<Before you begin... >
<I've completely re-written the first book of the trilogy. Having finished all three books, I found Illiom (my debut novel) sadly wanting. So I've gone back and re-written it, tightening the prose, trimming the over-writing, simplifying and following the principle of 'less is more'. Date of update: Halloween 2019.
For info about the 2nd and 3rd books contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org>
AN INTRUDER COMES
Illiom did not know what had woken her. She lay very still, holding her breath, listening to the small sounds of the night.
Nothing much ever changed up here, except the tone of the wind’s lament, the hiss of rain, or the sudden, jarring explosion of thunder.
This night however, was unusually still. It was as though the night itself held its breath, straining to detect some change in Illiom.
Then she remembered the dream.
Yet even as she turned her attention towards it, it eluded her, until it clung to her awareness by no more than the wisp of a thread. She clutched at it, trying to draw it back into wakefulness with her, and for a moment Illiom heard the echo of someone whispering a name.
But who was calling? And who was Aethera?
She felt a desperate need to know, as if her very life somehow depended upon this knowing.
With complete indifference to her scrutiny, the dream continued to recede until it slipped through the fingers of her yearning and was gone.
She sighed and sparked her werelight into life.
Who looked at her from his perch, the black orbs of his eyes regarding her with detached enquiry.
“Was that you?” Illiom asked.
Usually the owl came and went in complete silence. Rarely did he return before dawn, preferring the mysteries of night to the noises of a sleeping human.
“What are you doing here? Is it morning?”
She stretched towards the entrance and parted the hide that
served as a door. The world outside was as black as pitch.
She looked at the owl again, her eyes full of questions.
Who puffed up his feathers and gave himself a small shake.
He blinked once, slowly, as if weighing the merits of answering her question.
Someone comes, he offered at last.
For several heartbeats Illiom stared at the owl without understanding.
“What do you mean?”
The owl’s eyes were as round as moons, his pupils unfathomable scrying pits.
One man, two horses. He sleeps in the valley below.
An icy finger crept down Illiom’s spine.
She sat up, pulling the blanket around her even though the air was far from cold.
“A man? This far up? Might he not be just riding through?”
Even before she finished her question, she knew it was nonsense. The valley was a dead end. It had only one entrance and, as far as she was concerned, one destination. Not once in the past four years had anyone wandered in, even by accident. Still she groped for a plausible explanation. Perhaps a hunter following a wounded quarry? That made sense. Certainly not a trader, no one to trade with in these parts.
“Maybe it is a hunter or a trapper,” she voiced, dismissively. “A Roonhian’ka tribesman, no doubt.”
Who’s response was immediate.
Not a hunter. He comes for you. Your wish to shun your own kind is coming to an end, Illiom.
The owl’s sending had not been ominous, but as she repeated it to herself, it took on a sinister quality.
He comes for me?
Abruptly, the air in the shelter became stifling. She stood up, letting the blanket fall. She opened the door carefully, mindful of the old leather hinges, and stepped outside, naked, into the night.
The darkness draped her in a cool velvet embrace.
Illiom’s shelter nestled against the flank of a nameless mountain. It was perched on a grassy ledge that broke the steep climb up from the tree line several hundred spans below.
She walked to the rim of that ledge and looked out.
The stars shimmering in the clear sky offered the only source of light, enough to set the surrounding peaks aglow with a faint halo but nothing more. The valley beneath was drowned in an impenetrable black pool. Illiom stared into it as if she could shed some light upon this intruder with her will alone.
“How do you know he is coming up here, that he is looking for me?” she asked without turning.
Who did not respond immediately.
Long ago, Illiom had learnt that hesitation was not a part of the owl’s world. His focus was probably not upon her at that moment. He was likely distracted by the small rustlings of the night that washed against his predator mind.
At length he answered.
Let me show you.
Immediately, a flurry of images alighted upon the canvas of her mind.
First, she saw a man astride a chestnut stallion: long black hair in a tail, shirt of white linen, practical riding pants. She caught glimpses of him through branch and leaf as the owl flew overhead, silent as a whisper. The man was picking his way gingerly up a wooded slope, a white gelding tethered behind his mount.
The image that followed was more sedate. It was night, and a small fire burned in a narrow, rocky space. In the flickering of the flames Illiom was able to study the man. He had loosened his hair and although his features were shadowed, she sensed brooding eyes and a stern face. The silver hilt of a knife flashed when he parted his vest to retrieve a satchel from his belt.
He was well equipped and groomed. It was obvious that he was neither a hunter nor a trapper, not a tribesman after all. His garb made her think of a trader, not rich or ostentatious, but of good quality, and his boots looked like the handiwork of a master cobbler. The mounts were well fed and healthy and their tack looked new.
Illiom watched as the man pulled a small bundle from his satchel. He peeled away the folds of cloth and examined the object that emerged. It caught the firelight like a piece of glass, a shard as long as his hand was wide.
He stood up then, and holding the shard between thumb and forefinger he extended it away from his body and began to turn on the spot in a slow and deliberate motion, as if displaying it to an invisible audience.
His attention was so fixed upon the shard that Illiom too found herself staring at it, wondering what on earth he was doing.
Then the glass began to glow.
Its length pulsed with pale aqua light that lingered for a moment and then began to fade again. The man checked his movement then turned fractionally back in the opposite direction.
The glow rekindled. He stopped then and raised the shard until the light grew stronger still.
The initial illusion that the glass was merely refracting the firelight was completely dispelled when its glow intensified and pulsed with flashes of pure brilliance that blazed between his fingers and dappled across his face.
Completely captivated, Illiom stared at this display of cold, blue fire. Even when the man closed his fingers around the shard, its light did not abate; instead his whole fist shone like a beacon of light.
Then the man looked up.
With Who’s unerring owl-sense, Illiom knew that he was looking directly towards her.
She recoiled and would have turned away but Who was not yet done.
In a fluid transition to a later memory, the owl showed her another scene. In it the man was relaxed, reclining against his saddle. The signs of a recent meal lay discarded beside him: a soiled iron skillet and an empty bowl. A pewter cup sat perched at a precarious angle on the stone next to his fire.
He was intent on honing a dagger; languidly running a stone along the edge of the blade, turning it often for an even outcome, pausing occasionally to test its keenness with his thumb.
Illiom noticed the turn of his lip as he gazed upon his handiwork, lost in some private thought. The cold gleam in his eyes seemed to mirror the steel of his weapon.
She sucked in a breath and, shaking off the vision, turned to look at the owl perched on the makeshift lintel of the shelter’s door.
“How close is he?”
He is down there. The owl stirred, shifting his position slightly. He will come up with the sun’s rising.
After that, sleep was out of the question. Illiom found herself casting her mind back over past events, trying to scry a connection between them and this intrusion.
The only incident that had ever exposed her to any serious danger and potential repercussions had happened in Gallid, yet even that did not add up. Why would anyone come looking for her now, after all this time? It had been ten or more years.
Pensively she shook her head. Surely this had nothing to do with that. Yet she could think of no explanation for the man’s presence, except...
A thought chilled her as effectively as a fall into an icy stream.
Perhaps this intruder had heard of the comely, if somewhat crazed young woman who had chosen to live alone on the flank of a certain mountain. Perhaps he was not seeking her because of any connection to her past, but . . .
She did not allow herself to complete the thought.
Instead, her werelight flashed into being of its own volition, like barely contained lightning. She felt its potential for violence.
The owl hooted in protest.
“I am so sorry,” she said soothingly.
Only once before had she felt its full power. The first time the gift-curse had erupted from within her was when she was in danger and terrified. The damage it had inflicted upon her attacker was such that she knew he would never recover. If this one approached her now with similar intent, he would regret the moment he had decided to seek her out.
Emboldened by this memory, her initial terror of this intruder dissolved like mist before Iod’s heat. Illiom smiled to herself. Her feelings of vulnerability were absurd. Now, like then, she was far from defenceless.
He does not seek to harm you; he comes to take you away.
Who’s sending might have been a paralysing spell for the effect it had on her.
Take me away?
Her heart pounded against her ribs.
“How can you possibly know?”
The ice of fear and the fire of hope met like an explosion in her belly. What had she been praying for? What had she been asking ... no, pleading for, this whole winter past? Her head swam as she dropped to her knees.
A wave of nausea surged through her and she retched. She straightened after a while and brushed away the spittle on her chin with the back of her hand.
Then she turned to Who, but before she could request that he scout the intruder again, the owl spread his broad tawny wings and dropped away from the lintel.
Gliding past her, he vanished like a silent wraith into the gloom below.