Here’s the second chapter from Flamestone. Awful title. This one follows Ark Noon who I think is probably, in my mind, the main protagonist of the books. I’ve taken Ark’s name and the first chapter from a book/novella I wrote called, surprisingly, Ark Noon. He’s going to get some crap thrown at him the poor bugger. First off, let’s kill his dad!
Ark pushed the oar down into the water and the little boat slid calmly between two hill-isles. The rain was coming down heavy now, soaking his thin jumper, but he didn’t care, he liked the rain and how it fell on the water of the lake, dancing on the surface, a relentless joining of water to water. He pushed his hair away from his face. A drop of rain rolled down his nose and dangled at the tip before more rain washed it away.
He glanced back at the day’s catch. Two big pike and a young trout. That wasn’t bad. The trout would do for supper and he could salt the pike. But he wasn’t done yet. He knew a better spot just beyond the High Isle to the eastern end of the lake not far from the Farro’s farm. He smiled at that. Maybe he could fish for an hour and then row to the Farro’s. See Clarra. Kiss her again. He would row through a storm for that.
As he rowed on he thought of her. They had been up on the hill above the Farro’s farm. Clarra’s father was calling the dog in. It was sunset and the lake and hill-isles where bathed in a burning orange light. They were lying on their backs staring up at the sky. And then, at the same time, they had turned to each other. Clarra laughed and as she laughed he kissed her. It wasn’t a long a kiss. Just one small kiss. And when their lips parted her father was calling for them. She stood and brushed grass from her dress. She smiled and then she was running down the hill to her father. Ark had stayed there for a moment. Lying there. Realising that he had actually kissed Clarra Farro.
The High Isle was shrouded by rain. He could just make out the old ruins of Tenber’s Fort at its top. He looked west to where the Farros had their farm on their own little hill-isle. The lake was full of isles. The Lake of Small Isles it was called and though he had never counted he knew there must have been over a hundred little isles, all of them hills breaking the water, some large enough for farms, for sheep to graze and cows to munch, some just about big enough for a single cottage and some too steep and high for anyone to settle on them. The High Isle was that type. A little mountain rising from the dark lake waters and yet long ago someone had built a fort there to watch over the lake. Ark had climbed the High Isle himself many times and walked about the ruins. The islefolk called it Tenber’s Fort though no one knew who Tenber was. Ark had found a coin there. It was silver, his father had been sure of it, but whatever had been depicted on the coin had long been worn away. The only small mark left looked to Ark like the foot of a lion. Sometimes he would hold the coin and wonder if it had come from far across the world. Maybe it was an Ironlander coin, maybe it had depicted one of the old Runehawk kings or it could have even come from over the Hedge Wall in the Stone Land, his father’s land. Sometimes he would hold the coin and close his eyes and wonder if it really was a coin from that strange land of warlocks and Power.
He rowed on until he came to the mess of willow roots where he knew salmon liked to hide. He had always caught plenty there in the past and so he let the rain soak him and cast his fishing rod and waited.
Evening came though the sun had long been concealed by clouds. A gloom fell over the lake. The rain finally stopped and a chill breeze swept over the water. Ark shivered as he fished and chided himself for not bringing a cloak. He had been in such rush to get out that morning. He knew why. He had known he would end up rowing to the Farro’s, to Clarra. He glanced west again. He couldn’t see any lights from their isle which was strange. Clarra’s father, Hew Farro, should have been home by now and set the lamps in their cottage burning. Whenever Ark came to the willows he could always see their cottage. In the day it was easy because there was a straight channel all the way to their hill-isle from the willows with no other hill-isle blocking his view and of an evening with their lamps lit it was a beacon not just so he could row to Clarra but also so he could row home. He and his father lived on a hill-isle not a mile west of the Farro’s and so all he had to do to find his way home was row for the light of the Farro farm. Yet tonight there was no light. Only darkness. Only an after-rain gloom and the deepening dark of night. He shivered again and was just about to pull his fishing rod in and give up trying to catch salmon when he heard the hawk.
Looking up he could just make it out. A black shape hovering over the water to the north. He watched it. He loved watching hawks and there were always plenty of them over the lake because there were plenty of rats and mice on the isles and a fair amount of pigeons too. Good feeding for hawks. He watched as it patiently waited for its chance. It had its eye on something. Soon, he knew, it would dart down towards a hill-isle and then rise with a catch in its talons. It would cry and wheel away back to wherever it nested. He held his breath. It was silly but he was trying to be as quiet as possible as if any sound he made would disturb the hawk. He could hear the lake water lapping at his boat and feel the boat’s gentle sway. In that moment of waiting for the hawk to dive the water seemed as loud as a heaving ocean and the boat’s sway felt like he was being thrown this way and that on tumultuous waves. Everything was heightened in the waiting. And then the silence was torn apart by a crack of musket fire.
Ark jumped and his fishing rod fell from his hand with a splash into the water.
The hawk plummeted fast. It wasn’t diving. It wasn’t hunting. It was dying and he watched it fall faster and faster until it was gone.
Ark could hear his own heart beating hard. Pounding in his ears.
Musket fire. None of the islefolk would ever shoot a hawk, he doubted any of them even owned a musket, that was a rare weapon even in the Iron Lands.
His heart sank. He knew suddenly what was happening. The words of warning his father had repeated to him came flooding back. He felt sick.
They will come for me one day, son. They will come for the stone and when they do they will kill me.
He forgot about the fishing rod and he grabbed the oar. He rowed hard west. He rowed past the Farro’s hill-isle without even thinking about Clarra. He didn’t even glance to their cottage to see why the lights were out. He just rowed.
He was drenched with sweat as well as rain by the time he reached the hill-isle he had lived on his whole life. It was a tiny isle, just big enough for their little cottage and a copse of pear trees. As neared home he stopped rowing and let his boat drift towards the reeds which surrounded the hill-isle.
He could hear voices.
He put his hand in the water and gently ebbed the boat deeper into the reeds. He was down beneath the pear trees and he could just see through them to the back of their cottage. The evening lamps were lit. He laid himself flat in the boat and listened.
The voice speaking was not that of an Ironlander. It was a strange accent, not gruff and hard like an Ironlanders. It was flowery and lilting. A foreign voice and one that Ark knew belonged to somebody of high birth.
The warlocks will find me one day.
His father had never told him the whole story but from time to time he would sit Ark down and remind him of the danger they lived with every day. Somebody wanted to find them. They were hiding. Somebody wanted to hurt them.
When he was little he would ask his father questions but he would get no answers. Only the repetition of that mantra of warning. They will come for me one day, son. They will come for the stone and when they do they will kill me. The warlocks will find me.
Now listening to the man’s voice Ark knew he was listening to the voice of a warlock from the Stone Lands. A warlock like his father had once been a warlock.
“Where is it, Bened?” asked the man. He asked it like he had it asked it over and over before. Tired and angry.
“I told you,” came his father’s voice and it was a defeated voice. Ark knew then that they had already beaten his father. He couldn’t see anyone from the reeds but he knew his father’s face would be battered, bruised and bloodied. He could hear in the difficulty with which his father spoke. Bruised and bloodied lips spoke the words. “I threw it into the water.”
The warlock sighed.
“Why don’t we just kill him and burn this place to the ground,” said a second voice.
The warlock didn’t answer.
“Bened,” he said, “you stole it, you know that. It was not yours to take, it was mine. All I want is to have back what is rightfully mine. Nobody needs to die for that.”
His father laughed.
“I told you,” he said again, “I threw it into the lake years ago. Nobody should have it, Addem. Least of all you.”
There was silence and then his father screamed out in pain.
“Why do you make my men hurt you, Bened?” said the warlock. “We were friends once. All I want is for you to be my friend one last time. Tell me where it.”
Ark knew what it was they wanted. Or where it was. Many times his father had rowed them to the hill-isle across the channel from their own. That isle was tiny. Not even large enough for a cottage. All it had room for was one ancient oak tree. The tree was carved with a strange symbol. A circle with a triangle within it.
“Did you carve that?” Ark had asked the first time they had rowed there.
“I did,” his father had said.
“Why?” Ark had asked.
“Because beneath this tree is something very special,” his father told him. “You have to remember this place, Ark. When they come for me you have to come here and take what is buried here. Take it far away and never let them find you. Do you understand?”
Ark had nodded. He hadn’t understood then, he had been only six that first time but over the years he had grown at least to understand the importance of what his father was telling him. Now, ten years after that first visit to the oak, he knew that whatever was buried beneath the tree was why they were hiding. He knew that if his father ever died then what was buried would become his responsibility.
He heard an owl hoot.
“I can’t help you, Addem,” he heard his father say, every word an effort, “I told you. It’s gone.”
“You’re a fool, Bened Noon,” shouted the warlock and then his father screamed out again. Ark heard something heavy connecting with bone over and over. His father screaming out with pain but never begging for mercy. He was taking what he knew he had to take. He knew he was going to die.
Ark wanted to leap from the boat, to run to his father, to save him, but he knew that was folly. He was sure there were more than just two Stonelanders there. He could hear others moving about, breathing, boots stomping through mud, waiting for orders. And he had no weapon. Only an old oar. He closed his eyes as they continued to beat his father.
“Enough,” said the warlock suddenly and for a moment Ark thought his father was saved.
He was wrong.
“Listen to me, Bened,” said the warlock. “I want you to know that when I have killed you I will burn every farm and homestead on every isle of this stinking lake and I will find the stone. I will find it and your death will have been for nothing. Do you understand me, traitor? I will kill everyone you know and as they die I will tell them you are the reason that they die. My only regret is that you have no family I can hurt before I end your life. That would give me small pleasure at least, watching you see your family die.”
They don’t know about me, thought Ark.
His father said nothing to the warlock’s words. Ark could hear his laboured breaths and the warlock’s boots sloshing back and forth through mud. Making a choice.
“Have it your way,” said the warlock at last.
Ark heard the blade slide from its sheath. He had to bite down on his jumper to stop himself shouting out for them to stop. He knew what was about to happen.
“You’ve lived like an Ironlander long enough,” said the warlock, “you can die like one.”
There was a whoosh of air. His father didn’t cry out. There was the sound of bone breaking. A thud as something hit the mud. Then silence.
Tears streamed from Ark’s eyes but still he didn’t move. He lay in the boat hoping that they wouldn’t come down to the reeds. The boat was still, that was good. The reeds were close together so the water wasn’t rocking the boat. He was as quiet as he could be.
“Burn the place,” said the warlock, “burn every island on this lake. Do it quickly, I can’t stand one more day in this land.”
“What about the stone?” asked the second voice.
“It’s not here,” said the warlock and then he paused. Ark felt suddenly like he was being watched. That was ridiculous. He was well hidden by the reeds but all the same he felt like he was being sought out, looked for. “Wherever it is,” said the warlock and the feeling left Ark, “it will come to me eventually. It is mine. It will return to me.”
Soon Ark heard the crackle of flames. Black smoke billowed into the air. Darker than any cloud that day. The moon was blocked out. He heard a large boat being pushed off into the lake, oars dipping and splashing as they touched water. He listened as the boat moved off away from the isle and only when he was sure it was gone did he move.
He didn’t go to his father. He didn’t want to see what they had done to him.
I have to remember, he told himself.
When they come for me you have to come here and take what is buried here. Take it far away and never let them find you.
He didn’t look back as he rowed across the channel to the isle. All the air was full of black smoke now and it was hard to breath but he jumped from his boat onto the shore, his oar in his right hand. His boots sank deep into the mud. He dragged them out and climbed up the rain-soaked hill to the tree. It was hard going and his chest hurt but he made it. He knelt in front of the tree. The tears wouldn’t stop. He saw the symbol, nearly faded now. A circle. A triangle within. And as he cried he dug and dug. He dug all through the night and the when the sun rose rain came again and put out the burning but the world didn’t lighten. Too much smoke obscured the sun. Once he looked off to the east. He saw fire there and beyond that more fire. He thought of Clarra but he kept digging. He cried for his father and he cried for Clarra. He remembered her kiss, how her lips felt, how she tasted, how her hair smelled. He shook his head. No, he told himself, she’ll be okay, she’s alive. And he dug on until the oar snapped and then he dug with his hands, scooping great clumps of mud out until at last he felt it.
The box was a simple thing. It was no bigger than his hand. Walnut and unadorned. It wasn’t even locked. He had thought it might be at least locked when he lifted it out. He hadn’t known what to expect but the box seemed light. He remembered the Stonelander’s question. What about the stone? But the box seemed so light that it might be empty.
He wiped the sweat from his brow. The tears were gone now. He was done with that. He was too tried for that. He stood, his legs shaky and his back aching, and he held the box in his hands. He stared at it. He didn’t want this responsibility. He wanted his father to be there. He wanted to go out in his boat and fish for salmon in the willows. He suddenly remembered the pike and the trout. His father loved trout. Had loved trout.
Take it far away and never let them find you.
He lifted the lid slowly to see the thing his father had died to protect. The thing that was his to protect now.
And when he saw what was inside he almost laughed.
Just a stone. A grey stone, smooth and plain. Sometimes he and his father would stand at the shoreline of their hill-isle and skim stones over the lake. Stones like this one. They would throw them, one after another for hours on end. His father could never get his stones to skip but Ark could. He could make them bounce four times before they vanished beneath the surface. He lifted the stone from the box, dropping the box to the hole, and walked down to the shoreline. He held it up as if he might throw it, skim it until it fell forever forgotten beneath the water. Every hill-isle for miles around had been burning. Plume after plume of black smoke rose high. But he didn’t throw the stone. Instead he closed his hand around it and in the silence of his world burning he heard his father’s voice as clear as a hawk’s cry.
Take it far away and never let them find you.