The Life of Gaia
Celeste DeWolfe
(1 reviews)
Gaia is an orphaned acolyte, and on her 16th birthday, she'll have the biggest choice of her ... Show More
Genres:
Adventure, Fantasy, Paranormal, Young Adult
Tags:
Fantasy, Romance, Young Adult, YA, Adventure, World, Creatures, Death, Life, Demi-Gods, Gods, Acolytes, Monastery, Magic, Worgs, Swordfights, Knights, Black, Soldiers, Lords, Ladies, Castles, Intimate, Bad Guys, Father, Orphan, Sixteen, Rebirth, Mystery, Suspense, Literary, Comedy, Questions, Avalon, Merlin

Eyes and Omens

Chapter 1: Eyes and Omens

    "Gaia, for goodness' sake, come down from there before you break your neck!"

    Through the leaves of my refuge, I could just make out Sofia's upturned face, as white and delicate as the apple blossoms.  I knew her blue eyes would be filled with worry, but also bemusement.  This wasn't the first time I'd hidden in the heights of the apple orchard.  

    "Please, you know me better than that.  When have I ever fallen?"

    I could hear the exasperation in her voice.

    "If Mother Superior finds out where you've gone, we'll never hear the end of it!  I'm supposed to keep you out of trouble, remember?"

    "Then don't tell her where I am!" I yelled back.  I wasn't ready to acknowledge defeat--not just yet.

      So instead of climbing down, I wrapped my hands around another twisting branch and pulled myself higher, relishing the smell of sap and buds that would become apples.  Not even the threat of the Mother's disapproval could keep me from this time alone.  Sofia, for all of her mothering, wouldn't tell on me.  I still had this little bit of freedom.

    The trees were dormant now, waiting for the fall, but Father Kilgane had declared in no uncertain terms that we were going to expect a spectacular harvest.  Their fruit was my favorite, and I could imagine the smells that would fill our monastery when the kitchen began to pop out pie after pie, filled to the brim with hot apple slices in cinnamon and caramel sauce.  

    Then the Father would talk of adding another notch to his belt every time we sat down to eat, even though his elderly, stooping frame never got any bigger season to season.  

    Fall would mean leaves and candles, thick meat pies and switching our sleeveless habits for down robes.  It was rooms with smoking fires lit, Holy Day travelers taking refuge in our barns, and canning everything in sight for use during the winter season.  

    And it signified the course of time, another season spent exactly where I'd been for the last twelve of my almost-sixteen years.  

    Ever since I was abandoned on the monastery's doorstep.

    When I felt that I'd gone as high as I dared, given the shrinking foliage and winnowing branches, I settled myself against the trunk and looked out.  Up here it was almost impossible to feel sorry for myself.

    Probably why I like it so much. 

    I hated to feel sorry for myself, especially when I sat down to think about it rationally.  I had a good life here at the monastery.  It was a life I owed to the Father, the Priests, and even the curmudgeonly Mother Superior.  

    It had just never felt much like my life.

    Pulling myself from my sullen shadow, I eagerly stared out at the surrounding landscape.  Even more than the climb, which was exhilarating, I loved the apple trees for the view they offered me of scenes beyond our provincial residence.  

    Worth every second, I thought pleasantly, and even the lecture to come.  

    There was the monastery, of course; a remnant of architecture built more for its structural security than any kind of aesthetic beauty.  It had sat in that same spot much longer than anyone alive in Aeslen, or indeed all of Lysaran--some said it was even older than Aeslen City's great wall, which was built while Raqor the Conqueror was still doing his... Well, conquering.  I could see that wall from my perch, jutting up over the hills and dips of our valley.  It seemed like a toy from so far away; not the masterful marvel of construction that it really was.

    'A living testament to the indomitable strength of hope and faith in Lysaran,' Mother Superior always said, like a proud peacock fluffing her own feathers with adoration. 

    Some people, like my friend Sofia, admired the history and steadfastness of something that had stood the test of time that way.

    The thought of being rooted to such a place forever was enough to make me physically ill.

    Wind, coming in from the North, tossed my dark braid around and threatened to undo my rather fragile handiwork.  In that direction were wide patches of woods that Aeslen forested for lumber, stretching further than my eyes could see into the horizon.  If a person were to walk not even two days' time through them, they would find themselves out of the Kingdom of Aeslen entirely.   

    I couldn't see our northern neighbors even from this high, but I often wondered about them. Much of Fellamos was islands, fishing villages and beaches that took up most of its borders.  Fellamosi were dark, sea-faring types who rarely felt at home on land.  

    At least that's what I'd been taught, made to memorize centuries-old maps during lesson-time.  
    Fellamos was one of the four members of the Empire, back before Raqor came and tamed Lysaran's three westernmost Kingdoms.  Aeslen was also one of the original four, in the Dark Ages, before the Empire was tumbled and Raqor became the first King.

    A whole handful of places I was unlikely to ever see, so that they might as well have been myths, more stories told to children at bedtime.

   But at least I have my view.

    Hardly a minute after that thought I heard, from far below, a nervous shout and a hissed whisper that broke my fleeting tranquility.  

    "Gaia, she's coming!  Get down here now, before she catches you!"

Whatever calm I had felt fled immediately as my heartbeat accelerated painfully against my throat.  Nobody could wear down resistance, or freedom, or personality, like Mother Superior.

    I assumed that's why they'd given her the job.

I started to climb down, but a quick glance told me there was no way I would make it before she arrived--at least not without earnestly tempting fate--so I went with Plan B.  I gathered up my skirts, a tell-tale black-and-white, and pulled them close to my chest, trying to look as small as possible.

    Scarcely a heartbeat passed before I heard the Mother's throaty voice.  I could practically envision the accusatory wagging of her finger that always accompanied it, as she never seemed to be happy about anything I did.  It was always wrong, wrong wrong.

    "Where is she?"

    "Who, ma'am?"  

    Poor Sofia.  She didn't like to lie to anyone, and here I was, burdening her conscious so I could break rules.      

    Not to mention, she's just plain terrible at it!  Guilt joined my fear of being found out.

    "You know very well who, Sister Sofia," the Mother snapped in a voice that brooked little argument, "It's your job to mentor the girl, not enable her!"  She sniffed.  "I had hoped to reform her by placing her under your tutelage; not to have her corrupting you."
    
    All of those things were only too true, so I was surprised when Sofia spoke up.  Normally the best way to survive Hurricane Superior was to hunker down and pray for her to pass.  

    Even Sofia, Angel of Obedience, knew that much.

    "You're right, of course, and I apologize...but Gaia isn't a child anymore.  Her birthday is in two days.  Once she's sixteen, she might decide to leave the Church.  Maybe a little slack isn't such a terrible thing?  You know she's never wanted this life."

    My stomach roiled at the mention of my approaching birthday.  Oh yes, the holiday I'd been desperately trying to ignore for the past few months.  The day I would have to decide my future once and for all.  

    Did I want to leave the monastery and try to make my own way in the world?  Or should I trade my freedom for protection; to be cared for by the Church in exchange for throwing myself into my Acolyte training?  Give up any of my hopeless notions that I might be meant for something beyond these immovable and unchanging gray walls?

    Shaking with nerves, I almost missed the Mother's response.

    "Please, Sofia.  That girl is irresponsible and willful.  Not to mention, she has absolutely nothing to her name; no family, no holdings and no prospects.  She can't even clean properly.  What, pray tell, would she do outside of this monastery?"

    My heart dropped when the question was followed by silence.  

    The truth, I thought vaguely, it's only the truth.  That was your lot in life when your parents left you with only the clothes on your back; no money and no title.

    Worthless.

    "Precisely," she continued when Sofia could formulate no response.  "We both know what Gaia will choose.  She's an orphan, and I'm sorry for it, but that's the way of the world. Lysaran doesn't need another wretched mouth to feed in the gutter of some city. It needs hope.  And we give it to them here, at the Church."

    Then I heard a deflating sigh, like someone had punctured her and let out all of the hot air, until all that was left was an honest whisper that I could barely hear.

    "Gaia needs to accept that her place is with us. I know how much she resents it, resents me, but we've only ever tried to do our best by her.  And the world out there, right now?  It's not a place for anyone to be alone, sixteen or otherwise.

    "So," she continued briskly, erasing all traces of that other person, "when you find her, tell her that she's to assist Marlene in cleaning out the pig pen.  And no lollygagging, do you hear? She's not of age yet, so there's no excuse for missing out on chores.  If Marlene says that she had to clean by herself there will be the Seven Sins to pay, do you hear me?"

    "Y-yes, ma'am, of course," Sofia said.  I counted the heavy footfalls as the Mother left the orchard, eventually deciding when I heard the rickety oak gate slam shut that I was safe.  The idea of the talking-to I would no doubt get later was almost enough to make me try living in the tree.

    Almost.

    "Greed and Envy," I cursed, but didn't even feel the usual stolen thrill of swearing.  How could you argue with someone who was right, even in your heart?

    Hollow, I began to make my way down, my feet even more clumsy and uncoordinated than usual as they searched for suitable branches.

    "Sofia?" I said hesitantly, worried that she would finally be angry at me, even after all I had put her through in the past.  I wasn't sure if I could take having the gentle and serene Sofia turn her back on me, not right then.  That would make me feel more hopeless than anything the Mother had said.  "Sofia, listen, I'm sorry--"

    A distinct, acrid smell assaulted my nose, making me cringe back in surprise.  Burning pine needles and the clinging scent of woodsmoke, a normally comforting smell that now made my hair stand on end.  It didn't belong there, up in that tree.  

    But when I glanced back towards the woods my uncertainty was confirmed.  

    Black clouds billowed in on the same wind I had enjoyed earlier.  Where the trees began to thicken, there at the edge of the monastery pastures, I could see hungry flames.  Their lithe, graceful bodies flickered, red-orange dancers throwing up plumes of dark smoke.

    Fire was always eager to gorge on anything in its path; it made no distinction between plant, animal or man.  A group of people running out of the woods and away from the fire's ravenous grasp, coughing on lung-filling smoke, were proof of that statement.  I couldn't hear them from such a distance, but I could imaging their choking cries.

    Who are they?  What were they doing in there?

    "Sofia!" I screamed down, my voice high and laced with panic, "Sofia, there's a fire by the northern pasture!  Go, tell them to ring the bells!  There are people in those woods!"

    Memories of a similar incident during one particularly dry summer flooded my mind; only a great many volunteers and days of sweaty, back-breaking work had kept it from reaching the monastery.  This one was much closer than that had been, and those visions spurred me into action, nearly causing me to fall several times as I scurried back down the trunk. Bark scraped away at the skin on my hands and legs in my haste, but I ignored the pinpricks of pain.  

    My dress had seen much worse than a few rips and snags.

    Mother Superior can yell all she wants, but I'm trying to save lives.

    To her credit, Sofia didn't linger to question my word--by the time I clambered to the ground, awkward and ungainly as always, she was already across the orchard and yelling for the acolytes in the garden to get help.  Only a few minutes later the great bells above the church were ringing, but by then I had already taken off in the opposite direction.

    Running towards a fire.  That's clever, I thought...but it probably wasn't the dumbest thing I'd ever done. 

    Probably.  

    My lungs were already protesting at the mix of exertion and pungent smoke as I ran past the stables.  The animals there voiced my own inner cries of fear, the ones telling me to turn around, turn back, wait for help, because this was a truly awful idea.  I pulled my apron up over my mouth as a shallow precaution and pushed harder, legs pumping under my skirts, the pinching of old, ill-fitting shoes inconsequential. 

    I knew I could trust Sofia to send help, but in the meantime there was only me.

    The summer day was warm, but the closer I got to the treeline, the more I felt like that moment when you crack open an oven to check what's inside.  Dry heat assaulted every inch of my body, sweat breaking out both from the run and the temperature climb.  It stung my eyes even as I swiped at it, coughing into the apron that now smelled ripe with smoke.

    I met the people from the forest in the middle of the pasture, noticing immediately that they were Vanderas.  The colorful patchwork of their clothes, swarthy skin, and the guttural accents as they huddled and tried to comfort one another gave them away.  At the monastery we took in all sorts of people, and the occasional Vandera often passed through our doors for a bite to eat and a place to sleep.

    Never, of course, had I seen so many at one time, or under such circumstances.  Their fear made them nearly incomprehensible, and they seemed rooted to the spot, out of immediate danger but unable to go anywhere else.

    I needed to break through that instinctual terror and get us all out of harm's way. 

    Luckily, my arrival seemed to tear them out of their inaction.  Dozens of pairs of eyes latched onto me, and although my habit was in a bad state, it was immediately recognizable.  It stood for the church, for help, for hope.

    I guess that's what Mother Superior meant earlier, I thought as one woman burst into fresh tears.  They left stark tracks on a wide face covered in soot.  She broke out into a litany of words, none of which I could make out, all the while clutching a young boy against her dress.  He looked up at me as well, face equally dirty, dark eyes just as frightened and unsure.

    I scanned the forest where flames belched out, an angry furnace.  

     Was this everyone?  I doubted it very much.  There were more women and children than just one family, yet very few men.  I saw a couple hovering closer to the fire than they should, anxious looks on roughly-hewn faces.

    "Go to the monastery," I said loudly, clearly, hoping that they could hear me over the sounds of snapping and crackling that the forest emitted.  Just in case none of them could understand, I pointed towards the gray-stone buildings in the distance.  Even now I could see Priests in their black robes and stable-hands massing outside, the bells still pealing to sound the alarm.

    "Go that way.  They can take care of you."

    Another, older woman grabbed at my arm, her grip harder than I'm sure she intended; I winced as long nails bit into my flesh.  Her eyes were the rare kind, one brown and one green, but both had latched onto me as savagely as her hand.    

    "Not all," she said, the accent heavily foreign, "Not all here.  Men, in woods.  Animals attack.  Fire start.  Help, please."

    At least I understood that much.

    "I'll try," I promised blindly, willing to say anything if it would get them to move, get her to release me from the vise-like grip.  Already flames were finding their way through the grasses, and although we'd had healthy rainfall this year, they were slowly gaining ground.  The furnace notched up in ferocity, and the heat was intense.  "I'll try to help them."
 
    I didn't know if they could even be helped, but I didn't have to say that out loud.  Her mismatched eyes told me she already knew their likely fate.

     I assumed that she understood as she began to herd the others into action, snapping out orders in their harsh native tongue.  Reluctantly the remaining men of their clan rejoined their families, eyeing her with little hope and obvious skepticism.  What did this skinny, awkward girl hope to achieve against the wrath of the elements?  

    The boy looked back at me once, then at the flames, as his mother hustled him away and towards safety.  No man joined them, and I wondered if she was a widow already or had become one today.  If her son was newly fatherless.

    I knew what he was thinking, because it was the same thing pounding through my mind.

    Am I really going in there?

    But the painful reality of a boy without a father answered that question.  If there was any chance, any at all, I had to take it.

    Sofia would think I was crazy.  She was probably right.  This was way more dangerous than climbing a tree.  Even as I looked for an opening in the wall my lungs burned and my eyes watered, making it hard to think about anything other than fresh air beyond the dizzying smoke.

    "Gods, I'm an idiot.  Lord's Teeth," I swore to no one in particular, and then, sucking in a large gulp of stinking smog, I ran the rest of the distance to the forest and ducked into the roaring inferno.

    It was hot.

    Hotter than the pits of the Under, probably.
    
    Hotter than I had ever imagined anything being, even the roots of the Tree where the Dark Gods dwelt.
    
    So bloody hot.

    Every inch of my flesh was pumping out rivers as I wound my way around burning bushes and under flaming branches, assailed by cinders that landed on my clothes and skin and bit at me with their tiny, fiery teeth.  Trying to beat them out took too much time, so I simply hissed in a breath every time I felt one, praying they didn't set me alight.

    This is stupid, this is stupid, this is so stupid! was my mantra.  I chanted it even as I choked on ashes, my once-white apron smeared with black, soot making me look like a Northerner.  And still I could see nothing around me except the red and orange flames.  No hints of people or animals of any kind.  

    Probably because everything smart got out of here when it started burning up! cried my mind, a lone voice of reason as my treacherous body insisted on moving forward.

    Finally I knew I had to go back as I stood, gasping, disoriented from the smoke and unable to see more than a few feet.  My brain felt foggy from lack of oxygen, and I began to sway dangerously.  If I stopped moving in here or, Godsforbid, fell, I wasn't likely to get back out again.  I prayed to Caritas, Goddess of Charity, to pity my foolishness.

    Then I saw it. 

    A covered wagon that was not much more than firewood sat in the middle of a clearing.  I could make out the ring of stones that I assumed had been a pit for cooking, once.  Vanderas were travelers, nomadic by nature, descended from other men and women who had also moved from place to place.  'Vandera' literally meant 'wanderer' in old Lysaran tongue.    Always on the go.  Never still.

    As a child, stories told by these gypsies who stopped at the monastery would fill my daydreams.  More of what I knew about the outside world came from those nights by the fire, talking with strangers, than from all the broken-spine books the Mother had us read.  

    Knowing what I did, I was sure they'd taken every precaution to keep their fire in check.  So what had caused it to get so out-of-hand?

    A closer inspection, and a passing gust of brittle wind, had me retching with dry heaves as a smell that was like roasting pork made me reel away.  The splitting, charcoal-covered bodies of those who had tried to brave the fire were half-hidden and ruined near the wheels of the wagon.  
    Nothing, absolutely nothing, smelled as bad as burning hair on a corpse.

    I remembered that, but not how I knew it so absolutely.

    Sick, wanting nothing more than to leave, I spun on my heels.  No one out here was alive, and I would join them if I didn't get out quickly.  

    Yet I found myself staring into a pair of red eyes, redder than the fire, redder than blood.

    The creature resembled a wolf but was about a dozen times bigger, seeming to care not at all about the flames that caressed its behemoth body.  The eyes were set into unrelieved black fur that was sat motionless, huge flanks comfortable among the burning undergrowth, apparently unperturbed by its surroundings.  A living shadow.

    And those eyes, like open sores, were intent on only me.

    The image was hypnotic, and I might have stared at it forever if an ear-splitting crack hadn't broken the spell between us.  Whipping around, I saw that the wagon had collapsed, its wheels nothing more than coals and used-up ashes.  A funeral pyre to cover the bodies of the burned Vandera men forever.  

    When I forced myself to look back, heart pounding, coughing my innards out into my apron, whatever I had seen before was gone.  The spot it had sat was on fire, like everything around it, but there was no sign anything living had ever been there.

    Even in the heat, I shivered down to my bones.

    "Gaia!"

    My name sounded strange and unused to my ears, like I hadn't heard it spoken aloud in ages.  I almost didn't recognize it the first time.  Then it was called again, loudly, worriedly, and my legs began to move towards the sound.

    "Here," I screamed, hoarse, my voice more of a croak.  "I'm here!"  

    What if they can't hear me?  What if--

    A shadow moved to my right, and my heart stopped, thinking it was the large wolf I had seen before.  Before I could see there was another snap, another crunch of organic matter giving way to fire, and suddenly a branch as thick as a man's leg and five times as long was hurtling down at me from above.

    I screamed, instinctively throwing up my arms to protect myself, all the while knowing it was a futile gesture.  Soon the fire would get its hands on me, using me up like kindling and turning me to cinders like the wanderers.

    I felt something hit me, hard, from the side.  There was no sensation of burning, not yet anyway, but I thanked the Gods for it even as I felt myself floating away.  

   Well, at least if I'm dead, or dying, I don't have to feel it.  That must count for something.

    Even in the dark I could see the flames dancing behind my eyelids.  Red and orange with a yellow caste; their flicker strangely comforting, like turning towards a candle while half-asleep.

    At least until a giant, black beast laughed at me within them, slowly filling my vision.

    Then all there was to see was red-eyed midnight.
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Thanks so much for taking the time to read my story!! I'm sure it's not perfect, but I'm always working on it. :)

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Log in to add a comment or review for this chapter Chapter updated on: 11/1/2013 5:21:58 PM
  • Yashita Ghazi commented on :
    5/31/2017 3:44:34 PM
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  • anna brown commented on :
    3/31/2016 2:14:57 AM
    Hello good day, i will like to meet you in person, am miss Anna, am from France and am leaving in London, please contact me on my email id at (annh1brown@hotmail.com), ... Show More
  • magicdownunder commented on :
    7/16/2015 7:01:22 AM
    That was a great first chapter, I'll be adding this story for sure :D
  • Evan Marcroft commented on :
    2/25/2015 9:10:36 PM
    I thought you had a very thorough blend of plot and exposition. You elaborate on the world without stopping the story to do so for overly long, and sprinkle in additional ... Show More
  • Laura Morrison commented on :
    4/19/2014 12:19:34 PM
    Wow! Added to my bookshelf and will be back to read more :o).
  • Steven Marshall commented on :
    2/26/2014 5:16:49 AM
    Excellent, Celeste! :) I am going to introduce this to my girlfriend at the weekend. Your story will be right up her alley! Keep up the great writing! :)
    • Celeste DeWolfe Oh, thank you so much! xD It's very much a work-in-progress, but I'm hoping that the input I get from JukePop will lead to a stronger novel in the long run. Which I guess is the point, right? But thanks again! =D
      2/26/2014 5:49:18 AM
    • Steven Marshall All of our stories are works in progress, Celeste (heck... my BRAIN is a work in progress! lol). The important thing is... we ARE progressing! Never give up! Never give in! May the muses sing to you often, my friend! :)
      2/26/2014 3:11:19 PM
  • Michelle Proulx commented on :
    11/16/2013 12:38:08 PM
    Fun! I particularly enjoyed her litany of curse words, all related to the mythology you're using in this world. And Gaia's so sassy!!! Looking forward to reading more :)
  • Nona King gave
    11/13/2013 2:32:40 AM
    The imagery and character definition is fantastic! I am completely absorbed into the life of Gaia.