Read Chapter One of ‘The Key of Alanar’: “The Stranger”

If you missed The Key of Alanar‘s darkly dramatic Prologue, you can still find it here! This, the first chapter of the book, is set 10,000 years after the apocalyptic events of the Prologue and the fall of Lasandria. Set in a completely different time and place, the story shifts gears as we meet David, the book’s central protagonist, on a day that will change his life forevermore.

If you are eager to read more, The Key of Alanar is now available to buy on Amazon and multiple retailers in both paperback and ebook format. Visit the official launch page for buy links, background information and much more.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00050]

Chapter One
THE STRANGER

Year of Atahl, 14,999

Standing on the edge of the riverbank, David gazed into the trickling water. A fragmented, ghostly reflection stared back at him: that of a nine year-old boy, lost and utterly alone. Reaching down, he picked up a stone and threw it at the water. As it hit the water surface, his reflection shattered and vanished. He felt a strange sense of envy. Why couldn’t he too simply blink out of existence? After all, what did it matter; and who would really care?

David had lived on the island of New Haven his entire life. It was therefore his home and the people he lived with were his family. Yet although it pained him to admit, he could feel no real connection to them and no sense of belonging to this place. Even from an early age he had known he was somehow different to everyone else. His parents cared for him deeply, and he them, but he had long known there was something about him that made them uncomfortable. But what was it? What was it that was wrong with him?

Today he had finally learned the truth; and he now knew why he felt so innately like a stranger in his own world.

Sitting down upon the grassy riverbank, the sunlight shone through the swaying trees, the light sparkling upon the water in a rhythmic, strangely hypnotic dance. But the distraction was only momentary, for again his troubled mind returned to the events of earlier.

It had happened after school. A chance encounter that brought his entire world crumbling down.

David had never much liked school. He preferred spending his time alone and hated being forced into social situations that only reinforced the awkwardness he had interacting with others. But he nevertheless endeavored to behave in the ways that were expected of him and was always polite and courteous. He certainly wasn’t one of the more popular children, but he gave no reason to be unpopular. Not that such a reason was always necessary.

Situated on the edge of the Sharedo forest, the island school was just a short walk from the main town. Classes were finished for the day and David was making his way home. While the other children gathered in groups to talk and play, David usually walked alone, often trailing behind everyone else. As he passed by a grove of blossom-heavy fruit trees, the path forked to the right and he found the way ahead obstructed by three boys playing an aggressive game of tagball. David’s heart sank upon recognizing them. Their ringleader was the notorious Dahn, a burly blonde-haired boy from two years above him, known throughout the school as a vindictive bully.

Over the years David had developed the knack of blending into the background, avoiding drawing undue attention to himself. While it seemed to work most of the time, there were occasions when it didn’t—and he had very much become an object of Dahn’s attention. Several weeks ago he had come across Dahn beating up one of his classmates, a short, skinny boy called Antan. Dahn had chased Antan into one of the farmer’s fields, pinned him down and bloodied his nose. He twisted the boy’s arm behind his back as he cried out in pain. Unlike the other children, who knew better than to get involved, David found himself unable to turn a blind eye to someone in need of help. Mustering a courage that he never even knew he possessed, David intervened, squaring up to Dahn and demanding that he leave Antan alone. Dahn, clearly astounded that someone had the nerve to challenge him, released Antan and thereafter David became the focus of his attention.

A loner with no real friends, David was a prime target for a bully and Dahn subsequently initiated a campaign of intimidation against him. He hadn’t resorted to physical violence but had adopted a subtler, more insidious form of bullying, repeatedly trying to unnerve him and undermine  his confidence. Whenever they crossed paths at school, Dahn would fix David in his sights and glare at him menacingly, pointing him out to his thuggish friends; making jokes and jeering at him. David knew that this was merely the warm-up to a looming confrontation, and today, the moment he laid eyes on Dahn alone in the forest, he knew that his adversary was ready to move in for the kill.

Upon catching sight of David, Dahn and his friends stopped their game and circled around him like flies over a slab of meat. Dahn’s two henchmen, Gerdan and Robb leered belligerently and made a grab for his schoolbooks. David pulled back from them, clutching his books to his chest. Surprisingly Dahn wasn’t joining in, but was watching with a dark glint in his eye.

“So where d’you think you’re going?” sneered Robb, his rounded and unpleasant face permanently flushed, accentuating his reddish freckles.

David said nothing, keeping his face neutral yet defiant.

“School’s over!” Gerdan cried, reaching out and snatching the books from his arms. “You won’t be needing these.” The tall, stocky boy threw the books to ground and kicked them across the path, sending the pages flying. Robb leapt over and kicked them even further, until they landed in a puddle.

David looked around helplessly. The other children were far ahead, out of sight. There was no one to help. He felt his heart pounding in his chest as he struggled to hold his own against Dahn’s minions. They began pushing him around, passing him to each other as though playing some kind of bizarre ball game in which David was the object of play. David tried to break free but they were far stronger and easily overpowered him.

“Let him go,” Dahn suddenly barked.

Somewhat surprised, Robb and Gerdan did as he said and released David, who pushed himself free and took a step back. He watched as Dahn stepped toward him. “Don’t mind them,” Dahn said slowly, motioning to Robb and Gerdan, who looked on, puzzled. “Their mothers obviously never taught them any manners.” As Dahn continued, an insincere smile played across his lips. “We’ve never really had the chance to get to know each other, have we?”

David was initially taken aback by this inexplicable change in Dahn’s behavior. He might even have believed this façade of friendliness had it not been for the malicious glint lingering in his eyes. “I think we’ve been too hard on you,” Dahn continued. “I mean, it must be difficult for you. I don’t know how I’d cope in your situation.”

David eyed him suspiciously. “What situation?”

“You know, not having a real family. Not having real parents. Not belonging here.”

“What are you talking about? I have a family. I have parents!”

“Yeah, but they’re not really your parents, are they?” Dahn smiled and shrugged. “They just took pity on you. You don’t have a real family.” A moment of silence followed. Dahn was clearly enjoying every second of this. “I mean, how could you? You don’t even come from the island.”

David stared at him blankly.

“They found you on the mainland when you were just a baby. You were abandoned and they took pity on you…”

Unable to respond, David stood still, numb with shock.

“You did know that…didn’t you?” Dahn asked in mock surprise. “I mean, surely they told you all this? After all, everybody knows it: that you’re an orphan, an outsider, that you don’t belong here…that you’re only here out of pity…”

Dahn’s words cut through him like a blade. Unable to speak, David was overcome by a barrage of conflicting emotion: shock, anger—and sudden, blinding clarity. All he could remember next was the sensation of something exploding inside him. He lashed out at Dahn and knocked him to the ground with such ferocity that his friends backed off in alarm.

After that, he ran. His mind numb and his senses blurred, David didn’t even consciously know where he was going and was oblivious to both his surroundings and whoever he happened to encounter along his way. As if pulled by instinct, he found himself in the depths of the Sharedo forest. The forest was in a secluded part of the island; a safe haven where he spent many hours enjoying the peace and solitude. Once certain that he was safe and alone, he collapsed against a tree trunk. His knees buckled and he sank to the ground, engulfed by the storm of emotion he had thus far managed to hold at bay. He was only nine years old and his entire existence had been revealed as a lie.

Initially he wondered whether Dahn’s words were to be believed. It could have merely been a cruel joke on his part, yet something deep within him knew that it was the truth. He’d finally been given the answer he’d sought his entire life. Everything made sense: his nagging, life-long inability to feel at home, the way other people treated him, and his yearning to be somewhere else; to find a place that he could truly call home.

He sat alone for what seemed like hours. He now had to accept the truth that he really was different to everyone else on the island. It was something he’d pretty much known his entire life and yet in spite of this, the eventual confirmation was no less painful. How many times had he wished and prayed that he could just be like everyone else? Fitting in and feeling as though he belonged here had been an elusive dream that was now forever dispelled by the light of truth. He had to accept that. And yet, if he didn’t belong here, where did he belong? Basically it came down to one simple question:

Who am I?

He threw a large stone at the water with a force fueled by the depths of his desperation. The stone landed with a resounding splash, drops of water splattering onto his face. Wiping his face with the back of his hand, he looked upward. Judging by the position of the suns in the mauve sky, he guessed it was now early evening. His parents would be worried about him. Although what did it matter? They weren’t really his parents.

David stood up, brushed himself off and found himself wandering through the forest. Birds cawed and cooed and the tree branches danced in the breeze as he climbed over fallen logs and tromped along the uneven terrain, his footsteps crunching in the twig-strewn undergrowth. He passed through a thicket of dense evergreens, scraping the skin on his arms as he pushed his way through.

He soon found himself at the edge of the forest. Ahead of him a steep drop gave way to the rocky shoreline. Across the turquoise ocean he could see the faint outline of land on the horizon. His eyes settled upon the distant landmass. He felt a pull toward it, a deep yearning, for he now realized that his home was not here on New Haven but was out there, somewhere across the waters. If he ever truly wanted to know who he was and where he belonged, then that was where he had to go.

In that moment, he made the decision. He was going. He was leaving here and setting out to find his true home. He had been lied to and deceived his entire life and he now wanted the truth.

He looked down at the shore. On the edge of the cove was a jetty with a small rowing boat, bobbing up and down on the water. While the main port and harbor were on the west side of the island, there were a few boats moored along the circumference of the island. As this was a secluded spot, rarely used, he should be able to leave the island unseen.

His mind was set; the decision was made. Tomorrow he was taking the boat and leaving here. Tomorrow he was going home.

Bolstered by this grandiose conviction, he decided that it was time he went home and faced up to the wrath of his parents. He would need a good night’s sleep, for he knew that tomorrow’s endeavor would require as much strength as he could muster.

As he turned to leave he saw something out of the corner of his eye: a man standing at the edge of the forest, watching him. Yet the moment he turned in that direction, the figure was gone. Whoever it was, he’d vanished! Or had he just imagined there was someone there? Puzzled, he nevertheless dismissed the incident and set on his way.

As expected, his parents, Jon and Jesanda, had panicked when he hadn’t returned home from school. Despite being relieved to see him when he eventually turned up on the doorstep, they were angry at his ‘irresponsibility’ for having wandered off without notice. “Where were you anyway?” Jon demanded.

David didn’t want them to know what had really happened. “I just went to play in the forest after school,” he mumbled in response.

“Well, in future you’re to let us know beforehand. Is that clear?”

“Yes,” David sighed.

It was dark by the time they sat down to eat evening meal, and there was an awkward silence around the table. David wasn’t at all hungry, but he knew that he had to keep his strength up for tomorrow, so he ate somewhat laboriously, then excused himself and went to bed.

In spite of his tiredness, sleep eluded him. His mind continuously went over his plans for the morning. The day would begin as it always did: he would get up and leave for school, only he’d head for the edge of the Sharedo forest and set out on the boat. He knew it would be a long and difficult row. He had been to the mainland before and it was at least a half day’s journey from New Haven, and that was with adults at the helm. There was no telling how much longer it would take him.

He did feel a pang of remorse at the prospect of leaving his parents. He knew that they loved him. Yet they weren’t his real parents. They’d lied to him his entire life. Maybe it was a lie born of kindness, but that was beside the point. He needed to know the truth. The thought of setting out into the world alone was daunting and he knew he’d miss them, but it was a choice he was willing to make. He had to. He’d never been more certain of anything.

Morning came and he could only have slept for a couple of hours at most. With a yawn he pulled back the covers and climbed out of bed, the floor cold on his bare feet as he stepped over to the window. He opened the curtain and looked out, disheartened by what he saw: an overcast sky, churning with rain clouds. The island had enjoyed a long stretch of fine weather, which made this sudden shift all the more frustrating. But unfortunate though it was, he decided it wasn’t reason enough to call off his plan.

He wasted little time in washing and getting dressed. His mother had laid out clothes for him: a pair of dark cotton trousers and a sleeveless grey tunic. He tied up his boots and ran his hand through his short brown hair as he made his way through the hall into the kitchen, the smell of cooking wafting through the house.

The atmosphere had eased considerably following the previous night’s drama. It was with a sense of sadness that David realized this would be the last meal he would share with his parents. He took his seat at the wooden table and sipped a glass of freshly squeezed olak juice as his mother served up some stewed apples and spiced oats. His mind was elsewhere as his parents discussed the day’s plans. “We’ll be leaving before you again, David,” Jon looked over at David, who was absent-mindedly staring into his bowl. “You’ll be okay to lock up, right?”

David looked up. “What?”

“We have to leave early,” his mother said as she joined them at the table. “It’s been so busy on the farm this week. It’s always the same during planting season. Hopefully after the next couple of days it’ll settle down again.”

“Uh, that’s all right,” David answered. In fact that would work to his advantage. When they left the house he’d have the opportunity to grab some supplies before heading off.

After they’d eaten and cleared up the dishes, Jon and Jesanda readied themselves to leave while David pretended to prepare for school. As she was about to leave, his mother reached out and hugged him goodbye as she always did, her wavy brown hair tickling the back of his neck as she held him. It was with a great sense of sadness that David said goodbye to his parents. As far as they were concerned they were just parting for the day, but David knew he might never see them again. Such a thought being too painful to reconcile, he made a pledge that someday he would return to New Haven to see them again.

The moment the door clicked shut, he sprang into action. He packed several changes of clothing, filled a large water-skin flask and, raiding the pantry, stock-piled enough food to last several days. For sentimental reasons he also included one or two personal items, such as an engraving that his mother had created depicting the family. He stuffed them into a leather bag and slung it across his shoulder. Exiting the house, he locked the door and left the key behind the base of the purple luveria bush.

He could feel a sense of apprehension as he walked down the street and crossed the wooden bridge leading across the Jaran River and onto the outskirts of town. The air was cool and heavy and the sky thick with ever-darkening cloud. Rain seemed imminent. Groups of children made their way out of the town thoroughfare in clusters, sauntering along the path to school. David kept his head down, hoping to avoid running into anyone he knew. Fortunately he knew a detour by which he could bypass the school lane and slip into the heart of the forest unseen. He followed a dirt track round by a series of warehouses and crossed a grassy field beyond which stretched the dense woodland of the Sharedo forest. As he traipsed along the forest path, the trees waving back and forth in the wind, he felt a knotted sensation in his stomach. He didn’t know whether it was a feeling of excitement or trepidation, but he tried to dismiss it and kept on going.

When he again came to the edge of the forest, he stopped and looked across the choppy grey waters to the horizon. Visibility was poor today. He couldn’t make out the headland at all. Indeed, the clouds across the sea were about as dark as he’d ever seen them. Ignoring this, he scrambled down the embankment onto the shoreline. The wind was picking up, blustering in gusts, forcing him to lift his arms to keep his balance as he stepped across the uneven rocks and onto the jetty. Below him the water thrashed against the wooden stilts, sending a mist of salty water spraying upward, wetting his skin and clothes. He climbed into the little red boat and laid down his bag. The boat lurched back and forth in a relentless rocking motion, banging against the side of the jetty. David felt his stomach lurching along with the boat, but he ignored his discomfort and prepared to depart. He awkwardly untethered the boat from its mooring, casting off the line as he sat down and took hold of the oars.

Continually buffeted by the tide, it took him a number of attempts to maneuver the boat away from the jetty. At one point he almost rammed into an outcropping of rock. Clearly this was more difficult than it looked. He eventually managed, with considerable exertion and a large measure of luck, to row the boat out of the cove and into the open expanse of the ocean.

It was a moment that was in equal measure exhilarating and terrifying, and one in which he knew there was no turning back. He looked across at the island, the only home that he’d ever known, and with mixed emotion silently bade it farewell.

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