The Community trained these teens as warriors and assigned them Knights of the Last Order as protectors; together they are a force that will be difficult to bring down.
The Sons of Sheol are determined to do just that.
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Remnants: Season of Wonder
A Remnants Novel
By Lisa T. Bergren
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2014 Lisa T. Bergren
All rights reserved.
The elder likened the Hour of our Call to a tidal pull, the first birthing pangs of a pregnant mother ... but to me it felt like a scream building inside. Excitement and glory, swirling in a ball within my chest. Electrifying. Mobilizing.
I sat up straight in my bed and looked out the window. Through the mists that plagued our planet even during the season of Harvest, I could see the dim glow of a crescent moon. Our mark. The Maker was calling us to rise, to gather, to begin at long last.
At last. At last. Was I truly ready?
Part of me felt it was perfect. The culmination of everything I'd dreamed about and prepared for. Relieved that the wait was over. That it was finally beginning.
Part of me felt unready. So. Not. Ready.
Slipping from my bed, I forced myself toward my clothes and strapped a dagger to my calf, yanked my long johns to my waist, then the ratty long-and-loose brown trousers I wore every day. I reached for my bra-band and tee, followed by a dark blue, long-sleeved woolen shirt, knowing the day would be cold, as it always was. I stared hard in the mirror while brushing my dark hair. Mom always loved this shirt on me. Said it brought out the blue-green color of my eyes.
I swallowed hard against the lump in my throat. I couldn't think about them—not now. It was as if we'd already been pulled a distance apart in that waking moment, making me longingly glance over my shoulder in their direction from the other side. They'd know it too. At least, I hoped they would. It would make our parting one of destiny. Bittersweet, but sure.
By the dim light of the moon, I put on socks and laced up my boots, then stuffed my hairbrush, toothbrush, box of baking soda, several changes of underwear and socks, another T-shirt, a cami, and thick sweater into my backpack. I tugged on a long, oilskin coat, strapped on my sheath, then reached for my sword on the wall—which had been there ever since I was a babe in my protectors' arms—and slid it into the sheath on my back.
The wall looked curiously blank without it, and I took one last, slow glance around the room I'd had my entire childhood. Some of the warlords' kids still grew up with images of Winnie the Pooh or Beatrix Potter on their nursery walls, I'd heard. Characters from precious books my mom and dad had read to me from tattered pages, making up the story for me when a section had been lost. I pondered that for a second, the idea of a pristine room, clean and freshly painted.
But I'd always been destined for this, this night among nights. A girl with a sword on her wall from birth.
Mom and Dad were outside my room. Dad lit one of the candles on the wall and then turned to stand beside Mom. They appeared drawn and tired, fear lurking in the lines of Mom's face, but with encouragement and love fighting it back. Dad looked at me with compassion, and was first to pull me into his arms. "You are brave, Andriana. Capable," he whispered. "What a privilege to be a part of preparing you for this moment. Go. Go and make us proud."
"I will," I said, suddenly choked up, feeling the loss within him, the pain this was causing, as well as a fierce sense of pride. "Thank you, Dad. Thanks for ... everything." I tried to memorize the warm feel of his embrace, the last I'd likely ever have from him. Because we were going away.
Most likely very, very far away.
That was when I felt my first pang of panic.
Mom pulled me into her arms next. She was shorter than I, but she still felt strong. In her, I sensed the tearing too; the grief, as well as a measure of fear. "I'll be okay, Mom," I said, swallowing hard, trying to convince myself as much as her.
"You'd better," she said with pretended threat, hugging me harder, then pulling away to put a delicate hand on either side of my face. "We raised you to do nothing but this, Andriana," she said, staring into my eyes, willing me to understand, to remember. "You have what you need within you to do what you must. The Maker saw to it. In him you will find strength and courage and direction. Remember that." Her head shook back and forth a little, as if she were arguing within herself, reassuring herself, like she wanted to say more.
"I will, Mom," I said. I embraced her again, and then turned toward the door, feeling an Ailith—someone like me, born with the strain that destined us to be either Remnant or Knight — even before we reached it. We could all do that—know when another of our kind was near. But this one felt special to me. More known than the others. Ronan.
I opened the door to my tall knight, his finely muscled arms bulging out from a sleeveless shirt, worn despite the night's chill that made his breath fog before his face. Ronan's fingers twitched nervously over the hilt of the dagger at his waist, making me seek the deep shadows beyond him. Normally, he was steady regardless of what we faced, but tonight even the air around him was tense. His green-brown eyes met mine and he gave me the barest of nods, then slicked back his long dark hair from his face. "They're coming. They feel it too," he whispered, too low for my parents to hear.
The Sons of Sheol. The dark ones. The elders had warned us.
He reached past me to shake my father's hand with both of his own and then embraced my mother, as if they were his family, not mine. Even though they'd never met—by careful design—and never would again. "You've served the Maker well. Thank you. She will be safe with me."
In his arms, Mom broke. "Do take care of her," she managed to say with a strangled voice, nodding quickly and forcing a smile, even as her lip began to tremble and her shoulders began to shake. As if that would make me think she was fine. I reached out to hold her hand.
"With my life," he said tenderly, backing away so she could see the pledge in his eyes. So kind to my mom, it made me catch my breath. "Andriana is strong," he said. "But together we will be even stronger."
"May your words be true," Dad said.
Before I could nod in agreement, a shiver ran down my back. My eyes met Ronan's, and together we searched the bank of dark trees that lined our village of twenty homes.
"What is it?" Mom whispered.
"They're coming for us," Ronan hissed. "We must be away."
Never had we felt our enemy this close. A few times, they'd entered the Valley, scouting, but never come this far ...
"Go, Andriana," Mom whispered, tears running down her face. "Dri, go," she said, but her body and tone screamed at me to stay. Stay!
I looked back at her, tears running down my face as well, fear for those I loved almost immobilizing me. We were trained to battle the dark, born for it, in a way. My parents were not. And never had our enemy come this close to our village.
"You must go too, now," I said. "Into hiding. Far from here. Far from anything that ties you to me. Do not wait. Do you promise?"
"We promise," Dad said. "Go."
Mom nodded as Dad wrapped his arm around her shoulders.
Comforted, I quickly pulled them to me one last time, kissed their wet faces, then turned to take Ronan's offered hand. He was immediately in a full sprint.
Directly toward our oncoming enemies.
I fought the urge to pull my hand from his as we ran into and through the forest. But there was only one reason my knight would head toward them. "You brought the bike?"
"Just over the hill," he grunted. He'd often stashed his dirt bike in a copse of aspens, waiting for me at the forest's edge to escort me to training. There were times over the years I'd felt him near, keeping watch, even when I hadn't expected him. It'd made me smile, warmed by his presence even a thousand feet away. His fierce protection. The first day we'd met, on our decade-and-second birthday, he took my hand in both of his and stared into my eyes, and I'd learned the full meaning of the term bonded. Training together every day since had only strengthened our connection. Now, in the early hours of our decade-and-seventh birthday, we moved out to claim our inheritance, our birthright as Ailith warriors. Finally, finally fighting back against the dark that threatened to overtake us.
We ran crouched over, feeling the rising pressure of fear within our chests entwining with the warm pull of the Ailith's Hour as we hurried across fallen logs and through brush.
Ronan abruptly stopped by a huge tree and pulled me up short, then tightly against his broad chest. I remained as still as I could, panting, as he edged his face to the left, slowly, ever so slowly peeking out. He straightened and sighed, closing his eyes in frustration. His arm around me tightened. "Scouts," he whispered, close to my ear. "Two."
I couldn't believe it. We'd felt the Call but an hour before. Had the Sheolites somehow known the Hour was upon us? And if we couldn't get to our meeting place—if the Sheolites managed to capture or kill us—what then?
Oh no. No, no, no. We didn't go through all this, do all this ... My parents sacrificed so much ... I shifted, wanting to tear after these spies like a banshee, but Ronan held my arm. As if he knew I'd want to rely on myself rather than the Maker. I shook my head and closed my eyes and tried to concentrate as our trainer had taught us. To hear the Maker in my very breath, focusing, remembering we were not alone.
A minute or so later, a mudhorse—bred for our rainy, wintery conditions—snorted, and I visualized the rider in a wide saddle atop it, a mere five feet away. I listened intently for the second, but heard only silence.
Ronan looked down at me and I nodded. If we were to escape and not be followed, if Mom and Dad were to be safely away, these two had to die. Our trainer had warned us. There would be no skirmish with these dark knights; it would be a fight to the death. The Sheolites' charter had always been to seek out and kill anyone with the high gifting. Ronan tapped me on the shoulder and pointed with two fingers, directly west. He wanted me to run as bait. Before my heart had time to drop, he took my hand and lifted it to the hilt of my sword, and I smiled. While I would play the rabbit, any wolf that chased me would soon find this rabbit had teeth.
I set off immediately, running as fast as I could toward Ronan's favorite place to stash his bike. I tore through the brush like I was in a blind panic, just as our trainer had shown us. Making plenty of noise so they would follow, and so Ronan could cut them down from behind. Though as I crested the next hill, with no sound of pursuit behind me, I turned and faltered.
Because clearly, no one was coming after me.
My heart sank. Ronan.
Could he defend himself against two of our enemies at once? I turned and ran back through the brush, slowing as I reached the first hill, hiding beneath the wide, broad leaves of a fern as I searched for him in the crescent moon's light. I could see and hear nothing. Our forests had long been devoid of birds and other creatures, hunted out a century before, but the mudhorses had been right there, stocky, short, strong, snorting in the misty night. Right there.
I could make out the dark outline of the big tree where we'd paused. But nothing else.
The silence was liable to send me into sheer panic, my heart now pounding more from fear than from my running. Had they managed to take Ronan? Or gone the other way?
I turned to the left and pushed through huge ferns before I ran right into the flank of a mudhorse and fell back. The creature whinnied and shied away, then reared, but as I struggled to rise, her rider leaped from the mount's back to me; nothing but a terrifying, flying shadow, growing larger by the moment.
I moved without thought, whirling low and into a defensive stance. And the shadow became flesh and blood as he descended, directly upon the upturned point of my sword. He came down so hard and fast that he was fully impaled before the sword slowed his momentum, but he was still largely atop me. He reached out to grip my throat, his fingers cold, even through the long gloves he wore. I felt his chest heaving for breath against my pinned arm, and I pried at his strong fingers before he groaned then gasped, the sound raspy and wet with death.
He took one last breath and seemed to freeze, his hand still on my neck. I shuddered and pushed and pulled until I could scramble, crab-like, away through the soft, loamy soil of the forest, then to my feet. I stood there, trembling, trying to absorb the fact that I'd killed my first enemy. I lifted my sword and warily turned in a slow circle, wondering where the other was. Where Ronan was.
But then I heard it. An enraged scream. The metallic clash of swords. Six, seven strikes. Another guttural cry. Then silence.
I forced my body into motion, running toward them, sweeping through the great, wet ferns, desperately hoping I was in time to help. What I found was Ronan in a clearing, rising above another body, wiping his lip of sweat and wearily sheathing his sword. I ran into him, practically tackling him in my relief.
"Easy there," he said with a gentle laugh, panting while settling an easy arm around me. "Whoa, you're shaking." He turned fully toward me, dropping his sword and placing both hands on the sides of my face. "Andriana, are you all right?"
"Fine, fine," I said, pushing his hands away, embarrassed by my weakness. What had I thought we were training for? Day after day? I swallowed hard. "What happened?"
"They didn't take the bait."
I thought I saw a flash of white teeth as he smiled. I loved the way he smiled, like he was in on the best of secrets. It made me smile too. But then I sobered. "Ronan, they must've known. They knew our break-and-bait plan as soon as I set off."
"Yes," he said, grabbing my hand firmly again and pulling me along. "They didn't even think of going after you. Or ... they figured that if they teamed up on me, brought me down first, they could get to you next."
I let him drag me forward even as my mind raced back over his words. They didn't even think of going after you. "They got to a ... They got to a trainer?"
"Maybe," he said, never pausing. "Worse, an Ailith." He let go of my hand, leaving me to trudge behind him as if he needed a moment to digest the idea of it himself.
I tried to swallow, but found my mouth dry as I stumbled after him. If they'd gotten to a trainer, how much did they know? Of our skills? Our tactics? Of us? Such thoughts were foolish, however. There was no way they got our trainer. He was too good, too strong. And he would've died protecting our secrets, as he always said every trainer would.
But had they captured one of our fellow Ailith? On this night of nights? I slowed to a stop, feeling the slip of mud beneath my boots.
"Hey," Ronan said, pausing to turn toward me. "Don't worry," he said, reaching up as if he wanted to touch me, then thinking better of it and dropping his hand. "We fought 'em off, didn't we? And we'll learn new tactics. This is just the beginning, Dri."
Just the beginning. His words echoed through my mind.
This was the first night. The first hour.
But if this was the first hour, what was yet to come?CHAPTER 2
I clung hard to Ronan's waist and leaned with him as we curved up the old remains of a road on the dirt bike. I leaned my head between his shoulders in the V formed by the swords on his back, closing my eyes, inhaling the scent of oil and leather and dust, feeling the taut muscles of his torso tense with each turn. The blowing strands of his dark hair, tied in a ponytail at the nape of his neck, tickled my cheek as the wind blew past.
I knew I wasn't supposed to feel the way I did. Ronan was my knight. My guardian. Nothing more. Anything more than kinship was expressly forbidden among the Ailith, and our trainer had drilled it into our minds from the start.
For a long while, we'd been nothing but brother and sister, companions learning to defend, to attack, to intuit, to respond. Learning the ancient words by heart, the process of meditation, the use of every weapon. But last year, as we practiced at what our trainer called "hunter and prey," I'd managed to come upon Ronan from behind. More silent than ever before, refusing to let my soft boots betray me. Just as he sensed the Ailith in me was near, I'd pounced, leaping onto his back, laughing in victorious glee.
Excerpted from Remnants: Season of Wonder by Lisa T. Bergren. Copyright © 2014 Lisa T. Bergren. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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