WIP Where Hope Dares by Rebecca Bryn
This is Chapter One of my work-in-progress, a thriller called WHERE HOPE DARES. I hope to have it ready for pre-release around Easter. It’s set loosely in the High Atlas Mountains, and not in the present. It’s a story of man’s universal fight against evil, and a chilling discovery made by two disparate, isolated peoples who are struggling to co-exist in adversity.
‘If it can be imagined, it can be achieved. Man will go where hope dares.’
Kiya froze, listening: it had barely been a noise. An elusive sound; a twig breaking underfoot, the quiet brushing of an animal against the undergrowth. She melted into the thicket of bushes, her nut-brown skin and earth-dyed travelling clothes blending with her surroundings. Crouched down to wait, knife at the ready, she balanced on the balls of her feet and slowed her breathing.
Her heart thudded loud in her ears. Abe had seen strangers to the north, when he’d travelled the road from the high pass ten days back. Giants of men, he’d said: fair-haired and blue-eyed. He’d had dealings with their kind in the past and knew them to be merciless, war-mongering, deadly fighters. What did they want so far from their own land? Abe had stayed the night, traded his wares, joined their celebration, taken part in their storytelling, and travelled on, but his warning had made the village elders provision the secret caverns in case of need.
She waited, still as a breezeless day, until her muscles cramped. The air brought the scents of rotting leaves underfoot, of wild boar, of dust, now wind-dry off the exposed and broken mountain slopes. The whisper of sound came again and a deer crossed the path in front of her. She breathed more freely: just a deer.
Crossing the steep-sided narrow ravine, she picked her way over the bones of the ancient bridge and thanked Waqqa for the gift of water, as she did each time she crossed the tumbling river. The track wound upwards through the wooded cleft in the barren hills, and she strode easily, her bag swinging at her side. She paused at the top of the rise, where the trees thinned and allowed a view across the lands of legend to the south where, it was told, lay Boorana, the homeland of the Oromo peoples.
Beyond the mountains in the west, towards the sea her people had never seen, the sun sank in a lowering sky, edging the clouds with fire and painting the first snow of the waning year orange on the summits. Snow meant spring-melt, and spring-melt meant water for crops and good grazing for cattle. The tallest peaks were white even in summer, and Abe said there were rivers of ice in the higher passes.
Her eyes were drawn south again, across a sparse country of low hills, dotted with stunted oaks and juniper: stories said desert lay out there beyond the feet of the mountains, vast and uncrossable. No-one ventured that way, now, and from that direction none had come for many generations.
A slight wind lifted her finely-braided hair from the nape of her neck, bringing with it the smell of wood smoke. She breathed in the familiar, comforting smell; ahead of her lay Guddaa Mana, a straggle of ancient stone dwellings and newer, mud and thatched homes, nestled in the side of the hill. Home. She raised her head, scenting also the damp in the air: Waqqa sent rain.
Raphel would walk out to meet her if she delayed, and Jalene was little to be abroad so late. Lengthening her stride, she smiled. Her baby daughter had the darkest eyes and curly hair so like Raphel’s: Jalene’s name meant we loved. She longed to hold her, longed to lie with Raphel after nights away, but her own needs must wait: she brought fresh herbs to ease the pains of childbirth, from the valley to the south-west. They were for her sister, Genet, also blessed by the goddess and almost due with her firstborn.
The track turned east again. The smell of smoke was stronger now: odd that she could smell it so far from home. Someone in the woods? She trod with greater care, aware of every rustle as the light failed, jumping at every shadowy wing-beat of birds flying in to roost. Smoke wreathed above the orchard ahead. There was something other than wood smoke, the sound of crackling. ‘No, please, no.’
She stopped, breathless and heart pounding, at the edge of the trees. Her stomach churned at the horror before her: she clutched at a branch to stop herself falling. Across the cow pasture, flames silhouetted dark figures. A lighted torch arced onto thatch and the air whumped as it caught light. Smoke billowed, flames roared as they caught, and a donkey brayed in terror: almost all the thatched roofs were alight. A woman, it had to be Temara, stumbled from her home screaming and was dragged to the ground by a figure that dwarfed her. Another villager, running to Temara’s aid, was struck down and lay still. No-one else ran to help. Why did no-one help them?
The wind blew a brief hole in the smoke: dark shapes littered the ground.
‘Sweet Goddess…’ The acrid stench of burned flesh made her gag. She touched her cäle, her string of coloured beads, instinctively. ‘Atete, protect us.’ Dodging from cow to cow to hide her approach, and driving them before her, she ran across the pasture.
Temara screamed again, her legs kicking as a large man held her down. Another man, huge beyond her imagining, hauled at her attacker. ‘Get off her. This one’s mine. I am The Chosen.’
The scream cut short and the struggle stilled. The Chosen held his smaller comrade by the throat. ‘Velik’s orders were to bring back prisoners, not kill them all, you stupid bastard.’ A blade shone redly and flashed upwards into the man’s belly. His body hit the dirt.
She shrank behind a stone wall, shaking uncontrollably. They couldn’t all be dead. Some must have made it to the cave. Please, Goddess, they weren’t all dead. Tears wet her cheeks; bile rose into her throat. Raphel, Jalene, Genet, Mother.
She sank to her knees and vomited. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she forced her legs to move. She could do nothing here. Keeping low, she followed the wall and hedge-lines that skirted the village to the south; reaching higher ground, she searched for the rock formation that marked the track that led to the caverns. The familiar rock morphed out of the darkness and she took a step towards it. A small stone plinked onto the rock beside her and skittered on down the hillside. She froze, and then slowly turned and looked up. A giant of a man loomed above her.
Every fibre of Kiya’s body yelled run: every instinct yelled scream. She threw down her bag, raised her knife and faced the man, her scream dying in her throat. Her body swayed as she tried to anticipate his next move. With speed that belied his size, he leapt on her, grabbed her wrist, twisted the knife from her fingers and bore her to the ground. She kicked at his legs, scratched his face with her free hand, and sank her teeth into his shoulder.
He gripped both her arms and then crushed her to his chest. ‘If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead.’
She could hardly breathe. ‘Let… me… go.’
‘Stop trying to gouge my eyes out.’
She let her limbs go limp and he relaxed his grip. Twisting out of his arms she lunged for her knife, but he kicked aside her hand. Her blade rattled against stone as it bounced over and over down the hillside.
She cradled her hand, wincing, sure he’d broken some fingers, and glared at him. He had pale blue eyes that showed no hint of compassion: his light yellow hair was long, lank and drawn back in a loose knot. He stood head and shoulders above her and was as broad as two men, and muscular. His clothes were made of soft leather, supple as if chewed soft for many months: a labour of love for his woman. His boots were worn and scuffed, suggesting he’d travelled far, and at his side and back hung an armoury of weapons. She steeled herself to look back into his eyes. ‘What do you want from me?’
‘My name is Alaric, The Chosen.’ He spoke as if this should mean something to her.
She kept her face impassive and raised her chin. ‘And I am Kiya, The Herbalist.’ She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing he’d destroyed everything, and everyone she cared about.
He leaned closer, making her gag: he stank of smoke, blood, guts and burning. ‘Where are the girls and women?’
‘You’ve killed them all.’
‘Grey-beards, milk-chins and withered wombs. They’re no use to me.’ He smiled, showing yellow teeth. ‘And they couldn’t run fast enough. I came for the young women. Pretty women. Dark-eyed girls and women. Take me to them.’
‘So there are girls and women?’
‘We were a small village. We had no warning. I doubt any escaped.’
‘Men will search when it’s light.’ He gripped her arm. ‘If you’re the only one left, that makes my task easier. It’s you who are The Gift. You will come with me.’
A tallow lamp burned with a yellow flame, picking out the frightened faces of women, children and old men. On the walls were strange symbols written by a long-forgotten people in a long-forgotten language: black greasy smoke drifted upwards to a ceiling that lay in deep shadow.
Abe glanced around: mothers had carried their children here, helped by the older men who were fit enough to make it to the caverns but too frail to fight. So many familiar faces were missing.
It was cold, for they daren’t light a fire even though the caverns were deep. Used for generations as a place of storage, the straight-hewn passages, tumbled now, and long since blocked by roof falls, had rooms hidden far from the outside world. A milk cow, which had been lowered on ropes through a fissure high in the rock above, stamped her feet and chewed at hay at the edge of the circle of light. A nanny goat bleated softly. At least, forewarned, the children had milk and the cave was provisioned for many days.
Anxious faces surrounded him in the flickering light, the children too afraid to sleep. Their desperate scramble to safety would stay with them forever and, if they survived the night, pass into story. He shook his head; they were so few.
Moti, an Abbaa Bokku, an elder of Guddaa Mana, sat beside him and put a wrinkled brown hand on his wrinkled pale one. ‘But for you, Abe, none of us would have survived. You came back to warn us, and for that I thank you.’
‘You know you’re like family to me. I was on my way down to M’gouna. I’m long overdue there and I have trade with them. I’d not gone far, and was hurrying… dragging along my over-burdened donkey, not paying proper attention.’ He was making excuses, but he needed to explain. ‘I have a long road over the mountains before winter, if I’m to get home this year. If I’d seen the signs sooner… realized what the two burned houses meant. If I’d come faster…’
Moti sighed. ‘You’re an old man, Abe. Your legs not your heart betrayed you. You’re feeling bad that you didn’t stay in the village to fight? I, too, but that would have put my sons in danger, looking out for me. A man has to know when to leave the fight to others.’ Moti fell silent.
‘I wish none of them had stayed to fight. There may be honour in such a death, but your village needs your young men.’
‘Some may yet make it here, Abe.’ Moti looked at him anxiously. ‘The crack in the mountain is surely too narrow for men of that girth?’
Moti voiced the concern of all. ‘If, come daylight, these men from the north find the entrance… I almost got stuck getting in, Moti. Even your own people have to squeeze through. We are safe as long as we do nothing to alert them to our presence.’
‘Our people knew to tread only on stones and leave no tracks, but in the haste…’
‘If they do get through we can pick them off one by one, Moti. The passage is narrow.’
‘Or they can pick us off one by one. We have few weapons.’
The children grew restless, tired now beyond sleep they sat on grass mats, wrapped in kidskins, or on the laps of the women. One small boy looked up wide-eyed. ‘Dur durii, Moti.’
‘A story, Eba?’
Eba was Temara’s son. Temara was Moti’s daughter. He couldn’t see her among the women who nursed the children, some of whom were not their own. Jalene was here: he had a soft spot for her as he’d been staying with Raphel and Kiya the night she’d been born. Kiya hadn’t made it to the caverns. She’d failed to return with the herbs her sister, Genet, needed and Jalene wasn’t with her grandmother. Genet had collapsed in the wood, in labour, during her rush to safety: an older woman, it must have been Genet and Kiya’s mother, had stayed with her. He should have stayed, too but what could he have done: a useless old man unable even to carry a pregnant woman, or defend her. Each time he looked around he realised more faces were missing. Raphel hadn’t made it here, either.
Moti cleared his throat. ‘Raphel tells our stories better, but I’ll do my best. You must be still and silent for I shall speak quietly.’ His dark eyes took on a faraway look: his hands moved as if to illustrate the story. ‘When the world was young, and the Horn of Africa was a land of peace and plenty, Waqqa, the god in the sky who made the world, sent rain to grow the sacred coffee bean, and the grass that feeds the animals. He sent fertility to the earth. The land of Boorana was blessed and the Oromo rocked the cradle of humanity.’
Rapt faces watched every gesture. Abe had heard the legend many times but, like the children, never tired of it.
‘And the children of humanity spread, far beyond Boorana to every land, and the people settled and grew apart from one another. The hand that rocked the cradle no longer knew her children. And the children no longer knew their mother. But man prospered and Waqqa blessed him. But man who has much, wants more, and he forgot Waqqa who blessed nagaa Boorana, the peace of Boorana, and he forgot the sacred places of the Oromo, and the ceremonies and the language of the Oromo.’
Moti’s face grew sombre. He held up his hands, fingers spread. ‘Many tens of generations pass, father to son, and Waqqa is known by many names. By some he is called Allah, by some Buddha, and by some Brahman. To some he is Jehova, or Adonai, or HaShem.
‘The Abyssinian king, Menelik, forced the Oromo to become his subjects, and later still our borders straddled the two great countries of Ethiopia and Kenya, but the leaders of these countries sought to suppress our culture and our religion, our language and even our names. But…’ Moti wagged a cautionary finger. ‘It is said that to rise early will not help escape God.
‘Our persecutors waged war upon us, and Waqqa stopped sending them rain, and the lands around our homeland burned to dust under the hot sun, and their cattle died and man went hungry. And Waqqa sent them pestilence, and floods from the sea to drown their fertile plains, and then he sent famine.
‘So they coveted our land and our cattle and our water, and wanted it for themselves, and in their arrogance they took what they wanted and the people of Boorana, who held nagaa Boorana, the peace of the Boorana, above all else, were pushed closer and closer to the vast desert that bordered these lands.
‘It is said most of mankind was on the move at that time, trying to escape the rising water, and that man fought man for land, food and water. Many of our people travelled west in search of new homes and vanished from our knowledge. And some went south and almost certainly perished. And some, our forefathers amongst them, travelled north driving their herds of goats and their huge Boran cattle before them. They followed the great river looking for somewhere to settle, but always they were turned away for every acre of fertile land was fiercely defended, and they were pushed ever closer to the Great Sahara.’
The tallow lamp guttered: dark fingers fled from the crevices and the ring of light faded. Moti paused and indicated that he should light fresh candles. He forced aching bones to fetch some from the rock shelf and lit them. The ring of light grew again steadily, shadows dancing across the walls as Moti continued.
‘Many died on that journey of hunger and thirst, for there was no rain for forty days and forty nights. The old and the very young suffered first. Then the Boran cattle began dying and then the goats. Some of our people turned back and took their cattle and goats with them, but most fell by the wayside and their bleached bones lie scattered in the Great Sahara. A small knot of our men and women pushed on, skirting the great desert for some two thousand miles. When the last of the nanny goats and cows had suckled their young for the final time, our forefathers carried two fine bull calves and two heifer calves, and two nanny kids and two billy kids on their backs. And the meat and blood of their faithful cattle and goats sustained them, and for this we give thanks. This way they came finally to the foothills of Idraren Draren, which is Berber for Mountains of Mountains, and came at last to the high place we now call Guddaa Mana.
‘The people who lived here greeted our people warily. It is told that Birmajii, who had been Abbaa Seera, the memoriser of the laws of his village, put down the two fine bull calves in front of the strangers, and indicated that the other men should also give up the two nanny-goat kids, while he kept the two heifer calves and the billy kids. In this way he showed the strangers that we had something to share with them, and that without co-operation none would benefit.
‘Seeing that we came in peace and brought a fine strain of cattle and goats that we gave readily, and that we were not many, we were given a small piece of land, by the river that falls down from the mountains, where we could build our houses. And we lived in peace with ourselves, and the animals, and the land, for that is to have the blessings of Waqqa. But that was many fathers of fathers ago, and now our cultures and our bloods have merged and we speak a common language native to none, but which all can understand, though we keep some of our Oromo words and our god and our stories, for to remember the past is to remember the future.’
Moti looked at him and raised a brief smile. The children were asleep.
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TOUCHING THE WIRE: A doctor and nurse fight to save lives, and by Rebecca Bryn
Part One In the Shadow of the Wolf
In a death camp in 1940’s Poland, a young doctor and one of his nurses struggle to save lives. As their relationship blossoms, amid the death and deprivation, they join the camp resistance and, despite the danger of betrayal, he steals damning evidence of warcrimes. Afraid of repercussions, and for the sake of his postwar family he hides the evidence, but hard truths and terrible choices haunt him, as does a promise not kept.
Part Two – Though...
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