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Read the first chapter of Song of the Sword

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Song of the Sword

By Edward Willett

Chapter 1: A Walk in the Mist

On the morning after she’d been suspended from her new school for fighting, Ariane woke, gasping, from a dream.

It wasn’t her first dream of water and swords and knights in armor. But it was the most violent. She stared up into the darkness, for a moment not even sure where she was. She’d slept in a lot of different rooms since her mother had vanished and she’d been placed in foster care. In the dark, they all looked the same.

But then she remembered. She wasn’t in foster care any more. She was living with her Aunt Phyllis, just a few blocks from the house where she used to live with her mother. And unless she got up and got moving, she’d have to tell Aunt Phyllis about her suspension—and she didn’t want to do that. Let the school break the news to her. Ariane could explain to her later what had really happened…if she’d listen.

She’d set the alarm for 6:30, an hour earlier than usual, but when she glanced at the glowing green numbers, she saw she’d woken up ten minutes before it would go off. The dream that had seemed so vividly real seconds before was already fading, only one image remaining: sun glinting off the blade of an upraised sword.

Over and over, night after night for days now, that same image. Was it from a movie? Not that she could remember. And in real life, she had never even seen a sword. So why did she keep dreaming about one?

She sighed and killed the alarm, then rolled out of bed, rubbed her eyes, got up and half-stumbled to the bathroom, where she set the water running while she got out of her pajamas. She slipped under the spray of hot water, and—

Ariane stood upright in a turquoise lake, the water beneath her supporting her as surely as stone. Though her head was below the surface, she felt no need to breathe. Though the filmy gown she wore billowed around her, it didn’t drag her down.

At arm’s length over her head she held a sword, the blade in the open air, her hand gripping the hilt just above the surface. Icy rivulets ran down the blade and over her fingers and wrist.

She heard a creak and splash, the sounds distorted by the water: a boat, moving toward her, a lone man pulling at the oars. The rippled surface distorted his face and figure. He stopped rowing. The boat slid closer. He leaned over the gunwale, reaching for the sword. His fingers brushed hers as he took the hilt from her, and at his touch—

Ariane returned to the shower, and to the hot water cascading from her shoulders, down her back and legs, so different from the cold water of the lake. Shuddering, she twisted the tap closed, then stood dripping, breathing hard.

It was another dream. It had to be. But she wasn’t asleep. She was awake, soaking wet in the shower, staring at the water falling from her hair onto the chrome spout of the bathtub. So it hadn’t been a dream. It had been…what did you call a dream you had while you were awake?

I’m hallucinating, she thought, her heart pounding in her chest. Seeing things. People who see things are crazy. Does this mean I’m going crazy?

Like Mom?

No. It was just…

She didn’t know what it “just” was. But she knew she didn’t want it to happen again.

She couldn’t bring herself to resume her shower. She dried in a hurry, dressed, pulled on her old leather motorcycle jacket, and headed downstairs. Scary visions or not, she still wanted to be out of the house before Aunt Phyllis woke up.

The hinges on the front door shrieked when she tugged it open. Ariane held her breath and waited to see if the noise had woken her aunt, but she didn’t hear anything.

She relaxed, then jumped as something small and black darted through the door and over her feet. “Pendragon!” she said, much louder than she’d intended.

“Mrrrow?” The black cat with the ridiculous name wound around her ankles, then trotted toward the kitchen and looked back expectantly. “Mrrree?”

“You’ll just have to wait until Aunt Phyllis is up!” Ariane whispered. Which she’ll be any minute if I don’t get out of here!

Was that the creak of an upstairs floorboard? Ariane darted into the entryway, pulling the inside door shut behind her. The outside door was unlatched and ajar, which was how Pendragon had managed to get into the front porch and give her an early-morning heart attack. She went out, then turned and gave the door a good hard shove. It closed with a thump, and Ariane heard Aunt Phyllis calling a query. She turned and fled into the pre-dawn twilight, running until she was safely down the street and out of sight of her aunt’s bedroom window.

Slowing to a walk, she continued north to College Avenue, then turned west. Crossing Winnipeg Street, she passed St. Dunstan High School to her left—and then, right next door to it, her own new school, Oscana Collegiate. Blood rushed to her cheeks at the memory of the previous day’s humiliation.

They’d been waiting for her by her locker. Four girls, older: seniors. She’d known who they were, of course, even after only a week in the school. Shania McHenry. Felicia Knight. And their two hangers-on—nobody ever seemed to bother to remember their names. They were popular. They were ruthless. And they knew exactly how to keep their petty tyranny hidden from the adults who supposedly enforced the rules.

Even if she hadn’t known this particular gang, she would have expected to find one like it at Oscana, because there was one like it—sometimes more than one—in every school. And they always seemed to single out Ariane for special attention. They picked on the weak and the vulnerable. A newly arrived foster brat was their natural prey.

It had started the way it always started.  Shania—the pack leader—had blocked her way, sneering. “You’re Ariane Forsythe. The new girl.” She managed to make it sound like an insult.

But Ariane had been through it all before, and she knew the best defense was offense: catch them off guard, give it right back to them. It was just words, and she was always better at words than they were. She raised her eyebrows in mock surprise. “Amazing,” she said. “I would’ve expected you to be too hung over to hear them introduce me over the P.A.”

But then it went beyond words. They knocked her books out of her hands, and Felicia, number two in the pecking order, stepped on her pencil case and smashed it.

Even then, Ariane held her temper in check. They don’t win if you don’t react, she told herself. Stay calm. But then…

Shania slammed Ariane’s locker shut, the door just missing Ariane’s ear.  “I heard about you, Airy-Anne,” she said in a sing-song voice. “Most kids go into foster homes because their parents can’t take care of them. But not you. Your dad ran out on you before you were born. Then your mom ran out on you. I hear she went crazy first. You must have done something pretty bad to—”

Ariane lunged, driving Shania across the corridor so hard her head slammed into the lockers on the far side. A moment later they were rolling on the floor, Ariane fighting in cold silence, Shania screaming obscenities. The others got over their shock and joined in, but then the vice principal, Mr. Stanton, broke it up. He let the pack go (“Ariane just hit Shania,” one of the hangers-on explained, in a voice like an angel, “for no reason at all!”) and marched Ariane into the office.

And that had been that. Ariane had been suspended for three days for fighting. Since yesterday had been Thursday, that meant she couldn’t go back to school until Wednesday. After that, she’d have supervised detention for a week, one hour after school, in the library, every day. She’d been given a letter that both she and her aunt had to sign before she could return to class. And Mr. Stanton had made it clear he would be phoning her aunt this morning.

Which, of course, was why Ariane was already out of the house, before the sun was even quite up.

She tore her eyes away from the school and refused to look at it again as she strode resolutely down College Avenue. Yeah, that’ll teach it, she mocked herself. It’s just a building, silly. It’s not the cursed castle of some malevolent wizard.

And the trees lining the sidewalk were just trees, but when she glanced up, their interlocking branches made her think of skeletal hands joining bony fingers.

Too much imagination. How often had she heard that? “You spend too much time in your head, Ariane,” Aunt Phyllis would say. “All those books you read, and those weird movies and TV shows. You need to spend more time dealing with the real world. Then maybe you’d do better in school.”

Ariane had never believed her. She’d thought the fantasy and science fiction and historical novels and movies and TV shows she devoured were the only things that had kept her sane since her mother had disappeared, while she’d moved from foster home to foster home and from school to school until her Aunt Phyllis had at last recovered enough from her long battle with cancer to rescue her from the system. But after the disturbing vision she’d had in the shower, Ariane wondered if, instead of keeping her sane, those things were doing just the opposite. Maybe Aunt Phyllis is right. Maybe my imagination is starting to leak into the real world. Why else would I hallucinate holding up a sword out of a lake?

She crossed Broad Street. Old university buildings made of red brick and Tyndall stone loomed in the mist ahead of her like gothic castles, complete with battlemented towers. There you go again! That building’s a movie soundstage now. There’s nothing mysterious about it.

She walked south past the old buildings toward the park surrounding Wascana Lake. The mist thickened as she approached the water, but she didn’t mind the cold and damp. In fact, she liked it. She crossed the road that wound through the park and walked down a long, narrow parking lot. At the far end, a few large boulders had been placed on the lakeshore. Beyond them, the pewter-colored water faded away after only a few metres into a thick blanket of fog just beginning to turn golden as the sun at last climbed above the horizon. She paused to savor the sight. She could be anywhere, in any time. Anywhere rather than Regina, she thought. A fierce longing to escape the misery her life had been for the past two and a half years welled up in her so strongly it threatened to choke her. Any time other than now.

Alas, she knew better. In reality, the lake held nothing but a few small islands. The largest, Willow Island, no more than thirty or forty metres from where she stood, was a popular picnic spot.

She continued to the water’s edge, sat down on one of the boulders, and pulled her knees to her chest. Resting her chin on them, she stared into the fog. She loved Aunt Phyllis…or at least she knew she was supposed to. And she knew the only reason it had taken her aunt so long to take her in was because of her health problems. She shouldn’t resent her for that.

But she did. Her aunt had been in hospital when Ariane’s mother, Phyllis’s little sister, had disappeared. Ariane had had to deal with all of that herself…

Her breath caught in her throat. The vision that leaped unbidden to her mind this time wasn’t a hallucination. She wished it were.

She’d been barely thirteen. Her mother, who had only recently begun letting her stay home alone, had said she was going for a walk around the lake and would be back within an hour.

But she wasn’t. She wasn’t back after two hours, and then three, and then four. Ariane had sat in the living room, in the big armchair by the phone, waiting for it to ring, for her mother to call, or the police, or the hospital—someone to tell her what was going on, what to do. In the end she’d fallen asleep.

At 2 a.m. she’d woken up, but not because the phone had rung. Someone was on the front porch, fumbling with the lock. And then there’d been a kind of moan, and a thud. Terrified, she’d crept into the living room and peered out through the curtains—only to see her mother crumpled on the steps. Ariane had run into the entryway, fumbled open the door, dashed outside in her stocking feet.

Mom’s eyes had been open, but not focused. She’d been soaked to the skin, and shivering—it had been mid-spring, and still dipping below freezing most nights, though the snow had gone. It looked as if she’d hit her head when she’d fallen: there was blood everywhere. Ariane had run back inside and called 911. The ambulance had come, and the police, and there had been questions, and…

…and just like that, her life had fallen apart. Her mom wasn’t making sense, they told her. She kept saying she’d met someone, a strange woman who had pulled her into the lake, but she wouldn’t say how or why.

The worst of it was that she wouldn’t even talk to Ariane. She’d close her eyes whenever Ariane came into the room, yell that she didn’t know her, tell the nurse to take her away. She swore Ariane wasn’t her daughter, that she didn’t have a daughter.

A psychotic break, the doctors said. Had there been any warning signs? Had her mother used drugs? So many questions. A neighbour had taken Ariane in. Her mom was going to be kept in the psychiatric ward for a while. And then…

…then had come the phone call at the neighbour’s house. Her mom had vanished. Escaped from the hospital. No sign of her.

And there had been no sign of her ever since.

Ariane squeezed her arms more tightly around her legs. Ever since then, she’d been trying to hold herself together, trying to keep Ariane, the old Ariane, intact. It had never been easy. And now…the hallucination in the shower…

Am I losing touch with reality too? Did I inherit something—some mental illness—from Mom?

And in that moment of self-doubt, Ariane heard the sound of chanting, coming from the lake.

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