Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Safe and Sound (Fields of Elysium Novella) Excerpt - Prologue and Chapter 1


Prologue


Living with grief is like free diving to the bottom of the ocean. Your body sinks weightlessly into the dark while you don’t even realize how deep you have sunk already. Your ears become deaf. Your eyes can’t see the light. People who try to reach out and hold your hand blur into the surroundings and their signals don’t get to you. You’re never completely alone, yet a frightening loneliness is nibbling at your soul. The deeper you sink, the greater the pressure. The darkness calls, and you answer. The mere thought of giving up to stop the pain becomes tempting. The possibility of an eternal sleep starts forming in your mind. And one tiny mistake, one slip up, will bring you that final relief. From where, there’s no return. No time for regrets. No second chances. Yet, you’re calm because those who don’t fear death embrace it.
I was on the bottom of that ocean once, but then I met her, and everything changed. Now, I want to live. I want to breathe. And it’s all because of her.




1
New Hope




The whip came down for the third time, reopening a semi-healed wound on the old man’s back. He groaned and stooped lower, nails tearing into the white powder. The tall guard’s powerful arm lifted again. His fingers wrapped tightly around the whip’s handle and his bulging muscles screamed the obvious. He’d be able to whip the over-worked man a hundred times before breaking a sweat.
The leather strips lashing against raw skin caused pain, almost unbearable, to the already worn and tired slave. The unjustly punished man’s knees and arms weakened, lowering him closer to the ground. From a glance at a blood drop in front of him, he clenched his teeth and looked up at his oppressors. The muscles tight in his neck, he gathered all his strength and attempted to rise, desperate to show that he was still a man, but in vain. After the twentieth lash, even his will to save his dignity – whatever was left of it – couldn’t give him enough power to stand up.
Many of the frightened slaves averted their eyes, while their hands started to work faster and harder, carving the stones, mixing the whitewash.
“We should do something,” whispered a man who had been working alongside the beaten slave for over a decade. ”The Almighty sees everything.”
“Hush up, Gideon,” said a younger slave with more scars on his back than he cared to count. “You wanna die?”
“The Almighty won’t help cowards like us,” the man continued, only earning more disapproving glances.
“Just do what we do. Block the sounds out of your mind. If you keep talking, you’ll find yourself alongside old Ben,” advised a water carrier planting her hand gently on his shoulder.
He looked up at her, then swept his eyes over the immense group of slaves. If just one of them took a stand to stop the harsh treatment of their friend, he’d be ready to join him. But none did. The man had come to a sad realization: friendship and bravery had long died in the slave camps. He wished these violent people had never found their way here from Earth. He only heard stories about how happy and peaceful life had been on Arkana before the Earthlings showed up and spoiled everything.
The sudden anger quelling in his heart, the man sighed and slammed his chisel into the limestone held between his legs, resuming his work on yet another statue of the emperor.
He wasn’t the only slave who stopped working when the whipping started. Taking advantage of the guards’ inattention, a young man straightened up, tucked his sweat-drenched, thick blond hair behind his ears and signaled to a woman standing by the well along with dozens of others, a full jug of water slung over her shoulder. She nodded at him and quickly dropped the jug into the well and went down on her stomach. A series of muffled sneezes almost gave her away but her fellow water carriers moved into position to conceal her. She blinked and nodded at them appreciatively, yanked a scarf over her nose to block out the fine white powder that hovered in the air and started crawling toward the slave quarters, her heart in her throat.
The handsome blond man, keeping a wary eye on the guards gathering around their groaning victim, slowly backed away toward the small stone houses. At the stockyard fence that enclosed a small herd of sheep and goats, he found the pale woman snuggled down. His heart was pounding restlessly from being so close to her, yet he knew that there was no time for romance. Swiftly he pulled her fragile body into his arms and lifted her up. The blazing sun burned the skin on his back as he carried her away to the closest little white hut. Inside he laid her down on the thickest blanket he could find and knelt beside her.
“You’re going to be safe here. No slave can leave the constructions before sunset, so the guards don’t even bother coming here during the day,” he said, running his hand along her dark curls.
“Have you seen old Ben’s face?” asked the woman with tears in her eyes as she grasped the man’s hand.
“Did you know that he’s only fifty-eight? His body’s just so worn out that he looks much older. This life makes us all age faster.” He smiled kindly, motioning at himself.
“None of us should be treated this savage way.”
“Don’t trouble yourself now, Halysia. You must rest.” He brushed his fingers along her glimmering forehead. He found her so beautiful in spite of her scars and tired eyes. Today she looked especially lovely with the radiant glow she had donned lately. 
“How can I not? Oh, Abraham, what have we done?” She laid her head down and planted her hands on her belly.
“It was the Almighty’s will. Everything will be all right,” he promised, though deep down he knew that it would take a miracle to get through the next several months.
“Don’t try to blame this on Him, Abraham. This was our fault. We were fools to believe that we had the right to love.”
“What’s done is done. There’s no point in talking of this any longer,” he said, rubbing the three deep grooves built into his brows despite his young age.
The woman sighed deeply and closed her eyes. “I’m so hungry, Abraham. How will I feed the both of us? Tell me.”
“I’ll share my rations with you. We’ll make it work. Here, take this bread. It’s not much but it will help you through till lunch.” He removed a small sack that was tied to his belt and pulled out a crispy-crusted piece of white bread.
Halysia hesitated. “You need your energy to work. I can’t take this from you.”
Abraham leaned forward, cupped the woman’s troubled face into his hands and kissed her forehead. “I don’t want you to worry any longer. I’ll take care of you both. You’re the reason that I want to live. I love you, and I won’t let anything bad happen to you.”
“And you’re mine, Abraham. But I’m so scared. What are we going to do when I start to show?” she asked, patting her belly anxiously.
Abraham climbed back to his feet and glanced at the guard folding up his whip in the far distance. “I have to go but you just rest.  I’ll come back for you before the evening line-up. Please make sure you drink enough water. Anna will bring you some food later.”
“Abraham?” She looked at him, trouble twisting her face.
“Don’t worry, I’ll think of something. You just try to keep the food down and stay out of sight,” he said and, after a worried glance at his love, stepped out of the hut and disappeared behind a fence, his heart heavier than ever. 
Halysia opened her fingers and looked at the slice of bread her best friend Anna baked that morning. Though in the past three weeks most of the food she consumed before noon came back, she decided to take a small bite to ease the increasing pain in her stomach. But when the smell of the stale flour reached her nostrils, she gagged and ran over to a bucket in the corner. Quickly she stuffed her scarf into her mouth to lessen the noises she made. If the guards found her away from work, public humiliation and instant execution would follow. A few years ago death might have seemed the ideal solution to her dreadful life, but since she became close to Abraham, life suddenly had a meaning. And now there was a new life growing inside her. She had to stay strong. She had to stay alive.
When her stomach settled down, she pulled the bitter cloth out of her mouth and leaning her back against the wall, she collapsed to the floor. This wasn’t her home but it didn’t make any difference, considering that these huts all looked alike. The inside walls were bare, blindingly white from the whitewash. There were no beds, only rugs and blankets scattered over the floor where people slept, and a few haystacks for comfort. Light poured inside from a single window and illuminated the fire pit in the middle of the dirt floor. It was cleaned out. People used the ashes to fertilize the plants in the gardens.
As her thoughts wandered through well-kept gardens and green forests, her heart started to ache. She remembered the day when the Slavehunters invaded the village where she lived happily with her family. It had been almost two decades ago, yet she could still clearly remember the fragrances of the flowers and of the forest after the rain. She gazed out the window at the endless white landscape pensively. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d had the chance to reminisce. The hard work left no time for daydreaming. And at night, she only had nightmares about the screaming people being thrust into cages, the painted faces of the Slavehunters, the fierce flames consuming the village, the dead bodies on the ground. Sleep had brought her comfort only since she fell in love with Abraham. But now, due to one careless night, their four years of happiness had come to an end. Her stomach tightened into a knot. She closed herself up into a ball and, not allowing herself to feel attached to the tiny life that grew inside her, she fell into a restless sleep.

****

Either the hunger or the troubling happenings of the past few weeks caused her dream to come fast. Halysia smiled in her sleep as the face of her sweet, plump nurse appeared in her dream. She was only seven years old when the Slavehunters dropped her off at the nursery where cold and strange women raised her along with many other children. Nurse Maria was the only one who treated them with kindness, and Halysia grew increasingly fond of her over the next three years.
At the age of ten she and twenty other girls were sent to the brothel institute, and Maria asked to be moved with her. From the first day, her nurse, now governess, Maria brushed her hair, bathed her in milk and honey, and rubbed silky lotion into her skin. Every minute they had spent alone, she would tell her stories about wild horses that galloped through rolling hills; about flying birds that glided over woods and rivers; about princes who journeyed to save princesses locked in towers, and Halysia drank in her words. Some days she wished to be a princess who was saved by her prince charming. Other days she wanted to be free like a bird, wild like a mustang. Even after the lights went out, she would stay awake and think up her own adventures. Maria loved to hear about them but always cautioned in a soft whisper, “Let’s make these stories our secret. Do not tell them to anybody else but me, little one.”
For years Halysia enjoyed the secrecy and the fantasy world she and her Maria created. Not until much later did she understand that governesses were only allowed to teach girls how to be delightful to men and mind their manners.
Every year Halysia watched girls being promoted to Chosen Ones and being taken away. She was left behind with her friends and her dreams, feeling great envy for those who could leave the walls of the institute and see the world outside.
A painful ripple washed over the sleeping young woman, and she tossed onto to her side restlessly. The scenery had changed in her dream, and she pictured her teen self neatly lined up for an inspection with other girls over fourteen years of age, all prepared to look their best. The girls had to impress the madam of the brothel who had come to pay her annual visit to the institute.
The madam was the most elegant woman Halysia had ever seen. Her dark hair, pulled back into a tight bun, always had a gold or silver wire braided into it. Her eyes were a very warm green with butterscotch dots, and around them the skin was painted with radiant colors, while her eyelashes were thick and long. Yet, her heart-shaped lips that always shone like rose petals after the rain impressed the young girl the most.
The moment the madam stopped in front of her, Halysia’s heart started to pound. When the serious-eyed woman leaned in closer to her, lifted a handful of her hair, and sniffed it, Halysia could smell her perfume. Though it still wasn’t clear to her what exactly a girl had to do in a brothel, she wanted to be like the madam, beautiful and self-assured, not that wild-spirited girl Maria always called her. When the madam straightened back up and nodded at the three governesses that formed a line by the door, Halysia felt relieved that she had been chosen. She had never been happier. Only the most beautiful girls were privileged to live in a brothel, and now she was finally one of them. But when her eyes met Maria’s and she spotted the deep sadness in them, a new and strange feeling gripped her spine. Why wasn’t Nurse Maria happy for her triumph?
After the madam finished studying the very last girl in the room, Halysia watched her guards lead away the two most beautiful girls that were selected for serving the empress. The girls hurried to keep up with the guards, honor and pride built into their every step. The Chosen Ones followed their exit, giggling as they brainstormed among themselves over these mysterious new jobs. Only the five girls who had to leave the institute and move in with the farmers weren’t smiling. Without any belongings, they were loaded onto a cart and taken away down the long road. Halysia watched them through the window, her eyes not letting go of the cart until it disappeared over the horizon.
Forcing herself to erase the images of those humiliated girls who were not considered pretty enough for the brothel, and slowly allowing herself to enjoy her own victory, she began folding her dresses.
“Why aren’t you happy, Halysia?” Zoe, a sweet brunette, dropped her packed suitcase onto Halysia’s bed. “Aren’t you excited to see where the Chosen Ones will live from now on?”
Halysia wrapped her friend in her arms. “Of course I am. I’m just sad about those girls….”
She was cut short in mid-sentence when Maria burst through the door with a panicked expression, startling everybody. Without a word, she seized Halysia’s arm and dragged her out of the room and down the hallway. In the kitchen she grabbed a butcher knife from the table and shoved the frightened girl into the broom closet.
“What’re you doing? Are you mad?” Halysia asked, rubbing the spot where she hit her head.
“Just get in there; we don’t have much time,” Maria urged, closing the door behind them.
Halysia glanced at the sharp knife in her trusted governess’s grasp and her worry deepened. “What do you want with that knife?” she asked, her back pressed against the wall of the closet.
Maria hid her hand with the knife behind her back, and planted the other on her face.
“You’re so beautiful and unique, Halysia. Men would love you the most. You were always my favorite child, too. Oh, Halysia, please don’t ever forget that I loved you.”
“Why are you talking like this? What’s going on?” the young girl asked, her voice shaking.
The nurse sighed and looked away for a moment, taking her hand back and massaging her temple with it. When her gaze returned to Halysia, a cold shiver chilled the confused girl to the bone.
“I thought we would have more time together, that I could find a way to give you a better life … but I’ve failed. And now I’m out of time. But I won’t let you be taken to the brothel.” The governess towered over her favorite child, madness darkening her eyes.
“Why are you saying such things? I was chosen. Aren’t you proud?” Halysia asked, tears glistening in her eyes.
“Oh, my sweet child! I’ve never told you what a girl has to do and endure in a brothel. But trust me when I say that you don’t want to go there. And I have no other choice but to do this. Please forgive me.” She raised the knife and slashed Halysia’s face twice.
The stricken girl fell to her knees, her face cupped in the safety of her hands; but it was too late. Blood was gushing out of her wounds, staining her beautiful dress and the wooden floor of the closet.
But the nurse didn’t stop there; she grasped a big chunk of her hair and cut it off, then reached for another, until nothing was left of Halysia’s curls but a short, uneven mess.
Halysia tried to push her away but the closet was too confining. She screamed and screamed until someone ripped the door open. At last two governesses appeared, dragged the mad woman away from her, and twisted the knife out of her hand. The burning pain in her eyes and on her face prevented her from seeing much, yet she got a glimpse of her once favorite nurse as the others disarmed her without resistance. Her face seemed to turn pale and her eyes hopeless. 
The third governess leaned over Halysia and lifted her chin.
“Now this one is good no longer. Send a messenger to the madam that we’ll only be delivering eleven girls tomorrow.”
“No, please don’t send me to farming,” Halysia cried, feeling a deep hatred toward Maria building up in her chest. “Why did you do this to me? Why?” she screamed.
“Because I love you more than I love my own life,” Maria replied in a feeble voice. “I hope you’ll forgive me one day.”

****

The images in the dream were so intense that Halysia woke with a start. Though it was the middle of summer, an unwelcome chill gave her goose bumps. She dragged herself to the faucet and drank deeply. A few minutes later her heartbeat slowed down and she huddled up on the blanket again, touching her face. The scars didn’t hurt anymore but her heart did. She never had the chance to tell Maria that she forgave her.
The day after the incident Maria was publicly executed.
It took two years for the baffled girl to find out what the brothel really was. One of the farmer women enlightened her during harvest. She, herself, used to be a Chosen One and worked for seven years to pleasure men until one of her clients, who found great enjoyment torturing women, cut off one of her breasts. The madam labeled her useless and sent her to the farmlands….
Listening to the details of the terror the girls had to bear for years, Halysia felt sick to her stomach. But what hurt the most was that Maria had sacrificed her life in hopes that she might have a better one, and she never had the chance to thank her for that. For many years, guilt gnawed at Halysia’s insides until Abraham’s love made it all go away. Now only the dreams were left to haunt her.

****

As Halysia lay shaking, skin damp and shimmering, a shadow crossed the floor of the hut. A pale, unhealthy-looking young woman ducked inside. “Sisi, are you awake?”
Halysia rolled over to her knees, feeling ashamed for resting while everyone else was breaking their back at the construction sites.
“I’m glad you came, Anna. I’m so sorry that we have to trouble you with this.”
The woman sat back on her heels by her friend, gathered her dull locks to one side and unfolded the cloth that covered the food in the basket. “No trouble at all. I brought you some bread, cheese, and I saved you a whole bunch of grapes.”
“Where did you get them? They look absolutely delicious.”
“I signed up for some extra laundry duty over at the farmers’ camp. But don’t worry about it.” She smiled and pulled Halysia into her arms for a hug.
When they parted, Halysia dabbed at her tear-filled eyes.
“So what’re you gonna do?” Anna asked, placing her hands like angel wings over her friend’s belly.
“The toothless seer, you know, on the other side of the wheat lands, told me that she could cook me up some sort of potion that would take care of the baby,” she said, but immediately guilt choked her up.
Anna’s brows wrinkled. “Abraham promised to figure something out. She had no right to offer you her help until all the other options were exhausted,” she grumbled, laying out the food for Halysia.
“But you know exactly how hopeless the prospects are for an Arkanian child in Terraka City,” Halysia continued. “My little baby won’t live like this.”
“You don’t know what your child will turn out to be. He might have artistic talents and will work on frescos and statues, or he might become part of the Emperor’s entertainers and will spend his days singing and dancing. This baby doesn’t necessarily have to be a girl, and especially not a future Chosen One,” Anna argued. But then her eyes shrank and she sighed. “Though when I look at you both I find it impossible for you two not to have a beautiful child.”
“And have my kid sit at the feet of the emperor like a dog and shake her naked body on demand or be locked away in a dungeon and carve stone until his hands start bleeding? You have to understand, my dear friend, that I don’t want to bring a child into this wretched world to be a trained animal, used by our invaders,” Halysia explained, but when she realized that there wasn’t much they could do to change the course that lay ahead for her unborn child, hot tears began rolling down her cheeks.
Anna gathered Halysia’s head onto her chest and tenderly ran her hand over her hair. “Your baby doesn’t just mean pain and suffering. It also means hope. He makes me believe that our people have a future. That one day we’ll have our lands back, and our lives will be peaceful and joyful once again.”
Halysia raised her eyes to meet Anna’s, wiped the tears from her cheeks and asked, “How can you be so optimistic?”
“Just think about it. Nobody here has given birth to a child for over two years. What happened to you can’t be a coincidence. I believe the person who’s growing inside you is our redeemer. I’ll do anything to help you keep him safe. Just promise me that you’ll take care of yourself.”
Halysia gazed at her friend ponderingly, like a painter stares at a raging ocean, feelings and thoughts swirling inside her like a hurricane. Abraham has been telling her the same thing but she refused to believe in it. Now Anna, convinced and enthusiastic, parrots his words. Maybe she has been selfish all along. Maybe she should trust the Almighty and follow her destiny. Maybe, just maybe, she should give more credit to the words of people who love her. As she stared at the hopeful face of Anna, so honest and kind, a long-forgotten feeling started to bud inside her chest: hope. “You might be right, my dear Anna, but I don’t want you to get your hopes up too high, all right? This is a mad world we are living in, but I promise I won’t let you down. I’ll do my best to take care of this child, and I’ll learn to love him.”
“Now that’s the spirit. Here, eat your food.” Anna craned her neck to look up at the sun. “I’d love to share this meal with you, but I have to go back before Commander Wiseman notices my absence.” She pointed a finger at Halysia. “I’ll keep an eye on you, Sisi. No potions from the seer, promise?”
“Promise.”
She leaned in for one last hug, folding her arms over the barrier of the miracle child and closed her eyes, letting love and friendship warm her veins before she would go back to the hellhole. “We just need to keep you safe. And we will. All of us.”
“Anna, do you think there is a chance for someone like us to escape this place?”
“A month ago I would have said no, but now, somehow, I believe that anything is possible.”
 Halysia grabbed her friend’s thin arm. “Please, Anna, promise me you’ll help us escape.”
“I promise,” she said, a hand on her heart. Then she kissed Halysia and rose.
From the door, Anna looked back at the glowing young woman. Halysia’s face was somewhat more peaceful now. Anna smiled at her, a strange buzzing feeling expanding her heart. She couldn’t wait to tell the others about the new hope.

Release date: April 29, 2014


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