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Fiction Fantasy Suspense

I was awakened without warning in the dark predawn. 

It wasn’t the familiar slow ascent from Morpheus’ embrace, but rather a sharp jolt, similar to that of being torn by force from the depths of a nightmare. I was used to recollecting my dreams with vivid clarity, especially in the few seconds after waking up, but this time there were no leftover images from the Dreamscape. Only the unbroken darkness of deep sleep preceded my suddenly conscious state. 

Heart fluttering uneasily in my chest, my senses scrambled to life, reaching out and grasping futilely into the black of my room. But for the utter darkness, no foreign sound, presence, or feeling existed in my small quarters; there was nothing unusual at all. Even the earthy scent of cool stone walls and the musty odour of the old straw on my cot was the same as usual. Why then did my stomach feel as if it was curling in on itself, veering close to but not quite breaching the territory of nausea?

Something was wrong; I knew it with frightening certainty, but I didn’t know why I knew. 

A sense of urgency overcame me then; a desperation to make sense of what I was feeling. There must have been some reason for my involuntary wakefulness and the sense of foreboding that was petrifying in my gut. 

My thin sheet, pushed aside by shaking hands, slid from my cot and pooled on the floor with a barely audible theup. As they brushed past the material, my toes admired the combined feeling of the soft cloth, which was rapidly losing the warmth my body had woven amongst its threads, and the unforgiving cold of the damp stone of my room floor. With unidentifiable effort, similar to that of drawing breath, my feet found my slippers and shuffled inside the age-softened leather while my hands reached blindly but accurately for my lantern. 

My heart had now taken to thudding slowly, but disconcertingly heavily within its cage of bone, and I could feel the surge of blood tickle the dermis of my neck and wrists as it pulsed through my veins. 

My hands shook through the instinctive motions of lighting my lamp, but my ears were keen to the sounds that were usually part of my morning rituals.

Clink. Clink. Ting.

The metallic clink of the thin handle as it rattled against the glass globe. 

Tchk. Tchk. Tchk.

Flint and steel. 

I blew upon it, my eyes catching the red glow within the tinderbox. 

Fffssss.

The wick catching flame. 

My room melted into view as the warm light spilled forth. Shadows danced in the far recesses of the room, fleeing into the grooves of the stone floor like Filakitan thieves as I brandished my lamp, shoving its light at the corners of the room as my eyes scoured the space for any alien presence. 

Everything was as I left it; there was not much to move anyway. 

On the short wooden shelf along the far wall, my four dresses, softened from use and faded from indeterminate colours to varying degrees of grey, were folded neatly beside two calico kappes. The one for daily wear was stained a pale creamish-brown and had the stain at the end of the string, and the other was brilliantly white. I had only worn that one for The Presentation. 

Next there was the low wooden crate nestled beneath the tiny, iron-barred window, which doubled as the surface for my face cloth, wash basin and clay water pitcher as well as a storage space for my winter blanket. The little rag doll Moerva had made for me before she disappeared years ago lay in its usual position behind the water pitcher. “To keep you company when you miss me.” I hadn’t known the meaning behind those words back then. 

As I completed my inventory of my room, the peace I hoped to find at the normalcy of my surroundings was not forthcoming. 

My unease was now a mottled grey mist that had migrated from its calcified casing in my gut to linger in the cavity of my chest. The deepest of my breaths seemed too shallow to reach and expel it. I rose to my feet, feeling the worn material of my chemise whisper past my calves with the motion. After setting the lamp back on the floor beside my bed, I grasped for one of my dresses and pulled the simple garment over my head. I tied the strings that were stitched on at the back of the dress around my waist with uncharacteristically fumbling fingers, the resulting knot too tight. 

I was too anxious to redo it.

I wound my long braid around the crown of my head with similarly clumsy movements, placed my day kappe over it and tied it under my chin. 

Before I could make sense of it, I knew that I was going to hunt for the source of my inner turmoil. The intense feeling of impending doom was slowly manifesting itself physically on my body. Now, goose-pimples rose over my pale skin while my eyes and ears heated up to the point of burning. My stomach roiled towards nausea but still didn’t quite reach it and some unknown fear made my movements shifty and furtive.

It was like the Almyrian Fever all over again.

Except this time I distrusted every shadow, no matter how familiar it seemed. The handle of the lamp once again clutched in one hand like a lifeline, I pulled open the wooden door with the other and hesitated for a moment in the yawning arch that led into the hallway. My lamp made the first foray into the well-known passage, which was now almost predatory in its sudden unfamiliarity. 

A trembling foot was next.

Somehow untrusting of the centre of the hallway floor, I pushed on, past the other servants’ doors, hugging the wall as I went. I heard none of the expected sounds; no sleepy murmur here or muffled snoring there. Just the unbroken quietness I assumed was natural at that time of the morning. 

I investigated every nook of the Quarters to no avail, but I wasn’t ready to face the main floor yet. My fingers hovered, fluttering in fear over the cast iron door-pull, but I couldn’t bring myself to yank the heavy door open and traverse the border between greystone to elfwood floor. I gave up, taking an unsteady step away from the inexplicable malevolence of the door and instead turned my attention to the kitchens. 

I wasn’t used to experiencing it like this, cold and unfriendly in the muted quiet of that time before the dawn, in those hours before the birds arose to break the cloying silence with song. The welcoming aromas of hearty meals no longer lingered in the air. Instead, the stagnant scent of approaching decay that drifted from the vegetables hanging from the beams and struts of the kitchen roof was joined by that of the cold grey ashes that lined the hearth. I eased past the wooden tables that usually supported the chopping of vegetables and the pounding of dough until I was pressed against the white-washed clay and brick wall that separated the kitchen from the outside. 

There, I leaned against the comforting coolness and took a fortifying breath, pressing my ear against the wall as I strained to detect even the smallest unfamiliar sound. 

Nothing.

It was as quiet as a grave outside. 

I unlatched the door as silently as I could, even my thoughts sounding overloud. I’m not certain why, but I suffocated my lamp before I pushed the door open, grateful that it didn’t squeak. 

The inside of the manor had been cold, but outside was even more so. Without warning, the suffocating silence was broken by the fwhooosshh of a biting cold wind that swept across the vale. It brought with it the scent of snow from the white caps of the surrounding peaks, and a bone-chilling dampness that suppressed the last clinging vestiges of summer’s warmth. Something wooden creaked on the other side of the yard, and the tall grasses outside the manor’s outer walls rushed against each other. On the tail end of the wind was the familiar and usually welcome scent of petrichor. A quick glance upwards revealed a dark and overcast sky where the bluish white of the moonlight was diffused by the thinner patches of storm cloud.

What little moonlight that escaped was absorbed by the dark, hard-packed earth of the outer yard, but reflected softly off whitewashed walls, pale stone and wooden structures. Out here, where even the animals slept, I felt almost alone in my wakefulness. 

Almost.

I had yet to find evidence to the contrary, but…

It began to rain, if one could even call it that. It was more of a moderate drizzle. Even though I couldn’t hear it yet, out on the horizon, where the plains were separated by hedgerows, I could see the greyish drag of the oncoming deluge. 

I continued my investigation, treading around the perimeter with soft, hesitant steps that were powered by an indescribable something that was more powerful than my inexplicable fear. 

I rounded the corner of the manor, a looming structure that housed some eighty occupants, myself presently excluded. For a short moment, my gaze was riveted by the dense darkness of the Ackery Forest that stretched like a thick black line across the east. Seeing nothing deserving of my attention, I continued to edge my way around the building. I was startled when my surroundings flashed white, suddenly illuminated by sheet lightning before plunging back into darkness.

My heart was racing at this point, pounding in my chest like thunder.  

No. That was actual thunder, booming so heavily that even the ground under my feet trembled as if shaken by the hooves of a thousand horses. My gaze snapped back to the forest, because when the sound of thunder dissipated from the heavens, an earthen thunder remained in its wake. 

The sky was illuminated once more, but the glow was too warm to have come from lightning. 

Fire. 

A streaking orange ball soared from the black smudge of forest, which seemed to be spreading and separating. 

Another flash of lightning revealed them, tearing forth from the trees as fast as Death. I watched in horror as the orange ball grew smaller in its ascent, then larger as it careened through the sky on its descent. 

The manor was directly in its path. 

My scream died in my throat as I dove for cover, mere moments before the ball of fire crashed into stone and clay with an explosion that was so loud and so sudden I only heard it for a moment before I was sucked into another type of silence. The type where my ears rang so loudly that no other sound could penetrate. 

The blast stunned me. Pushed the air from my chest. Pushed the thoughts from my mind. 

Then there was another. It collided into the highest point of the manor, toppling the tower and sending it crashing into the roof of the level below it, no doubt killing anything in its path of flames and wood and stone. 

A third fireball slammed into the stables, and I heard the screams of the terrified horses in the aftermath.

And then the riders were upon us. 

They roared past the hedge beneath which I was hidden, cowering and soundless and in the process of being traumatized by blades and hooves and fire. When the rush faded from my ears, I heard cries and screams and roars. I saw the faces of Elen and Geiss, contorted by fear and illuminated by orange as they were dragged from the manor by men in the Fyrandrian Blacks. I spotted Rygar’s shaggy white hair, turned to clinging string by the steadily increasing rain as he fled. I wanted to cry out to him but the sleek iron spear that sailed through the air to lodge in his back killed my voice before I could scream his name. I watched, mute, as he fell to the earth, his eyes wide and unseeing and his mouth gaping. 

The Fyrandrian soldier planted a black-plated foot on his back and grasped the shaft of the spear. As he yanked the weapon from Rygar’s body, the crimson, tear-shaped Fyrandrian infantry emblem that dangled from a thin chain seemed to drip from the shoe of the spear in the same way that Rygar’s blood dripped from the spearhead. Suddenly grasping the violent meaning behind the design, I was momentarily entranced by the macabre beauty of the soldier’s lithe form, encased in wet black armour that shimmered orange from the reflected flame as he stood over my fallen friend. 

The ends of his long ash-blonde hair that escaped his plumed helmet, wet and curling from the rain, snaked down to the centre of his back. Water droplets that collected at the tips and dripped onto his black-encased torso seemed molten from the reflected flames.

He flashed the blood from the blade with one motion before turning with military precision and disappearing into the maw of the dying manor house. It was an image that I knew would stay with me until the day I died. 

I stared at the massacre from my fortress of leaves, unable to move, unable to help. Lorren, Dunny, One Arm Pete and the other guards only ever bore serious arms against poachers. Whoever escaped the flames was cut through like butter by the Fyrandrian Blacks.

I saw the white haired soldier one more time. He and the other soldiers rounded up everything that still breathed and sent them to the afterlife with clean, efficient strokes of swords or spears. The livestock were given the same implacable treatment as the humans. 

Mercy was not in attendance.

Then, black-armoured soldiers mounted inky, armoured stallions and thundered off over the plains.

It was over as quickly as it started. 

The attack could have lasted three minutes or three hours. 

The rain came in torrents then, soaking me where I still lay cowering under the hedge, the roaring flames reflected in my eyes as black plumes of smoke belched up to meet the still-dark sky.

January 07, 2022 01:04

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2 comments

Maria Avisal
04:45 Jan 13, 2022

Wonderful job with the words for sounds in this story

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Tay Mor
17:49 Jan 13, 2022

Thank you so much, Maria!! I was trying to really bring across the sounds as they occurred in my head when I thought of the scene.

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