Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Reckoning of Asphodel Excerpt

As promised...


My life is divided into two parts: before, and after. My memories of before are almost sacred to me, with all of the poignant wistfulness most people lend only to their dreams or ambitions.

I have driven my memories of after away from my consciousness in some desperate attempt to recapture the untroubled serenity of before. Squarely between the two halves of my life is a single day.

I will never truly understand what happened that day. If I did not weep then, I do now. The gods never grant omniscience to us at these times, and they never grant forgetfulness in the dark days that follow.

Memory is a chancy thing, and I must rely upon mine to tell me what came to pass in my father’s orchard. Ultimately, the remembrance brings me nothing but the thought of death and the taste of fear. It hangs like a painting in the hall of my dreams: frothy pink blossoms tumbling against the black and green clouds as a brutal wind shreds them from the trees, the whispering touch of the snow pelting against my bare skin, and the profound malodor of ruin and devastation and death. The smell returns to me most vividly, still hovering in my nostrils, more than the pain or the grief or the fury. I will carry the stench with me to my tomb. Snow was once a joy to me, child of the northern forests that I am, but now it bears me into the abyss of horror that forever dwells for me in the winter clouds.

The sun rose upon a lovely early spring day. Its rays streamed through my windows and awakened me with the promise of another day in the meadows. I lay in my bed, watching the new light brush beauty along the trees. My family’s orchards were renowned, and this spring they were particularly lovely.

I was a girl just coming into herself: twelve years old, skinny knees, unruly hair and all. Where my mother had the fair beauty of the oceans, and my father the earthiness of the orchards, I was a different matter. My hair was deep black, and my eyes were so light a blue some people called them silver.

I jumped out of bed that morning before my nurse came to wake me, scrambling into my clothes and pulling my hair roughly from my face. The day called to me so I snatched a chunk of warm bread from the kitchen and ran outdoors. I darted into the orchard for my favorite pastime­--annoying the workers. I was happy as I slipped through the new grass that was just tall enough to brush the sides of my feet after the long winter’s reign.

I don’t remember how long I remained in my contented reverie that day, or what finally jarred me from it. I was perched about ten feet up in one of the cherry trees when an abrupt shift of wind caught my attention. I looked up.

The sky was lurid, a swirling greenish-purple, suspended from the heavens with a chain of wind. Then, the wind blew cold and my dangling feet became instantly chilled. Mindful of all of the repeated admonitions against cold-catching that I received from my nurse, I carefully climbed down the tree. A sudden electric charge whirred past my head, making the hair rise from my scalp, and I turned to look at the terrace.

My mother stood in the center of the courtyard, the basket she used for her weekly rounds of the laborers’ cottage spilled at her feet. Six men confronted her. Five wore the plain garb of soldiers and the sixth unrecognizable in a long, dark cloak. As if something warned me to stay hidden I slid behind the broad, gnarled trunk of the tree, crouched close to the ground and watched.

The cloaked man spoke to my mother. I couldn’t hear what he said; the wind snatched his voice away and spun it into the swirling clouds. A sudden shout rose from my right and I saw my father run toward the tangle of men on the terrace.

The stranger turned and gestured. His dark cloak billowed and a flash of lightning suddenly streaked down from the clouds. My horrified eyes saw a jagged bolt of blue-white fire strike--oh, so slowly--and cleave Prosper de Asphodel’s sturdy frame. He stiffened in the split second before the searing flash sundered his body, and he fell without a sound, rolling into a blackening heap on the grass.

My mother swayed strongly, her eyes widening and her mouth opening in a silent cry of anguish. My hands tightened on the bark of the old tree, and sparks flew before my eyes. My first impulse was to run to my mother, but even as I thought it Solange de Asphodel’s jaws snapped shut and she jerked herself straight. Her face suddenly fell into a blank, shuttered expression and her lips pressed tightly into a thin line.

The man laughed and I saw him clearly for the first time. He was tall and slender, with blond hair the same chameleon shade as my mother’s that whipped around his arrogant, strongly-cut face. He grasped her throat in one hand and drove her to her knees. The capricious wind died down for a moment and I heard what he said. “You will not live beyond this day. Your small powers cannot harm me, as you know. I will grant you an easy death if you give me the child.”

“I have no child,” she said, her voice roughened by the pressure against his throat.

“You lie,” he replied as her hands curved around his wrist.

“You will have to kill me, brother!”

“Brother!” he spat. “I am no brother to a half-Elven bastard! Your death is a certainty, Solange. If you give me the brat, I will make it an easy one.”

“I will not,” she said simply.

He struck her then and she crumpled to the flagstones of the terrace, stunned. She put her hands, those long, elegant hands that soothed me to sleep every night, to her bruised throat and looked up at him.

“I have a prophecy for you, my brother,” she said and the words sounded in my ears as if I were right next to her. “You will kill me, on the order of the usurper, but you will not find my child. She will find you. You will lead this kingdom into war, and your name will be Death. You will fear many things; treachery, revelation, and betrayal. Nevertheless, in the end it will be your name that you fear the most, for it will mean all three.”

He stared down at her, a frown stretching his cold, handsome face.

She drew her knees up to her chest, dropped her head, and closed her eyes. I saw a small, hidden smile creep across her face. “You don’t know what your actions have created this day, my brother,” she finished and I detected a thrill of triumph in her voice. “Your doom watches you even now.”

He turned his back on her and peered into the orchards and fields around the house. I did not move, knowing if I did he would see me. Once again he turned back to my mother, who huddled in that defensive and submissive position with an obscurely exultant smile on her concealed face.

“So be it, my sister,” he replied, gesturing behind him. “My doom may be watching me, but yours is already here.”

Two more men approached from the stable yard. Without looking at them, he said, “Kill the people. Burn the house but leave the orchards. I will deal with them.”

My mother didn’t move but her eyelids flickered just once. The man’s back was to me so I edged closer to the orchard wall. The hard winter had tumbled some of the stones from it and in my mind I felt the urgent order to get out of the orchard and beyond the wall. Cautiously, I slid through the early spring debris of fallen branches and exposed roots and sped toward the breach.

I tumbled through the gap, panting with fear for my mother. Rolling to my knees, I turned back to the scene on the terrace. As my desperation grew so did the wind, as if it somehow fed upon my emotions and it sliced through the thrashing trees. A squad of heavily armed soldiers ran into the castle, drawing their swords as they did so.

“Solange de Asphodel, I convict you as a traitor and a renegade sorceress. Your half-spawned brat will pay the ultimate cost of your treachery.” The man smiled as he drew his long sword from the sheath at his side.

“Fine treachery, Gabril. You convict me for the blood I bear.”

She looked beautiful in that moment as she knelt before his naked sword without a tremor, her back straight and her eyes unwaveringly fixed upon his face.

He stared at her for a long moment, apparently searching for something in her eyes. “Just so,” he said mildly and without another word or extraneous gesture ran the blade through her throat.

The blood fell onto her simple blue gown, splashed onto the long, pale rope of her hair, and then cascaded down to burst upon the stones of the terrace. She fell with a terrible gurgling rasp into the rapidly widening pool of her blood. He wiped his blade clean on her skirt. Her breath bubbled in her throat as she drowned in her own blood. An evil gleam of light glanced off the blade as he brought it up and sliced off the long braid that coiled around her in the blood.

The wind howled and without knowing why I turned my tear-streaked face to the sky. It swirled faster now, green-black and boiling with fury over the castle. Smoke gyrated over the orchard like a twisted, gnarled finger. I screamed out my anguish at the heavens and a sudden chill slashed through my body.

The murderer in the courtyard whipped around, his cloak snarled around his upper body. He scanned the orchards and his face burned into my memory. I felt hatred, hot and vengeful, fill my mouth like blood.

The blood of Solange and Prosper de Asphodel.

The clouds screamed. Snow howled from the skies, obliterating the terrace from my sight in seconds and screening me from the evil that was my uncle and the destruction of my home. The cherry blossoms, delicate and frothy against the black spindles of the trees, writhed as if in pain. They looked blood-red as they were torn away by the wall of punishing snow.

I clambered to my feet, ran into the forest and never saw the men leave. I never knew when the house finally succumbed to the torches set to its wooden parts, collapsing in upon itself and my world. Instead, I ran, barefoot and mindless, through the thickening trees while the snow began to mound on the ground. It seemed like endless, numbed hours, with slender branches slapping across my face and roots tripping my purple feet as I headed deep into the woods.
I must have fallen. Gentle hands lifted me from the ground, wrapping me in a heavy cloak. Some unknown person cradled me next to a warm, solid body and carried me away.

The last image of this memory is the snow, crisply sparkling as it drove through the orchards under that evil, angry sky. The smells of roasted flesh and fresh blood, the sulfuric reek of the lightning and the sharp tang of the snow, the taste of fear and hatred all mingled with the clean scent of the flowering orchards and blended irrevocably in my mind.

This is the origin of the dreams that haunt me. Everything that I am, or became, spawned from that spring day. My childhood was over, relegated to the memories of before. My real purpose started with the death of my parents and my world. The gods sealed my destiny, locked in the undying embrace of hatred, fear, and revenge.

When I sleep, I dream.

When I dream, I kill.

My name is Tamsen Ka’antira de Asphodel.
all rights reserved--Celina Summers 2007

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