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BLOOD OF THE BELLOWFLOWER SERIES - BOOK 1: THE SIFTING - Laura Neibaur - YA Sci-Fi


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Revised Chapter One - Introduces the Sifting Ceremony and two main protagonists, Hild and Razzia. 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

Hild looked down the shaft of his arrow through a small gap in the foliage, then readjusted his hand on the grip. He felt his heart beating in his fingers as they held the nock of the arrow just behind the blue and gold fletching. He crouched, ready, waiting, and fearful, for today, the Sifting Ceremony began. Hild watched in mute horror as the dark-armored guards appeared, dragging a young girl from a nearby tent. They shoved her toward the center of the large, circular courtyard and dropped her at the base of a polished stone altar shaped like a bellflower with its petals open like a wide mouth around the marble platform. Hild recognized the girl.

Razzia!

His heart sank, and an overwhelming feeling of guilt and crushing agony descended upon him. She looked fragile, diminished when she had once been vibrant and full of life.

Many of the gathered spectators decried the scene while dozens of armed guards pushed against the riotous throng gathered in the square. A group of angry citizens took up stones and hurled them at the guards while shouting obscenities. Surrounding onlookers made a wide birth as three guards hurdled the wall, flanked the rebellious men, and then began to beat them until they dropped in forced submission beneath blows from sword hilts and armored fists.

The soldiers dragged the rebel’s limp bodies in a trailing cloud of dust through the courtyard and strung them up against a stone wall with the other Sifting candidates who waited in trepidation for the extraction process. 

Hild’s eyes locked onto the High Shaw, who walked with imperious detachment toward Razzia. The Shaw gestured to the guards, who lifted her wilted body onto the granite altar and chained her wrists above her head.

Hundreds of rebel defectors waited behind Hild in the undergrowth, watching the proceedings, impatient for the unseen boundary to open and the sign to be given. After the sign, they would storm the camp and raid the courtyard, but this would not happen until blood had been spilled—Razzia’s blood.

                                                           

 

                                                                              ***

 

 

            Hild sat up from the dream, startled, panting for breath, and bathed in sweat. He felt the solid earth beneath his hands. He looked around him and exhaled. “What the devil was that?” He muttered, getting to his feet. He shook his head again and blinked at the sunlight. Hild had experienced vivid dreams before, but none had ever felt so real and intense.

Stranger more, the terrifying dream sounded much like one that continued to torment Razzia. Dreams frequently plagued her with restless nights, but this particular dream seemed to have a more alarming effect, and now its corporality induced a strange and unsettling mood in Hild.

He had not seen Razzia in days and had hoped she would meet him in the orchards. He began to wonder where she was, but harvest time kept all the servants busy.

Hild determined to follow the orchard path to Tuz Vira and look in on Razzia before returning home. After giving himself a moment to readjust to the burning sunlight that had stained his cheeks and neck pink, Hild swung the leather satchel of plums over his shoulder and glanced up at the heavy branches of a damson plum tree. Green leaves curled like wreaths around blue and purple clusters of dark fruits.

The ominous dream continued to loom over his consciousness, making it difficult for Hild to discern reality from fantasy. Perhaps he still dreamt. He reached up and plucked a plum from the tree. It felt tangible enough in his fingers, but then so had the bow grip and feathered fletching. So had the searing feelings Hild experienced while watching Razzia chained to a stone altar by Segaeta guards.

 

Hild watched orange sunrays peak through thin mid-morning clouds that swept across thriving green orchards and hayfields beneath a boundless blue sky. His eyes followed the desert path toward the tiny village of Mijloc-Teren. Though he had never been that far outside the boundaries of his homeland, he somehow knew that his mind had been there moments before, in the Segaeta camp, witnessing the nightmarish ritual.

Hild decided to dismiss his dream, blaming it both on the result of Razzia’s constant prattling about her dream and the disturbing talk he had heard in the village. Nonetheless, he would stop at Tuz Vira on his way home, just to settle his state of mind.

Hild began to wonder how the normalcy of harvest could continue despite rumors of unusual and unprecedented occurrences this close to home. He wondered if there would be a harvest next fall, and even more, he worried about the news he had heard in the piaţă that day.

That morning, the market had brimmed with the usual commotion of bodies, circulating money, goods, and information. Hild had always found it irresistible to hear the market gossip and debate with the old men who gathered in the squares. But something about the dream, the Sifting, and the recent occupation of the Segaeta faction in Buclaminta had made rumors in the market more menacing.

 

Tineri, Hild’s favorite horse, pressed her velvety nose through stray patches of alfalfa. Hild stroked her mane, patted her strong neck, and breathed in the therapeutic earthy scent of horse coat and ripe plum orchards. These smells brought a sense of grounding and comfort.

            Then Hild heard a familiar voice, like notes of a bell, “Daydreaming again?” She asked.

            Hild turned with a half-grin at her wide smile. Only Razzia could sneak up and surprise him that way.

            “Oh no. You look annoyed. Did you sleep in the stables again last night?” She asked.

            “I did, but that is not the trouble.”

            “Then what is?”

            “I had a strange dream. In fact, much like yours, but from a different perspective. I am worried now,” Hild frowned.

            Razzia’s expression dropped, and a concerned furrow shadowed her usually radiant eyes – one green and one golden-brown. “Aha? You afraid it will come true, then.”

            “No.” Hild replied, “I am afraid of turning into a little theatrical demon-host with bad dreams every night. Like you?” He gave her a sporting smile.

            Razzia tightened her lips, “I do hate you, Hild. I do not host demons, and you deserve bad dreams, so you will stop pestering me about mine.”

            “I will stop pestering you if you stop talking about them. You are infecting me with your dream disorder.”

            Razzia rolled her eyes and then reached up and plucked a dark fruit from its stem. Hild could tell from her wind-blown hair that she had run through the fields from her estate that day. Like the mane of a Danube horse, her unrivaled dark hair flowed out from beneath a flowered garland with ribbons. Though unmarried, she had come of age and insisted on wearing a blue wool, colorfully embroidered, ponyova skirt to accentuate her maturity in contradiction of her youthful ways.

“Let me guess your bad dream.” Razzia took a bite of the plump little plum and then put a finger to her chin, “You lost a fight with Reinick. Or were you bedeviled by adventures out of your grasp? Pirate ships riding the Mavi Sea on the coast of Zbura? Or surviving the haunted Bântuit forest?”

Hild swung himself onto the dapple-gray mare. “Do you need a ride home, little demon?”

Razzia looked hurt. “I just got here?” She pointed behind her, “I ran all the way from Tuz Vira.”

Hild grinned and shrugged, “The bucatar sent me to the piaţă for fowl meat. I had better not be late, or Antal will lose his temper. Then I need to help harvest, and I have two colts right now.” Hild murmured, “Reinick fed the new arrivals twice yesterday instead of letting them graze. Next time, I am trotting the blasted horses to his hallowed bed chambers, and he can babysit while they colic.” He raised an eyebrow at Razzia, “So, as you can see, I have a lot on my plate.” Razzia folded her arms in disappointment and made a pout with her lips, which warmed Hild. He sighed. “I suppose we could take a short ride before harvesting. Want to help in the orchards today? Or will Benca beat a stipe on your back?”

 

“I do not care if she does.” Razzia could not hide her excitement behind a curtain of expression if she tried. She hurried over to Tineri, and Hild pulled her up behind him. Tineri read Hild’s slight shift in the saddle and stepped through the orchard toward the stone-paved trail that wound between the elite Upper Boundary estates of the kingdom of Buclaminta.

“Do not go very fast, or let me fall off, Hild.” She said nervously.

He glanced behind him, “You could branch out of your boringness and learn to stay on by yourself. I could teach you. Tineri might appreciate it. Since you are so enormous, you know.”

“No thanks. I am quite happy with my enormous boringness. Any news from the posts in the piaţă?” She asked, “But please, nothing horrible about the Segaeta or Katona guards.”

“Oh, I see. Only the good news. We would not want to spoil your imaginings with any reality.”

Razzia wrapped her arms around Hild’s chest, “Absolutely not. My imagines can be terrible enough on their own, like my dreams. There is still some good news, is there not?” 

Hild did not answer. Somehow, life always went on, no matter the news, but Hild felt a distinct change in the air, though he hoped he was wrong.

 

Sour cherries and fresh fowl meat from the local piaţă jostled in the leather dublari at Tineri’s haunches. As they ascended the mountain path along the steep edge of a rugged cliff, Hild could see the rippling terrain of the Desert Noapte, like a glassy orange and black sea in the distance.

He recalled stories of desert tribes and unmarked paths across dangerous territories, but only warriors left Buclaminta, and only the best returned. “I should have led out with the warriors years ago,” Hild said sullenly. “Blasted ear.”

“You should thank your deaf ear. Plums and horses are important to you know.” Razzia replied.

“Plums and horses,” Hild grumbled.

“We are not going far, are we?” Razzia asked, glancing back toward Tuz Vira. “Kasyl does not like me to go far.”

“Razzia, if a hunting trail frightens you, we need to get you out of the kitchens more often.”

“I do not think you understand. Kasyl strictly forbade me to go beyond where I could see the estate. I disobey him enough on your account. Now turn us about, and let us go on that lovely veiled pathway we always take.”

Hild turned his head all the way around to look at Razzia, “You are not in earnest, are you? Do you think because you dreamed that leaving Tuz Vira would cause it to set fire, that it actually will?”

Razzia huffed, “I do not see any reason to be very far from home, that is all. Kasyl forbids it. And I do not like dark, frightening forests.” She stared at the black web of trees ahead.

“This is not the Bântuit, Razzia. It is just a hunting trail. The most terrifying creatures you will find are a red stag and the odd rabbit or fox.” And with that, Hild prompted Tineri toward the tunneled path.

“There it goes. It is gone.” Razzia said with irritation. “Poof. We have left the fields and orchards behind, and you are now breaking every rule of Kasyl’s. I shall never ride with you again.”

“It is just trees! You are such a stick in the mud about the rules. And no rule exists saying that you must be in view of your home at all times and never go in trees.”

Tineri pricked her ears but stayed steady as they curled along the path, darker and deeper into the forest that coiled into a tangled arch overhead. The pathway turned this way and that with a slight bump up and then a dip down and on until the opening from behind no longer offered its meager light. Unrestrained winds that had coiled across the orchards and fields now channeled into the wagon route and sang an eerie tune.

“I like rules,” Razzia meekly said as she glanced around her.

 “You like to make them up,” Hild mumbled.

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