The Quest of the Seven Keys
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“Girl!” the angry voice of Ulla shrieked. “Girl!” it screeched again, this time even more shrill. Dirt fell from the woven pallet onto the girl sleeping in the hiding pit. She opened an eye. It was still dark. Faint candlelight came through the lattice. Brushing a speck of dirt from the other eye she stretched an arm, touching the underside of the woven pallet, the roof of her hole. This was her bed, a hole dug in the floor of the hut. The hole was covered with a heavy pallet. Her mistress slept on top of it to make sure she couldn’t escape in the night. With slender arms, she hefted the woven lattice to the side and could see Ulla’s calloused feet on the hardened clay floor. The old woman was breathing heavily, the creases of her grim countenance etched deeper in the shadows cast by candlelight, a sign that another day was not beginning in a good way. “Girl, get out of there now!”
Girl wasn’t her name, nor was it all she was called: wood girl, water girl, thresher, basket hauler, beast, cast-off, cur, witch-spawn, these names were used as well. No one bothered to give her a proper name. No one dared; a name would give her meaning, a name would make her seem like one of them; a human, some child might think her a playmate; a childless mother might take her in; that wasn’t to be. It was forbidden. She remained nameless.
No one in the village of Ornia knew from where she came. A traveling merchant bought her somewhere in the mountains and thought he had struck a profitable deal. In several villages he tried to trade her before coming to the province of Leurianland. He was selling brooms and stools made in the hills and she carried them strapped to her back. He threw her in on a trade for a small handcart, a half-sack of grain, a rusted knife, and a bowl of hot sambar. Relieved to be rid of her, he rushed away as quick as the deal was done. The villagers thought they too had struck a bargain until they removed her head covering. From beneath the tight bonnet flame red hair had fallen. All who saw it looked aghast at her. Runners were sent to retrieve the merchant but they returned without him. He had vanished. All knew the proclamation of the High Lord in Tenmanchent: ‘On the pain of death, all red-haired children to be brought to the Castle Mucwiel.’
“Get out of there you lazy cur. Go fetch water.”
Crawling from the hole, she pushed the pallet back into place and picked up the wooden pails. She tried to keep her eyes averted from Ulla and to do everything right. It didn’t work. Suddenly she felt the sting of another hard slap on her face that made her head turn. “Pull that bonnet down. Pull it tight. Tie that strap,” shouted Ulla. “No, wait— lemme see.” The girl pulled the bonnet from her head and cast her eyes downward as Ulla gripped the sides of her scalp, turning it from side to side. The thick blackened nails of Ulla’s boney fingers dug into her flesh as she inspected her shaven head in the candle light. She eyed each hair, stubble tinged with green dye from the wild walnut trees, and then she grunted, “I see it. I see it— it’s turned to red again.” Releasing the girl’s head she grabbed her by the shoulders, giving her a violent shake. “Why do you insist on growing so much hair?” she shouted. “I told you to rub it, rub it every night with the husks. Rub it away.”
“I do it every night,” the girl’s voice quaked as tears flooded her eyes.
“Tie that bonnet strap tight and don’t come out without it tied again. Go fill the pails and fetch them here. Be quick and get husks from the trees at the stream. I’ll scrape your head tonight after you dig the field. You’re digging that whole south field or it will be lashes for your backside.” The girl nodded, grateful to Ulla for letting her off so lightly this time. She remembered other times when boiling water had been poured on her head and hot coals had singed her scalp. Though she feared the old woman, she also wished to please her. She felt pity and tenderness for the woman’s aged frailty. She didn’t blame her for hating her hair. Like all others in the village, the girl felt the curse of her red hair and she despised it.
It was Ulla who had spoken for her to the village elders. When most said that she must be given to the first Tenmanchent patrol to pass and others said she must be burned and buried before anyone found out, Ulla stood ground for her. She was an old woman without sons, she said. She needed someone to haul water and wood. She would hide the girl and keep her from sight. Claiming the girl as her rightful property, she said the rusty knife traded to the merchant had been hers. She would at least get her works worth out of the girl before she was disposed.
Girl made her way through the morning fog into the forest and to the brook where the water would be gotten. Her feet stung. The ground had bits of hard ice, dew frozen in the night and yet untouched by the sun. Nearing the stream, she was greeted by its gurgling sound. In the high treetops, the first rays of dawn caressed birds from the slumber of their nests. The small birds of the forest sang their waking songs of the red berries in the bushes, sun warmed skies for flight and of the sparkling water for an afternoon bath. They sang to one another so the whole forest could hear, and in their song they sang praise to the creator, whose love had made the world appear.
Girl still understood these songs, not in the language of her race but in her heart. The filling pool was just below a waterfall where crystalline water tumbled over a fallen log. A sparrow, noting her early morning intrusion, flitted up from the bank singing of her arrival at the brook. Girl watched the flight with rapt curiosity. The bird seemed to be speaking to a great black rook, a giant crow-like bird that was yet sleeping on the lower branch of a nearby tree. The small bird flew directly at the larger ebony feathered bird and fluttering its wings squawked loudly until the rook opened its eyes. Setting the buckets aside the girl crouched to the pool’s edge, cupped her hands and splashed the cold water against her face. Looking up the stream, she wished she could follow the water to its source, but knew that she could not. Ulla would not let her to go further than the forest’s border. If she fled, the village boys would track her with their dogs and bring her back.
Listening to the sound of the water as it fell and swirled along its course, girl sat beside the stream. The sound, almost joyous at times had more of a mournful tone this day and it made her listen all the more. As she sat still and listened to the brook song, she thought she could make out words gurgling from within the water. “Help us Karolyn! Karolyn help us!”
Staring at the waterfall, the center of the sound, she could almost make out what appeared to be a face peering back from within the water. Pale and translucent the face had green eyes, a pointed nose and round chin. The face appeared, was washed away, and reappeared. “Find us! Help us!” it seemed to say.
“The time has come,” said a voice from behind. Girl jumped to her feet and spun around, expecting to see one of the village boys standing there. They often taunted her, even threw stones at her, when their elders weren’t there to see. The large rook she had seen earlier was now perched on a branch just behind her. Girl searched the forest but no one else was standing near. Cocking its head to the side the rook peered back at her. “You are surprised that I speak in your language?” it asked.
Girl felt her legs trembling. “No,” she said. “I mean, I know that birds talk and sing to each other. I sometimes think what they might be saying.”
“But you didn’t expect me to speak to you?”
“You are a rook.”
“Aša,” said the rook. It was a word that the girl had never heard before yet she knew in the instant of hearing that it meant ‘truth’. “This is one of my forms, one that suits these surroundings. If I came as you once saw me I’m afraid we would need a much larger forest.”
“What do you want with me?” asked the girl.
“Rooks often speak when they have something to say, but seldom do they speak unless it is of great importance,” said the rook, ignoring her question.
“Why do you speak to me? I’m not important,” said girl.
The rook laughed. It was a great hearty laugh, the kind of laugh that rolls up from the heart like a song, a laugh that emanates from profound irony marinated with genuine meaning.
“Why do you laugh? I’m a slave. I don’t even have a name.”
The rook nodded. “That is your salvation,” he said. “As ordained, you are to embark now, for you are by far more than you know and you have far to go. I send you into the darkness, a lamp of innocence. There you will face seven trials, pass them all and your small flame will bring light to the world.” Stretching out his wings once, he glided off his branch and landed at her feet. “And this too, for now, is your salvation.” He stretched out one of his wing tips and touched the calf of her leg. The forest lit with the pink glow of sunlight. “I will be with you, always,” whispered the rook.
Girl looked down at her feet and the rook had vanished. She searched the treetops but he was not there. His words faded from her memory. She knew only that a large black bird had landed near her feet. Its wing had touched her as it flew away. Small birds still fluttered through the forest canopy, singing, but now their chirrups and peeps sounded like simple bird songs, the meaning of their words did not form in her mind. The brook’s gurgling sounded like water always should, a constant gargling babble, nothing more. Girl did not worry or wonder at these things. She smiled and filled her buckets, glad that the sun was finally up and the ice would be melting from the path. Ulla would be waiting impatiently at the hut.
READ ON: The story continues In The Quest of the Seven Keys
Published by Top Drawer Publishing
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Copyright © 2012 D.G.Stebbins All rights reserved.
This book is copyright material and must not be copied,reproduced, transferred, distributed, licensed, or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the author. Unauthorized distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.Any resemblance between the characters and persons living or dead in Azmerith is purely deliberate. Any resemblance between the characters and persons of Earth, living or dead, is coincidental.
There was once a girl, born on Earth of a mother from another world, foretold to bring justice and harmony to the enchanted land of Lemuria. That girl died, trapped by the spell of an evil river. Her soul was captured by the corrupt Masters of Rebirth, but she escaped the chamber of souls with little but vague dreams and an unexplained call of destiny to guide her in a new life, that of an orphaned slave.
WHAT ARE THE KEYS?
The keys were made by Gaff, the god-like creator dragon who slumbers in the Lake of Light beneath the mountains of the ancient kingdom of Azmerith, a legendary land beyond the sea.
Each of the magical keys was given to a different race of beings as they left war-torn Azmerith to settle on the new continent of Lemuria. Each represented one of the great virtues of true magic. But, over time, each had become lost, their magic forgotten, their power faded. It is only through the virtues of Aunan that the keys may once again be found, united, and their power renewed.
Perused by Akvan trackers, demons from Persian mythology, riding sal’awa, a jackal-like beast with square ears and dagger-like fangs, Aunan must find the keys and unite their power to prevent her own land from falling under the rule of the Evil High Lord of Tenmanchent.
Yet finding the keys and saving Lemuria from the dreaded High Lord isn’t the only destiny of Aunan. Within her soul lies a mission from her previous incarnation, that of Karolyn Cole, fifteen-year-old Catholic School brainy girl who drew spooky gothic drawings of dragons and mystical landscapes. As Aunan travels, her own consciousness growing, she gradually discovers and recovers her true mission as the history of her soul becomes clear. It is through the merging of the life of Aunan with her past life as Karolyn that her true quest is reborn.