This story is by F T Jackson and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
High above the fortress a bright moon waxes, whilst deep within its keep a woman’s life wanes. Chains dig into her wrists, legs no longer supporting her. The past weeks are a blur, her only clear recollections are of this room, each visit etched vividly in her memory by pain.
Initially, she tried defying the torturer, but the pain Scar inflicted was unbearable. Then she tried to explain, to reason with him. Foolishness. Now defeated, Tarianne accepts she will die here; she doubts she will even survive tonight’s session.
Scar turns back after refreshing himself from his tankard. Ale trickles from the twist in his lip, an old wound puckering his face from mouth to left ear, inspiring his nickname. He begins the questions again,
“How many of you witches are there?”
“Not witches… star-children,” Tarianne mumbles her reply, lips cracked and swollen.
“Witch, star-child,” he shrugs, “you were found performing black magic under the full moon, surrounded by cauldrons.”
Despite the situation and the severity of her pain, Tarianne almost laughs. Black magic indeed! She’d been found smoothing scrap metal over holes in old cooking pots, hands integrating the iron. Her affinity with moonlight and Nona’s training allowing her to channel the energy required. Concentrating on that mundane chore, she’d not sensed the soldiers’ approach.
“You’re lying, you’d not waste your talents on such a task.” he jeers, “What were you really doing? Causing injury, sickness, crops to fail?”
Fool that she is, she tries one final time to explain,
“We don’t… we heal…help crops…mould metal and stone…find things. We didn’t… cause drought… or harm… Lord Ashfield’s family… We’re sorry his wife…and son… died of fever… If he’d asked…help… We turn none away.”
She’s gasping by the end, but knows she’s wasting her time, ‘like pissing in the sea’ as Nona would say. Scar’s people worship ‘Tree Spirits’ and ‘Sacred Stones’, seeing demons and witches where only nature resides. Astrological alignment, universal energy and basic charity are all concepts outside their understanding. Tarianne’s people have offered to teach them, but they choose ignorance and fear, living more in darkness than she ever did.
“You lie. Lord Ashfield knows your village is responsible. Admit it!” Scar sneers, selecting an implement. The torture recommences.
As the pain builds, Tarianne sinks into remembrance, returning to the valley and her grandmother’s knee. She is wrapped in Nona’s arms beneath the great oak, stars glinting through the branches, protected from the November wind by its massive trunk.
“You are special Tarianne,” Nona’s warm voice brushes her ear, “but special can be hard. Although all are aligned with the stars at birth, some few are directly aligned with one star and can use that affinity to tune into the energy of the Universe. You are rarest, aligned with our closest and most powerful star, the sun. But you must hide from its direct light and use only light reflected from the moon, or you will be lost, as the other sun-children have been.”
“How were the others lost?”
“No-one knows. We only know that, once fully grown, if sunlight touches their skin, they vanish and never return.”
“When must I hide?”
“From tonight, my heart. When you healed your sister, you showed your powers. No other child your age could have done it, but sadly it was the sign we have been waiting for…”
Tarianne awakes, surprised to be alive. She is in her cell, another dank stone room, like Scar’s chamber but with a window. This the greatest torture of all, to see the faint light of the moon yet be unable to reach it, chained by wrists and ankles to the opposite wall.
Tonight however, something is different, the guards have only fastened one ankle chain, the rest hang loose. Whether out of laziness, or because she is near the end, she doesn’t know, but hope rises for the first time since her imprisonment. She listens carefully for signs of activity, hearing only silence. The plate of scraps beside her looks dry and a rectangle of pale, faint moonlight shines through the window onto the rough wall. After midnight, she guesses, favourite nap-time for guards. Her first and probably last chance, she knows she mustn’t waste it.
Chewing the stale scraps for strength, Tarianne crawls face down through the filth towards the window, legs still too weak to support her, back burning from new and old wounds. Pulling herself along with bent and broken fingers her shoulders stretch unnaturally, too loose in their sockets, all thanks to her sessions with Scar. Suppressing her pain, the woman concentrates on all she can do if she can just reach the moonlight: heal herself, escape, protect her people.
Moving with excruciating slowness, stealth is easy, but with each minute fear of discovery mounts. She glances anxiously at the door, convinced the guards will be standing there, watching her, but the grill remains empty. Remaining teeth gritted she inches closer, finally reaching the opposite wall. There she begins the gruelling process of pulling herself upright, broken fingers gripping slimy stones. Thoughts of family fuel her endeavour, sustaining her.
Getting her right leg under her, she pushes to standing, dizzy at first, then steady. She cannot bring her left leg closer – she has reached the limit of the chain. Painfully she extends her hand towards the patch of light on the wall, but stops short, eyes wide with shock. The faint light has strengthened into a warm glow; sunlight, not moonlight, it is morning. With a rush, years of warnings flood her mind:
“Don’t let the sun touch you…stay in during the day…cover your skin…stay away from windows, even when shuttered…”
But what choice is there? Better to chance fate as a sun-child than die here. Again, she stretches upwards, left leg straining against the ankle chain, right leg trembling with effort. Her every movement is agony, until her fingertips brush the sunlight’s edge…
The effect is immediate, warmth spreading from fingers, to arm, to chest. Her leg stops shaking, strength filling her. The warmth builds and her fingers straighten for the first time in weeks, joints and bones repairing without need for conscious thought. The healing spreads, realigning joints, soothing pain and knitting torn skin until she is standing, suffused in golden light.
She focuses on the chain around her ankle. Always before when working with metal under moonlight, she has shaped it slowly over hours. Now with the sun’s clarity she sees how the metal is formed from tiny particles that can be rearranged with ease. The chain pools onto the floor.
Freed, standing tall, she thrusts her arm into the light. Power pours through her, a river of energy. Her mind expands, seeing the basic matter that makes up all that surrounds her. She sees through walls and floors, searching for fellow prisoners without moving, finding only the empty shells of two village elders. Her rage, at her treatment and theirs, shakes the foundations of the keep. It would be the work of a moment to turn those foundations to sand and watch the keep collapse, people tumbling from their beds to be crushed by falling walls… Instead she moves through the walls.
She emerges bathed in the sunlight shining through the open windows of Lord Ashfield’s chamber. He lies deeply asleep, sprawled across a luxurious bed, but reacts with satisfying terror when awoken by her incandescent form. She could swat him like a fly, but that is not her people’s way.
“Lord Ashfield, listen carefully…”
A pointed conversation combined with a dramatic demonstration lay the groundwork for understanding and ultimately, for peace. Satisfied that hers was not the only mind broadened today, she leaves the keep behind.
Abilities growing exponentially, she becomes one with the wind, flowing fast over hills towards home. The fears and concerns of her past, which clustered thickly only hours before, melt away. Looking skywards she sees infinity and infinite possibilities and yearning fills her, to expand further, to explore. With difficulty she controls it, she has one more task to complete.
The village is waking to its morning routines as she reforms in her family’s kitchen. Her mother and sister sit close together, grandmother serving porridge. Joy overflows, so much to tell, so much to explain.
“I am here, I am safe! Lord Ashfield will never trouble you again,” she begins, as their faces transform from surprise to delight.
Hours later, they walk to her old house, windows shuttered against the light, doors tightly sealed. Sadness pierces her, reflected in her grandmother’s eyes.
“This was a prison Nona, just as the fortress was… just as my body is now.”
Understanding comes at last and with it, acceptance. Surrounded by the family she’s longed to return to, Tarianne tearfully embraces each one, knowing that she cannot stay, cannot be contained. Sensing the other sun-children waiting she rises to embrace the universe. Her family clustered far below watch, with awe and sadness, as she disappears.