TALES OF THE AEKHARTAIN
Historical Aekhartain Vol. 1
~ Demero’s Tale ~
~ ~ ~
Once there was an island…
Demairo’s life is far from easy. Living on an isolated island with a father who hates him, and a mother he adores, things are difficult enough without the whispering voices that cry on the wind. Because this is no ordinary island.
And on that island, there lived a boy.
Luckily Demairo is no ordinary child, and he has some unusual friends to support him. But a storm is coming, and no amount of crows, seals or shining stars can save him – unless he chooses to be saved.
A choice is only the start of the journey.
Set in Roman Britain (256AD), Unbound and Free is a collection of four stories following Demairo across almost thirty years as he finds out where he truly belongs.
The Tales of the Aekhartain are about to begin. Stick a feather in your hat brim and come along for the ride.
~ ~ ~
Unbound and Free in Brief
What’s in it?: Four stories: two novellas (Jealousy’s Shadow and Unbound and Free), a novellette (the Wanderer Returns) and a short story (Elisud’s Choice). [110,000 words in total.]
When is it set?: 256-284 AD
Where is it set?: Dumnonia, which was a south-western province of Roman Britannia (modern day Devon and Cornwall, but for this story it’s Devon), on an AU Earth.
What kind of story is it?: It starts with a little boy trying to do his best by his family, and moves on to an adult basically doing the same thing. There’s a mix of hope, despair, crows, seals, stories, stars and a few ghosts in there to help things along. Lots of things get lost, but luckily some important things also get found along the way.
What’s the genre?: Historical Fantasy.
Any age restrictions?: Not really, but it does deal with verbal and emotional abuse, as well a few bits of bad language. There’s violence too, but mostly off-screen. This is a sad story in several places.
Behind the Story
The original Unbound and Free was the first Aekhartain story I ever started, back in November 2003 when I was feeling terribly homesick and not particularly happy. In it Demero is having a rough time, working on a farm somewhere for a not very nice guy, when Shaiel shows up and gives him wings.
Well, I think that’s what happens. I have to admit I can’t bring myself to read the original anymore, because it gives me a headache. Needless to say, the only thing this new version has in common with the old is the opening sunrise as seen from Dartmoor. (Slightly toned down, too. The original opening was a page and half long in Word, using 10 point font.)
Jealousy’s Shadow came later, in 2006, when I was revising U&F and wondered what had happened to Demero’s parents. That’s when little Demairo was born. I’d recently finished writing Shaiel’s big story, Icarus Child, which is set almost entirely on the island, and for some reason I decided to go back there. Poor Demairo, but at least I gave him crows and selkies.
The new version is broadly the same as the original, with changed names, better character development and a better resolution. Or at least, so I hope. I made the seals less obviously selkies too, but used Elisud’s stories to at least hint at the possibility that they’re more than what they seem. I also introduced Demero’s hat.
(What’s with the hat? Well, to be honest that hat has more of a plot line than ten characters put together. It will be back, so look out for it. Seriously, I’m not joking. That hat has a life of its own.)
Elisud’s Choice and The Wanderer Returns are completely new, written just for this collection. If I’m honest U&F is new too, and definitely much longer than the original. It ended up as quite a patchwork tale, since I started it in one direction, changed my mind, rewrote great chunks of it, finished it, then realised the direction needed to change again (literally this time, east instead of west), and I finally had to go back and sort out a lot of the smaller details. Hopefully it doesn’t read that way. It took a lot more effort than I thought it would, but I quite like it.
Demero’s story isn’t entirely over, either, because he still needs to find his wings, officially meet and make his peace with Shaiel’s mysterious lady, and there’s a whole range of Aekhartain skills he needs to learn. But there’s a lot of time between his awakening and that of the next Aekhartain, so no doubt he and Shaiel have a few adventures yet ahead of them.
However, my Wanderer has always done things in his own time, so no doubt he’ll let me tell the rest of his story at some point. I look forward to sharing it with you when he does (and I hope it doesn’t take ten years this time.)
Read on for a sneak-peek at the Prologue and Chapter One of Jealousy’s Shadow.
ONCE THERE WAS an island. It wasn’t a big island, or even famous. It lay just off the British mainland, less than a morning’s row away, if the weather was good and the sea was calm. Barely more than a mile in length and half a mile in width, it rose from the water in an undulating wave of green-covered rock.
But this was no ordinary island. For one thing, unlike the many other rocky outcrops that littered the southern coastline of Britannia, no birds nested on it. Few people ever chose to go there either, for all it looked quite inviting from the shore.
“Too bleak,” some said.
“A little remote,” said others.
No one knew how it came to be there, what myth or legend had dropped it into place or dragged it up from the turbulent seas beneath. It just was. And it waited.
The waters along this part of the coast were treacherous; hidden rocks and submerged islands crouched in the shallows and storms swept up swiftly from nowhere. For those caught out by such things, the island might have seemed a timely refuge.
But this was no ordinary island.
Though it looked green and firm on top, its own shores were pocked with caves and coves. Each one dug deep claws into the bedrock, and every year the hungry sea gnawed a little deeper. Inside the heart of the island lay a dark hollow, and it was there that the spirits of drowned sailors were drawn and gathered.
That was the island’s secret, its dark treasure. Its curse.
Those lost at sea could never set foot on land again, but inside the island the lost souls felt sheltered and protected, surrounded by rock and wave. In this darkness they waited – and hungered.
For time unnumbered the spirits had no choice but to wait, an ill-wind on an exposed rock, within sight of land but unable to reach it. They were lost and could never go home, but every day they could see the shore, feel its presence. So close, so close, but just a little too far away. They were trapped, and their bitterness soaked into every facet of rock, watered each blade of grass and sighed on every evening breeze that the island possessed.
Yet there were some amongst the living who chose to go there. Strangers, eccentrics, misfits and hermits, each found themselves drawn to the rock in the water and made their home on its desolate shore. Some didn’t last long before they had to leave, others stayed and let the spirits transform them. There were few who resisted for long, and though the dead sailors often found women harder to crack, given enough time they could work even their whispers into the most pure of hearts.
The curse didn’t care who it took, just as long as it fed on something. Fear, pain, misery – the spirits were far from fussy. They had been simple men in life, and had simple needs in death.
For though the island sheltered them when they were lost, once it caught them in its dark heart it never let them go. So they stayed there, the souls from the sea, the cursed from the land, gradually losing all sense of themselves until they were mere ghosts. Faint shadows of bitterness, anger, hunger and torment. They wanted to be free, even though they no longer knew what freedom was.
The world turned around them, sailors came and sailors died, folk moved on and off the island, until rumour spread of a curse in those rocks. A curse was a powerful thing in those days, strong enough to keep even the most curious away. The spirits grew hungry as their land was forgotten. Invaders came to Britannia’s shores, but even those mighty Romans quailed before the island’s blight.
It was abandoned, condemned, forgotten by the living, but the dead still grew. Sleeping in the darkness inside the island’s heart, but not defeated, not gone. The hunger grew in the shadows, the bitterness, the desperation. They wanted to taste freedom, they needed it as the sea needed the land to fill its unceasing appetite. Though the beat of its rotten heart slowed, it never stopped, and with every slow pulse its power spread over more and more of the grass and rocks, wrapping them in its bitter grip.
For centuries it harvested the sea’s grim bounty, tending to its morbid crop, and it waited.
On the mainland much was said of the cursed island and the strange stories that grew there. Over time they waxed then waned, until no one much remembered them anymore. It was a place of emptiness, ill-luck and barren fortunes. Yet even such dark places can seem like a sanctuary to the desperate. Any empty land can be a promised land if one has nothing else to call one’s own. There will always be those who don’t believe in curses, or who think they can defeat them.
They are the island’s favourite type of people: strong, stubborn, a little brave and slightly foolish. A feast for the starving spirits beneath.
AND THAT IS where this story begins. On an island, just off the mainland, less than a morning’s row away. A place to hide and be protected, but not so far away that life would be impossible. A gift for a young bride, a fine new home in which to raise her family, far from the watchful eyes of a superstitious community. A place for a young husband to prove his worth.
A place for an island of ghosts to go about its bitter work.
Once there was an island, and on that island there was a boy…
Dumnonia ~ 256 AD
DEMAIRO SAT ON the shore, staring out to sea. The waves were whispering to him again, soft words, strange words. He didn’t understand them, and yet he did. The words were unfamiliar, but they tugged on his heart. Hopeless, homeless and lonely, so lonely. They were lost and ever more would be.
They wanted him to help them, they begged him to save them. But he couldn’t. He was just a boy; hopeless, useless and lonely, so lonely. He too was lost, for all that he had a home.
Shush, shh, the sea sighed as if to comfort him as it whispered up the sand and curled around his bare toes. A hermit crab scuttled through the soft foam, dragging its home behind it. Demairo wished he could do the same. To be free to wander wherever he wanted to go, to pick up everything he needed and walk away. If only he could do the same.
“Demairo!” This voice was a shout on the rising wind, using words he could understand. “Mairo, where are you?”
Wishing the crab silent luck, Demairo scrubbed his arm across his face and looked up. His hair blew into his eyes and he shivered beneath the chill wind. He hadn’t noticed it picking up, nor had he paid attention to the dark clouds crowding over the horizon.
Turning his back on the storm, he sprang to his feet and ran up the beach, stumbling in the soft sand and rough winds. “Here, Mam!” he called. “I’m here!”
The wind blew him into his mother’s arms, and she held him close against the strong buffets. “Didn’t you notice the storm?” she scolded lovingly, running a hand through his curls. “I was worried I wouldn’t find you. That you’d already been swept away.”
He let her words wash over him, burying his head against her chest, feeling her warmth and love wrap around him. Here was home, here was safety. No voices could reach him here; not the strange whispers, nor the harsh words.
The voice made Demairo tense, his mother’s arms tightening hard around him. He didn’t look up, didn’t need to. He didn’t want to see that angry face. The words were bad enough.
“Bring the boy inside. It’s late. The storm will be upon us soon.”
“Yes, Dewydd,” his mother murmured, but didn’t move. Instead she waited for the heavy footfalls to crunch away, then hunched tighter over her boy.
Demairo held her just as close, wishing it was only the two of them, that they could pack up their things in giant shells and set sail across the open sea to a new world, a new home, a new hope.
The wind howled, pushing hard against them, almost taking them off their feet, and his mother pulled back with a breathless laugh. “Well, keresik, we’d best get in before this wind carries us both away.”
Demairo didn’t say that he wished it would. Nor did he tell his mother to wipe her eyes. As the storm broke over their heads, pouring ice-cold rain across the island, he knew he didn’t need to. Within moments her tears had been washed away, draining deep into the sand at their feet.
As his mother took a tight hold of his hand, fighting against the wind to lead him home, Demairo sank deep inside himself. The voices were back, screaming in the storm. He couldn’t understand the words, but he knew what they were saying.
But how could he, when he couldn’t even help himself?
* * *
ELISUD WAS WAITING when Lowena burst into the house. He had a blanket and a smile, both of which he wrapped around Demairo, hauling him close to the fire, leaving Lowena free to check on the evening meal.
“Been out having adventures, eh, Mairo?” Elisud laughed, rumpling the boy’s curls.
Lowena listened to their chatter as she tasted the broth, wondering where Dewydd was. She didn’t ask; she didn’t want to know. The last thing she especially wanted was for him to appear at the sound of his name. Instead she stirred the broth and watched Elisud dry her son, continually astonished at how different two related men could be. Dewydd and his younger brother looked so alike, but Elisud seemed to carry sunshine and lightness in his heart, while Dewydd brought only darkness.
It hadn’t always been like that. Sighing, Lowena pushed the thoughts away. They were old, familiar things, worn smooth and small like pebbles on the beach. She would learn nothing new by going over them again. Some things were the way they were, and there was nothing she could do to change them.
“Me now, Da. Dry me!” Ceri, Elisud’s young daughter, pulled on her father’s arm, begging to be allowed into the game.
“But you’re not even wet, puffin,” her father laughed. “You’re as dry as tinder, and just as like to go up!” Suiting his actions to his words, Elisud lifted his little girl high, making her scream with laughter.
It made Lowena smile, until she saw the look on Demairo’s face. Pure longing, for a father who would play with him, tickle him to make him laugh, who would smile and love him.
“I thought someone was being murdered, or Elisud had brought home a live gull chick again.” Dewydd stumped into the room, solid like the stones that held up the door lintel.
And just about as warm, Lowena thought wryly to herself, while Ceri ran around the fire to throw herself at her uncle.
“Uncle Dewi, Uncle Dewi, Da said he’ll throw me on the fire!”
Lowena’s heart almost broke as her gruff husband looked down at the little girl and laid an affectionate hand on her head. “That’s enough now, cariad,” he said gently. “The storm’s enough noise for tonight.”
“Uncle Dewi,” she giggled. “I’m not nearly so loud as a storm!”
Dewydd just patted the child on the head and looked at his wife. “It’s late.”
Lowena hunched her shoulders and hauled the broth away from the fire. “We can eat,” she told him, beckoning for Demairo to come help her with the bowls.
The look in Dewydd’s eye as his son carried his broth to him sent a chill down Lowena’s spine. She tried to remember how gently he’d dealt with Ceri, how he’d been almost kind. But Ceri wasn’t his child, and Demairo wasn’t a giggling little girl.
“Do you enjoy scaring your mother, boy?”
Demairo’s head hung low, his shoulders hunched, braced for a blow. “No, Da.”
“Do you think she has time enough to go haring about all over looking for you?”
“No, Da,” Demairo murmured, his voice getting softer.
“Do you think you’re the only person on this island that matters, to make everyone drop their work and go searching for you?”
“No, Da.” He lifted the bowl a little higher, silently urging his father to take it, to eat, to let the subject drop.
“Then why do you do it?” Dewydd shouted, lashing out with his arm.
Demairo flinched back and Dewydd struck the bowl, splattering the broth across the floor and all over the boy.
“Fool!” Dewydd roared. “Now look what you did. Wasteful, selfish, spoiled brat. Go clean yourself up, and wipe away this mess while you’re at it.”
As Demairo scuttled off to obey, his father watching him like a despised insect, Lowena quickly filled another bowl. Anything to distract her husband. “Here, Dewydd. There’s plenty more to go around. No harm done.”
“Have we so much that we can throw food about now, Lowena?” he growled, taking the bowl. “Have we enough to paint the floor? Or is there something you’re not telling me? Set up some trades, have you, wife of mine? Been out fishing when my back’s turned?”
“No, Dewydd,” she whispered, pulling her hair across her face. An old gesture, a defensive one. She’d tried to stop it once, almost managed it when she’d first married, but times had changed and old habits never truly died. Her shoulders hunched in an echo of Demairo’s earlier stance, and she silently urged her boy to stay in the shadows. She could feel him watching, damp from having been outside, shivering in just his linen undershirt.
“You think me a fool, Lowena?” her husband growled.
“No, Dewydd.” She thought him many things, but not a fool. Never a fool.
“Then don’t treat me as one. Boy, clean this mess, then to bed with you. Time you learned the meaning of wastefulness. No food for you tonight.”
Demairo skittered out of the shadows, using moss from the rocks outside to dab at the broth busy soaking into the floor. There was no point to it. The broth was thin, with few enough chunks of meat or anything else to liven it up. Better to leave it to dry overnight then wash it out in the morning. She didn’t bother saying such things, though; Dewydd would only get angry again.
So she watched her boy patting pointlessly at the floor, tense and waiting for his father to lash out again. Neither Lowena nor Demairo relaxed until Dewydd gave a low grunt of satisfaction.
“Bed,” he growled.
Demairo crept away like a whipped dog to his grass mattress, which was laid far apart from where the others slept. The lowest place in the house, as commanded by his father.
Only then was Lowena able to move again, scooping broth into bowls for the others. Ceri was huddled against her father, quietly waiting for the anger to go away. Elisud’s face was blank as he accepted their food from Lowena’s shaking hands.
There was a time when he would try to interfere, try to defend her and her boy. But Dewydd was bigger than his brother, meaner too, and Elisud had Ceri to think of. So now he stayed silent. They all did. No one wanted to attract more of Dewydd’s attention than they had to.
He wasn’t a bad man, Lowena had to keep reminding herself. The man she’d married had been loving and kind. It was just that life hadn’t treated him the same. He was a disappointed man, angry at the world. They were poor, life was hard, the island was bleak. He wasn’t a bad man, he was just angry.
Outside the sturdy walls of their home the storm raged on, with howling winds and rattling rain. Inside the fury had passed, settling into the temporary lull between rages. No one ever knew how long the calm would last, but each hoped for a long peace.
Slowly eating the broth she had no appetite for, Lowena stared into the shadows at where her boy was huddled, and wished she knew what to do. But there was nothing, not in this life, not in this world. So she finished her meal, cleaned up after the others and when the fire was banked, lay down beside her husband to sleep for the night.
Unbound and Free