As promised, here is an exclusive first chapter read for my book! I am doing the last bit of formatting before I publish tonight. 🙂 If you are a reviewer and would like to review it, drop me a message!
Drops of blood trickled down onto Ira’s cheek. She wiped at it and looked up at the deer tangled in the ropes above her. The force of the snare had pulled it up at such a speed, its head hit a branch higher up, and one of its antlers snapped off at the base. She didn’t expect to witness the catch, but she did. It was rather gruesome.
She sighed and cut the rope with the wood and bone dagger her father had given her before he died of consumption. There were dreadful amounts of blood in his last days. The blood was nauseating, but fascinated her after a while; those secret life-giving rivers hidden inside the human body.
Her mother wasn’t the same after those graphic final months. Although Ira was only four at the time, she remembered vividly how her mother had changed from a gentle, happy woman to a cold, hard wraith. It was as if her father was the flame inside her lantern, and when he was gone, the room of her soul became grim and cold. Somehow, the change didn’t affect Ira all too much. She was known to be astute and not the type easily distressed by changes around her. Her village, Ruta, embraced her as she was and appreciated her free spirit, while her skill in hunting made her the unspoken village hunter at the age of sixteen.
She cherished her large green eyes; they were the only physical feature she had inherited from her father. Her skin was dusky from all the time spent outside, and her raven black hair was cropped short. She wouldn’t have it any other way since the incident five years previously.
Most of the girls in Ruta spent their days grooming each other’s hair and making dresses or blankets for the markets. Unlike them, Ira couldn’t stand the vulnerability of a dress and wore only pants, shirts and boots. She joined their gathering once, and ended up with bloody fingers and a product barely good enough to be used as a rag. They laughed at her and called her Ira Clapperclaw, because she ruined the textiles so utterly in her futile attempt. Though most of them wouldn’t remember the episode, Ira had avoided them as much as possible since then.
But her body had been changing the past couple of months – she had been changing the past couple of months.
The deer fell on the ground with a loud thud, and an extra splash of blood streaked over her chest as it came down. She stood perfectly still with a mock pout.
“You ruined my shirt.”
She whistled sharply and Mira – a black Friesian mare with long curly mane and tail – came galloping towards her. Mira was her fifth birthday present, and she thought it a good idea to combine ‘mine’ and ‘Ira’ to form Mira.
Ira hooked the sledge to Mira’s saddle harness, fastened the deer to it, climbed into the saddle, and they started their somewhat slow journey back to the village.
Faint splashes from the lake grew louder, and Ira heard laughter when she eventually got closer. Summer was waning, and most of the younger folk tried to push the limits of its dwindling light and warmth into their bones. The tall trees in the forest were perpetually sombre no matter the season. Ira much preferred the winter and its frosty cold which crept into your soul like pain sometimes did.
Ira heard a branch above her creak, and leaves suddenly cascaded down on her. Her heart leapt into a sprint, and she slowly moved her hand to her thigh where her dagger was. She barely touched the hilt when someone fell from the trees above and straddled Mira behind her back. Strong arms tangled around Ira’s waist when the mare neighed and reared up onto her hind legs, and they tumbled to the ground as one.
The earth punched the air from her lungs. She tried to crawl away from the assailant, frantically grasping at loose earth and leaves in her desperate quest to escape. Relentless hands groped at her and grasped her hips, flinging her onto her back. The sun above blinded her to her assailant’s face, her heart beat loudly in her ears and she tasted copper deep down in her throat. She tried to push him off, but he was too heavy. His body weight crushed down on her and forced her last breath out, her arms now pinned uselessly to her sides. All she could do was open her eyes, determined to bite whatever she could reach.
He had that strange glint in his eyes which she could never quite place, and she took a moment to realise what was going on. He got a thrill out of her momentary panic, and smirked. He took hold of her wrists, pinning them above her head to render her defenceless.
“You’re a bit bruised.” His taunting grin held her captive.
“I was fine before you dropped out of the sky.”
She remembered loving Caedis from the moment she first saw him, but in all honesty, she didn’t know why. He was a charmer from the word go and professed his attraction to Ira without restraint within days of arriving at their village a few years ago. He was the first boy who didn’t mind her astuteness, but actually rather relished it, which played a role in why she felt so deeply connected to him. Ruta may have accepted her, but that didn’t mean she was wholly immersed in their community.
There was nothing remarkable about him physically, except perhaps his lanky height, but she was drawn to the ‘differentness’ she saw in him. Not unlike herself, he was also an outsider in more ways than one, and the villagers stayed clear of him as much as they could without appearing to be rude. Though she’d known him for years now, she had to admit that she didn’t understand him all too well, but she knew him well enough to know that he had started changing towards her a few months previously. At first it was subtle, but it became more pronounced each time they were together. By the time she eventually realised that it was bad, it had already weaved itself so utterly into the fabric of their connection that to tear at it would simply rend them apart.
But she still loved him, even though he wasn’t always kind to her. She felt a magnetic connection to him and wondered if he felt it too – she thought he did, but never knew for certain. He made advances within a few days of coming to Ruta three years ago, but she had fought against it for some time until one night when he did as he was again doing at that moment.
He stole her first kiss that night and many more thereafter, but it wasn’t as she had imagined it would be. It was too hard. Too removed. The feel of it, the wrongness of his way with her was undeniable. But she wanted him nonetheless, despite her wiser self, despite a deeper part of her that warned against him.
His grip tightened, and she winced.
“You’re hurting me, Caedis.” His grip didn’t loosen, and he stared into her eyes with a void expression that was meant to emulate intensity. He came closer and pressed his lips to hers and kissed her in a way that made her feel curiously absent to the moment, just like all the other times. But he didn’t stop this time, just like he never stopped all the other times. She allowed it nevertheless, because she thought it spoke of his great desire for her and she had no other experiences to compare it with. These episodes had been going on for months now, yet he had never told her what he felt for her. And she wanted him to say something. Desperately. Ira didn’t know why she felt that way about him, or why she allowed him to do what he did. All she knew was that she did feel this way, and that was all that mattered for now.
Despite her feelings, she didn’t give him everything he wanted. She’d only do that if he said something about how he felt towards her, which he hadn’t done yet. She would wait for him to be ready to tell her.
She turned her face away when she felt he had to stop. He let go of her wrists and touched her neck with an odd tenderness and kissed her there. It was one of those rare occurrences where she could swear his emotions were about to surface, and she lived for it and built her hope on those occasional instances. Those were the most dangerous moments, where she had to restrain herself not to give him everything he wanted simply because he gave her that tiny taste of what she could have with him.
“I have to work the deer.” She moved away from under him and stood up. The deer and sledge were tilted over, and Mira stood there awkwardly. Ira moved to tip it back to its correct position.
“You are the most prudish girl in the village… And I can say that because I know all of them,” he stated matter-of-factly.
Her heart froze at his words, and the sledge slipped from her fingers. She turned and stared at him while he brushed the leaves from his clothes.
“What?” Her voice barely came out loud enough to hear. As if Caedis had forgotten she was there, or what he had so nonchalantly said, he looked up at her and smiled.
“See you tonight.” He turned and walked away. A part of her wondered where to, because he didn’t walk in the direction of the village.
A fist tightened around her heart and she simply stood there, unable or unwilling to move. She was afraid that if she did, she’d fracture and fall to pieces. A part of her tried to reason that she had misunderstood him, or that he had not expressed himself correctly.
All the other parts of her, however, knew what the truth was. She’d spend months, years, pining after someone who had only used her, because she allowed it.
Mira whinnied and pressed her cold snout to Ira’s neck, sending a shiver through her body and awakening her from her stupor. The sledge constricted the mare’s movement and she was obviously uncomfortable. Ira heaved it back over as she had been trying to do and it fell loudly back into position.
It felt as if a hole had opened up deep inside her soul and that the content thereof was seeping away into oblivion.
“Come girl.” Ira’s voice sounded dead to herself.
She walked the rest of the way to the village with a heaviness in her steps; she wanted to fall to the ground and cry. Caedis’s words were still tumbling about in her heart, a violent, destructive force that she was struggling to restrain. He had hurt her many times before, but he had never hurt her as much as he did with those words he had just uttered.
Ira walked through the village in a nightmarish trance. She didn’t want to be there; she despised everything her eyes had known while she had still hoped for Caedis’s affection. All the movements and sounds blurred out of focus as if she was trapped within some hellish dreamscape.
A tiny person suddenly rammed into her and held tightly to her hips. Ira was breathing so shallowly that the air left her completely.
“Ira! Ira! The water is lovely! You must swim with us! You must!” Ira adored the curly blonde-haired girl latched to her side, but her body felt feverishly bruised as the child squeezed her. Tenderly, she removed the weak little arms.
“Nilly, you’re going to ruin your beautiful dress; I’m filthy.” Ira’s voice was almost breaking, and she was glad that Nilly wouldn’t yet know what it meant. She bent her one knee to the ground to be nearer to Nilly’s height.
“Oh, I don’t mind. Mummy says I’m growing very fast. All my dresses will be too small anyway.”
“Yes, but your mummy makes the most beautiful dresses in the village. I’m sure she’d want to keep them in a good condition.”
Nilly pursed her lips and spread her arms to the side and pushed them back as if she was playing in invisible water. Ira knew this was her way of saying ‘end of discussion’. Nilly grabbed her hand and she was dragged towards the swim-hole.
“Nilly, I have to work the deer. Elah will be miserable if there’s no food for her coming of age ceremony tonight.” Nilly came to a stop. “I’m hungry.”
“Do you want some milk?”
She pouted, “No… Mummy said I have to go home. I was going to, but I saw you and forgot.”
Ira smiled and wished she could pinch Nilly’s perfect little pink cheek, but her fingers were crusty with mud and blood.
“Don’t keep her waiting then.” At that, Nilly ran off without a word of protest.
Ira turned and went back to Mira, who was still standing obediently with the loaded sledge. She and her mother lived on the other side of the village, their backyard the vast and verdant forest that surrounded most of Ruta like a fortress. Her father had been a carpenter and chose to live further away from the more or less 150 villagers for no other reason than the noise of his chosen profession. Often he’d work until late in the evening or else start very early, and he didn’t wish to disturb the others. Now that he was gone, Ira made use of his shed for her hunting equipment instead.
She got home after a few minutes and dragged the deer into the shed. She let Mira loose, and the horse ran gleefully into the forest where Ira knew she would be playing in the river for the rest of the day.
The shed was icy cold without a fire in the hearth and her breath sent misty vapours through the thin, freezing air. Ira remembered playing with her wooden horses and wolves in front of the fire while her father worked. Those same toys were now lining the top of the hearth panel, long since forgotten and covered in dust. The carcasses of the other deer she had caught through the week hung from hooks in the roof and created a macabre forest.
Ira fetched a bucket and went to gather water from the well outside. Her father had dug it himself when she was still young, and it was deep. She didn’t like getting water from the well. Since she was little, she’d had an inexplicable fear that one day something other than the bucket would come up towards her. It didn’t help that the older children always scared her with tales about Kelpies, which were horses made entirely of seaweed that tricked children into climbing onto their backs. If they did so they’d then be stuck, and the Kelpies would jump back into the body of water to feast on their catch. Ira accepted that strange things existed in the world unbeknownst to her. Her grandmother, Na, always told her never to discredit anything someone said they had seen or believed. To them, those things were as real as any sunrise, and you would end up being the one they thought to be crazy if you did not also see the same thing, or did not believe as they did. It was important to keep an open mind to experience the real wonder of life, Na always said.
Only the bucket came up towards her.