Finally, the day has come and my new fantasy novel, Dreams and Shadows, is available for pre-order on Amazon. As the Look-Inside feature isn’t yet up and running I’ll be posting the first three chapters here over the next few days. Here is chapter one.
For those new to Dreams and Shadows, the description is:
What do you do when you are suddenly transported from twenty-first century England into a world of strange magic where everyone seems to be trying to kill you?
That’s the question that faces Michael – an orphan who had been abandoned with a young couple while a baby, and largely ignored after his “adoptive mother” died. When a powerful dream sets off a series of events that inexplicably draws him into the land of Aylosia, Michael finally believes he is arriving in a place where he will feel his mother’s love, but magical and political forces quickly seek his destruction.
Caught between truth and lie, Michael now faces a fight for survival in a beautiful land; and must struggle to learn of his own destiny if he is to save those he has grown to love.
And with that introduction, the story begins…
CHAPTER ONE: THE DREAM
What are dreams? Are they visions, messages, prophecies, or warnings? Are they the imparting of our unconscious wisdom, or tales of mere foolishness? Do dreams tell us of truths otherwise hidden, or are they lies sent to mislead us towards dangerous paths? Are they all of these things, or none of these things?
The answer to these questions lies in the wise heart of the woman who seeks to comprehend; who seeks to sift the meaningful from the distracting or harmful. Though she may not have certainty in the origins or purpose of her dreams, by seeking understanding she will nevertheless find they aid her in life’s journey.
From the Wisdom of Ashael
The pull in his chest was intense, drawing him towards his destiny. He had left his flat five minutes or so beforehand, knowing precisely what he needed to do – where he needed to go. Despite the torrential rain that almost blinded him, it didn’t even occur to him that he should go back to his flat for an umbrella, or even a raincoat. Only one thing was on his mind: one place, and he was determined to get there.
Within minutes, he had been soaked through – large drops of water falling from his ears and nose. His dark brown hair had been flattened against his head by the pounding rain, and his dark eyes blurred as the water droplets streamed from his eyebrows.
But the rain clouding his eyes didn’t matter. He didn’t need to see where he was going. He walked this way every day when he journeyed in to work at the library, and had done so for more than six months now. The Victorian redbrick buildings – old factories and offices – that he passed were familiar. He would often amble in to work, stopping to examine the buildings. He was fascinated by the intricate patterns placed around windows; the ornamentations that lined the roofs; able to see through a hundred and more years of dirt and grime that covered the buildings’ surfaces.
Architects didn’t bother with such things on their buildings in the modern world; they were designed with the expectation that they would be torn down in a few decades, when their function was considered no longer relevant. It would not be ‘cost-effective’ to erect such structures with the idea of permanence. Beauty was an irrelevance. But not with these Victorian edifices, born in an age when beauty was a necessary companion to function.
The day would come when a developer would spy these near-derelict buildings and transform them into expensive flats, making this part of town the trendy place to be. But that time had not yet arrived. Michael was glad, because when it did he would have to move, no longer able to afford to live here – not on the salary he earned at the library.
Such considerations weren’t on his mind today, however, as his purposeful march continued through the pouring rain. He ignored the buildings’ attempts to impede his progress as they spewed forth gallons of water from their drainpipes, feeding a series of streams running across the pavement. His trainers had filled with water, rubbing against his saturated socks that were now almost glued to his feet. But Michael didn’t notice. The only thing taking his attention was his knowledge that he needed to get there – the intense pull not permitting him to slow his pace.
The only time he glanced up was when he passed the Church of St Peter. The old Saxon stone building was blackened by centuries of soot. Although Michael hadn’t yet decided whether or not he believed in God, he would sometimes go inside and just sit in the pews. His short life hadn’t been a happy one, but in this place he felt he could sense countless generations of worship. It gave him a sort of peace, as if somehow the comfort that so many others had felt here could vicariously atone for the misfortunes of his own life.
As he walked by, he looked through his rain-soaked eyes at the window on the approaching corner of the building. The air around him brightened suddenly just before the first crack of thunder was heard. With the flash from the sheet lightning he could make out the image on the stained glass of the window – the baby Jesus on his mother’s lap; both mother and child seemingly staring directly into Michael’s eyes. For some reason, he didn’t think it strange that he could see the image so clearly from the building’s exterior, but it was as bright and defined for him through the sheets of water falling from the skies as it would have been had he been inside the old church and standing directly before it.
He looked away quickly and involuntary heightened his pace at seeing the image. Of all of the stained glass within the Church, this was the one that he thought most about – the one that didn’t give him peace. The Christians believed that Jesus suffered more than anyone else in the history of the world. But at least he had a mother who loved him.
Michael hadn’t known his mother. He had been given to a young couple when he was only one or two years old – or so the story went. He wasn’t even legally adopted, just given away; and no-one could tell him when his birthday was. Even now he didn’t know whether he was seventeen years old or nineteen.
As if that wasn’t enough, his ‘adopted’ mother had died in a car accident shortly thereafter. That had left only Rob to raise him, and Rob had been struck with grief for the next sixteen years. He had made sure Michael was fed and clothed, but there was little else he had done for him, absorbed in his own pity and despair.
Michael had always felt a pang of jealousy when seeing the other children at school whose mothers came to school plays, and to parent evenings. As he got older, he heard other youths complain about their parents and the rules they imposed in their households. Inside of him a knot of sadness and anger would well up, and though he never did, he wanted to shout: “At least you have a mother! At least you have someone who cares!”
Many children in Michael’s situation would have become street urchins, getting into mischief while young, and then more serious trouble as teenage years approached, but not Michael. He had never felt comfortable mixing with other people, and the absence of any kind of parental guidance or love had led him into his bedroom rather than to the streets, where from the time he could read his first words he had immersed himself in books. There he escaped the reality of his life, and became a knight, sailor, or adventurer; exploring beautiful and exciting lands.
Today as he walked, he tried to shake away the thoughts of Jesus’ mother and all that resulted from them, but the stained glass image stayed near the surface of his mind as he neared his destination.
The heavy rain had emptied the streets of pedestrians and vehicles, and so Michael didn’t need to look as he crossed the roads, finally arriving at the paved shopping precinct. His clothes now heavy with water, he continued for another hundred yards or so, past the closed shops that sold mobile phones, cheap clothing or other discount merchandise.
And then suddenly the urge that had inexorably pulled him here forced him to stop. Motionless, he looked down at his feet and saw that he had halted directly on top of the golden centre-point of a clock. Looking behind him, he noticed that he had walked across the number three of the clock-face, the twelve lying immediately to his right. It had been commissioned by the local Council the previous year, and was made up of a range of different coloured and shaped bricks and tiles placed into the pavement. It wasn’t a functional clock, of course, but it included a very clever optical illusion in that the clock minute hand appeared to point in different directions depending on where and at what angle a person was standing when looking at it – the hour hand always pointing to twelve. During the daytime, children would run around it, laughing at how the time on the clock appeared to change as they did so.
Standing in the middle as he now was, Michael looked at the hands of the clock and saw that they were showing twelve o’clock. Michael blinked when he thought he saw a small movement from one of the hands, knowing it wasn’t possible.
Yes, the minute hand was definitely now past the twelve.
With a mixture of curiosity and anxiety, Michael stared at the clock minute hand, and was startled when he saw it begin to move more quickly. It shouldn’t be able to do that, he thought; they only appeared to change position when your viewing angle of the clock changed – and Michael hadn’t moved. It shouldn’t be doing that! he thought again, as the hand passed the one.
The minute hand moved around the clock slowly at first, but continued to quicken, and Michael turned with it to watch until it had made a full circle, and was surprised again when the hour hand then moved also, the clock now marking one o’clock. Still the hands continued to move and Michael turned with it, the coloured tiles around him glistening through the constant stream of water that attacked them. Two o’clock… five o’clock… nine o’clock.
The minute hand began to slow its pace after eleven o’clock, and as Michael watched it pass the six, marking eleven-thirty, he began to hear a deep rumbling from the clouds above him. The rumble continued as the hand slowed further, now passing the nine. Underneath his soaking clothes he could feel the hairs on his arms stand on end; the goose bumps arise across his body’s surface – the expectation of a return to twelve o’clock unexpectedly heightening the tension in him. The growing electricity in the air surrounding him became palpable as the clock minute hand passed the eleven. An invisible bubble of something powerful was growing within the confines of the clock-face – Michael now paralysed in the centre of it. He watched with a growing anxiety, his skin feeling as if it would be sucked from the surface of his body, as the minute hand finally crept to its starting position at twelve, once again perfectly aligned with the hour hand.
The noise was deafening as the lightning struck, and it was a few seconds before Michael realised he had been thrown from his position and was now lying in a large puddle of water. The sound of the rain was gone, replaced by ringing in his ears. Light seemed to flash in his eyes – the aftereffects of the brilliant light from the bolt of some god’s wrath.
Michael lay back in the puddle, breathing heavily, and closed his eyes. He had never been so close to a lightning strike; never before felt its immense power, and he was overwhelmed at its focussed intensity.
After a short while, the ringing in his ears began to subside, and it was only then that he realised he still could no longer hear the rain, nor could he feel it falling on him. He opened his eyes to the heavens, and while the sky was still filled with dark clouds, the rain had stopped – as if the lightning bolt itself had given its orders, the subservient clouds instantly obeying.
As he sat up, he realised he had been thrown perhaps four or five feet towards the number six on the clock face and saw immediately that the bolt had hit precisely the twelve on the clock; the end of the minute hand had blackened: time pinned forever at mid-night… or noon.
Looking towards the blackened clock hand from where he sat, he noticed black gates in the distance – an entrance to a park and gardens. He didn’t remember the gardens being there, but then he had never stood in this spot and looked that way before. Although he had walked through this shopping precinct countless times on his way to the library, he had never paused to examine the surroundings. To Michael these shops represented people’s insatiable desire to follow the latest fashion and obtain the newest gadgets – to slavishly worship at the feet of the trendsetting gods of society.
He couldn’t understand why so many people fell into such mindless consumerism, but he constantly saw people doing precisely that, and it appalled him. And so he would hurry through this part of his morning and evening walk, head down and never glancing up the alleyways that led away from the shops. Now though he was staring at the open gates perhaps fifty yards away, and he immediately knew that the garden was his next destination, feeling the same pull that had already compelled him to walk through the pouring rain today.
He rose to his feet, the flashing now gone from his eyes, and began the next stage of his journey, towards the gates, passing the top of the ground clock now showing time frozen forever.
By the time he was a handful of paces away, he had forgotten completely the clock, his eyes now focussed on the gates. As he approached, he noticed a distinct chill creep into the air – the temperature appeared to be dropping – and he felt his body quiver for a brief second. He ignored it, however, as he came closer, noticing that the gates were ajar. The wrought iron columns were typical of gates into public gardens, but Michael noticed that these gates had a large decorative triangular shape along their inner edges, half of the design on either side of the gate’s edges so that when closed the shapes from both gates would overlap with each other. The lines on each side of the triangles were perhaps eighteen inches in length and were not straight, but rather curved back and forth. And instead of making a point at each place where one side of the triangle became the next, the line looped around on itself forming a kind of simple Celtic knot, before heading along the next side of the triangle.
Michael had passed through the gates and taken a few steps into the gardens when he heard the clang of the gates as they closed behind him. The sound startled him, and with a flash of fear he turned quickly, knowing instinctively that he was trapped in the garden. But his fear inexplicably departed, the patterns on the gates piquing his interest instead. He saw how the triangles had overlaid each other and now formed what he could only describe as a type of Woodland Star, with intertwining branches or vines where the lines of each triangle crossed each other. The Celtic knots in place of points now looked more like six evenly spaced flowers, each with three petals.
There was something in the shape that held Michael transfixed – apart they had simply been two unusual triangles, but joined together they had become something quite beautiful. The iron-wrought Woodland Star now seemed more real than the rest of the gates – more permanent and substantial, living even. Surely this is how it had been intended to be. Its prior parting now seemed a violence against nature itself. He couldn’t imagine it ever coming apart again, and for a reason he couldn’t understand he found a great comfort in that. Something this beautiful shouldn’t ever be divided, he thought. He was pleased that the gates had closed so that he could witness this.
As he turned to again face the gardens – the pull of… something… once more calling him – he noticed that a mist was descending. It reminded him that it was getting colder, the water that was soaked through his clothes now starting to chill him. The pebbled path beneath him was wide enough for perhaps three people walking side-by-side, and as he again began to walk the sound of the small stones under his feet seemed loud against the stillness of the air around him, almost echoing off the thickening mist. The trees that lined the path were just beginning to be obscured by the haze of the descending fog; the rich colours of their autumnal leaves that filled their branches dulled by filmy wisps in the air. The beds of flowers and shrubs that Michael had briefly noticed when he first entered the gardens were now completely hidden.
As he walked, Michael could feel the rub of his trainers against his wet socks start to blister his heels, but he continued without slowing. He needed to get there. This was important.
The path was perfectly straight and the fog continued to grow, and after a few minutes, he could only see perhaps twenty feet ahead. As he looked to his sides, he noticed that the trees along this part of the path had lost more than half of their leaves, as if his journey had been through time itself, each step bringing nature’s slumber closer. The air had grown colder still, and Michael was now lightly shivering as he walked.
He knew it wasn’t far now. Although he had never before seen these gardens or been on this path, an urgency was filling his chest, a tense expectation extending through his body. He was nearly there, he knew. As he looked to the sides of the path again, he saw the trees were nearly lost in the fog – only the ends of their now desolate branches visible, pointing like skeletal fingers directly towards him. It was as if they were accusing him of their barrenness. If he hadn’t come here, they silently shouted, they would still be in spring’s bloom. The fog would not have come and they would be basking in glory.
Michael’s shivering intensified, and the blisters on his heels now caused a sharp pain with every step. He tore his eyes from the trees and back to the path ahead, the urgency in his chest pulling him forward.
As soon as he looked ahead, he saw it, and it compelled him to a sudden stop. He knew instantly that this was what was calling him, but it wasn’t what he had expected. A dozen paces in front of him rose a sword. Its golden hilt was glistening through the mist, and the steel of the long blade was shining as if in perfect sunlight. Michael had visited museums and had seen real swords before, but they were old, dulled by time; many with pockets of rust. The one before him now was gleaming as it if had only just been forged and polished, issued to a king or general who would raise it in the air; its shiny surface visible to soldiers far and wide, calling them to battle.
Michael took tentative steps toward the sword, edging closer until it was within grasp. The top of the hilt was level with his stomach, and Michael wondered how far the blade was buried, and how long the sword was when fully drawn. It still called to him, but he felt no compulsion to try to draw it from the ground, or even to touch it. He needed to understand it, not hold it.
As he studied the hilt, he saw that the pommel was in the shape of two faces, one facing each arm of the guard. From where he stood, on the left was the face of a young woman, and on the right that of a much older woman, her wrinkled face moulded into the golden surface. As he slowly walked around the sword he could see that on the other side of the pommel the faces changed from female to male, although the contrast of young and old remained. He didn’t study the faces, though; his eyes drawn downwards. Below the pommel there were shoulders and then arms that wound around the grip, as if embracing the sword’s handle. Elbows turned at right angles to form the guard, the lower arms ending in open upturned palms.
Michael knelt in front of the sword to examine the blade. He was so engrossed in his inspection that he didn’t notice the silence broken by the deep rumblings from the clouds overhead. Oblivious to the growing anger above, he gazed at his reflection in the blade. It was only now that he saw his own image that he realised how cold his body was, as he saw his lips had turned blue, his long face – usually considered attractive – now looking gaunt with the signs of his chill.
The grumbling from the clouds above grew stronger. An electrical force started to build within the sword’s sphere and Michael’s skin again responded with goose-bumps. A vague awareness of his danger started to rise, when he saw it at the very top of the blade… the Woodland Star engraved into the bright steel. Confusion, excitement, and fear all coalesced in Michael’s chest and stomach, as the energy in the air surrounding him grew stronger. He was trying to understand why this symbol would be on both the entrance gates to the garden and on this sword – why it excited him – when something was again trying to pull the skin from his bones, the stretching sensation now turning to pain.
A jolt of awareness returned to him, suddenly remembering the clock, and the lightning bolt. A sudden rush of fear filled him with adrenaline. Closing his eyes, he turned and sprung just in time.
Michael felt himself flung through the air, his hard landing knocking the wind from him. The noise was beyond anything he could have imagined. There was no ringing in his ears this time, but the silence in the gardens was amplified. As he squirmed on the ground catching his breath, he realised he could not hear the movement of the pebbles underneath him. The sound of the lightning strike had this time deafened him. If he hadn’t closed his eyes and turned away in time, he would have been blinded, too.
When he was able to sit up, he looked back at the sword. It had gleamed before, somehow gathering and reflecting what little light there was through the fog, but now it glowed. Since heaven’s touch its light came from within – a soft white light warming the air around it.
Michael crawled closer and waited in its warmth until his breath had fully returned, but he couldn’t stay here. Whatever power had drawn him here, now released him; the purpose of his coming to the sword complete. But while up until now he had known exactly where to go, he had no such pull this time. As he looked around, he saw two pathways leading in opposite directions – both at right angles from the one on which he had come here. With no obvious way of choosing between them, but sensing that he needed to choose quickly, he picked the left path, and again began walking.
The warmth of the sword had removed much of the chill from his bones, but his heels were truly hurting with the growing blisters. After walking with the pain for a few minutes he decided he would stop and remove his shoes. My feet can’t get any colder, he thought. As he bent to untie his laces he realised that he was standing on soft grass, all signs of the path having vanished. The realisation hit him that the loss of his hearing had removed the sound of the crunching pebbles beneath his feet, silencing the one thing that had kept him from becoming lost in this vast expanse of white vapour. He tried to retrace his steps, but the fog was now so thick that he could barely see beyond his outstretched arm. After about twenty paces he gave up. In this mist, he would never find his way back to the path.
Not knowing what else to do, he decided to remove his shoes as planned, and then stood for a moment. Which way? he thought, glancing in each direction; searching for any clue that might help his decision.
As his eyes scoured the surrounding expanse of white, he caught the faintest hint of movement out of the corner of his right eye. He immediately turned to face it, but saw nothing but fog.
What was that?
This time the movement flashed by on his left. Something dark he was sure, but when he turned to face it, there was nothing there. His stomach started to churn, fear beginning to ferment within him.
Once more on his right. He started to turn around in circles – chasing his imagination – but he could discern nothing but fog. He called out. Did he? His ears were still muting all sound, and couldn’t tell whether his voice penetrated the heavy mist. Around and around he turned, eyes darting to and fro, dizziness threatening to overcome him.
He stopped and closed his eyes, silently praying for the mists to leave. But when he opened his eyes again, his fear turned to panic as a hand slowly extended through the fog towards him. Reeling in terror he scrambled backwards, almost toppling over; the hand again disappearing into the fog as he retreated.
He stopped after a few paces, daring to catch his breath. After a few seconds his panic eased and he wondered whether the hand had been offering salvation from the mists. Forcing his feet into movement, he dared to step forward again. As he regained his ground, he saw that the hand was still there: a right hand, palm turned slightly upwards, an invitation to take it. Though its owner couldn’t be seen through the heavy mist, it was clearly a woman’s hand. With soft, gentle skin, and fingernails painted deep red, Michael thought that the woman must be young.
He could feel the call – an invitation of safety and companionship – and he reached out, placing his fingers over those of the unknown woman’s.
A part of him instantly wished he hadn’t. There was a coldness to the touch that went beyond temperature, a clamminess that intuitively suggested deceit. But her hold was quickly strong, and Michael felt himself pulled after her.
No, not that way. The words came directly to his mind. He instantly planted his feet in the ground to prevent further travel.
Release yourself from her. You must not go that way. The urgent voice in his mind was also that of a woman, but Michael felt love in it – a love he had longed for his whole life.
Mother? he silently called back.
He thought he could almost feel a gentle smile from the voice’s owner. You must try to release yourself. Please.
The hand holding his strengthened its grip, its pull unrelenting; but the emotion that had entered him from the voice in his head grew powerful. After a brief relaxation of his arm’s muscles he pulled suddenly and with all his strength. With a jolt, his hand was freed, and he fell backwards to the ground with his momentum.
Michael expected the hand to chase him, but nothing appeared through the fog. As quickly as he could, he stood and ran, stopping after a couple of minutes, when he realised that it would be pointless when he couldn’t see where he was going. The fear filled his body. An instinctive sense that there were invisible hands seeking him through the fog made him want to crawl into a tight ball on the ground, as if the act of making himself smaller would hide him from the menace.
The voice in his head had not returned, but perhaps it would respond to him. I released myself, he silently called to the woman. Where should I go?
He worried that he wouldn’t get a reply, but the voice soon enquired, Where do you want to go?
Michael felt a degree of calm return to his body at the silent reply, but his response was desperately instant. I want to find you. Are you my mother? More than anything he wanted the voice to answer ‘Yes’; his years of feeling abandoned – unwanted – to be over.
Follow your heart, came the reply, and you will find me when you need to.
Are you my mother? he cried again.
He waited, but there was no response this time. Are you my mother?! There was still nothing. Tears began to fall from his eyes, Please tell me. Are you my mother? I want to find my mother? Please… Please.
Michael fell again to the earth, curling himself into the foetal position, sobbing. He was sure that the voice had been his mother’s, but it had left. Abandoned. Again.
He no longer cared if a bodiless hand took him. Let them destroy me if they want to, he thought, wishing extinction to the hopelessness now filling his soul.
He didn’t know how long he stayed like that; the fog stayed thick around him making passage of time impossible to determine. When he eventually opened his eyes, he could see a row of hands reaching through the fog. He should have been frightened, but strangely wasn’t. Somehow he knew the fingers that now reached for him were unrelated to those which had tried to ensnare him. The previous hand had been… alluring; enticing him forward. In contrast, these sought no response from him. They appeared before him as if offering a gift.
Slowly standing up, he realised that the hands surrounded him in a ring. Some were clearly human hands belonging to men and women, but others he couldn’t identify: small, thin and bony, snow white – or charcoal black – with sharp pointy talons for nails. All of the hands had their palms facing upwards. Just like the guard on the sword, Michael realised.
His deafness meant that he couldn’t hear the growing rumbling of the thunder above him, but he could feel his skin grow goose bumps. Looking upwards, he saw that the fog directly above him had disbursed. In its place, separating him from the expanse of space, he saw swirling dark clouds. His skin began to pull taut, and stretch, as he saw the clouds appear to dance with each other.
They’re not just swirling, Michael realised, they’re forming a pattern.
He watched with fascination as the clouds stretched into lines, while others formed around the edges, and the pain on the skin of Michael’s body increased. He fell to his knees with the pain, far greater than he had felt previously, not noticing the tiny specks of blood that began to seep through his skin, his life force being sucked through his body’s pores.
But the image in the sky was calling his soul. The pain, though great, was incidental.
What is happening to the clouds? he thought, as the pattern continued to form.
He was becoming dizzy from the pain, and knew he would soon pass out, but fought to maintain his focus; the excitement in his chest providing him with the energy he needed. Michael was transfixed as the clouds finally organised themselves into their design, and astonished beyond measure as he finally saw in the skies the image of the Woodland Star. Myriad questions entered his thoughts, as a spark began to grow from the centre of the clouds, and Michael knew what was going to happen next.
He forced himself back to his feet, but realised that other than that he wouldn’t be able to move. This time it would strike him directly and he would die, but strangely the thought didn’t cause him alarm. He somehow knew that this was why he had left his flat. The clock in the shopping precinct and the sword were only precursors – foreshadows. This moment was why he was here, and that thought gave him peace.
He closed his eyes while his face remained skyward, awaiting his destiny, when the woman’s voice again entered his thoughts.
Trust yourself, Ami.
He was overwhelmed with a sense of love, and tears again touched his cheeks. He spread his arms wide, his palms facing his celestial executioner.
For Chapter 2, click here.
© Copyright 2015, Jeffrey Collyer