By a Bridge of Bones - Chapter 1

Fantasy written by kidkboom on Thursday 5, July 2007

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CHAPTER 1 In the late hours of an early spring night in the Northern parts of the Provinces, the air can possess a silent, crystalline chill, a leftover remnant of the brutal cold of the winter, an almost divine stillness that even the creatures of nature hold in reverence. Only the gentle, persistent crashing of the ocean's waves, as they met against the stone wall of the sea cliffs and the jutting rocks that held their ground under its untiring barrage, defiled this serenity. The sound was soft and distant, echoing against the tall cliffs and back out over the water, and scarcely managed to reach the ears of the people who slept in the sturdy stone fortress that sat at the top of one of these cliffs. And, high above the reef, within one of the towers that perched the top of the fortress, lie a young boy whose mind the night's serenity could not calm. His ears knew its soft sounds well. He was slight of frame, with a crop of short, wiry black hair and delicate features, and tonight he slept fitfully in the night's icy wind. Because of this, he was one of the only residents of the fortress atop the cliff that heard the offending sound as it crashed out murderously into the night - violent splintering of wood, wrenching of steel, the leaden hooves of horses bred for battle. The boy shot up from the thin sheets and ran to his window, craning intently out toward the land and the vast forest that ran along the cliffs. There on the ground, to his horror, he saw a horde of black-clad riders, weapons and torches gleaming in their hands, at the gates of the fortress. The boy took a step back from the window, horrified. Who were the attackers? What could they want from this simple school? He shook his head. He could feel his heart turn heavily in his chest. Hurriedly he grabbed a robe and threw it onto his frame frantically, his hands shaking. Suddenly there was another loud crash, and the black-haired boy jumped. The inner gate, he thought worriedly. He could feel himself beginning to panic. Calm down, Deru, he told himself. There's got to be a way out of this. What would Yri do? His sister, Yri, had always been the quicker thinker between them. She had always managed to get the pair out of trouble back in his home town. But nothing like this, he thought. And he was very far from home. Another crash from below. Now Deru could hear heavy voices yelling and the clashing of weapons from below. He didn't know why they were here, but he didn't care. What would Yri do? his mind whimpered. Yri would get out - and quick. Deru ran to his bed even as he could hear the horrible sounds from below growing closer. Looking around quickly, he grabbed the sheet from his bed and tied it to the blanket. Then he ripped down the curtains from around the window, tying them to the ends, and finally tied one end to the leg of his bed. "Help!" Deru heard distinctly, coming from a distance not far down the hall beyond his door. He gulped - trying not to wonder which of his peers made the sound, or what was being done to them - and threw his makeshift rope out of the window. "No time to test it," he heard himself say. "This is for you, Yri." With a bitter resignation, the black-haired boy climbed out of the window and down the long rope, dangling over a thousand yards over the ocean below. The titan pull of the ocean wind rocked him as a pendulum over the rocky reef. His thin hands passed over each other again and again, his shoulders burning under his own weight. He descended the shoddy rope as fast as he could, even as his ears warned him of the sounds now coming from his own room above. Deru gulped, trying to retain his confidence. He thought of Yri again. With an effort of courage, he looked at the terrain below him. There was a path that ran along one of the walls of the fortress, its landing beckoning at him. He climbed to the bottom of the rope, gripping with white knuckles onto the tattered cloth. He felt its support give under him, with a sickening lunge that put his stomach in flight, as the rope began to tear. His arms recoiled mightlily to his torso, muscles screaming now in his shoulders, as he steadied himself. He looked again at the landing on the wall below him, and with silent resignation of his young life he leapt from the rope. Deru collapsed onto the stones of the fortress wall painfully, landing with a heavy thud. He grinned for a second. He had never been more grateful for pain in his life. He scrambled to his feet and ran along the length of the wall, toward the door at its end that led into one of the towers and back into the fortress. Deru looked back over the wall down on the main courtyard below. He could see the black-clad warriors, now clearer and in greater detail. They rode black horses and were wearing military armor, steel or iron, but somehow darkened, dull and black in the open moonlight. Suddenly Deru winced and looked away, as one of the barbarians cut down one of the school's inhabitants. Keeping himself low, the black-haired boy hurried along the wall, quietly opening the door that led to the tower and back into the fortress. He snuck down the circular stone stairs that ran the entire height of the tower, his bare feet silent against the stone. Listening fearfully, he continued descending until he reached the bottom, which opened up into the cellars of the fortress. Suddenly Deru froze. He heard the sounds of metal against stone from the staircase above. Then a gruff voice spoke. "Keep going!" the ominous voice growled. "Check below!" Then the metal boots began marching, growing louder as they approached. Keeping quiet on his feet, Deru made haste into the shadows of the cellars. The fortress which he had spent these last several months in was very old, and the school itself was only its most recent purpose; previously, it had been owned by a prominent trader who also used it for the shipment of the wines and liquors that were his mainstay. The back of the cellars had been hollowed out into the rear of an old sea cave, which allowed the trader ocean access. Deru knew this; he hoped his attackers did not. Even as Deru reached the edge of the water at the back of the cellars, he could hear the armed men reaching the landing of the stairs, their horrid metallic sounds now echoing widely in the cellar's stone chambers. Deru looked at the icy water below him. In the previous owner's time, the cave had been wide and allowed enough space for a ship to enter; now, though, the water sat higher, and the cave was underwater when the tide was in. Clearly Deru could see, looking at the water level high up the legs of the wooden dock, that the tide was in. Deru feasted his lungs with air for a few breaths, looked briefly back at the cellars behind him, and plunged into the icy water. The cold, dancing blue light of the underwater cave opened up before his eyes, and without hesitation he drew himself heavily forward in the water, tearing toward the open ocean that he knew lie ahead. Even as he swam he could feel his muscles growing frigid and slowly weaker, and he raged against the feeling. He watched the chamber of the cave, the pocked stone surface of the cave's walls, pass as he swam, trying to ignore the deathly chill that was taking residence within his chest. His lungs grew hot and red, air desperate for escape. Deru swam on. After what seemed like a miserable eternity, he saw the mouth of the cave disappear behind him, and the open night sky above. With a fiery burst, he popped to the surface. He gasped at the air around him, allowing his lungs to extinguish. To his utter gratitude, Deru again heard the soft sounds of the ocean that he had grown accustomed to. Here in the water, the sound was loud, echoing all around him. He felt the cold spreading within him. He gathered his focus. He had to get away, he thought to himself, even as his chest cooled and his arms recovered their strength. He had to get as far away from these horrible warriors and this accursed place as he could. He thought of his home town once again, and of his sister. She would know what to do. He swam on along a stretch of cliffs until he came to a beach. He crawled onto shore, his entire body numb and shivering, the simple robe sopping wet and frigid in the cold night air. He felt cold enough to freeze to death, right where he had collapsed onto the beach. Young Deru then, drawing in his breath, summoned every ounce of his determination, and rose to his feet, stumbling along the cliffs as they ran inland at the edge of the little beach. He steadied himself mightily as he went, leaning upon the wall of the cliff. In the distance, he could see the mouth of another cave within the wall of the cliff along which he walked. He did not know this place, but he was desperate now to escape the cold and the wind. He made his way weakly into the cave, and along its length of its blackness, letting himself fall to the ground as soon as he was away from the cold. There, he peeled the wet garments from his frame, wrung the water from his robe weakly, and huddled himself together, his knees tight against his chest and head. Gradually, as the minutes passed, the ice within his chest began to melt, and he stopped shaking. He tried to calm himself. Deru was a healthy boy, aged sixteen years, but he was still only a boy, and he was not at all accustomed to such heroic feats of survival. Thus it was not too many minutes later before he fell into a heavy, reparative slumber, there in the ocean cave away from the cold of the night. For once, he did not sleep fitfully. -------- Elsewhere in Iaah on that same night, to the South in a large and magnificent city called Alouth, a very old and very worried man stood upon the precipice of a balcony at the top of his home, overlooking a breathtaking view of the city. Unlike the cold, tired boy far to the North of him, the old man knew of the black riders, knew of their purpose. And he knew his own fate. In his right hand he held a small, rolled bit of parchment. With his free hand he withdrew from the inner pocket of his intricately adorned robe a small, knotted, insignificant piece of wood. With a gesture, he threw it high up into the air above him, high over the city streets below. A tiny flash then emanated from the small knot of wood in its flight, and with the eerie speed at which magic moved, it transmorphed into a small sparrow. Its tiny wings caught the air around it, and it circled in the air, flying back to a perch before the old man on the balcony. "Take this," he said to the bird, handing forward the rolled parchment. The bird flitted from the perch and grabbed the roll in its talons, dancing in the air around the old man. "Find Rupa," he spoke softly, a melancholy in his voice. "Take it to her." The bird hesitated, peering back at the old man from the air in which it hung. "I'll see you soon," the old man lied, smiling slightly. "Do not worry. Go." The old man motioned daintily with his withered old hand. The sparrow wheeled and sped off through the cool night air. He sighed, looking out once more over Alouth, graceful in the silence of the night. It was a place he had always loved, the place he had chosen to call home. He had always feared this day would come, the day when the city's chaotic beauty would be denied to him - the end of his days. But he smiled now, as he watched the night pass, for he was resigned to his fate. He was an old man, and had been allowed much glory in his life. He could not claim any regret. "Ah," he sighed, speaking softly to the city below, "but I will miss you." "Made your peace, old man?" a wicked voice spoke from behind him. The old man's spine shuttered within him, but he did not turn. He knew who was there; he knew why the owner of that wicked voice had come here. He knew better than to struggle. "I have," he said softly. "Then sleep well," the voice crackled, followed by two short, soft footsteps, and a swift, silent pain. Under the eye of the pale moonlight above, the old man died honorably. The shadow of a figure who was assassin slipped back away from the balcony and moonlight, back into the welcoming shadows of the night, back to his dark masters. He would report his task complete. But there would be no report of the little bird. -------

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