The Wheel - Book 1: Death of the Phoenix

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Chapter 6

Eirene’s eyes slowly opened as she raised her head from where she was laid on her front, her hands digging into something soft and wet. Sand and mud.

She was vaguely aware of a harsh breeze blowing over her back, the smell of salt pungent in the air as it reached her nostrils. Her eyes were sore as she stared ahead at the horizon of dull brown sand where it met blank grey sky. Where am I? Little by little her limbs slowly awakening as she pushed herself up to a sitting position. Blinking, she hung her head in a drowsy manner, beginning to see flashing images in her mind.

She was underwater.

Her hearing was muffled as she could feel herself being spun round. She kept her mouth clamped shut in the vain hope that her breath might hold out just a bit longer. Her eyes were open, unable to see through the swirling blue that surrounded her as she helplessly struggled against the tide. She could feel debris flying around, sometimes picking and tearing at her skin, the water throwing her about in all directions.

Out of nowhere a dark object came hurtling towards her and before she could try to move out of the way, she took the full impact of it to her head.

The water seemed to stop shifting as violently.

Her body began ceasing to move. She felt light, floating aimlessly in the water.

Slowly she was rising to the surface, where she could see speckles of light from the sunshine above.

Her eyes were closing. No thoughts filled her head.

As she moved wherever the tide went, it was though she had become one with the sea…

Eirene shivered. Her body was covered in thick dark mud, clumps of it leaving her hair matted. Cuts and grazes with dried blood scattered across where her skin was bare. Turning her head, she blinked to see a grey ocean behind her, the waves rippling with something brewing underneath.She could feel it. Then a strange emptiness. A sombreness.

There was a strong gust of wind that whipped up the dark waters ahead, sending sprays into the air and rocking the waves aggressively against one another. Eirene staggered to her feet, wincing as she caught her left foot on a stray seashell. The cold air was biting as she looked about her surroundings. There was no one to be seen. Just a large stretch of sand and ocean that led to nowhere she knew.

The wind seemed to moan as it blew faster, making Eirene’s ears ring and rushing past her with force nearly enough to knock her over. She turned away from the water and started to walk aimlessly away from the ocean’s edge, throwing out her arms in an attempt to balance herself, her feet helplessly sinking into the thick sludge.

Seeing the waves get higher and pushing slowly but surely inland, Eirene pulled her legs from the ground encasing them and tried to move quicker, though she knew her attempts were futile. Each time she placed one step too desperate to get away, she kept sinking into the mud. But she also knew that if she didn’t move, it would only be a matter of time before the ocean would reach her.

Still she pushed forward for minutes more, before eventually falling to her knees and crawling furiously across the sand and mud. The pain when stones and shells raked at her already raw flesh elicited loud hisses from her lips. There were times when she would sink further into the mud, the sludge seeping in and swallowing her limbs.

After what felt like hours of trekking into nowhere, Eirene finally reached more solid ground where the sand seemed dryer, and in the not so far distance she could see some green grass rushes rustling silently on the wind. Looking a few degrees to the right, she spotted a horse, its head on the ground as it grazed in solitude. Somewhat fascinated by the creature, Eirene continued to stare at it from a distance, daring not to move any closer in case she scared it off.

The horse’s ears then pricked up and suddenly raised its head. It then snorted and gave a short whiny as it backed away from her, its head held high against the wind. Eirene held out her hand tentatively making hushing sounds. The horse began to paw the ground with its hoof, jerking its head up and down, as though it were either unsure or beckoning her to come closer.

Eirene remembered what the priests and priestesses of Astrum had taught her and approached the creature, careful not to make any sudden or jerky movements. When she was within five feet, she began murmuring in one of the ancient tongues that she had learned during her lessons in magic.

Creature of earth and water, as you are, as I am. Hear me. Hear my call, hear my words. I promise you no harm. Guide me in my journeys, guide me in light, guide me in dark. You are of this world as I am, creature of earth and water.

A tingle spread from her lips to her fingers and the hooves came to a quiet stop. The horse’s eyes were fixed upon her, unblinking. With a shaky but gentle hand, she touched the horse’s shoulder and stroked its soft blue-grey coat.

“You’re a beauty.” Eirene murmured, ignoring the sharp tingling pains from the cuts on her fingers. The creature sighed and lowered its head so that she could gaze upon it in more detail.

The horse had a beautifully dished face and its liquid blue eyes were a shade lighter than a lagoon. Thick tussles of mane fell over its forehead and its neck. Eirene moved her hand up from the shoulder to the mane and was surprised to find that it was soft to touch as she laced her fingers in it, pulling them gently down as though they were a brush. As she continued stroking, she continued murmuring words of comfort in the ancient tongue and soon the creature’s breathing came to a calm slow.

Snorting again, the horse stepped back and bent its front legs to the ground. It remained there patiently as Eirene stepped towards the left flank and slowly sat on its back. Once both were settled, the creature got up to its feet and trotted away from the beach, out into the open fields. Eirene clutched the horse’s mane and gently kicked its sides. The creature sped up and soon for what felt like miles the two rode across faded green grass, the only signs of life being the earth and the wind.

Before long, Eirene could see a forest up ahead that looked dark without the light of the sun. Trees grew tall and with little green on them. The clouds grew greyer in colour, though they did not seem to roll across the sky as fast as they did before at the beach.

The horse then halted just before the entrance to the new set of surroundings, a sharp piercing whine coming from its mouth and it shook restlessly beneath Eirene. Frowning, she looked ahead into the darkness of the wood, squinting as she tried to make out something, anything, in the murk that was now making the horse uncomfortable. There was an inexplicable chill in the atmosphere that unsettled her right down to very bones.

Then she heard it. A thudding in the distance that sounded just like hooves.

The grey horse then cried and flung its head back, rearing slightly. Eirene made quiet shushing sounds, clinging desperately to the creature’s mane but it was to no avail. She knew something was coming, and whatever it was, it was an omen of death. She was sure of it.

Squinting her eyes, she looked through the trees again. Her heart then began to skip beats as she could make out a dark shape moving towards them at speed. Another animal, pounding powerfully across the cold hard ground. Eirenes blood went cold as she could see the creature in more detail as it moved closer towards her and the grey horse. A big black stallion with gleaming black eyes and as her eyes then travelled upwards, she saw a cloaked mystery rider steering it with strong hands, looking directly at her. The dark horse picked up even more speed.

A gasp trapped in her throat, Eirene kicked the grey horse’s sides and steered it left, moving forward into the forest as the black rider narrowly missed them. Hearing the angry screech of the dark creature behind them, she urged the horse forward as they swept through the trees, taking sharp turns and jumps as they went to avoid being spotted. Looking back, Eirene couldn’t see the rider behind her and panic filled her instead of relief: how was she able to know where to turn safely if she couldn’t see where the pursuer was following?

Then as if by command of thought, the black rider appeared through the trees to her right, his steed galloping at full throttle. Up above, Eirene could hear a sharp piercing cry that sounded like it came from an eagle as the grey horse’s ears pricked up, making the creature neigh in response and push forward with even more effort. Whether it had been some strange call to aid them or not, Eirene was glad that now they seemed to be moving faster and in a direction that eventually lost the black rider.

Eirene and the grey horse kept riding hard into the depths of the forest, hoping to find sanctuary soon. Then up ahead, light began to shine through the fogginess of the woods, the warmth of it shining on Eirene, blinding her as she tried to see what was in the distance. She could then feel the grey horse bunch up its hindquarters. Remembering all her riding lessons when she was young girl, she grasped hold of a handful of mane and leant forward, holding on tight as the creature leapt over a tree trunk. For a few seconds that seemed to be more like minutes it felt like they were flying, before the horse’s hooves hit the ground gracefully and continued move in steady rhythm towards the light.

The light seemed to expand as the route through the forest was approaching a new setting, the trees parting to reveal a clearing. The patch of land was uncovered from the sky and just ahead of Eirene was a little cove made of rocks and boulders, just big enough to hide her and the horse safely. She looked down at her mud and sand covered body, wanting to scratch her skin. Looking to her left, she saw a small stream trickling nearby.

Eirene dismounted the horse and led it to the stream using the ancient tongues once more. Nickering softly, the creature eagerly leant its head down to drink from the water. Eirene stroked the horse’s mane and sat down on the streams edge. She swept her robes aside and laid her legs bare, before taking some water into the cup of her hands and pouring it over her right leg. The icy coolness of the water hit her skin with what the sharp end of needles might have felt like and she hissed quietly, though she continued to pour more water over the parts of her body covered in grime.

After a while, Eirene had washed away every bit of mud and sand, only to find her skin was covered in small scratches and welts. They would heal in time. But as she thought of her home, her people, her mother…she shivered. They were all gone now. Even if some had survived, she did not know where the Isles of Astrum were from where she was, or how she would get back there.

The horse snorted and bumped its nose onto Eirene’s shoulder, nuzzling her gently. Such strange understanding you have, Eirene thought as she stroked the velvety soft nose that provided her with some form of comfort. A raven suddenly flew out from a tree and flew away with a cry. The sun had finally made it through the blanket of cloud and shone through the trees onto the clearing below, though its rays cast an orange glow as it began its descent towards the night. Soon the light would be gone and it would just Eirene, all alone with the horse.

She stood up from the edge of the stream and walked back towards the cove. Dried leaves and branches covered the floor undisturbed; no one had been here before or not for a long time. A breeze wafted and willowed throughout the forest with a chill and Eirene knew that the cove was her only choice for some warmth in the cold night to come. She did not know how to make a fire, she did not know how to hunt. All of a sudden she felt a stab of regret that she had never been given the opportunity to learn, unlike the populaces of Astrum who were not priests and priestesses. The only skills she had to hand were healing, languages and some ancient spells that she had managed to persuade High Priest Eldwin to teach her. Little good they would do her right now.

“May I see this night through.” Eirene whispered in prayer as she huddled herself into the cove, wrapping her torn robes around her. The grey horse approached the cove and sniffed inside it, nickering as it did so. Eirene clicked her teeth, beckoning it inside. The horse obediently came forward and settled itself down on the ground.

Eirene stretched a hand out to stroke its soft mane.

“You saved my life.” She said. The horse’s eyes began to close as it accepted her gentle caresses and it lowered its head gradually towards the ground. Eirene watched the creature for a moment, wondering if it had any understanding of the danger they had escaped, if it knew how much she depended on it for their safety. Eventually she removed her hand from its mane and looked out towards the empty clearing. There were no birds nor sounds of movement outside and the much of the light had already faded.

Murmuring a few more words of prayer, Eirene laid down on the ground that was made softer by the leaves and closed her eyes. A soft wind wafted into the cove and made a whistling sound like the ocean. She did not feel herself slipping into sleep, but instead found herself wandering through memories.

The nymphs inviting her to bathe in the springs with them.

The serenity of the priestesses as they convened together in prayer.

The kind yet strict diligence of High Priest Eldwin’s lessons.

Her mother dangling an amethyst on a chain, swinging it gently in circles to make it sparkle in the sunlight, smiling as she did so.

And then the monstrous wave that came from the ocean. Eirene could still hear it. The rumble, the roar, the screams.

The memories began to dissipate into nowhere and she felt as she did when she was swept under the waters of the ocean, weightless and out of control. But with hope that if she went with the tides, they would eventually take her back home. Yet in her fitful sleep, she could not rid the feeling of the cold ground beneath her and when she would eventually wake, the thoughts of where she had come from, the people she knew…they would be dead leaves, lying all around her.

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