The First Chapter-Author Showcase- S.J. Lem

Today’s first chapter is something a little different.  It’s YA Science Fiction & Fantasy, and this one proves to be a page-turner!

 

All eighteen-year-old Ri wants is to cure her adoptive father Samuel from his hallucination-inducing illness. Everyone in her village tells her it’s impossible. But when she meets two newcomers in the forest—a gruff rogue with a vendetta against the gods and a charming fugitive with the power to travel through water—she’ll be torn away from Samuel and swept across the sea to an oppressed city governed by a ruthless tyrant. Once there, she’ll not only have to confront Samuel’s unlawful past, but a vicious evil that threatens all mankind.

In this tale of bravery, friendship, and unexpected love, Ri must discover her own strength to save the men she cares for.

 

 

The Waterfall Traveler

Chapter 1

No, no, no! How could I have slept so soundly while Samuel wandered out of our home? I swung my cottage’s door open and bolted outside. The morning sun peeked over the mountains and cast soft light onto my cliff-top village. Everyone was still asleep. Samuel’s tracks imprinted the dusty ground. They meandered through his garden, past neighboring thatch-roofed homes, and led into the forest.

Dammit! Of all places for him to roam. The forest was full of dangerous things: pumas searching for their next kill, rocks that protruded near neck-breaking slopes, and berries that could lull a man into permanent slumber.

But Samuel didn’t understand this. He had the Sickness. Some folks called him a burden. Others prayed for the day he would leave. But I’ve set those fools straight on more than one occasion.

I dashed onward and followed his footprints, scattering a cluster of chickens along the way. What if he was injured? Or worse? I raced past the perimeter of the village and reached the forest’s edge. Spruce trees rose into the sky, spreading their needled branches like raven feathers.

I threw a stone into the woodlands and it bounced off a tree. “Wake up!”

If anyone saw me shouting into the forest, they would have thought I had the Sickness too. I didn’t, of course.

“Where are you?” I tossed another rock into the branches. This time, I got their attention.

Seven orbs, roughly the size of my fist, drifted from the treetops, radiating amber light. These orbs visited me—and only me—since childhood. When I was young, they comforted me during storms as Death lit up the sky in search of souls. When I reached the age to hunt, they showed me the best places to set my snares, and I always returned home with plenty. I didn’t know what they were, but I named them the Fireflies.

They whooshed into the forest, zigzagging around trees like a ribbon of light, and I chased them down a familiar path. My hair whipped behind me, bound in a brown braid that hung to my waist. As I raced on, the canopy of pine needles sucked me back into the night. Owls, fooled by the darkness, still hooted threats at mice cowering in the brush.

Before long, patches of light dabbed the forest floor. New grass poked through the black dirt until lush growth overtook the ground. We had reached a clearing. The Fireflies shot upward and disappeared.

I crouched behind a tree and scanned the area. A stream fed by a gentle waterfall carved the clearing in half. I breathed a sigh of relief when Samuel paced into view.

He looked older than his fifty-five years and hobbled with a hunch. Only a few tufts of white hair traced the lower regions of his scalp. He lost his left arm long ago, though he couldn’t remember how. His sleeve knotted around the stub at his shoulder. Ricky, his gray mutt, pranced at his feet, intent on tripping him. But Samuel didn’t seem to notice. He gestured wildly, mumbling his usual gibberish.

“Samuel,” I called. With one last glance around the clearing, I rushed to his side.

He jerked his head in surprise. “Oh my, I didn’t see you there, Ri.” Smiling, he waved for me to join him.

He spoke in his native language, which I had learned by the age of seven. Our village called it the Crooked Tongue. Though Samuel raised me, we were not related. Fourteen years ago, a vicious beast killed my parents, so Samuel took me as ward when I was four years old. I remembered nothing of the incident or my family, but the beast had left a crescent-shaped scar on my back. I shivered whenever my fingers brushed against it.

“You promised that you wouldn’t roam into the forest anymore.” I disliked taking such a stern tone with him, but I meant it for his own good.

“Oh.” He scratched his chin, disheveling his short beard. “I promised that?”

“It’s all right, let’s head back.”

“Ah, but we don’t want to miss this.” His grin stretched across his face. “No, we definitely don’t want to miss this.”

As a youngster, I had listened to his storytelling long after the sun disappeared behind the mountains. His voice rallied with similar enthusiasm this morning, and I couldn’t stop myself from asking, “Miss what?”

“I’ll tell you, but don’t go gabbing about this to anyone. Least not until we have the proof. This is quite extraordinary, and you know how the village is. No vision. Not like you and me.”

“I won’t go gabbing.”

“Well, this clearing hosts something unimaginable, an act of the goddess Eisanea, herself. I know it’s Eisanea. There’s no other explanation.” He raised his arm toward the sky for emphasis. “It’s not some figment of Crazy Samuel’s imagination this time.”

“You’re not crazy.”

I hated the nicknames the villagers called him. To them, we were outcasts and outsiders. My original village lay somewhere on the island’s western lowlands, but I’ve never attempted to visit it. Samuel’s village—which he called a city—was to the east across Wind Serpent Sea. Both were places I only knew through stories. Occasionally, he would recall details about his homeland, though the Sickness robbed him of most of his memories.

“What’d you see?” I asked.

A wrinkle deepened between his eyebrows. “Well, give an old man a minute. Just need to collect my thoughts. You know how they abandon me sometimes.” He sat down on a log and stared at a river stone as if it would give him an answer.

I took a seat and rested my head on his shoulder. Our reflections wiggled on the stream’s surface. Before Samuel’s hair paled and fell out, it was wavy and black and touched the top of his shoulders. I used to admire it, along with his blue eyes. My reflection, lanky and lean, blended in with those of the cattails surrounding us.

“It’s all right if you don’t remember.” I patted his knee.

“Ah, this must be it.” His gaze landed on a patch of tall grass dotted with red blossoms. He struggled to his feet and plucked a flower out of the batch. With an ungraceful bow, he presented it to me. “This must be why I’ve come here, because what can be more spectacular than the first blooms of spring?”

I accepted the gift, twirling the stem between my fingertips. “Samuel,” I began, “you can’t enter the forest alone anymore. There’s dangers.”

“I’m not alone. Ricky is with me.” His crow’s feet fanned as his face widened in a smile.

I gave Ricky to Samuel because I thought he would make a good guard dog. Ricky lacked any qualities resembling bravery, but his antics entertained us. Samuel and I watched him paddle his oversized paws in a mud puddle. He sifted his nose through the water and, with a snort, snatched something up. His teeth clanked against the object.

“What’d he find?” I asked. “Ricky, here.”

His head drooped as he trotted over to me. He spat something hard into my hand before lying down and feigning indifference toward the treasure he sacrificed. I wiped the filth off with the cuff of my sleeve and examined the item.

“Glass,” I said, astounded.

On my seventh birthday, Samuel gave me a compass with a glass face. A rare treasure, indeed! It came from his homeland, and no one in our village had ever owned one. The needle pointed west. How it worked, I didn’t know. But sometimes, I suspected that Samuel came from a magical place where everyone owned such amazing contraptions. I carried the compass in my pocket, always.

“A glass jar.” I showed it to Samuel.

“No,” he said. “That’s a glass vial.”

His eyebrows sprung into round arches. “Yes, of course. I remember now. There’s a handsome young man,” he said, “and he appears out of nowhere. Bursts right through that waterfall over there.” He pointed toward the cascade at the edge of the clearing.

“Samuel,” I said, “handsome young men don’t just burst out of waterfalls.”

“Yes, peculiar, isn’t it? He has a knapsack. It’s empty when he arrives and stuffed full when he departs.”

“Is that all you saw?”

“Well, I think so.” He smoothed his beard while scanning the clearing. “I wonder where that lad could’ve wandered off to.”

I smiled. Fortunately, his mind only conjured up a harmless hallucination rather than the usual skeletal ghouls that hurl him into fits of panic. My village called his ailment mind sickness for a long time, and later just referred to it as the Sickness.

“Let’s head back.” I stood and helped Samuel to his feet. “I’ll make us breakfast.”

Samuel turned toward the waterfall and waved. “Until next time Waterfall Man.” Ricky added two barks, wagging his tail with enthusiasm.

The noise frightened some birds out of the branches. I glanced around and listened for other creatures. On the opposite side of the clearing, the Fireflies hovered over the brush. Their energy seeped into the space sheltered by my rib cage and tugged, urging me to follow them deeper into the forest. Instead, I hastened toward Samuel and caught his hand mid-wave. The Fireflies had to wait until I led Samuel to safety.

 

***

 

Overlaid with vines, a log archway served as the entrance to the village. A pair of sparrows greeted us as we slipped through, but not a single villager dawdled nearby. A few paces beyond the entry, an abandoned garment hung over the rim of a wash bucket.

We slipped past a couple homes and reached the courtyard. A dozen people huddled in a circle at its far end. They wore linen and leather that matched the dust underfoot. Someone in the center of the mob was bawling. Samuel paused, staring at the commotion.

“Who’s that yelling over there?” He placed his hand over his brow to block the sun.

I tugged him along by the arm. “No one. It’s only someone’s goat bleating.”

Of course, it wasn’t a goat. But it was best to keep Samuel away from crowds to protect his feelings from their ridicule.

I nudged him onward. While the other homes nestled side by side, ours sat on its own plot at the western most edge of the village. We had a prime view. Our village had earned the name Red Ridge since it sprawled along the top of a red rock cliff, and Samuel and I could see the entire valley from our doorway. The vale was a bowl of evergreens and haze.

I led Samuel inside. He shuffled across the stone floor and eased himself onto a stool next to the hearth. While he caught his breath, I hurried past our bedrooms to a storage closet to fetch something to eat. The harsh winter had drained us of almost everything except for a half-dozen potatoes, a handful of beets, and two bottles of our homemade dandelion wine.

I grabbed a potato for Samuel and tossed it into a pot of water over the fire. Then, I peeked out the window. The crowd had doubled.

I went to Samuel and braced his shoulders. “Can you watch that potato for me?”

“Of course, sweetie. I won’t let that tater flee the kettle.” He looked at the pot with unwavering attention, and I ran out the door, securing the outside latch with rope so he couldn’t wander off again.

The mob didn’t notice when I approached. The howling had quieted to a sob. I stood on my tiptoes to see over all the heads. Kaylan, a tall man of about fifty, knelt next to an old fellow who had a ten-inch gash below his knee. A satchel hung at Kaylan’s hip, full of medical supplies. Blood covered his hands.

“You’re a darn fool,” Kaylan said to the man as he stitched the wound. “You should know better than to travel at night. You’re lucky you made it back this morning.”

The old fellow stared at him with teary, vacant eyes and nodded. I sneezed.

A young man turned his head and locked a vindictive gaze on me. “Where’s Crazy Samuel?” the oaf asked. He had thin lips and big teeth. With a chuckle, he placed his hand behind his back and started hobbling back and forth, mumbling nonsense. A couple of people in the crowd laughed.

I slapped him across the face. “At least he’s not an ignorant fool.”

The man raised his hand to me, but Kaylan broke out of the crowd and intervened. “Boy, the girl is right. I can stitch a gash and bring down a fever, but there’s not a damn thing I can do for dumb.”

The oaf gave me a look that hinted of future retribution before storming off. No one ever talked back to Kaylan since his skills tending injuries and illnesses were extraordinary.

Kaylan wiped his hands clean with a rag and then regarded the wounded man. “You’ll be fine. Keep it bandaged and stay out of the woods.”

He patted me on the shoulder and with a clever look in his gray eyes, he whispered, “Next time make a fist and aim for the nose.”

Seemed like good advice to me. We walked away from the crowd and toward my home.

“What attacked that man?” I asked.

Kaylan cleared his throat. “He wouldn’t say. He kept rambling about nightmares. I suppose the gash matched what a wild dog could do, but …” We reached my door. “Ri, listen to me. Soon as the sky hints at dusk, you make sure you’re back in this village from now on. Do you understand? Something dangerous is out there.”

I nodded and opened the door, following Kaylan inside. Samuel’s eyes widened with glee when he realized he had a guest. Kaylan and his twin boys—who were roughly my age—were the only people who ever visited us.

“Would you mind staying with Samuel for a while?” I asked. “We’re practically down to our last potato.” Without waiting for his reply, I retrieved one of the bottles of dandelion wine and wrestled with the cork. Once removed, I poured the sweet drink into a mug.

“Well, how can I refuse now?” Kaylan grinned and grabbed the mug.

As he took a sip, I whispered in his ear, “Yesterday, Samuel talked about his homeland. Just random details as usual, but there was something different this time. A sort of clarity in his eyes.”

Kaylan raised a hand to shush me. “Ri, I know what you’re getting at. An illness of the mind can’t be cured. We’ve been through this.”

“Nonsense. One day I’ll cure him.”

He touched my arm and softened his tone. “One day you’ll need to accept the truth.”

“I better check on that potato.” I huffed to the hearth and removed the pot. The people in Samuel’s former village probably knew how to cure him. While I placed the potato on a plate and chopped it into wedges, Kaylan took a seat on the stool opposite Samuel. My mouth salivated as the aroma of food reached my nose.

“Ri, I didn’t mean to upset you,” Kaylan added. “But I would hate to see you get your hopes up.”

Hope was all I had.

Samuel exchanged a baffled glance with each of us. I looked at my feet. How rude we were to talk about him as if he weren’t even in the room.

Kaylan cleared his throat. “Why don’t you go gather more food? I’ll stay here.”

I sighed, releasing my frustration, and handed Samuel his food. Then, I scooped up a small basket and my fishing pole before dashing outside. I raced through the courtyard, under the archway, and back to the clearing where I found Samuel earlier.

A patch of grass near the streambed invited me over. I cast my line and then secured the end of my fishing pole into the mud. While the hook waited for a nibble, I wandered over to a nearby blueberry bush. A few crushed berries lay scattered on the ground. I grumbled. Some animal had beaten me to the grub.

Regardless, I bent down and sifted through the leaves, rummaging for whatever remained. Not one berry left. I sat back on my heels and stared at the ground. Someone’s footprint lay in the mud. Judging by the size, it belonged to a man. Odd horizontal ridges spanned across the footprint’s length. Only one shoemaker lived in my village, and the soles he crafted were soft leather that made flat, smooth tracks. So whom could this track belong to? An outsider? I touched the unusual print, and moist dirt clung to my fingertips. It was fresh.

A tug on my line jolted me from my investigation.

I pulled in a small trout and tossed it into my basket. When I looked up, the Fireflies flew past my line of sight. They hovered at the opposite side of the clearing, waiting. With pole and basket in hand, I followed them, hoping they had found a blueberry bush that no one had foraged through yet.

The Fireflies wove around the trees, and I chased them down a deer trail until it disappeared into the brush. I trampled brambles underfoot, forcing my way through a forest that now seemed intent on stopping me. Above, the sun buried herself behind a heap of gray clouds. I stopped running and stumbled backward. I had accidently entered the section of the forest known as the Dark Woods. Here, the nocturnal hunters never slept, for it was always night.

Despite the dangers, the Fireflies dove into the wretched place, pausing to float above a cream-colored object poking through the dirt. It lay roughly twenty steps ahead.

“No, absolutely not.” I wagged a finger at them. “This is a bad idea.” I stepped away, but they whizzed toward me, circled my waist once, and then returned to the object. They had never done that before.

“What’s gotten into you?” I asked.

They swarmed over the object like bees buzzing around a hive. The item they discovered must have been something of value.

“All right, but only for a moment. This is dangerous.”

I stepped forward. No light trickled through the ceiling of tangled branches and cobwebs. Ivory mushrooms clung to trees that twisted their roots into a rug of endless black dirt.

When I approached, the Fireflies zoomed farther into the Dark Woods. As small as they were, they sure were brave, or at least reckless. They led me to the glistening object, half buried in the dirt. I bent down and touched the thing and it coated my fingertip with clear ooze that reeked like a carcass in the summer. Cringing, I dug it free. The gooey film covered the entire object, so removing the filth required a few wipes. After cleaning one side, I identified it: a human jawbone. I hurled the grotesque thing to the ground, and it showed me a grin full of missing teeth.

A crow squawked. The vile birds lined the branches, screeching and cocking their ugly heads, but the Fireflies lured me onward. And they had never led me wrong.

Though my knees trembled, I followed my glowing companions farther into the Dark Woods. I held my breath and grasped the handle of my basket so tight that it cut into my palm. Then, without warning, the Fireflies flitted off like a school of startled minnows. I staggered backward. Something moved, roughly twenty feet ahead. A man.

I leapt to the cover of a nearby tree and pressed my back against its trunk. Bark dug into my shoulder blades, but I stayed still. His footsteps neared. I peeked around the tree.

Only fifteen strides separated me from the stranger. He fussed with a canteen attached to his belt. Sweat stains soiled his shirt, which draped in tatters over the waist of his hole-ridden pants. Two sheathed weapons hung from his belt: a dagger and a sword with an ornate handle. Though I had never seen a sword, Samuel taught me about them. A knot coiled in my stomach.

He brought the canteen to his lips. His bristle-covered throat pulsed with each gulp. He took two more steps in my direction, kicking the jawbone along the way with a whoop. A man who showed such disrespect for the dead was mad. I ducked back behind the tree.

His footsteps continued to approach, snapping twigs. I should have run. Instead I froze, heart pounding. He made his way to my side of the tree, inches from where I stood. He sneered, crinkling his blood-spattered face.

“Well, well,” he said, speaking in Samuel’s native language. “A little bird flew too far from her nest.”

 

Wasn’t that a wonderful First Chapter.  Loving it.

 

 

 

 

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