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Secrets from the embers

Chapter 1 - They came wearing red.

By Kit TomlinsonPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 13 min read

There weren’t always dragons in the valley. Once the land was dotted with sleepy towns and quiet forests. The mountain top and its out stretching valleys were a sturdy, comforting presence. But now, every dawn the earth trembled as the great beasts awoke and the days were filled with screeching and the harsh sting of smoke.

Only my town remained, and it was thanks to the position of the low-lying plane in which it was located. Though dragons possessed terrifying gifts and immeasurable strength, they were however bound to the magnetic currents of the land. An ancient and mysterious power pulsed through the mountain, travelling through the ridges of the valleys like blood through veins. The dragons soared above this invisible map, connected to this network of intricate energy.

Grellentor, my town, was overcrowded with survivors whose villages had turned to ash. Even though famine, sickness and a harsh winter had thinned the numbers a little, every day was still a game of survival. Animals had long fled the forests, the rivers sustained little life from ash alkalinity and crops were failing due to acidic rain. In these two years I had watched my mother’s hair become completely white and deep sad grooves etch into my father’s face. Our mudbrick cottage had once been full of my little brother’s boundless laughter and vibrant energy, but we had to watch that slowly fade as hunger stole his chubby cheeks and cheery smile. He grew so weak that when a wave of pox swept through Grellentor, we lost him. I thought the grief would kill them and in a way it had. My mother and father barely spoke anymore, and they moved through the house like lost and hollow ghosts.

On days when I had managed to scavenge or steal enough food for my family, I would go to my secret spot - a huge smooth boulder in the middle of a nearby stream. It was always perfectly warmed by the sun and its gentle curve helped to stretch out my aching and stiff back. It was the only relief I felt in my day. The white noise of the trickling stream, the rustle of the spindly reeds and firm embrace of the warm boulder, allowed me to feel human, if only for a moment. I had only shown this spot to one other person, Celeste. She and I had been friends since we were tiny babies on our mothers’ laps. We had grown up together, we used to dream about leaving boring old Grellentor and exploring the city of Kalanzea atop the mountain. Those free and innocent days now felt like a distant fever dream.

Today was a day like no other and I did not realize that I had begun drifting off on that warm rock when I heard a splash in the stream. I bolted up right and whipped around to see Celeste smiling.

“You scared the crap out of me!’ I exhaled, feeling my heart gradually return to a steady rhythm.

“You’re such a skittish cat these days, Lua” she said, reaching up to climb the boulder.

I pulled her up and we both lay back and looked at the grey swirling sky above.

“I bought you something” she said and reached into her tattered dress pocket. She handed me a piece of dried apple.

“Where in all the five valleys did you get this?!” I asked, barely getting the words out as my mouth watered at the site of it.

“It’s my father’s birthday today” she said “I had stored some in a clay urn underground, when things first started getting bad. Past me, knew that future me would not want to arrive on any occasion empty handed.’ She gave a laugh that was laced with a trace of sadness.

That was Celeste. Even in the most dark and desperate of situations, she wanted to make people happy.

“Thankyou” I said and nestled my head closer to her. We looked up at the sky in silence while I savoured the sweetness of the apple.

“Mmmm… it reminds me off the autumn festival’ I said, melting into memories of the past.

‘Yesss,’ she agreed, her eyes closed, travelling back in time with me. ‘Cinnamon sticks and star anise infusing into wine on a stove”

“Crunchy amber leaves on the ground… Aunt Marianne’s apple pie’ I added.

“Oh, you’re Aunty made the best apple pie ever!” Celeste smiled and her eyes looked distant as if she were back there, eating a slice by the fireside.

“Oh, and remember making the Luna lanterns? They were so-”, I was cut off by a horrifying screech from a dragon in the distance. We were brought sharply back, and I realized the small piece of apple had completely dissolved in my mouth.

‘We should probably head back before it gets too cold’ Celeste said.

I nodded and stretched before sliding down the rock. The sun was setting and the haze in the sky turned everything a deep orange. We had nearly reached the edge of the village when Celeste stepped in front of me, blocking my path. She grabbed my hands in hers and looked at me with her big blue, earnest eyes.

‘We should still go to Kalanzea’ she said in one rushed breath.

I chuckled and stepped to walk past her, but she held me in place, her thin hands gripping tighter.

“I’m serious Lua, we should go” there was no trace of humour on her face.

“Are you fevered with ash sickness?’ I asked, “people LEAVE the mountain to find safety, not venture into it!”

She was silent for a moment before she said, ‘We studied the same maps in school did we not?’

‘…yes?’ I asked, wondering if she really was crazy.

“So, you would know that the nearest city to the east is five thousand miles away through unchartered territory… but to the west – lays Kalanzea. Two hundred miles to the mountain top.’

‘Two hundred miles through dragon infested territory! You have better chances of surviving a journey through the five thousand miles of eastern wildlands!’ I replied exasperated.

‘So, you never watch them? When you lay on the rock?’ she asked.

‘What?’ I replied even more confused.

‘When I lay on that rock, I watch the flight patterns of the dragons in the distance. There is this one area to the north of the valleys where the ridges widen and the gap between flight path channels is further apart. It seems like if you were to walk directly in the middle their flames wouldn’t reach you and you could-’

‘you’re absolutely insane’ I said snatching my wrist away ‘There is no way you could do that. It is a death wish.’

‘Wasting away in this broken town is a death wish!” she yelled. She actually yelled. It was the most emotion I had seen on her gentle drawn face in years.

‘Do you ever wonder what happened there? What caused those monstrous beasts to erupt from the mountain and haunt our lives?’

‘Of course, I wonder Celeste, but I’m not going to kill myself trying to find out’ I asserted.

Celeste’s cheeks burned red, and she harshly brushed her blonde curls from her face. ‘We are killing ourselves, Lua. By staying in this god forsaken town’ And with that she turned and stalked off down the dirt path toward her cottage .

I weaved my way through town, shifting pass the pleading beggars in the narrow alleyways. I wasn’t sure if I was imagining it, but the air seemed denser with smoke than usual, and I felt my throat scratch in response. It was probably a westerly breeze pulling the smoke down the mountain and pooling in the plains below, I thought.

I made it back home before the light completely disappeared. I stepped through the threshold of my own damp cottage, the un-stoked fire cast looming shadows against the stone walls. I sighed as I crept to my cot across the room, my mother and father were asleep on their bed under the south facing window, their faces drawn even in sleep.

I hooked my hands behind my knees to warm my fingers, curling my body into a tight ball. I replayed our conversation over and over in my head. My mind pausing each time on Celeste’s expression. Anger, sadness, hope, grief.. so much grief, all captured in that one flickering raw expression. I did not realize how deeply she was affected. She had always kept our conversations light and trivial. But I could see that my dear friend was breaking, and it made my heart ache.

Celeste’s optimism had not been limited to daydreaming about peaceful lands and dragon-less skies, but of carefully thought-out plans. I didn’t realize that those long moments spent in silence she was studying the dragons. I always avoided looking at them. Their gleaming wingspans were enough to sink my stomach.

But she was preaching an impossible mission. She had always been a big dreamer. When we were young, her inventive mind had been magnetising. She always created the best role plays and adventure fuelled games for us to engage in. I loved her for it, and I loved that part of her still, but I could not let it be the end of her. She was a thread of light in this smoky darkness.

‘Trek to Kalanzea, sheesh’ I murmured to myself as I felt sleep begin to envelop me.

Behind my closed eyes I saw a city, shimmering like lights upon water, full of music, smells, mystery, and knowledge. Then I was drawn under into sleep.

A Blood curdling scream jolted me upright, I threw my blanket back, rushing to my parent’s bedside. The sound of barked orders and screams filling the night air.

“What’s going on!?’ my voice thick with sleep and panic.

My mother’s eyes were wide with fear as she clutched her blankets to her chest. My father shook his head in confusion beginning to stand. I ran to the window and saw the horror of burning homes illuminating the village.

‘Fire! Everything is burning!” I gasped reaching for my coat. My mother made a strangled noise.

‘We need to go now!’

It was then that the sound of horses hooves approaching the cottage filtered through my panicked sleep-fogged brain.

‘They are coming’ my father murmured. We locked terrified eyes

‘Quick through the window!’ I whirled and began struggling with the lock.

A loud heavy knock rattled the door frame.

‘Pledge yourselves to the flame of life and worship the true gods or burn by them!’ a bone chilling voice bellowed.

My heart was beating so fast I thought it might break through my chest. I silently fumbled the window latch open. I urged my mother and father closer with my gaze, their wild eyes stared back, their bodies unmoving.

‘Quickly!’ I mouthed.

I lunged grabbing my mother’s wrists to pull her out of her terrified stupor.

‘Ma please!’ I begged, fear breaking my voice.

‘Cleansing your soul by the holy flame it is!’ screeched the voice and I heard the crackle as fire caught our thatched roof. A scream escaped my throat as terror completely took over my body. I ran to my father’s side

“Dad please’ I was sobbing now.

He grabbed my hands in his ‘Lua, go!’ The roof was fully alight with flames, the small cottage filling with thick smoke.

‘What will await us when we are caught will be worse than death’ he whispered.

‘No!’ tears from terror and the smoke filled my eyes. I began to speak again, fighting against the choking smoke when a loud crack sounded. A roof beam came crashing down. I screamed; fire surrounding me. I shouted for my parents; I could hear my mother’s screams. The flames were everywhere licking closer. The heat scorched my skin, I needed to breath, my screams came out as hoarse whispers. I stumbled to the window and threw myself out of it.

A huge whoosh of heat blew over me as I lay gasping for air, the entire house became enveloped in flames.

‘Noooo!’ I screamed reaching out a shaky hand toward the flames.

My ears rang with a high-pitched tone. I was completely helpless. My whole body breaking with agony.

I was still screaming when a hand from behind me covered my mouth and dragged me into the bushes. I thrashed against the firm grip, wild like a trapped feral beast.

Celeste’s whisper cut through my panic.

‘Lua, shoosh, Lua, Lua, you have to calm down, you have to be quiet.’

I stopped screaming and slumped into her arm, crying horrific silent tears.

‘I’m so sorry’ she whispered holding me tighter.

I rolled over out of her grip and began retching horrible black bile. Over and over. My body violently shaking.

‘I’m so sorry Lua’ Celeste said again, holding back my hair.

When I finally stopped, she placed her hands on my chest, trying to still the shaking and steady my breathing.

‘I don’t know what is happening, they are gathering everyone into Astrix square’ she said, flames reflecting in her eyes as she looked over my shoulder.

‘They took my father along with almost everyone else.’ She whispered, her eyes darting, searching for danger.

‘They are spewing some Dragon religion, like fevered mad men. We need to move. Now!’ she began pulling me to my feet. I didn’t think I could. I didn’t think I could move from this spot. How could I bare breathing another breath? My chest ached with grief and smoke and fear.

‘Lua I’m so sorry. But we need to know what’s happening. You can wait here if you like. Stay hidden. I will come back for you.’

The thought of being alone had me shaking my head vigorously.

‘No, I’m coming’ I said trying to steady the sobs in my throat. She placed a gentle hand on my cheek.

‘Ok, we need to stay in the tree line. We can edge up the hill to get a better view of Astrix square’ she said, steading me as I stood.

‘Can you run?’

I nodded in agreeance and followed her. Quick steps from tree to tree. Placing silent bare feet on the soft leaf litter. As we edged around the village, I saw the whole town, a patchwork of flames and a cacophony of screams.

We came into view of the square and saw people in red cloaks, riding black horses circling around the survivors, herding them into the centre.

In front of the crowd stood a man. He was hunched and his red hood covered his eyes, exposing only a thin grey mouth. Even with his crooked stature he still appeared strong.

‘Tonight, I give you all a choice!’ he bellowed.

‘Join us in serving the bearers of the flames! Within their fire the truth is found!’

The other horsemen roared in agreeance.

‘If you cannot see the light, then we will return your lowly souls to the underworld!’

A confused and frightened murmur reverberated through the crowd. A man in the crowd of villagers pushed to the front and yelled ‘You mean for us to serve the dragons? They have destroyed everything!”

‘They have only taken what is rightfully theirs. They are breathing into life a new world!’ the leader hissed at him.

‘This is madness!’ The villager replied, ‘Leave us alone you insane murderers!’

Even from up on the hill I could see a smile begin to form on the leader’s thin mouth.

‘What is your name?’ he asked the villager, cocking his head with enquiry.

The man responded by spitting at his feet.

The leader chuckled and stepped closer.

‘This man has chosen to live blinded and in darkness!’ he roared to the crowd. In one swift movement he unsheathed a dagger and swiped the villagers throat open.

The crowd screamed and chaos broke out. As people tried to escape the other horsemen began to slaughter them, left and right.

Celeste and I gasped. I began to race towards them, but she pulled me back.

‘We have to do something!’ I demanded.

‘Lua, there is nothing we can do’

‘Your father is there!’ I yelled at her desperately.

She pointed to a group of people on their knees, heads lowered. I saw her father’s silvery hair. One by one they were yanked onto their feet by two cloaked horsemen and thrown into a wagon.

‘My father is smart. He will not speak; he will not fight.’ Celeste said her tone even. ‘But I need to be even smarter and figure out a way to save him from them.’

I stared at her, panic running through me.

‘What do we do?!’ I urged.

‘We need to get supplies’ she said. I could sense that her mind was already three paces ahead, the look in her eyes was distant. She was already somewhere I had not figured out yet.

I nodded and followed behind her as she headed for the nearest intact house.

We found a sack and began to throw in any scraps of food we could find. Some of the items I grabbed I was not even sure were edible. We raided two more houses and filled our sack until we could just carry them, before running back to the tree line.

‘What now?’ I asked turning to her.

The cloaked men were loading more villagers into wagons behind me and I could still hear all the terrified screams and confused pleading.

She looked deeply into my eyes, her gaze strong and steadying before she turned her face towards that northern valley of the mountain.

I took a shaky breath and gave her a nod.

I could feel something shattering deep within in us as we turned our backs to our village, nothing but embers and ash. One foot in front of the other, deeper into the forest.

We heard a low and deep roar of a dragon ripple through the valley.

It reverberated through my aching chest and for a moment I could have sworn that it almost sounded mournful.


About the Creator

Kit Tomlinson

If I am not physically in an enchanted forest, then I am there mentally. Always.

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Reader insights

Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

Top insights

  1. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  2. On-point and relevant

    Writing reflected the title & theme

  3. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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Comments (1)

  • J. Anne Riten2 years ago

    I really like the concept! Your descriptive flow at the beginning was really well done, and I'd love to see those thoughts weave through the chapter more.

Kit TomlinsonWritten by Kit Tomlinson

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