[The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of my upcoming urban fantasy novel, (still awaiting its proper title) which I hope to have completed by the end of this year, all things going to plan 🙂 I hope you enjoy it!!]
It was the sunlight that woke me, or at least what passed for sunlight in Undercity.
In reality, what had woken me was more like the sallow amber glow from the cast iron gas street light that hung from its rusty chain just outside of my bedroom skylight.
Being in the constant shadow of Altéga, or ‘The Immortal City of Altéga,’ at least to those of the ‘Gifted’ classes whose families hadn’t spent the last eight or so fairly uncomfortable generations, scraping out a meagre existence beneath the vast shadow cast by its floating, oh so majestic, several thousand-ton bulk.
Yes, with all of that rock floating fifteen or so meters above your head natural sunlight was in pitifully short supply.
The little that did manage to shine beneath the rim of the floating city above only did so for a few short hours a day when the sun was in the right position in the sky. Even then, its rays only covered a small strip of land at the very perimeter of Undercity.
This fortunate area was, by necessity, comprised solely of poor quality fruit and vegetable allotments which yearly tried, and inevitably failed, to provide food for the SUB families who tended them, and the inner-city residents who lived their whole lives solely by gas and candlelight.
SUBs, or sub magical beings, were a section of the supernatural community who, although innately magical by birth, had minimal to zero actual usable powers. Trust me this was definitely not a title of our own choosing but rather one used, to great effect, to create a crystal-clear divide between us and the magically ‘gifted’ world floating above our heads.
The title also came with its own neat little set of rules and restrictions, including the one dictating that no SUB was to be allowed to build or farm outside of the shadow cast by Altéga. Unfair…totally! But then we wouldn’t want the gifted on high in their gilded towers to suffer the supreme insult of an interrupted view of the countryside surrounding the city…especially not by lowly creatures such as ourselves.
Okay so bitter ranting aside, the SUB community itself was one of warmth, friendship and love which in my opinion beats gilded cages and loveless political alliances hands down.
For the young ones like myself, who had spent their entire lives in the Undercity, we didn’t really know any different.
Passes to Altéga were incredibly rare so most of us (black market traders aside) had only visited the Immortal City once, on the morning of our fifth birthday, in order to be officially registered on the Census of Supernatural Beings.
Stretching with a loud jaw-cracking yawn I threw back the covers and sat up. Swinging my legs off of the bed, I winced a little as my bare toes came into contact with the cold floor.
Stuffing my feet into my well-worn wool slippers I shuffled out of the door and down the narrow flight of stairs to the small family bathroom that I shared with my parents and eight raucous siblings.
As the eldest child, I at least got the luxury of a loft room all to myself up in the eaves of the house, which when you have eight younger siblings was a solid must-have.
Sadly, the house in which we lived only had room for one bathroom. A fact that meant that I wasn’t altogether surprised when I tried the door handle and found it firmly locked.
‘Are you going to be long?’ I called, pulling my heavy dressing gown tighter to ward off the early morning chill that was still in the air.
Nothing. Raising my hand, I knocked the door but my only response was the low sound of badly muffled giggling coming from inside.
‘Farlan, Brodie…I know you are in there, open the door. I have to get ready for work or I’ll be late to open the shop.’ Putting my ear to the door I heard what sounded very much like a scuffle, followed by a pained squeak before Farlan’s high-pitched voice piped up from the other side of the door confirming my previous suspicions.
‘Ah will ainlie open th’ door if ye promise ye willnae be aff tellin Mom aboot Brodie’s hair.’ I rolled my eyes skyward and sighed deeply.
Eight-year-old Farlan fancied himself a budding scientist and was continually getting himself into trouble with his fantastic concoctions and wild experiments. Brody, his twin brother, and partner in crime had the unfortunate habit of being the test subject of said experiments with a range of rather colourful outcomes.
‘OK fine, just let me in and I’ll see if there is anything to be done before Mom gets back from Mrs Delfries.’
There was another whispered exchange and then the old brass key finally turned and the door opened up a crack.
One bright green eye appeared in the opening scanning to make sure the coast was clear before the door was whipped open and I was yanked through it into the room beyond.
The door closed and with a snick the lock was firmly back in place, leaving the three of us standing in total darkness.
‘Farlan, it might be easier for me to help Brodie if I could actually see him.’ I said as patiently as I was able to manage at 6 am whilst standing in the freezing cold in my nightwear.
I stubbed my toe on the heavy oak dresser cursing under my breath as I attempted to find the light cord.
‘Ye hae tae actually say ‘I promise’ foremaist or it daesn’t coont!’ his tone was desperate now and I felt a flicker of worry spark to life. It must be really serious this time as normally the twins just accepted their punishments with a cheeky smile and went right back to terrorising the family two minutes later.
‘Brodie, are you hurt?’ I asked the darkened room not knowing exactly where to direct my question in the pitch black.
‘Na a’m a’richt Penny. Bit Mom is aff tae hae a fit whin she sees me if ye cannae help.’ His words were muffled but he sounded alright and my worry faded again. With another resigned sigh, I turned to where I thought Farlan had been standing.
‘Fine. I promise that I won’t tell Mom. Now, can you turn the blessed light on so I can actually see what mess you have made of your brother this time.’ From his silence, I could tell he was carefully weighing the truth of my words but then a moment later the light popped on, blinding us all for a second or two before revealing a small form draped head to foot in a large fluffy white bath towel.
‘Brodie. I’m assuming that your nefarious brother hasn’t turned you into a bath towel so let’s have that off of you and take a look at the damage.’ Farlan smothered a giggle from just behind my shoulder and I heard Brodie give a long-resigned sigh. He raised the towel a couple of inches, exposing a small pair of brown, fur-covered feet.
‘Brodie whilst the expectation is thrilling I really do have to get ready for work now so let’s speed things up a bit shall we.’
‘Dae ye promise nae tae laugh Penny?’ Brodie whined plaintively.
‘I promise I’ll skelp your behind for you if you make me any later for work!’ my voice was stern but I had to fight a small smile all the same.
The towel finally began to lift again exposing brown furry legs to match the feet and as the towel rose higher, I was instantly glad that I hadn’t actually promised not to laugh.
From the knobbly knees up my embarrassed looking little brother was bright blue!
At this point, I should probably explain that my family and I are a little different from most other families, even in the Undercity.
When I was very small Muira and Tavish McBryde found me on their front porch with only a wicker basket and a worn blue blanket.
There was no indication at all of who had left me there, why or where I had come from not even a note with my name on it.
Fortunately for me, being the kind-hearted people that they are, the McBryde’s without a moment’s hesitation took me into their home and decided to raise me as one of their own.
That day 28 years ago I got a new name ‘Hapenny,’ or Penny for short, named for the most treasured of their possessions and became their first child (this was several years before the first of my younger siblings arrived on the scene)
Muira and Tavish or Mom and Dad as I had always called them were broonies, an innately magical people whose clans mostly hail from Scotland or Ireland.
Broonies are small in stature with soft brown fur covering most of their bodies, large noses, pointed ears and an almost magical affinity for housework and metalsmithing. They are also an incredibly long-lived race with individuals often spanning several human generations or more in a single lifetime.
Dad always told us in bedtime stories and around the cooking fire that his family line were descended from Broonie Kings and that his family had, at one point in time, sat at the feet of the Goddess Brigid of the Celtic peoples as her loyal servants and trusted advisors.
How much of this tale was true I could never be sure though, as broonies are also incredibly fond of a good yarn when the moment calls for it.
It is safe to say though that my adoptive family has deep roots that stretch very far back into history and that this is something they are inordinately proud of and happy to talk about at length.
‘Descended from Broonie kings huh.’ I muttered to myself as I took in the bedraggled looking fluffy blue creature in front of me.
My comment immediately sent Farlan off into peals of raucous laughter and he merrily rolled around the floor for a moment or two, before his brother snarled and dived on top of him and yet another scuffle ensued. Wading into the middle I tried my best to separate them
‘Argh! Brodie did you just bite me?! Right, that’s enough from the both of you!’ I grabbed a still giggling Farlan from the midst of the wild tangle of flailing furry limbs, unlocked the bathroom door, and pushed him out into the corridor shutting and locking it again before he could push his way back inside for round two.
I turned to Brodie with a scowl on my face but at the sight of his watering eyes, I felt my expression soften. Walking over I patted him on his furry blue head.
‘It’s alright Brodie…really. I’m sure a little salt, lemon and water and a couple of baths will have you back to your normal handsome self in no time at all.’ He smiled at that, brushing a hand over his face and bounced to his feet.
‘Weel let’s git aboot it then. Farlan ‘n’ ay are gauen huntin fer gudgeon ower at th’ Marl Hole wi’ th’ Fitzwilliam twins. An ah dinnae want tae be late!’
Even though I spent every day with them, the sheer changeability of broonies never failed to amaze me.
Like many of the innately magical, their emotions could turn on the head of a pin, one second elated the next furious.
It definitely made for entertaining family gatherings that was for sure!
It was still quite early in the day. The sun was just beginning to warm the valley floor as Rudvar, the Hob, slowly made his way back down to his cosy barrow, far beneath the deep red soil. He had spent the morning caring for the many plants, trees and animals that shared his valley home. He didn’t work alone either. Many other members of his clan, as was Bolgar tradition, had also been out and about, ranging across the valley floor and ensuring that everything was just as it should be. Hobs were caretakers of a sort. Instead of caring for home and hearth though, as was more commonplace throughout Hob society, the Bolgar Clan had chosen, instead, to live out their long lives giving mother nature a helping hand. His people had found, over the centuries, that there was a much better existence to be had, far distant from all the bustle and hubbub of crowded town and city life.
Many people, across both of the realms, thought of Hobs as a lazy, slow witted race. Rudvar and his people paid them no mind. After all, at the end of the day, when all was said and done, his clan had the most beautiful home in the world. Every day they did just enough work in order to keep it that way, and that sounded pretty damn sensible, at least to Rudvar’s way of thinking anyhow.
The small arched stone door to his own barrow was located just off the main clan hall, conveniently close to the kitchens too, a fact of which Rudvar never failed to remind the other members of the clan, any chance he got. Squeezing his large form through the small entrance, he walked over to the central fire pit and poked the dying embers back to life. Adding a handful of dry sticks and a couple of large oak logs to the gently crackling glow, he made his way slowly across to his soft, cosy bed. Yawning loudly, he plumped up the pile of dry grass until it was just right, before rolling gratefully into its cosy embrace, and falling almost at once into a deep untroubled slumber.
Rudvar was abruptly woken from his nap some time later, by a violent shaking and what sounded, very much, like a thunderstorm and a rock slide all rolled into one. He attempted to sit up, but the shaking just knocked him straight back down again each time he tried. Rolling to his side, he crawled from the hollow that held his bed and out into the main room, skirting the fire pit as he made his way slowly to the outer door. Soil rained down upon him as he went, making it very hard to see and breathe in the near darkness. It seemed that all of the pitch torches lining the walls of the clan hall had been smothered under the thick cloud of choking dust and debris. It was so dark, in fact, that although he could hear the muffled cries of alarm coming from other clan members throughout the warren, he couldn’t even see where his own hands were on the stone floor right in front of his face. It felt like the whole world was raining down upon them. If the shaking didn’t come to an end soon, there would be nothing left of his ancestral warren. In fact, if the shaking didn’t come to an end soon, there might be no one left to live inside of it either! Suddenly there was a huge tearing sound from somewhere above his head. Forgetting that he couldn’t see anything, Rudvar raised his eyes to try to discover the source of the horrid sound. As he did so, he felt a flash of searing agony as something heavy cracked painfully into his forehead, and then there was only darkness.
When he finally came to, it was with total confusion and the worst headache he had ever felt in all of his years. It seemed that dusk had fallen at some point while he had lain there unconscious. He could feel a light breeze upon his skin, telling him that he had somehow ended up outside of the warren. Although his eyes were still half blinded by the dust, he could already tell that the light around him was dim and nothing like the sunny, bright morning which he could still picture so clearly in his mind’s eye. He raised a still trembling hand to his pounding head, and when he brought it away again a moment later, his thick fingers were smeared with an unpleasant sticky paste of his own blood mingled with the deep red soil, which was currently covering most of his body in a thick blanket. It was very lucky that Hob skin was so much thicker than most of the other races, and that their bones were far sturdier too. A blow to the head that was hard enough to make a Hob bleed was usually also hard enough to kill any non-Hob outright.
Climbing free of the uncomfortable bed of soil and stones, he pushed himself to his feet and blinked away the last of the dirt which was obscuring his vision. The moment his eyes cleared he stared around himself in horrified amazement. The warren was gone! There was no grand clan hall in which to hold their celebrations, no kitchen left where Hob cooks could prepare their lavish feasts, and worst of all, no comfortable warm barrow with its soft grass bed and crackling fire pit. There was nothing at all left of the place that he had been proud to call his home. It felt to Rudvar that, from one moment to the next, his peoples’ entire existence had simply been erased from the world. A single fat warm tear slipped unnoticed down his dust covered face, followed a moment later by a second, leaving red wet tracks in their wake. Dragging his gaze away from the emptiness that had once been his ancestral home, he scanned the area around him, eyes searching desperately in the dim light for the rest of his clan. Had there been a cave in? No, he knew already that that couldn’t be the case. If it had been so, then he would have certainly been buried alive under several hundred tons of stone and earth now, his life journey and all of his worries at an end.
Finally, he caught a glimpse of movement over by a large pile of rubble, near to where he thought the grand clan meeting chamber had once stood. For the first time in his life, Rudvar found himself running. Hobs never usually moved at anything much faster than a slow lumbering walk, there had simply never been the need before. He felt the need now though, and fairly flew at a stumbling run over the scattered piles of debris. Finally he slid to a stop in a small cloud of dust at the feet of Galden, spiritual leader of the Bolgar people.
‘What has happened here Galden, why is this happening to us?’ His voice was even more gravelly than normal, in part due to the dust still making his lungs feel heavy, but more so because of the vast well of despair that had sprung into being deep within his soul. Galden, he saw, had several small cuts and bruises over his heavily lined face and arms, but aside from those few marks, the clan elder seemed to be otherwise uninjured.
‘I do not know the why my son, but the what I can shed some light upon, I think’ He pointed a single gnarled finger skyward. Rudvar’s gaze followed in the direction to which the old Hob pointed, desperate for any answer at all that would help to quieten the panicked questions screaming inside of his mind. What he saw up there, high above them, only added to his despair and confusion. About ten metres above their heads and still rising, he could clearly make out patches of the decorated stone ceiling that had for centuries been the pride of the clan. The ceiling had been created over too many generations to count, with each generation adding something new to its intricate design, telling the proud story of his people. Up until today its beauty had graced the great hall, where untold numbers of feasts, celebrations and meetings had been held beneath its magnificent arches. His own coming of age had taken place below it, as had the worst day of his life to date, when he had tearfully carried the broken body of his father to the high dais for the gloaming rites. It seemed that his entire life thus far had passed beneath that ceiling, and now, along with everything else he had ever known, or had ever wanted to know, it was gone.
Seeing the unstoppable tide of emotion rising within the young Hob, Galden laid his hand upon Rudvar’s shaking shoulders.
‘All will come right Rudvar. You must place your trust in the ancestors now. They will ensure that our people will rise again, as and when the tides of fate allow’ Galden’s words would normally have set his mind and soul at ease, but today Rudvar just couldn’t find the same comfort in the elder’s unshakable faith and calm even tone. He couldn’t help the flash of anger inside of his chest at the knowledge that someone or something had done this to his people, nor the bitter realisation that the ancestors, who he had put his faith in his entire life, had been either unable or unwilling to do anything at all to stop it. It shook the very foundation of everything he thought that he knew, as if the ceiling of his own inner faith had too been ripped from him, sent soaring skyward along with the home which he knew deep in his heart that he would never again be able to set foot in. He tried to mask his inner turmoil, but his words as he replied to Galden sounded clipped and tense even to his own ears.
‘As you say Galden. What do you require of me? Is every member of the clan accounted for?’
Galden got slowly to his feet waving away the instinctive offer of Rudvar’s arm to steady him.
‘Thank the Ancestors, yes. No clan member will face the gloaming this day’ He walked over to the edge of the large ledge that Rudvar hadn’t even noticed that they were stood upon, and gestured down into the expansive almost bowl shaped crater that now fell away a handful of centimetres in front of their feet. The crater was huge, giving a clearer visual scale to the vast mass of rock and soil, which was now floating somewhere high above them. It blocked out the blue sky completely, casting a dismal shadow over all of the land below it. He swallowed back the sour taste of bile, realising, that that area now comprised almost the entirety of the beautiful valley which he remembered. No wonder it had felt like dusk, Rudvar thought bitterly. Beneath the floating island it would always be dusk. There would be no more sunny mornings, no more wildflowers or rolling meadows of sweet smelling grass. Even the handful of animals and birds, who had not fled the initial wave of destruction would be forced to leave. The lack of food and others of their kind would see to that soon enough. Oh, how he wished he could be just like one of those birds, able to spread his wings and leave all of his sadness and heartache behind him, in favour of new lands, far from the reach of such an evil as this.
Even if he could leave this place somehow though, he knew with certainty that his people could not follow him. Before this day the clan had lived the same simple lives as all of those Bolgar who had come before them. If there had ever been a pioneering spirit within his clan, then its flame had long since been extinguished. Even now he could see some of his people far down in the bottom of the crater gathering what little they could from its rough, uneven slopes in a vain attempt to try and build some form of shelter from the cold, dust laden wind. In a week or two those crude muddy shelters would become more substantial dwellings, and not long after that they would become homes of a sort. To be just so, was intrinsically bound up in the very nature of the Hob race, after all. Yes, his people would adapt to their new bleak surroundings, and without a single grumbled complaint, they would make what they could of their new very different existence.
Not Rudvar though. He had known, somewhere deep within his soul, as he stood watching his beloved home disappear into the clouds above, that he was changed now. What that would mean for him, he didn’t yet know, but whatever happened now he knew two things for certain. Firstly, he would never abandon his clan, especially in the face of the evil that they now confronted. Secondly, from this day forth he was going to spend every single moment in an effort to find some way to restore his people, and the future generations of Bolgar Hobs, to the unspoiled way of life that they had earned, and worked so diligently to protect since the very founding of their people.
Yes, today would mark the first new beginning of many for Rudvar the Hob.