With the defeat of the Greater Gorgone, Kazari has survived her first ordeal as a Hunter. But the battle left both her body and mind scarred. As Kazari’s training intensifies, the nightmares that haunt her sleep threaten to overwhelm her.
Kazari has learned a great deal as a Hunter and Dancer, but she is still the only one who can sense when a demon from Beyond – a gorgone – is nearby. And as the Lady’s followers prepare themselves for war, it becomes clear that Kazari will become one of the Lady’s greatest weapons – if she can overcome her own fears.
But the threat to Albatar is rising – and evil lurks in surprising places.
'Dark Days is the 2nd in The Albatar Chronicles - following on from Amethyst Pledge - by Aussie author Leonie Rogers and it was exceptional.' Brenda Goodreads
'... both wonderful and frightening, I became so invested in the characters of Kaz and Sendar that I didn't want anything awful to happen to them!' Alayne Goodreads
'I love the way this series is developing ...' Carolyn GoodreadsA fabulous start to a new series, exciting, un-put-downable, and with a very interesting plot and characters - Alayne Russell, Reviewer
A fabulous start to a new series, exciting, un-put-downable, and with a very interesting plot and characters - Alayne Russell, Reviewer
Wow! This was a solid 5/5 stars ... such a fantastic read! Penelope Doucet, Goodreads Reviewer
This book surprised me in all the best ways ... and I can’t wait for the second part! Franzi Flick, Reviewer
I loved this book! ... The book held my attention right from the beginning. I would give it 6 stars if I COULD! Estella Hagin, Reviewer
An exciting page turner - Renee Brown, Librarian
Rogers gives the reader a worthy yet relatable protagonist, with interesting, likeable support characters, and presents them in a fascinating arena ... Likely to appeal to readers of all ages, this is an excellent beginning to a what promises to be an intriguing series. Marianne Vincent, Goodreads Reviewer
One is swept along, as a reader, in an unrelenting current of effort, startlement, and emergency that simply does not allow beaching ... I’ve seldom found myself so smoothly engaged by such intimately detailed and professional-level writing - D Sutton, San Francisco Book Review
Kazari bent over, gasping and dry-retching. Her heart thumped wildly in her chest, as she braced herself against the cold stone pillar outside the gate into the Abbey’s grove. She’d taken to running around the entire Abbey grounds, hoping to tire herself out in order to sleep soundly enough to drown out the echoes of the gorgone’s voice. A voice that still haunted her dreams and stalked her meditations.
Each morning she ran, but whether she was trying to chase the words away or run from them, she wasn’t sure. At least for the minutes when she pumped her legs and arms, pushing her body to its limits, the voice was held at bay.
Now, as she leaned on the cool stone, fighting the urge to vomit from the effort, she wished with all her heart that the physical act of throwing up could rid her of the memories of that hateful voice. But of course, it wouldn’t.
A stench, as if the smoke from a fire had swept across a decaying corpse, struck her nostrils, and Kazari spun in place, heart pounding anew. Nothing. She sniffed, despite her heightened nausea, as her limbs quivered and phantom pains tingled through the scar on her face. Again, nothing.
She drew a deep breath through her nose once more. Was she mistaken? Had there really been the smell of gorgone on the wind, or was her imagination playing tricks on her? She took a few steps away from the pillar, eyes travelling over the trees and bushes that surrounded the Abbey.
The chilly light of dawn played muted colours across the landscape, and the surrounding vegetation was indistinct without the brightness of the sunlight to delineate branch and leaf. Kazari’s pounding heart was so loud in her own ears that she wondered if she’d be able to hear anything nearby anyway. Once again she drew in a breath, trying to sustain the inhalation while her body fought the slowness, still starved of oxygen from her run. Still nothing.
She turned away, convinced her memory was playing tricks. But then, from the corner of her eye, something moved. She spun back again, automatically going to a half crouch, weight centred, both hands seeking the knives at her belt, while the memory of the enormous gorgone that had assailed the Abbey all those months before sent a fresh surge of adrenalin surging through her veins.
Nothing moved. Nothing stank. The first tremulous rays of sunlight dragged themselves above the horizon to her left, and second by second the leaves and branches came into clear focus. The evergreens stood out starkly against the bare branches of their deciduous neighbours, and Kazari forced herself to relax, muscle by muscle. She crouched there for a few more minutes, half convinced there was a threat to the Abbey while the other part of her told her off for being hypersensitive, still traumatised by Suborden. Finally, after another indrawn breath that smelled only of fresh air, Kazari turned back to the gate in the stone wall and entered the grove.
The back of her neck continued to prickle, however, and her shoulder blades twitched.
Now, as always, the grove breathed a little serenity into Kazari’s turmoil. She eased herself to the ground near the tree at the centre, and sat cross-legged in the faint dawn light, allowing herself to breathe deeply of the chilly air. Slowly, she sank into slow, measured breaths, as Andiss had taught her. She allowed the process to calm her racing heart and still her quivering limbs, until she was ready to examine the nightmare images that stalked her, and the sounds that seemed burned into her mind.
Lady, why? She prayed. Why? The Lady’s voice was silent, but the calmness of the grove spoke deeply of her care, even though Kazari wished desperately for answers that never seemed to come. Night after night she’d awoken, mind in turmoil and full of images of fire and death. Andiss and Javon called them flashbacks and had told her it wasn’t uncommon for a Hunter to be haunted by images of the gorgones they’d faced. They’d encouraged her to speak of the fears they dredged from her soul. Both had listened to her describe her nightmares with compassion – not condemnation. And, of course, they’d all heard the voice of the greater gorgone, so Kazari knew they understood – at least a little.
She used the moments of stillness to work through her sudden panic outside the grove, trying to sift the sensations dispassionately, and to focus only on what she knew. Mind you, she thought to herself, that meant pretty much everything left her disquieted right now.
Life in the Abbey went on as normal, but there was a hovering angst that had begun to colour each moment. Messengers came and went more and more often. Kazari’s fellow initiate, Abel, a Navigator, had been in and out of the Abbey frequently. When she’d asked him what he was up to, he’d shrugged and said it was just normal training – but he hadn’t met her eyes. And she knew from Javon and Andiss, that every sept had increased the rate at which the new initiates were being trained, and from her own experience in Suborden, she knew that the learning went well beyond what a new initiate would have otherwise been exposed to. The events she’d been involved in at Suborden had changed the feel of the Abbey from one of comforting routine to one of routine underpinned with an air of unspoken urgency.
Images of the fire gorgone seared her closed eyes, and once again, she heard its master’s words echo in her mind. ‘You think you’ve won? Because you defeated a fledgling infestation? Think all you like. This war is just beginning, and Albatar will fall.’ The remembered words chilled the sweat on her body. The snake woman, the hoofed woman, the searing pain she’d felt at their hands, and the fear she’d seen in Sendar’s eyes, flooded her mind once again. And then the fight with the flaming monster, won only because of Sendar’s cleverness, and because she’d been relatively whole.
She pressed her palms against her eyes, trying to blot out the images, but her hand touched the puckered line of scar that now marred her skin, and once again, the remembered threats against her family echoed like distant thunder inside her skull. ‘I see your family. I hear their fears. And I will come for them. And you will not save them, because this day, you die.’
But of course she hadn’t died, and the words had shown themselves lies. But after weeks of Kazari’s recurring nightmares, the Abbot had sent a messenger to Athos to check on her family. They were safe, and the local incumbents were maintaining a covert watch on them – and indeed the entire village. Her family was safe. She knew they were safe, but still the gorgone’s words continued to haunt her.
She traced the scar with a fingertip. The wound no longer hurt, and the scar was fading, but it was still very obvious and pulled at the corner of her mouth whenever she smiled or frowned. Even now, she was still shocked each time she looked in the mirror. Her fingertip paused at the corner of her mouth, and wetness slid down her cheek, touching her fingertip. She knew it was silly to mourn the loss of her smooth skin when the villagers of Suborden had lost so much more. But she did, and she hadn’t been able to stop.
She wished she’d heard from her family, not just of them. She hadn’t seen them for months – not since she’d left to become one of the Lady’s servants. In fact, she hadn’t heard from them once. Her parents hadn’t wanted her to devote her life to the Abbey and had actively campaigned against her choice. But in the end they hadn’t stopped her. The thought gave her hope, even if it was only a tiny one.
They hadn’t stopped her, but they hadn’t made her choice easy. Unlike most initiates, Kazari had no warm memories of her parents proudly waving her off to the Abbey. All she had were memories of the lonely walk to the village square. No mother, no father, no brothers, just little Jaden at the last moment. Jaden had come by himself and had probably gotten into trouble because he had.
Dari, her best friend, had supported her, as had Dari’s family, but they weren’t her parents. And now, if she perished fighting gorgones, all she’d have as a last memory of them was a furious argument.
Despite her meditations, even the memory of Dari didn’t warm her. Dari’s regular letters had trickled off. Early in her training, she’d had regular letters, and even before Suborden, there’d been a letter every few weeks. Now, she couldn’t recall a new one since she’d returned. Perhaps they’d gotten lost on the way. She shelved the thought and tried to resume her measured breaths, but her mind wandered back to the last argument with her parents again. Her mother’s words still haunting her. “Some of those who pledge to the Lady die, Kazari – they die, or fall into darkness!”
Well, she hadn’t died, not quite. And she hadn’t fallen into darkness, although sometimes it seemed as if the darkness was walling her in, pressing down upon her like some vast weight. When she and Sendar were trapped in the room at the mercy of the ‘changed’, the darkness had indeed surrounded them, but even then, it hadn’t taken them and they had escaped. Death had continued to stalk them, and when she thought back to the fight with the fire gorgone, she knew just how close they’d come to it.
She took another breath, drawing the grove’s cool air deep into her lungs before releasing it. Each breath a prayer, each moment an entreaty to take the dreams from her nights and the words from her mind. One day she hoped she’d wake refreshed and clear-headed again. Slowly, Kazari regained her equilibrium, until, as the sun sent its rays slanting through the trees, she felt steady enough to open her eyes and embrace its warmth. Around her neck, the amethyst on its leather thong caught and held the light, glowing momentarily, and even warming slightly on her chest.
Startled, Kazari gripped it tightly, and a few of the knots within her mind and body released, allowing her thoughts to move more freely, much as her blood had when Sendar had loosened the too-tight knots that had bound her hands in the dark cell beneath the mayor’s house. Perhaps this time, the Lady had answered her entreaties with a yes. Perhaps tonight she might sleep undisturbed.
A quiet footfall disturbed her reverie, and she looked up, startled. Sendar stood there, looking awkward.
“Sorry, Kaz. Didn’t mean to disturb you. Dreams again?”
She nodded mutely, miserably. When they’d first returned from Suborden, Sendar’s nights had also been troubled, but after a few weeks, his dreams had seemed to settle. He crouched beside her and tucked an arm around her shoulders.
“They’ll go eventually, don’t worry.”
Kazari made a face. “I hope so,” she managed. “How’s your leg?”
Sendar was scarred as well, but his wound had been much more serious than hers. With her self-healing gift, hers had become mostly cosmetic, making her guilt even worse. Sendar’s leg, despite both Kazari’s and Andiss’ help, had taken longer to heal. Even now, he still exhibited a slight limp, despite returning to the care of the Abbey’s Healer’s Sept. In the end, even the Abbey’s most gifted Healers had shaken their heads over the wound.
The Healers had told both of them that wounds were some of the easiest things for a Healer to work with – and generally resulted in unscarred skin. But neither Kazari nor Sendar’s wounds had responded in the normal fashion, and in the end the Healers had shaken their heads, puzzled. Each injury had occurred at the exact moment a greater gorgone had spoken directly to their minds. Kazari had somehow managed some kind of extra healing in Suborden, but none of the Healers had been able to shed light on what she’d done. In the end, they’d decided that perhaps the Lady had intervened when Kazari had been trying to heal Sendar, as there appeared to be no other explanation.
As it was, Sendar was still building the strength in his leg, and only time would tell if he would ever recover completely.
“You haven’t answered my question – how’s your leg?” Kazari asked, ashamed of her thoughts, when her own wound was so much less than his.
“Improving, slowly,” he replied at last. “It doesn’t hurt as much as it did, and it is getting stronger. In fact, I’m allowed to spar again today. I thought perhaps we might try a kata together, before breakfast. Fourth kata?” Touched, Kazari nodded, and stood. They separated slightly, allowing each other space, and then at Sendar’s count, began.
The ‘kata’ with its gliding movements, often performed with a partner, underlay a Hunter’s training. The fourth kata started slowly, all the movements controlled, but gradually gained pace, until the pair performing it were moving quickly, mirroring each other’s movements, as if dancing to silent music. Kazari allowed herself to fall into the rhythm of the movements, stepping from stance to stance, and allowing her arms and legs to flow from defence to offence, without breaking the measured pacing.
The grass of the grove bent softly under their feet, almost caressingly, as they moved through the forms in the prescribed pattern. The first time Kazari had seen a pair of Hunters performing a paired kata, she’d been awed, amazed by their serene, yet deadly grace. She’d never imagined she could show that same grace, but as she and Sendar moved together through the steps she at last recognised how deeply her body and soul had absorbed her Hunter’s training.
The kata’s measured pace spoke of the Lady’s love, paired with Kazari’s own fierce desire to protect her people from the threat Kazari knew all too well, and strangely, this time it both soothed her and calmed her fears. As one, the two of them moved faster and faster. The numbered katas were performed without the use of a Hunter’s Gifts, so each Hunter stood on an equal footing with the others as a mark of unity. There were others, each one designed to use a Hunter’s Gifts, but they were taught only after the Hunter was comfortable with their Gifts, and only in order to allow the Hunter to adapt their Gifts to enhance already hard-won skills. Those, they performed with others who had the same Gifts.
As they reached the midpoint of the kata, their limbs moved with almost blurring speed. Yet each movement remained precisely planned, each movement precisely executed, so that even with the height difference between them, Kazari and Sendar looked perfectly matched. A warm glow enveloped Kazari, and her dark mood lifted, the last dregs of the dreams blown to tatters by the flowing movements. At last, they stopped, poised in perfect balance, and the tension drained from Kazari in a rush, leaving her relaxed and supple.
“Perfect!” breathed Sendar, “That was perfect.” He relaxed his stance and wrapped a warm arm around Kazari. She hugged him back.
“Your leg had no trouble, Sendar! None at all!” She was so pleased for him, so relieved that he was whole again.
“No, not even a twinge.” He smiled, and she could hear the relief in his tone. “Come on, let’s go to breakfast.” He squeezed her warmly again, and she smiled up at him, her own troubles forgotten momentarily as she shared his joy.
One last squeeze, and Kazari was suddenly aware he’d released her just before the hugging became awkward. She sort of wished he hadn’t, because the warmth of human contact was one thing that kept the dream images at bay, and because she enjoyed his infrequent hugs. They’d become close because of their shared experiences, but continuously hugging her fellow Hunters wasn’t really appropriate behaviour, whether or not it helped her nightmares. She almost blushed.
He punched her lightly on the arm. “Come on, I’m starving.”
She smiled and followed him towards the breakfast hall, warmed inside and out.
After breakfast, Kazari spent several hours lifting weights and practicing on the agility course with Javon. She was much tougher than she had been, leaner yet more muscled. When she’d joined the Hunters sept, she’d been short and stocky, with luxurious curly hair. Now, she was still short, but her stockiness had begun to give way to firm muscling, and she’d found unexpected strengths within her compact frame. Her long locks were now short, tightly curling, trimmed as they were to the prescribed neatness of the Order, and while her skin was the same olive tone it always had been, it was now marred by the scar on her face.
Things that had been completely beyond her six months ago were now easy, and Javon had begun to concentrate on Kazari’s specific strengths. She had become proficient with her knives in close combat fighting and throwing, but a Hunter learned many weapons, not just one, and she had yet to favour one type over another.
“I think we’ll keep on working with a variety of weaponry at this stage, Kaz,” Javon suggested. “You’re flexible, fast, and getting stronger, but being a bit on the short side does limit your reach. It might take you a while to figure out what suits you best. In the meantime we’ll continue to teach you the basics in everything.”
Kazari nodded and took aim with the bow. She was still figuring out exactly how much elevation she needed for each target’s distance. But, as Javon constantly reminded her, practice made perfect. Still, her arms were trembling with exhaustion as she steadied herself for the draw. She rolled her eyes as the arrow hit the edge of the target once again.
“Well, perhaps you can bludgeon them to death with your bow, Kaz, if you can’t get the arrow reliably into the target,” Javon said, smiling at Kazari’s expression.
Later, as they stretched slowly together, Kazari found her thoughts wandering back to her morning kata with Sendar. Her face warmed slightly as she relived his hug, and she turned her body away, pretending to stretch her back, hoping that Javon wouldn’t ask why she was blushing. She was being fanciful, reading more into that casual moment of happiness than was there, perhaps, and turned her attention back to the business at hand.
Once again her thoughts wandered. How was Dari? How were her parents? And her brothers? And what had happened to Dari’s letters? Every time she thought about any of them, the hurt seemed to freshen. She sat up and began to stretch her hamstrings, enjoying the sensation of tightness running down the back of her legs. It was early spring, still cold here at the Abbey, but it would be milder in her home village. They’d be preparing for the spring celebration, a time when the whole village came together to display their wares, eat good food, celebrate, and thank the Lady for her care and for leading their ancestors to Albatar.
Homesickness struck like a rockslide, and to her embarrassment, she felt her bottom lip tremble. She masked it by changing to another stretch, and gritted her teeth deliberately, once again focusing on her breathing.
“Don’t forget the class this afternoon, Kaz,” said Javon.
Kazari breathed out and nodded, still not trusting her voice. When a novice joined a sept, the sept took care of the first six months of training – understanding what your sept did in the Order was of utmost importance. Like many others new to the Lady’s service, Kazari had imagined being part of several septs, but not the one she’d ended up in. And the Gifts that she now knew the Lady had placed within each of Her servants were unique to each sept. To get to know who you were in the Lady’s service was something that took time to even begin to understand. Letting go of your preconceived ideas about your sept was even harder. Kazari sometimes felt that she still didn’t know exactly who, or even what, she was now.
Andiss and Javon had explained that every initiate had the same doubts and fears, but not always the same experiences in the first six or so months. Sendar was almost a year ahead of her in the Hunters. He’d had much more time to learn who he was and to develop his skills, but their shared experiences had still nearly undone them both. Even so, once the initial six months were over, each initiate was expected to work with others also new to the Lady’s service. There were many things to learn in common – rules, laws and history, and the ways that the septs were bound together within the Order. Bound together but still separate in their roles within greater Albatar.
And now, with the threat of gorgone incursion more real than ever before in living memory, working together would be even more important. She’d seen hints of what the other septs could do when the greater gorgone had climbed over the Abbey wall several months before. She still wondered why it had done so, and where it had come from. It seemed so futile, and it must have known it would be defeated and killed. The thought nagged at her – usually in the dim hours of the night. Why had it come to the Abbey? And then she remembered that hint of stench in the dim light of the morning. Had she really imagined it?
Several hours later, clean and fed, Kazari took a seat in the large classroom set aside for the new initiates. A moment later, she saw the dark head of Charla, the only Adviser initiate, peer around the door frame. She patted the seat next to her, and the girl hurried over, relief evident in every line.
“So glad you’re here, Kaz. Everyone else will come with someone, and it seems so long since I’ve seen any of the others.”
Kazari nodded. She’d been training hard since her initiation into the Hunters, and then there’d been Suborden. She stopped that line of thought dead in its tracks. “I know, apart from you and Abel, it’s not like I really got to know anyone else much, either. Except for the people we came in with, of course,” she said, thinking back to the day of her own choosing. She’d not thought about Quisil for months, she realised, embarrassed. The older woman had made her decision to choose the Lady at the same time as Kazari, but as she’d been initiated into the Growers sept, they’d taken very different paths. Kazari looked around curiously, wondering if the woman was already in the room.
It was filling up quickly, and the room was buzzing with quiet conversation as people took seats with friends.
“Did you join with anyone, Charla?” Kazari asked curiously.
“There were five of us. But I didn’t know anyone particularly well, and most of them were older than me.” She shrugged. “And like you, I’m the only newcomer to my sept.” She turned sideways in her seat, taking one of Kazari’s hands. “You’ll always be my friend, won’t you, Kaz?” she entreated. “The other Advisers are nice, but I’m the first in three years, so everyone’s older than me by far. I know you’re out and about a lot, but at least you understand. I mean – you understand what it’s like to be the different one.”
A little shock ran through Kazari. She’d been so caught up in her own troubles that it had never occurred to her that Charla could be feeling lost and alone as well, sequestered as she was within the Abbey. She looked around the room again. Clumps of green jerkins sat in rows, emeralds gleaming on silver chains. A gaggle of blue robed Judicars clutched tidy folders to their chests, sapphires gleaming in copper settings. White robed Intercessors entered in a flurry, and a small group of red garbed Healers clustered together over by the door. She and Charla sat together like stripes on a bumblebee, one all black, the other all gold. Then three Navigators entered together, Abel’s long skinny body towering above the other two. He dragged the others over to Kazari and Charla, smiling a welcome even as the Abbot and all the Sept Leaders entered and arrayed themselves at the front of the room.
Like Kazari, the Navigators wore clothing in a different colour from their gems – in their case, aquamarines in silver glimmered over clothing similar to that worn by the Hunters, but multihued in earthy and green tones.
‘Designed to blend in,’ Andiss had said, when Kazari asked about it. ‘They’ve got several different sets, depending on the season.’ Mind you, Kazari reminded herself, even the Navigators wore bright blue robes for ceremonial occasions, while her own sept wore only black. She’d never thought to ask why. She filed that thought for later.
“Welcome,” said the Abbot, stepping forward to the lectern. The chatter came to a sudden stop. The tall woman in her unrelieved black was flanked by the Sept Leaders in their rainbow of robes. Andiss, her second within the Hunters, stood just behind her. “Times have changed since the day of your initiation. Then, we were at peace, and now we stand on the edge of a full blown gorgone incursion; the first for over a hundred years.” She swept her eyes over the room, the blackness of her robes making the amethyst at her chest stand out as if lit from within. Kazari looked at her – really looked. Accustomed now to Hunter training, she could see past the black robes and the amethyst, to a woman whose every gesture spoke of the potential for sudden movement. Yet her voice and her robes softened the effect, as if she were an edged weapon in a velvet box.
The Abbot paused, and the silence in the room was absolute, as if time itself had suddenly stopped. “Learning to work together, learning our histories, serving the Lady – these things are even more important than you can imagine. Each one of you will have a role to play in the days ahead. Some of you will play those parts here in the Abbey, while others will range further afield. And only the Lady knows how and where you will serve. But heed my words. We know that gorgones are abroad in Albatar. They have penetrated our borders in numbers greater than at any time in the last hundred years. When they will show their hand is unknown, but your time here together is more precious than you can ever imagine. Use it wisely, learn quickly, and work together, because Dark Days lie ahead, and the Lady calls all of us to serve in the war against evil.”
‘Dark Days’ wore its capitals again, and now the Abbot had spoken the words openly in public for the first time. Shock rippled around the room, and Charla’s hand clenched hers, her fingers pressing tightly into Kazari’s.
“War!” she said, turning her eyes on Kazari. “But…”
“Yes, war,” said the Abbot, as if she’d heard Charla. “War is coming, and we must prepare. But before war comes, you must learn all you can in the time you have left before its wave rolls over us. You have just begun your journey as the Lady’s servants, and normally this is a time of nurture and growth. Growth it will still be, but forced rather than nurtured. Your Gifts must be honed, your minds even more, and your trust in the Lady must be absolute. Heed the words of your tutors, of your Sept Leaders and your fellow servants. There is more evil afoot in Albatar than you could possibly imagine. The Lady be with you all.”
She bowed her head briefly, and then nodded to them, and left the room, striding with the strong grace of a Hunter – the weapon momentarily unsheathed before them. Kazari shook her head, almost dazed, as a gold robed Adviser stepped forward to the lectern, and she felt Charla stiffen slightly beside her, sitting more erect.
“Hear now of the heresy that stalks Albatar,” the Adviser said. Once again, a frisson ran through the room, rippling through the novices as if her words were a rock dropped into a pond. “There are patterns we can see spreading throughout our land. Listen and learn, and then you will hear how other incursions have also been heralded by a turning away of our people from the Lady’s truths.”
Kazari stepped out into the chilly air with a sense of relief. Hours of lectures later, her head felt thick and woolly, her thoughts chasing themselves around like butterflies in her skull. The Adviser had spent the first hour speaking of previous incursions and the signs that had hinted at their onset, and the next two hours on facts and figures demonstrating that those same signs were now visible.
“Do you think she’s right?” Abel asked.
“Right?” said Charla. “Of course she’s right. Haven’t you seen such things in your own home town? Kaz?”
Kazari shook her head.
“Athos is really small. If there had been those signs surely everyone would have noticed? I mean, questioning the whole idea that the Lady exists? Or that the gorgone threat isn’t real? Or that it was, but isn’t anymore?”
“My town was small too,” replied Abel. “And no, not in my town. Well, I don’t think so, at least.” He shrugged.
Charla huddled more deeply into her robes, tucking her hands, in their voluminous sleeves, under her armpits.
“I came from a large town – well, closer to a city, perhaps – maybe it’s more obvious there.”
“What do you mean?” asked Kazari, as the other girl shrugged.
“It’s fashionable to…um…” Charla paused. “Look, I’m not sure how to put this. But people sort of…talk about the Lady as if…as if she isn’t real.” The last words came out in a rush.
“Isn’t real?” said Kazari incredulously. “But our histories, Albatar’s founding, suckers for the Lady’s sake!”
“Well, I’ve never seen a sucker,” said Abel. “But Kaz is right, Charla, we have our histories, and we – us – the Lady’s servants I mean. Healers – they’re out and about doing stuff that others can’t do. How can people discount that?”
Charla drew them both down to sit on one of the steps. The chill stone bit into Kazari’s buttocks even through her Hunter’s trousers, almost as cold as the import of her friend’s words.
“We all saw that…thing…that crawled over the Abbey wall, but everyone else? They haven’t actually seen anything like that – although I suspect Kaz has.” She touched the scar on Kazari’s face lightly with one fingertip, and Kazari flinched away slightly. She nodded, just a tiny inclination of her head, but the others knew what she meant. “You Hunters do a good job of protecting Albatar. So good that the number of people who’ve actually seen a gorgone is tiny and scattered. In fashionable circles, people have talked themselves into a sense of complacency. They say things like: ‘Even if it did happen, that was long ago, and it’ll never happen again. Let’s move on.’ Or: ‘Those stories are for children. And for the Order to maintain their grip on things in Albatar. It’s time we threw off their yoke.’”
Charla drew her knees up to her chest and stared unhappily into the distance, and for a time Kazari had no idea what to say. On Charla’s other side, Abel was looking similarly dumbstruck.
“I had no idea,” said Kazari, eventually. She tucked an arm around her friend.
“Me neither,” said Abel. “But that can’t be the majority, surely. I mean, you’re here, and your parents were proud – you said so.” He waved his hand to emphasise his point.
Charla smiled at him, but it was a wintery sort of smile, and wobbly around the edges.
“They are, but…it’s also hard for them. Their friends are where I heard those things. You can imagine what their friends said when I chose. And my friends.”
Kazari sighed heavily and propped her chin on her hands. She’d had no idea that things were so different in other parts of Albatar. Or that someone could be…denigrated for choosing to become one of the Lady’s servants. Her parents hadn’t agreed with her choice, but it hadn’t been because they didn’t believe in the Lady, or doubted the Writings. It seemed she had even more to learn than she’d thought.
Several days later Kazari watched the arrow she’d just shot at the target, skitter across the dry dirt to one side of the boss, completely missing it.
“Concentrate, Kaz,” Javon said, as Kazari brushed sweat out of her eyes, and fumbled with another arrow. “You can do this. You have done this.” Javon was right. Kazari had shot arrows very effectively – on occasion. But now everything she’d learned seemed to have deserted her, just because Javon had decided she needed to try some different sized and weighted arrows.
Kazari drew and released again, trying to put every ounce of her understanding of technique into the shot, but although the arrow struck the target this time, it was on the edge, and it bounced off to join its fellows lying in the dirt. Frustrated, she reached out for another one to try again, but Javon’s hand forestalled her.
“What’s up, Kaz?”
She brushed a hand through the tight curls on her head and frowned up at Javon.
“I don’t know. I just can’t seem to do it!” The words came out with more force than she’d meant them to. “Sorry.” She looked down at the ground, scuffing at it with one of her boots.
“Is it the dreams again?’
“Maybe, maybe not. I just don’t know, Javon!” The words burst from her in a spatter of sound.
Javon motioned to the arrows scattered all over the practice ground, and Kazari ground her teeth and went to collect them. Dust marred the arrowheads, and she brushed them off on her trousers, leaving dirty smears on the black fabric. She brushed at her legs irritably, and somehow dropped the arrows. With an exclamation of frustration, she bent to collect them again, feeling tears prick her eyes. Nothing seemed to be going right.
Each class with the others seemed to provide her with more doubts, and more uneasiness. Each lesson with a Hunter seemed to demonstrate just how poorly her Hunter skills were progressing. And the coming war seemed to be rushing towards her and she knew she wouldn’t be ready.
She deposited the arrows on the table with the others, and began to wipe the dust off again, this time with a rag. Then she dusted herself off as well, flicking the polishing rag across her legs to brush away the marks that marred the fabric.
It was the first time Javon had used her full name in weeks, and Kazari was shocked to stillness. She put the rag down and looked up, not wanting to meet Javon’s eyes.
“You’re not the only one feeling the tension, Kaz,” said the older woman. “We all do. None of us expected a gorgone incursion in our lifetimes, but then, I suspect that no-one ever does. Yet we are the Lady’s servants, and she will not abandon us.”
Kazari felt a hot tear slide down her face, tremble on the corner of her lip, and then drip off. She scrubbed a hand across her face, remembering belatedly that her hands were filthy, and looked at the ground again, gripping her hands together. To her shame, she realised that her bottom lip was, once again, trembling. She tried to stop the trembling by force of will alone, but it increased, and then she was sobbing. Great heaving sobs that shook her body, and a torrent of tears that flooded her face and turned the dust on her hands to mud. Embarrassment fought with an emotion she couldn’t identify, and she dropped into a ball of misery, huddled on the ground.
A warm arm wrapped itself around her shoulders, and she kept on sobbing, unable to articulate what was wrong, what she was feeling, or even why she was crying so ridiculously dramatically. Eventually, she sobbed herself out, and sat there on the ground, drained and dirty, suddenly blank of any emotion. Javon squeezed her shoulders, and eventually Kazari gathered enough of herself together to speak.
“I…I’m sorry, Javon.”
The other woman drew back slightly, and turned Kazari towards her, looking deeply into her eyes.
“I know, Kaz.”
“And, I’m…I’m afraid. That I won’t be ready, or that I won’t be good enough, or that there’s other stuff going on that we don’t know about.” She broke off, looking down at the ground.
“Kaz, we’re all afraid,” said Javon. Kazari looked up, surprised as Javon continued. “Not one of us has experienced an incursion. Not one of us knows more than what our records tell us. But we are the Lady’s servants, and no matter what, she walks with us for all time. If I should perish, or you, or any of us, we are hers forever. Hold onto that, at least.”
“But what if I don’t, I mean if I can’t, if I…I don’t know, if I fail her?”
“Kazari,” said Javon, using her full name once more. “Can you promise me something?”
Doubts arose within Kazari’s heart. What could she promise Javon? She nodded hesitantly, uncertainly.
“Promise me that you won’t stop trying to do the right thing?” said Javon.
“I…yes, I think so, but how does that help?” said Kazari.
“Because the Lady asks nothing more than we do that. That we try to do as she wants us to, and never to cease trying.” Realisation broke over Kazari like a wave.
“You mean, that if I’m trying, even if it all goes wrong, then it’s still all right?”
“It’s still all right,” reaffirmed Javon. “Look, if it all goes wrong, it won’t feel all right, but you’re human, and I’m human, and our best is the one thing we can offer the Lady, and the one thing she requires. If we give her that, and it still goes wrong, then we have done everything asked of us.”
“But how will I know if I’m doing my best?” Kazari asked.
“Kaz!” said Javon. “If you think you’re doing everything you can do, then you just have to accept that you are. Stop second guessing yourself!”
“And stop ‘butting’ – at least for a moment or two. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions, but sometimes you have to stop for a while in order to get stuff done.” Javon rolled her eyes.
Kazari blushed, and nodded. Javon was afraid? She didn’t look afraid, in fact, she looked serene.
“Stop thinking so much, Kaz, and pick up those arrows and shoot again.”
It was as if Javon was reading her mind. Kazari shelved her thoughts with an effort of will, and bent to collect the arrows. Then, as Javon had directed, she stopped trying to ‘but’ and applied herself to the purely physical actions her teacher required of her. To her surprise, she was able to strike the target with the pointy end at least two times out of three by the end of the lesson.
When they’d put the last arrow away, Javon clapped Kazari on the shoulder, and told her to go and get clean before lunch.
“You’ve smeared dirt all over your face.”
Later, clean, dressed in another set of Hunter’s blacks, and seated next to Charla, she bent to shovel a spoonful of soup into her mouth. She was hungrier than she had been for weeks. Strangely, her emotional outburst seemed to have relieved some of the pressure that had been building inside her. She didn’t really have any answers to her questions except for ‘try your hardest to do the right thing,’ but somehow everything seemed a bit better. Perhaps it was knowing that in her doubts and fears, she was not alone.
Abel dropped into the seat beside her, his aquamarine gleaming on his chest. It contrasted quite oddly with his multihued clothing, but so did her own amethyst, she realised. The other septs matched their clothing to their gems, but both the Hunters and the Navigators did not. Then she nearly inhaled her soup as the improbable image of purple leather-clad Hunters battling gorgones popped into her mind. She coughed, and Abel pounded her on the back.
“What’s up, Kaz?”
She shook her head, sniggering slightly until he asked again.
“I was just imagining me, dressed in purple, trying to fight a gorgone. I mean, clearly the colour of the clothes doesn’t matter, but the picture looked really weird.”
Abel looked at her and rolled his eyes.
“Yes, and me sneaking through the undergrowth in bright blue, pretending I’m what – a blue wren or something?”
Kazari burst out laughing at the improbable image of her lanky friend imitating a tiny bird.
“Our colours are definitely more practical for our jobs, aren’t they?” she replied, still amused.
“Whereas Charla’s golden robes, with the golden gem on the golden chain, definitely work better in her context,” said Abel.
“Implying the eminent wisdom and integrity I currently fail to possess?” said Charla. She sighed and propped her chin on her hand, stirring her soup idly with the other.
“You’ve got heaps,” said Abel. He waved his own spoon at Charla.
“Ha! You should have heard me not demonstrating that to Feruna this morning,” she replied, and then sighed and stirred her soup again.
The long table held mostly new initiates, eating before their afternoon classes, and Kazari looked around at the multihued robes dotting its wooden length. Most of them looked sombre, and here and there, she could see red eyes and puffy faces. So she wasn’t the only newcomer feeling overwhelmed by the thought of an incursion. Except, perhaps, Abel. His face seemed unworried, and he was eating enthusiastically.
“Abel, aren’t you even a little bit worried?” Kazari asked.
Her friend barely paused in his eating.
“Of course I am,” he said, nodding his head, and spooning in another mouthful of soup, “but since I can’t do anything about it right now, I’m just going to work hard and learn as much as possible. Besides, there’s so much to learn, I haven’t got time to agonise over it.” He dunked a piece of bread into his soup, and went on between bites. “And I’m sure it’s the same for both of you too.”
“But aren’t you curious?” asked Kazari. “Like, why did a gorgone try and attack the Abbey? Why is it happening now? And how are they getting into Albatar?”
She’d been wondering that for a long time, but now, with some of the edge taken off her anxiety, she felt comfortable enough to voice the words that had been rumbling around the back of her skull for months.
“Of course I am, and I’m sure there’s a reason, but that reason won’t make any difference if I can’t navigate without getting lost, or shoot straight when it really matters.” He returned his attention to the bowl in front of him, waving his spoon. “And time’s limited, so we need to make the best use of it.”
Kazari nodded. He was right, and she should probably heed his advice. But gorgones were the province of Hunters in particular, and she knew there had to be some reason behind the monster’s willingness to sacrifice itself, and reveal that greater gorgones had penetrated this deep into Albatar.
Later, as early spring thunder echoed around the Abbey, she wondered if she might perhaps broach the subject to Sendar. He often had insights that she found helpful. Perhaps he was privy to more information than she was, having been a Hunter a bit longer. Besides, it had been several days since she’d had a proper chance to sit and chat with him. In fact, she realised, he’d been leaving their shared quarters early, and getting back late every day. She wondered why.
Originally from Western Australia, Leonie now lives in NSW in the Upper Hunter. She is the author of Frontier Incursion, Frontier Resistance, and Frontier Defiant (YA Speculative Fiction) published by Hague Publishing, and also works part time as a physiotherapist. She dabbles in poetry, and has had a short story published in Antipodean SF, and another in the Novascapes 2 anthology.
The Frontier Trilogy is full of glow-in-the-dark cats who like to sleep on the bed, alien invaders, and a planet out to kill the unwary.
Now, in Amethyst Pledge, she has dipped her toes into the waters of fantasy.
She has a past life as a volunteer firefighter and SES member, and once trekked almost six hundred kilometres with eight camels and several other human beings. She is married with two adult children, two dogs and three cats, one of whom frequently handicaps her ability to use a laptop computer.
For more information visit Leonie's author page.
Book 2 of THe Albatar Chronicles
The moral rights of Leonie Rogers to be identified as the author of this work have been asserted.
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Cover: Dark Days by Jade Zivanovic http://www.steampowerstudio.com.au/
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