Sunday, April 10, 2011

Chapter 2

This is the other chapter I mentioned on Evil Editor.  I originally switched it to the first chapter, but my creating writing group didn't think it worked all that well.  It wasn't that anything was wrong with the chapter.  It was more an issue of audience.  Even if the focus in my query is on Malia, they said I should open up with Vardin's chapter because starting out with a girl is likely to turn away young male readers, who apparently can't handle female protagonists.

It would be great to hear anyone's thoughts on which chapter I should use to start the book.  I think it can work either way because the start isn't really chronological.  As always, comments on the chapter are welcome.  I just brought this chapter into my creative writing group for critique and left with a lot of helpful comments.
Note: If you think the note from the mother is terrible, it won't surprise me.  I haven't gotten around to fixing it yet.

Chapter 2

A Poor Engagement

Malia rubbed her eyes and yawned as she slipped out from the covers atop her bed. Disturbing images flashed through her head, the same as always. The blood-stained sheets. The shapeless red and black figure. That same nightmare plagued her nearly every night, though its vividness had diminished over time. As Malia rolled across the mattress, she felt something strange and recoiled, still ensnared in the dream’s spell.

What was that? she thought as she touched the hard, rectangular object beneath her covers. Malia lifted the blanket to see the book she had attempted to read the previous night. She breathed a sigh of relief. I must have fallen asleep while reading it. It wasn’t a very good book anyway. She chuckled silently.

Malia rose from her bed and strolled toward the door to an adjacent room. She knocked and called out, “Agara.”

Malia’s servant, an older woman with short, brown-gray hair, opened the door and stepped toward her. She smiled kindly and looked into Malia’s deep brown eyes. “What do you need, dear?”

“First, Agara, I need you to fix my hair, please. Then, I need you to pick out a good outfit for me. I suppose I must make a good impression on my suitor when he arrives this evening.”

“My princess, you look stunning no matter what you wear.”

“Oh, Agara,” she tried to laugh as she shook her head. “If only everyone felt the same way.”

Princess Malia and her servant entered the huge closet next to Agara’s room. Agara pointed at a pink silk dress. “How about that one?”

“I am not in a pink mood today,” Malia sighed. When am I ever in a pink mood?
Agara’s eyes widened in surprise. “But you look beautiful in pink.”

Malia examined the remaining dresses for a few seconds before pointing at an elaborate white silk dress. “I will wear that one,” she told Agara, more to be done with the search than because she liked the dress. “Would you please retrieve it for me?”

Agara ambled over and delicately removed the dress from its hangar. A slight frown crossed her face as she scrutinized it. “Oh, you’re right! This dress is perfect!” Her expression said otherwise.

Agara dressed Princess Malia, making a great effort to prevent wrinkles. The dress seemed snug as she finessed it over Malia’s shoulders. Then again, the princess lacked the ideal build. By no stretch of the imagination was she fat, but neither did she feel inclined to watch what she ate.

Finally dressed, Malia looked at herself in the mirror. “It is . . . nice,” she admitted as she shifted the dress around to make it more comfortable. “Except my hair is still a complete and utter mess.”

“Well, let’s fix that right now.” Agara grabbed a brush off the dresser and ran it through Malia’s mess of long brown hair.

“Agara, I am worried about today.” She winced as the brush snagged on a knot in her hair. “I have this feeling something bad is going to happen.”

“That’s only your nerves, dear. You’re meeting your suitor today. This is a very important day in your life. It’s alright to be nervous.”

Her hair straight, Malia looked more like a princess. “That must be what it is. I must be worried about meeting him.”

Agara set the brush down. “That should do it. Your hair looks wonderful, dear.”

“Thank you, Agara. Sometimes, I do not know what I would do without you.” She shook her head and smiled. “I would fail miserably at being a princess.”

Agara gave Malia a quick, caring hug, then shuffled back through the door adjacent to Malia’s bedroom while Malia strolled the other way.

One of the guards protecting the door looked her way as she stepped into the hallway. “Good morning. You look beautiful today, Princess Malia.”

“How awful of you,” Malia joked, trying to calm her queasy stomach. “I would hope I look beautiful every day.”

“O-of course, b-but you look even more stunning than usual.”

Malia smiled at the guard’s frantic reply as she strolled through the hallway and toward the stairs. Taking care not to fall in her high-heeled shoes, she stepped down the long spiral staircase to the bottom of the tower.

These steps are far too thin
, she thought as her right foot nearly slipped. And I hate these shoes. It required a great deal of self-control not to send them flying down the stairs.

When she arrived in the palace dining room, her father, the king of Crayden, had already begun eating his breakfast.

“Good morning, Malia,” he greeted her between bites.

“Good morning, Father. What news of my suitor?”

The king set his spoon down on a cloth napkin. “He sent a messenger earlier this morning. He plans to arrive around noon rather than in the evening.”

“That is great.” Malia brushed her hair out of her face as a servant filled her glass with freshly-squeezed juice. “Now I do not have to wear this terribly uncomfortable dress for so long.”

She seated herself in a chair at the table, thankful she would soon meet her potential husband. The worries from a few minutes earlier had receded to the back of her mind. Another servant hustled over and quickly placed a napkin in front of Malia

“Servants!” her father ordered. “Stop taking so long, and acquire some sustenance for my daughter.”

The servant nearly sprinted to the kitchen.

“He is definitely great for you, Malia.” She nodded, swinging her legs beneath the table. “He is very worthy of being my successor.” She nodded again, staring at the empty space of table before her. “He is a powerful, commanding man who knows how to run a kingdom.”

“But is he nice, Father? How will he treat me?”

“Well, um he . . . yes he will treat you splendidly, dear.” The king scratched his head.

A servant set a large plate down in front of Malia while those old sentiments began to filter their way back to the forefront of her thoughts.

“Thank you,” she told the servant. The man bowed as he turned away from her. Malia looked down at the plate and began shoving chunks of food into her mouth.

Her father gave her a disapproving glare. “Malia, you must eat more like a lady. Nobody wants to marry a woman who eats like that. If your mother had eaten like that-”

“Okay, father,” Malia retorted, bits of food flying from her lips. “You know I do not eat like this in front of company.”

“I know, dear,” he responded as he returned to his breakfast. “Obviously, you do not.”

Malia continued eating, hardly paying attention to her father, for this was his usual manner; she had learned to live with it.

“What am I going to do for two hours?” she complained with a heavy sigh, glaring at her father. “Noon is still two hours away, and this dress is so awfully restricting. I cannot do anything fun in it.”

“Why not try being more ladylike?”

“I am ladylike!” Malia argued, her mouth stuffed with food again. She swallowed. “Or at least I am when I wish to be.”

“Well, you should still make it a habit.”

“If I must, father.”

But Malia’s father remained at the table as she left the dining chamber. Instead of ascending the stairs as usual, she passed them and entered the palace library. Sometimes, she thought, this room is the only thing keeping me from leaving this place.
Dozens of shelves housed the many books of her ancestors’ collections. Malia had already read most of them, though a few hundred still lay untouched by the back wall. She surveyed these books, noticing no real sense of organization, which frustrated her.

Malia picked up one dusty book and looked at its cover. It was titled ‘A History of the Ring of Darkness,’ and its author started with an H, though the rest of the letters had faded. As she opened the book, a small piece of paper fluttered to the floor.

Malia grabbed the paper and immediately recognized her mother’s handwriting. She felt a twinge of sadness as she gazed at the words.

Jevian, I miss you so much, dear. I know your business in Darbrook is important, but I feel like Malia would benefit from knowing her father a little better. Perhaps, I worry too much, but I fear what may happen if Armoth discovers what I am doing. When I became involved, I knew I was taking a risk, but that was before Malia was born. I expect her to carry on my work one day, but right now, she is too young to understand. However, I fear for her. If Armoth sends his Darkness Guards after us, I would not put it past them to kill her too. Harius has told me that Malia is special and that I should take special care, not only to protect her, but to teach her as well. If only she showed some interest in learning. Right now, she is so concerned about being a princess and fulfilling her duties that I worry. Not that she should ignore her royal duties, but I am hoping this is only a phase. I know, I worry too much. After all, I worry that the courier will not be able to find you.

With love,


Malia took a deep breath, slipped the note back in the book, and closed it. That was probably the last thing she ever wrote. My father was away in Darbrook when it happened. A hint of anger surged through her veins.

“I will make you proud, Mom.”

Her eyes lingered on the dusty book for a few more seconds. Becoming upset over Mom now will not improve anything, she reminded herself. You must learn to control your emotions, Malia. They will cloud your judgment when you most need it.

Malia needed something to take her mind off the note, so she strolled in the direction of one of her favorite books. She grabbed it from the shelf and smiled as she gazed at the title: ‘Luminenian Symbols: How to Decipher the Mysterious Runes.’

After about an hour of reading, Malia heard her father’s voice. “I told you to focus on being ladylike. Is that what you are doing right now?” He appeared from the other side of a bookshelf.

“No, Father.”

“And why are you not doing as I told you?”

“I see no need.”

King Jevian’s face turned red with anger. “Well, I do, young lady. So you better put that book down right now and start practicing. Ladies do not read books!”

Malia glared at her father. “Are you saying Mom was not a lady, then?”

“That is it! Go to your room! And if you choose to disobey me again, you can say goodbye to your library privileges.”

“Fine!” Malia threw the book to the ground and stomped past her father.

An incredibly boring hour later, Malia and the king stood in the palace foyer, waiting. She surveyed the many elaborate decorations on the walls and thought, I like them. But are they really necessary? If somebody came in here and destroyed this place, would the loss of these decorations change the world in any way?
Malia’s thought process was interrupted as the gate began lifting. She looked at the clock in the palace lobby to see her suitor had arrived about ten minutes early. As it clanked and groaned, the opening gate revealed aspects of his appearance. First, his boots—black and shiny, embellished with small gold bands which appeared to serve no functional purpose. Then, his pants—dark red with intricate gold accouterments.

As the gate revealed more of his appearance, Malia noticed the same elaborate design on his suit jacket, which he had buttoned all the way to the top.

He certainly took care to impress me
, she thought, noting every piece of clothing perfectly accentuated her suitor’s tall, handsome figure. He looked strong and a little intimidating, though not too large. Confidence radiated from every square inch of his body. His short dark hair and golden brown skin complemented the rest of his appearance, and Malia couldn’t help but fall in love with his physical attributes.

The appearance of her suitor presently surprised Malia, though she still worried how he’d treat her. But she failed to understand the reasoning behind her intuition, for she had never met the man.

The suitor bowed to the king. “Greetings, Your Majesty. I am Tylen. Your daughter is even more radiant than I had imagined.”

Malia blushed, though his remark struck her as insincere.

Tylen turned to her. “Hello, Your Majesty. I kindly entreat you to sit down to a small lunch with me, if your father approves, of course.” He gave the king a quick, overly wide smile.

“That would be splendid!” The king sounded more excited than he had in years. “I shall inform the servants.” He strode into the next room and out of earshot.

Tylen grinned at her. “Good afternoon, darling.” Malia flinched in disgust.

“First of all,” she declared, her voice angry yet still quiet. She made direct eye contact with Tylen, taking in his strong jawline and dark, piercing eyes. “Do not call me darling. We are not yet married, and I do not believe it is prudent for you to act as though we are the first time we meet.”

“There is no need to worry about such things.” He caressed her face with his hand.

She swiveled her face away from his touch. “Second of all, I would prefer that you not do that.” He stroked her shoulder, but she twisted her body and faced the wall.

When Malia’s father returned a few moments later, an awkward silence had fallen upon the room. Tylen stood there, trying to look as composed as possible while Malia faced away from him, staring into the corner of the room.

The king failed to notice the tension in the air. “Let us proceed into the dining chamber!” Tylen and Malia followed him and sat down in adjacent chairs for a small lunch.

“How are you, my dear?” Tylen asked, insincerity evident in his voice, at least to Malia.

“Everything is great,” Malia lied, casting him a dirty look.

Tylen beamed at her. “That is good. I cannot overcome your beauty. It is simply astonishing.”

“Thank you.” Trying to avoid Tylen’s eyes, she angled her head downward at the plate of food the servant had placed in front of her.

Malia ate her food silently while Tylen discussed his wealth and status with her father. Could this man possibly be a bigger jerk? she thought as she continued eating, each bite less ladylike than the last. She kicked her shoes onto the floor. Maybe if I act like the worst lady ever, he will leave and never bother me again. Malia picked up a soft green vegetable with her hand instead of her fork and shoved it into her mouth dramatically.

King Jevian failed to notice her theatrics. “So, what do you think, Malia?”

Her thoughts escaping her, she stared blankly.

Tylen placed his hand gently on Malia’s shoulder. “Not to worry, I think she is simply overcome by the excitement of the day. I must admit I am rather excited as well.” He smiled in Malia’s direction, but she felt like punching him in the face.

“Malia, darling, what do you think of marrying Tylen next week? The wedding preparations have already been completed.”

She fidgeted in her seat. Should I tell the truth? I don’t want to spend the rest of my life with him.
“I would hate it.”

Tylen and her father both stared at her, their mouths hanging open in an unattractive manner. Malia would have laughed given different circumstances.

Tylen recovered his composure first. “Why, my darling?” He reached his hand toward her.

“I am not ready!” Malia knocked her chair to the floor with a loud clang.

She stormed out of the room and up the stairs, then burst through the door to her room and ripped the dress off, not caring if she tore it. She grabbed an off white, sleeveless shirt and forced it over her shoulders before pulling on some tan-colored pants and tying her hair back in a ponytail to keep it away from her face.

Malia opened the door to Agara’s room and took a deep breath to quell her anger. “Agara, would you please bring my bow down to the archery range.”

She exited her room and turned down the corridor to the left, passing her father’s room and a few more rooms of which she didn’t know the purpose. To her right stood the only door to an interior room. It had been used for storage but had recently been emptied, much to her dismay a few mornings earlier when the noise in the corridor had thwarted her attempt to sleep in.

Finally, Malia reached the other set of stairs in the hallway. When she arrived at the bottom, she stepped through a door to the archery range outside. Agara, completely unaware of the scene that had unfolded, followed with her bow and a good supply of arrows.

She handed the bow to Malia and stepped back to watch the princess, who put an arrow on the bow, pulled it back, and released. The arrow flew swiftly through the air and struck the target in the center. Malia shot another arrow, achieving the same result.

Why does my father always force me to do things I don’t want to do, she thought angrily as one of her arrows flew astray. That’s enough of this. She threw her bow to the ground and stomped back up to her bedroom. Still furious with her father, she locked the door and flopped violently onto her bed. There she lay, crying about her situation, the splotches of her tears marring the beauty of her sheets.

“Malia,” her father’s voice called through the door a few minutes later. Though he sounded furious, he attempted to control his anger. “Malia, dear, could you open the door?”

“No! Go away!”

“I understand you are upset. But you need to open this door right now.”

“I am not opening that door—not for you, not for anyone!”

“You do know the guards have the key to this door. Do you not?”

“Yes, Father, but may you please leave me alone and allow me to sort things out?”

“How dare you act as if you have done nothing wrong? Have you any idea the shame you brought upon the family with your actions today!”

Malia rolled off her bed, her feet slamming the floor. “Have you any idea the shame I feel at having an imbecile for a father!”

“That is no way to speak to your father, young lady.”

“I see nothing wrong with it,” she retorted as she stepped over to her dresser and began pushing it toward the door to form a barricade.

“What are you doing?” the king asked upon hearing the noise.

Malia said nothing as the dresser slid against the door. Her adrenaline pumping, she grabbed the chest of drawers to strengthen the barricade. It proved heavy, and her arms began to ache.

“I asked you a question, young lady.”

“And I have chosen not to answer it.”

“How dare you be so impertinent to your father?”

“How dare you be so inconsiderate to your daughter? Have I no right to choose whom I wish to marry?”

“You have a duty to fulfill as princess of this kingdom!” the king bellowed as the chair Malia pushed collided with the chest of drawers. “And what are you doing in there?”

“Keeping you out.”

“Give me the key,” Malia heard her father ask one of the guards.

“Yes, sir.”

King Jevian placed the key in the lock and turned it, but when he tried to push the door open, it didn’t budge. He pushed again, straining his shoulder. “That’s it!”

His footsteps stomped down the hallway, and Malia soon heard Agara’s door burst open. She rushed over in an attempt to barricade the door between their rooms, but her father flung it open before she had the chance.

“Alright,” her father began, taking a deep breath and holding his hand out in a calming motion, “I understand your concerns. However, I believe you should give Tylen another chance.”

“No, I refuse.”

His face turned red. “Malia, let us try this again.” He took another deep breath. “You shall give Tylen another chance.”

“No, I shall not.”

“If you say one more insolent word, I swear I will…I will-”

“You will what—stutter at me?”

Her father grabbed her arm and yanked her toward him. “What did I just say?” A vein throbbed in his temple.

Malia tried to pull her arm free, but he tightened his grip. “Ow, father, you are hurting me!”

“Well, what you did today hurt me? I never expected such disrespect from my own daughter.”

“Respect is earned.” She wrenched her arm from his grasp and fell backward to the ground.

The king jumped back in surprise and glanced anxiously at Malia. “A-are you all right, Malia?” He looked at the hand that had clutched Malia’s arm and shook his head.

“I am fine, Father,” she replied bitterly.

“That is...good, yes.” He glanced back to see Agara standing in the doorway. “Perhaps, you are right, Malia. Perhaps, I should let you figure things out.” The king turned to leave, then stopped for a moment. “However, do not think this means what you did today was proper, for it most certainly was the most impertinent display I have ever seen.”

Agara stepped out of the way as King Jevian whisked himself through the door, his heavy footsteps clunking on the wood floor. She gave Malia a caring glance before shuffling through the door herself and closing it.

Why must he make me marry such a horrible man? Malia thought as soon as the sound of her father’s footsteps faded. It simply is not fair. I don’t care if I’m a princess. I should be able to live my own life, make my own choices.

The power of this thought suddenly struck her. Wait, that’s it. I’ll run away from this restricting life and live a life in which I can make my own choices. Thinking about that makes me feel so much better.
She had already prepared to gather her things when she realized the impulsiveness of these actions. Wait, maybe if I talk to my father, I can convince him that I don’t want to marry Tylen. But he seems so enamored with the man. I don’t understand it. Obviously, my father believes he can perform well as a ruler. Is that all my father cares about? Does he care about me?
“A-Agara,” she called out.

“What is it, dear?” She sounded concerned, unaccustomed to hearing the princess so distressed.

“Could you come in here, please?”

The door between their rooms opened a few seconds later, and Agara entered through it. She sat down beside Malia on the bed and put her warm hand on the princess’s shoulder. “Today didn’t go too well, did it?”

Malia contorted her face in an effort to hold back the tears. “No, I am not sure what it is, but I simply despise something about that man.”

“Give him time, dear. Your father wouldn’t like him if he was a terrible man.”

“I am not so sure. You know how my father has been ever since . . .”

“And that is because he loved your mother very much.” Agara gave Malia a reassuring smile. “And he loves you too. He wants what’s best for you.”

Malia’s jaw quivered. “B-but does he? If he loved Mom so much, why must he refuse to let me be more like her?”

“Perhaps, he is trying to protect you. Your mother was a great woman, Malia, but what she did put her in danger.”

“I can handle danger! I have tried my best to prepare for it. I have learned archery. I have studied history and languages and countless other subjects. I know the danger my mother faced, and I am willing to face it as well. However, my father will not let me. He wishes that I be a nice, boring, obedient queen for a rich aristocrat like Tylen, and that is not the path I wish to take.”

“We can’t always determine our own paths, dear. My family has been palace servants for generations, so when I was born, it was clear I’d be one too. It may not be your fate to be like your mother.”

“That is a terrible example,” Malia retorted as she shook her head. “I know I must follow her path. She told me to carry on her work. And from that moment, I have dedicated my life to her. I wish to accomplish great things. Ever since Mom died, I have felt like there is a reason for my life, some kind of destiny, and that destiny is not to be married to someone like Tylen and spend my entire life hiding behind the palace walls.”

“I understand, dear. But I still think you should speak to your father and tell him how you feel.”

“I have tried before, but he does not want to listen. He has his idea of what I should be, and if I tell him otherwise, he will not care.”

“But he has allowed you to practice archery and study all these subjects.”

“He did not want to, though. I simply annoyed him enough to obtain what I wanted. I think he now regrets that he allowed me to learn these things at all, so he found a powerful man to instruct me on what I should and should not be doing.” Malia crossed her arms in disgust.

“You and I may not agree with him,” Agara reiterated. “But I do believe he has what he sees as your best interests at heart.”

“It would have been different if he had been there when Mom . . .”

“I know. It’s afternoon, though, and my old body is tired. I was up before the sun after all. We can talk more tomorrow. Okay? We’ll talk later, dear.” She gently patted Malia’s shoulder as she rose from the bed.

“Thank you, Agara.”

As soon as Agara closed the door, Malia contemplated her options again. I know I should listen to Agara, but my instincts still tell me I must leave. Though it doesn’t make any sense, it seems like it’s what I should do. I’ll write Agara a note telling her I left. I hope she doesn’t think poorly of me. She’s the closest thing I’ve had to a mother since Mom died, and it’s really difficult to do this to her. But I have to leave.

Once night fell, Malia collected items she figured she’d need. She found a stack of gold coins on her dresser and shoved them into her pockets. Then, she ducked under her bed, where she had hidden a bow and a few quivers of arrows in case anyone ever attacked the palace while she slept. Malia grabbed them and slung them across her back.

She thought about taking a few extra outfits but realized carrying them would prove too difficult. Finally, she stuffed her bag with a few more miscellaneous items and put on comfortable walking shoes. Malia only remembered at the last moment she had intended to write Agara a note.

Guards were always stationed at the door, so she couldn’t escape that way, leaving the window as her only exit. She opened its fancy gold frame and stepped onto the narrow ledge beneath it. As she looked down, the ground appeared to be at least forty feet below her. It looked so far away.

“You can do this,” Malia told herself as second thoughts crept into her mind. The ledge was barely large enough for her feet. Her legs started to shake.

The princess looked down again and saw another narrow ledge only about six feet below the one on which she stood. She hung off her ledge and quietly dropped to it, almost slipping as she landed.

“Whew,” she gasped. “That was close.” The ground still looked small and distant.

The next ledge was much the same, as were the remaining three below it. When Malia finally stood on the lowest ledge, the ground still looked small ten feet below. She hung precariously off the edge and hesitated. Though it proved a long drop, the princess summoned the courage to let go. She tumbled backward as she hit the ground, noticing a slight twinge in her ankle. But it was nothing serious.

The night dark, Malia could see only from the light the full moon cast on her surroundings. She walked stealthily across the palace grounds so as not to attract the attention of the guards at the front door—quickly ducking behind a large statue of her great grandfather to avoid the sight of a patrolling guard.

As Malia escaped the palace grounds, she remained close enough to hear the low conversation of those guards, though she couldn’t tell exactly what they were saying. She crouched out of sight behind a hedge, occasionally peering through the brambles to make sure no one was coming.

Malia continued walking through the grass since it proved much quieter than walking on the rock paved path leading from the palace. The decorative hedges no longer concealed her, but she had snuck far enough away the guards wouldn’t spot her unless they knew exactly where to direct their eyes.

Finally, Malia reached the edge of the city of Crayden. She sought to avoid attention from the people on the streets. As she surveyed her surroundings, she noticed their ratty old clothes, their sad faces, the looks of desperation in their eyes—a stark contrast with Malia’s sheltered life.

It’s so unfortunate, she thought pensively. Why do all these people have to live like this?

Malia noticed their watchful eyes as she walked by, periodically glancing over her shoulder to be certain no one had followed her. She felt relieved she hadn’t dressed like a princess; that would have attracted a lot of attention, and if anyone recognized her, she would find herself in a great deal of trouble.

Malia noticed many of these people appeared old, some quite sick. They looked at Malia and her clean clothing, hoping to receive something, but sadly, she had nothing to give them and tried to avert their glances. She carried only what she absolutely needed and wished with all her heart she had something—forgetting about the small fortune in her pockets.

As Malia passed a large tavern, she spotted a Darkness Guard carrying an unconscious man out the door. I wonder what happened, she thought as she ducked into an alley beside the seedy establishment. And why is a Darkness Guard doing that? Shouldn’t it be a town guard’s job?
The man passed but never looked to his right where the princess had failed to conceal herself. With a sigh of relief, Malia trekked across the rest of the city until she reached the eastern side, where a large forest stood. She gazed at the tall trees looming in front of her and wondered where she should go.

Despite her uncertainty, Malia’s intuition propelled her feet into the forest. She strolled under the dense canopy of trees, which looked menacing in the darkness of the night. Malia feared there may be bears or other wild animals in the forest, but she had never heard tale of any attacks.

After walking through the night, exhaustion gripped Malia. Halfway through the day, her feet refused to carry her one more step, so she decided to rest in a clearing. The beams of sunlight passing through the dense foliage looked beautiful to her. Small yellow flowers dotted the meadow. This is the most beautiful place in the world. She smiled as she lay down to rest.

Crunch. The noise startled Malia. It sounded like footsteps. Someone else walked in the forest. She stood, alert for any signs of this person approaching her. The crunching sound grew closer, louder. A twig snapped. She felt a surge of panic. A chill ran down her spine as she heard the sound of heavy breathing.

A tall, muscular man stepped into the clearing, wearing a thick chain mail and carrying a sword. Upon closer inspection, Malia noticed a red and black circular badge. It suddenly struck her that he was a Darkness Guard. Her heart sank in her chest as memories from her past crept into her mind.

Recalling that her bow hung on her back, she reached for it and rose to her feet as a surge of anger shot through her body. She ducked behind a tree and took aim but found herself unable to hold the bow steady. Her hands shaking, she hoisted the bow over her shoulder and sighed softly.

But the moment the Darkness Guard started to walk away, Malia moved her foot and accidentally stepped on a branch, which snapped with a crack like a whip. The Darkness Guard turned and saw her.

“What are you doing here?”

Malia’s words caught in her throat. She froze to the spot in terror, her hand no longer ready to grab the bow.

“Answer me,” the Darkness Guard commanded.

“I-I do not know.” Her legs shook.

“Does anyone know you’re here?”

“No,” Malia answered before realizing her mistake. “I-I meant yes.”

“Hmm, nobody knows you’re here. And I don’t want anybody to know I’m here. So, you know what that means?”

“What?” With a twinge in her stomach, she already knew his answer.

“It means I have to kill you.”

“I-I am sure there are other ways of handling this situation,” Malia pleaded, her heart pounding. “I could just f-forget I ever s-saw you.”

The Darkness Guard ignored her appeals, brandished his sword, and approached her. Malia screamed loudly, having forgotten her bow rested against her back, ready to be used.

The Darkness Guard stood only a few feet away from her when he suddenly stopped.

Malia screamed again, even louder this time. The man hit her over the head to prevent further calls for help. Her surroundings obscured, and she thought she saw something swimming in her vision as she collapsed to the forest floor.

While she lay on the ground, immobilized, Malia overheard an argument between the Darkness Guard and someone else.

“What are you doing?” demanded the Darkness Guard.

“I-I could ask you the same,” countered the other voice.

“It’s none of your business.”

“I think it is my business.”

“Leave now. Or I’ll kill you.”

The argument ended, and Malia prayed the person hadn’t been killed. She tried to stand, but her head throbbed. Dizzy, she collapsed to the ground with a heavy thud. The Darkness Guard slowly stepped in her direction, twigs crunching beneath his heavy boots.

“Now, it’s time for you to die,” he sneered, chuckling, a hint of pleasure in his voice.

Malia crawled along the ground, still disoriented from the blow to her head. Her dizziness began to fade, and she struggled to her feet, her legs wavering. As she began running, she stumbled and fell but quickly climbed back to her feet. The Darkness Guard pursued only a few steps behind her. She attempted to sprint faster in spite of the throbbing pain.

The sound of quick footsteps grew closer and closer behind Malia. She tried to outpace her assailant as fatigue overcame her, her breathing hard and labored. She collapsed.

The Darkness Guard’s boot struck the forest floor inches from her head. He brandished his sword. Malia wanted to scream, but no sound escaped her mouth. She looked pleadingly at the Darkness Guard in one last hope he’d spare her.

His eyes, however, offered no compassion.

New Chapter 1

After talking with my creative writing group, I tried going a different angle with the first chapter. I'm now using an action scene to start. Does this work better? Suggestions on how to make the scene more compelling are always welcome. Note: I haven't had time to fix all the issues in the chapter just yet.

Chapter 1

Remnants of the Past

The sound of heavy footsteps threatened as a young woman hastened her pace. She glanced back to see her assailant gaining on her, his sword glinting in the sunlight. Dizzy from an earlier blow to the head, she stumbled but quickly climbed back to her feet.

The man neared her, eyeing her as a vulture eyes a dying animal. Her lungs ached. Branches lashed at her face as she pushed through an area of thick vegetation. She glanced back again. He followed only a few feet behind.

She coughed. The heavy footsteps grew louder. With each step, her assailant’s heavy boots crunched twigs, pounded the forest floor beneath. She stumbled over a tree root, barely keeping her balance, but her surroundings swirled around her with the return of her dizziness.

The ground hurtled toward the young woman’s face as her knees collapsed, and she met the forest floor with a heavy thud. The man’s boot struck leaves and twigs mere inches from her head. He brandished his sword. Her heart pounding, she stared at him in one last hope he’d spare her.

His eyes, however, offered no compassion.


The blunt, heavy blade of the axe crashed into its target with a loud thwack. Vardin smiled as he gazed upon his handiwork, the mangled mess at his feet. His forearms felt as if they had caught on fire, though Vardin strangely enjoyed the pain. It signaled he had worked hard.

I don’t understand why I have to do this right now
, he thought as he drug his sweaty forearm across his equally sweaty forehead. How could we possibly need firewood any time soon? Sometimes, I just don’t understand my uncle.

Grunting, Vardin lifted the collection of wood he had chopped that day. He gazed at the tree trunk where the dull blade rested and wanted to grab the axe. But it would have proved impossible. He shook his head as he turned to head home. Why didn’t I bring something to carry all this? I guess I could make multiple trips, but no, I think I’ll just come back for the axe.

Vardin tried to wipe the sweat from his brow as he tripped and stumbled through the forest, cradling the bundle of wood. Though he possessed more than enough strength, it felt awkward in his arms. One of the logs clunked to the ground. He considered picking it up, but it wasn’t worth the effort.

Vardin pushed open the door to the cabin with his back and scraped his muscular right arm against the doorframe. Glancing quickly at the injury, he saw no blood. He didn’t want to show weakness, not in front of his uncle, whose eyes had just flicked in Vardin’s direction.

“Um, where do you want this, Uncle Theodon?”

His uncle placed the book he was reading on a table and gave Vardin a stern look. “Where it always goes, by the fireplace.”

“So, why do I have to collect firewood in the middle of summer?” Vardin sighed, a ray of sunlight beaming through the door and reflecting off his deep blue eyes.

Theodon scratched his long, brown-gray beard and picked up his book again. “Well, the old man in town said it’d be an early winter, and you know the old man’s never wrong when he makes a prediction.”

After setting the wood next to the hearth, Vardin started in the direction of the door. A bead of sweat trickled from his dark blonde hair down his cheek, tracing along a thin scar from a few years earlier when he had tripped and fallen into a thorny bush.

Theodon glanced up, startled, as Vardin opened the door. “Where are you going?”

“I left the axe in the clearing. I need to get-”

“Vardin, how many times have I told you not to leave tools sitting around like that?” In the light streaming through the door, his short brown hair appeared almost as light as Vardin’s.

“I couldn’t carry the axe and the wood,” Vardin protested, pausing for a moment. “I mean, what would a thief want with that rusty axe anyways?”

“Just go and get it.”

He marched out the door and slammed it behind him, pondering, What’s so important about that axe anyways. It’s a piece of junk; it can barely even chop wood. And why does he have to keep treating me like some little kid. I’m going to be thirty-five years old in a few days; I’ll become an adult then. Why doesn’t my uncle start treating me like one?

Trying to distract himself from his thoughts, Vardin looked above the trees of the forest at the mountains a little beyond them. These mountains, he knew, formed the Ring of Darkness in which he lived.

For a place that’s supposed to be evil
, he thought, it’s really not that bad. Yeah, I know Armoth rules over the region, but you barely notice, except for the occasional Darkness Guard sighting in Crayden.
He glanced at the mountains again.  

But I have to admit it would be nice to see what exists beyond the Ring of Darkness. I’ve never heard of anyone making it across the mountains, though. My uncle’s always told me Armoth prevents that from happening. Is Armoth really that powerful?

Vardin turned his attention back to retrieving the axe as he walked beneath the thick canopy of leaves. Though the shade shielded him from the heat, sweat still streamed down his face. He glanced at the sky where only a few beams of light penetrated the maze of leaves. The aroma of tree bark pervaded the air, greeting his nostrils with its sweet smell. As Vardin made his way toward the clearing where he had left the axe, he reminisced about his youth spent in the forest.

This really is my favorite place, he thought as he pushed aside a low-hanging tree branch to use one of the many shortcuts he had discovered. The way the birds sing in the morning, the smell of the trees. I wonder what’ll happen when I become an adult. Can I really stay here forever?

Vardin’s thoughts were interrupted as he spotted the axe sticking out of the mangled tree stump. He approached it, but the sight of bright red berries suddenly tempted him. Crouching down, Vardin plucked a few of them from the bush, making sure not to take any green berries; he remembered the vomiting spells all too well.

After shoving the handful of berries into his mouth, Vardin stooped over and removed the axe from the tree stump—the moment a sudden, shrill noise occurred nearby. Adrenaline surged through his body as he tried to determine the source.

Vardin treaded cautiously in the direction of the disturbance and heard it again—the scream of a woman in grave danger. He felt certain of it.

Maybe a bear, or something, Vardin thought as he raced into another clearing, pushing branches away from his face. A thorny, purple bush pricked his legs, and he felt the tickle of blood trickling down his ankle.

“Oww,” he grunted as he looked down at the injury.

When he lifted his gaze, he saw a man standing in front of him—tall, muscular, and imposing—wearing a thick chain mail and carrying a sword. Vardin scrutinized his uniform, noticing a red and black circular badge—the symbol of the Darkness Guard—adorned it.

The Darkness Guard brandished his sword. “What are you doing?”

Vardin swiveled his head before raising his axe. “I-I could ask you the same.”

His heart raced. Uncle Theodon had always told him to steer clear of Darkness Guards, but for some reason, his instincts told him he must challenge this man. Vardin noted the sword appeared spotless.

“I-it’s none of your business,” the Darkness Guard growled, a hint of panic behind his eyes. “Go back to your home.”

“Well, I think it is my business. I heard a woman screaming.”

“Leave now,” the Darkness Guard snarled through his yellow teeth as he raised his sword to Vardin’s chin. “Or I’ll kill you.”

The blade of the sword against his skin, Vardin lowered the axe. It stood little chance against the Darkness Guard’s sword and armor. After all, chopping wood with it proved hard enough.

“Okay,” Vardin acquiesced, barely moving his jaw. “I-I’ll go.”

He staggered back a few steps and pivoted while glancing sideways over his shoulder at the Darkness Guard. The man’s eyes tracked Vardin, but he made no more threatening moves.

Before Vardin turned his head, his foot caught on something. He tried to stop the fall but failed. His head struck a rock on the forest floor with a tremendous thud, and the last thing Vardin saw before he lost consciousness was the Darkness Guard’s laughing face.

Vardin was traversing a rocky mountain, behind his father and in front of his mother. His recollections of his parents had always seemed indistinct, but for some reason, he knew these people were his mother and father.

Both moons shone brightly in the sky, allowing Vardin to make out their appearances. His mother looked short and pretty with dark blonde hair and deep blue eyes while his father stood tall and muscular, his broad shoulders level with his wife’s head. Vardin’s father’s dark brown hair and brown eyes reminded him of Uncle Theodon, though the dim moonlight barely illuminated the mountain enough for him to see anything.

Vardin fell and scraped his knee on a jagged rock, but his mother quickly scooped him up and carried him.

“We have t-to keep going,” she stammered, a shaky panic in her voice.

“Why?” Vardin heard his young voice answer, sounding as if its owner teetered on the verge of tears.

“You have to be quiet,” his mother whispered again. “The Darkness Guards will hear us . . .”

The mountain around Vardin blurred, and he felt a momentary surge of panic before his surroundings rematerialized a few seconds later.

“Janen,” his mother wheezed. “Can you carry Vardin for a while? I’m too exhausted.”

“I don’t see how it will help. The stuff I’m carrying’s heavier than he is.”

“Why are we doing this? Was our life inside the Ring of Darkness really that bad?”

Vardin’s father pointed at the rocky peak. “Andia, freedom exists out there, just on the other side of these mountains. Yes, we could have lived out the rest of our lives in that horrible prison. But is such a life really worth living?”

“I know. It’s just, now there’s no turning back. The Darkness Guards are chasing us, and we’re running blindly across the mountains. It all seems so desperate.”

“I know it seems that way, but it felt like it was what I had to do. I can’t really explain it, but something told me I must do this.”

“I trust you, but you’re still crazy.” A tear trickled down her cheek.

“You okay?”

“I’m fine. I’m only thinking about everything we left behind. And what was it all for? So that we could die alone on a cold, deserted mountain?

“Darling, we’re not going to die,” Janen asserted. O-or at least I hope we’re not going to die. I don’t know. For some reason, I think we can do it. It feels like our destiny is to be on this mountain right now. Whether or not we make it, something will come of this. I can feel it . . .”

The forms of Vardin’s parents blurred as everything darkened again. He even experienced a brief moment of consciousness before the darkness disappeared and his parents came back into focus.

“I can’t do this much longer, Janen. I’m so tired.”

“It’s only a little longer. Soon, we’ll be on the other slope of the mountain. We’ll be going downhill. It’ll be much easier.”

Vardin heard the clamor of voices in the distance. “Is that them over there?” The far-off shouts echoed eerily off nearby walls of rock. “Let’s go in that direction...direction...direction.”

Vardin’s parents hastened their pace. The Darkness Guards’ boots clanked behind them. Andia wanted to slow down because she carried Vardin, but the clanking footsteps grew closer. They slid into a tight area between two walls of rock, the only way they stood any chance of losing the Darkness Guards.

The clanking of the boots echoed everywhere as Vardin’s elbow scraped against the rock wall.

“Owwwww,” Vardin cried, the high-pitched voice of him as a child startling the semi-aware, older version of himself . . .

“. . . What are we going to do, Janen?”

“I don’t know. I don’t see anywhere to hide.”

“Well, we have to do something!”

“I don’t see any caves. Do you?”

“No, they’re going to see us!”

Young Vardin grabbed his mother’s hand. “It’s okay, Mommy.”

“W-well, aren’t you the brave one,” she stammered as she tried to repress her fear.

The sun rose, but Vardin’s parents hadn’t discovered a hiding place. Stumbling over rocks, they raced down the mountain.

Janen glanced back anxiously at his wife and child. “We have to keep running!”

“I’m so exhausted,” Andia panted as she twisted her ankle. “Oww!”

“You okay, honey?”

“I’m fine,” she answered while she climbed back to her feet. “Just twisted my ankle.”

“Can you still run?” Vardin’s father turned around to look at her.

“Watch out!” Andia shouted, pointing at a rock.

The warning came too late. Janen tripped over the rock and lost his footing. He tumbled down the slope, which had steepened a great deal.



He continued tumbling, his body flipping end over end. Vardin heard the grunts every time his father crashed against the rocks, finally coming to rest about twenty feet down the slope. Vardin’s mother scrambled down the mountain after Janen, a look of panic on her young, beautiful face.

He lay crumpled in a heap when they arrived, and a bone in his leg stuck out through his skin as a river of blood poured from the wound.

Vardin’s mother knelt next to his father as Vardin stood a few feet away, looking in on the situation like a bystander, his emotions ranging from shock to fear to helplessness.

“Go on without me,” Janen moaned, his words barely audible. He looked pale, lifeless, not the man who had stood twenty feet above seconds earlier.

“I can’t just leave you here,” Andia cried, tears racing down her cheeks.

His father grimaced in pain. “Please, take Vardin and go. Forget about me. I can’t continue on like this. I’m a dead man.” Vardin’s mother put her head on Janen’s shoulder and cried silently. “You don’t have time. Take Vardin and go.”

Shaking, Andia rose to her feet, but it seemed too late. The Darkness Guards closed in on them, hunters approaching their hapless prey. Vardin could only stand and watch them march nearer while listening to the unnerving sound of his mother’s tears.

“Mommy,” his voice cried. “I think we have to go now.”

Vardin’s mother looked up to see the Darkness Guards less than twenty feet away, standing in the same spot from which the fatal fall had begun. Hoping none of them held bows, Andia grabbed Vardin and barreled down the mountain. She stumbled numerous times down the rocky slope, scraping and bruising her legs on the rocks.

Vardin heard the clanks of the Darkness Guards’ footsteps growing closer and closer. The low sound of their voices carried ominously down the mountain. “Stop right there!”

But Vardin’s mother didn’t stop, instead hastening her pace and scurrying dangerously fast along the precipitous slope. She continued until she arrived at the edge of a deep ravine, a ravine she may have been able to jump across had she not been carrying Vardin.

At that point, she collapsed to the ground, terrified, waiting to be overtaken by the Darkness Guards. Andia held Vardin tight to her chest as she shuddered uncontrollably, her breathing faint and shaky.

When the Darkness Guards reached the edge of the ravine, they brandished their swords with malice, moonlight glinting off the parts of the blades not covered by congealed blood.

“Stand up,” one of them commanded, but Vardin’s mother refused to comply. “If you stand up now, we’ll spare your child’s life.”

“How can I take your word for it!” she shrieked. “You of all people!”

“Just stand up and give us the child.” He took a deep breath. “Then . . . uh we will proceed.” He avoided her eyes.

A tear rolled down Andia’s cheek as she stood and handed Vardin to the Darkness Guard. She looked at the man and opened her mouth, but she didn’t say anything.

Another Darkness Guard stepped up to Vardin’s mother. Andia made no sound apart from her faint breathing as she looked at Vardin, her deep blue eyes gleaming with love—a gleam Vardin knew only he could see.

The Darkness Guard raised his sword and sliced off her head in one swift, calculated movement. He looked to the man holding Vardin and nodded, but Vardin’s captor didn’t return the gesture, staring instead at the decapitated body of Vardin’s mother.

Vardin watched from this man’s arms as the sea of blood drained from his mother’s body. While young Vardin looked on in bewilderment, his consciousness began to resurface, and the older version of him raged with anger. He wanted to kill those Darkness Guards.

Vardin examined his captor—a tall young man with short, brown hair and a short, brown, neatly-groomed beard. Then he looked at the lifeless body of his mother. Her blood sparkled almost magically on the ground as if it tried to tell him something, but he couldn’t comprehend its message.