Worlds Unseen, p.1Rachel Starr Thomson
Book 1 of the Seventh World Trilogy
by Rachel Starr Thomson
Copyright 2010 by Rachel Starr Thomson
Published 2010 by Little Dozen Press
All rights reserved
Cover painting by Deborah Thomson
Cover design by Mercy Hope
Ebook formatting by Carolyn Currey, www.independentpublishingsolutions.com
Visit www.rachelstarrthomson.com and www.worldsunseen.com.
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by Rachel Starr Thomson
The house was full of the little noises of life. A bright fire crackled in the hearth, and over it the contents of a small iron pot hissed and bubbled. Mary’s rocking chair creaked as her deft fingers wove a world in cross-stitch, visions of sunset and starlight. A mourning dove, tucked away in a nest in the corner of the stone window ledge, cooed softly.
Mary did not look up when a shadow fell across the picture in her hand. Through her eyelashes she saw a tall, dark-cloaked form with a gleaming knife in its hand. For a tenth of a second Mary’s fingers faltered; she regained herself, and continued to sew. She bent her head closer to the cross-stitch and her chestnut hair fell over her shoulder.
“So you’ve come,” she said, her voice perfectly level.
The cloaked figure’s voice dripped with venom. “You expected me?”
The creak of the rocking chair filled the momentary silence, and the fire crackled. The pot was near to boiling over.
“I knew you would keep your promise,” Mary said. “Though you have been much longer than I expected. And even now you are waiting.”
The tall figure sneered. “Where is your fool of a husband?”
Mary said faintly, “He is coming.”
Outside, the cooing of the dove had ceased. A man was whistling as he came up the path to the cottage. His tune died out, choked by sudden fear, and his footsteps hastened to an urgent pace.
The cloaked figure raised the knife in the air. Mary lifted her head suddenly, and her blue eyes pierced through the black cloak to the woman beneath it, momentarily halting the hate-filled advance.
“Take care, woman,” Mary said, “lest the power you seek to control someday overpower you.”
The door of the house opened with the striking of wood against stone as John Davies rushed into the danger he sensed all around him.
The pot boiled over.
* * *
The cloaked woman hurried down the hill. She turned to look at the cottage once more, watching as the flames reduced even the stones to ash. She laughed wildly, her laughter swirling into the smoke-filled wind. The green hills around seemed to mourn as the heat and smoke blurred their ancient sides into wavering, uncertain mirages. High in the hills, a hawk cried.
The woman turned and strode along the path that led to the town. In the distance she heard a sheepdog barking, and her eyes narrowed as she pictured the small figure who was even now making her way to the ruined house.
It would be so easy to kill her, too. The woman’s fingers clenched the handle of the knife, slippery with blood, that was now hidden beneath the black folds of her cloak. But no. The master would be angry. The girl was nothing and he did not want needless killing. It was not wise—it was better to let the ignorant live in fear. So he said.
She spat. Master Skraetock was a fool. True, at times she sounded just like him, speaking of wisdom for the sake of the future. Only now, with the stench of the kill hidden under her cloak and the wind carrying ashes up to the heavens, with the power of the Covenant Flame running wild in her veins, she did not care about wisdom.
She could hear the girl’s footsteps on the hard earth, as the dog barked around her heels. Her fingers gripped the knife tighter… and relaxed. The rush of the Covenant Flame was beginning to die. She felt it slip away. She wished to kill if only to bring it back; but wisdom came with the going of it. She would obey. The girl would live.
* * *
A Shadowed Past
The war is over, and the King has gone from our land. Gone with him are the faithful children of men, and now only I am left! I alone remain to sing the Song of the Burning Light over this bloodstained ground. The Earth Brethren are gone; I know not where. It seems they are vanquished who once made all men tremble with fear before the strength of wolf and wind and water, of growing thing and of fire. They are gone, and never more shall I hear their battle cries all around me. My heart quakes to think of them conquered, yet how could it be otherwise? Their power was shattered in grief when the King’s heart was pierced by the treachery of his beloved ones. Surely the anguish of his heart-breaking must shake this world so that nothing can stand untouched.
And the Shearim, the merry ones, the Fairest of Creation: they too are gone. They whom no one could kill have destroyed themselves that the children of men might be protected from their own wickedness. With the life-force which once danced in their eyes the Shearim have woven a Veil, a barrier between the Blackness and men. Yet my heart tells me that even the Veil cannot last forever. One day it will grow weak and tear, and the Shearim will pass out of the world forever. How the stars weep for us!
But now my blood grows hot within me and visions pass before my eyes, and I, the Poet, I, the Prophet, will speak! The Blackness will not reign victorious always. In the end the hearts of men will yearn again for their King, and he shall come! Hear, all you heavens. Listen to me, all you earth! Rejoice, for he will come again!
Yet quietly will it begin. His reign shall not be taken up first on the Throne of Men, but in their Hearts: in the hearts of small things, of insignificant things, of forgotten things. In their hearts shall be kindled the Love of the Ages, and they shall sing the Song of the Burning Light!
And he shall come.
* * *
The air was just beginning to take on a metallic chill when Maggie passed the Orphan House.
Its tall wrought iron gates frowned down on her and striped her face with shadows where they blocked the orange light of the windows. Creepers, brown with the coming of winter, wound their way up the red, soot-covered brick walls. The windows were barred and tightly shut. One, on the ground floor, had been cranked open, though bars crossed it. Maggie could hear the clanging and shouts coming from that window, and though she was too far away to feel it, she could imagine the oppressive heat drifting out into the evening. It was the kitchen, a room made hellish by the constant activity of twenty ovens. In the winter the window would be kept shut to keep the icy wind from blowing in and the expensive heat from drifting out. But not yet.
Maggie picked up her pace instinctively, as she always did before the glaring visage of the House. Had she been caught outside those walls as a child she would have been locked in the cupboard, or worse. Now, there was no one to shout her name, no one to threaten her and slap her and tell her not to try running away again. It had been years since the Orphan House had held her prisoner, yet the tyranny of the place still held some sway over her soul. So she walked faster.
From the kitchen came the harsh shrieking of a matron in a foul mood, and in the yard a dog sent up a dismal howl. The cold seemed to cling to Maggie, seeping through her heavy brown overcoat. She pulled it closer to her and shivered. It was a cold evening in an autumn that had thus far been unusually warm. A dragon-headed iron train screamed over a bridge in the distance. An elderly man with a decorated sword hanging from his belt nodded to her as he sauntered past.
She turned from the view of the yellow house and ascended the creaking steps of her own home, the last on the bookshelf street, a slim, two-story brick house with peeling blue shutters at the windows. Maggie sighed when she thought of the hours she and Patricia had put into painting them just last summer, while Mrs. Cook, the owner of the house, puttered around in the kitchen baking cookies to feed “her girls” when they finished.
Maggie twisted the brass doorknob and pushed the door open. It protested loudly, and Maggie made a mental note to oil the hinges soon. If Pat had been home, surely the door would have been attended to earlier. She always noticed such things.
A bright fire was burning cheerfully in the fireplace, casting its glow over the small room. A painting of a river in the country hung over the mantle, which was covered in little glass figurines, newly dusted and glowing proudly in the firelight. On the wall, tucked in the shadows of the fireplace bricks, a slim sword hung on a hook. Pat had insisted on leaving it with them—how she expected either Maggie or Mrs. Cook to use it was a mystery.
Maggie collapsed into a high-backed stuffed chair near the fire without taking off her coat or boots. She closed her eyes and let all of her muscles relax, while the heat folded around her like a cocoon.
A loud, cheery voice interrupted her near slumber.
“Well, then,” Eva Cook exclaimed, her ample form filling the doorway to the kitchen and blocking most of the light from that part of the house. “You’re home. Did you get the parcel?”
Maggie sighed with the effort of pulling her body back into action. She reached a red-gloved hand inside her coat and pulled out a small packet wrapped in brown paper. She started to get up, but Mrs. Cook stopped her.
“No, dear,” she said, “Don’t you move. I know a tired body when I see one. Was it a really long walk?”
Maggie nodded. “Not too long, really, but I am tired. I always want to go to sleep after being out in the cold.”
“Winter’s coming after all,” Mrs. Cook commented, “though I had hoped we would cheat it this year.” She disappeared into the kitchen for a moment, and the light from the homey room came streaming back. She reappeared bearing a saucer and tea cup, steaming with hot tea.
“Here, dear,” Mrs. Cook said. “Drink this.”
Maggie took the cup and saucer and let the steam from the bittersweet drink warm her face. She took a sip and leaned back again with a smile.
“Thank you,” she said. “But you don’t need to fuss over me. You’d think I’d been gone as long as Pat.”
Mrs. Cook didn’t seem to notice Maggie’s teasing tone. “I’m just taking care of you, Maggie Sheffield. You know as well as I do that you’re not the strongest bird in the sky. One of these days you’ll catch pneumonia, and I’ll fuss then. How’s your cold?”
Maggie chuckled. “Much better, with your tea steaming all the congestion out of me. It’s been years since I was really sick. You needn’t worry.”
“I’m not worried,” Mrs. Cook said with a sniff. She caught sight of Maggie grinning at her and said, “Not about the likes of you.”
Maggie dipped her little finger in her tea, stirring it idly. “Something’s missing from the tea,” she said.
“Linlae leaf,” Mrs. Cook said. “I ran out and was too busy to cut more.”
Maggie set her tea aside and pushed herself out of her chair before Mrs. Cook could protest. “I’ll get it,” she said. She walked lightly to her guardian’s side and stood on her tiptoes to kiss the tall old woman’s cheek on her way out.
Mrs. Cook watched her march out the front door with a smile. She was so different from the old days, this girl. Eva could remember the days when even a hint of sharpness in her voice would send the little orphan into a fit of shivering, anxious fear. Maggie had been so small and skinny then, her auburn hair tangled and dirty.
“You don’t want that one,” the man from the Orphan House had said. “She’s no good for nothin’—too weak, and ugly besides.”
Mrs. Cook had seen through the dirt and grime to a child who desperately needed freedom. Margaret Sheffield was precisely the child she wanted.
She remembered clearly the first few days, when Maggie learned what it was like to be clean and well-fed and loved. She had accepted everything warily, as though she expected to wake up any moment and find the dream turned into a nightmare. Her greatest fear in those days had been that Patricia Black, herself an orphan, might prove to be an enemy. Pat, in true form, had taken the scared little thing under her wing.
Pat had cried the day that Maggie was sent off to Cryneth to live with John and Mary Davies, old friends of the Cooks’. Eva had cried, too, but she knew it was best. The mountains and Mary’s songs were what Maggie needed to heal.
Even now, Mrs. Cook had to fight back tears at the thought of the way those years in Cryneth had ended. She remembered how Maggie had appeared on her back doorstep, half dead and nearly unrecognizable. She remembered how Pat had run for the doctor at the Orphan House. She remembered the doctor’s words.
“She were never a well one. I don’t see how she’s made it this far, with all that smoke in her lungs. If I was you, Mrs. Cook, I’d be looking for a nice burial plot.”
But Maggie had recovered. Her hands and arms were forever scarred from the burns. She never told anyone exactly what had happened, although they found out later that John and Mary had been killed in a fire. Maggie had been seen digging through the still-smoldering ashes for some remnant of the happiest days of her life. The villagers had tried to help her but she had run away.
Somehow, Maggie had found happiness again. Somehow, she had put it behind her. And every time Mrs. Cook saw the young woman smile, she thanked the stars for the power that had brought Maggie all the way back to her doorstep in Londren, and home.
* * *
The linlae tree grew between the house and the iron fence. It hugged the wall like a vine, its silvery bark and the last of its light green leaves beautiful against the soot-smudged brick. Maggie smiled as she reached up into the thin branches, pulling them down so that twigs and leaves brushed her face and baptized her with the scent of life. The leaves rustled as she searched for a good bunch to clip. The warm autumn had been good to the hardy little tree; it was still green in the face of coming winter. Maggie started to hum to herself when a sound made its way to her ears. She frowned, releasing the branches so that they jerked away and quivered above her.
There it was again. Something was moving in the dark shadows behind the house. Maggie peered down the alley, but she could see nothing. A cat, she thought. It must be a cat.
She shook off the uneasy feeling that had settled on her and finished clipping a branch. As she took a step toward home, something in the alley clattered. She turned, her heart leaping in her throat.
What was back there?
She turned to leave when the sound of a deep, racking cough sent shivers up her spine. That was no cat.
Maggie turned back around and walked quickly, deliberately, toward the safety of the front door. Pat, she thought, would have been in the alley by now, forcing a full confession from whoever was skulking in the shadows. Pity the fellow caught by her fierce questions. But Maggie was not Pat, and Pat was far away in Cryneth. She kept walking.
“Maggie Sheffield?” It was a trembling voice, old, and strangely familiar. It was deep with illness.
Maggie turned slowly to see a small, hunched old man step out from the shadows. He stoo
“Maggie?” he asked again. He took a step forward and Maggie realized that he was about to fall. She dropped the leafy twigs in her hand and rushed forward, grabbing the old man’s arm to steady him. He looked up at her with weary, gray eyes.
“Thank ye, Maggie,” he said.
She knew who he was. The relief of recognition flooded her. Those gray eyes had regarded her kindly when she was a child in the Orphan House, and once they had watched her from the safety of the little house in Cryneth. In the Orphan House he had brought presents for the children once or twice a year—mittens and scarves, pieces of candy, sometimes even dolls for the girls and trains for the boys. She hadn’t known why he had come to the Davies’ in Cryneth. Evidently they were old friends. She had never known his full name—the children called him Old Dan.
She certainly had no idea what he was doing here now, hiding in an alley behind her home.
He began to cough again, and nearly doubled over with the effort. Maggie clutched at him, wishing she could somehow transfer strength from her body into his. He sounded as if he might never stop coughing. But the fit did come to an end, and he leaned against her, exhausted. She was alarmed at how thin and light he was.
“Come,” she said, guiding him. “I live here, just a few more steps. We’ll take good care of you.”
Maggie helped him up the steps and opened the door. The hinges squeaked out an announcement of her return.
Mrs. Cook appeared from the kitchen, already talking. “I was beginning to wonder if you’d run away out there. Heavens, Maggie, what took you so—” she stopped in mid-sentence.
“Heavens,” she breathed.
Maggie helped the weak old man into the high-backed chair near the fire. He nearly fell into it. Maggie removed his threadbare gloves and began rubbing his fingers between her own hands. She wanted to say something, but his eyes were closed and so she kept her mouth shut. When his hands felt a bit warmer, she took the muddy boots from his feet and set them near the fire to dry while she wrapped him in a blanket snatched from the arms of Mrs. Cook’s rocking chair.
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