Crystal Embers: Chapter 4 – Past, Present, Future

Crystal Embers Cover

Below is a sample chapter from my upcoming novel, Crystal Embers. Please pre-order the digital copy here. Physical copies will be available July 1, 2019. Regular movie posts continue below.

This was not the same man who had gone to war six years before. That portrait Virginia kept in her mind had been gentle and sweet. He had been joyful at even the smallest of things. He had loved her. This man who had fallen asleep so quickly was nothing like that. He had scarfed down every meal like a wild animal. He had barely spoken a word to her. He had made love to her like he would ride a stallion into battle. Everything about him was demeaning and unpleasant. She recalled the striking image he had left in her mind, like a work of art hanging on the walls of her imagination. There was such a royal bearing in that picture. Such handsome but smooth features on his face, from the elegant aquiline nose to the well-groomed chin. He was dressed in the finest livery and silks. He stood straight and looked thoughtfully to the future. But the man snoring loudly next to her was different. His hands were gruff and scarred with so many cuts that they made the well-kept hands in her portrait seem like those of a pampered child. He had received so many bruises to the face and broken his nose at least once so that the boyish good looks had been replaced, not by manly and dignified aging, but by the countenance of an ugly war. Perhaps she had been naïve in expecting her painterly visage to ride in on some great steed. And yet, while this man bore little resemblance to the one who had left, he was still her husband. Those lips, cracked and split more than once, were those she had kissed at her wedding. Those torn hands belonged to her husband. When he had run that finger along her cheek, she had felt their softness despite the physical roughness. It had only been a moment, but she had learned beyond question that the stranger before her was Sir George of Tanner.

She thought of the stories that she had heard of him, or at least those that she had attributed to him. Could he have accomplished so much? She could see her newlywed young man, the one in her mind, hoisting flags above parapets and gloriously charging into battle with little fear due to the skill of his blade. She had always imagined him magnanimous and gracious in victory. For a moment, she replaced the portrait she had maintained for years with the man who had returned. Perhaps the victories were easier to believe, she admitted to herself, but the illustration changed. She saw more dirt and grime. More buildings stood aflame with smoke billowing up into the sky. And in his eyes and on his face she saw a grim smile speckled with blood. There was red everywhere…

Virginia pushed herself up from the bed and clutched her chest. She swung her feet off the bed and pressed them against the freezing stone floor, but she could not bring herself to lay back down. Her thin white nightgown hung loosely around her as she closed her eyes and tried to slow her quickened breaths. She listened to the sounds of the night, the chirps of crickets and single hoot of a distant owl, as she studied the feeling of cold that ran through the soles of her feet. There was something strangely appropriate and calming about how the stone refused to warm to her touch, and how her skin continually cooled. It felt familiar.

What could she do? Her family was hundreds of miles away. She knew her father was dead, killed by a band of marauders on his own property, and that her mother was likely with him. Her last word from any of her family was a single nonchalant letter written by her aunt two years before that had talked of some of the more superficial effects of the war on her home estate. Virginia’s work on the plantation of her adopted home never felt particularly meaningful. She had been obliged to perform her duties out of deference to her position and her husband’s absence, but it had been a task she had dealt with out of necessity instead of fervor. She was happy to be free of the burden, but she wasn’t sure if the replacement was any better. What replacement was there? she wondered. Tending to a thinly veiled animal in her husband? Maintaining an empty house? And then there was Francis…poor sweet little boy. He had been such a vibrant child. His daring had always made her nervous, but she could only control him so much. He had climbed onto that roof before, and the servant girl had been with him. What could have gone…

A dim light from outside the window caught her eye. She stood up and lazily walked to the opening, peered out, and saw the remote glow illuminating a patch of field a couple of miles northward. If she had woken to that sight a few weeks before, the scene would have elicited feelings of dread and panic. In that radiance she would have seen her son’s food going up in flames and her little boy starving, but now she only saw a dull light. It held no further meaning to her. It was curio, a sideshow at a fair. Something to be observed, maybe even marveled at, and then promptly forgotten. She couldn’t even bring herself to wonder at its origin, purpose, or result.

For a moment though, as she stood there, wondering how long it would take for her to lose all feelings in her feet, a black flutter passed in front of the flames. She peered forward out of mere superficial curiosity. It wasn’t long before the black shape swept by for a second time, and then a third. It was at this third pass that the shape stopped directly onto the glow, seemingly extinguishing it.

Virginia thought of just returning to bed, realizing that whatever the shape was, it was of no importance. She turned to the sight of the corrupted version of her portrait and stopped herself. She wasn’t going to be sleeping alone. She would lay down next to that scarred, angry man, under the same sheets and on the same mattress, their skin touching once again. She let the thought of the shape crowd everything else out of her mind. It wasn’t even the fire that drew her attention, only the mysterious form. She looked once again at her sleeping husband. She needed to go outside and find out what that shape was. There was no question. She would leave.

Without another thought she swept through the room and out of the house. Barefoot, she ran over the dirt paths that led through the northern fields. It was the sort of evening that would feel like the hottest summer day in the middle of winter, but felt unnaturally chilled in the middle of the year. And yet, she barely felt the coolness touch her skin. As she ran, she imagined herself flying.

Less than a mile from the house, the frantic and hushed call of a young girl shattered her illusion. It was one of the serf’s children. She begged her lady’s attention while she desperately tried to straighten her meager dress. Something was wrong, but the girl couldn’t explain in between sobs and gasps for air. All that Virginia could elicit was some words about fire and fear. It only took a few moments of prying before Lady Virginia grew tired of the effort and just told the girl to lead her on towards the trouble.

The breeze swept through the stalks of wheat as they ran, wafting that distinctly sweet scent of grain through the air. Soon, the odor was steadily replaced by that of burnt bread, as they came across a huddled pack of old men. She recognized William and demanded an explanation. His face was colored by dread and alarm, both at the situation at hand and at his mistress standing before him. When he wouldn’t answer, her tone grew sharper.

Old William stammered, looking for an answer. He explained about the disease infecting the crop and the need to burn it to save the rest.

He might have told her something about it before. She couldn’t remember. The last few weeks felt more like something closer to a dream than reality. It was hard to pinpoint any specific memories since…

She snapped back to the present and said that it didn’t explain the cowardice she saw.

The fire had attracted something he tried to explain. The old man couldn’t bring himself to say any more but instead merely pointed through the swaying wheat. The others around he refused to answer, deferring to their longtime unofficial leader. When Virginia tried to extract answers from any of them all they would do was to mumble that they didn’t know.

Virginia, finding their terror distasteful, took the dozen steps to the edge of the new clearing. Amidst the broken stalks and discarded leaves stood the pile of wheat blazing with the heat of a hundred summer days. Atop that lay a dark figure that seemed to shift constantly towards the greatest parts of the fire as though it were grasping for the hottest flames. With the intense light below and the night sky above, it was difficult to make out the shape of the thing resting above the fire. Curiosity took her a step forward. There were hushed shouts coming from behind her, but she ignored them. She could sense the danger in front of her easily enough. She could feel the threat that sat atop that inferno. Somewhere deep within her, she understood that she gazed upon death, and she still stepped forward.

She was within a hundred feet and felt the heat on her skin. She sweated through her thin gown and watched the ever-moving shape. Suddenly, the thing came alive. Large talons dug into the ground and a long dark neck coiled out from the hearth. Atop she saw red and yellow eyes lit by the red flames and a deep orange glow growing from the long neck. It was a dragon. Lady Virginia had never seen one so close. Her only memories of dragons came from the occasional distant form in the sky miles away and their descriptions from books. None of that could prepare her for the terrible beauty that towered before her. Its skin was made of black scales that looked larger and thicker the closer they were to the flames. Its wings were thick and spread out taller than the beast’s head in a dreadful display of aggression. It was the nerospina, although she had never heard it described with gold tipped horns that ran from its snout to its tail.

It seemed to be deciding whether the small woman dressed in white was a danger to it. It remained prone to attack as Virginia stood still in awe with a thought that if this thing were what would claim her life, she could imagine nothing more beautiful to take it. And in that moment, without any consideration, she began to sing. It took a moment to realize that she was humming the same lullaby she had sung Francis after his nightmares, but soon the hum morphed into the words. She could think of nothing beyond the terrible splendor displayed before her.

After a few moments, the dragon lowered its wings and wrapped them back around the glowing embers. Its neck descended as well, but the eyes never moved from Virginia. The creature peered at her, still distrustful, as though it expected her to suddenly come at her with a spear, but she just continued to sing. Soon, her legs grew tired, so she sat on the broken stalks and began to hear her servants’ continued muffled cries for her return. She turned, glared at their insolence, and waved them off, but it did nothing to assuage them or lessen their appeals. One of the younger men tried to crawl towards her, but the dragon’s glare and a guttural growl sent him back to the edge of the clearing.

Sometime later, as Virginia grew tired, she lay down where she sat. Her singing had ceased minutes, or hours, or days before, she couldn’t remember. In the face of terrible danger and the mightiest of beasts, Virginia fell asleep as comfortably as though she were in her own bed. She had no dreams. Her sleep was deep.

When she awoke the next morning, the dragon had gone. All that was left were the smoking and blackened ashes of what remained of the diseased crop. To her left sat William who, bleary eyed and exhausted, had kept her company through the morning.

She asked after the dragon.

It took a moment for William to focus enough to answer her, explaining that it had flown off a few hours before dawn while he had kept watch over her.

She congratulated him ironically for his show of bravery while she steadied herself on her feet. She immediately began to walk back towards the house.

William tried to call out after her, but she cut him off with a wave of her hand. She quickly disappeared into the field leaving the clearing and her chief hand behind to mind his duties.

Fog hung over everything as Virginia wandered through the wheat. The dew richly flavored the smell of the field and invigorated her like she hadn’t felt in some time. Despite sleeping on the ground, she was filled with energy. The dragon had awoken something within her. She had seen something of terrifying power and beauty. The dragons from her youth, those from stories and books, were noble creatures whose loyalties lied with their masters and their kings. They were intelligent and strong while also merciful and caring. She remembered the story of the knight Sir Thomas and his great red flying beast. It was during the great assault on Mordwin, the palace of the Ginmore dynasty of Rew, centuries ago. Sir Thomas had flown past the aerial defenses of the castle and landed atop the palace’s dragon stables that sat upon the west wing’s roof. Most of the Ginmore’s dragons had already died in battle, and the few that were left were engaged in combat high above the skies. It was from that perch that the dragon directed the battle, calling out orders to his kind and ordering relief for those men who surrendered. All of this happened while the knight Sir Thomas descended into the castle to find the arrogant Emperor Eli. That was how Lady Virginia saw the dragon on the hearth. It was noble and regal, filled with rightful pride and vigorous strength.

She found her way back to the house and saw the little building that had been her home for so long. She thought of the cold and empty hallways and the dusty and vacant rooms. There was nothing in there for her. Once she had been happy to see her life there, but not anymore. All she could think of was the dragon. She wanted it to return. She wanted to see it again. She wanted to feel its warmth. What else did she have?


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