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Imprisoned in Stone Chapter 1

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Maerva opened eyes to a darkness, not only of her room, but of the soul. The sense of a presence held her motionless, even though she knew no entry was possible through the closed door or shuttered window. Air whispered over her skin as if someone touched her cheek. A breath later, the impression of an intruder vanished.

The roar of waves crashing against the cliff, something she had heard since birth, comforted Maerva and pushed away the residual fear. Deep breaths removed more of the tension from her body, even though her skin remained clammy from perspiration. The moon reappeared from behind its filtering curtains of haze. No longer obscured, the low-hanging globe sent a shaft of white light streaming through the window. The beam moved up the wall beyond her bed, turning the darkness into a shadowed frame. Glimmering letters written by a ghostly hand resolved into words.

They are coming.
I can sense the presence of the Brethren.
They murdered my son... my wife.
They are coming--the ones who killed me!

A gasp escaped Maerva’s lips. There had been someone in her room... someone in unbearable agony. She strained her senses beyond her room to no avail. Only the sounds of the sea and the night reached her ears. Tears burned her eyes at the depth of the pain imbued in the frantic message. She blinked to clear her vision and the message vanished.

An overwhelming urge to run to her parents’ quarters gripped her. Nothing in her seventeen years had prepared her for this. Even before she threw off the quilt covering her body, she knew Ruadhan and Suliceen would be of no use. Her father was too busy running the village to bother with his next-to-youngest child, and Suliceen fretted about Maerva’s unusual interest in things beyond the customary place of a woman. Arcil, the oldest of her brothers, always listened. To Maerva, he seemed the only one of her family who understood what made her so different from her three sisters and four brothers. But, Arcil was out at sea.

“Tomorrow he returns,” Maerva reassured herself. Her voice added to normalcy of the surroundings. “Tomorrow, I’ll tell him about the dream.”

With a fearful glance at the wall to make sure nothing marred the surface except the charcoal sketch of the rocky coastline she drew a year ago, Maerva rolled onto her side and pulled the quilt over her head. Her fitful sleep provided little rest. Every time she sank too far into slumber, she remembered the dream and the threat it contained.

~ * ~

If anyone noticed her remoteness the next morning, they did not say anything to Maerva as she helped serve the pre-dawn meal. Instead of following the rest of the village down the tunnel carved through the cliff to the mooring beach, she ran along the narrow path on the top of the bluffs. The light babble of the younger children reached her. Lengthening her stride, she ran ahead and reached the steep switchback leading down to the water long before the others.

With a hand, she shielded her eyes from the glare of the rising sun. Maerva gave a sigh of relief at the sight of Arcil’s two-masted sloop gently bobbing at its mooring alongside one of the long docks. Several large bins lined the wooden planks of the pier, showing that despite the early hour, the crew of Wayward Bound were well along with unloading the ship.

“Arcil,” Maerva yelled. His wave sent her racing down the steep switchback trail at a breakneck speed. Her pace slowed on the loose gravel between the dunes and the tide line, then picked back up into a runner’s gait once she reached the hard packed sand. Minutes later, Maerva stood alongside Arcil. She moved to an empty spot on the rope to help pull the heavy nets of striped yellow fish from the hold. After each load, she shifted into the snatch and toss routine used to get the fish into the waiting arms of the villagers who now lined the dock.

The morning passed quickly and by the mid-day break, Wayward Bound’s cargo covered the huge tables outside the storage caves. After a quick cup of soup and a cold meatroll, Maerva slid into an empty chair next to Arcil. Farther down the line, a dozen old aunts and uncles sang a sea chanty. Their hands moved in rhythm to the tune as they gutted and prepared the fish for smoking and later shipment to the western provinces.

“Guess what, Maerva.” Arcil said.

“Mmmm,” Maerva muttered.

Arcil’s glance showed concern, even though his knife flew in well-practiced moves to fillet a large striper. When Maerva did not respond to the bait of the challenge, he whispered, “What is wrong, sis?”

Her brother’s voice broke into Maerva’s reverie. He leaned over and whispered in her ear. “I got permission from Ruadhan to let you work on Wayward Bound next week. Don’t you like sailing with me anymore?”

Maerva glanced around to see who might be listening. Suliceen was down at the far table, supervising those wrapping the fish in leaves for smoking. Ruadhan paced up and down the line, but Maerva did not worry about her father overhearing. He only had ears for the count passed to him by the heads of the various teams slicing the fillets or piling the whole fish into man-high stacks in the smoking caves.

“I had a strange dream last night,” Maerva said in a low voice. In between calls for more fish, she told Arcil about the unseen presence and its ghostly message.

“Don’t tell anyone,” he hissed. “Especially not our parents.”

His tone reminded Maerva of Arcil’s position. He captained a ship and knew many things beyond her ken. Why he wanted the dream kept private seemed strange, but she would do as he asked.

Several long moments of silence continued between them, then he spoke as if nothing had transpired. “I hear Draoch Tralin is coming. Later today, or tomorrow morning at the latest.” Arcil nudged Maerva’s shoulder with his elbow. “You probably don’t remember her,” he said. “She hasn’t visited for many years.”

“I remember,” Maerva answered, a hint of heat in her voice. “She came and great-grandmother passed over the veiled bridge.” The fake anger left her tone. “Aunt Beatreas is not doing well. Does the wizard’s visit mean she will die, too?”

“Don’t worry, stripling,” Arcil said. The use of his pet name for her warmed Maerva. Her brother’s words added to the feeling. “Tralin’s just coming to see an old friend. Notice how animated old auntie is this morning. She has so been looking forward to the visit.”

Comforted, Maerva pushed her worries away. It was just a dream, she told herself. Not a portent.

~ * ~

The mage did not arrive that afternoon. Taking advantage of the harvest moon, Ruadhan ordered everyone back to the gutting tables after the evening meal. Fish oil lamps and the gibbous moon lit the beach. Maerva relaxed and carted yet another basket of filets to the smoking cave. Unlike the previous night, stars sparkled in the clear skies. No hint of danger accompanied the moon’s rising from the waves.

Wearied from the heavy work, Maerva slept well. So much so she awoke to discover the lamp still burning. Her usual custom of trimming the wick before bed forgotten. “I was just tired,” she told herself. “Not because of the dream.” Reassured and the lamp tended to, she headed down to the kitchen. Preparing the batter for the pancakes had been her task since childhood.

Noise in the doorway pulled her gaze from the bubbling pan. A tall, slender female casually leaned on a walking stick. The hem of her robe was dust-covered from travel as was the heavy sword that hung alongside her leg. Suliceen rushed over to greet the newcomer. “Greetings, Mistress Tralin. Would you like to break your fast?”

The woman Maerva now understood was the expected mage shook her head. “Thank you, Suliceen, but not at the moment. Perhaps, after I’ve seen to Beatreas. However, I could use someone to help me?”

Suliceen’s glower scanned the room as if searching for someone. Maerva held her breath and tried to become invisible. When needed, she assisted with the nursing, and everyone said she did it well, but it did not come easy. How could she help in a healing? Especially with a female who called herself a draoch--the traditional title for a wizard? Suliceen taught that magic belonged to men. That a woman’s only power was the ability to bring life into the world. The contradiction always confused Maerva. If a girl could sail as well as a man, why couldn’t she do other things as well. So engrossed in her reflection, she forgot her surroundings until she heard her name.

“My daughter, Maerva, will help you,” Suliceen said. “She’s almost done with her chores.”

A sudden spurt of fear rippled through Maerva.

The newcomer’s soft, “Relax, child. I don’t bite,” broke through Maerva’s paralysis. “Gather a bowl and fresh water. And, a kettle of hot water to make tea and a poultice.”

For the rest of the day, Maerva was too busy fetching herbs or water for the wizard to worry about the dream. This time as she climbed the ramp to the elderlies’ wing, instead of pots of hot water, two heavy platters containing an evening meal for her aunt and the wizard weighed down Maerva’s arms. Pushing open the door with her foot, she noticed how much healthier her aunt appeared. The blue tint to the old woman’s skin caused by the lung ailment had been replaced with a rose color.

Tralin’s sharp appraisal of her took Maerva aback. It was the same piercing look the wizard had made several times during the healing.

“Aunt Beatreas, Mistress Tralin, mother sent up some dinner for you,” Maerva explained. “Unless you would rather eat with the rest of the family downstairs.”

The wizard softened her expression. “Thank you, Maerva. And express my appreciation to your mother for her thoughtfulness. Go and eat your own dinner. I’ll come find you shortly.”

From her usual spot against the back wall, Maerva marveled at the change in the dining hall. The night before her kinsmen had bolted down the quick meal of cold meat and bread and hurried back to the gutting tables. Tonight, Suliceen and the kitchen workers cut wedges of fruit-laden pie and handed them out. Animated conversation raised the noise level in the large room until it buzzed in Maerva’s ears. Arcil’s catch had filled the smoking cave and Ruadhan expected to get a good price for the haul. To celebrate the occasion, he released bottles of wine from the storage caves. Arcil and his crew sang the old songs with a special gusto. Everyone joined in, even Ruadhan stomped his feet in time to the music.

Although Maerva wanted to enjoy the evening’s frivolity, sadness tainted her mood. Rather than ruin the good humor in the hall, she slipped out the door and followed the rim path down to the beach. The setting sun colored the sky a crimson that only made the full moon rising from the sea seem brighter.

“There you are, Maerva.” The wizard’s low tones blended so perfectly with the sounds of the sea, they failed to startle the sea birds pecking at the sand. “Your aunt is resting well.” For several minutes she watched the gentle waves, then returned her attention to Maerva’s face. “I have to ask you something, my dear. And I need you to answer me truthfully. Do you see the blue marks on the lintel and frame of the hall door?”

Maerva shrunk into herself, but she could not resist the command in the mage’s tone and answered with a simple, “Yes.” Encouraged by the older woman’s expression, Maerva blurted out the question that had haunted her from her first sight of the glittering symbols. “What do the ciphers mean?”

An unrestrained anger flickered from Tralin. “It means Ruadhan has much to answer for.” It disappeared so quickly Maerva thought she had imagined the rage. “Follow me,” Tralin brusquely ordered.

The wizard’s wake pulled Maerva up the tunnel ramp and into the main hold building. Her footsteps slowed when she realized Tralin was headed to her father’s office. Wild thoughts roiled in Maerva’s head. She had only asked a question. Why was the wizard so angry? Even if Suliceen continually said “questioning things not related to the household was not a woman’s place,” Maerva did not see any harm. Panic at her father’s reaction ripped through her mind.

Tralin pushed open the door and stalked in, leaving Maerva standing in the hallway. Before the wizard shut the door, Maerva glimpsed her parents huddled over the black ledger book of village supplies. Worry added to her fear. What had she done to merit the censure of both Suliceen and Ruadhan?

The loud voices filtering through the door failed to lessen her growing nerves. She imagined one transgression after another--and their punishments--until she clasped her hands together to stop them from shaking. The creak of the door’s opening sent her back a step. Tralin’s gesture had Maerva moving into the office before her mind could override her muscle and hold her in place. A soft rustle of her robe brought the wizard to Maerva’s side, glaring at her parents. Tralin’s voice rang with authority. “Maerva sees the runes of protection I placed on the main door. They should have faded, but the spell is stronger now than when I cast it.”

Her mother’s skin paled to an icy translucence. Maerva hung her head awaiting the beating that would be her punishment when the meeting ended.

“There is only one way the spell’s power could change,” Tralin growled. “Someone with gifts has re-spelled the doors.”

Maerva glanced at her father without lifting her head. Ruadhan did not look afraid. He looked angry that someone would challenge the authority he held over his kin and village.

A light hand on her shoulder shifted Maerva’s gaze to the wizard at her side. “Child, did you touch the marks?”

Suddenly afraid, Maerva wanted to run away and hide. Tralin’s humph brought with it a reminder the older woman awaited an answer. A deep breath later, Maerva squared her shoulders. “At first I traced them, one by one, and each mark brightened. Now, I just touch one symbol when I would go out or come in and the entire arch glows.” Maerva’s voice faded beneath the wizard’s glare.

She gulped when Tralin spun and pointed a finger at the village leader and headmistress. “You knew.”

“No, I did not,” Suliceen objected. “My daughter never said anything to me. Tralin, I always thought your spell was the reason we had so few accidents in the village, and I believed your blessing protected our boats.”

Ruadhan rose to his feet. His cheeks turned ruddier. “My wife did not know about Maerva. I only suspected the last few years.”

The cold fear that had gripped Maerva’s heart melted in a flare of anger. She could have been a mage. Her parents kept it a secret from her.

Tralin’s glare shifted from one parent to the other. “I know your feelings about women and magic, Ruadhan. That still does not excuse your actions. You should have called me. All those lost years. Time in which Maerva could have learned the ancient ways.” A few stray hairs escaped from the gray braid as she shook her head in a visible action of control. “All is not lost.”

Maerva felt the glower Tralin had used on her parents soften.

“My dear child, you have done nothing wrong,” Tralin said. “In fact you have given me a wonderful gift. I had not thought to find a new apprentice at my age.” She reached out; her hand encompassed Maerva’s trembling fingers. “Would you like to come live with me and learn the ways of magic?”

Warmth filled Maerva’s body, the same feeling as when she touched the runes.

Maerva waited with a held breath for her parent’s response to the wizard’s offer.

Tears glistened in Suliceen’s eyes. “If it is your desire, Maerva, you have my blessing. Arcil sails with the morning tide to deliver a shipment of fish. I was going to set aside part of this last haul as your dowry.”

The word ‘dowry’ burned in Maerva’s mind. They would marry her? Without letting her go to sea?

Ruadhan waved in dismissal. “You will do as you wish, regardless of what I say, wizard. Take my daughter if you must.”

Her father’s words stunned. He had always been a hard taskmaster, never one to show affection, but his blunt dismissal, as if she was just a hired hand sent a wave of anger through Maerva’s frame. However, her mother’s red eyes cooled the anger.

In contrast to the cold action of her husband, Suliceen swiped away an errant tear. “Tralin, if you and Maerva journey with Arcil, she will have the coins to ease her life with you or as a dowry. Whichever she wants.”

Maerva took a breath. Her mother really did care for her. It made the questions swirling in her heart even harder to answer. Could she leave her parents? Her family?

From deep inside the truth roared. What future did she have if she stayed.

Images of making the breakfast breads and serving the elderies changed to standing behind the ship wheel during a late watch on a moon-lit sea.

“Mistress Tralin?” Maerva whispered.

A nod from the wizard and a soft, “We sail with Arcil,” was the final answer Maerva needed. She fought the flutter in her chest. Forcing her voice to steady, she fixed her eyes on the expectant Tralin. “Mistress, I will be your apprentice.”

End of Chapter One, to read more, Imprisoned in Stone is available for sale at the following sites.

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Copyright 2013 by Helen Henderson

Cover Art by
Fantasia Frog Designs

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