Hello, readers, and thank you for your comments and emails concerning Blood Roots. I’m glad you are enjoying these sample chapters. Many of you have shared these posts, and I’m so encouraged. Thanks. Keep getting the word out. So, these next few chapters are some of my favorite from Part One. Hope you have as much fun reading them as I had writing them. Enjoy.
Blood Roots (Continued)
All day she found herself returning to the stone hiding space in her cell. She would forget something and hurry back there. She completed her stations early, ate quickly just to see the note again, hold the locket, stare at the woman in the picture and recite the words on the paper. The old man called her from her room more than he had liked and his tone was terse. They sat in silence at dinner, his eyes searching her face, she glancing down at her meal of rabbit and rice.
Night finally came to the church, and she could not have been more ready to hole up in her cell. She waited until the old man had wandered down into the cellar. She waited a half hour after that, just to be sure. She took out the locket and letter. Over and over, she unfolded and folded the paper into a neat package, the exotic bird in the wax more distinct in the candlelight . She held the parchment so close to the flame that on several occasions, the edge browned – those words revolving in her mind: I know who you are. Do You? She finally faded into sleep, just as the dawn broke through the forest beyond.
Her body was part machine now, trained from birth to wake early, practice the art of war, work her muscles until exhausted, until they ached, healed, into iron, a fluid moving, calculating weapon. And so, with only several hours of sleep, she woke, pulled on her shirt and pants, tied the rope belt around her waist, barefoot, agile like a cat, and dashed into the woods.
The old man had made an obstacle course for her, ropes, rocks, rivers, ravines, each with a station to punch or kick, to balance, all muscle groups, all eight postures of Tai Chi. She remembered her earliest thoughts – the old man chanting the songs to her, making her memorize them, forcing her to run from station to station. As a girl of three and four, he carried her to the stations, talking to her as he ran, she laughing and chanting, he setting her on the ground, demonstrating the positions, moving in rhythm, a graceful animal. When she was nine, he ran with her to the stations, making her chant the words, moving in unison at every station, their bodies, fluid, a dance. When she was fifteen, he waited for her, his body thin and showing signs of his age. He would create new obstacles for her, and she would overcome them, and he would create still more. And now, she did not see him at all. Now she created her own challenges, crossing a spine of rock like a cat, swinging across a ravine, dancing with a spear of wood, an extension of herself, climbing the rock face without rope or fear, seeing the hand holds in sequence, a creative act, moment by moment a revelation.
And now she ran through the forest, the songs of the eight postures alive in her mind, moving deer-like, panther-like, a terrible controlled force – but while she ran something else negotiated that routine space: the letter. I know who you are. She arrived at the second station, and she grabbed the rope and climbed without her legs to the top, shuffled across the great outcrop of rock and pulled herself up to the flat surface. Moving, dancing, sweeping her arms first forward then back, then off to the next station and the next and the next, but the letter’s words spun in her head and as she walked across the sandstone spine, she lost her footing, caught herself, and hurried to more substantial rock.
Who am I? I know who you are. The words implied a beginning. She had never sought such beginnings out. She had lingered on it here and there, but there was not time for such things, and the thought disappeared until the letter. And as she finished her last station, as she spun and broke the wooden boards, thick and reinforced, the faux image of her enemy, the Leader of the Blood Clan, as the boards splintered, she had formed a plan.
She walked to the stream and stripped her clothing off, settled into the moving water and allowed it to wash over her slender body. She closed her eyes and listened to the creaking trees, the wind as it rustled the leaves, a ripe fruit dropping in the distance. The words began to linger, revolve in her head: who are you? Where did you come from? Wasn’t the old man her origins? If not, who was he? The water was cold, penetrating, making her breathe in a slow controlled manner. She clenched her fingers then straightened them out, rolling her body so that her stomach nearly touched the sandy bottom. If not the old man, then who? And if not the old man, then another life, another world, another possibility had been willfully abandoned. And for the first time in her life she connected herself to an alternative path. Was it the woman in the picture who wrote the note? Her heart pounded. She felt a sense of panic, confusion, as if a room revealed another door, a door that she had never considered. Did she dare step through it? She breathed in, then out, the river calming her mind, the current sweeping the panic from her body. She lay there for an hour.
Her eyes blinked open, a resolve deep within her. Yes, she had a plan now. She gathered herself up and dressed while she was still wet. The morning hour was late, and she was running through the woods, the same trail the boar had traveled days and days ago. She ran, a sudden explosion of joy and excitement in her breast. She ran, and a smile broke upon her face, slight, a thin curl to one side. She headed back to the church, to the old man who would have beans and rice waiting for her on her return.
That afternoon – the old man busy in the wine cellar with his jars and herbs – that afternoon, Mira put a note in the hole of the great walnut tree. The note was simple: Who are you? Can I meet you? That night she stayed up late with the old man, his mood pensive, a suppressed animal just below the surface. She woke in the morning, each Tai Chi station a place to control her swelling expectations, limit them, push them into a safe spot, the consequences if she did not – unthinkable. She bathed in the stream quickly and dashed to the walnut tree. The letter was gone.
She went to the tree every day for a week – nothing. By the second week, she went only twice – still no response. Mira’s mind raced with scenarios, with hope, with another self, but by the third week something inside her withered. She ran through the stations twice a day now – morning and evening. And with each passing day, the door of hope, the door that led her to some other place became smaller and smaller until finally it had disappeared all together.
The old man had noticed something in her, and he taught her the art of steel. “You are the steel,” he said. “The steel is you, one, a part of you.” She consumed herself with making a blade of her own, folding the metals together as the ancients had done, forging it, pounding it, her muscles aching, the sweat from the furnace soaking her shirt, dripping down her nose. She hammered it until it was precise. She hammered it until it took the shape of the old man’s knife – an enormous Bowie knife. She tempered it in the cool water, and as it steamed, she laughed at the silliness that had consumed her for so long. This was who she was. This was what she was: honed steel, a killing device used for one purpose, one moment, a moment for the old man’s choosing, his instrument of death. She stared at the blade when it was finished, holding it up to the light of afternoon sun. All that day she sharpened the blade, sparks from the grinding stone sputtering and spitting, pock marks of pain on her forearms. She took the steel blade to her cell. She removed the stone from the wall and pulled out the note. She held the blade, no handle, held it in her right hand, the parchment in her left and slowly drew the edge across it. Slice and then slice again, and then slice again, the red wax seal stamped with the exotic bird falling to the floor. She burned the pieces of paper and held them as they curled and blackened to carbon. She replaced the stone in the wall and walked outside.
The old man was busy with a map, making markings, sipping his whiskey from a tin cup. She walked up to him, axe in hand. “I will not be back for a week.” The old man stared at her, glanced at the axe then back to her face. He scratched his stubbly chin, and then took a sip from his tin cup. He placed it on the table and went back to scribbling notes on the map.
It took her a week to chop down the great walnut tree, her hands blistered and swollen from the slow, steady fury of her swings. Each night she would hone the axe blade. Each morning she would begin again. She ate walnuts, collected from the masses falling from above and drank from the nearby stream. It fell with such force that the earth trembled below her feet. She felt no joy when it fell: she felt no pain, her hands raw, the axe handle streaked with blood. It was what had to be done. Before she left, she hacked a piece from the great stump.
The old man made a poultice and wrapped her hands, and after two weeks she could use them again. She took the chunk of walnut and began to carve. Every day she carved. She got up early, went through her stations and carved. Before darkness completely consumed the forest, she went through her stations and carved. She carved until the walnut took shape. She carved until it blackened with her body oils. She carved until it was perfect, rounded, smoothed, a part of her hand, like the very blade it would go on. And then the old man showed her how to fasten it to the steel.
It was late afternoon, and Mira sat at the wooden table across from the old man, his hands resting on a map. He had acted peculiar the whole day. When she arrived at the first station, he was waiting for her. He had not done that in two years. “What are you waiting for!” he yelled. He moved with her, screamed at her, forcing her to concentrate. “This is real,” he shouted. “You do not believe it. This is real! Life and death!” He smacked her head so hard that she immediately crouched into a defensive posture, hands like poised snakes. “Oh, now you think you are ready!” And with that he dashed lightly down the trail to the next station, she barely able to keep up with him. And the same happened at each station: shouting, taunting, pushing, sprinting to the next and the next and next.
On the last station, he ran off early, and to her dismay, he was waiting for her in his unique style, left arm across his chest, right arm straight back, blade at the ready. And then he came at her, hard, a terrible whirling machine. She made his blade miss, but his fist hit her chin, and she fell back, regained her balance, elbows low, spine a tendon of steel. She was ready for him the next pass, and she crossed her arms to block his blade as it slashed downward. She twisted and kicked his legs out from under him. He leapt to his feet and swept his foot in a great arc. She jumped high, but that was the move he was waiting for, and he quickly took her to the ground – the knife at her throat.
“Hah!” he said. “You think you are ready. The Leader of the Blood Clan is strong. He is powerful beyond imagining. He will slice you to pieces. He will -” But even before he could finish – she having already cocked and crossed her legs in anticipation – before he could finish, she turned, concentrating all her force at her knee, and with great power flipped him over, her hands pressing his hands and the blade to his own throat.
“Give me a chance,” she said trying to control her breath.
He laughed. She stood and bowed. He walked into the church without a word.
And now it was late afternoon, and she was sitting with him across the table. She recognized the old man’s hand writing, but she could not recognize any of the places. It was mostly of the great lake’s shoreline, and one island far to the east, circled and with arrows pointing to carefully blocked lettering. The old man rubbed it with his thumb, tapped aimlessly, then looked up into her face. He did not say anything for minutes. She saw the strain that the day had put on him, the purple coloring at the tips of his ears, cheeks flushed, his eyes pale blue, emotionless.
“If tonight favors you, tomorrow you will study this map, memorize it, make it part of you.”
His gaze was piercing, constant, so intense that she glanced down at the map. “I will.” She pointed to the island. “Is this where….” but she did not finish, for the old man had placed a piece of paper next to her finger. She recognized it immediately. It was the note she had placed in the walnut tree. He grabbed both her hands and pulled them to him, hard, manacles securing her to the wooden top.
“There is nothing else! No one else! There is only us, only Blood For Blood. Do you understand? No! You do not! You will tonight. I must punish you for your disobedience.”
She could barely breathe, her tongue thick and dry. “Yes,” she whispered.
“I will give you a moment to prepare.”
She stood, but her legs barely worked. She tried to push in the chair, but her hands trembled, so she turned and walked to her cell. She pulled on the sealskin shirt and pants, her mind tumbling with questions, sudden possibilities surfacing, disappearing. Someone was looking for her! The old man had found the note! I know who you are. She touched the stone where she hid the locket. Oh god it was true!
She sat in the chair as the old man tied her arms tight. He pulled the hood over her eyes, and they walked together to the small boat. He tied her legs and hoisted the mainsail, then stepped to the rudder. She counted in her head the time from the shoreline, and she knew it was farther than any other time in her life. When he shoved her over, and her body sank into the cold murky depths, she realized the futility of such a distance. He had made his point. She would die tonight, and she knew it was by his good pleasure and only his good pleasure that she would see the morning. If he had not shown her the map, carefully placed it before her so she may see it, understand what he was telling her – if it was not for that gracious act, she was sure he intended to dump her off in the great abyss of water and leave her to feed the fish and the fowl.