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Authors: Jillian Kuhlmann

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The Hidden Icon

BOOK: The Hidden Icon
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The Hidden Icon

 

 

 

The Hidden Icon

 

by

Jillian Kuhlmann

 

This book is available in print at Amazon.com.

 

Digital Edition, License Notes

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this ebook with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events portrayed in this book are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any character resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

The Hidden Icon

The Book of Icons #1

 

Copyright © 2013 by Jillian Kuhlmann

 

Published by Fable Press

FablePress.com

 

Cover by Steven Novak

 

 

 

For Kelsi.

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

When I was nervous, I cycled through the seven histories of Shran in my head. And when I was very, very nervous, they tripped their way off of my tongue like tumbled stones, growing brighter with every telling.

My favorite is the story of Shran’s youngest son, Salarahan, who was interred alive without his heart. The organ was held instead for many blood-won years by brother after brother as a powerful totem. Salarahan rose from his living grave after his brothers had slain each other and all but destroyed their father’s kingdom, reclaiming his heart and the hearts of his people.

As Salarahan did, I preferred the keeping of stories and animals and children reared not to fight but to tend to children and animals and stories after them. It was in my blood, his gentleness, though my brother and sisters were more like bulls than the tiny, cautious bird I was named after, Eiren. It fled my mother’s lips no sooner than she’d kissed my birth-slicked head, her last daughter, and the last in a long diluted line beginning with that gentle prince.

But even as I opened my mouth to begin his story, a look from my mother silenced me, her dark eyes full of meaning. They were outside the bolted door listening, our captors. And they were no more worthy of a tale from me than they were the kingdom they had snatched from us.

It was not the work of war time to prefer words to action, but I was no warrior, for all we’d been at war most of my life. My father liked to say that the conflict began when my finger nails needed their first clippings, and after fifteen bloody years, I had bitten mine to the quick as we waited to surrender, prisoners in the palace that had once been our home. Ours was a story I didn’t want to tell, but even as I sweated and shook with worry over our fate, already the details of the narrative collected in my mind. I looked at my mother, her heart breaking over and over again on her face and bleeding deep in the lines newly etched there, at my father and brother, my sisters, and knew they were no more ready to hear it than I was to tell it. But some stories are like hearts falling heavily into love: they cannot be stopped once they have been started.

Bolted or not, I felt sure the reliquary door would buckle in the oppressive humidity of sorrow. We were all hot and nervous and trying to hide it, my mother and father from each other, my brother from my sisters, my sisters from each other. Nobody bothered trying to hide anything from me. I stirred a thick layer of sand with my bare feet, evidence of the years of neglect since we had been forced to abandon our capitol for the deep deserts.

“It hardly feels like home.”

My middle sister’s voice was as plain as her face. Her paints and perfumed oils were with everything else we had been forced to abandon when we were captured, her gilded bracelets exchanged for bangles of red flesh, rubbed and raw. It had been a long ride.

“That’s because we kept our beasts out of doors, where they belonged.”

My brother, Jurnus, glowered at the closed door. He wrinkled his nose as though he could smell the men, the livestock stink that clung to their skin and too-thick beards, some of them with hands furry as mitts on the spears they bore. My brother’s swords had been taken, too, for all the steel had never tasted blood, cast into the sand like discarded toys. A drift had kicked up and over them within minutes, burying them along with his hopes of someday wielding them. Lashed already to horses, our skin crisping after so many months in hiding underground, his had not been the only dreams to die.

No one answered Jurnus’ insult. My father’s gaze was inscrutable, but it was my mother’s attention I sought again, following her sable eyes as they swept over her children and into the corners of the empty reliquary. Where green and yellow glass had hung in the stone worked windows there was nothing now but the relentless indifference of the sun that passed over and over, day after day, thoughtless, as one would look upon a room too often frequented. We had taken this place for granted. There were shadows in the room the light could not touch, and in them I saw the ghosts of the treasures we had once kept here, treasured memories of my girlhood. What I remembered about being a child in the palace was a latticework of shadow and light, my bare feet padding from study desk to prayer bench, practice room to bed and over again. It had been a pleasant life, for a little while.

But my mother’s expression haunted me more than my memories. I studied the vault of bones beneath her skin, like mine the color of the honeyed beer she and my father enjoyed, the taste of which had always paled considerably when compared to the thrill of pilfering some from their reserve. Like my face, hers too bore the ugly stain of resignation. Our captors might not have had the power to change our eyes and lips, but they had all the rest and gave us both the expressions of helplessness that we wore.

“Do you remember the story of the world’s edge?”

My mother’s voice broke my gloomy reverie. I looked at her, into eyes pitted with weariness. Hardship made many women lean and ugly but my mother had been made more beautiful, thin with struggle but shining with a will to best it.

“I remember that sacrificial maidens were thrown into its boiling abyss,” I answered roughly, which wasn’t, I knew, the answer she was looking for. This was the oldest of games that I had played with my mother, trading bits of story back and forth between us. She’d told me many times how she had whispered stories to me when I had been in her womb, how I had beat back my answers against her belly and breast. This game had always cheered me, but not now. I didn’t want to be drawn out of my sadness. What was the point?

She wasn’t giving up.

“But if they had opened their arms and eyes they would not have sunk, but flown to another world.” My mother held my gaze, and I couldn’t have looked away even if I’d wanted to. She often knew just the right story to tell, but I wasn’t willing to listen.

“You want me to open my arms to
them
?” I bristled, waving at the door. “They’re more likely to cut them off than return the gesture.”

“We can’t know what they intend to do now,” she insisted. If my mother had addressed any of my other siblings I might’ve believed her. But me?

“I can.”

If the reliquary was full to bursting with our regret, a greater force of bald aggression waited just outside. It was as tangible to me as the sand in my teeth, the press of stone against my skin where my skirts had torn.

“Eiren,” my father began, a cautionary note in his voice, but Jurnus raised his own in my defense.

“This isn’t the time for stories. It isn’t over yet; there must still be some who are loyal to us in the city, or - ”

“There’s no one left I’ll allow to give their lives for us.”

There was nothing gentle in my father’s voice now. We had lost countless thousands in the years we had been at war, the bravest among them at our last stand in the desert. My eyes slid from my father’s face to the stains on his pale tunic: soil, sweat, the rust-dark smudges of blood. The contingent of the guard who had been with us in exile had served him the whole of his life. I did not need to look at his face again to know that it was as hard for him to have lost these friends as it was the entirety of our kingdom. My temper cooled, but my dark thoughts could not be curbed. Were we waiting here to die, or worse?

My mother bowed her head in prayer. There were no benches here, no idols, but hers was a faith that did not demand such things. My sisters joined her, whispering, clutching at tangles in their hair. I made no utterances myself, listening only to my mother’s fevered words when her low voice joined theirs. The meaning was unimportant to me. I was interested most in their steadiness, the current that ran beneath my mother’s tongue as she spoke, the moisture pearling on her lips. Sweat and spittle were her offerings, her devotion a shore against which I could anchor myself. It had always been this way, but how much longer would we be allowed to worship as we wished, to grieve together? I thought of the dogs Jurnus had kept when we were children, how he had to foster the pups apart once they’d weaned from the bitch, how the sire had wandered once he’d bred. We would not remain a pack. It didn’t matter what father said. If we were together, we were a heart around which the blood of our people would pool and flow.

And the monsters beyond the reliquary door knew it as well as I did.

As if on cue, the bolts creaked, the door tugged open by several of the soldiers who had waited without. My feet whipped under my skirt, shoulders shrinking. I was slight enough as it was and didn’t need to try to hide, but when my father turned and stood I found myself peering around his legs like a child.

A lone guard strode into the reliquary, planting his feet in the mosaic mouth of a serpent that coiled in once-glittering blue; I noted his height, his heavy dress, the beard he no doubt cursed in the arid heat. His gloved hand clutched a spear, and there would be a whole host of others at his back if our postures proved anything more than defensive.

“Which one of you is Eiren?”

If I’d held a spear I would’ve snapped the shaft in surprise. My mother rose, too, blocking me completely from the guard’s view. I could see him still between them, a sliver of nose, mouth, and armored muscle.

“Why do you want my daughter?”

The indomitable will conveyed in my father’s stance was echoed in her tone, and the guard’s face hardened. I was proud of my mother, of her strength. Even if I didn’t feel like I had any of it.

“Your daughter,” he began, a pause as cold as the words that followed as he counted us, even me, little more than a scrap of cloth and skin between my parents, “is one of only six people left in this gods-forsaken land who will do as you tell them. I encourage you to insist she do as
I
tell her to.”

My mother and father were joined by my sisters and Jurnus, who leapt to his feet with such vigor he might have had in his hands again the weapons that had been taken from him. I swallowed, hard. The guard did not need the soldiers waiting in the corridor to cut my family down. I could no longer see his face through the living barrier of their bodies, but I wouldn’t feed his thirsty spear.

I rose, ankles weak as water, and touched my mother on the shoulder, and then my father.

BOOK: The Hidden Icon
11.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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