It’s finally happening! I’ll be publishing A Ransom of Flames on Amazon today, woo! Obviously I haven’t slept much and my stomach is curdled with anxiety, but otherwise, I’m super excited! I’m certain I’ve done ten things wrong as far as marketing, but I’ll learn. If anyone out there has some advice on that score, tips and tricks are most welcome:)
Anyway, it takes a few days to become available and I’ll send a heads up, along with the cover reveal, when it posts to their catalog. For now, here’s Chapter One. Thanks everyone for all your words of encouragement as I walked (stumbled?) along the road to publication.
A Ransom of Flames
by Anela Deen
Copyright 2016 by Anela Deen
All rights reserved
My child died before she took her first breath. As she left my body I felt her fledgling life snatched away, devoured, leaving behind a cold caress on my skin and the taste of darkness in my mouth.
I sat up sharply, panic twisting in my chest. With a glance at the pair of midwives in the torch-lit space outside our hut, I realized no one had felt it but me—not even my husband and mother beside me. Had I imagined it? A’meh, please let me have been mistaken.
They held her up for us to see and my husband gave an exalted laugh.
“She looks just like you, Maleia,” Alani said. “She’s beautiful.”
I stared at the waning flush on her body. Yes, so beautiful, but something had happened. Couldn’t they feel it? My heart pounded a frantic drum in my ears.
With a silent, desperate prayer, I reached out my hands. “Give her to me.”
Alani turned to the midwives and paused, a frown marring the joy on his face. “They’re still working on her.”
In the silence, the attendants’ expressions withered from elation to distress. The head midwife rubbed my daughter’s tiny chest furiously. Alani’s smile turned to ash as he watched.
“Why doesn’t she cry?” Neither answered him. He searched their faces, and his voice rose with fear. “Answer me!”
The head midwife shook her head. “Forgive us, Po’o, we don’t know.” Age creased her face as the moments passed. “She was alive the moment before birth.”
My daughter’s greying arms and legs dangled on either side of her palm. The midwife stilled her hand. I awaited the hot pain of loss, recalling how it had engulfed me after my father’s murder. Emptiness clamped down on my heart instead, freezing my blood, stealing my breath. I glanced at the dark sky overhead that was clouded only by swaying palms. Had I somehow known this joy would never be mine?
The stars offered no reply.
At my side my mother gave a long, mournful sob. I closed my eyes, fighting despair, but no tears came. Grief hollowed me down to the bones. This was my fault, wasn’t it? I had loved her but not conceived her in love. Had I cursed her somehow?
The salt-kissed breeze made cold the sweat on my body, and I shivered.
“Alani,” I whispered. “Let me hold her.”
His shoulders jumped with stifled sobs, but he nodded and gave my hand a squeeze before releasing it.
They wrapped my breathless daughter in soft bark cloth and laid her in her father’s arms. His whole body shuddered as he took her, and he buried his face in her tiny form. Then he handed her to me.
She felt warm with life. A cruel lie.
I stared into her sweet, still face nestled between the folds of the blanket. Even then no rush of tears filled my eyes. A deadening sensation bloomed across my chest, its tendrils growing outward like the roots of a weed siphoning life from the flowers around it. My hopes and dreams had gone with her. Only a spiritless shell remained, as empty as the one I held.
“Alani, send a messenger to wake the Molokai priests in their temple.” My mouth had trouble forming the words. “Tell them to make ready the lanterns and string the wreaths.”
His eyes sought comfort from me. As his wife, I owed him my kinship to face the pain together. Even in the best of times that did not come easily for me. Now, it was impossible. He took my hand. It felt cold despite the warmth of the night.
His eyes shone with gathered tears. “Not yet. Let her belong to us a little longer.”
“Morning will come soon, and all must be ready by then.” His face fell, and I found enough compassion still in me to add, “Death took her in the night. Let her be put to rest under the sun.”
A voice came from the shadows beyond the torches, as abrupt as a shock of lightning in the sky.
“There will be no ceremony. Her body will be taken to Apohoana pond. Now.”
Hate resurrected my numbed senses as Kapu emerged from the darkness into the halo of firelight. The guards bowed hastily as he stepped past them.
Alani turned with surprise to see him there. “Father? I thought you were away till the morning.” He seemed to register his father’s words, and his face pinched with grief. “No, please. There must be someone else.”
If my eyes had the power of blades, they would have cut Kapu’s flesh to shreds in that instant.
Kapu’s tone gentled at his son’s plea. “I’m sorry, Son. The blood tide comes tomorrow, and we owe a sacrifice. Hard as it is, she must be the offering. We risk the Blight’s full return if we wait.”
Fresh tears spilled from my mother’s eyes. My indignation spiked when Kapu drew near and brushed them from her cheeks, comforting her with a hand on her shoulder.
“Loana, I’m sorry, my love,” he said.
My fatigued body trembled with rage when she embraced him. “No,” I growled. “My daughter will be returned to the ocean and sleep in the harmony between land and sea. I won’t send her to be burned with those creatures.”
Kapu’s face darkened. “Even now, you are selfish. Every day you’re more like Opono.”
I bristled. “Keep my father’s name from your mouth, fisherman.”
Alani touched my shoulder, trying to quell the rising argument. “Father, please. Can’t this wait until morning?”
Kapu’s eyes turned to his son. “The nobles are preparing the lottery. I’d rather they tell the people there’ll be no need for it and let them sleep in peace.” He cut me a sharp glance. “As their king, I must think of their well-being before my own.”
My mouth quirked in disdain. “You say that only because blood washes so easily from your hands.”
“And what would you do? Choose one from the living? Or should we have no offering and see the Blight rot Malua’s shores?” When I didn’t answer, he grunted as though my silence were a confirmation. “To lead is to make hard choices, girl. It’s not as simple or as glorious as you believe.”
I had no immediate reply. He had the right of it, damn him. It was already late this season. The power of the Blight had risen sharply since the last sacrifice. We’d had reports of sections of land rotting away. Harvests lost. Already we carefully rationed food and fresh water. My daughter’s sacrifice would not only spare another’s life but save Malua and my people from the Blight for another season.
But as I stared at the helpless bundle in my arms, the idea threatened to tear me apart. I couldn’t just hand her over like a parcel of no importance. She was mine. The priests often said the spirit lingered with the body until A’meh claimed it. If they took her away to that place of fire, would she forever wander lost and afraid, calling for me? I couldn’t let her be taken alone into the darkness. My thoughts staggered to a halt as I realized what must be done.
“She will go,” I said, then and shot a glare at Kapu. “But I’m going with you.” Without waiting for an answer, I beckoned to a guard standing by, one of my mother’s personal guards I had known and trusted since childhood. “Enoka, can you carry me inside? There is something there I want to bring with us to the tidal pools.”
He came forward with a bow, his broad features lined with sadness. “Of course, little Pa’a.”
Alani objected. “Maleia, you’re in no condition to travel. It’ll be almost dawn by the time we get there. You need rest.”
Once, when I was most powerless, I’d found his compassion for me touching. He had given it freely with no reason other than the goodness he lived by.
Now, I felt nothing.
“I will rest once it’s done. Enoka can help me if you won’t.”
“Let her come,” Kapu said then, to my surprise. “It’s her right, as the child’s mother.”
Enoka’s sturdy arms bore me to the doorway of our hut. On wobbly legs I ducked inside the dark room. The sweet smell of pala grass filled my nose.
By our sleeping mats I found the yellow blanket I’d woven with my own hands not two moons before. The anguish rose in my thoughts as I held it. What I’d intended to use to bundle her at night would now be her shroud. Vividly I remembered each stitch and knot, clumsy as they were, for I’d no talent for it. Not that it mattered then. It had softened the excited ache to hold her.
I forced the memory back. No, I wouldn’t fall into self-pity. I had come here for a reason.
I set aside the midwives’ cloths and wrapped my child in the blanket, my breath trembling as my fingers touched her delicate skin. To the side and against the wall, I found what I had truly come there for. My hand closed around the hilt of the bone knife. A quick jab of the blade and it was done.
“Are you alright, Pa’a?” Enoka asked when I remerged. Even when I was a child he knew when I possessed a secret.
“No, Enoka. I think at last hope has deserted my family.”
His dark eyes held sorrow. “Then let me carry your burdens for a while, sweet child, while I carry you and your little one.”
Alani appeared beside him. “There’s no need. I’ll take them.”
“You don’t have to do that, Alani,” I said.
He drew me into his arms without further reply.
Several other guards were called to join our procession alongside Kapu and my mother as we made our way down Kapuna beach to the rhythmic ebb and flow of the waves. I wondered why Kapu bothered to bring more spears with us. The Vehlek came only when called to collect the sacrifice. They had never threatened any. Little was known of their strict doctrine. Only that they combined the blood of the sacrificed with their magic to combat the Blight and that they lived to serve Aeden. A thankful thing, for powerful and immortal beings of fire that they were, who could oppose them? Perhaps that thought drove Kapu to bring more men, needless or not. Or perhaps, like many others, like my own father while he lived, Kapu was simply wary of them.
“Are you all right?” Alani’s voice stirred me from my rumiations. “You’re trembling.”
“I’m fine,” I answered, with more snap than I intended. “As fine as I could be.”
As we continued on, Alani’s expression turned dim and lost amid unspoken thoughts. Now and then he looked at me and seemed to find some relief in what he saw. His arms were gentle but firm beneath me, his gait careful not to jostle the tiny bundle I held, and I could not altogether ignore the comfort I found with him.
Ahead my mother huddled against Kapu. How convincingly she feigned affection for him. I would never understand why she didn’t choose death instead of marriage. I eyed the arms they wound about each other until I couldn’t stand the sight of it. Then I laid my head on Alani’s shoulder and gathered my strength for what was to come.
The first rays of dawn stained crimson the tips of the tall grasses as we turned inland and reached the clearing beside Apohoana pond. Among the lush leaves and call of the nightingales, Kapu lit several oiled basalt stones and cast them into the hot spring that served as the portal between our world and theirs. The stones plummeted beneath the waters like flaming comets.
Alani set me down amid the green blades as we waited in the clearing, and I stared ahead at the torches that marked the edge of the waters. My heart held no fear. Hopelessness endowed me with calm.
I kissed my daughter’s cooled brow. “Don’t be afraid. Mama is with you.”
“Maleia, please take some water.”
Though she stood beside me, my mother’s voice seemed far away. In silence I refused her offer of water. I dared not speak lest some turn of tone give away what I had done.
As the first pale arc of the sun appeared on the horizon and the shadows stretched across the island like grasping arms, they came.
The songbirds fled their trees as white froth bubbled up from the depths. Several guards edged back nervously. The waters of the pool churned and boiled. All at once they erupted through the surface. The air hissed and crackled like flames doused with cold water. Hot steam rushed across the grasses, and the sharp scent of salt and phosphor permeated the air like brine. For a moment all I could see through the mist were the fiery runes ablaze on their bodies, as red as the burning dawn.
Three had come. They stood shoulder to shoulder as they stepped from the edge of the pond. I had never seen the Vehlek this close before. Their lithe figures were that of men though they stood a head taller than any man in attendance. The silver threads of their hair glinted in the torchlight in a long solitary braid down their backs. They were clad from the waist down in black. Their feet and chests were bare, but carved into the slate gray skin were runes scrawled in interwoven arcs across their flesh.
I held my daughter close to me in the presence of their hard faces and dark, amber eyes. They were at once beautiful and terrible to behold, like the glare of flames blotting out the light of the stars.
One stepped forward and glanced at the sky as he addressed Kapu. “You called for us and we have come, island father. It is late in this season.” His voice was smooth and dark, but it sent a shiver down my back. Though he spoke our language fluidly and without accent, it yet held an otherworldly quality to it, as if it were meant only for their shadowed homeland in the caverns deep within the earth.
Kapu gave a short bow. He extended the required courtesies with a stiffness to his shoulders. “We welcome you and your brothers again, Ronak.” He gestured toward me. “We have our sacrifice. The babe was born dead. She is small but her blood is still warm.”
Something changed in their demeanor at this. They exchanged glances with one another, and it seemed to me that it was not the size of the sacrifice that troubled them.
“How did she die?” Ronak asked. “Was there a clear reason, or did it occur without explanation?”
Kapu’s eyes narrowed slightly. He never did like unexpected questions, much less when he sensed something hidden from him. I knew his answer before he gave it.
“What does that matter to the Vehlek?”
The one to Ronak’s right moved forward and spoke to him in words too soft to hear. Ronak silenced him with a raised hand.
“A curiosity only, island father.” He inclined his head. “We accept this sacrifice for the good of all.”
Kapu wasn’t satisfied with their evasive reply, but I didn’t hear what he said next. Shadows crept in at the edge of my vision, and my heart raced in my chest. It had to be now. I blurted the words like I’d been at a hard run.
“You will take me with her.”
A confused quiet fell, and their eyes turned to me where I huddled in the grass.
I managed to repeat myself between breaths. “Take me with her or in place of her.”
Kapu did not reply to me. “That is not her decision. You will take the babe and no others.” His tone remained neutral, but I could hear the undercurrent of anger at my interruption.
I laughed at him, a bitter sound. “This is your chance to be rid of me, old man. Don’t be a fool as well as a coward.”
He eyed me as he might a rabid animal and then signaled to a pair of guards. “Take her back home. This was a mistake.”
My laugh turned to a snarl as they approached, and I pulled my knife from the waistline of my skirts. “Lay hands on us and you’ll regret it.”
Most knew my skill with a blade. They hesitated.
Alani stepped in front of the guards. His hands balled into fists. “Stop this, Father.”
“She interferes, and I can’t have that here. Move out of the way.”
“I’ll take her back. Just let me speak with her.”
I moved the point of the blade in Alani’s direction as he turned to me. I could see in his face he did not believe me capable of harming him. How little he knew me.
Still, when he kneeled at my side, I didn’t strike.
He passed a hand over his weary eyes. “Maleia, you must see you can’t go with her. You’re alive and she—she isn’t.”
My strength waning, the knife shook violently in my grip. “One way or another, I’m going with her. It’s too late for any of you to stop me.”
He frowned. “Stop you, what? Come, put down the knife.”
Perhaps he meant to take the weapon from my trembling fingers, but he stopped halfway. Something caught his attention on the grass next to me, and he touched it. Blood covered his hand when he inspected it. He stared at it confused, then his eyes widened. My mother’s shriek pierced the air at the same time.
“She’s bleeding!” she cried, dropping to my other side. “Please no, look at all this blood beneath her!”
“It must be from the birth.” Alani hurried my skirts aside and found the blood-soaked cloths wrapped loosely around the wound on my inner thigh where I’d driven my blade in the darkness of our hut. He pulled in a sharp breath. “What have you done?”
Kapu cursed me viciously. The Vehlek who Ronak had silenced spoke heatedly to him in their language, the sound like flames devouring wet wood. Even in my delirium I thought it strange I could understand the words. Was it death that brought such clarity?
“We should not take what isn’t freely given, Brother. If it is her wish to take the child’s place—”
“Syris, be still.” His voice held a warning. He turned back to Kapu and spoke in Malunese. “Island father, we know not what argument there is here, and we mean no interference. We will take the babe, but if you wish it, we will take the young mother as well. Our eyes can see the flame of life, and hers has become too dim for your medicines to reignite.”
My mother’s voice grew shrill. “Someone go for a healer!” She looked frantically to Kapu. “You have to save her.” Her hands fluttered over my brow, my cheek, but I did not feel them.
Their voices melded together like a choir of discord. I sank to my side on the ground. I had only the power to whisper, “Take me with her.” Even as I said it, hands reached for my baby.
I clung to her as tightly as I could, but they pulled her from my grasp as easily as a leaf from a branch. The tears came then and I shuddered, too weak to sob.
The one Ronak had silenced stood over me. Amber eyes met mine.
“Take me instead. Please.”
His face was expressionless, but his gaze held sympathy. “That is not my choice.”
My mother looked at him in desperate hope. “Can you save her?”
“I will try, island mother, though it may be too late.”
Ronak spoke somewhere beyond him. “Syris, this is not our way.” Another warning.
He looked back and replied in the fiery syllables of their tongue. “There is a greater destiny to her, Brother. I can feel it.”
Alani stepped back as he kneeled to my side. The Vehlek hovered over me, an imposing figure of strength and flame backlit by the colors of dawn igniting the sky. He raised his hands. The runes that encircled his palms flared to life like written fire. I recoiled.
“Peace, island daughter,” he murmured, the sound of his voice oddly soothing. The scent of him suffused me. Smoke and firelight.
He reached beneath my garments and gently laid one hand over my heart, the other over the wound on my leg. His eyes closed. A moment later they blazed open. Heat rushed forth from his touch and gripped me like an undercurrent, the inferno so intense it both blistered and froze.
My back arched, and my fingers curled as every muscle went rigid. Unable to draw breath, the force of it held my body immobilized. Lava filled my veins, and fire seethed beneath my skin. His eyes never left me. Black spots still clouded my vision, and I reached for that oblivion, setting my will against him. A flash of surprise shaded his stoic face. Then his gaze tightened. His hands pressed harder, and the heat, impossibly, intensified. The air trapped in my lungs burst out in a long defeated cry of grief and pain as the chill of death seeped away. The shadows receded, and with terrible certainty I realized I was going to live. They would take my daughter for their fires and restore me to life in her absence, a life with the knowledge that she burned alone in the darkness within the caverns far beneath the ground. She would not be sent to her grave upon the green-blue waves of the ocean, wreathed in flowers and lanterns and prayers from her kin standing ashore. She would be alone. Beyond my reach. Forever.
He spoke then, as if he could hear my tormented thoughts. The impassive expression on his face never changed, but his voice was gentle.
“She will not be alone, island daughter. In time all things return to the soil of Aeden.”