Sand: the Way Out, Book I of the Dragonlady Trilogy - chapter 1 excerpt
Please enjoy this excerpt from my first dark fantasy dragon trilogy.
CHAPTER ONE: THE KEY TO VISION
The air was so still that even the waves stopped trying to move. The sand almost steamed, shifting and shimmering in the glare. The ceza gulls had retreated into shaded rocks along the cliff wall, and their calls echoed eerily down from their perches. The heat beat down without remorse, the sun ready to stake any weakness, destroy any stray breeze. It was as if the land-ocean border was working in reverse, with the fiery ground melting into the sea, pushing back any pieces of coolness that might try and bring relief.
The sea lay in front of me, unnaturally hot, steaming and angry in the harsh sunlight. Yet still it beckoned, calling out to me ceaselessly through the sound of its weak waves. I stared at it hungrily from the corners of my eyes, its sparkle catching my attention even as I kept my head down. What I would have given to feel its touch, to immerse myself in its salty, heavy motion. But I was, as ever, denied its embrace. The ever- watchful guard that stood at the edges of the trench in which I worked made sure I touched none of the sea’s comfort.
That Rising, like any other, I was working in the rocky ridge on the southern edge of the Yinn. Sweat mingled with the chalky dust that ran down my shoulder blades as I tried to pull yet another heavy, pale yellow stone out of the ground and add it to my load. My arms trembled and my shoulders ached as I tried to focus on moving faster. It was this lack of speed that had gotten me in trouble in the first place, but I had only eaten thin broth and stale bread for the last two cycles and the heat was overwhelming. I also hadn’t been allowed any time in the ocean in several moons and my body was starting to feel brittle, my scales frail. Everything felt leaden and weighty, and I moved in a stupor, half-asleep in the intense heat.
“Grashik!” the lead turkhai barked, his tough, sea-scum colored skin shining wetly as he raised his arm, whip relentlessly following.
Faster, I thought, as the lash cracked near my huddled body, but the stones kept slipping out of my shivering fingers. I struggled to wrestle yet another sharp-edged rock out of the stubborn ground. Although my hands were covered in calluses and the folded webbing between my fingers dry and torn, still my hands ached. The marks dragged on as the sun made its slow way across the sky and my pile refused to grow.
Suddenly a rough hand covered in a slimy residue caught me and threw me against a larger boulder. I gasped, afraid of being punished and yet hoping to feel anything besides the dust of rocks against my skin. I looked up and saw the turkhai sneering down at me, his mismatched tusks glinting dully.
“Te ne giras grashik han! Jurarr hasn nesh grashika leh!”
I told you to move faster! Maybe you need a little pushing.
I turn my head down, closing my eyes in resignation and pressing my face tightly against the stone. His expression should’ve alarmed me that I was out of chances, but in fact I expected little else. His desire to beat me seemed almost commonplace, as the sight of blood always excited the turkhai and their masters. I was no one different, just another small mer slowly dying. And the draonds and their servants loved to slow that dying down as much as they could.
Bright lights suddenly burst behind my eyes, twisting into a flood of red that spread fire across my back. I shuddered at the overpowering sensation, hoarse groans and whimpers slipping out of me as the guard raised his lash methodically across my shoulders, buttocks, and thighs. Despite my soft cries and the jerk of my body, I knew better than to try and move away.
He stopped after the usual six strokes, grabbed me by my neck, and threw me back towards the line. I could feel blood trickling down my spine, and the pain kept pushing quiet sobs out of my chest. But I also felt alive again. I made it back to my place in line, carefully adjusting my loincloth back to its proper position. Hearing the command to pass rocks instead of dig, I reached down, gasping at the pull of my bruised and torn flesh, and grabbed the rock I had dropped before my lashing. It was just as heavy as before, but I could feel the blood rushing in me again, my lethargy seeping out of my back in thin trails of blood. I passed the stone down the line. Then I slowly bent and grabbed another. Then again, passing each one until I had no more.
I turned back to face the hole I had been digging in. It was full of sharp angles, unyielding in its torn ugliness. My hands did not want to fight it anymore. I looked around, searching for something to help me battle the tough rock. I spotted a small shard, perhaps twice as long as my hand. I used it to help me begin forcing rocks out, trying once again to build a pile. At the edge of my vision I saw the turkhai approaching.
I must keep moving. I must keep moving.
And so I labored on, chanting nonsense to myself, chiseling and lifting stone after stone out of the indifferent ground. Out of the corners of my eyes, the ocean continued to taunt, and I lost myself in the rhythm of my body. Thinking nothing. Hoping nothing.
I thought I was complete.
As the brutal sun finally began to set, the rush from my lashing started to abate and I could feel my entire body beginning to waver. Even though I craved the sensation of feeling something other than rocks against my hands and sand against my feet, I was also afraid of getting punished again. I already hurt so much. The weakness in my arms grew, but I tried to ignore them and keep working. My trembling increased and my mouth ached with thirst. Spots kept appearing in front of my eyes.
In the midst of picking up one of the last rocks in my collection, something changed. I suddenly felt the air soften and cool. The limp breeze began to pick up and the fresh smell of clean salt slid inside my head, diminishing the stale scents of blood, urine, and rotting fish. I looked up and saw the sun slip behind the cliffs of the Yinn. To my other side the moons peeked over the distant haze of waves, one blue, one orange. I looked around to see if the other mer noticed anything unusual. But no one else was looking up. No one else seemed to notice – something – that felt pure and good.
The wind, almost as if it knew I had recognized it as clean and foreign, suddenly shimmered in the air. It gradually became visible to me as beautiful shapes, and I thought I could hear distant chimes. I saw patterns starting to form, whirling into dancing figures, fluttering hands, and smiling faces. I felt the caress of air as pleasure as it surrounded me, cooling me, embracing me, welcoming me. I knew then that it wasn’t just wind, but something alive and sentient. It was some living entity that was strong and innocent. It recognized me, somehow, and loved me.
I had forgotten those words until that very moment. What was innocence to me anymore? How hollow it sounded. And purity, justice, strength, benevolence – what could those possibly mean, lost within the suffering swarm of people surrounding me? Living in my constant state of apathy, uncaring about anything but the moment in which I existed, looking forward only to rest and water – what difference could existing beyond the moment make? Perhaps none. But when I saw whatever the Breeze was, when I felt its cool breath and loving recognition, something shifted inside me. I found myself standing straight and sure. I looked around, truly awake and aware for the first time in over twenty turns.
This is my home.
Only nothing was the same. The Yinn had changed into a desolate, miserable rise of crumbling stone and darkened windows. The only sounds that punctuated the silence were occasional screams and the sounds of the turkhai training. There was no laughter. No children ran in and around the forgotten beach. No one sang songs.
We truly are dead.
As I looked around I felt my self-imposed shell cracking. A sharp stab of pain shot through me from the inside. I grunted in shock and looked up at the sky.
This isn’t enough. We need more.
The wind swirled around me, spinning faster until it formed faces, smiling down at me in approval. My eyes widened in surprise and the faces echoed my movement, laughing at me in whispers that flew around my head. They leaned in to plant feather-light kisses against my skin – slight puffs of air that washed through me.
Just as quickly, the Breeze vanished, the shimmering shapes fading as the heat poured back in, slamming me down, taking my breath. I looked around hastily, wondering how everyone else was reacting, wondering if we were going to be in trouble for stopping our work.
But everyone was still bent down or shuffling around. Hardly anyone seemed to have moved at all.
Did I just imagine it?
But the echoing sensation of sweet bliss still roamed inside of me and I realized that feeling was something I could not have created on my own. Not half-dead as I felt.
It was real. They were real, those faces, that delighted recognition. They knew me. The Breeze held such joy…
I glanced around, knowing that I had to somehow share this feeling with everyone else - the remembrance of joy. The other mers of the Yinn needed it, too. But no one looked up.
They don’t care.
I understood then, with a clarity I hadn’t realized I still possessed, that everyone around me still belonged to me. They were my people. Mine. They deserved more. We all deserved another chance. We all needed to be able to truly live. But they were all dying.
I was dying.
We need help.
And so began my plan to escape.
Yet thoughts of escape meant I must begin paying attention to the draonds, something that only brought us Yinn-dwelling mers more layers of pain. What had others tried? Why hadn’t it worked before? And where could I go, bordered as we were by the Hguted on one side and more enslaved Yinns on the other. Was there a way left unguarded? Could I somehow save enough food for a journey I thought might at least last ten cycles? Could I even find someone to help?
This is impossible! I wailed to myself.
But my mind refused to stop creating possibilities, discarding them, and then thinking of more.
Somewhere inside I knew there was a way out. And that’s when my heart began to hope.
After Falling finally came upon us fully, the moonslight our only illumination, the turkhai-gren called out a halt. As one, we dropped our stones in place and lined up. The guards swept by, inspecting us to make sure that we were sufficiently cowed – exhausted, really – before letting us begin our pain-filled, bent-body shuffle back towards the Yinn. As we traipsed through the still-warm sand, many of the workers in front of me looked out with desperation towards the sea. They had hungry looks on their faces. I knew, were I to look, my face would reflect the same instinctual desire.
Water, sweet-salty-sultry seawater. I miss your embrace, but your indifference shows in the ebb and flow of your endless tides.
For the Yinn-dwelling merfolk, there had always been a strange relationship with living on the land half of the time. We all breathed air, but we could not live for long without the touch of water against our skins. We needed to be in the water as much as on the land, let our water-membranes float out over our eyes and hands and feet to give us vision and motion in the dark depths, let the salt water flow over our saa and nourish us, allowing the tiny scales in our skin to grow strong and shiny.
But our Lords Nabor and T’nend – oh how they knew our weakness, our need for the ocean. They knew how to exploit it. Thus, they would not let us near the water without strict supervision. Instead, a little over a turn after they conquered our Yinn, they made us weave great nets of seaweed and melay fibers, which came from the many-purposed plants that grew in twisting, pale yellow stalks along the cliffs in great profusion. They made every Yinn dweller cut their hands and rub their blood into the knotted strands. Then they took our strongest swimmers and sent them out with the nets several stones’ throw from the edge of the beach. The Overlords then used their deadforce to trap the swimmers against the woven, blood-soaked strands, killing them and utilizing the power of those deaths to fuel a barrier in the nets. That defense effectively prevented any of us from escaping out into the ocean.
The net-wall had been completed when I was still young, only eight turns, so I scarce remembered a time when the ocean was a true gift instead of a malicious trap. Since the draonds had conquered us, I’d only been allowed in a handful of times, kept to the shallows and denied a chance to really swim. The rare encounters served to keep my health at a bare minimum. It was deemed unnecessary for me as a younger mer to immerse myself on a more regular basis, as growing up away from the touch of sea-water had given me some sort of resistance to scale-rot and bone decay, which allowed me to go long periods without any contact.
Still, I could feel its pull. Every Rising and Falling, no matter where I was or what I was doing, somewhere at the edge of my consciousness - in my moments of greatest agony - I knew in exactly which direction the ocean lie. It was in me, a part of me that had never been completely shut down. Could never be closed off. And so as we walked onwards, I, too, finally turned my face towards it in longing. I, too, dared to step a moment out of line and let it whisper against my toes in the faintest caress. I, too, felt myself die a little bit more.
As I stepped back in line, I wondered faintly about what it might be like to truly escape into the sea. To always swim, held in the buoyant arms of the life-giving water. It was said that we had distant cousins who actually lived in the ocean all of the time, with bodies shaped more like fish than like people, but none among the mer had ever seen one, nor knew anyone who had.
No. There is no escape that way.
I pulled my longing gaze away from the sea and towards my home. The Yinn loomed above us, lights glittering from only a few places along the highest walls, the top of the cliff dark and distant in the night hundreds of handspan above. I could vaguely make out figures standing on guard, turkhai who kept the Upper North and Southgates secure from without… and within. Very few of us were ever allowed in the top levels where the draonds lived. And we all knew that the Wasteland lay up there, waiting and hungry. I didn’t think there was any escape that way, either.
I let my gaze slide down across the face of the Yinn. Many outer balconies and windows were unlit, either unoccupied or bricked-in. Dim flames – both natural and unnatural, fiery orange and deathly blue - shone from a few places. Those rooms were mostly used by human servants and turkhai.
But from the bottom level there still streamed a steady wash of light. It was there that the majority of the surviving mers lived, forced to sleep in enlarged rooms attached to an eating area, crammed with bodies. It was to one of these rooms that we marched.
The blurred outlines of the Lowest Eastern Southgate gradually sharpened as we approached. It stood open, waiting for our arrival. We hobbled past its rusting, salt-laden bars, which had been layered on top of the stone doors after the Takeover. A wide hallway lined with flickering melay torches greeted us, and we wound down its length until we reached the third opening on the left. The corridor actually ran the entire length of the Yinn, stretching out in a long curve that eventually made it to the Northgate. Other hallways branched out and up into various levels, filled with different work and living areas.
As sand-quarry workers, we lived in quarters that were closest to the Outside. Many turns earlier, we had lived near Lowest Northgate, digging and chiseling out rocks for the seemingly endless list of building projects the Overlords had begun. However, only a few turns ago we completely worked out all the stones in that area, eventually hitting only layers of packed shells. But T’nend and Nabor weren’t satisfied. In addition to sending out any of our products as tribute to the distant draond capital, they also decided they wanted to build statues as gifts to other draonds. Thus we were moved to Southgate where we began our digging yet again.
If breaking our hands over and over against hard, unyielding stone could be called even that.
Toiling outside was mindless labor, designed to break the strong and train the young. I had begun my captivity as a melay gatherer, forced to climb up the steep cliffs to pull up plant after plant. After five turns doing that, I was deemed too old and put in the sand fields carrying rocks - despite my small size.
Diggers were considered the most unskilled of all the Yinn dwellers. We were taught no crafts, no skills, nothing. We were simply pack animals that moved back and forth from sunrise to sundown.
My crew was filled with younger mers who had been born after the draonds came. They knew nothing else. I was one of the handfuls of workers that was neither among the youngest nor the oldest, one of the few children who had survived the draonds’ purge. I remembered when there were no other children – just me. I had been surrounded by strong mers, adults just reaching their prime. And yet, in the endless turns since, many of these eldest diggers had already died, uncles and grandfathers, backs bent and scarred. In the end they had no more strength left to give.
Fifteen turns had passed since I began hauling rocks, and I expected to end up just like them.
I knew the females were taught to cook, clean, weave baskets, sew clothes, and use simple medicines that kept us workers in good enough shape to continue moving. I used to stare at them enviously, wondering if it was better to live their lives, learning at least a little, doing something different once in a while. But then I would see their haunted faces, sometimes hear screams from the upper levels where the draonds and their servant lived. And I would harden my resolve, look away, and focus on what I was doing.
At first it was not difficult. Boys like my younger self were used to climbing the cliffs and gathering drinking water. I’d spent a few turns feeling foolishly free, naïve and secure in what I thought was important work for the Yinn. But that was before I grew old enough for harder tasks.
Some men among us were made to sculpt, build walls, and create weaponry under close scrutiny. Perhaps my childish mind assumed I would naturally be one of those. However, the vast majority of males were used to perform simple labor, forced to always move something, allowed little time for rest. Little time to heal. Little time to think.
That was where I was sent.
The smell of food pulled me out of my reflections as our line finally made it to our eating area. It was once used as a storeroom, and had three doorways that led to different halls – one to the main corridor we’d just exited, one to the medicine room and upper levels, and one to our enlarged sleeping chamber. Now the former storage space was little more than a mostly empty room with an open fire pit on one end. I only ever saw the pit lit when a large pot was hung over it. Frem, a once-fat older woman who face was lined in hundreds of creases and whose scales had long since fallen out, always stood behind the steaming vessel, a ladle in her hand and a stack of bowls next to her.
We lined up to get our small bowl of soup, picking up hardened melay rolls from a basket on the floor, the better to help us sop up every last drop. After getting my bowl and bread, I found a clear spot near the door and squatted down with everyone else, wolfing my food down almost without chewing. There were several large jugs in the middle of the room full of water and we were allowed to fill our bowls with it once we had finished eating. After drinking all I could hold, I put my bowl back in the growing stack next to Frem and made my way out and to my pallet in our sleeping area. As happened every Falling, I immediately dropped into sleep.
Strange dreams plagued me that night. Instead of the usual flashes of my parents’ deaths and other horrors I had tried to submerge, I felt, instead, the extraordinary Breeze that had floated over me. I could almost hear words mixed in the stray drafts and gusts that caught at me, and I strained and strained myself to understand them. I tried to run after the Breeze as it floated further away and left me standing alone on the beach. But as I tried to follow beyond the sand, I bumped into a wall of old, yellowed bones. I stood staring up as the Breeze floated away, its swirling caress forming faces full of goodbyes.
I tried climbing after it, knowing that if I could only make it to the top of the bones, I would find the Breeze waiting for me, ready to offer me freedom. But the bones started to move and claw against me, holding me down. Suddenly a bony hand shot out towards me, covering my face and cutting off my ability to breathe. I struggled and struggled, moaning “Freedom!” over and over again, trying to push the skeletal touch away.
I came awake, “Freedom” still tumbling from my mouth. Only, I wasn’t using the Yinn’s merspeak dialect. I said the word again, wanting to remember the feel of it in my mouth before I forgot.
I had never heard that word before, or even that language, but I knew, somehow, that word meant freedom.
It was nearly time for us to wake and head back Outside, so instead of trying to catch more sleep, I eased upwards and stretched my sore back, stiff and crusted from the previous day. I padded silently over to a waiting jug and poured some water over my bare back. It was harsh, old sea-water, but the salt in it both stung and soothed me. I craned my neck and saw that the small cuts had already closed. The water puddled around my loincloth, cooling my back as it slid down. I securely retied both ends, patting the small lump between my legs to make sure it was in place, before rubbing my wet hands against the scales on my chest. I looked down, noting their worn edges and dull green color. When my parents were alive, they used to proudly display the many shades of my scales to other members of the Yinn. But that luminescence had long faded. The scales I saw only looked worn and sick.
Just like the rest of my body.
A low note went off in our room, loud and thrumming deep in the bones. Even the most exhausted sleeper would be roused by the jarring vibration throughout his body. This sound woke us up every sunrise, giving us scarcely a half-glas’ time to line up ready for work outside our eating area. Sometimes I would skip my morning meal for the chance at a few more sand-marks of sleep, as I had done the previous Rising.
Today I knew I needed to eat and as I was already up, I headed out to the eating area. Frem was already there and waiting. This time the fire pit was hung with a huge vat of greases leftover from the previous cycle’s cooking and no bowls were waiting. I was the first person in line for my piece of melay bread, which I dipped into the leftover fish-oil. I chewed slowly, hoping to somehow convince myself that the tough roll in my mouth was enough food to last until Falling. For once, I was able to spend time licking the juices off every finger. I was also able to get in an extra drink of water, getting in line a second time - something I would not normally have had the marks for.
A second gong went off, vibrating through me, making my teeth ache, and I hastened to join the line forming outside in the Main corridor. A sure way to get a lashing was to be late in getting to the line, and if the turkhai were experts at anything, it was never varying their routines. They were always on time.
The guards arrived just as the last straggler joined our group. I gazed behind me, suddenly needing to see the weary and sluggish faces of the other mers. I saw the same blank look reflected on their faces. It was what usually showed on mine – apathy.
“Han!” he barked, startling me, and I hastily turned forward as we started to move. The hallway stretched away from us, the light filtering down through the translucent ceiling. I didn’t know what it was made of, but it wasn’t glass or clay. It was some mixture the draonds had created and forced us to use. It allowed light to shine dully through it so that no torches were ever needed to light the hallway during Rising.
A slice of white light split the corridor, glaring out ahead of us. It signaled that the Lower Southern Eastgate was open and we were to get directly back to the ditches and begin our labors. I could feel heat pouring out, the sun already working hard to wear us down. As I stepped Outside, the sand was already warming beneath my feet.
Dawn meant little to me, because the sun seemed to rise over the ocean like an avenging eye, angry that it had been forced to hide its baleful stare from us. Every Rising, the sun seemed determined to burn through us as much as it could before being forced down again.
What happened to the rain? I wondered, surprised that I hadn’t asked myself that before. I remembered in fuzzy snatches huge storms that used to batter the Yinn when I was a child. Great white flashes would light the skies, leaving shadowed afterimages that caused my inner-lids to slide in and out in distress. Those jagged bursts echoed with the furious blows of the wind that pounded against the Yinn in the same way the waves slammed against the shore, breaking apart and rebuilding themselves over and over. I would curl next to my Father in fear, my sisters and brothers present, my Mother singing a lullaby –
No. I will not think of them. Not now.
I blinked the tears away, chanting frantically to myself in an effort to bring my unusually strong emotions under control.
Dig out this rock. Put it in your pile. Now go to the next one.
I forced my aching memories back and my thoughts slowly returned to their mind-numbing repetitive chants. Several glas passed while I moved in my usual daze, thinking only of the coming break. But when the turkhai-gren called out for our mid-Rise watering, I found myself looking around, waiting, almost as if I believed that something might come back and cool me down. Instead of joining the line of workers, I started thinking about the Rising before when the Breeze touched me. The sudden desire I had for escape welled inside me and I found myself once again immersed in that feeling of responsibility for the merfolk of my Yinn. My home. I looked around and saw nearly everyone bent over, trying to massage their backs, darkened by the sun and covered in scars.
Like me. They’re all like me.
As we went back to work, exhaustion, thirst, and hunger almost abated as I found myself folding different ideas over and over in my head. There had been many failed escape attempts. Through the ocean. Across the coastline. Along the cliffs. But no one had ever managed to leave in freedom, not since Nabor and T’nend brought their army of fearless turkhai and closed our borders. How did I think I was somehow going to find a way?
But odd pieces of conversations snatched over the turns led me to the idea that perhaps our overlords were not the best nor the most talented among their dark kind. They only ever practiced a type of brute ruling, using fear and muscle to cow us. That sort of bestial efficiency was echoed by the guards, and I began to see how they might not be as effective against guile. Granted, I had never been one for understanding guile – I didn’t even know the word at the time. Yet even as a child I had been thoughtless and carefree, saying whatever ideas came to me at the time, making observations from my innocent – and spoiled – point of view.
But it occurred to me that maybe the turkhai did not understand subtlety, which just might help me find a less confrontational way to try and escape. I hoped that T’nend and Nabor’s lack of interest in the Yinn might have spread in small ripples throughout my home, infiltrating hidden crevices and forgotten doorways, making even the lowest and dullest guard feel secure in the docility of the conquered mers.
Truth be told, I wasn’t sure there wasn’t more than enough evidence to support that. In the beginning right after the aftermath of the Takeover, the changes had been constant, exhausting, and brutal. Escape attempts and tiny rebellions were quelled with hardly an uproar. Our futile resistance was whipped away nearly before it began.
All those babies, their sweet-faces melted–
I struggled to banish the image, more than I’d struggled in years.
The memory kept flashing vividly, bright as the blood in which they made us bathe.
Yes, killing off all the children under five certainly broke the will of nearly any able-bodied resident.
I shuddered inside, my throat closing tightly in an involuntary reaction as I tried to fight back my unexpectedly traitorous mind, which had apparently not forgotten as much as I’d believed. Or at least, as much as I pretended to believe.
That wasn’t to say that there hadn’t been any attempted breakouts or plots to kill off the overlords, but the perpetrators had all been stopped, caught, and quashed in so many certain ways that no one had attempted anything of that sort for many turns. And perhaps, in all the time since, secure in their victory and content with their daily cruelties and our meek acceptance, the draonds had relaxed their vigil.
Enough, yes, to give me at least a glimmer of a chance. I will find those lost crevices, I will open those forgotten doors, I will tread dusty halls. That’s what I –
The crack of a whip startled me out of my manic self-chanting, my plans falling away in the vicious glare of the heavy salt-water and never-ending smell of rot. Such rot. Decay fed my enemies – our enemies – and kept away any thoughts of comfort.
Could there truly be any chance against that?
One of the other workers screamed from down the line, and I heard the sound of the turkhai beating yet another one of us. The desolation in my heart pounded at me as I bent down and pulled up a heavy stone.
A chance for what? I hopelessly wondered, my thoughts scattering away from me in the face of the brown rocks tumbled on the ground in front of me, feeling the scrapes from their rough edges stinging against my skin. What, you useless thraik? I am nothing, nobody. I can’t do anything for anyone.
Not even myself.
I cowered and struggled to move just a bit faster, carry just a bit more, eager to please the turkhai-gren and avoid any unnecessary lashes. The fresh wind from the cycle before had long since died and despite all my hoping, hadn’t returned. In less than a moment I easily slid back into the mindless repetition, thinking nothing, blank-faced, scuttling back and forth with the other mers, our movements echoing those of useless chum.