…”

“Afraid? Of what?”

“Of what you mean to me.”

“And do I? Mean something to you?”

“How can you even ask that? You know you do.”

“Do I?” Andreú clambered to his feet and held his hands out to me, but I refused to take them. He stood an arm’s length away, his gaze holding mine with an intensity I found difficult to return. “How can I know that, Jana? You’ve never said anything.”

“I always thought there’d be more time.” I looked away, unable to hold his gaze any longer. I even went so far as to turn my back and walk a few steps away. He was quiet for so long, I nearly turned back to be sure he was still there.

“There is no more time, Jana. The war, it’s coming.”

I didn’t turn around. I wasn’t ready to let him see the emotions I knew were plain on my face. After a few moments of silence, Andreú came and stood beside me. Together we stared down into the valley. The sun was now high in the sky.

From below came the sound of bells. We stood together, our hands not quite touching. His body sagged, and I could hear the resignation in his voice.

“It begins,” he said. “We’re already too late.”

__

©2016 T. A. Hampton
Read Part Two here.

How To Train Your Dragon, by Cressida Cowell: A Review

Prompt #1 on the 2018 Reading Challenge is a book made into a movie you’ve already seen. Most of the time I prefer read the book before I see the movie, but once in awhile I run into a movie I had no idea was based on a book. One such book-to-movie is How to Train Your Dragon, the first book in a series of twelve.

I love the movie How to Train Your Dragon. I’ve seen it several times now with my children. When I learned it was based on a book, I knew that’s what I had to read for this challenge.

Aside from featuring a boy named Hiccup and a dragon named Toothless, the book has very little in common with the movie. The story takes place in the Viking village on the island of Berk. The boys of the village are entering initiation to gain official admission into the tribe. And so begins Hiccup’s journey to becoming a “Hero the Hard Way.”

It can be disappointing when a book isn’t the same as a movie you loved. However, this book is so much fun. The story is full of great, over-the-top action. The illustrations are simple pencil sketches that are absolutely perfect. I laughed out loud while reading this book. 

Unlock the Muse – January 10, 2018

A week into the new year, and so far, I haven’t accomplished a single thing toward my goals. This past November, NaNoWriMo took a lot out of me, and I took the month of December off to recuperate a little bit. Now that January is here, it’s really time to get back to writing.

Inspire
Here’s your writing exercise to help get the words flowing this week:

When you have an idea, write it. Sure, it might hit you in the grocery store. Write yourself a note. Plan to write about the idea for half an hour that night.

I keep a notebook handy at all times for just this purpose. In my purse, by the bed, on my desk. I even have an app on my phone. For those grocery store moments.

Your challenge this week is to write down your ideas as soon as you can. Then, at your next writing session, spend at least a half hour to flesh out the idea. Explore it and see where it might take you.

Encourage
According to Walter Mosley’s This Year You Write Your Novel, in order to push through and write your novel in a year, you’ll need to let go of all restraint. Let go of all the social niceties that makes life possible (maybe not in public, though!). Don’t let guilt stand in your way either. Release the inhibitions and fear over what your grandmother, your neighbor, your ex, might think of you or your novel. Finally, don’t get caught up in trying to model your writing style on some ideal. This is your story, write it your way.

Equip
Words are the tools writers use every day. So it never hurts to learn a little bit more about the words we use. One such word-tool that’s at the heart of this weekly post is Inspiration.

According to the oxforddictionaries.com, Inspiration (n.) is defined as follows:

1. The process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something creative. The quality of being inspired, especially when evident in something. A person or thing that inspires. A sudden brilliant, creative, or timely idea.

2. The drawing in of a breath; inhalation. An act of breathing in; an inhalation.

From etymonline.com:

…the word Inspiration dates back to circa 1300 and meant “immediate influence of God or a god,” especially that under which the holy books were written. It comes to us from Old French inspiracion “inhaling, breathing in. And from Latin inspirationem, noun of action from past participle of the Latin word inspirare “blow into, breathe upon.”

The sense evolution seems to be from “breathe into” to “infuse animation or influence,” thus “affect, rouse, guide or control,” especially by divine influence. Inspire (v.) in Middle English was also used to mean “breathe or put life or spirit into the human body; impart reason to a human soul.” Literal sense “act of inhaling” attested in English from the 1560s.

Go, breathe life into your novel. Inspire!

Please consider sharing your response to the writing exercise. Got a question? Just ask! Put it in the comments below, or send your question by email here:

Sun Storm, by Åsa Larsson: A Review

In Sun Storm, Rebecka Martinsson is a tax attorney in Stockholm, Sweden. She’s made good her escape from small town Kiruna, in northern Sweden. That is, until the gruesome murder of a local celebrity pulls her back in.

I chose this book for my 2018 Reading Challenge as book #5, Nordic noir. At first, I was stumped by this category. I had no idea what Nordic noir was. So I went searching, and found it’s only a fancy way of saying dark, murder mysteries set in Scandinavia.

As a tax attorney, Rebecka seems an unlikely heroine for a crime novel. But it turned out, I kind of liked her. As the story develops, the author includes little flash back scenes, Rebecka’s memories from her past that begin to tie the pieces of the story together.

The story isn’t written entirely from Rebecka’s point of view, however. There are passages from the detective, the prosecutor, and even the bad guy. Larsson has woven these perspectives into the story is such a way to drive suspense and compel the reader forward.

The language and descriptions in the story are often stunningly beautiful. I read the English edition translated by Marlaine Delargy. While I can’t speak for the original Swedish version, Delargy’s translation is wonderful. Considering the novel won Sweden’s Best First Crime Novel award, I’m confident the original is just as good.

While it was a truly beautiful and compelling book, it did feel as though the villain was revealed too early in the story. The entire scope of the evil plot wasn’t revealed all at once, but it seems to me that the suspense would have only increased by not knowing the killer’s identity quite so soon.

I would definitely recommend this book.