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The Mark of Mir

Chapter 1: Voices

By Heidi UnruhPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 24 min read

There weren’t always dragons in the Valley.

The voice startled Anamir out of a deep and cloudless sleep. He jerked upright, instinctively reaching for his long knife on the wooden chair beside his bed. He sat listening a long while, until the silence of the night and the heaviness of his eyelids convinced him he had been dreaming.

Returning his knife to its place, Anamir lay back down, pulling the blanket over his chest.

There weren’t always dragons in the Valley.

Anamir jumped to his feet, knife in hand. He put his head out the window, searching for the source of the voice, but it seemed to have poured directly into his head. It was insistent, penetrating, reverberating. Even after his heart stopped pounding, echoes of the voice lapped into his mind like the waves curling along the Loch.

“Hello?” Anamir called softly.

Anamir could hear his father’s rumbling snores in the next room. Gardis was an exceptionally light sleeper, so his undisturbed sleep meant that only Anamir had heard the voice.

None of this made sense. Everyone knew the Valley belonged to the dragons, from time beyond telling. No one went near the Valley, except those with the Mark of Fire. Anamir preferred not even to visit the place in his imagination.

Anamir settled into the chair, intending to keep watch, but soon enough his head drooped and he slumped back into sleep.

His dream was vivid but utterly silent. He was riding Windmane and her hooves made no noise as she galloped through the marshy grasses. He bent low and urged her on, in a frenzied race to reach Loch Enrin. He did not know why.

He dug his heels into her flank and discovered that he was now riding a cloud, floating higher and higher above the rippling waters of the lake. Anamir felt a moment of peace. Then suddenly the cloud dissipated, and he hurtled downward, crashing through the surface of the water. He yelped with the pain of the impact but made not a sound.

He sank and continued sinking despite his attempts to swim upward. He felt viscous hands pulling him down. His lungs began to burn, his mind grew clouded, and in some corner of his consciousness this is how he knew this was no ordinary dream.

Since childhood Anamir had been plagued by nightmares—thrust into imminent danger from being drowned, burned alive, choking, falling off a cliff, ripped apart by flying monsters. But it was the terror, the waiting, that was the substance of the dream, not the calamity itself. The actual arrival of doom always triggered him awake.

Now he kept sinking, his panic growing with the unbearable pressure. And still he did not wake.

Suddenly the water began to churn around him. An underwater funnel began to form with Anamir at the center, forcing him upward in a foaming turbulence. He broke through the surface of the lake and felt the whirling wet air stinging his face, yet still not making a sound.

Then a fierce burst of wind caught him up entirely out of the water and batted him to the far side of the lake, rushing headlong toward the sheer rise of Mount Skryer. He flung his arms over his head and screamed noiselessly, expecting to be bashed against the cliff. But at the last moment the rock face split open, and he tumbled into a dark passageway. Anamir turned to see the rocky exit grate shut, leaving him to feel his way in total darkness.

He shuffled forward, tracing his hand on the rough rock walls. Then his right foot stepped out into empty space. Trying to regain his balance, he pitched downward and found himself sliding along a stone chute. Jagged rocks caught at his clothing and ripped his skin.

Anamir hit the bottom and tumbled awkwardly to a stop. He lay sprawled for a moment on a pile of grit and rocks, collecting himself. He felt achy and bruised all over. In his waking life, Anamir would have laid there for a time, nursing his wounds, then tried to find a way home. Yet in his dream-state, he felt that mysterious sense of purpose urging him on. He dragged himself to his feet.

After a bit of wandering he could feel that he had entered a large open space. The air was still and heavy and smelled of ancient dust. It was pitch black, but Anamir sensed a presence. It unnerved him.

He drew his knife out of its scabbard, as his mouth formed soundless words, “Who’s there?”

Then he caught a movement close by, a rippling in the darkness. He turned toward the source. He thought he caught a yellow gleam, as of unblinking eyes, but it could have been a trick of the dark.

Anamir knew somehow to follow the being as it led him across the wide cavern, finding his way more by intuition than sight, his toes sore from stubbing. Finally he thought he could see a smudge of grey ahead, growing lighter with each step forward. It was a circle of light from a narrow passageway in the roof of the cavern, which sloped quite low at that point. Anamir hurried to catch up to his guide. But when he arrived at the aperture, all he could see was a tail disappearing upward.

Anamir peered up into the opening in the rock. The vertical stone tunnel was mysteriously empty. Unlike the passageway down, this chute was smooth, except for a spiral of handholds cut into the rock. With difficulty, Anamir pulled himself up by the first handhold and began the arduous climb. At 17 his build was slight, more lithe than muscular. He generally preferred daydreaming to physical exertion.

At last he sensed he was drawing nearer to the top, though the light was still dim. Then his head bumped up against something. It felt to his fingertips like a wooden block, covering all but a sliver of the hole. It was heavy but movable, and he braced himself to shove it aside from the passageway.

Pushing through the open hole, Anamir was immediately blinded by the light of a bright summer day. Blinking, Anamir clambered out to flop onto what felt like grass, and lay still for a moment, taking in the new setting. Trees in full leaf, emerald lawn bejeweled with flowers, their scent carried on a slight breeze. A bee buzzing silently by, landing on a cluster of lilacs. Snow sparkling on the high peaks of green-clad mountains.

Anamir slowly stood, and in doing so discovered three things.

First, while emerging into this place, Anamir had become her female-self. She looked rather the same from the outside, in her loose-fitting shift, but she knew that the change had taken place. She was Mirana. This was her natural Right, of course, so she was not alarmed, but it struck her as odd that she had been unaware of making the shift. Sometimes she shifted in her dreams, but even in the dreamworld it was because she had willed it.

Second, Mirana noticed that the sense of urgency had fallen away. Perhaps this was because she had achieved her purpose, or because the place drove it from her, or because it belonged only to Anamir. She felt—not peace, but a quiescent, drowsy contentment.

It was because of this that her next observation had not been the first. Raising her eyes, she finally noticed a twist of smoke in the near horizon, where two hills met. Sparks danced through the ribbon of grey smoke that snaked higher and higher, piercing the soft summer clouds. She could see that the trees on the hills were blackened and bent. She could not see the source of the smoke, but she did not need to see. She knew it poured from a charred cauldron bigger than any human, hung from massive iron stakes driven deep into the earth, fired from below with inextinguishable flame.

She was on the wrong side of the cauldron. She was in the Valley.

Before her next heartbeat her knife was in her hand and she dove for the opening to the passageway. Looking wildly around as she crawled backward into the tunnel, she was relieved that she seemed to be alone and unnoticed. She tugged at the wooden cover to pull it back into place over her head.

Suddenly the board was knocked violently aside. The entrance was filled with one raging amber eye. A screeching roar assaulted her ears. After the long silence the explosion of sound felt like a physical blow. Mirana clutched her head and cried out, but her cry was lost in the furious waves of sound.

Abruptly the roar ended. Mirana began scrambling downward.

But then came the flames. Streaming, searing pinchers of fire landed on her hair, her clothing, her flesh. This time she could hear her own screams. There was a breath's pause, then another stream of flames hit her face. As her eyes and ears were consumed, a terrible voice came riding on the blaze. She did not so much hear the words as was branded by them.

Dragons have always been here in this Valley. Will always be here.

The blistering voice engulfed her as every part of her turned to ash:

Dragons in the Valley forever …

Mirana woke and discovered she had fallen off the chair. She was laying half on the bed, half on the floor. Her legs and her head were at odd angles, and the knife she had been holding was digging into her arm. Blood was trickling into her elbow. But she was alive, and unburned.

She lay there for a long time, gathering her thoughts, reviewing her dream. Remembering things was not usually her strong suit, as Gardis was always reminding her. But this time she could recount every detail of her dream, even the horrors of its final moments. Especially those moments.

Finally she collected all her limbs, dragged herself out of bed, and went to find a drink of water.

Gardis was already at his forge, so she was alone in the cottage. She uncovered the water barrel, drew from it and drank deeply. She soaked a cloth strip and wiped the blood from her arm. Then she filled a jug and carried it out to the smithy, where Gardis was beating the dents out of a metal tub.

“Good morning, Father,” Mirana said. She held the water out to Gardis as he set aside his hammer and smiled down warmly at her. Like most Earth-Marked, Gardis was broad and tall. Their heights were more than two spans apart. He started to drink, then looked more closely at her face.

“What is it, Mir? You look troubled.”

Mir was what Gardis had affectionately called her after adopting her as a small child. Perhaps Gardis had a premonition about the Right that would later manifest, when Anamir had discovered he could also be Mirana. “Mir” suited for both.

Mirana wanted to tell him about the dream, to seek his comfort and his wisdom. She took a deep breath. “Father, last night …”

The gate to the smithy swung open. A short, portly man ambled through while calling out in a nasally voice, “Gardis, I need you to come fix my wagon wheels.”

The man reached the chair by the forge and sat down with a soft grunt. “It was Smet again, of course. Watching some little bird way off in the trees and he can’t notice the sinkhole in the road right in front of him. Ever since he got his far-sight it’s been impossible to keep his mind on his work.” He leaned toward Gardis and said, “You know those Air-Marked—so flighty!” He snorted at his own joke, while Gardis’ expression remained impassive.

“So, will you come with me?” the man wheedled. “The milk will go bad if I can’t get it to market.”

Gardis began gathering up the necessary tools, casting a compassionate look at Mirana. He spoke to her quietly. “We will talk later, after my work and your errands. Peace be with you this day.”

Mirana felt peace was far from her this day. Re-entering the house, she prepared the baskets for market day. The dream still filled her mind but she was determined to overwrite it with the most mundane acts possible.

She went to their small stable and petted Windmane. “Did you know you were in my dream?” she asked, putting on the saddle. “Did you dream it too, that you turned into a cloud?” She sometimes wondered what it would be like to have the Right of knowing the minds of animals. But then she would be a Fire-Marked. Mirana shuddered.

She attached the small cart and mounted Windmane. She had pivoted from thoughts of fire to the prosaic reminder that she and Gardis needed more wood, as the season of snow was approaching. Of the four seasons—Sun, Rain, Snow and Ice—Snow was her favorite.

Their cottage was on the edge of the village, closest to the woods and the road to the market. As Windmane clopped slowly down the path, she found herself comparing the trees around her to the trees in the Valley. She marveled how that deadly place could also be so beautiful—if indeed her dream was a reliable guide. No one had ever been into the Valley and returned to describe it.

Mirana was so lost in these musings she didn’t notice Balmac coming alongside, until he floated directly into her path and waved in her face.

“You okay?”

Mirana shook her head, trying to fling off the dream. “I had a nightmare last night,” she admitted.

“Did we all die horrible deaths?”

“Nope, just me.” She looked over at her friend, who was floating beside her at eye level. His hair was tied back in a ponytail, showing the Mark of the Air behind his left ear. “Heading to the market?” she asked.

“Buying new brushes.” He tried to sound nonchalant, but Mirana could tell he was bursting with importance. Balmac was only about a year older than her, but ever since being inducted into his profession on his eighteenth birthday, he had acted five years her senior. It was annoying and amusing.

Balmac fell silent then, twisting his coin pouch around in his hands. Mirana groaned inwardly, remembering that Balmac tended to be awkward around her female-self. It hadn’t always been that way. The pair had been inseparable all through childhood, when Balmac had first known his friend only as Anamir. When the friends had manifested their Rights at age ten, they had each accepted the other’s new abilities as a matter of course. In the last few cycles, however, Balmac had started acting differently when Mirana was present. It was annoying and alarming.

It was just easier to stick with being Anamir around Balmac. With a sigh Mirana changed to her male-self. When he next spoke to Balmac it was with a slightly deeper voice. “What will you be painting today?”

Balmac glanced over and looked relieved. “The village watching post. Well, the top half.” This time he made no attempt to hide his pride.

“They'll actually let you near something that important?” Anamir teased.

“They have to. The fireproofing has worn off in big patches on the top. And Semar says he’s too old to climb up there … so I’m the obvious choice.” Balmac puffed upward to the height of the treetops and turned a few rolls in the air, just to make his point.

Anamir remembered the sensation of riding the cloud in his dream. He wondered if floating gave Balmac the same feeling of peace.

Balmac returned to eye level, drifting beside Anamir. “So, tell me about your dream.”

Balmac frequently provided an audience for Anamir's nightmares. So he started, “I dreamed I was riding—” then stopped abruptly. He had been so absorbed and disturbed by the dream that he had forgotten about hearing the voice. How could he have forgotten? He started over.

"First, I was sound asleep, and a voice spoke to me.” He recounted the night’s events to his friend, who listened without interrupting.

When Anamir fell silent, Balmac finally commented. “Dragons in the Valley. That’s hardly news.” He reached out and put a hand on Anamir’s shoulder. “I’m glad it was only a dream.”

Was it? Anamir couldn’t help thinking.

He nudged Windmane to pick up the pace as they approached the large clearing, grateful for the distraction of the clamor and bustle of the sprawling marketplace. He secured Windmane, picked up the woven baskets, and set out with Balmac to conduct their business.

They began with the fire-protection stall, because Balmac’s errand clearly took precedence. Anamir also suspected he liked the idea of having the prestigious brushes in hand as they strolled the marketplace. True, the only fire their village had witnessed in Balmac's lifetime was when old Hambor fell asleep making soup, but maintaining watching posts was a matter of tradition and village pride.

At the cheese stall, Anamir made his purchase, then waited for Balmac to browse and negotiate. Balmac was very particular about his cheeses.

A large feline brushed against his leg. “I’ve seen you wandering around,” Anamir said to the cat. “Do you belong to anyone?” He leaned over to stroke its ginger fur.

Just then the cat leapt up onto his shoulder, making Anamir yelp, and from there launched itself toward the stall. To Anamir's astonishment, the cat hung beside him in midair, claws extended. Then suddenly a boy shimmered out of the air, trying to dislodge the cat that had a grip on his arm. Anamir jumped back to avoid his flailing and bumped a cheese bin, knocking several rounds onto the dusty ground.

The cat stretched into the form of a girl he guessed to be ten or eleven, with red-gold hair and bright, round eyes. She was still holding onto the boy’s arm. She tossed her hair back and Anamir caught sight of her Water-Mark, identical to his own. “Caught you,” she crowed. “I win.”

“Correction. I caught you both.” A tall, broad-shouldered man strode up and caught both youths by the arm—not cruelly, but firmly. Anamir couldn’t see his Mark but from the man’s size and gravitas, he guessed he was an Earth, like Gardis.

The man tapped the boy on the shoulder and pointed. The boy promptly picked up the fallen cheese rounds and handed them back to the stall’s owner, saying sheepishly, “I’m sorry we caused you trouble.”

The man prodded again, and the girl said to Anamir, in a meek and mewly voice, “I’m sorry I jumped on you. I hope I didn’t scratch you.”

Anamir grinned at her. “No, I’m fine.”

He kept watching as the man bent low to admonish the two at their eye level. “Be mindful, and remember what you have been taught.” He chanted, gesturing the children to join in: “We have the Right to use our abilities, but not to cause harm to others thereby.”

Anamir recited the words along with them in his mind, remembering Gardis’ stern but gentle teaching.

Balmac came up beside Anamir then. They watched as the two children walked away sedately—at first. Once their guardian’s attention turned elsewhere, the girl shifted into her cat-self and scampered away, and the boy faded into invisibility, kicking up dust as he ran after her.

“Invisibility,” Balmac sighed. “Now that’s a Right I wouldn’t have minded getting.”

“I’m sure everyone else wouldn’t mind seeing less of you, too,” Anamir teased. “But then, who would fix the top of the watching post?”

The rain started just as they finished their errands. Anamir and Balmac threw the hoods up on their jackets and hurried back to Windmane. By the time they tied the waterproof cover down over their goods on the cart, the shower had become a deluge. The thick trees offered some protection on their journey home, but the pounding rain on the leaves drowned out any conversation.

Anamir thought about the children and wondered if Balmac really did wish for a different ability as his Right. Anamir remembered Balmac’s tenth birthday, when he had set off for the Hold of the Air on Mount Skryer with his mother, who was also Air-Marked. He had looked so uncharacteristically solemn. Anamir had waited anxiously, hoping he would not return home disappointed. Not all who were Marked at birth manifested a special ability as their Right. Most came into a more general aptitude—for growing things, for example; or making things, or fixing things, or dreaming up ideas, or leading people.

When Balmac had finally returned from his pilgrimage, what Anamir first noticed was the huge grin on his friend’s face. It had taken him a moment to realize Balmac’s feet were not touching the ground.

The only memory Anamir cherished more was his own tenth birthday, making his pilgrimage to the Water Hold at Loch Enrin, and coming home to Gardis as Mirana. Being a shifter had never lost its delight. Anamir felt more curiosity than envy about the array of Rights that others could manifest.

A child born with the Mark of the Air could become a floater like Balmac, or a leaper, or turn invisible, or speed like the wind, or walk through walls, or have far-sight. A few could truly fly. Most Water-Marked who manifested abilities were shifters—changing their age or appearance, or having an animal-self. Anamir had heard of Water-Marked who could breathe underwater and swim like fish.

All the Earth-Marked had only a single Right: they never grew old. They were ageless, but not deathless; it was said that whenever an infant appeared with this Mark, it meant that somewhere another Earth-Marked had been killed.

The price the Earth-Marked paid for their longevity was their inability to procreate. Instead, they were the natural caretakers of orphaned or abandoned children—such as Anamir. Gardis, like most Earth-Marked, had raised a long series of foundlings. Anamir's siblings spanned many generations.

Those born with the Mark of Fire were watched with suspicion and anxiety until their tenth birthday, when they made pilgrimage to the great cauldron at the mouth of the Valley. If a child returned from the Fire Hold with the ability to cast a brilliant light, or revive after injury, or turn into smoke, or bend metal as if it were clay, their family breathed a sigh of relief. There was special celebration for the Fire-Marked who manifested as healers, curing sickness with a touch.

But a few returned home as destroyers. They could reach out with a finger—or just with their mind—and sear any target with white-hot fire. Or whatever they touched became withered, deformed, decayed. Some Fire-Marked were able to read minds; the rare ones, Aramir had heard it whispered, could bend others’ minds to their will.

It was not surprising that among the infants left on the doorsteps of the Earth-Marked, most bore the Mark of Fire. Some parents could not endure raising a child whose Right might be to destroy. The Earth-Marked took them in and loved them all the same.

Once, Mirana had asked Gardis if he had adopted any Fire-Marked children. “Yes,” was all he would answer. But that one word was soaked with so much sadness that Mirana questioned him no further.

Those few who came into an ability to inflict great damage had to wrestle with the paradox of “having the Right to use these abilities, but not to cause harm to others thereby.” It was uncommon, but those unable or unwilling to live by this code eventually suffered banishment. According to legend, the worst Fire-Marked offenders were banished to the Valley, to live and die with the dragons.

This thought jolted Anamir back to his dream. Had he truly seen the Valley, on the mysterious far side of the Fire Hold? He puzzled again over the words of the voice. Surely this message bore some connection with his dream.

There weren’t always dragons in the Valley.

Anamir abruptly realized he was not just remembering the voice. He was hearing it anew. The voice slid down the raindrops and soaked through his mind. He glanced over at Balmac, floating hunched under his jacket, unhearing.

The voice spoke again.

There was a time … There was a time when dragons …

The words came waveringly, as if with great effort, or across a great distance.

Dragons … We must tell you … The words were becoming faint.

Anamir was nearing the point where the wood road emptied into the village. He could see the watching post quivering through the heavy rain. He spurred on Windmane, eager for home and Gardis’ counsel.

Then new words burst into his mind, like clear water through a dam.

Mir! Come to us!

Anamir thought he would explode with all his questions. But before he could think which to ask first, another voice tore through the air.

“It is forbidden for you to speak to Mir!”

This voice was different—raspy, blunt, almost a snarl. And it seemed close. Anamir pulled up Windmane in surprise.

Balmac’s head jerked up. “Is that the voice from last night? I heard it too!”

Anamir began to answer when a shaft of lightning flashed into a nearby tree. A large branch broke off and fell across the road right in front of them, crackling with flames. Anamir wrapped his arms around Windmane’s neck as the horse reared and squealed.

The flash and blaze illuminated a figure hovering in the twilight air. Its face was so pale it seemed to glow. It had a human form and features, yet somehow seemed inhuman. Its gold tunic snapped in the wind. Raindrops sizzled and steamed around it, then dwindled to a sprinkle, as if the creature were putting out the rain.

You have impeded our message. Aramir heard the voice ring with defiance. Rather, he overheard it, as he sensed it was directed to the being in gold.

Mir must know. Mir will come to us, and we will speak.

“It is forbidden,” the creature growled.

You cannot stop us.

“Perhaps so,” the pale creature rasped in reply. “But I can stop Mir.”

The creature flew upward and raised one arm. Lighting flashed again, crashing into the unprotected roof of the watching post. Instantly the structure alit with flames. Balmac cried out as if he himself had been struck.

The villagers poured out into the square, calling to one another in alarm. Someone spotted the being in the sky and pointed.

Through the tangled flames of the tree limb blocking their path, Anamir could see Gardis step out from his smithy, tongs still in hand. Gardis too looked upward, but instead of shock and fear, his glance registered recognition.

“You have no business here,” Gardis called up to the figure. His voice was firm. “Leave us. Go home.”

There was an appalling screech. A moment later Aramir realized the creature was laughing.

“Go home? You of all people know I have no home!” It lowered itself to almost eye level with Gardis.

Aramir jumped off Windmere and tried to make his way around the burning branch, which was igniting the brush on either side of the road. He could no longer see the creature, but he heard its next words.

“And now—neither do you!”

Aramir knew that the blindingly brilliant bolt that followed had found their cottage. He heard the explosion of splintering wood and Gardis’ sharp cry of pain. Trapped on the wrong side of the branch, Aramir too cried out in frustration and fear.

Suddenly he felt himself elevating. Balmac had caught his arms and was struggling to lift him.

“I don’t know how high I can go carrying you,” Balmac grunted. “You’re so much heavier than a barrel of paint.”

Airborne, Aramir bent his legs into a squatting position but still felt his ankles singe as they passed over the scorching barrier. They landed heavily and stamped out the sparks in their boots.

Straightening up, Mirana realized that she had shifted without meaning to, just as she had in her dream. But that mattered nothing now. She ran toward Gardis, who lay sprawled on the ground, his face a smear of blood.

The creature stood guard over the fire raging through their cottage. Shaking, Mirana knelt, ripped off her sleeve and used it to gently dab the blood from Gardis’ head. A gash sliced through his eyes and the tip of his ear. Mirana guessed the heated tongs had raked across his face when the blast knocked him down.

She turned to Balmac, who was staring horrified at Gardis and the fire. “We need the healer. Find Alma!” He swallowed, nodded and sped off.

“You can’t help him,” the creature mocked. “I’m only waiting for him to be conscious when I strike you down. And then I will kill him too.”

Mirana looked up at the creature. Now she could see that it had small, golden leathery wings. “You are one of the Banished,” she said.

It said nothing, but its eyes glowed.


About the Creator

Heidi Unruh

My passion is "coming alongside people and their good ideas, so great work can shine!" I do this as a developmental editor, writing coach, and author of 6 nonfiction books. Creating fiction, poetry and plays is pure joy!

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Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

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Comments (2)

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  • jay sylvester2 years ago

    Ooo, intriguing! Would love to read more from this story :)

  • Jyme Pride2 years ago

    This is one of my favorite! You are quite the storyteller! We shall expect much more from you. AND DON'T FORGET IT! You have worlds to create and many wonderful stories to tell. Thank you for taking us along this journey. I can't wait to read MORE!

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