~ Prologue ~ Table of Contents ~
So it begins. Time to meet someone new.
Urha Mountain, Ihra
“WHERE IS SHE? Where is Georlanash. Fetch her, fetch her at once!”
All activity in the workshop ceased as two of Ihra’s finest burst inside. Hair wild, faces flushed, it was hard to tell if they were elated or furious.
Sighing, Orla straightened up from her lathe and tried to ease the kinks from her spine. It felt like she’d been bent over the rotten chair leg forever, trying to coax its form out of a block of wood, but in truth it was barely past breakfast.
“There you are! Come, come at once!” Geanarla Forester Uhra daGeonorla, chief custodian of Ihra’s precious but tiny forest, wove her way between the carpentry apprentices to grab Orla’s wrist. “We will be late.”
Feeling the familiar rough pads of her mother’s fingers latch onto her, Orla knew better than to argue. Not that she wanted to. For all her aunt’s skill and encouragement, Orla was an indifferent carpenter – and a much worse forester.
“Where are you taking my student, Renalesh?” Aunt Arelanash demanded as Geanarla towed Orla away.
“To the future!” Renalesh Artisan Uhra diArenelesh might have been widely regarded as the most talented carver of wood on all five of Ihra’s mountains, but he also had a deep love of drama. Orla accepted her father’s exuberant embrace as he seized her by both shoulders and kissed one cheek, then the other. “Look your last on my child, sister. She is about to become a legend.”
Aunt and apprentices snorted as one sceptical beast before turning back to their work. Orla didn’t take offence; she echoed them.
Her parents cared little for such things and towed their sole offspring into the quiet streets of Uhra, the smallest and most treasured of Ihra’s five mountains. Here forests, not stone, held sway, cloaking the rugged slopes in swathes of brown and green. The only worked stone here lay in the narrow paths that wound beneath the shadowy canopy, leading to tiny temples, tucked away in folds and crevices. Water gurgled from every available surface, trickling in gullies and dancing down the centre of the street. Rain was a common feature of Uhran life and neither Orla nor her parents so much as shrugged as a gentle mist drifted down.
Wooden boards rattled beneath their feet, lifting them out of the mud, as they headed down, down, down the main thoroughfare of the mountain. All over the rest of Ihra, streets and crowds bustled and jostled, but not here. Never here. Uhra was the quiet mountain, the respected mountain. The only industry here was based in wood, be it the husbandry of the forest or the carving in the workshops. The chink of chisel and the whine of the lathe were the loudest human sounds, and those were easily overpowered by the wind in the trees and the roar of Uhra’s countless waterfalls.
Few Ihrans were lucky enough to live on this mountain, fewer still were raised in its protective shadows. Still, Orla couldn’t deny her excitement as she hopped onto the ox cart that rattled and creaked its way across the narrow bridge to bustling Sohr.
The smith-craft mountain was always busy, always dirty, always shrouded in the smoke of its many fires. Coming from Uhra’s clean air was always a shock, but Orla loved the life of Sohr, the ring of metal on metal, the heat of its fires. There were always people on Sohr, dashing to and fro, making deliveries, taking orders, shouting the latest gossip from one window to another across the wide, life-choked streets.
But when the cart stopped in the main square, Orla’s parents kept going. From cart to omnibus, the three of them picked up speed as the high carriage and its numerous passengers groaned and swayed over the next bridge, heading for Ihra. Here life was even louder, industry having been left behind. This was the home mountain, where most of the Ihran nation’s inhabitants lived, and they did so with noise, bustle and colour.
As the heavy omnibus rumbled through the lower streets of the mountain, Orla eyed her parents. Both small and squat, with dark brown hair and equally dark eyes, there was much about them that was similar. Except their hands. Orla could tell instantly, even in complete darkness, which of her parents was which by the feel of their hands.
Her mother’s were broad and weathered, rough from bark and axes. Her father’s were finer, longer, still rough at the edges and nicked from his work, but gentle as befit a master craftsman. Orla’s mother smelled of the outdoors, of rain and moss, and her skin was embedded with the sun. Her father was wood shavings and varnish, peat smoke and beeswax, his skin pale from a lifetime spent indoor, finely honing his masterpieces.
Their lives were so different, but their smiles and excitement were identical as they beamed at their only child, hands entwined. Orla had never quite understood what had drawn her sensible, somewhat stoic mother to her exuberant, flamboyant father, but whenever one or other of them hatched a scheme, there was no denying the unity with which they threw themselves into it.
Taking more after her mother in temperament, Orla eyed their happiness with wary patience and wondered what scrape they were about to launch her into. It wasn’t the first time they’d exploded into Aunt Arelanash’s workshop and announced to the world that their one and only child was about to do something extraordinary. By Orla’s count this would be the fifth attempt this year and winter hadn’t even started yet.
What would it be this time? By Maegla’s might, she hoped it wasn’t the travelling players again. Her parents had been trying to give Orla to the troupe for the past ten years without much success. Orla had no wish to be famous, on stage or otherwise. She couldn’t dance, she certainly could not sing and she saw no point in acting. The troupe were always kind to her whenever her parents foisted her into their company, but she’d long ago reached an understanding with them that inevitably left Orla sitting comfortably on her luggage at the edge of the docks, waving farewell as the players sailed off to more exotic climes, much to her parents’ dismay.
Just because Orla had no interest in following her mother into the forest and was merely competent at wood carving, didn’t mean she wanted to leave Ihra. Their country might have been small, but its opportunities were vast. Surely there was a life here somewhere that could accommodate her. She didn’t ask for much. Except, perhaps, a little less focus on flash and fame from her parents. Orla was not the sort to draw attention to herself and she certainly didn’t wish to be renowned across the Overworld for anything other than being her skilful father’s less adept daughter.
“Are you not excited?” her father asked, clinging to his wife’s hand and almost bouncing in his seat.
Orla bounced too, but only because the omnibus struck a rut that set the whole conveyance swaying. Shouts filtered down from up top and she spared a worried thought for the cheap seats on the outside, which could be exceedingly perilous.
“Of course she is,” her mother said firmly. “How could she not be?”
Orla watched her parents exchange triumphant smiles and sighed at the bag by her feet. They had packed for her. Again. Maegla’s bolts, she hoped it wasn’t another exploratory expedition to the remotest reaches of the Heighlen or the innermost jungles of Lansbrig. Few Ihrans ever travelled, or even imagined doing so, but if Orla’s parents had had their way, she would have been twice around the Overworld and likely all through the Dragonlands by now.
She folded her hands in her lap and sighed, trying not to rock too heavily against the swaddled matron sitting beside her on the bench. She used her feet to keep her bag close, not wishing it to careen all over the floor. It was plain leather, dyed a sensible dark brown, and packed with care and precision, giving away nothing of its contents or potential destination.
Still, when the omnibus rumbled into the central square of Ihra, disgorging the majority of its passengers before taking on even more, Orla didn’t even look up. What would be the point? She knew where they were headed.
Her suspicions were confirmed when the omnibus lurched back into life once more, rattling and rocking its way through the wide streets of Ihra and out onto the great bridge that connected the largest mountain to its most northerly neighbour.
Ehra, mountain of officials and bureaucrats, lawyers and accountants, traders and customs officials. Skyships, sailors, outsiders and docklands.
Her parents were trying to send her away. Again.
Orla sighed and stared out of the window, wondering how she would get out of it this time.
~ Next Chapter ~
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