I am so incredibly sorry- I meant to post this last week but yes, cue the excuses.
Without further ado, here is the winning entry of my short story contest!
CROSSING TO AFENDIA
By Meredith B.
Adopted girl from the Pacmana Race will call forth the King’s wondrous grace.
--The Ancient Afendian Scrolls.
"Pointy-Ears! Pointy-Ears!" The ever-increasing multitude of girls danced round and round the huddled form, their jeers growing in volume. Several daring ones gathered stones, preparing to fling them into the young girl’s face. "Your father and mother defied Hungali. Your no better than a donkey."
Faluri struggled to shift her weight, but the baskets strapped to her back prevented movement. She gritted her teeth and snarled, occasionally hissing in anger as she tried to free herself. Her skeletal frame buckled, and her back screamed in agony. Unintelligible gibberish escaped her mouth as she tried to plead for mercy. A few of the girls backed away, their faces growing pale as they stared at her livid visage, the saliva streaming from her mouth, the teeth exposed in the vicious snarl.
A heavyset girl, her dazzling dress of cloth brocade glinting with jewels, retrieved a stick from the ground. Obviously the ringleader, she thrust the stick forward, jabbing Faluri’s arm. "Get up and finish your task, donkey."
Faluri fought to stand, but the burden was simply too heavy. She had already fallen twice, and the girls had continued to strap baskets to her back. Curse her distended belly that constantly groaned with hunger! Curse the fruit seller who had momentarily left his stall! Curse the peach that had tasted of ambrosia! How had she been expected to know that the basket had belonged to a nobleman’s daughter? The glistening fruit had perched upon a shelf unattended, and the sweet scent had driven her mad. She had snatched the peach and started to flee but had been accosted by the heavyset girl who had been perusing ribbons in a nearby stall. "I-I didn’t mean—"
"What’s that? Bray louder." The girl laughed, preparing to use her stick for a second assault.
WHACK! A stone flew through the air, and Faluri cringed, fully expecting the missile to be meant for her. Instead, her tormentor screamed as her weapon sailed from her hands and fell into fragments. A broad-shouldered young man emerged from where he had been concealed behind a tree. "Aren’t you a bit old for such childishness, Ariadne?" he murmured. "Why don’t you pick on someone who can fight back?"
Ariadne glared, her eyes glinting with malice. "Uncle Augustus will hear of this, Randolf," she hissed. "Father’s already displeased with your disruptions of the counsel."
"And he’ll do what, exactly? Send me to the cloisters? The Talmun monks are the only ones who speak the truth."
The girls gasped and turned away, quickly sinking to their knees and touching their foreheads to the earth. "Hungali will kill you one day," one of them murmured. "The cloisters of Afendia are accursed. You learn nothing but lies there."
"Their scrolls are the true ones," the man murmured.
Ariadne laughed. She flounced to Faluri’s side, removing one of the baskets from her back and sauntering away. The other girls copied her movements. Faluri gasped as the burdens were removed, sighing in relief as her pounding heart subsided.
The man bent over her and smiled. He was probably no more than eighteen or nineteen, and his hazel eyes shone with kindness. He was not impressive-looking but rather plain. Yet, something drew her to him, and she could not turn from his compassionate gaze.
The man extended his hand, offering to help her stand. Faluri shrank back, her eyes widening and another snarl escaping her lips. "Do you bite?" The man grinned at her.
She could not help but smile, for he, (had they called him Randolf?), drew back slightly.
"I won’t touch you. I just thought you might need help."
Faluri struggled to her feet, her head spinning as she tried to get her bearings. She opened her mouth, the unintelligible gibberish escaping.
Randolf smiled at her. "You’re welcome. Here." He withdrew a flask of water from the pocket of his tunic. Faluri backed away yet again, her shoulders shaking. How often had she reached out only to receive slaps or worse?
Randolf shrugged. "You’re so thin. Bet you’re hungry. Come to my house. I’m sure Mother will help you."
Faluri turned to run away, but the boys next words stopped her in her tracks. "We’re having stuffed goose and apple meringues tonight. They’re my favorite dishes."
Faluri turned toward him, her eyes growing wide. Apple meringues? Her mother used to make those. She fell into step beside Randolf, never guessing that these first steps would set into motion such momentous events. As she shuffled in his wake, she became aware of the pulsating ground. Was it her imagination, or was Hungali’s heartbeat quickening. Moreover, did the quickening heartbeat signify anger or fear? She did not know, and she did not care.
She remembered the stories told around the hearth of her home. In the version of the story that everyone knew, their was a mountain kingdom that soared above their valley, the Kingdom of Afendia, the Land of Immortality and Perpetual Abundance. She had heard tell of a creature that had infiltrated the land bringing poison in his wake. The creature had been as ugly as he was deadly, a creature who claimed to be king and demanded absolute allegiance. One of Afendia’s most gifted inhabitants had resolved to save his land, but the king had forced him to leave. Many had followed him, descending the mountains to the valley below and establishing their own kingdom. Yet, the creature often sought to take them away from their home, to force them back into his clutches.
Faluri thought of this story as she followed Randolf from the market. The barley fields lay just beyond a small hillock, the place that only held shame and misery. Randolf turned to the right, leading her up a winding pathway and away from the place of shame. Her mind continued to ponder the story that all the children knew, even the despised Pacmana race.
The alternate version of the story was startlingly different. Only a select few knew of it, for the story was sheer blasphemy. The Pacmana nation was the only race where certain individuals believed the sacriligious tale. In that version, a benevolent king ruled the mountain land of Afendia, providing for his subjects in every way. He stipulated that his subjects not leave the mountain, for the further a person descended, the thicker the air became. Darkness dwelled below the mountain peak, a lonely, depraved beast craving companionship. Darkness clawed at the ground with tenacious fingers, stuffing itself with emptiness and growing ever more hungry. It keened and wailed, pleading for someone to come. One man heard that cry and responded.
The man had attempted to usurp the king’s throne. His attempt had failed, and in his anger, he had thrown himself from the mountain peak, tdarkness enveloping him. As he sank into the cold embrace, he felt his body collapse into a gaping chasm. Above him, he thought he glimpsed a hand reaching down as if to pull him up. He shrank from the proffered hand, dwindling into the chasm’s depths. He was no longer a servant of darkness but darkness itself. His name was Hungali. He keened and thrashed in agony, calling for others to come to him. Many had done so until the land beneath the mountain had become its own settlement.
Faluri had never believed the latter version of the story, but her mother had done so. "My child, if you look into the night sky, you’ll see a shimmering white star shaped like a hand. The hand is Elumi’s, my child, the Great King who seeks to help us, to bring us home." Faluri had strained her eyes, seeking the hand that her mother constantly claimed to see. Yet, the fog that enveloped their land prevented her from seeing anything.
"Home, Mother? But, this is our home. We have all we need."
Her mother had frowned and gently tousled her daughter’s carrot-colored hair. "Do we deserve to be treated as animals? The true scrolls say that in Afendia, there is no slavery. One day, child, I will take you with me, and we will cross to Afendia. We will be reunited with your father. His illness robbed us of many years, but he will see you one day, and we will live together again."
Yet that day had never come, for her mother had become very ill, an illness that seemed to come from nowhere. Great spasms coursed through her body, and she burned with fever. She grew increasingly thin until she was little more than a skeleton, her usually rosy cheeks wan. She had called Faluri to her side two weeks after the illness struck. Speaking through parched lips, she said, "He reaches for me, and I will go to him. He reaches for you, too. He is even now in this land, and he will care for you. I will always be with you." Then, she lay back on her pillows, her eyes closing in sleep. The next morning, she was gone. No trace of her remained, but a scent lingered behind, a scent of cinnamon, cloves and other spices.
"Are you all right?"
Randolf’s soft inquiry jarred Faluri from her reverie. She nodded.
"You can speak to me if you want to." He grinned at her.
Faluri swallowed. "I-I snuck away from the barley fields last night. I-I was hungry. I didn’t mean to steal anything. The overseers will—"
"You’ll be fine at my home. Mother will want to fatten you up. It’ll be all right."
Faluri shuddered, her eyes filling with tears. "Why did you help me?"
"Because you needed it. Besides, my cousin is spoiled. She needed to be put in her place. Uncle Locmana won’t do anything, so—"
"B-But, I am a Pacmana maiden. They did what was expected."
Faluri blinked in confusion. "Why, everyone, of course."
"Not by me." Randolf grinned at her and turned right upon a stone pathway. Faluri gasped as she beheld a towering mansion, a dwelling made entirely of glittering stone. Ivory gates stood at the dwelling’s entrance.
"Randolf! Randolf!" A petite girl pelted through the gates as her brother prepared to open them. Her dimpled cheeks were flushed, and she jumped up and down with excitement. "Poppa got me a pony today. Will you teach me to ride?"
Randolf scooped up the child in his arms, swinging her round and round until she squealed in delight. Depositing her on the ground, he ran round and round, beginning a spontaneous game of tag. The girl chased him, her shrill laughter filling the air. After a few moments, she collapsed in an exhausted heap, giggling and grinning. Randolf plopped down beside her. "Yes, I’ll teach you," he panted, tousling the girl’s hair. "Now, Naolia, meet the young lady I brought home."
Naolia gaped, quickly standing and turning to Faluri. "You’re a Pacmana maiden. You have pointed ears. The stories are true."
Randolf frowned at his sister. "She has beautiful eyes, Naolia, and her ears are unique."
Faluri flushed. No one had ever told her her eyes were beautiful. And, surely what he said was absurd. Pointy ears were a disgrace.
Naolia’s face fell as she held out her hand. "I’m sorry," she murmured.
In spite of herself, Faluri smiled. "It’s all right." Tentatively, she clasped the little girl’s hand in hers.
"Come on," Randolf murmured. "We all better go inside."
"You are impossible, Randolf!" Faluri jerked awake, her full belly groaning with discomfort and her heart pounding. She recognized the voice of Randolf’s father, a burly man with an impassive face. "We can’t keep her here. Have you any idea the wrath that will descend upon us?"
"Augustus, please." The soft murmurings of Randolf’s mother filled the silence. "You’ll awaken the girl."
"The rules are binding, Melenda. He’ll bring trouble upon us by his constant defiance of the counsel."
"What rules, Father?" Randolf’s voice was as soft as ever, but a hint of steel permeated it.
"The counsel’s, of course. The class distinction is unbreachable. I’m sorry about it, but I cannot defy it."
"Because I—" Augustus’ voice trailed away.
"Remember the Afendian scrolls, Father? Adopted girl from the Pacmana Race will call forth the King’s wondrous grace."
"B-But, we cannot be the ones to—"
"Oh come now, Augustus," Melinda murmured. "How can you, of all people, say that? Hasn’t this family witnessed many wondrous things? Besides, what kind of people would we be if we turned her out? She obviously has no one."
Faluri listened to this exchange in utter confusion, her eyes filling with tears. What was to become of her?
The next morning, she learned the answer. Tentatively rising from the luxurious canopied bed upon which she’d slept, she made her way to the large dining room. Randolf held out his hand, guiding her to the table upon which sat a lavish breakfast. "Welcome home," he said.
"You’re a fool, Augustus!" The raspy voice reverberated in the grand hallway, charged with an overpowering anger. "To even have one of them in your home means trouble. Moreover, to express your intention of adopting—"
"She has no one, Locmana. Randolf brought her here a fortnight ago, the most emaciated child I’d ever seen. How could I turn her away? Melinda feels the same."
"You’ll reign down Hungali’s anger upon us! You know the prophecy as well as anyone. The Pacmana race will bring down the foul creature from the mountains of Afendia, and he will devour us all."
"I know what the new scrolls say, but the ancient ones extol the Pacmana race as equal to our own."
"You dare to reference those blasphemous writings? What has come over you? My own brother listening to the rantings of a foolish young upstart! Randolf has no proof that those writings are genuine. Ever since he returned from his studies, he’s been an outspoken fool. He does not know what he’s saying."
"You speak of my son and your own nephew! You may be lord of this land, but you’re also my brother, Locmana. If you cannot respect your own family’s decisions, then I’ll thank you to leave this house!"
"That animal will ruin you all, you see if she doesn’t!" Locmana’s footsteps stormed down the hall as he slammed from the house. Aluri stood stock-still in the shadows, her mind reeling and her heart pounding. She turned and hurried to the rear entrance of the mansion, her eyes brimming with tears. Was the noble family that had done so much for her truly in danger? What of Randolf, who had been nothing but kind?
Faluri hurried through a patch of blackberry bushes, journeying to the road that would take her to the marketplace.
"Oh, it’s the Pacmana Donkey!" A familiar, jeering voice emerged from beyond the blackberry hedge. Faluri cringed and tried to retreat, but Ariadne flounced into view. Her face was flushed with triumph. "What are you doing out here alone? Is Randolf not holding your hand anymore?"
"Leave me alone." Faluri’s voice emerged in a pathetic squeak. Her mind was jerked back to the humiliating day in the marketplace.
"No. I think you still owe me for that peach you stole. Besides, you don’t belong here." For the first time, Ariadne’s sneer faltered, a look of fear crossing her face. "My father told me. You’ll ruin everything."
Faluri blinked. "Ruin what? I’m doing nothing wrong."
"Idiot. Your being born was wrong. You’ll bring that creature from the mountains down upon us. He’ll kill us all."
"I don’t under—"
My pretty one. Come to me.
A gentle voice suddenly burst upon the girl’s ears. The ground began to pulsate more strongly than ever, a heartbeat of ecstatic anticipation.
A gentle breeze began to blow, carrying with it a strangely cloying scent unlike anything either girl had smelled before. The blackberry bushes bent beneath the wind’s assault, parting as if to let someone pass. You’re so lovely. Come and be mine.
As the breeze advanced, it grew stronger and stronger. Ariadne gaped and then turned and ran, her face ashen.
The strange presence seemed to pause for a moment, a deep-throated laugh emanating from it. The weaklings always run, but you shall not.
Faluri struggled against the breeze which was no longer gentle. The ground began to quake. Shaking, she fell to her knees, pressing her forehead to the ground in supplication. "G-Great Hungali. Please—"
Yes, my dear? The breeze surrounded her now, pummeling her from all sides. Gentle hands picked her up, clutching her in a grip that was suddenly as strong as iron. You do not need to bow down, for I am here with you. I am taking you to my home, for my loneliness grows daily.
Faluri whimpered, and she suddenly realized that her mother had spoken the truth. She tried to scream, to make even the smallest outcry, but Hungali’s hold prevented speech. She felt the breeze move at a lightning pace, traversing miles in seconds. She was being carried she knew not where.
Stones bit into Faluri’s feet, and her head swam in confusion. As her eyes adjusted to her surroundings, she realized that she stood upon a walkway of stone. Two jutting walls were on either side of her, and her head spun as she realized she stood at a dizzying height. Coldness bit into her, for she was hardly dressed appropriately. The sleeveless tunic was thin, and the leggings were as well. Looking behind her, she saw two snow-capped mountain peaks, their white faces staring impassively at her predicament. The breeze had lessened in intensity but still blew gently.
Welcome, sweet one. Hungali’s voice emerged from her right, but Faluri could see no one. She dared to turn her head and immediately regretted her mistake.
A chasm loomed at the edge of the walkway, so vast as to be unbelievable. The sheer drop yawned up at her like a gaping mouth. Pinpricks of light danced before Faluri’s eyes as she strained to catch a glimpse of the bottom, but it was clear that this chasm was bottomless. The ground itself moved here, seeming to breathe of its own accord. Faluri’s knees buckled as her heart plummeted in fear.
It’s rather frightening at first, I know. Hungali’s tones were so caressing, his voice dripping with a musical cadence as sweet as syrup. I was frightened as well. Yet, I cast myself from his land of obligation and ingratitude. I embraced my own destiny.
Faluri trembled, her mouth growing dry. "Y-You are no longer who you were, no longer a brilliant man."
Precisely, clever girl. I am a god. Yet, godhood is rather trying at times. The loneliness is overwhelming.
"M-My father and mother. You killed them, didn’t you?" Tears sprang to her eyes, but she tried to hold them back. She did not want this creature to see her weep.
Why do you mortal ones always cry. It is decidedly demeaning and accomplishes nothing. Contempt laced his voice. Then, he resumed his gentle tones. Killing is such a harsh term. I did nothing. It was their fault. They refused to listen to my warning. I told them to give you to me, yet they refused to do so.
Faluri thought of her mother’s final days of illness. "Y-You’re a monster."
The air from the chasm swelled in a roaring torrent, and the ground quaked violently. Faluri trembled, quickly stammering, "I-I am sorry. What do you want from me?"
I told you! I want you for my own. All you need do is come to me. Just cast yourself into my embrace.
Faluri stepped backward, her eyes growing round with horror. "Never!"
Then I shall reak havoc on the land. My wrath will know no bounds, for I will make the Pacmana nation and the nobles suffer beyond anything they have ever dreamed.
"Faluri!" A voice, an honest, human voice, burst upon her. It came from her left. Faluri sighed in relief. She knew that voice. Turning, she saw Randolf’s strong arm beckoning to her from behind the jutting stone wall. "Grab onto me."
Faluri stared at her surroundings. His hand was far enough away that she dared not reach toward it. One false step, and she would hurtle into Hungali’s arms.
As if to confirm her suspicion, the ground quaked yet again, a derisive laugh filling the air. You fool! You think a mere mortal’s handclasp will save you?
"What are you frightened of, Hungali? That the prophecies are true? "Adopted girl from the Pacmana race will call forth the King’s wondrous grace." Randolf’s voice soared above the laughter.
I destroyed those prophecies long ago.
"The prophecies will never die." Randolf continued to proffer his hand. How had he gotten here? Faluri knew that a decision had to be made.
Trembling, she turned from the chasm, reaching out her hand toward Randolf. Instantly, the chasm roiled, a clattering sound as of pounding hoofbeats emerging from its depths. Faluri dared one look back and saw a coal-black steed. Fire spewed from the steed’s mouth as it thundered from the chasm and onto the walkway. The animal was not solid but transparent. The air that comprised Hungali’s being had transformed into this massive beast. It charged at Faluri, stones from the walkway hurtling into the void below.
Faluri closed her eyes, desperately groping for Randolf’s hand. Warm fingers closed over her own, and a tremendous hjerking sensation occurred as she was lifted into the air and deposited onto a snow-covered hill. A tremendous shattering sound assaulted her, and she opened her eyes in time to see the last of the walkway disintegrate. The horse stood in midair and lunged at Randolf, who stood directly in front of Faluri, shielding her from the oncoming attack. She realized that his hand had never moved, that he was reaching out to the horse as well. Randolf was not just her brother. She understood that he was so much more. As this understanding burst upon her, she saw the steed’s massive body collide with Randolf. Transforming into the swirling air, Hungali shoved Randolf toward the gaping chasm. You! It was you all along! Your efforts are futile, Elumi! She will be mine!
Faluri screamed as her brother plummeted into the ever-expanding chasm, the air pressing down upon him in a suffocating avalanche as the stone wall began to buckle. She saw flying debris cut into Randolf’s face and hands. He was bleeding so very much. "No! No!" She lunged at the dwindling wall, fully aware of Hungali’s crazed laughter, of the thundering tattoo of his heartbeat pounding out a drunken swell of triumph.
It was then that another breeze wrapped itself around Faluri’s quivering form, a breeze that smelled of cinnamon, cloves and other unidentifiable spices. She felt herself being lifted, and blackness engulfed her. As she sank into sleep, she heard Hungali’s angry vow: You’ll return to me even if I have to kill everyone else, pretty one. I’ll make them give you up!
Two Months Later
Faluri heard the groans and cries before she reached the fields. The clash of whips brought bile to her throat. She had worked in these fields so often with her mother. Now, she paused before the vast stretch of swaying barley plants. Women struggled under heavy baskets which were strapped to their backs. They crawled along the ground, gathering stalks of barley. Young girls stood in a colossal pit, their hands and feet moving in a rhythmic dance as they used mallets to crush barley stalks into coarse granules of sugar. Men struggled to unload heavy crates of the freshly prepared sugar into colossal chests.
Above this activity loomed five burly men, each of them wearing crimson robes. They held whips in their hands as they marched through the fields. Faluri gasped as a young girl paused in the rhythm of the dance, slumping forward and crying with exertion. The mallet fell from her trembling hand, and she bent to retrieve it.
SWISH! SWISH! One of the overseers paused beside the pit, his whip crashing upon the little girl’s shoulders. Faluri screamed and bolted toward the pit. She lunged at the overseer, attempting to snatch the whip.
"Stay back, beast!" The overseer shoved Faluri backward, delivering a vicious blow to her stomach. She gasped and struggled to reach the pit, to cradle the young girl and bring her comfort.
"Wait." One of the other overseers approached at the sound of the commotion. He scrutinized Faluri closely, grabbing one of her hands. "Soft as goat cheese," he murmured. "You don’t belong here, despite your obvious Pacmana status. A house slave, eh?" He leered at her. "What brings you here?"
Faluri shuddered, longing to back away from his scrutiny. Yet, she also realized that he had given her a golden opportunity, and she must make the most of it. "Lord Locmana sent me here to retrieve another girl for the kitchens."
The overseer frowned. "Do you take me for a fool? His Lordship has been ill for a week. He can’t even rise from his bed. Why are you really here?"
"I’m telling you the truth. Some dignitaries are coming for a banquet tomorrow, and we’re short-staffed."
The overseer leant closer to her, his leer more pronounced than ever. "White-faced wench thinks she can pull one over on me, does she?" he chortled. "I’ll just put you to work till I can verify your story."
Faluri gaped. "Y-You’ll pay for your mistreatment of me."
The overseer laughed. "Lord Locmana could care less what happens to you swine." He shoved her toward the pit. As she fell into the gaping hole, the deep thrumming of the earth immediately pulled at her, forcing her to rise and move in tandem with its rhythm. She struggled with all her might to resist, but the pulsating heartbeat brutally pummeled her, causing horrendous pain.
"You must obey him," a little girl whispered. "If you don’t, you’ll be beaten."
Faluri gasped and turned to the familiar voice. With a strangled cry, she reached out a hand to the petite, auburn-haired girl, the only one whose ears were not pointed. "Naolia," she whispered. "It’s me."
-- The rest of the story coming soon... --
Savo'lass a lalaith,