After Irvana's grandmother dies in their remote clifftop home, Irvana must travel to Koltarn. Alone in a strange city, Irvana finds employment at the palace, home of Lord Terenz, current overlord and bearer of the StarMark. Suddenly immersed in palace life, Irvana makes a friend in fellow-servant Rosann, and there is a spark between her and the lively Mikal, Terenz's ward. But when Terenz discovers that Irvana has something he wants, her life is suddenly in danger.
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By Katherine Hetzel
Bedazzled Ink Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Katherine Hetzel
All rights reserved.
IRVANA HADN'T EXPECTED a frail old lady to weigh so much. But when she could barely walk and Irvana had to take most of her weight to get her outside, to see the stars before ...
Irvana gritted her teeth, tightened her hold on Gramma's waist, and took another couple of steps. She wasn't going to think that thought. They were almost there, and Gramma would feel better for being out of the shack. She would. She had to.
"Here you go, Gramma. Sit here, against the rock. I'll wrap the quilt 'round. Look, we're just in time."
She could tell from the glimmer on the horizon that it would soon be dawn, but the brightest of the stars were thankfully still visible in the darkness above their heads. Otherwise it would have been so much effort, wasted.
She looked quickly at Gramma. "What is it? Is the pain worse?"
"No worse than before." How faint Gramma's voice was. "Sit with me."
Irvana sat. In the darkness, she felt for Gramma's hand and gave it a squeeze.
"Ah, child, we've had such good times ... not wanted for much ... have we?"
It was a good job Gramma couldn't see Irvana's face. But just in case she could, Irvana shook her head and tried to smile. So what if her stomach rumbled sometimes and the driftwood shack that was their home wasn't always as dry inside as it could be?
"We've got each other. That's enough," she whispered.
Gramma managed a hoarse chuckle. "I remember the day you arrived ... how long ago? Twelve years? You were tiny ... mewling like a kitten ... your poor ma dead not long after you arrived in the world and your pa drowned ... just like my Freyd ..."
"Don't think of that now. You know it always makes you sad."
The stars were paling in the rose light of a new day, winking out, one by one. Soon, there would be none left. Irvana loved to watch the dawn, when colours streaked the join between sky and sea. The sky was never blue as the sun approached, but pink and orange and green and purple.
"I've tried not ... to dwell ... on what I lost." Gramma's murmur was loud in the pre-dawn silence. "Too painful. You ... helped ease the grief." From somewhere, she found the energy to squeeze Irvana's hand. "It won't be long ... before I am lost too."
"You just need to rest." Irvana had to force the words out, past the fear which was threatening to choke her. "You'll soon be well again."
"We both know ..." The old lady's breath was coming now in shallow gasps and she pressed her free hand to her chest.
"Gramma?" Irvana tried to will her young strength into her grandmother's body through their clasped hands.
"When I've gone ... don't stay here ... Go to Koltarn ..." Gramma forced the words out between laboured breaths. "To the Broken Apple ... Ask for Matteuw ... He's the only one I can think of ... who will help ... Tell him ... who you are ... Take my box ..."
"Your box, Gramma? I don't understand."
Even as Irvana spoke, the old lady sighed a long sigh and fell silent.
Not yet! Another breath, please! Breathe, Gramma, breathe ...
But Gramma didn't. There was no sound except the waves and the cry of a lonely gull. No breath.
Irvana stared at ... at ... at what had been a living, loving person moments before. Gramma was dead. Irvana dropped her cheek onto the hand that had relaxed so completely in her own and wept.
How could she carry on without Gramma? She needed her, needed her love and care. Life wasn't worth living without her. Irvana cried until there were no tears left and the sun had risen well into the sky. Then she raised her head and gazed through swollen eyes at the face of the woman who had been her only family for as long as she could remember. Gramma lay so peacefully, as though asleep, and she was still holding Gramma's hand. Her lifeless, cold hand. Irvana released a deep, shuddering sigh and tucked Gramma's hand inside the quilt.
Then, stiff and numb after so long sitting on the floor, Irvana got up. Her legs moved automatically, taking her to the edge of the cliff, where she felt the warm breeze caress her skin. She could smell the salty tang of the sea, even up here. Everything was the same — the sun still shone, the sea still washed the pebbles, the birds still soared above the water — and yet everything was different.
Irvana wrapped her arms around herself and held tight. It shouldn't be like this. The world should have stopped spinning. A light wind played with her hair, teasing it loose from its plait, as though by tickling her cheek it could put a smile back onto her face.
Not a chance. Irvana felt like she might never smile again.
She turned her back on the sea and the sun. She had to keep her mind occupied. She had to do something with Gramma's body.
There was a possibility that niggled at her from one of Gramma's stories. Fire! That was it. That was how the city folk sent the spirits of the dead on their way to the next life: in the smoke. Was that something she could do? The shack was wood after all and there was a little fish oil left to burn ... But that meant destroying the place she'd called home, and she wasn't prepared to do that.
You won't need the shack if you go to the city, a treacherous little voice whispered in her head, but Irvana ignored it. She wasn't going to think about what Gramma had said. Not yet. She needed to deal with what was left of Gramma first.
If she wasn't going to use fire, what other options were there?
A hole in the ground? Gramma used to bury the fish bones so the wolves and bears wouldn't smell them and come out of the forest. The soil at the top of the cliff was stony, true, but it might still be possible. And if she dug close to the rock where Gramma had died, she wouldn't have to move the body very far either ...
A sharp stone served as a crude spade and Irvana scraped at the soil until the sun was high over her head. That's when she stopped and flung the stone away.
"It's no use! It's too hard."
Tears and sweat stung her eyes. She'd dug all morning, and only managed to make a shallow dent, nowhere near deep enough to do the job it needed to. It made her feel sick, the thought that she'd failed and would have to leave Gramma where she was, propped up against the rock.
Irvana wouldn't let that happen. She sat back on her heels and forced herself to think. There had to be something.
What about stones? Brought up from the beach and piled around the body? It wouldn't be easy, and wasn't the best solution, but ...
Using the quilt, Irvana tugged and pulled until Gramma's body was lying in the depression she'd scraped. Then she pulled the quilt over the face she would never see smile again and began the next part of her plan.
Irvana trekked up and down the crooked path between the stony cove and the shack at the top of the cliff many times. She carried the stones in a coarse woven basket and heaped them first around the sides of the body, then stacked them as closely as she could on top. The sun was beginning a lazy descent towards the sea again before she finished and added a line of shells along the length of the cairn, but eventually she stopped, satisfied she'd done enough.
With a groan, she stretched her aching arms and dragged her feet back to the shack. She really ought to eat.
It felt empty inside, even though there were still two beds, a shelf of pots and pans, a rough table with its crooked stools tucked underneath. Irvana went through the motions of eating and drinking, but didn't taste a thing. She was tired, but now that the physical work was done, her brain took over and reminded her of what Gramma had said.
Gramma had told her to leave, to go to the city — but this was Irvana's home. She knew this place; knew the single-roomed shack where all was neat and tidy inside just as Gramma liked it, knew the forest behind and the stream which skirted their homestead before running over the cliff and into the sea in the little cove below. She knew how to catch fish and how to harvest roots and fruit. She even knew where she could trade fish for flour on the roads through the forest. She knew enough to be able to look after herself, even if that meant denying Gramma's dying wish.
But would Gramma haunt her if she didn't go?
Irvana bit her lip, climbed into bed, and pulled her quilt up under her chin. Why would Gramma send her to Koltarn? She had never shown any sign of wanting to go back, in spite of all the stories she told about her old life there. The city had seemed to hold too many painful memories.
A shiver ran down Irvana's back as she slipped into an exhausted sleep.CHAPTER 2
THE FIRST THING Irvana did on waking was roll over to smile at Gramma.
"Morning, Gram —"
The bed was empty.
Irvana choked back a sob. She'd dreamed it all, hadn't she? But the stiffness in her shoulders and arms and the yawning space where Gramma should have been told her otherwise. So she got up and broke her fast, trying to fill the emptiness with food. But she couldn't put off what she knew she had to do.
She had to decide. To stay, or to go?
It was a hard life here, on the coast. Especially when the winter storms raged and the wind whistled between the gaps in the driftwood walls. There had been times when there hadn't been enough to eat, when wolves had circled the shack, when sickness had meant being unable to fish or forage. But before, there had always been two of them ...
Of course, it might be just as difficult to live in the city, even assuming that Irvana could get there. She'd have to avoid the bandits and wild animals who'd made the forest their home first. Come to think of it, Gramma had never said anything bad about the city — there were jobs there, and plenty of food.
And there was this man Gramma had spoken of, Matteuw. Who was he? If he was willing to help Irvana, moving to the city might not be so bad. Had he known her parents, she wondered. Gramma had never told her much about them.
Perhaps there was something in Gramma's box to help explain.
On the shelf above the table was the small wooden casket which had sat there for as long as Irvana could remember. She took it down and stroked its lid, tracing the outlines of the flowers carved into its surface. She had never been allowed to touch Gramma's box. The long-dead Freyd had made it himself and it had been considered too precious for a child's fingers even though it wasn't a delicate piece of workmanship, being rather thick based and crude in design. Whenever Irvana had begged to be allowed to look inside, Gramma had always replied, "When you're older." Well, right now, Irvana felt much, much older than her twelve years — and there was no one to tell her she couldn't.
She put the box on the table, took a deep breath, and opened the lid.
There wasn't much inside.
A handful of shells, similar to the ones she'd laid along Gramma's last resting place, their iridescent insides gleaming. A tarnished silver pendant, shaped like an apple, on a broken chain. Hadn't the tavern been called the Broken Apple? A gold signet ring set with a scratched blue stone which she tried on, but it was far too big and slipped off her finger. Perhaps it had been Freyd's. A handkerchief, edged with delicate lace and yellowed with age. A lock of white hair, tied with a black ribbon — but whose head had it been cut from? And a single flower, faded and grey, which crumbled as Irvana stroked the petals, releasing the ghost of their scent.
Tears of disappointment filled Irvana's eyes. There was nothing here to help her. Everything must have meant something to Gramma, but it was too late to find out what. The tears spilled over and ran down Irvana's cheeks, shed, not just for her grandmother but for the stories represented by the objects which had never been told.
Eventually she wiped her eyes dry. Decision time. Was she willing to risk everything and go searching ... for what? Information about her parents? A new future in the city? Was she brave enough? Yes, especially if Matteuw helped.
And just like that, the decision was made.
There seemed little sense in waiting. It didn't take long to collect everything she needed: the cleanest and least patched clothes, a good thick cloak, and some dried fish and flatbread. Gramma had said to take the box so Irvana closed the lid and added it to the rest of her possessions, wrapping everything in her cloak. Then she picked up her bundle and walked out of the shack, closing the door behind her.
"Sleep well, Gramma," she whispered to the rocky pile and walked into the forest.CHAPTER 3
THE SUN MUST have risen high in the sky, but the forest floor remained gloomy and cool, forcing Irvana to walk quickly to keep warm. She walked until her stomach started to rumble, telling her it must be lunchtime, so she stopped to eat at a place she recognised, where the trees were scored through by a deeply rutted track. The last time she'd been here was a full year ago. She'd been with Gramma then, trading dried fish with the folks travelling to the annual city fair.
Now, Irvana was very much on her own. Her eyes prickled, but she refused to let herself cry. Weeping would do no good now. Instead, she squared her shoulders, hefted her bundle higher, and stepped out onto the rough road, heading south.
As she trudged along her route, she felt like she was the only person in the forest. Even so, she kept alert, watching and listening for any sign that might indicate danger. The sound of a vehicle, approaching from behind, made Irvana's heart leap in her chest. Was it bandits? Panting with fear, she scrambled off the track and pressed her body close to a tree trunk, concealing herself as best she could.
The cart which rumbled into view was a simple affair, little more than a box on wheels, pulled by a plodding grey horse. It was being driven by a young man who was grinning at the woman sitting beside him.
Irvana could see nothing to fear here; these folk looked too ordinary. As the cart drew closer, she stepped out from her hiding place and moved to the edge of the track. The woman must have caught sight of her, because she dug her elbow into the man's ribs. He pulled hard on the reins and the cart drew to a halt.
"What's this, Matild?" he said. "Surely 'tis not one of the woodland fairies?"
Irvana craned her neck to look up into two curious faces.
"Whatever are you doing in the forest, child? It's miles to the nearest homestead." Matild squinted and pursed her lips. "Are you lost?"
Irvana shook her head. Her insides were quivering. How much should she tell these strangers of her plans? She knew she must look odd, and hoped, too late, that there were no leaves caught in her dark hair or dirt on her face.
"I'm going to the city," she said, hugging her bundle of possessions close, like a shield.
"There's a long way to go yet, child. Your family are happy with you travelling alone so far?"
Irvana looked down at the ground. She would start to cry if she carried on looking at Matild's concerned face. Instead, she concentrated hard on watching the beetle scuttling across the toe of her boot. "I've no family left. My Gramma told me, just before she ... She told me to find the Broken Apple in Koltarn and a man she used to know. He'll help me."
When silence greeted her words, Irvana looked up and saw the carter and Matild exchange a glance. The man gave an almost imperceptible nod.
Matild flashed him a quick smile. "Well, then, 'tis your lucky day. We are heading to the city ourselves. I know for a fact that Simean here will be able to tell you the whereabouts of the Broken Apple, because he seems to be familiar with the location of most of the taverns in Koltarn. Would you be happy to ride onward with us?"
Relief turned Irvana's knees to jelly. "Oh! I would. Thank you."
Simean jumped down and helped her climb into the back of the cart, then rearranged the baskets of fruit and vegetables to make room for her. "Comfy?" He waited until Irvana nodded, then climbed back onto the driving box, cracked the reins across the back of the horse, and the cart rumbled onwards.
"I can't thank you enough for this," Irvana said a little later, as the miles were eaten up under the wheels. "My feet were starting to ache. I hadn't realised the city was so far away."
Simean chuckled. "Aye, and it's a good distance yet. You'd best rest while you can. What's your name, child?"
"Well, Irvana, you'll need to do a fair bit more walking in the city, though I'll take you as close to the Broken Apple as I'm able in the cart."
"Have you been to Koltarn afore?" Matild asked over her shoulder.
"Never. Gramma talked about it though."
"Well, it's a grand place, though we only go there once a year."
Irvana felt an unexpected surge of excitement and fired a string of questions at Matild. "Once a year? Is it time for the great fair? Is that why you're going? What's it like?"
Matild laughed and shifted on her seat so that she could speak to Irvana more easily. "Aye, it's the great summer fair. A chance for us to sell our extra produce and trade for goods we can't grow. It's a huge event, brings visitors from all over."
Excerpted from StarMark by Katherine Hetzel. Copyright © 2016 Katherine Hetzel. Excerpted by permission of Bedazzled Ink Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsCHAPTER 1 Changes,
CHAPTER 2 Gramma's Box,
CHAPTER 3 Helping Hands,
CHAPTER 4 The Broken Apple,
CHAPTER 5 The Hiring Stand,
CHAPTER 6 In the Kitchen,
CHAPTER 7 Terenz Returns,
CHAPTER 8 The Guest List,
CHAPTER 9 A Second Meeting,
CHAPTER 10 Yulia,
CHAPTER 11 Discoveries,
CHAPTER 12 Thief,
CHAPTER 13 The Truth,
CHAPTER 14 A Broken Mark,
CHAPTER 15 The Safe House,
CHAPTER 16 The Road to Bernea,
CHAPTER 17 New Friends,
CHAPTER 18 Waiting,
CHAPTER 19 The Presentation,
CHAPTER 20 Betrayal,
CHAPTER 21 Gold, at Last,
CHAPTER 22 A Fatal Encounter,
CHAPTER 23 The Great Fair,
CHAPTER 24 Memories,
CHAPTER 25 Cracks,
CHAPTER 26 Fire!,
CHAPTER 27 The Darkest Hour,
CHAPTER 28 A Brighter Star,