Today I’m happy to welcome Beth Hudson to Second Run Reviews. Beth started writing in third grade, but got sidelined by real life and just recently picked up her pen and started writing again. She published an illustrated chapbook, “Following Seas”, in 2008.
This fall, Beth is happy to announce the release of her fantasy novel, Etched in Fire, which is being publish by Alban Lake Publishing. And today, Beth is sharing an excerpt of Etched in Fire with the fans of Second Run Reviews. Enjoy!
The Esch Invasion
Excerpted from Etched in Fire
by Beth Hudson
As they stood there, a strange noise rose, barely audible, into the air. Maelen stopped and listened, trying to attune herself to catch anything she could hear. Gradually the sound spread; a commingling of wails and shouts that was truly alarming. She pushed through the curtains to see Tachett, Gannet, and Ciniad looking warily at the street through narrowly opened shutters.“What is it?” Maelen asked. Gannet started visibly, and the shutter he was holding opened wider. Now Maelen could hear it more clearly. Someone was running down the street, calling out, though she could not understand the words. Behind the voice, a surge of sound swelled into multiple cries of fear or pain. Maelen wanted to stop her ears; she guessed what the sounds meant. She felt as if she were reading an old story, instead of living amid a losing battle. None of this could possibly be real.
“What is it?” Shay asked, her voice quavering.
Tachett slammed and latched his shutter. He turned to Shay. “That was a runner from the guard. The city is lost.”
Even though she had expected it, Maelen felt her heart lurch against her ribs. Her ears buzzed. She swayed, and felt Norel’s hands catch her shoulders to steady her. She cast a thankful glance backward.
Shay began to weep; Keth darted over to his mother and knelt down beside her. “It will be all right, Mother. We’ll get through this.”
“We will,” Tachett declared, certainty in his voice. Maelen wondered if he really meant it, or whether he was simply reassuring his wife. She walked slowly over to one of the chairs and dropped into it, leaning forward onto her knees and breathing carefully. The back of her throat ached, but she was determined not to follow Shay’s example.
Gannet turned away from the window. “Maelen, listen carefully. We are in an occupied city now, and I don’t know what will happen, but it most certainly means that we will be dealing with some esch. Don’t call attention to yourself. Don’t challenge them. And don’t forget that you are our son.”
Maelen bobbed her head up and down, feeling as if her neck were leagues away from her eyes. She opened her mouth to answer.
That was when the feeling of despair began. At first, it was small, a nauseous sensation in Maelen’s midriff, but it grew quickly. Hope was meaningless, only a consolation for children. A sense of dread knotted inside Maelen’s chest, and pressed on her heart.
Nothing made sense. As they sat in the house, shuttered, locked, and yet unsafe, the world was darkening around them. Maelen’s comfortable life warped around her like an aging boat, sinking her into deep, relentless waters. She shivered, and air rasped through her dry throat.
Shay’s sobbing took on a note of desperation. Maelen covered her ears, bowed her head and squeezed her eyes shut. She wanted to burrow into her mother’s lap as she had done when she was small, but knew that such an action would be useless. The light seemed to drain from the room like blood from a wound.
“Gods!” Ciniad hissed. “What is that? I’ve never felt anything like it!”
“I think I know,” Tachett said hoarsely. “Demonfear.”
Maelen felt like the world had stopped breathing. She had only heard of demonfear as a distant story, told by her godparents, or whispered by the children to frighten the each other in the night. What she knew was that the very presence of demons had the power to horrify, and even kill with terror. If the demon ward were destroyed, Kaelennar was at the mercy not only of esch but of the evils allied with them. It was well known that the esch king was in league with demons and other terrible things.
“No!” Shay said weakly, and buried her face in her hands. Keth stirred as if from a trance, and wrapped her in his arms.
A flare of anger ignited in Maelen. She lifted her head and opened her eyes, lowering her hands slowly to her lap. It did not make her feel less hopeless, but she would not sink to Shay’s level and meet her fate with tears. She looked at Ciniad, whose face was resolute. Then she shifted her gaze to Gannet, who was breathing deeply and evenly as if gathering himself for battle. Their example would guide her.
None of them slept well that night, though Maelen was tortured by no dreams of blood and fire. At mid-morning on the following day, they began to hear yells, crashes, and an occasional scream. Shay folded herself up in a chair, no longer weeping, but staring into the air as if looking into calamity. The noises grew louder, and Maelen realized the clamor was working its way up the street. She looked to her mother for guidance, but Ciniad had whipped her head around and was staring at the door.
Soon, the sound of booted feet joined the commotion outside. Then someone shouted and pounded on the door. Before any of them could even move, the door swung violently open to reveal several esch soldiers dressed in stained but clearly functional armor. Maelen’s heart began a painful staccato beat.
“Open in the name of King Llyrach!” said the first esch in the door. The irrelevant thought flitted through Maelen’s head that it was a little late for that command. Her thoughts refused to light on any subject for long. She watched, as if from a high place above her head, as four more esch soldiers entered.
They were huge; that was the first thing Maelen noticed. Standing a good head taller than Norel, and bulky with hard, planed muscle, they seemed as invulnerable as solid rock. Their grey, pitted skin smelled of an unpleasant mixture of sweat, dirt, a musky body odor, and the metallic bite of blood. Maelen had heard the esch described, but their overwhelming presence was something she could never have imagined.
The foremost esch showed a set of very sharp teeth, and said in a thick, strange accent, “I want the names and count of everyone who lives in this house.” He quickly moved to Tachett and walked straight into him, knocking him off-balance. Tachett staggered, then steadied himself, though he stepped backward.
“I am Tachett Chapman,” he said in a voice braver than Maelen thought she could have managed. “With me is my wife and two sons and my brother’s family.”
As Tachett gave the names, including Maelen as Leni, four other esch fanned out; three of these moved well into the room. Maelen could now see that the fifth soldier, who was also the largest, carried a large, leatherbound book, in which he marked with a short quill. She stared; it had not occurred to her that any creatures so barbaric could also read and write. She hugged her arms around herself tightly, afraid that they would see through her boy’s disguise. She had never before experienced such profound helplessness.
“Two men, two women, and three boys,” the spokesman said. His gaze slid to Ciniad, where she sat erect and motionless. “You are now under the rule of Prince Thwlcwr and the guidance of King Llyrach,” he said, speaking quickly as if from a script. “The rules are these: you will obey the army and any present or future commands we give you; you will keep to your house unless you are on approved business; and your goods and weapons are ours. Tomorrow, at noon, all of you are to present yourselves in the palace square, where Prince Thwlcwr will tell you what to expect from his rule.”
So much confusion passed through Maelen’s thoughts that she felt almost dizzy. She knew Llyrach was the esch king, but who was Thwlcwr? And where was the source of the demonfear? It was clearly not in the presence of these esch, no matter how repulsive they were.
The esch leader moved toward Tachett aggressively. “Tell me where you keep any weapons, and what you have in this house that is of value.”
Tachett nodded stiffly. “There is a small chest of money in the back east room, and some jewelry also.” Shay made a muffled sound, then clapped her hand over her mouth. Tachett ignored her. “We have no weapons, unless you count kitchen knives.”
From the kitchen area, one of the soldiers held up an eating knife, and sniggered, calling out something in his own tongue.
“Take it,” said the leader. “And anything else sharp.” The other nodded, and started to open each of the cupboards in turn. At first Maelen thought he was simply looking for knives. Then he began to pull things out and throw them on the floor, laughing as dishes and containers smashed onto the planking. Maelen was appalled. She could see why they would want goods and weapons, but this was simple malice, and had no cause. She had heard that the esch were a terrible people, but this brought that realization sharply home.
Two of the other soldiers went through the back doorway, tearing the curtains as they passed. Maelen heard the sounds of more things shattering, and winced.
The leader turned from Tachett, and looked at the rest of them, his gaze clearly intended to intimidate. He leered when he looked at Ciniad. “What is that around your neck?” he asked her.
“Nothing valuable,” she said in a quiet voice.
The leader swung his entire bulk around and moved toward her faster than Maelen would have thought his frame would allow. He grabbed Ciniad, and yanked her out of her seat. “Let me see!”
Before Ciniad could even react, he seized the chain around her throat and wrenched it so hard that it snapped, leaving Maelen’s mother with welts on both sides of her neck. Ciniad made an involuntary sound of pain, then clamped her lips shut. The esch examined her pendant, then sneered.
“You’re right. It’s nothing valuable.” Still holding Ciniad with one arm, he dropped the necklace onto the floor directly in front of her. Then he stepped on the pendant, grinding it into the floor with a booted heel. Maelen wanted to cry herself, but instead she watched her mother’s face, guessing how much the lack of expression must be causing her. If Ciniad could bear the destruction of her husband’s love gift, then so could Maelen.
Then the esch soldier pulled one arm of Ciniad’s dress down and grabbed one of her breasts. Gannet, Tachett, Norel and Keth all surged upward, as if a common tide had lifted them. Maelen rose to her feet a moment later, not sure if her parents’ injunction against action counted under the circumstances. She was not about to let her mother come to harm.
“Sit down!” the leader said.
Maelen was not sure what might have happened if the two soldiers in the back had not reappeared at that moment. They held several items: knives, jewelry, a silver goblet, and a clinking bag full of what Maelen guessed were coins. The leader took his hands from Ciniad’s breast and turned to look at what they carried. Swiftly shrugging her dress back up over her shoulder, Ciniad dodged back into the corner of the room and stood stiffly and warily.
The fourth soldier said something short and sharp in his own tongue. The leader looked around the room, then nodded. Without another word, the five of them exited through the front door, one of them kicking it hard as they left.
As the door swung shut, Maelen breathed a sigh of deep relief, which was echoed by everyone else in the room. Gannet hastened over to Ciniad, and put his arm around her shoulders. She leaned into his embrace, still stone-faced and rigid.
“Are you all right?” Gannet asked softly. Ciniad nodded in answer, but did not speak.
Shay burst into tears. Maelen was almost not inclined to fault her; she herself felt much the same, though pride kept her back stiff and her eyes dry.
Slowly, Ciniad walked forward and picked her pendant up from the floor. Maelen could see that it was severely smashed. One half of the rock crystal was completely shattered, and cracks radiated from its center in a star pattern through to the far edge. Part of the intricate ironwork was twisted and mashed, though some three quarters still held its delicate shape. Ciniad touched it gently, running the broken chain through her fingers.
“We’ll get it fixed,” Gannet told her. His tone was strained.
“I don’t think you can fix it.” Ciniad sounded as if she were speaking of a broken shoelace. Maelen knew her mother well enough to realize that her lack of expression meant Ciniad was very upset indeed, and trying to hide it from her husband.
“Mother,” Keth said to Shay, “we’re all right. None of us got hurt. Norel and I and Father are still here, and so are the Saltbearers.”
Shay sniffled, pulled out a handkerchief, and wiped her face. Surprisingly, she appeared to be trying to pull herself together. Maelen’s own eyes felt dry and hot. She was proud of her mother, who had not flinched in the face of esch brutality.
“I know,” Shay said, her voice raw. “You three are my real treasures. It’s just – ” She swallowed. “It’s not even losing the things, it’s how they acted. As if it were some vicious joke.”
To Maelen, it sounded like an apt comparison; the casual violence of the soldiers was terrifying in its callous dismissal of their worth. She felt an unexpected sympathy for Shay. Glancing at the kitchen, she noted the shambles, and scowled. “I’ll clean up,” she said, and headed across the room.
What truly bothered Maelen was that the esch soldiers had also gone through the stored food, had taken all of the meat and onions, and trampled many of the other vegetables and herbs. She rescued as much as she could manage, brushing out dirt and slivers of pottery. Some of it was unappealing but edible; Maelen was not sure how much they would need to ration before the king retook Kaelennar.
“Thank you,” Tachett told him. He turned to Gannet. “You will probably want to check on your own things. Ciniad, are you all right?”
“As well as anyone else in this city today,” she said softly. “Yes, Tachett. I think, in fact, that I am very lucky.”