Simon Williams returns to the blog after yesterday’s interview with an excerpt! As promised, here’s the first chapter of Oblivion’s Forge, the first in the Aona series. This novel is available on Completely Novel and Amazon.
More information about Simon’s novels can be found at his website, www.simonwilliamsauthor.com.
I – A Single Word
As the blackness closed before him, and the fury of the void flung him half-broken to the rocky ground, he thought for a certainty that this would be his last moment.
A dull red sun hung in the distant west, on the point of dissolving into the dusty horizon. Behind him, a scream that seemed to come from the earth itself was cut short savagely, and the black portal that had spat its fury at the unwilling watcher vanished from the world forever.
Vornen opened his eyes hours later, with the sun a faint memory in the west and a biting cold wind tugging at his ragged clothing. Already the first hint of frost settled upon the ground.
He could not move without searing agony crippling him, as if razorwire cut through every muscle in his body, nor could he raise his voice to a whisper, let alone shout for help, and so he wondered how soon the warm sleep of exposure would claim him. In all likelihood he was leagues away from any settlement. Even more likely were the chances of internal wounds killing him, before the frost had a chance.
He tried to sit up, collapsed to the swiftly freezing ground and waited half-aware, the world around him growing dim. Familiar constellations emerged, dotting the chill sky. Neither moon had risen yet. It must be a fourth-night, Vornen thought as the icy breeze numbed his face and brought tears to his eyes. Why couldn’t I remember that before? A fourth-night in the month of Neardark. Winter is stirring.
The last scraps of light disappeared in the west. Vornen felt blood flow into his mouth; when he spat it out, a sudden agonising convulsion in his stomach gripped him, and for a moment even the sky faded as pain consumed what was left of his world. Gods, let it be soon, he thought weakly.
But with the onset of full darkness came steady footfall, accompanied by a faint jangling, and then a chulan woman- all harshness and sinew, perhaps chief among the huntspeople of her village judging by the amulets she wore. Gazing without expression upon his sorry form, she stood above him for a moment as he stared wordlessly up at her. Pain stabbed through him in a dozen places as she gathered him up. Unable to scream his agony, he could utter only a faint gasp before passing out.
She bore him back to her cart, and then along a stony track to her settlement. Later, in a moment of lucidity, Vornen heard low murmurs of excitement, vaguely remembered lamp light and a little later, the smell of meat cooking over an open fire. Voices were raised at one point; an argument took place between two people- one male, one female- both of whom were nothing more than shadows across the canopy of the tent in which he lay. It grew lighter; he slept again. Voices came and went. Nightfall approached, and with it came silence so deep that for a while he wondered if he had been abandoned. Sometime after that- he fancied it might be growing light again, but he could not be sure- he heard children laughing as they ran past outside. Later still, a wind gathered strength around the place where he rested; it sounded like a continuous howl of grief.
Finally, all these things became memories, or perhaps dreams; he slept deeply and without turning, for days. From time to time he was brought out of his slumber by a chulan healer, to take sips of water that felt like silk inside his throat. Perhaps it was not just water. His voice having fled, he could not ask for more of it, yet he gestured weakly instead. It did no good; the healers gave him only as much as they thought he needed.
Then one morning, suddenly he woke of his own accord, with sunlight upon his bed and a sharp ache throughout his body, as if all his muscles had been beaten to a pulp. Perhaps knowing already of his stirring, a healer’s assistant came to feed him hot, thick broth laced with spices, and the first bread of the morning. The food was offered to him a little at a time, the timid girl squatting patiently by his bedside. She fed him as one might feed a helpless child, in considerate silence, the ritual perhaps familiar to her and so could be repeated endlessly without thought.
A while later, agonising pain ripped through his stomach; he had at least the strength to cry out, and they came to him just as his breakfast passed out of him in a haze of heat and pain. In silence they cleaned and then bathed him, and then made him drink water laced with sour-root, mint and fennel and another, bittersweet herb that he could not recognise. He rested, even managing the weakest of smiles as he observed the pan that had been placed in a helpful position by the side of his bed.
Another day passed, and he recovered sufficiently to walk. The healers occasionally came to watch him take tentative steps, or to encourage him if he felt unable to. Always at least one assistant was present. Most of them could not speak Hastian or any language but their own, yet their words of encouragement could not be clearer.
Finally, with his recovery judged to be sufficient, he was taken, with a green-clad healer’s assistant on either side in case he stumbled and fell, to a hut where the woman who had found him waited. Vornen knew already that questions would be asked. The chulan had a certain sensitivity to murmurings and movements that changed the Existence, living closely attuned to the earth and its shapings. Perhaps that was why he had been found as quickly as he had. Perhaps she too had in her own way been drawn to the opening, the moment when the Gate suddenly and savagely appeared.
Vornen was admitted into the sparse darkness of the woman’s dwelling, where she sat cross-legged upon the ground. Several necklaces glittered faintly in the gloom. Despite the chill air, she wore only a thin cotton shift and skirts. Her grey hair hung unkempt and lank to her shoulders. The remains of a fire gleamed sullenly in the hearth, faintly illuminating her on one side. The other lay in thick shadow.
“I am Ona,” she said simply. The chulan people rarely bothered with titles of any sort, viewing them as pointless. It was a belief that Vornen admired.
He bowed slightly, wincing at a sudden savage pain in his neck. It would be many days before he moved without some physical reminder of what he had witnessed, even though his actual memories had already lost some of their edge. “I am Vornen.” After a moment’s hesitation, he felt as if he should explain himself further, given her stony, expectant silence. “I am… well, a traveller in a sense…”
“I know what you are,” she intervened. “I know how you came to be here. Tell me what you have seen.”
Vornen smiled warily. “What I’ve seen?”
She leaned forward, the hearth-light moving slowly across her face and illuminating her harsh countenance. “Youwill tell me, Vornen, or you will not leave Ui-choran alive. How did you come to be here, at that exact moment? I will have answers.”
Vornen felt the smile drain from his face. “As you wish. I am drawn to them. I have always been drawn to them. I can help that fact no more than you can help breathing.”
She reached out and touched one of his new scars, a curiously curved gouge that he had first seen for himself when one of the healers had given him the use of a looking-glass. A sudden hungry look entered her eyes. “You were there,” she accused him. “You were there as it happened. You were there at the opening and the closing.” She licked her lips, nodding in agreement with herself. “I have never been witness to such as that. I feel them from afar, sometimes. They are gone before I arrive. Long gone. All that is ever left for me is the odd… emptiness in the air.”
“I would have perished were it not for you,” Vornen said, hoping they might talk of her people’s good deed rather than the Gate. “I thank you for saving for me, and your people for nursing me back to some sort of health.” He winced as another spasm in his back reminded him that his recovery would not be complete for a while yet.
“Never mind that,” Ona said dismissively. “Had I found you anywhere else, I would have left you to stiffen in the frost.” She sat back, now almost entirely cast in shadow. “I must know what you saw between the opening and the closing. If you won’t…” She shrugged. “I can have our healers undo their work. I am sure with some effort we can create again the state you were in when I picked you from the hillside.”
Neither of them spoke for a long while. “I saw the darkness of the void,” Vornen said eventually. His voice had changed, although he did not notice. As he spoke, it seemed that even in the gloom of Ona’s hut, something blacker and deeper opened before him. “I saw stars. Other stars, not those we see above us. I heard things… noises. Numbers. Directions.”
Ona said nothing, but she leaned forward intently. Perhaps without knowing, she touched each of her necklaces in turn, as if to evoke the protection of whatever Gods the chulan worshipped these days. Suddenly Vornen recalled something else, a terrible truth he had sensed whilst staring into the abyss of space. “Gods, I remember,” he whispered. “I remembernow.”
“What?” The fear in his heart glittered in her eyes. “What?”
“The voices. Of some…” Vornen shivered. He could not even describe those voices to her. They did not belong to any creature, any life that he could understand. They were disembodied fragments from some distant corner of the Existence; they were the harsh noises of something that had spent an eternity looking for a world, the most important of all worlds…
“It is coming. They are coming.” He blinked and looked at Ona. “They have found Aona.”
“Make sense. Who?”
Vornen shook his head. “I don’t know any name for them. I don’t know what they are.” Suddenly he began to shiver, and the shivering became uncontrollable. As he collapsed on his side, his sight becoming a hot feverish blur, Ona cursed and barked out something in the chulan language, and someone rushed in through the doorway. Vornen lost consciousness as he was taken back to his bedchamber.
He woke sometime later; it was dark outside and Ildar had just risen in the east. Vornen lay on his mattress and contemplated an altogether different sky. I will not see that one again, he thought. It’s never the same one. How many stars are there across the Existence, hanging in the void? Some uncountable number?
Then a name came to him, and he knew it was the name to which the voices belonged.
He whispered the word over and over, not knowing what it meant, but fearing the strange resonance that it had.
They are coming.
The unspeakable fear that clawed its way through his mind was impossible to bear. He opened his mouth and screamed. He continued screaming until three of the chulan folk held him down and sedated him.
Ona came to see him hours later, when he was still weak and disoriented from the sedative herbs he had been given. He could not speak, but she had no questions for him in any case. She stood and regarded him in silence for a long while, and it seemed to Vornen that she was torn between the need to ask him more questions and fear of what he had already told her.
A week later, recovered fully, he was away from the chulan village, supplied with gifts of winter food for whatever journey lay ahead. He thanked them, humbled by the generosity of people who had little enough to feed themselves, and then he left, heading south-east. A deep, nagging unease tore at him as he walked the narrow trail through the vastness of the Chor Valley whose southern end opened out into the Plains. It was a far worse sensation than the physical wounds that still caused him pain, and no chance did he have of it fading away.
The name, he thought, not daring to speak it to himself or even mouth it. I always thought that names were immaterial, nothing more than signatures that had filtered down through the Ages, possibly a different one for every race in Aphenhast or even the whole of Aona. But this name is different.
Has anyone ever withstood them? he pondered on the third day after his departure from village, as he rested on the threshold of the great Plains, eating.
There was no answer, of course. Has this happened before? he wondered. A nagging sensation troubled him, told him that perhaps it had. But surely these were ancient events, unwritten anywhere here. No parallel existed that he had heard of. The script was itself unwritten; this was a world that had long since moved on and forgotten about the myths of past Ages.
What can I do, except spread rumours and fears? he thought, staring morosely across the moorland. The chulanwoman knew I spoke the truth. She felt it as much as heard it. But it means nothing in itself.
Forget about it, his sly and lazy part told him. Soon you will be drawn elsewhere, you’ll find other truths. You can do nothing, so do nothing.
The wind rustled his shoulder-length brown hair. His wary, greyish eyes took in the distant scenery for a long while, until it seemed he had lost himself. This haggard, scarred man who looked washed free of life’s colours, would have seemed utterly transfixed to anyone passing by. But here, no one passed by. This was, and always had been, a barren part of the land-a vastness in which to lose myself, he thought.
A grey mass of cloud gathered in the east and in the north, stretching across the vast heights of the Pinnacles; the first severe snowfall of the coming winter. It would arrive sometime tomorrow, and had probably already blanketed thechulan village.
He ate what little he needed to satisfy his scant appetite, and at length he lay down to sleep. But sleep would not come. The myriad stars above shimmered, and he stared up at them with thoughts racing through his mind. A measure of the rapture he had felt fleetingly as a child, face upturned to the heavens, returned; that quiet excitement and wonder. But now it was tinged with fear; real, tangible fear.
Vornen could not sleep, and dawn found him on the move again, striding over the frost, and silently wishing the burden that was his could be erased.