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Heart Of Fire

By Alicia Donovan

Fantasy / Romance

Chapter 1 - An Unexpected Visitor

Chapter 1 – An Unexpected Visitor

"People speak through me, yet I do not make a sound. People can sell me, yet I have many clones. I can bring you laughter between breakfast and tea, Yet I can also break your heart easily. I cover the earth like trees of old, Whose leaves can blind and yet enfold. What am I?

- A Book"

The wind howled and the rain poured down. She sat by the fire, her thoughts lost in the flames: thinking of times long ago and dreams yet to be dreamt. The storm raged outside, and she pulled the shawl tighter around her thin shoulders. She closed her eyes, waiting for sleep to claim her, and with it, the new agony but also the release that it would bring. She was so heavy, down to her bones… perhaps this would be…

She was jolted awake when she heard an awful banging. She leapt forward in her chair, and spun towards the door of her little cottage, her eyes wide as she tried to still her frantic heart. Cautiously, she silently picked up a dagger and went towards the door.

She kept her breathing slow and deep in an attempt to still her nerves. No one ever came here. So why would they come? She was as silent as she could possibly be, her ears straining for even the slightest sound. But she heard nothing other then the dreadful storm outside and the banging of the door. She couldn't pretend that no one was in, for they could see the blaze of her fire through the windows. Lifting the latch upon the door, she grasped the handle, hiding her dagger behind her back as she waited a few seconds. She opened the door just a crack, the light of her cottage spilling out onto the path by her front door.

An old man stood there, his grey robes soaking in the rain, his pointed hat keeping the worst of the wet off of his long grey hair and beard. He leaned against a staff, his cheeks flushed as if he were out of breath. Most would have been set at ease by the old man's appearance, but not her. She grasped the handle of the hidden dagger a little tighter, but peered through the crack of the door, her eyes shining onto him.

"Can I help you?" She asked, sounding polite but doing nothing to hide the suspicion in her voice at the same time.

"Oh!" The man exclaimed, as if she had caught him off guard. "Yes my dear, I was wondering if you would spare an exhausted man warmth by your fire for the night? I am travelling West, but this blasted storm has caught me by surprise."

Eyes narrowing, the woman peered around at the shadows surrounding the door, and then looked back at the elder man.

"It is just I," He said softly. "I promise you, you have nothing to fear from me."

Watching him cautiously, she debated in her head what to do. The old man seemed truthful from what she could tell. That in itself was a rare thing, and for now, seemed to satisfy her. She nodded and opened the door for him, allowing him to come inside.

Once inside, he hung up his grey cloak to dry with his pointed hat, and sat in the chair by the fire. He sighed with relief as he sat down, and smiled softly. She watched him suspiciously from her seat at the table, as he pulled out his pipe and began to smoke it, the sweet scent of the tobacco quickly filling the room.

"Thank you, my dear," The elderly man smiled at her warmly. "Your kindness is most appreciated. I assure you, I will only be here till the storm is out, then I will be out of your hair."

"Are you certain of that?" She asked, her eyes gazing at him coldly.

He looked at her, a frown as to the only sign of his confusion.

"I have seen of your coming." She murmured. "Somehow you have deemed that important enough for me to see it. Not very subtle for Gandalf the Grey."

"So…" He raised an eyebrow as the corner of his lips twitched into a knowing smile. "It appears the rumours are true. A Seer is in the North of Bree. For a woman in hiding you're rather well known… Kathryn of Threndryn."

"That is only the superstitious folk of Bree, other than that I keep myself well hidden." She said.

"I can see."

They stared at each other, their eyes locking as they tried to piece together the puzzle of the other. Finally, deciding that he had passed the test, Kathryn sighed, and gave a sad but small smile.

"You will have to forgive me, Wizard," She said exhaustedly. "I have not entertained guests in many, many years. In fact, I don't think ever. And my manners as a host have as a result withered and died. I couldn't be too careful – suspicious folks from Bree are rather tenacious."

"Quite alright, my dear," Gandalf puffed, waving away her apology. "It was rather rude of me to turn up uninvited to your home… when you have obviously taken such lengthy precautions to make sure you are never found."

They stared at each other again, this time Kathryn made no attempt to hide her uneasy fear as she gazed at the old man. And for him, he eyed this strange women intently, noting her fiery red hair that bloomed like flames as it cascaded over her shoulders and down her back. And her unusual violet purple eyes that stared at him as if they could pierce into his soul. Her smooth marble white skin reflected the pale glow of the fire, even when she tried to keep herself in the shadows.

"Why have you come here?" She asked, her tone almost pleading with him.

Gandalf puffed on his pipe, his eyes seeming to gaze out onto some far off place. Smoke leaked from his mouth and nostrils, the scent oddly calming; grunting, he shaped his mouth, and a small boat made from the smoke appeared, sailing around the room.

"I am about to instigate an adventure," He said, his attention drifting back to her. "And I was told that you had a remarkable tale to tell that could help me."

"You have interesting sources."

"Birds, you know how they can be," Gandalf chuckled heartily.

But Kathryn only looked at the grain of the wood on her table, her eyes glistening from past memories.

"What do you plan to do to him?" She asked finally, her voice broken, barely above a whisper.

Gandalf sighed, suddenly looking worn as he gazed at her sadly.

"I hope that it won't come to the worst," He admitted. "But you must know that his inaction can no longer be tolerated."

"But you know he will never change: he is too arrogant and too proud to even consider it. He couldn't for me… Why you?"

"I am hoping that with your help, all this suffering can finally end, and even perhaps he may yet live." He offered kindly.

Kathryn stared at him again, her eyes searching him for the longest time. But finally she sighed, her shoulders slumping in defeat.

"Where do I begin?" She pleaded, speaking mostly to herself than to her guest.

"The beginning is always preferable," Gandalf puffed on his pipe. Kathryn chuckled, the beginnings of a smile twitching at the edges of her lips, despite herself.

"Well then… I guess that the beginning is with my earliest memory. I was raised in a little village in Enedwaith, on the outskirts of the mountains. My mother always claimed that she had a bit of elf blood in her from my great-great-great-great grandmother or so, she was always a proud and self-promoting woman. Perhaps she was right, for magic was certainly in my veins, although no one knew until I was a young child.

"I was six when I had my first vision – I was helping my father cut wood, when all of a sudden… a terrible pain consumed me, I became blind, I was shaking uncontrollably. My father tried to restrain me. Apparently I was speaking in tongues and screaming. They hurried me inside and called for a healer, but I was oblivious to everything around me."

"What did you see?" Gandalf asked, his eyes sparkling with interest.

"I saw monsters – Orcs, I believe – battling dwarves. It was horrific, and for a young girl…" She shuddered. "I had nightmares about those eyes, those teeth, the horde coming for me, the swords clashing around me. That was when my eyes changed colour – they were once golden brown like my father's. But after that first vision, the moment I opened my eyes they were changed, now the purple of magic that flows through me. The healer didn't know what to do, so my parents got in touch with a superstitious old crone that lived not far from our village. She came to me, and looked into my eyes, so that all I could see was her. That was when I grasped the first rule: if something is deemed important enough, then I see it. When I looked into her eyes, I saw the moment when she lost her mind to loneliness and abandonment.

"The Crone told my parents that I was a Seer. She couldn't tell me the specifics, but recommended that I be taken to wizards in order to learn of my power."

"That would have been best," Gandalf nodded. Kathryn scoffed to herself.

"My mother was mortified: she had a witch for a daughter… she felt utterly disgraced. She began to keep me on a tighter leash – never letting me go far from the house, never allowing me to mingle with the other children from the village. She even locked me in my room at night, drugging me so that I could sleep without dreams. My father didn't agree, but he wanted to keep me safe, they both feared that the village would see me as a curse and would then try to kill me – or at least, that was what they told me. They locked me away for ten years, and when a vision would overcome all their conditioning, all their precautions, it would take hold of me completely. Without anyone to teach me I learned a few rules that my visions seemed to follow: if something was deemed important enough, whether it be the past, the present or the future, then I would see it. If I focused on a particular point in history, say a battle or a coronation, then I would get a brief image of it, perhaps a few words. In sleep it was the worst. I had no control, often shaking violently and uncontrollably, sometimes screaming myself until my throat gave out. I soon grew used to the fact that I had to sleep with my hands and feet tied to my bedposts, my mouth gagged. Thankfully, I never vomited. They kept me like that for ten years. Finally, when I was sixteen, I had had enough."

"You ran away..." Gandalf's tone was almost apologetic.

"Yes," She murmured. "I had never realised the truth of my parents' fears – I had always thought it was because of my mother's spite. But I learned that they were real when I came to my first town. It was small, I used what little money I had to buy a room and food for myself. I only had to look at a small scratch on one of the inn's tables, and I was overcome by a vision – I saw bandits tearing the place apart, murdering the innkeeper and setting the place ablaze. The town thought I was sick at first, maybe a little frightened, weak in the heart, overcome by the big, bad world. When I tried to warn them of what I had seen, they laughed, everyone in there laughed at me. Three days later, when I was about to leave the town, my vision came true. I tried to help the town put out the blaze. And then everyone remembered what I had said. They ran me out of town, said that I brought bad luck and evil with me.

"After that, I never stayed in one place for too long, I tried my hardest not to talk to anyone or even get invested in anything – the less I focused on a place the better, the visions only came to me if I knew certain details that pointed to some outcome that the vision could show. Two years I spent wandering, stealing what little coin and food I needed, sleeping wherever I could find the shelter, either it be an alley, a cave, up a tree, sometimes if I had the coin then I would get a cot at a tavern. But no matter where I went, if a vision overcame me in public, I had to leave immediately, the locals would either try to exploit my gift or give me the evil eye and chase me out as fast as they could. One fanatic little village in the middle of nowhere tried to sacrifice me to their heathen gods.

"I couldn't see an end in sight. I was miserable, I wanted to just be left alone – perhaps just die. So I found myself wandering further east… until I found myself looking at the perfect place. A ruin of a city, a place long abandoned. Sure there was a small town close by, somewhere I could trade and buy goods, but other than that it was deserted."

"You found Dale," Gandalf said, almost mystified. "The ruined city close to Erebor."

"Yes," Kathryn nodded. "I had heard the rumours of the dragon that lived in the mountain – it almost put me off. But I was too tempted by the peace there, the chance to be left alone, to live my life. If I was careful, then he wouldn't even know I was there; and if not, then my misery would finally end."

She smiled forlornly, her heart and mind drifting to a place far away.

"Little did I know how differently things would turn out."

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