This is a piece I wrote at the beginning of the year. Then a huge event happened in my life--one of those life-changing ones that you never see coming. I just can't seem to take up the threads of this story again. I'm a different person than I was then. Maybe some day--but even then, the story will be different.
Short synopsis: Shanda has been sold by her father to some traders, who bring her to a forest and set up camp. A dark figure shows up in her dream, frightening her. She wakes up to find herself alone and the traders gone. She attempts to leave the forest but finds she keeps circling back to the same camp.
Obviously, she couldn’t get away from this place. Some magic was at work—something she couldn’t figure out how to fight. That left only one action. To face her fear—to face the one who kept her from leaving. The very thought made her insides knot. And night had nearly fallen. Something told her that he was strongest at night.
Lurching to her feet, Shanda went to the campfire and kicked at the embers, trying to find a live coal. She found an answering spark. Snatching at twigs, she knelt and carefully nursed a small flame from the embers. Once she had the fire going and a supply of windfall to keep it fed, Shanda took a half-burned branch and scratched a circle in the dirt around the campfire, containing her and the campfire inside. The branch left behind soot and ash, defining a crisp, clear circumference.
Shanda had seen the village wise woman draw a like circle many times. For protection, she’d said. She clutched her grandmother’s cross in her hand and stared out at the gathering shadows. Shanda realized she trusted her grandmother’s loyalty and devotion to that cross more than she did some circle in the dirt.
When night pressed against the confines of the circle, he came.
“Who are you?” she said. “What do you want?”
He walked toward her and the firelight fell on his face, illuminating his features. She trembled at the beauty and the cruelty she saw there. No kindness, not a spark of humanity, softened the glittering edges of his perfection.
He surveyed her from head to foot. Shanda felt exposed and raw, bared before his gaze like a sacrificial lamb. She shivered. He tried to cross the circle, and paused, watching her. He looked down at the sharply defined circumference and a half smile touched his mouth.
She stood straight and defiant and held the cross at arm’s length, between him and her heart, like the old stories she’d heard her grandmother tell of the valkans that walked the night and were only driven away by the devotion and purity in their intended victim.
He saw the cross and smiled no longer.
“Throw that away.” He spoke for the first time, and his voice hurt her head, the ringing command in it causing her arm and hand to tremble as if she held a great weight.
Shanda almost did his bidding, but caught herself in time. She took a fresh grip on the cross.
“No,” she said, grim. “It is mine, and I will hold it.”
For the barest second, inhuman rage sat on his features, then smoothed away as if it had never been.
“Do you think this circle in the dirt and a piece of metal will hold me back if I desire to have you? You, who cannot even prevent your own father from selling you to the highest bidder?”
Tears welled in her eyes. To have someone else know her shame—that gave unexpected sharpness to her pain.
“I can help you,” he said softly. “Is it your wish to see your father pay for what he did to you? Just say the word and he will suffer every day for the rest of his short life.”
Her hand sagged, and the cross with it. Did she want her father to pay for what he had done? She realized she did. The thought that she could make him hurt –yes. A part of her responded to that promise.
“You see?” he said. “You have hatred in your heart and you do not deserve to hold that cross in your hand. Throw it away, and let me give you what you want.”
Despair touched her with spectral fingers. Maybe he was right. How could she even hold that cross while her heart was so stained with rage against her father?
“Yes, you see how unworthy you are. Stop fighting a lost battle and surrender to me, girl.”
In the space of one breath to the next, motion ceased, awaiting her decision. In that small space, she heard her mother crying. The sound was as full of raw pain and despair as anything she now felt. Shanda’s vision cleared and she saw that he leaned toward her, within touching distance.
Alarmed, her hand flashed up to push him away, the cross still in her fingers. When the silver touched him as her hand pushed against his chest, he screamed, high and shrill.
Pain, terrible pain in her hand. Fire and molten heat.
Shanda screamed along with him, her hand feeling as if it had fused to a hot bar of metal. For what seemed an eternity, they stood, locked in their separate agony. Then, with a wrench that spilled her on her ground, he was gone.