Over the next few months, sneak peeks will arrive for all four main voices in the Heart of the World: Ninbael, Dhoruil, Beryan, and Achoura – stay tuned!
Her head was pillowed on the fine sand and she could feel the warmth of the earth filtering up into her skin; Achoura turned her head slowly, dreamily. Stars twinkled against the deep blue, too many to count, and she smiled up at them. The desert was so still at night, so peaceful; sometimes, hawks wheeled overhead, but rarely here, in the endless drift of dunes. She was alone, completely alone, and she had just awoken from dreams both terrifying and exhilarating—she could not remember them.
Still sleepy, languorous in the cold dark, Achoura realized where she was. She called it the Cave, but only to herself, for it was a poor excuse for one: a thrust of rock, one slab splintered, a tiny pool of shadow where a young woman could, if she curled her knees up to her chest, nestle against the stone and feel the heat of it radiate into her back. It rose out of the sand just to the west of the family’s well, and sometimes, when Achoura felt particularly sad or displaced, she would huddle against the sunbaked rock, clutch the pendant her parents had given her, and feel, strangely, comforted.
It dawned on her only slowly that she should not be here. Achoura loved the fierce, clean cold of desert nights, often leaving the shutters open in the room so that the others tossed and turned, complaining of the chill—but she never went out. She never walked out into the darkness and slept there, on the sand. That was a way to get bitten by scorpions, robbed by bandits, carried off by the slave traders who ventured ever closer to the cities these days.
Stranger still, Achoura could not think how she might have come to be here. She pushed herself up, hands sliding in the sand, and tried to remember the night before. Had she left after dark, when all were asleep? Had she gone to get more water during the festivities? Achoura could not remember anything past the meal, nothing at all.
That was troubling. And if the others had noticed her missing, they would be worried—Achoura knew very well the utter panic in her aunt and uncle’s eyes whenever they could not find her. She must go back and ask their forgiveness for leaving; she would have to hope that they believed her when she said she had no memory of doing so. Decisively, Achoura stood and began to brush off her gown. So absorbed was she in her task that it took her a moment to see what was all around her; when she did, she froze.
She was in the center of a circle—several circles, each inscribed in the sand and woven together like lace, going round and round. It was all letters, symbols she was sure she did not recognize. She had seen the books and scrolls carried by the Fireseers, precious beyond belief. Sometimes, they let her touch them, though she could not read. She remembered once, a few months ago, sitting down to stare at the words on the pages, awed that such a thing could carry knowledge from one person to another; when she had looked up, all of them had been looking at her—waiting, she thought, for something. When she handed the book back, she had seen disappointment in their faces…
She brushed the thought away. She knew had never seen anything like this in those books: there, the words went in straight lines, and the script was elegant, rounded. These letters were different, entirely: spiky, scrawled.
It dawned on her all at once: someone must have come here with her. She could not write, this could not be her doing. Someone must have brought her here, and left her to sleep, surrounded by these symbols. At that, fear prickled up and down her spine. Who would have done such a thing, and where were they now? Why would anyone take a young woman out into the desert, away from her family? There were answers to that, and dark ones; but here she was, unmolested, safe and sound, no chains at her ankles and—her hand closed around it—her pendant, the only thing of value she had, still around her neck.
After a moment, Achoura decided that these questions changed nothing. She must go back. She turned on her heel, considering, then leaped, holding her gown out of the way; she came down wrong on her ankle, but she saw, looking back over her shoulder, that she had not disturbed any of the writing. That was good. She was not sure why, but she did not want to disturb it. Limping slightly, she began to walk towards the compound. She had to get back before dawn, before they awoke for chores and noticed that she was missing.
The wind was stinging in her eyes, and she smelled—what was she smelling? Smoke? No, it wasn’t smoke. It was like smoke, but terribly cold, somehow. Frowning, Achoura crested the last dune before the compound—
And stopped, horrified.
The compound lay in ruins, the walls of brick and mortar ripped apart and lying awkwardly on the ground. It was as if a giant and bent down and dashed the little buildings asunder with one swipe of his hand. The masonry shimmered in the light of the setting moon, a sheen of something…
There should be crying, Achoura realized. There should be wailing, and screams, there should be people picking through the rubble and huddled outside it. But there was no movement. There was only silence.
She began to run.
The buildings were shattered, the walls tumbled down and the roofs ripped off. It was no difficulty to see the bodies where they lay below the night sky, defenseless. Achoura did not need to go closer to recognize them—even in death, Achoura knew them all. Bahaar’s golden ring glinted coldly in the dim light. He lay with Jawhara, his hand linked with hers, the two of them sprawled in the doorway of the bedroom; they had tried to stand between the attacker, and their children. Achoura looked again. Saira had tried to run, Isaac had tried to hide.
She did not know what to do; there was nothing to do. She wanted to go to them, close their eyes and smooth their hair, fold their limbs neatly so that they would not look so helpless, so cold. She knew there was no point in that. They were gone, their souls traversing the black that lay between earth and Heaven. Achoura should have been here, to sing to them in their last moments, set their spirits on the path to eternal light, but it was too late for that now. They were gone. It did not take a healer to know the utter stillness of death.
It did not matter, Achoura decided. She was walking, but she could not remember when she had begun to move. She was choking on tears, but she could not feel herself crying. She only wanted to hold them again, see their faces, put their bodies to rest; everything about this place said terror. Their bodies should not lie this way.
But she could not go in. With every step closer to the ruins of the compound, a pain grew deep inside her. Achoura felt it in her toes, in her teeth, deep in her gut. Light-headed with pain, she half-dreamed that she could feel it in her shoulders, trailing behind her. Something here called to her, terrible and bone-deep, even as her mind screamed for her to run.
She nearly tripped over the word. It was written in the sand, as the others had been, but where those might have been written with fingers, this was scratched deep across the threshold of the house, so deep it might have been carved with a knife; no desert breeze would erase this word. The sight of it sent such pain stabbing through Achoura’s head that she cried out. It hurt, it hurt more than anything, and she could not have said what it meant, any more than she could understand the sheen of frost on the stones of the house. Cold. It was so cold—deeper than night, so deep it might freeze the whole earth—
And she did, not looking back. Achoura ran and ran, until at last her legs could carry her no further, and she sank down onto the sand, hand to her side. Fear, mind-numbing, had driven her this far; in its wake came exhaustion, opening the door for grief. Achoura pressed the heel of her hand into her mouth, doubled over, and cried. She cried for Saira, so young, one hand still reaching out towards safety; she cried for Isaac, who only yesterday had been tugging on Achoura’s sleeve, begging for sweets; she cried for the parents she had never known, and for Jawhara and Bahaar, who had been mother and father to her in very truth; and Achoura cried for herself, for loneliness and for grief, and for the fact that she had brought ill luck to everyone she had known.
When a shadow fell over her in the dawn light, she looked up at last, and her tears stopped at once. There was no mistaking what stood before her, and, with dawning horror, Achoura looked about herself. The tiny outcropping of rock lay at the edge of a gentle slope, a road curving down into Serfain’s Pass—home of the bandits that were now staring down at her from horseback.