OK. Thought I might post something that's currently undergoing a major rewrite. I started this a good five years ago and got bogged down halfway through. Managed to finish the first draft last NaNoWriMo but, having done some scriptwriting in the intervening time, the style is so dissimilar, it's like two different books and I'm going to have to redo the whole thing. But in the meantime, here are the first couple of chapters of 'The Lost Ones'.
Flames raged redly in the distance, out of control and consuming everything in their path. On the horizon, once proud towers shimmered in the incredible heat, beginning to twist and fall and the rising wind carried with it the faint sound of the screaming of horses. Long lines of broken and beaten humanity snaked slowly away from the remains of the city. The final battle had left almost all of the men dead or dying and the old, the injured and the infirm were burning along with their homes.
A young man with a shock of red hair sat on a rock staring moodily at the scene unfolding in front of him. His armour lay discarded by his side, the inscribed bronze designs now dented and obscured by dust and blood. His tall, slender frame had fooled many into thinking him a priest or a poet but there was a certain readiness of posture and regard which, to the perceptive, counselled a more cautious approach. Wiry muscles slid under olive skin as he picked up a stone and hefted it at one of the many helmets lying discarded on the battlefield. He'd ordered the bodies burned long since - more to avoid pestilence than from any deep-seated religious beliefs.
A stone whipped past his ear to strike the target he’d missed and in one smooth motion he was off the rock and spinning round, sword held ready to meet this new threat. Recognition came and he relaxed enough to lower his weapon. “My sins are heavy enough without adding fratricide to them,” he gave a wry smile then continued “and you of all people should know that a friend can kill you as easily as an enemy.”
The newcomer grimaced his agreement at this truism and moved towards his brother. Taller by a head and broader again by half no one could mistake him for anything other than he was, a warrior-king, proven in battle and confident in the depth of his power. He sat down on the makeshift seat, indicating that the other should do the same and untied a wineskin from his belt. Taking a long pull at the neck he tossed it over to his companion. “You’ve spoken to the witch, then?”
The younger man nodded. “Do you trust her?”
“I think we have to. If it hadn’t been for her we could have been here another nine years, no matter how much the Old Fox insists that he saved our necks.”
The red-haired man’s expression darkened. “I still haven’t forgotten that you two got me into this in the first place.”
His sibling frowned. “And what would you have had me do, little brother? Allow her to be bound to another and have him go all-unknowing to her marriage bed? Or do as Alexandros and spirit her away?” He extended an arm towards the fires burning in front of them, his voice tight with anger and rising with every word. “Can you love your homeland so little that you would have it razed to the ground?”
His companion’s shoulders slumped. “I know... I know. I went into this with my eyes open.” He too looked at the approaching column, close enough now that the hopeless expressions of the captives could be seen. “But it gets harder each time we do something like this. They don’t know they’re making a sacrifice, or why we burned their homes to the ground. In another fifty years they”ll be trying to do the same to us in revenge.”
He picked up his wineskin and rose. “I don’t think I can stomach any more today.” With a final glance at the burning horizon he turned and strode back to the camp. The older man made to follow his brother, then let him go with a shake of his head. In time he would accept the necessity of their actions. They had to sear out the evil, root and branch or the revenge inflicted would be terrible indeed and probably more than they could withstand. And then she would be free to do as she pleased. He set his jaw and turned to watch the slaves being herded towards him, as if by doing so he could share in their pain.
The head of the column drew level with his vantage point and began to pass by. One of the women stumbled and the nearest guard, impatient to join the victory celebrations, shoved her forwards with the butt of his spear. Weak and emaciated from years of siege where most of the food had been shared amongst those still able to fight, she stumbled again, fell to the floor and did not move.
“Mama!’ came a piercing scream from further down the line and a young girl of about eight or nine years old broke ranks and dashed forward, her long black hair streaming behind her. She ducked under the guard’s spear and knelt by the inert frame in the dust, crying quietly “Oh mama, please get up.” She managed to raise her mother’s shoulders off the ground with one malnourished arm while the other caressed the pallid face, a futile attempt to coax back a semblance of vitality. The lifeless head lolled backwards, lank curls scraping the dirt, sightless eyes accusing the man on the rock.
The contact was broken when the guard, tired of waiting, flipped the woman over with a sandalled foot and prodded the child with his spear to indicate that she should rejoin the column. When she continued to kneel by the corpse he seized a handful of her long hair, wound it around his fist and began to drag her back himself, pulling insistently. A jolting blow to the small of his back halted his progress and for an instant he thought the girl was fighting back. Then he looked down and saw the point of a sword poking out from underneath the bottom of his breastplate, shining wetly with his own blood. As his fingers plucked feebly at the blade its support was withdrawn and he crumpled, first to his knees and then over and onto his back to stare up at a sun turned blood-red by the dust and the heat from the fires. A shadow moved across his fading vision and he faced his king, lips struggling to form a question his voice no longer had the strength to ask.
The older man plunged his sword into the sand to clean the blade before sheathing it. Bending down, he gently scooped the almost catatonic child into his arms and as he straightened he cast a final, bleak look at the dying soldier. “We are put on this earth to make choices, my boy. We make the best ones we can and then live with the consequences. You made the wrong choice for the wrong reasons and this is the consequence. Live with it…if you can.” Then he turned to walk back towards his own lines and the sound of drunken celebration, to face the consequences of the choice he himself had made.
It was all too bright. Even through closed lids Kiernan could feel the glare of the electric lights, re-igniting the fire inside his skull and touching off pinpoint explosions of pain. He raised his arm to protect his eyes only to find them already swathed in bandages. A grunt escaped his lips as unease turned to panic and he scrabbled with both hands at the ties that held the material fast. He could hear running footsteps and voices coming closer but couldn’t understand what they were saying, then a pair of delicate hands closed over his and a softly accented voice murmured “don’t struggle, you’re safe.” Blind and adrift, Kiernan didn’t know why these words should calm him but they did. He felt the sharp prick of a needle in the back of his hand and drifted back down into darkness…
…and into the strangest dream. He was back on the hillside, baking in the Greek sunshine and enjoying what he’d been assured was the best view on the island. Even in his somnolent state he could feel the heat prickling on his skin and knew that he was going to burn. He cast about for shelter and time slowed as he caught sight of a tiny, one-room building with a scarred and pitted dome for a roof. An entire wall of the ancient structure had been reduced to rubble and the whole thing looked as if it was just waiting for a good enough reason to fall down. At some point a great tree had rooted high up in the structure, burrowing deep into the walls in search of life-giving moisture. Moving closer, he could see that the choking roots this gnarled and desiccated leviathan had sent forth had slowly wrung almost all the life from the walls only to hold them together just on the point of death. Curiosity building, the dream-Kiernan strolled on for a closer look. He walked once around the remaining walls trying to gauge their strength until he came full circle and hesitated before the obsolete doorway. Weighing up the possibility of being buried alive against the certainty of being burnt he gave a shrug and ducked forwards under the chest high lintel. It wasn’t as if anyone would miss him if he didn’t come back. Emma had made that perfectly clear.
It turned out to be pleasingly cool underneath the dome. The stone floor shimmered with rays of sunlight drifting lazily down through the holes in the roof and thanks to the missing wall, the building trapped none of the oppressive heat. Kiernan stripped off his shirt and let the cooling breeze play over his lean frame. Blond hair and blue eyes had their advantages but resistance to sunlight was definitely not one of them. He’d already burnt and peeled twice in the last four weeks and wasn’t about to try for a third. Reluctantly he replaced his shirt, leaving it open down the front and began to examine the flaking remains of the once brightly-coloured frescos on the walls. He paused in front of an almost intact rendition of a garden scene, a theme entirely unlike the stylised epic themes and sword-and-battle motifs that typified most of the ancient Greek art he’d seen so far. But this, this was entirely new. Painted by what could only charitably be called an indifferent artist it drew the eye nonetheless with its longing for a simpler life than could be allowed. Kiernan didn’t know why but he was convinced that this was once a real place, somewhere the unknown artist could be at peace with himself and with each deliberate brush stroke he could feel the painter’s lost soul committing to memory a place that might never be seen again. He reached across the centuries with the fingertips of one hand and slowly traced the outline of an empty swing “I hope you found your peace, my friend,” he said softly, “I wish that I could find mine.”
Kiernan remained lost in contemplation of the fresco for some time. Abruptly he became aware of a presence at his shoulder and realised that someone else had braved the hike to the summit. He inclined his head to point at the designs on the plastered walls and ventured polite conversation.
“Amazing how they last so long isn’t it?” Getting no reply he looked to see who the newcomer was and found himself still completely alone. Shrugging, he turned his attention back to the wall and felt the same presence flow back, stronger than ever and bringing with it a chill that minutes ago he would have welcomed. As the hairs at the back of his neck began to rise, Kiernan took a couple of shallow breaths, the most his bubbling, building panic would allow and turned resolutely on leaden feet to meet whatever waited head on…
In the middle of writing her report the duty nurse paused and put down her pen as bed seven started to moan in his sleep. She waited to see if he would quieten but when he began to twist uneasily she pushed back her chair. He’d already had his drip out once tonight and looked as if he was working up to another attempt. Before she could do anything more, though, an agency nurse she didn’t recognise came into the ward and waved her back down.
“I’ll deal with him, Sister. You look as if you’re swamped over there.” Returning to her notes, Sister Eidica let the patient’s mutterings fade from her hearing and submerged herself once more in her report.
…again there was nothing there. For a second Kiernan thought he’d caught a glimpse of a shadow, a faint outline of a shape in the dust and then…nothing. He exhaled heavily and forced himself to laugh, muttering, “You’re going nuts, man! First you start hearing things, then seeing things – next thing you’ll be talking to yourself and then there’s no hope left.” Still uneasy, he headed outside, noting with satisfaction that the sun was finally going down. As he crossed the floor he heard a scraping sound, then felt a jolt under his feet as a dull thud rumbled around the chamber - someone was moving about underneath the stone floor. Irritated with himself now he’d found a practical reason for his unease, Kiernan knelt and beat with the palm of his hand against the clay packed stone floor. “Hello!’ he shouted, “who’s down there?” and then waited, ear pressed to the floor for a reply.
His only answer was a shuffling sound, of feet creeping slowly away, then silence. Angry now and convinced that he was the butt of some hugely unfunny practical joke Kiernan jerked himself upright, raised his foot knee high and then slammed the heel down as hard as he could against the stone. He had a split second to reflect that this was perhaps not the wisest possible course of action to take whilst standing on a three thousand year old floor before the flagstones split and dropped him down into darkness.
The nurse bent over the side of the bed to wipe the multiplying beads of sweat from her patient’s brow, trying to keep up as his head twisted painfully from side to side. He raised his hands as if to push something away and she made a grab for the hand with the cannula in it. If it came out again, her carelessness would draw the attention of the night sister and then she’d be in big trouble. The patient seemed to calm at her touch though and when she looked down at his face she could see the tension and pain begin to recede, leaving behind a fresh and open countenance. Long-standing creases at the side of his mouth suggested an easy disposition and one quick to smile, but she could also see the faint beginnings of pale frown lines outlined against his sunburnt brow. At first she thought they'd been caused by the trauma of the last few days but then realised her mistake.
“What brought you here, I wonder?” she murmured as she ran her forefinger down the side of his face, lightly tracing the outline of one prominent cheekbone and moving down across a stubborn jawline.
“Is there a problem, nurse?” Sister Eidica’s voice, dripping with disapproval carried clearly across the ward.
“No, sister,” the nurse started guiltily. “I was just trying to keep him calm.”
“Very well. I know you’re new to us, but please remember there are proprieties to be observed here. Come to my office tomorrow before you start your shift and I’ll discuss them with you”
“Yes, sister. Sorry, sister”. The woman at the bedside nodded in what she hoped was a suitably subservient manner and busied herself in routine, first checking the flow of the drip then updating the patient’s temperature chart, all the while feeling her gaze pulled back to his face where his eyes moved rapidly under closed and abraded lids. Something was definitely going on in there.
Kiernan relived the moment in slow motion, unable to change a thing. Looking down as his foot descended he could swear the mortar between the huge slabs dissolved before he made contact with them and then his nightmare plunge began. In the fading light of dusk, he saw the lower floor just too late to brace against it and heard all to clearly the sickening snap of his ankle as it gave way and pitched him forward, slamming his head against a stone block in the middle of the cellar. He lay still for some time, fighting for consciousness and then, unable to control the waves of nausea washing over him, he turned his head and vomited. Cursing the world at large and his rebellious stomach in particular, he inched himself over and onto his back, trying to move his ankle as little as possible. The pain was excruciating but he needed to get an idea of his surroundings and any possible way out before even this faint light was lost. He tried to raise himself to a sitting position but warm blood poured down from a deep cut over his right eye, obscuring his vision and setting his head to spinning once more.
To his left, Kiernan’s groping hand gained purchase on the top of the stone block he’d crashed into. It appeared to be hollow and at some time in the past its lid had been displaced and was propped drunkenly against the side of the container. Inch by dizzying inch Kiernan eased his back up against this welcome support and then, target achieved, he closed his eyes in relief and leant his head back against the cool, carved stone. For some time, the pain in his head had been trying to persuade him that passing out would be a good idea and he decided that perhaps now would be a good time to listen. As he allowed himself to sink into welcome oblivion he heard a rustling sound behind him and dust-dry, paper-skinned hands followed him down into the depths where he fell to reach around his neck. As he let slip all ties to consciousness, Kiernan heard a wind-faint voice whisper in his ear. “Warn Manny she is restless. Hold close the marriage ties.”
And then he was gone.