This is an excerpt from my NaNoWriMo project, Child of Fire. I’m posting it in its raw, unedited state. Because I’m brave like that.
The sky was a strange greenish grey as Tamara skittered down the pathway and glanced furtively behind her. She could just see the tops of the massive cranes from between the fronds of the palm trees that ringed the clearing. Tamara knew her mother-in-law would be looking for her, but she had to get away. There would be plenty of time to count hay bales later. What she needed to do wouldn’t wait.
A dragonfly whipped past her face and she jerked back, nearly tripping over the decorative vines that edged the path. The dragonfly hovered in front of her for a few minutes, wondering if she were there to play. She must have looked frantic, because it sighed and flew away. Tamara brushed herself off, shot one last look towards the clearing, then began to run.
A few minutes later, she had reached the outer edge of the temple courtyard. She ducked behind a bush to catch her breath. She drew the air into her lungs and nearly choked. Normally the air was light and sweet, but today it was oddly heavy. The weight of the firmament seemed to be pressing down on her chest. She felt a band of tightness grip her lungs as they fought for breath that never seemed to come. Her arms seemed to be made of stone and her vision began to blur at the edges. “Calm down,” she told herself. “Calm down. It’s just air. It’s the same air. Just breathe.”
All at once, the air reached her lungs and the blackness receded. Tamara realized she was lying on the ground. She took a deep breath. Then another. She filled her nostrils with the smell of the fertile loam. Finally, she pushed herself to her feet and began to brush the dirt from her face. She had no idea how long she had lain there, how many precious moments she had wasted. Gathering her tunic about her, she stepped from behind the bush and approached the temple.
Her footsteps on the flagstones echoed strangely in the dense air. Normally, the slap-slap-slap of her sandals on the stones of the courtyard was a comforting sound, but everything was foreign and unwieldy today. She quickened her pace.
As she approached the stone wall of the massive temple, a small portion slid silently aside to allow her to enter. No matter how many times Tamara had entered the temple, she always expected it to be dim and dank. Instead, a soft cool light filled the interior. A thousand tiny pinpricks at the apex of the temple collected the light, which was then guided and filtered from mirror to glass until it finally reached the ground floor. Tamara waited for the wave of peace that always washed over her when she entered this sanctuary. …Nothing. Just a sense of nagging dread. Sighing, she crossed the nadir and made her way to the hidden staircase at the back.
As she descended the staircase to the subterranean level, the light increased until she entered a room even brighter than the nave. The same mirrors and filters brought the daylight into this room, but somehow it was intensified. Tamara looked up for the thousandth time to see if she could spot additional light sources than the ones she knew existed at the pinnacle of the temple.
“Light is quite a paradox, isn’t it?” spoke a deep voice to her left. “We use it to cut stone, but also to soothe souls. It’s powerful and harmless. It is the source of our existence, but I have a feeling it will one day be the instrument for our extermination.”
Tamara spun to see a tall man hunched over a table strewn with charts, scrolls, and books. “Mahala! You startled me.”
He raised an eyebrow, “Everyone is jumpy today. It’s been a strange day. The air is off, and there was no mist this morning.”
“I-I know. I noticed. It’s…strange. Everything is strange.”
He looked at her a long time. Finally, he said, “What can I do for you Tamara?”
Tamara suddenly felt very foolish and awkward. She had been driven to the temple by a single thought, but now that the moment had arrived, she felt very unsure of herself.
“I just…wanted to see how the Bibliotheca was coming.” Her words sounded false even to her.
Mahala stood and stretched his back. “It would be coming along a lot quicker if you would come back.” He looked at her sternly. “This is important work we’re doing, Tamara. How much longer are you going to be distracted by this silliness?” He waved his hand in the general direction of the clearing Tamara had escaped from.
“I-I don’t know,” she faltered.
“Well, you better figure it out. It’s an embarrassment. It’s an embarrassment to you, and to this temple to have one of their best sages involved in this…project.”
“I know. I know. But, I– I mean, Japheth says…”
Mahala sighed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you. You can’t help the crazy stuff your family believes.”
Tamara gave a wavering smile. “So…crazy air today, huh?”
Mahala chuckled. “Yeah, you could say that. Not sure what’s up with that. I’ve had Lamech ground all the flyers, just in case.”
“That will make Jabal happy. I know he’s been itching to get them on the ground long enough to do some serious maintenance. And I think he has a new light field he’s been wanting to try out.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it,” Mahala said. “So…did you come down here to chat about the air…?” He looked at her expectantly.
“Oh. No,” the moment was here, but now Tamara couldn’t bring herself to ask about the one thing that had been occupying her thoughts for the last several days. “No, I came to get some things. I think we’re almost finished with the…project, and I thought I would get some of my references to work on. In my down time.”
“Good to hear,” Mahala said. “I was serious, Tamara. We need you back.” He locked his eyes on hers. “I need you back.”
His gaze burned into her, and the air suddenly had a heaviness that had nothing to do with lack of morning mist or the strange color of the sky. Tamara returned his stare for a moment. Then she thought of why she had come to the temple and dropped her eyes. A hint of pink tinted her cheeks.
“I should be getting back,” she muttered. “Adah will be looking for me.”
Mahala looked at her with a curious expression, and Tamara was suddenly afraid that he could read her mind. But he just shrugged and said, “I’ll walk you back. I need to stretch my legs anyway. Just wait a minute while I check with Lamech.”
“You go ahead,” Tamara said. “I’ll get what I need and catch up with you in the courtyard.”
She watched him ascend the stone staircase, then headed to the table adjacent to Mahala’s. She straightened some parchments, and picked up a stylus. Then, casting a furtive look over her shoulder, she reached across to pick up the book lying open on Mahala’s table. This is what she had come for: the Book of Knowledge. Mahala’s Bibliotheca.
Reverently, she caressed the pages. Though she knew the book contained millions of pages representing centuries of study, it weighed almost nothing. She smiled to herself. One of Mahala’s greatest achievements was developing the heliothite that made it possible to condense an entire library of information into one book.
The Bibliotheca was not open to a blank page, but an old passage. One she knew Mahala had completed a century before. It was discussing the properties of light. Tamara looked at the books and scrolls open on the table. More research on light. Strange that Mahala would be studying a topic he had already exhausted. She shrugged. One more strange thing on a strange day.
Tamara started to close the book, then paused. She opened the front cover, and slid her thumb over the small plate embedded in the binding. The book gave a slight hum as she closed it, and an ornate clasp clicked into place. Tamara tucked the book inside her tunic and scrambled up the stairs to meet Mahala in the courtyard.
He was waiting for her. “Get what you need?” he asked.
She held up the sheaf of parchments. “Yeah. I thought I would work on the genealogies a bit.”
He grimaced. “Well, if that interests you…”
Tamara laughed. “I think it’s important to know where we came from. Otherwise, how would we know where we are going?”
They had reached the edge of the courtyard and were traipsing up the pathway when Tamara noticed the stillness.
“It’s so quiet,” she said. “I haven’t heard a single bird or creeping thing.”
“I know,” Mahala said. “I was noticing that before you got here. It’s very still. As if all the world is holding its breath.”
Tamara felt a chill run through her in spite of the balmy warmth of the air, and again the nagging sense of dread seemed to tug at her. She felt a sudden urge to reach the clearing, and quickened her pace. Mahala’s long strides matched hers, and neither of them said a word as they marched on.
When the giant cranes came into view, they stopped together as if by signal, just out of sight of the occupants of the clearing. Tamara touched the book inside her tunic and stole a glance at the man beside her. Mahala was the smartest man she knew. He was the most powerful man in their city, and she knew that if he wanted to be, he could easily be the most powerful man in the world. But his lust wasn’t for power, but knowledge. Tamara knew he had made the acquisition and compilation of knowledge his life’s work. The Book of Knowledge was the record of all that had been passed down from the forebears. It was nearly complete. Or at least, as complete as it could be in an ever changing world.
Mahala led a small team that researched and compiled the information, but only he could record it in the Bibliotheca. Only he knew how. Before today, Tamara had touched the Book only once. In fact, she was a little surprised Mahala had left it out. Unless–she turned to face him. He was regarding her with a knowing look.
“Well, Tamara, this is where we part. I would walk you to the door, but I don’t think Japheth would appreciate it.”
“Mahala…” she began again. He waited expectantly. “If…if anything should happen–”
“Nothing’s going to ‘happen,'” he said. “Your father-in-law is crazy. Everyone knows that. They’re taking wagers in the market of how long he’ll stay cooped up in that thing before he comes crawling back out to the daylight.” He paused to scrutinize the clearing. “Personally, I’m thinking a week. Maybe two.”
“But if anything does happen–” she broke off. She couldn’t say what had been left unsaid for so many years. She couldn’t put anything so…final…into words.
He looked at her, his expression unreadable. “I know,” he said. Then he turned and walked away.
Tamara nearly ran after him, but again the sense of urgency, of dull panic, rose up inside her, pulling her towards the clearing.
“Where have you been?!” Adah exclaimed.
Tamara felt a sudden surge of guilt at her mother-in-law’s worry. “I’m sorry. I just–I needed some time.” She wondered how long she had been gone.
Adah made a dismissive gesture. “Get inside,” she said. “Japheth has been looking for you everywhere.”
Tamara hunched her shoulders and scurried up the gangplank. Adah followed hurriedly inside. Moments later, the massive door lifted of its own accord and slid into place with a deep hollow thud, plunging the women into darkness that was almost as crushing as the outside air had been. Tamara ran her hand along the walls until she found the ladder that led to the upper decks. Pulling herself up the rungs, she willed herself to breathe. The air inside already smelled like a barnyard, and she knew it would only get worse.
There was a window on the top deck, and Tamara climbed blindly until she could see its weak light pushing against the darkness. She thought again about what Mahala had said about light soothing souls. She was certainly straining toward this light as if it were her only salvation.
Finally she reached the window and flung it open as far as it would go. She leaned out and breathed deeply of the dense air. It no longer choked her. Filling her lungs, she looked out over the tops of the palm trees and could just make out the upper platforms of the temple in the distance. She wondered if her father-in-law were right, or if she would ever see Mahala again. She wondered what she would say to him if she did.
For a long time she stood there breathing and thinking. The sun was sinking behind the temple when she finally left the window in search of her husband. There was surely work to be done, and he would need her help.
As she turned, the Book of Knowledge dug into her side from it’s hidden pocket inside her tunic. She pulled it out and caressed its soft binding. She would need to find some place safe to keep it until she could give it back to Mahala. For now, she tucked it again inside her tunic and returned to the ladder to descend into the bowels of the vessel. With each step, the book banged against her side, at first softly, but gradually increasing in intensity until it felt to Tamara that all the knowledge of a thousand years was pushing against her soul.
“I will return this to Mahala,” she told herself. “In a week. Maybe two.”
That night the rains began.