Hello, and thanks for clicking on this story! This is one of two prequels for my in-progress novel, Metanoia. It is highly recommended that you read Innocence Lost first, as it provides background for Alinora's behavior.
Summer Sands is mostly complete, with a few missing scenes and some editing to be done. My primary focus is on my novel, however, and so I might miss some errors. Feel free to let me know and I'll do my best to change them :)
Both Innocence Lost and Summer Sands were written when I was planning on telling my story a different way-switching between the past and the present. The present would focus on a young woman with connections to Alinora trying to learn more about Alinora's past. However, the past had too much detail to cover, and the present not enough, so that was scrapped. These are leftover from those days-before I realized that I had started writing the story too early. Thus, each chapter is prefaced with a journal entry-except in the case of the few times in Summer Sands when I had to split a chapter due to length issues.
Please enjoy, and feel free to leave any thoughts, questions, or concerns in the comments!
METANOIA: SUMMER SANDS
Sometimes the little girl who is afraid of the dark becomes the thing she fears most... just so that she isn't afraid anymore—Nikita Gill
I left Mynera. It was... a difficult decision. It haunts me daily. I wonder, even to this day, what might have happened if I had stayed. Could I have changed anything? What—who—would I have become? Would I have liked her better? I didn't know. I will never know. It's agonizing.
I kept to the forests until I reached the village of Illeth. The population was almost entirely made up of the Valai—valley elves—who had settled here to be close to the Elenai. They did not recognize me as princess… but they did realize very quickly that I was one of the Alarai—one of the Elenai-human hybrids. The term was not widely spread—truthlfully, it had not reached my ears yet; it was months before I heard it, but it is much simpler to write Alarai than Elenai half-elf.
In Illeth, I first went looking for a butcher. I sold him most of the meat that "Liera" and I had hunted. There wasn't a lot, as we had been preoccupied by... other things... but it was more than I could eat on my own before it spoiled. Had I been a spellcaster, I could have kept it fresh with preservation spells, but I had no such talent. And I needed the coin. The castle funds were far from my reach. I made a decent amount of coin off of it. Once the meat was sold, I went to a furrier. The furs, too, fetched a decent price. Most were common animals, but we had one more rare pelt.
Then came the most difficult part of my excursion to Illeth.
I couldn't keep both of the da'lia with me. I wanted to—oh, how I wanted to. But I was going to the desert. Even if Verdani sat at its edge, it was going to be difficult terrain. Especially for creatures used to a valley, with verdant grasslands and plenty of water.
I couldn't part with Ezzi. I'd helped to raise her—the black fur a stigma that only I seemed to see past. Ezzi was loyal to me above all. Only death can separate a da'lia and rider.
It had to be Brynoir, yet that didn't make the decision any easier.
I almost cried. I refused to. Crying was a weakness I couldn't afford—or so I believed. Brynoir was one of the few pieces of Liera left in the world. But I would do her memory a disservice if he wasn't taken care of properly. And he wouldn't be. Not in the desert—not with me splitting my care between him and Ezzi. Not when I started training, and my days would become consumed.
Besides, what did I need with two mounts anyway? To carry supplies? If I could not manage my own supplies, I didn't need to be traveling: pure and simple.
Brynoir stayed in Illeth… and I know not what became of him. I like to imagine that some young Volai girl or boy saw the gentle spirit in him, and… decided they wanted him. Their parents were kind enough to purchase him, and he served a new master or mistress until it came time for them to leave this world.
The thought was one of the few that could make smile, back then. I smile now, even.
The journey to Verdani was a long one, but I reached the city in record time. I barely stopped to sleep. Half-elf though I was, I inherited enough of my mother's blood that I could get away with trancing instead of sleeping. I still needed about two hours, though—and I dreaded those two hours with everything in me.
Ezzi was blessed with plenty of stamina. It wasn't as if I pushed her hard. We didn't run. We just… walked. It gave me a lot of time to think. I spent a lot of time ruminating about the events that felled Mynera—about my own failures.
I spent a lot of time playing back the last time I saw Redd and Chloe.
"Something's been prowling around the Sage's house lately."
Could it have been one of the shifters? Was it a trap?
"He doesn't want you there."
Or maybe it wasn't. Maybe there was never a beast. Maybe the Sage knew—maybe he saw it. Maybe he knew that Liera had been replaced and had assumed that the same fate had befallen me as well.
Or… maybe he knew it was just Liera. Maybe he regretted naming me as heir. Maybe he wanted me to die.
Or maybe he always meant for me to take the path I did.
I didn't know. My emotional state was bad to begin with… but with those thoughts tumbling around my head; with no one there to pull me from them…
I had always been good at over-thinking. At worrying. At mentally backing myself into a corner. At working myself up over nothing.
It's why I was always… so… meticulous. So careful. I checked my bags at least thirty times. I kept a mental—and sometimes physical—checklist of everything I was going to do—and the things I wanted to—and the things I was supposed to do. I did nothing without considering it first.
I worked myself up and down, and up again. I thought about what would happen if Redd and Chloe and Sage Ethari were fine, and if they went looking for me. I pictured joyous reunions. Tears and laughter and hugs.
But my nightmares infected them.
Ethari, Redd, and Chloe became shapeshifters. I fell for the trap once again, and I paid the price. I couldn't escape them—not this time. There was no magical serpent to save me; no convenient childhood memory to keep me from dying. I always woke up before the moment of my death, but… the dreams shook me. They changed me.
The worst of the nightmares, though, were not the ones where my friends had been replaced. They were themselves—no possession, no mind control, no shifters. And…
They told me, in those dreams… that they wished I was dead. I was a poor leader, who had abandoned my people without checking to see if any of them were alive, if they had survived. I was a poor friend, daughter, and lover. I hadn't noticed that the person I claimed to know better than myself had been replaced. I was a terrible person, who deserved what she got.
The list of my sins ran for leagues. I couldn't argue with them… because, as was the nature of a nightmare, they spoke only the words my own mind provided. The truths that I believed.
These dreams changed me. Irrevocably. I will never be the girl that I was—and I don't want to be. She died with Liera, with her parents. She was lost with Mynera. A new woman was born that day… and those nightmares were part of her formative years, after birth.
You can't trust, they told her. You cannot let anyone in. Everyone you care about is just someone to be used against you—someone who can stab you in the back, either as themselves or as someone else. Everyone must be kept at arm's length. Further, even, if you can manage it.
You cannot love people. And people cannot be allowed to love you.
It is easier and safer to be on your own. And truthfully, it's what you deserve. You don't deserve to have people who love and care about you—not if you can't even realize when they're not themselves.
Those are the things that this newly birthed woman grew up hearing. These are the traits she adopted. And when she—when I—walked into Verdani, that was the personality she had adopted.
Verdani was the training grounds for the woman I would become.
Verdani was even hotter than Alinora had expected. The desert air was dry and the sun's light was harsh. She had taken to keeping her skin covered—though she ended each day completely soaked with sweat, it was better than getting sun burnt again. She'd had to use some of her limited funds to purchase a salve to soothe the burning of her skin.
She was glad that they were only in a city that bordered the desert—there was no way the coin she had gotten in Illeth would be enough to pay for water for both her and Ezzi. And she doubted she'd be lucky enough to find an oasis.
Alinora rolled her shoulders; closing her eyes as they popped and stretched. She put the knife down in between a pelt and pile of bones. She had just finished skinning and deboning her morning's hunt—a desert hare. She wrapped the meat in cloth and put it aside. The hide, she stretched taut across a wooden stretcher and put it up in a row with the other pelts she had taken. Three hares, two coyotes, and one desert fox. When she was satisfied that the pelt was secure, she went down the line, checking each of them. The fox and one of the coyote pelts were ready for sale.*
She took them down and carefully packed them away, next to a sack of meat. She'd take it down to the markets and do some business while she observed the patrons.
It had been nearly a week since she had arrived and she hadn't found anyone connected to the Black Swans. Their training hall was well hidden and all of them were well trained in discretion, as she hadn't caught anyone flashing a swan figurine to a merchant. She had hoped to catch one of the apprentices, but she should have known better—the apprentices had likely had the importance of discretion beaten over their heads.
She was close to giving up on finding someone to challenge and just getting the information from a merchant. Sneaking around after dark was risky, sure, but she was willing to bet that she could find one of the Swan's suppliers… and in the light of day, flash the figurine and get a name. She'd continue her original approach for a couple more days, though—no use in doing things half-heartedly.
She packed all of her things neatly into a bag and emerged from her tent. It was hidden behind a rocky outcropping outside of the city—a ways off of the path. She'd done her best to ensure that you would actually have to be looking for it to find it, but she kept all of her most valuable and precious belongings with her, just to be safe. Ezzi was tethered to a makeshift post just beside the tent. She didn't normally like to keep her tied—she trusted that Ezzi wouldn't stray far from her unless frightened—but this was an area Alinora wasn't familiar with. She didn't know anything about the locals—whether they be people or predator. Still… the tether wasn't tight. If Ezzi was truly frightened, she would break free from it easily.
She checked Ezzi's food and water—cheap buckets she'd pilfered on the way south—and, satisfied that the da'lia would be fine for a few hours, she headed off, pack hoisted on her back. The city was only a few minutes away. The guards let her through the gates with barely a glance, accustomed to her presence and trusting that a half-elf such as herself couldn't do much damage. They were most certainly wrong about that, but she wasn't about to correct them.
The heat seemed to increase tenfold inside the city. The streets were clogged with people; strangers bumping shoulders and knocking elbows on their way through. It was enough to make Alinora shudder. She pulled her cloak tighter around herself and clenched the strap of her pack. Steeling herself, she entered the fray. It was a challenge not to shudder at every brush; every slide of fabric against her.
The markets were loud. Stalls were set up in the center of town, a few feet in front of even more stores with indoor wares. Peddlers and merchants alike shouted across the way about their wares, inviting passerby to come look at what they had on offer. Most of the peddlers were charlatans—promising cure-alls for cheap prices and tickets to a wonderful oasis where food and water would never run out. The former were harmless, but the latter were usually fronts for bandits—luring travelers out into the desert for easy pickings. It was disgusting; her fingers itched to do something about it. She had to consciously remind herself that she couldn't solve the world's every problem… even if she wanted to. She didn't have that kind of power, and never would.
Alinora weaved her way through the streets; her hair was sticking to the back of her neck, her clothes beginning to cling to her skin. Her throat was dry and scratchy. She didn't reach for her water, though—she only had so many flasks on hand, after all, and water might have been cheaper here than other places, but it was still expensive. She had two more to go before she needed to make the trip down to the river again—and that was a four hour walk, even when riding Ezzi.
She walked until she reached a furrier—located conveniently next to a butcher's shop. A few other patrons mindlessly milled around, observing the wares on display and enjoying a respite from the heat. Alinora didn't bother waiting—she headed straight for the counter.
"Two more pelts for you," she said.
The dwarf manning the stand didn't look any happier about the heat than she did; sweat glistening on his brow and his face etched in a frown. "Not much for small talk, are ye lass?"
"No point in it."
He snorted. "S'pose that's true. Whaddya got for me?"
"Coyote skin and a fox skin." She laid them across the counter. "In fine condition, as you can see."
He scrutinized them for a minute. "Aye. Some fine quality work you do, lass. Ten copper for the coyote and five silver for the fox?"
Alinora considered. Coyote were a copper a dozen around here—you couldn't turn around when you were hunting without hitting one. Foxes weren't exactly rare, but they were more common further into the desert, and fast and nimble. Honestly—it sounded like she was the one getting the better end of the deal. Two months ago she would have been upset; she had never liked getting (or needing) special treatment… but… now, she could use all of the help she could get. "I'll take it," she decided. Survival was her motto.
He nodded and passed the money across the counter. Alinora pocketed it as discreetly as possible before turning on her heel and heading back out of the shop. She slipped into the butcher's place next door, glad the two were close enough she didn't have to worry about squeezing in between anyone. There were even less people in here; the butcher's didn't get busy until sometime after the sun reached its peak. There was, however, one man. A dwarf. He looked average—not too short, not too tall. Dark hair and ruddy skin; a long braided beard hung from his chin. He was dressed in a green tunic over dark gray trousers; a golden belt cinched around his waist. As Alinora was walking in, he reached up to ring the bell and summon the butcher from the depths of his shop.
Alinora leaned back and watched; her head tilted to the side. There was something about him…
The butcher came out from one of the doors leading further in, wiping his hands on a red-stained apron. "'Ow may I help you?" he asked, looking bored.
The dwarf lifted his hand onto the counter; his sleeve flicked in an odd manner. She caught a brief glimpse at an elegantly carved head—black in coloring and curving sharply into a beak. "Your finest cuts, please."
Alinora straightened slightly; her breath catching in her throat. She hadn't even been looking yet—but perhaps that was the problem. Why wouldn't they schedule their supply runs when the stores would be most empty? Why wouldn't they only venture into shops with a door?
"O-of course, sir. Coming right up. How many?"
The butcher gave a sharp nod; the sunlight reflected brightly off of the back of his head. He ducked back into the back again, rummaging around. He came back swiftly—the fastest Alinora had ever seen him serve a customer—and passed the meats off to the dwarf. The dwarf packed them away and stacked ten gold pieces on the counter before turning on his heel and exiting. Alinora made sure to get an idea of where he was headed before she walked up to the counter.
"Brought some meat. Caught a hare this morning. It's not much, but…" she shrugged and plopped the meat on the counter.
The butcher glanced over it and said, "Three copper."
Alinora gave a short nod. "Fine."
He paid her and she left. Quick and simple, just how she liked it. Perhaps she might have tried to haggle before she caught the scent of her quarry, but… she had finally seen signs of life on a trail she thought cold. Any huntress knew you couldn't afford distraction when that happened.
Alinora didn't bother with discretion as she followed him. She tried to at least look like she was trying to stay unnoticed—but only because she wanted him to underestimate her.
If he was as good as the guild promised they were, he would notice her whether she tried to be sneaky or not. He was a dwarf at least halfway through his five hundred years. She was a seventeen year old—nearly eighteen year old—girl.
She might have had a better chance in the forest, but even that was doubtful.
When he finally did catch on—if he wasn't aware of it immediately—he would lead her somewhere quiet.
Lucky for her that's what she was aiming for. She reached in her pocket and gripped the swan carving tightly. If it wasn't, she'd be in big trouble.
As she followed him, she took the time to observe him more closely. He was shorter than most humans, and all of the Elenai. Broad shoulders. Dark hair. But he had missed a few spots on his last touch up. At the right angle, the sun caught glimpses of red in his hair and his beard. It caught glints of silver at his collar; his wrists. Lightweight armor beneath his clothes, then. Most likely thin chainmail or mithril.
She would bet that he was armed, too. At least one dagger in each boot; maybe more weapons hidden in his sleeves. Who knows what else he might have on him as well? She would have to stay vigilant.
He took odd paths to where he wanted to go. Roundabout methods that took him longer to reach each store. She thought she was imagining it, at first. She didn't know this area well, after all. But it became clear that she wasn't.
He didn't avoid the crowds, as she might have expected. Instead, he journeyed straight through them; calling out to market vendors and sharing nods with passerby. It was a struggle to keep her eyes on him; and with every step, her stomach tightened itself into knots. He nearly got away from her on three separate occasions.
Alinora couldn't say she noticed when, exactly, he caught on—she wasn't experienced with reading dwarven faces or body language, and regardless, he was likely well trained in the art of deception. She did notice, however, when they started heading into areas where the crowds were thinner. Less people striding through the streets allowed her to let go of some of the tension in her muscles.
She almost laughed at herself—here she was relaxing when the dwarf was likely planning her demise! But she couldn't help it. Being stuck in the center of so many bodies was making her stomach curl. She'd thrown up three times on her first day, ducking into corners to void her stomach. She'd left early that day. Since then, she couldn't say she had grown used to it, but she was better about suppressing the urge to vomit.
He ducked into an alley; Alinora right behind him. Just before she blocked the sun, there was a flash of light in his hands. It was so quick that she almost missed it.
He'd already drawn a weapon then.
She adopted a relaxed stance. Despite appearances, she knew she would be able to throw herself to the side lightning quick, drawing her blades before he had the chance to attack again.
Dwarves—even dwarven assassins—were slower than elves—even half elves. It was something Redd had drilled into her head when he was teaching her self-defense, by request of her mother. Alinora had always wondered if she knew the truth about his identity. She assumed that her mother had to know; why else would she ask him to train her?
"Now—what is a pretty lass like you doing following me around?" he asked, turning to face her.
Alinora smiled. "You seem like a gentleman with a good grasp on the layout of the area, and I happen to be looking for a certain location."
"You could ask any shopkeeper around the area for that kind of information. I suggest you think of a better reason. Perhaps the truth?"
"But that is the truth, sir. I seek a very specific place. No shopkeeper could tell me where it is—and I wouldn't even attempt to ask. Its location is a secret; known only to members of the guild it belongs to. It's a training hall, see. A local training hall. For those of a… very specific lifestyle."
His jaw tightened. "Ain't no training hall 'round these parts. Dunno where you heard that information from, but you best be moving on." 'If you know what's good for you' was implied loud and clear at the end of that sentence. His eyes were flashing dangerously.
Good. It was as well guarded as she expected. It was good to hear that they didn't treat the lives of their apprentices carelessly. "Really?" she made herself sound disappointed. "Such a shame. Guess my friend was wrong, then."
"Who's this friend of yours?"
"Called himself Redd, usually," Alinora said. "But I think you'd know him by a different name. Crim, I think."
"Crim— Describe him to me." This was a demand—no polite facade masked those words.
"Human. Tall, broad shouldered, muscular. Bushy red facial hair—mustache, beard, sideburns. Occasionally he misses a touch-up and showcases brown roots. Usually kept a little braid in his beard, secured by a golden band. Ruddy tanned skin. Likes to wear a red cloak."
"By Death's oldest… I can't believe it. You knew that old bastard?"
Alinora laughed. "He was a member of the local Hunters and Huntresses guild. He trained me. I discovered this," she held up the black swan, "when I was thirteen. Four years later, he gifted it to me, along with a list of cities. Told me if I was ever in trouble, to head to one of those places and flash the swan."
"And are you in trouble, lass?" His posture was far more relaxed, now.
"Aye. But not the kind of trouble he was imagining when he gifted me this, I'm sure. A good night's rest and a meal or two won't fix this—nor could a healer. I need training. He used to tell me stories of Verdani's training hall. How people would come in and challenge one of the members of the guild. If they beat them, they got in—no questions asked. So."
"You're here to challenge one of us."
"Aye. I'm afraid he never quite detailed how one went about doing that, though."
"Well—following one around for two hours seems to work pretty well for you, lass. You do realize that Verdani hosts the boys' hall, yes?"
"And is this an official rule? Is it written down somewhere that only boys can attend the Verdani hall?"
He thought for a moment. "…no, I can't say that it is."
"Hm. Then I think I'll take my chances."
"As you wish. No weapons. I won't kill you just because you made a stupid decision—this time. We fight until first blood, or someone calls mercy. Understand?"
Alinora readied her fists. "Understood."
He was faster than she had anticipated… but not fast enough.
She darted out of his way and lashed her foot out. Her foot connected with the back of his leg and brought him onto one knee.
He allowed himself to fall and used his momentum to crash to the ground, rolling away and jumping back to his feet. He charged at her again, shoulder forward.
She stepped out of his way once more and grabbed at his hair, attempting to pull him backwards.
He whirled around at the touch to his hair and lashed out. His elbow connected with her stomach and she doubled over, the breath knocked out of her.
She kept her grip in his hair though, yanking backward before he could ram his elbow into her nose.
Off balance from turning around, he crashed backward and onto his ass.
She drew in a sharp breath and lashed her hand out at his nose; he grabbed her wrist and flipped her over his head.
She twisted from his grip and jumped to her feet; pulling her arms into a defensive position.
"Dwarves are fast—despite their stature. Most people who fight one working in light armor go down quick; they don't realize how fast they can move. You're faster than anything I've faced, so you shouldn't have a problem with their speed. But their reflexes are uncanny. Get near one, they react quick. You're always channeling that speed into your legs, but if you want to fight a dwarf, you better start pushing it into your arms as well. Now—"
Alinora grit her teeth. She rolled her shoulders and felt a rush of heat fill her arms.
She narrowly dodged another charge; this time, she channeled that speed through her arms.
Her fist connected squarely to the center of his back.
He tipped forward onto his stomach and she leapt onto him; straddling his waist.
"Give up, or do I need to turn you over and break your nose?" Her voice was breathy but there was a clear threat in it. Those were no empty words; she meant it.
He lifted his head. "I give, lass."
She pushed to her feet and offered him a hand up. He took it.
"You fight well, lass. Should have expected nothing less from someone trained by Crim himself." He shook his head. "Come on then—I'll show you the way to the hall."
He lifted his pack as Alinora did the same. She almost felt as if it had been too easy; adrenaline sang through her veins. She wanted to get back to grappling through the alley. But she took a deep breath to calm herself—she would get to do plenty of sparring at the hall. And even if she didn't, she wasn't here to wrestle. She was here to learn.
Fighting—more than she could ever want—would come later.
*I know nothing about skinning, deboning, or preparing an animal for sale at all. I did what research I could, and tried to keep descriptions brief. If you see anything glaringly wrong, let me know and I'll correct it.