For those of you that don't know about my fantasy trilogy, Rise of the Flame...I think it's time I introduced my characters and give you a sneak peek.
Winter never seemed to end in the north of Eura. The air was chilled and yet Lilae still ventured to the lake for a morning swim. The sun wouldn’t rise for another couple of hours, and Pirin and the twins would join her shortly to begin practice.
Dressed more like a boy than the twins would dare, Lilae betrayed her appearance when her bright red hair bounced free from her hood. It fell in long ringlets that shone beneath the moonlight. It remained red…for now.
She was calm. Only when she was upset would the tresses change colors. She snatched off her cloak and stepped out of her brown leather pants and oversized blouse.
Lilae took a few steps into the lake and sunk into the cool water. She let out a guttural sigh of relief and let the water encircle her. Somehow the cold didn’t bother her. The chill didn’t make her shudder or cause her to become ill later. Lilae had accepted the fact that she was…different.
Lilae went underneath the surface and closed her eyes. She felt the heat of her body fade as she swam.
Alone, she thought. This is how I like it.
She swam. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness of being underwater before dawn. The inky depths didn’t frighten her. They called to her. She swam deeper and deeper until her feet touched the muddy ground. She stood there, fighting gravity.
Her lungs began to burn after a few moments and she forced herself to stay down. She had to push herself, challenge herself. Her eyes began to see colors beneath the surface and she finally gave in.
When she ascended her cheeks had become a pale blue. She breathed in the crisp air, filling her desperate lungs. She lied back and outstretched her arms as she swam beneath the moon. She looked up at the dark sky. The crescent moon was bright and serene. It calmed and relaxed her, until she saw something change in the normal pattern of the stars.
Her eyes searched for the meaning of such an abrupt change and she feared the worst. She knew what the change meant. Her fears were intensified when she heard her name being called.
She straightened her body in the water and looked towards the shore. There stood Delia in the black shadows of the forest, her staff in one hand, and Lilae’s cloak in the other. She looked eerie standing there, only her pale face illuminated from beneath her wool cloak.
Lilae didn’t waste time. She swam to shore faster than anyone Delia had ever seen. She quickly got out of the water and covered her body with her clothes. She took her heavy cloak from Delia’s grasp and flung it over her shoulders.
“What is it? What’s happened?” Her breath escaped her lips like a puff of smoke in the darkness.
Delia looked her over, then at the sky once more. “It’s time to move on. Get dressed. We need to leave before dawn.”
Lilae nodded, pulling her pants back on and tucking them into her boots. She didn’t protest. If it had been a few years ago, then she would have cried and pouted. She would have been defiant and tried to run away and stay with another family in their village. Now, at almost eighteen, Lilae was used to their nomadic lifestyle.
Only recently had she been told why they moved so much.
Lilae was being hunted. Delia had escaped the Underworld in order to protect Lilae from whomever tracked her. They stayed nowhere more than a year, sometimes leaving after only a few months. Lilae had grown used to avoiding friendships and relationships. It was better that way.
No one to hurt you, she thought with a sigh. No one to hurt.
They went through the forest to their little cottage on the edge of town. It was a small building, built into a hill. It had once been a cave and Pirin had made it into a home. The squat chimney protruded from beneath the soil and puffed smoke into the gray sky. Lilae and Delia silently headed towards the short wooden door.
Lilae had to duck as she walked in. Inside everyone was already awake. They glanced at her and without a word, they returned to their preparations. They all moved slowly as the cold air in the room bit at them.
Pirin put his arm around Lhana. She stopped packing and stood there with tears in her eyes.
She buried her face in Pirin’s shoulder and sighed. “Why? Just tell me why?”
He smoothed her blonde hair and kissed her cheek. “You know the answer already. They are coming. We don’t have time to waste.”
She frowned. “Let us stay behind. Let them come.”
Pirin grabbed her by the elbow.
Lilae sat up and tensed. Her eyes went from Lhana’s stunned face to Pirin’s stern expression.
The room fell quiet.
Pirin lowered his voice, but Lilae heard every word.
“We stay together. She is my responsibility.”
Lhana swallowed and tried to look defiant. Her voice wavered. “But I thought she was the responsibility of the Elder.”
Pirin pulled her closer. “I will not hear another word about it.”
Lhana blinked, surprised by his actions. She nodded. “It’s just been so long. I’m tired of this life.”
The creases in Pirin’s forehead relaxed. He kissed her on the lips. “Don’t worry.” His voice softened and let go of her arm. He held her in an embrace. “We will have a home again soon. You must remember, this is what the Ancients want.”
Everyone went back to packing their weapons.
Lilae looked up at Lhana and felt the tension in the air. She knew that these moves were especially hard for Lhana.
Lilae wondered if the Ancients knew how much Lhana hated her. She wondered if Pirin knew.
Lhana looked at Lilae with eyes of resentment. The look in Lhana’s eyes hurt Lilae more than anything. She’d give anything to finally feel that woman’s love.
Lilae looked down at her muddy boots. She was aware that she was to blame for their constant moves. Everyone knew that Delia was protecting Lilae for some great deed, for something important. Lilae just wished she knew what that deed was. An Elder was sent to guide her. After seventeen years, Lilae grew anxious to learn the truth.
They all hastily enjoyed their last grand breakfast of buttered toasts, eggs and fried potatoes, aware that this meal might be the last they would have for quite some time. They all ate silently, and packed the rest in sacks.
Lhana also packed dried toasts and fruits for the journey. They would have to buy more supplies and food as they went on, or rely on Pirin to hunt while in the wilderness.
While the others gathered their things, Lilae sharpened her dagger. Packing for her was always quick. She had nothing of value. She wore her only trinket of worth around her neck. It was a simple silver necklace with shiny stones around a ruby. Besides that, a sack of clothing and an extra pair of boots was all Lilae needed.
Her dagger, however, was Lilae’s most precious belonging. Pirin had given it to her years ago, and she trained with it more than any other weapon he introduced. Sure, she could use a sword, quite well actually. But it was close combat that she enjoyed.
Lilae looked towards the twins. They were identical. Both had straight, blonde hair and Pirin’s hazel eyes. Their only physical difference was Jaiza’s mole beneath her left eye. Risa and Jaiza seemed to take their time, deciding between dresses and trinkets that they had acquired.
They were twenty and traveling was wearing on them as well. They wanted husbands. That was clear, but their father would not allow it. The family had to stick together. Lilae sighed to herself, thinking that she didn’t really belong to that family.
Lilae sensed that they wanted her to believe that she was their child, but she knew. She could feel that she was different. Even still, she would never voice those thoughts to any of them. The first time such a notion even occurred to her had been when she was only six years old. When out playing in the woods she had slipped on wet leaves and fell down a hill, crashing face first into a boulder.
She walked home sobbing. The entire side of her face was raw from the blow and scraped nearly to the muscle. No one was home, except Lhana. Lhana couldn’t be Lilae’s mother. She took one look at Lilae, seeing her tear streaked face and the injured cheek and put her hands on her bony hips.
Lhana raised a hand, silencing her. Lilae’s mouth hung open as she watched the young woman stare down at her without a shred of love in her eyes.
“I don’t even want to hear about it. Go to bed,” was all Lhana said. Her face was emotionless and she turned her back on Lilae without another word, returning to shucking corn for supper.
Lilae stood there…stunned. Lhana never rushed over to Lilae like she had expected. She didn’t hug her and ask her if she were all right. Even at six, Lilae knew that’s what a real mother would have done. She had seen Lhana kiss and coddle the twins whenever they had a splinter in their finger from hauling fire wood, or when one would hit her head on the side of the table when playing too roughly.
It was such stark contrast how Pirin treated her and how his wife did. Still, she knew she didn’t fit in, and she never let Lhana see another tear.
Jaiza finally grunted in exasperation and chose an old worn book and her favorite dress. She stuffed it begrudgingly into her bag. She reached for her bow and arrows and headed towards the door. She didn’t look at Lilae as she passed her.
Risa was a terrible archer. She was too impatient, but she made up for her lack of archery skills whenever she had a sword in her hand. She was a master with any blade. Risa grabbed her scabbard and quickly followed her sister.
Lilae shook her head, thinking they were way too concerned with their possessions than she approved of, and went back to sharpening her dagger. She was ready to move on. Another village meant another chance to start over. Once everyone was ready Lilae hooded herself and followed the procession into the woods.
Soon the sun would rise and the farmers would go out to tend to the cattle and crops. They quietly crossed the village to the path leading east. Always east.
Delia led the way. She cut through the darkness as they left the paths to walk directly into the thickness of the woods where the grass was knee high and the hungry bugs were ready to feast on any exposed extremities that they could find. They were all used to it by now. It would be just another long, hard, journey to a foreign land.
Lilae watched as she occasionally looked into the sky at the moon. Whenever she saw Delia look into the sky that way, she imagined that she could actually see the Ancients, peering down at them from their homes in the Overworld. Lilae glanced upwards and saw only stars.
Everyone was silent as they walked. Risa and Jaiza offered the occasional chatter to one another. Lilae enjoyed the quiet; it gave her a chance to practice all that she had been told about tracking the forest.
“Lilae?” Lhana called. “Come here.”
Lilae looked to her eagerly. She hurried over. “Did you need something?” Always so eager to please. She bit her lip, realizing how anxious she sounded.
“Yes. Go ask Delia if we can stop in Treon.” Lhana avoided eye contact with Lilae. Lilae couldn’t understand why that woman refused to look at her. “Go now Lilae. Ask her for me.”
Lilae nodded. Her eagerness evaporated. She crossed before everyone and went far ahead to Delia. She eyed Delia’s staff. It was sturdy, with green vines wrapped tightly around it, and Lilae always wondered why she always carried it. Delia could walk faster than all of them.
“Ah Lilae,” Delia said. She gave Lilae a loving pat on the shoulder.
“Lhana wants to know if we can stop in Treon.”
Delia shook her head and looked up at the sky again. “No. We don't have time.” It was final.
Lilae looked back. Lhana would not like the news, but she would never speak against Delia. It was comforting having Delia around. She was more like a mother than Lhana had ever been, and a protector. However, whenever Delia wasn’t around or looking, Lhana would find a way to torment her. It was as if she took an unspoken revenge out on Lilae, whenever she had the chance.
“How are you doing Lilae? You always worry about everyone else. What about you, dear?”
The question perplexed her. Who cares how I feel? She was content with living in the shadows of the twins and just going with whatever Delia and Pirin ordered.
“I’m fine.” She stuffed her gloved hands into her pockets to warm them. “I am ready for a new journey. I think I feel more at peace in the wilderness. You know? No one can be mean to me. No one can hurt me.” She shrugged it off and forced a smiled to Delia. She didn’t want to complain.
“No one can hurt you Lilae,” Delia said. “Unless you let them.”
Lilae nodded. “You’re right. A new town should be interesting. You know how I just love to terrorize the girls and boys.” She joked to hide the fact that she really didn’t like meeting new people. Each village just meant new people to judge her, tease her and make her long for the peaceful solitude of travel.
Delia chuckled softly as she glanced at her. “I’m glad to hear it. Risa and Jaiza want to get married. They always have. You know you’re different right?”
“Yes Delia, I know.” Lilae thought about how different she had felt, all of her life. “I guess I don’t care about the same things that they do.”
“What do you mean?”
Lilae looked over her shoulder at the others. Pirin was quiet, and yet everyone listened when he spoke. Lilae had heard the tales of his time served as a soldier and later as a captain. There was no better warrior to train her and the twins. The moves didn’t seem to bother him either.
Like Delia, he seemed to know when it was time to move on and did so with a stern look. That look was especially puzzling to Lilae. It was as if he knew something, and for just a second, she was almost sure she saw fear hidden within his eyes. Lilae couldn’t help but wonder what could ever frighten Pirin.
Lhana simply hated uprooting the family. She couldn’t help decorating their home and settling in, which made it harder when it was time to leave it all behind. She had become hardened by their lifestyle, so much so, that Lilae half expected Lhana to disappear into the night one day and return to Auroria.
“Well, I do not care about friends, or boys, or starting a family of my own.” Who would want me anyway? She looked ahead with a serious face. She knew better than to get ahead of herself with such thoughts.
A small smile formed on Delia’s lips. “Of course not.” She gave Lilae a wink. “You’re too young to think of such things.”
Lilae looked to her, raising an eyebrow. “Am I?” She thought a moment. She couldn’t see a boy falling in love with her or raising children of her own. That didn't mean that she wouldn't like a handsome boy adoring her and professing his love for her. She just didn't think that was possible.
She looked odd. She acted differently. It was better to not dream of those things.
“Don’t most girls get married at my age?” She stepped over a fallen tree and waited for the others to do the same.
The grass grew taller nearing their necks. Grass covered in ice, making it sharp so that they had to walk through with caution. So many years of walking, of moving. When would they stop?
“Sure, some do. There are scores of young girls who at the first sign of womanhood begin bearing children too. And they will continuously do so until the seed no longer catches. But that’s not the life for you. You have a future Lilae. There’s a bigger, more important, task for you than just producing babies. You are different.”
“How? Why?” It was painfully clear to Lilae that she was different, but she didn’t know why. “Because there's something wrong with me?”
“No Lilae!” Delia waved a flippant hand, as if what Lilae had said something ludicrous. She gave her a serious look. “There's nothing wrong with you. Yes, you are special. You have a very important destiny.”
“But why Delia?” She was desperate for answers. For as long as she could remember, she had just went with whatever Delia or Pirin said was best. “How am I special? Why are people hunting me?” She knew her past. She knew of her birth and everything, and still she didn’t know why any of those things had happened. “I mean, I’ve never hurt anyone. I have killed, but I follow the judgment of The Winds. Those people deserve it.”
Delia was silent for a moment. She looked into Lilae’s green eyes. She had looked into those large eyes thousands of times. They were a bright green when Lilae was calm and a deep emerald when she was upset.
This time, however, Delia saw something new. Something had been brewing inside of Lilae since the day she was born, something that only Delia knew about and watched for every day.
There was the faintest movement, a light deep within them and Delia nearly stopped in her footsteps. The time had come. Ever since the day the Underworld was invaded, and many of the other Elders destroyed, Delia had been waiting for a shred of hope that the world would be put right again. She waited for the balance to be somehow restored.
Delia smiled. Her eyes searched Lilae’s. The light was the sign she had waited for. The light was the key to Lilae’s gift, to her power. She patted Lilae’s shoulder and continued to press ahead into the thick forest.
“Soon Lilae, you will see,” she whispered, more to herself than to Lilae. “She is ready.” Delia thought to herself, and to the Ancients above.
The Ancients heard her and sent word to the Guardians. At each barrier, of the four realms across the entire world, the giants stretched and opened their eyes. They were ready to release the locks on The Barriers. Before, no one could pass, not even the Ancients who had created them. They had been built specifically for that purpose. To protect the races from one another. To protect them from the other Ancients who would seek to destroy the balance of the world.
Now they awaited the arrival of the ones that could destroy The Barriers. It was time for someone to let the races free from what evil was about to be released. The Guardians pushed the doors. A hazy film stretched from its top to the smooth, black ground. And then, they returned to their posts, their golden swords ready at their waists and waited for Lilae’s arrival.