Chapter One

Chapter 1

The rain came down hard on the deserted dirt road, flooding the crevices left by squeaky wooden cart wheels in the mud. Green trees, swaying in the rain, stood out sharply in the midst of an otherwise dismal world as the only notable color. Sloshing with bare feet through puddles of muddy water, a young woman shifted a wool sack from one shoulder to the other. Her dark hair, stringy and wet, stuck to her moist face, and her eyes, blue as the sky when the first stars of night begin to shine, never looked up from the ground. With her free hand, she held a tired leather jacket closed.
This road, so empty, once led heavy traffic to a prosperous city whose empty streets and boarded-up buildings now stood testament to the rest of the world. "This is what was. This never again will be. Forget not that you, too, may fade away."
Now an eternal resting place for all that is no more, the city rested in a green valley founded by the first king - over three centuries ago. When life seemed simple. But life never was simple. The Grand Illusion - looking back and imagining how simple things were after you have made it through. The city, dubbed "Obsidian" because of the abundance of the black rock, grew up around the king's palace and was surrounded by impenetrable walls built from obsidian. Menacing and safe, the city boomed. This boom lasted for almost 290 years.
Then King Anthracite II claimed the throne. Since several generations before, the official capital of the country, which was named after it's glorious founding city, had been moved several times, and the King's palace was built anew at each one. Anthracite's capital was Halcyon, a growing port city on Lake Lagoda. His palace, however, was not built in the center, but just over a mile from the city.
When the rain fell harder, cascading from the slate-gray skies, the young woman quickened her pace, and mud splattered on her tattered dress. Once, the dress had reached the ground, but now, it only hung past her calves. The icy rain chilled her unguarded flesh, and she again shifted the woolen sack, which was weighted with water. Suddenly, she stopped. The oozing mud partially covered something red in the road. Depositing the sack with a scklosh beside her, she dropped to her knees and pulled it out. She held the muddy ribbon tenderly. Large drops of rain splashed upon it, and the mud dripped off.
The young woman's breath quickened when she saw the ancient writing on the ribbon. Lifting her head and looking back at the colossal black walls of the city, she allowed a small smile to cross her sad features. "They've made it this far," she whispered. "There may still be a chance." In one swift motion, the young woman scooped up her sack, stood up, and turned around. "There had better be a chance." Her hand clamped tightly around the red ribbon, she resumed her journey away from the looming city walls.
Beyond the empty city sat a quaint little inn nestled warmly between the road to nowhere and no road at all. Nowhere isn't a good place for an inn, but nowhere doesn't always start that way, and somewhere always begins as nowhere. Like the city.
In the doorway of the little inn, a plump, middle-aged woman stood dumping the contents of a large pail onto the ground. Unabashed, she wore a man's shirt and vest, a wide skirt that stopped just short of her ankles, and mocasins. She frowned when she spied the girl walking in the rain. "You, girl!" she called with an ill-used voice.
The young woman halted and raised her head. Her full lips quivered.
"What're you doing out in weather like this? 'Specially down this road?"
Wiggling her numb toes in the cold mud, the young woman replied, "Walking." The statement was not without cynicism, but it didn't matter. The other woman didn't seem to catch it.
"You got time to stop? This weather don't look good."
The girl nodded, running her hand through her matted hair and wiping it from her forehead. Obediently, she followed the other woman into the inn, which fit the description of most other low-brow, low-budget taverns, complete with low ceilings, dusty floors, the odd smell of wood that had been sitting for decades. amd windows whose purpose had long been forgotten (what little one could see though the dingy glass was hazy and distorted). With a guilty frown, the dripping creature confessed that she had no money.
"No matter. I need help around this ol' place, so if you got time..." The innkeeper tossed the young woman a blanket.
"If I have time, I can help you?" The girl gratefully wrapped the warm blanket around her soaked body and raised an eyebrow.
"Right." The innkeeper hobbled behind the bar counter; one of her hips was almost four inches higher than the other. She poured two drinks from a small pitcher and sauntered over. "Leona Dae is my name. I prefer Madam. Now," she sat across from her new guest to whom she handed one of the mugs. "What's your name?"
The young woman hesitated. ". . . Leta." She frowned, surveying Madam Dae from over her mug of hot coffee. Unlike the inn itself, the innkeeper was a rather notable character. The middle-aged woman stood at about 5 feet 2 inches, had a square face, a plump figure, and nimble hands worn with ages of work. Her face was thick, but tight, her eyes were narrow and smooth, strangely devoid of crow's feet on the edges, although heavy bags rested beneath them, and her small, but wide nose turned upwards over her thin mouth. Her skin looked as though it had once sported a deep, brown tan, but the tan had faded to the natural color of an egg shell.
"'Leta' is a fine name. So, where're you going, and how important is it for you to get there?" She leaned on one of her meaty arms and ran her callused fingers up and down the metal on her mug. Curious amusement swam in her shifty eyes.
"I'm not really sure where I'm going, but it's very important that I get there." She smiled sadly and looked into the coffee. "I can stick around here for a while, if that's what you're asking."
Madam Dae chortled. "Well, then, feel free to stay here." With effort, she stood and hobbled again behind the counter. One of her hips was four inches higher than the other. Smugly, she glanced at Leta before pulling a key from a squeaky drawer and offering it to her new assistant.
Leta traipsed silently to the only room on the third floor, a small room that was longer than it was wide. Looking around, she sat on the narrow bed and leaned back against the wall. "Food, drink, and a place to sleep . . . " she yawned. "I have time."
The next day, Madam Dae put her new assistant to work. Because the rain still droned on, protected the little inn from water damage became the highest priority. After patching a few spots of ceiling inside the inn, Madam Dae sent Leta out to the stable to see what needed repaired. When Leta returned drenched and annoyed, Madam decided that repairs to the rotting wood of the stable roof could be postponed for better weather. First, they must clean.
"Why," the young woman sloshed her mop once more into a bucket, "do you insist on so much cleaning in one day? There's no threat of guests down this road in this weather." She pushed the mop along the floor, leaving a clean path through the grimy wood.
"Ah, see, you came down this road." Madam Dae scrubbed the countertops roughly. "And last week, two young gentlemen came through this way."
Leta's eyes widened. "Two young men? What did they look like? Did they say where they were going? Do you know their names?" Her words sped from her mouth before she could stop them. They hung shakily in the air, dripping with anxiety.
The innkeeper paused her scrubbing and smirked. "Are you, by chance, looking for them?" Her smirk widened into a disgusting, self-satisfied grin. "Or are you interested in marriage?" Her laugher sounded more like a continuous gurgle than a laugh. Leta wondered silently what Madam Dae would sound like drowning. "Well, girl," Madam Dae's amusement fled when she spied Leta's own amused expression. "I don't really wanta know why you're so interested, but there ain't much information I can give you. Them boys only stayed for some ale and a warm meal."
"Oh." Leta tightened her grip on the mop, narrowed her eyes, and continued cleaning. "Last week, huh," she muttered. "Damn it."
One more night of good sleep later, Leta prepared to leave the small inn. "I know you fed me for two days, Madam, but I did enough work yesterday to pay for it all..." Guilt ridden, Leta's voice barely reached above a whisper.
The innkeeper stood resolutely in the doorway. "I'll pay you for more work, girl." Her desperate tone surprised Leta.
"Well . . . " Leta mumbled, "I do need the money." But . . . A week! I could never catch them if I linger more. But I could move faster if I could afford transportation. She sighed and raised her eyes to meet Madam Dae's. "How much?"