Who am I? That is the question always on the minds of the seven orphans who were raised together in the Sylvan cottage. War had separated them from their parents and as it once again threatens to consume all of Ilia they must choose the path they will walk. They all must fight in order to survive but only one road leads to a heroic destiny filled with grace, hope, truth and love. The other ways are one in the same for they are replete with empty promises and enticing lies that will only lead to desolation and despair. Only when they embrace the truth can they find the answer to the question of who they really are. Only when they embrace the truth can they find redemption. This is the story of where that journey begins.
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About the Author
Nicole Segda is a Judo black belt who runs a Martial Arts Ministry with her husband and volunteers as a kids worship leader. It is their hope for their newborn daughter to accept Jesus Christ as her LORD and Savior. Nicole earned her B.S. Architecture degree from The Ohio State University and enjoys her work as a CAD Drafter. An avid movie-goer and book lover, she is passionate about storytelling in all its forms. She is particularly enamored by the testimony of God's love in her own life.
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Chaos. Overturned carts. Guards shouting. Rush past raging conflagrations. Once quiet homes, now ashen memories. The billowing smoke suffocating those who dare save their livelihood. Ravenous rain extinguishing the fires, only to commence inundation. Cross the turgid river. Lifeless bodies floating. The lightning cracks, barely audible over the cries. Women wailing. Children screaming. Babies crying. Men dying. Agony. Run. Run across the blood-soaked earth. The earth trembling with the stampede of men. Battle the fierce wind. Her mighty gale encumbering those who flee. Fear arises in the dead of night. No one sleeps. Everyone runs. Faster.
"They must be spared."
A staircase ... a boat ... almost free. Some iniquity not too far behind.
A shadow appears at the top of the steps. An evil glare. A voice that pierces the dark like a thousand screams, "Seize them! They are getting away!
A hurried admonition, "Don't separate" A kiss, and a song. Goodbye ...
* * *
Breathing restlessly and clinging to the side of the bed, Chase whispers, "A ... a dream? Uncle Ashe, are you sure it was only a dream ... 'cause it seemed awful real to me. There was fire, and it was storming, raining, thundering, and there was lightning too! It was really scary."
Ashe comes to the edge of the little wooden bed and sits down, "Now don't pout, Chase. Look around you. You're safe here in Uncle Ashe's house. Now give me a hug and get back to bed. Okay?"
Chase sighs, "Okay, Uncle Ashe. Love ya'. Oh! When will Auntie Lawa and Kae be home?"
"They'll be back from the market in Verdana tomorrow. Now, get some rest. Tomorrow is a big day."
Chase yawns. "Sure is. I turn five and I get to go to the fowist with Uncle Cole." He gestures with his arms, "Maybe we'll see a big, giant monster and get to fight it!"
Ashe laughs and rustles Chase's thick, black hair as he gives him a kiss on the forehead. He smiles warmly as he leaves the room. "Goodnight."
"Goodnight. Don't let the boop-boops bite."
Ashe's smile dissipates as he enters the hallway. His green eyes are overcast with remembrance of the grief that brought them here. When his parents died, Ashe was left to take care of the five orphans whom his family had rescued two years ago, not to mention his now three-year-old sister, Jessica. Cole is the same age as Ashe, twelve. Being the oldest, he and Cole have received the honorary title of uncle. Lara is the eldest girl at eleven years of age. Kaela is Lara's five-year-old sister. Joel is the youngest. He just turned three and is the brother of Chase and Cole.
Taking care of the kids was a major responsibility, especially being that Cole and Ashe are still kids themselves. The cottage they are living in has been in the Sylvan family for generations, and is sufficient for their needs. One long, broad, wood-floored hallway extending from a somewhat wider entrance foyer provides access to all of the rooms. The kitchen is through the first arch on the right and is large enough for all of them to congregate, which is more than can be said for the living room, however. The small living area that lies on the left of the corridor is cozy for four people but quickly becomes crowded with seven. The four midsize bedrooms are located in the back of the house and are shared amongst the children. Each bedroom is simply furnished with two beds, a dresser, and a shelf stacked with an assortment of books. A bathroom housing a washbasin, shower, and lavatory is in a little annex connected to the room for which it was built. Chase and Joel occupy one bedroom, Kae and Jessica inhabit another, Ashe and Cole split one, and Lara shares one with Maria. Maria is Ashe's and Jessica's twenty-five-year-old aunt who, thankfully, chose to raise the children as if they were her own. Taking care of the children became her priority and she was always concerned with giving them a proper education. Whenever she went into town, she would come back with books of various topics. In the morning, she taught them of the world and introduced them to areas of study like science, history, and language arts. Afternoons were often spent in the kitchen, drifting off into worlds of fantasy and adventure as Maria leafed through the pages of the cherished manuscripts.
Each child, however, showed a unique preference. Ashe would always listen intently when Maria talked about herbal lore, forestry, art, and architecture. He was hardly ever indoors. He could spend all day with the horses, either in the stables alongside the cottage, or out riding over the hills and valleys that mark the land. He would also make frequent excursions to the forest to find the plants discussed earlier in the day, bringing home his finds to share with the rest of the children. Lara became an avid reader of romance novels, sometimes blushing in the corner and often sighing to herself. At various times throughout the day she could be heard singing, lifting her voice in exultation. Kae would often accompany her, their voices harmonizing with each other in a song surely composed by angels. Joel would steal away to his room lugging a very old physics book, only coming out to impart the knowledge he had recently learned. Jessica was enraptured by the ancient mythos of Ilia, often daydreaming of living in such a time of mystery and adventure. And Chase, well, he liked everything. He could see the adventure that presented itself in each little bit of lore. He was eager to learn as much about the world as possible, sometimes forgetting the time and being reprimanded for it. Kae shared his interest as well, but more often found respite in stories of the sea and the mystical beasts of which the ocean is their domain. Cole was the exception. He would lurk in the shadows, watching. It was not that he did not enjoy the stories; he just didn't see the point. Getting lost in such idle fantasies was not going to change the harsh reality of their situation.
Despite Maria's presence, Lara has become the mother figure. Lara is the one who heals injuries with a simple kiss, and the one who always seems to know when something is wrong. She is the one who gently sings the children to sleep with her soft lullaby. Whether her words are spoken or sung, they ring with understanding and a tranquility that can calm the most violent of storms. And Ashe is the surrogate father. He is the mountain that provides strength and security. His advice is sound and certain, like the hum of the hearty Ash Tree when gently rapped upon. He provides shelter from the storm while it rages, awaiting the sweet song that will subdue it.
But even the mightiest mountains crumble. How can one stand against that which remains ambiguous? It puzzles him how so many great blessings could be borne from such a devastating night. What worries Ashe more than anything is that Chase has dreamt of this night. He has never had nightmares of such caliber before. But then again, it isn't exactly a nightmare. It is all real. Too real. He wishes he hadn't been old enough to remember what had happened. Never again does he want to experience that fateful night. He was hoping he could protect the others from that memory, but it's not like he could just take an eraser and remove that part of their childhood. The past is something they will have to live with for the rest of their lives. And no matter how far or how long they run, it will eventually catch up with them. Ashe heavily sighs as he plods down the dimly lit corridor to his room.CHAPTER 2
Kae bounds into Chase's bedroom, bringing the sunshine with her. Her lustrous brown hair flies behind her and her lilac eyes capture the few streaks of sunlight that pervade the room. She leaps onto Chase's bed and plants a kiss on his cheek. Quickly she runs away, giggling. "Get up, sleepy head. You have to go to the fowist with Uncle Cole, and when you come back there's gonna be a big party! I can't wait till you see what I gawt you for your burfday!"
Chase squints at her. He hates it when she kisses him. She is so annoying. She is like a little puppy, always on his heels and yapping away trying to get his attention. He doesn't know how she does it, but she always manages to spoil his fun. He yells after her, "It's my burfday today, so don't ruin it!"
Lara walks in. "Now, be nice. Just because it's your birthday doesn't mean you can be rude." She sits on the bed and opens her arms, "Come here. I want you to be careful in the forest today, okay? Stay with Uncle Cole."
"You don't hafta worry about me, Auntie Lawa. I'm a big boy now." Chase pouts, "But I still don't see why I have to be nice to her."
Lara laughs. "Because you have to be nice to everybody, and because I told you to. Now, get dressed. You don't want to be late."
Chase jumps out of bed and closes the door after Lara leaves. He quickly changes into his blazing red pants and matching shirt. He inspects his talisman, making sure that Kae hadn't somehow damaged his only memento of his parents. Satisfied with its condition, he places the silver charm in his pocket and pulls on his black boots. He sighs as he stares at himself in the mirror. Tousled black hair. Blue eyes. Copper-toned skin. A smile steals across his face as he ponders upon the significance of this day. He is officially five. He then bolts to the kitchen, where Ashe and Cole always are at seven o'clock in the morning.
The wooden shutters are open, allowing Ashe just enough light to read the morning paper. They are the only two in the room so the girls must still be getting ready. Joel is probably still sleeping, warm and cozy beneath his wool blankets. The mouthwatering smell of bacon and the subtler one of smoke from the now extinguished coals in the kitchen hearth is evidence that Maria is up but has already started with the daily chores.
Chase shouts as he passes beneath the arch leading to the kitchen, "Uncle Ashe! Uncle Cole!"
Cole rises from his chair, "Good morning, little lion. You all ready to go?"
Chase grabs some bacon from the plate on the counter and scarfs it down, "You betcha!" Chase grabs Cole's hand and drags him out of the kitchen and to the front door. He screams behind him, "Thanks for the bacon, Mawia. See ya later! Tell everybody I said bye!"
Chase and Cole are outside. The first rays of the sun are just beginning to peek through the forest. This continent — Ashe calls it Smithee — is covered with trees. Chase knows very little about the forest besides what he has read in books, because he was never able to explore it. He was confined to the fields and rivers that separate this little patch of land from the world around it. Ilia. Now, today, he can finally step past the tree line without fear of reprimand. He looks at this trek into the forest as his passage into a new stage of life. The age of five is certainly old enough to be a man. Well, at least a big boy. That brat Kae can no longer push him around and he will not fear whatever danger lies in the woods beyond. At least, he will not show that trepidation. The knowledge that Cole, Ashe, and Lara fear the forest enough to prohibit his entrance makes him uneasy. What lurks in the forest that makes them so worried?
They walk down the hill, the mystical forest coming closer with each step. The trees tower above them like giants, guardians to whatever rests inside. Their smoldering masses grow ever taller as they close the distance. The sound of the wet grass bending beneath their feet betrays their otherwise silent approach, alerting the ominous evergreen sentinels to their presence. One more step and Chase will travel into unknown territory, leaving behind the little cottage that, up until now, has been his entire world. He tightens his grasp on Cole's hand and takes a deep breath.
Cole looks down at his little brother. "Remember, I'll be with you always. Brothers forever. ..."
"We will always be brudders."
"Stay on the path that Ashe has marked out for us and we'll be fine. Did you remember to bring your talisman? Good. If you happen to stray from the path, this talisman will protect you."
Chase feels for his charm in his pocket and smiles when he finds it. "I can do this 'cause I'm a big boy now." He trudges off into the forest, Cole trailing behind.
The forest is a new world to Chase. His fears dissolve into deep veneration as the alluring ambiance of the woodlands invades his senses and renders him speechless. The dazzling sunlight filtering in through the canopy dances across the leaf-strewn path. Trees reach for the heavens and little animals scurry across the forest floor. Birds begin to chirp in the distance, their sweet song reverberating through the woods. Moss-covered trunks line the path, and dew hangs in the air like a curtain. All the forest seems to be alive and he can feel that life flowing through him.
Cole places his hand on Chase's shoulder. "Shhh. Look. What do you see?"
Chase looks but he doesn't see anything. Ahead there are only trees, their branches swaying with the breeze. Yet the appendages seem to be moving of their own volition. He takes a closer look. He can make out a figure. The slender body of a female seems to be intertwined with the thick trunk of the oversized oak. The woman gingerly steps from her wooden base, unaware of the presence of the two boys. "A dryad?" Chase's eyes widen. He takes a closer look at the other trees, and he can now see the dryad that protects each one. He refrains from running his hands along the bark of the trees. He recalls from his reading that dryads are very sensitive when it comes to humans, for who knows what their intentions might be.
They continue along the path. Each sight is new and refreshing. He takes pleasure in them as Cole moves on ahead of him. Ants hurry from behind rocks. Bees flit from flower to flower. Creepers hang from the canopy, twisting around tree trunks as if they too are alive with the spirit of the forest. Chase is lost in the splendor of his surroundings. He breathes in his environment, trying to capture as much of the forest as possible. His feet are barely able to keep up with the curiosity that continues to grow with each resplendent spectacle.
He looks ahead and Cole is nowhere to be found. The path has disappeared. Everywhere he turns, trees fill his view. Their menacing branches thriving with old, gnarled growth soar above him and block out the warm radiance of the sun. Shivers run down his spine as the overwhelming reality rages over him and all of a sudden the forest seems to be a dangerous place.
* * *
Silence. The sound of the birds has faded. Everything is still and lifeless and the once glorious forest now seems adverse. The brush is thick and nettles sting his bare arms. Fear. Darkness drives away any hope of being found. Malignant roots spring from the ground, tripping him as he wanders aimlessly through the dense woodland. Snakes hiss and slither around his feet. The eerie collective scream of boop-boops is unmistakable in the distance. The original name of these merciless plant monsters was replaced and forgotten centuries ago with this far less formidable one. An earlier culture's obvious attempt to assuage the ferocity of such ravenous beasts by changing its name was to no avail.
Chase calls for rescue, but the echo of his voice is chilling. No one answers. No one. Alone. Frightened. Lost. Chase falls to his knees and weeps. He tries to wipe away his tears but it is useless. He wonders what Kae would think, him boasting about being a big boy only to cry when he gets a little lost. No. He would not let her have this victory. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his charm. Standing up, he shouts, "I am not afraid. I am a big boy, so you can't hurt me!"
A rumbling noise comes from deep within the forest. It is low and primitive.
Chase takes an involuntary step back. Clutching his talisman ever tighter, he acknowledges the growl, "Hello? Cole?"
Another growl. Closer. Fiercer. A creature charges from the shadows. A mass of golden fur and jagged claws. Chase is frozen in terror. The monster rages ever closer, its bitter eyes transfixed on its prey. Chase watches the mighty lion as it leaps through the air. A power surges through Chase. A light surrounds the beast. Almost blinding. Chase turns away, waiting for those razorlike claws to tear through his willing flesh. A body slumps to the ground. The force of the fall shakes the forest, as if a giant has awakened. Chase waits. His heart frantically pounds within his heaving chest. Nothing happens. He slowly opens his eyes and faces his predator. The lion lies dead, the carcass nothing but blackened bones. The golden mane is no more. Smoke curls from the brittle remains. He looks around, for he has an uneasy feeling that he is being watched ... but he sees no one else there. Chase stares at his hands.
A familiar voice breaks through the darkness, "Chase! Where are you? Chase!"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Book One: Beginnings"
Copyright © 2018 Nicole Ashley Brown Segda.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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