The Winter Camp – Chapter One

I’ve been slowly writing this novel for ages now, so I figured I may as well serialise it on my blog as I write. I hope you enjoy it. The aim is to post a chapter a week. Please comment if you like it or have any suggestions! I’d love to hear from you. Thanks! 🙂 Be sure to subscribe so you know when the next chapter’s up!

The Winter Camp

Chapter One

Nayra led the way, pushing aside the dense undergrowth and thorny bushes aside for her younger sister Sira. The beech forest was a gloomy misty green, broken only by the brilliant red of their headscarves and scattered shafts of golden sunlight piercing the canopy.

“It’s cold—and creepy,” said Sira as she briskly rubbed her hands and arms to keep warm.

“I like the quiet, it’s peaceful,” replied Nayra. She loved coming here and listening to the sound of the forest, the constant thrum of the insects and birds, and the whoosh the wind made as it travelled up the slopes and through the beech trees.

“It’s still creepy. Is it far?” Sira asked, peering ahead.

“No, we’re almost there,” Nayra said, stopping to let her sister catch up. “See where the sun shines through those crossed trees? That’s where we have to go.”

They continued walking but as they passed one of the light shafts, Nayra stopped and searched for a dandelion. Finding one, she picked it and held it to her lips.

“Watch.” She blew gently on the feathery head and bright motes of pollen danced away and up in the warmed air. “See? It’s not creepy.”

“That’s so pretty,” said Sira. “Let me try.”

Nayra picked a dandelion and passed it to her. Sira blew and laughed with delight as the wisps rose in the warmed air. As Nayra turned to pick another, she heard Sira gasp.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, standing up.

Sira shook her head. “Nothing, I thought… it must be the light making my eyes go funny.”

Concerned, Nayra felt her sister’s forehead. “Do you have a headache?”

“No, it was it just the light,” she said, shaking her head, but her eyes remained fixed on a spot just beyond the light.

“Let’s keep going, we’re almost there. Look for these marks, they show the way,” Nayra said, indicating a cross carved in a trunk of a tree just ahead of them.

She took her sister’s hand and they continued, walking in silence until Sira let out a screech.

“What now?” Nayra asked, exasperated by Sira’s dawdling.

“My stupid dress is caught,” Sira said pulling to try and release it from the clinging thorns.

“Hold still or you’ll rip it,” Nayra said,, as she crouched and carefully untangled the hem.

“See, they have these little hooks on them, so you twist them just so to unhook them. Here, do this, it makes it easier to walk. Pull the back through and tuck it into your waist like this.”

“What would Nona say!”

“Nona’s not here, so she can’t say anything.”

She helped her sister tuck her skirt up and Sira twirled around, giggling.

“That’s much better, I wish I could wear it like this all the time.”

“Me too, now hurry, we’re almost there.”

They reached the edge of the forest and Nayra pushed her way past the low-hanging branches to emerge into the bright sunshine. A hawk feeding on a rabbit, startled by the girls’ arrival, swooped into the air, squawking in outrage at being driven from his meal. Nayra paused and savoured the view from the ledge. From here, they could see the entire valley from the bottom of the pass road, dissected by the river which wound to the far end and on to the Moravi clan lands where the spring and fall gatherings were held.

High ranges bordered the valley, higher on the western side. Snow lightly dusted the peaks, but once the winter storms started, it would cover them down to the river plain. Behind them, the range curved around to meet the far side, creating a closed valley with the pass road the only way through to the clan lands in the mountains and valleys beyond.

“Oh, this is beautiful. How did you find it?” said Sira.

“I didn’t, Terek did and showed me. He discovered it on one of his wanderings.”

Sira said nothing for several minutes, just stared at the view.

“If I tell you something, you won’t be angry at me?” she finally said.

“Of course not, what is it? Oh no, what’s wrong?”  Nayra asked as tears spilled down Sira’s face.

“I’m forgetting what he looks like, I try to remember but it’s getting harder and harder. I’m scared that soon I won’t remember him at all.”

She wiped her eyes, sniffing, but her tears continued. Nayra reached over and drew her sister close. “Oh mouse, don’t cry, it’s not your fault, it happens.” She dried her sister’s eyes with the edge of her scarf.

“It’s easier for me because I have you and you are so like him.”

“I am?”

“Oh yes, you have the same big blue eyes and dark hair, and the same laugh – you’re like twins even though he was older. When I see you, I see him and it helps me remember. Mumma says you and Terek have eyes that are the blue of the deepest ocean.”

“She does? I want to see the ocean one day.”

“Me too. See the river?”

“Yes.”

“See how it winds to the end of the valley?” With her finger, Nayra traced the curves of the river as it braided its way to the horizon, its blue-green water sparkling in the autumn sunlight.

“Mumma says if you follow it, you go past Pelanto until it comes to the Sea of Many Islands, and if you get into a boat it takes you to the ocean which is like the sea but so big you can travel for many days and never reach the other side.”

“What’s Pelanto like?”

“I don’t know. It’s a big city, lots of people and buildings. Mumma says she saw traders from there at a spring gathering before she came to live with the mountain clan. They were dressed in beautiful clothes with lots of rings on their hands, no beards and the women had bare heads, and even rode horses!”

“No!’

“Not everywhere is like here. I wish I could ride a horse. I’d ride away from here and explore and have lots of adventures—go to the cities, meet those people and talk to them.”

“And see the ocean too!”

“And the ocean too, mouse, we’ll go together and sail across it. Mumma’s mother came from one of the sea clans that live on the shores of the Sea of Many Islands. She says that’s who you get the colour of your eyes from.”

Sira smiled, wiped her tears away with the back of her hand then peered into her sister’s eyes.

“And yours, they are green like the mist in the forest, with little bits of golden sunlight, like Mumma’s.

“That’s pretty.” Satisfied she had soothed her sister, Nayra checked the ledge for a place to sit.

“Let’s go here where it’s warm.”

Lizards skittered away as she kicked aside the dead branches and dried leaves from beneath one of the larger trees and spread out her headscarf for them to sit on. It was her favourite one, Mumma had made it for her birthday and she loved the way the red and blue patterns swirled through it.

They sat down and leaned back against the trunk, closing their eyes to rest after the walk through the forest.

“Do you miss him?” Sira asked after a time.

Nayra found it hard to answer. How to explain the never-ending ache, the dim shadow of their brother that haunted every day, sometimes almost forgotten only to return in a rush? It sat like a stone in her chest and only by pushing it down inside her could she stop the pain rising up into her throat and strangling her.

“Some days more than others. Sometimes he visits me in my dreams to check on me.”

“He does? What does he say?”

“Nothing, he just smiles and I know he is watching over us.”

“I think he is too,” Sira said playing with a strand of her hair. “I wish he didn’t fall.”

The familiar tightness rose in Nayra’s chest, but she pushed it down. “I wish that too, mouse.”

She checked the sun’s position. It wasn’t as late as she thought,  only a hand span above the near peaks.

“See where the sun is now? If they don’t arrive before it is two hand spans from the ranges on the other side, then they won’t come today because there isn’t time to reach the top of the pass before dark.”

“Did Terek teach you that?”

“Yes, he was so smart, he knew everything about the forest and the sky. He was always in here exploring.”

“Will you teach me too?”

“I will. Listen to me, you need to learn how to protect yourself before I go. I won’t always be here to look out for you.”

“You can’t go!”

“It’s not up to me. Promise me you’ll listen to what I tell you.”

Clearly unhappy, Sira nodded. “I promise.”

“Good. It won’t be for at least another two summers, anyway. If you ever want to come back here without me, follow the marks to the stream by the fallen tree then find the two crossed trees I showed you.”

“I’d be too scared, this part of the forest is strange,” Sira said, leaning her head against Nayra’s shoulder. “It’s creepy.”

“Oh, look at your hair, it’s got those horrible sticky seeds through it. You watch while I get rid of them.”

“What do I have to look for?”

“The horses kick up the dust so it will seem like smoke on the horizon this side of the river.”

Nayra set to work untangling her sister’s hair. They sat peacefully, relishing the warmth of the late fall sun. It was the first sunny day after weeks of rain and mist and they had left mumma making the most of the sunshine to dye the last of her fabric lengths in the far meadow.

She had looked so happy, thought Nayra. She loved mixing the dyes and she made such beautiful colours and patterns. Their cousin Nevin had told her that at the last clan gathering the city traders had wanted Mumma’s fabrics almost as much as the mountain clan’s furs.

Not that her father mentioned it. Nayra had repeated Nevin’s remarks quietly over their evening meal and it had brought a small smile to mumma’s face. It wasn’t often that she looked happy anymore, but Nayra had made her smile.

“One more day, please one more day,” she silently pleaded to the sky.

But the sky wasn’t listening. As the sun reached its zenith midway across the valley Sira called out, “Is that them?”

Nayra jumped up, shielding her eyes from the sun and focused her gaze on a shimmer on the horizon.

Was it? She squinted her eyes against the glaring sunlight, trying to make it out. As she watched, the shimmer became a dust cloud, then a dust cloud full of dots she knew would soon become horsemen. No more days. She waited for a few more minutes until she could see the crimson banner they always carried. It was them.

“Let’s go, we have to get back and warn mumma.”

 

 

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