A sneak peak at Chapter 1…. Meet Aioffe
Chapter 1 – 1415 – Wrye, an Orkney Island to the North of Scotland.
She’d left it too late to pull out of the dive. Her body collided with the fir top, covering her in dislodged icy clumps of snow. All forward momentum halted. With the trunk out of reach, Aioffe tried to steady herself inside the woody prison by pushing all her limbs out wide.
It seemed to work. She had time to draw in a calm breath. Then her wings gave way. As her body slid down the branches, her frozen fingers failed to grasp the dark green spiky tufts. Tumbling through the tree, the translucent panes of her appendages shredded into tatters.
Halfway down, she hooked a thicker branch with one hand, then froze, dangling. Before she could grab another hold, the supple wood sagged, then cracked.
Her numb fingers lost their grip.
“Ow.” Her bare foot broke the thin, icy layer, twisting against the frozen earth beneath as her body weight followed. Having deposited its cargo in an ungainly heap at the roots, the branch pinged back with a whoosh.
Aioffe opened her eyes. A clump of snow plopped onto her head, a final insult.
Her quarry, a lone squirrel which had been sitting atop the tallest fir in the copse in an otherwise desolate land, now leant up on its haunches a few feet away. For a moment, its russet fur quivered as it examined her with curious eyes. They stared at each other silently, then it tilted its neat head at her and hopped off.
“Next time.” She sighed as she caught sight of her battered, numb wings.
She needed to feed. The squirrels’ Lifeforce would have been sufficient sustenance to return home with. Now injured, she would need something more substantial to heal herself. Her wings twitched; the breeze whistled through the holes, tickling as sensation returned. There would be no flying away from the island with them so shredded. Her ankle throbbed in protest at the prospect of walking. Not that one could walk across the sea.
She swallowed, hearing her mother’s voice in her head, ‘One such as you should never leave. If you must, then never travel alone. And never be seen.’
And never find out anything, Aioffe always mentally added. Never be free. Never discover. Never live a different life than that which her mother, and the rest of the fae, demanded of her.
After following the squirrel’s tracks across the flat white landscape with her eyes, Aioffe turned on the ground and peered through the cluster of trunks surrounding her. Her heart sank as she watched for a few minutes. No other prey hopped or flew into sight. The silent sun had begun its descent; twilight would soon fall.
Where the land dipped into the horizon to the west, a stone cross peaked into the orange sky. A slate roof hugged the curve of the coast; its adornment jutted up like a beacon towards the water. From the air, this small island had appeared uninhabited, but the whitewashed building was worth considering as shelter against the long winter night ahead. At the very least, it had a roof.
She crawled to the edge of the copse and gazed across the other side of the expanse. In the distance to the east, a tall, square building dominated a ridge. A lone tower atop a mound at its base rose only half as high as the trees in Naturae, and cast a long, dark shadow towards the coastline. Centuries ago, the Vikings – invaders, and destroyers from even further North – proclaimed their dominion over these islands with castles and brochs. Aioffe’s mouth dried. Perhaps some were still used by those who ruled here. Stone constructs were so different to the treetop dwellings of her kind. The prospect of exploring them piqued her interest, despite her fear of discovery.
“Perhaps don’t stray too close to them, then,” she muttered to herself. Entanglement with people – humans – would likely get her in more trouble.
With hawk-like eyes, Aioffe stared at the tower, the low building, then the tower again for a few minutes. She didn’t spot any movement or candlelight inside the small windows of either building. A gust of chilly sea wind whipped a loose strand of hair across her cheek. She needed to move, and now, before darkness fell.
Wincing as she stood on her sore ankle, she shook the last of the snow from her head. Her wings, shredded and aching, dropped behind her back, so she tucked them out of sight underneath her heavy cloak before setting off.
As she limped down the slippery incline towards the whitewashed building, the silence of the desolate land was broken only by the crash and rattle of waves, lurching from the Sound to the pebbled beaches between this island and the next. She caught a braying of seals from the cove below and her stomach rumbled. Now they come to shore! Typical of her luck – given her current speed, by the time she made it down there, they would probably have gone back out to sea. Her priority now was shelter.
As she approached the single storey building, a cluster of upright stones jutting from the grass, decorated with carved inscriptions, caught her attention. One was a more recent addition, judging from the absence of moss on its light grey face. The slate was graced with a cross with a circle above the writing, like the one on top of the roof, as if the symbol were the most important thing to announce. A freshly turned earth mound extended from the slab’s base. Her nose wrinkled. Decay emanated from the soil where turf had yet to grow.
Weariness and pain swept over her, and she leaned against the stone. Her fingers traced the indentations of lettering as she caught her breath. Humans lived such short lives; how strange that they would place their bodies under ground when their life ended. Their souls freed to roam wherever they wanted without earthly ties.
A noise interrupted her pondering. Her head shot up and she stiffened. A chink of metal? Despite her extraordinary hearing, nothing further sounded. Aioffe snorted, dismissing the sound as her own knife, holstered, and hanging from her belt; it must have bashed against the slab when she moved. She shook her head; how silly she was to spook herself when she had seen no signs of anyone alive on the island so far.
A flagstone path led to the building entrance. Her ankle throbbed from the unfamiliar exertion of walking. When she pushed the heavy wooden door, it swung open with a creak.
A furtive movement in the shadows at the back of the room made her blink, then, another chink sounded. She gasped.
The light from the slit of a window behind lit upon blond hair. His face furrowed as he turned towards her. The bag he held clanked to the floor, then his hands curled into fists.
Aioffe’s mouth dried as she stared at the human through the drifting dust. He was trapped, like her, in the last beams of sunlight.