New Writing


Jack Theodoulou

The world was darkening around Mira as she brought in the last of the peaches. Across the river, the pale city stood solid and still like a watchman in the night. Mira’s gaze lingered on it for a moment, an emptiness filling her, before she stepped into the cottage and shut the door against the cold.

Inside, the girl was fast asleep, a book about a prince and a thief open on the bed. Mira shivered as a cold breeze drifted into the room. She moved to shut the open window but stopped just short of it and stared out into the darkness. What could be taking him so long? she thought, watching the dusky horizon. Suddenly, the image of a pale naked woman wrapped around her husband’s body like a snake sprang up in her mind. He was kissing her, biting her, running his hands through her hair. Mira felt a nauseous pang in her stomach, drove the thought away and slammed the window shut.

Supper was a simple stew of venison and carrots, as good as they could afford. The girl, Keely, woke, ate, and went back to sleep, and after Mira had finished washing up, she lit a candle for her husband and slid into bed beside her daughter. She stayed up for a time, stroking the girl’s gold-brown hair and listening to the soft sweetness of her breathing. She thought of her husband, and her sister, and the work that she would need to do for the orchard tomorrow, but as her mind wandered, sleep took her unawares.

In her dream, Mira saw shadows. Tall, dark shadows, dancing wildly around a great fire that roared and spit. Somehow the floor was cold, but she could not see it. All she saw were the shadows, rising and falling around her. Suddenly she felt herself being pulled towards the fire. I love you with all my heart, one of the shadows whispered hotly as it yanked at her arm. What happened to us? hissed another, tearing her hair. Together they dragged her closer and closer to the red warmth, until she felt the heat of the flames on her face. Then they pushed her, and she went sprawling in. Her mouth caught the bitter taste of ashes. When she looked up, she saw a shadowy blade poised above the fire like a cutthroat’s dagger. Then her skin began to burn, and she opened her mouth to scream.

Mira woke with a start. Cold sweat dappled her skin, and her breasts heaved as she tried to catch her breath. Save for the sliver of moonlight that crept beneath the crack in her door, the room was as dark as her dream. The candle had burned out, and thin wisps of pale smoke were rising from the melted wax. Gared was nowhere to be seen.

Where has that man gone? Mira slipped quickly from the bed, soft embers of frustration kindling inside her. Did he think she was stupid? She had half a mind to take Bell and ride off to meet him herself. The Neremarkets shut early in the Spring, he had told her. I’ll have to get the unguent from Scarhold, so I might be late. But hadn’t Old Wexley come back to the village with Nerevar vintages on Tuesday? And he’d returned well after dark. No, something was off. Either Gared was lying, or…

Mira paused. Is that… She went to the window and pressed her ear against the icy glass. There was a steady rumbling sound humming softly in the distance. Her feet were bare against the cold hard-packed earth, and she felt the almost imperceptible vibration of hoof-beats on the dirt. Finally, she thought, her irritation giving way to relief. But why is he so late? Taking care not to break the flimsy wooden latch, she pushed open the window and stared out into the night again. The pale light of the moon spilled coolly into the cottage just as before… but now there was something else.

What is that? It looked like a row of distant stars, trapped on the horizon. She squinted, but sleep blurred her vision and she could scarcely see past the peach tree out front. Drawing a thick woollen robe around her body, she pushed open the door and stepped out into the twilight. The air outside was brisk and sharp, and a cold wind snapped hungrily at her gown. The cold stung her eyes, and when she rubbed them and squinted to see what lay on the horizon, a fear much darker and more insidious than her husband’s infidelity began to creep up inside her.

There, in the distance, at the edge of the pitch-dark world, a line of orange light flickered wildly, stretching as far across as she could see. For a moment, she did not know what it was, but as the wall of light grew larger and larger and finally dispersed into a countless number of individual flames, comprehension struck her like a bolt of lightning.

Mira broke away at once, panic rising in her chest. I’m still dreaming, she told herself, willing it to be true. I will fall and scream, and I will wake up beside Keely again. Unbidden, another image of her husband entered her mind, but this one was much worse. Here, his body was broken and bloody and lay trampled in the dirt of Nerevar Square. Mira’s stomach roiled violently, and she tried her best to banish the thought before a sickness took her.

In her periphery, another amber glow flickered to life. Mira whirled, startled, and saw her neighbour Paddy stumble onto his porch with a torch blazing wildly in his hand. An instant later, a second light came alive, then a third. Before long, the whole village seemed to be rising from its slumber, as if dawn had just broken over the world. But it’s not dawn, Mira thought madly, it’s midnight. I must be asleep. Surely this is all still a part of that dreadful nightmare, and when it’s over I’ll wake, and Gared will be lying by my side.

But when she shut her eyes and opened them again, the only thing that changed was the stillness of the night. Three figures burst from a cottage and ran towards the docks, stumbling blindly in the darkness. Moments later, another eight evacuated the Churlish Cherry, waving torches about in a drunken stupor. The silence that had filled the air only seconds before was ripped away as they screamed and shouted, and madness swept over the night like a hot black tide.

Frozen with shock, Mira’s gaze drifted slowly, dream-like, back to the flickering figures on the horizon, advancing with blinding speed. When they neared the village, a small group of them broke off from the pack, galloped towards the temple and launched their torches into the air. Trailing pennons of fire fell through the darkness as the torches struck the building. When the walls lit up with their hungry red flames, Mira’s heart sank.

Run, she told herself as she tore her mind from the paralyzing horror of the fiery scene. Suddenly she whirled round and went into the cottage, scooping Keely up into her arms. The girl stirred, disoriented, and Mira snapped her fingers in the girl’s face and tried her best to sign the words “We have to go” while her arms were cradled around Keely like a baby. Mira didn’t wait to see if the girl had understood. Instead she ran back outside, her heart pounding in her chest, and scanned the village with maddened, bloodshot eyes.

Chaos filled the night. All around her, the villagers were shouting and running in every direction, streaming from their homes like ants from a burning hill. Turning, Mira saw that the riders were closer now – no more than a few hundred feet away – setting the village alight with their torches as they thundered towards her.

Before she’d had time to think of anything wiser, her feet were already moving towards the big stone bridge with that tall pale city on the other side. I she asked herself, knowing full well that all reason had fled her in her panic. I. It didn’t matter. She had made her choice, and if she stopped now Keely would die.

The din swelled around her, a violent cacophony of screams, roaring fire and the rolling thunder of horses. The world was a blur of black and grey, but as Mira shot a look to her right, she thought she spied a rider drawing near. How? she thought wildly as she pumped her legs. Have they caught up already?

In the distance, she saw the silhouette of the great stone bridge arched menacingly over the quiet torrent of the river below. Her heart was thumping wildly, the cold night air driving daggers into her lungs, but she forced herself to press on. Come on, she thought as her daughter squirmed, terrified, in her arms. Almost there.

Behind, Mira heard a whoosh of flame, and fought the urge to turn. Keely started crying, writhing painfully in her mother’s arms. “Hush now,” Mira breathed, her whole body aflame. “Mama will take care of you.” Her legs burned, but adrenaline kept her going. All she could think about was Keely, and the pale city in the distance. I’m gonna make it, she thought as she neared the stone bridge. I’m gonna

Her mind went blank.

Mira stumbled forward, and Keely flew from her arms. There was a sudden tightness in her chest, as if her whole body had been sucked into her ribs. She looked down slowly, and saw a bright red spearhead jutting out of her stomach. A choked whimper escaped her mouth, and the world seemed to flash the searing colour of pain. Above the muted din and the ringing in her ears, she could scarcely hear her daughter scream.

It was wrong, all wrong. This was the part of the dream where she would wake and find Gared holding her tight against the cold. But the pain was too real, and Gared was nowhere to be found. At least I still can’t shout for help, she thought madly, as she sucked at the midnight air like a fish.

Clarity returned to her with another brilliant flash, and she collapsed to the ground in a spasm as the pain tore through her. She rolled onto her back and saw an impossibly tall figure looking down on her like a judge, a bloody spear in hand. His face was scarred and burned, and his eyes were dark with a cold pity.

He wheeled his huge black destrier around and raised the spear into the air.

“Tonight, we cross the River!” he shouted, commanding the sky’s attention. “Let us see what spoils it hides from us!”

Then he drove the spear into her heart, and darkness swallowed the world.