The Ashes and the Sparks
Welcome to the age of airships. It is a world powered by steam and innovation, ruled by an elusive empress at its heart.
Seventeen year-old Jorun is not part of this world. Hers is one of hidden tunnel networks and lights that dance across night skies, one that has remained separate from the rest of society for over a thousand years. This all changes when a boy appears from nowhere, raving about invaders from a faraway land. Purely by chance, Jorun soon finds herself in the middle of a struggle unlike anything she could have ever dreamed of, and must come to the realization that only she can stop an impending war.
BUY THE BOOK
My attention was focused on the other bed, where leather straps at the wrists and ankles tied down a thin shape. He too had a salved cloth wound around his middle, but apart from a touch of dried blood the broken nose was unrecognizable.
He opened one eye. “I was waiting for one of you to turn up.”
“There are boats in the sky.”
To my surprise, he actually laughed. “Well, well.”
“What do we do?” I begged. “You need to help us!”
Both eyes were open now, gazing at me through a shadow of bitterness. “I don’t owe you anything. Let them come, let them kill your family, and let’s see who’s crazy then.”
The mere thought sent a wave of nausea shuddering through my body. Calm down, you can’t lose your temper. Think. Everything and everyone wanted something. Like the weapon, which called out to be used, and the Tunnelers, who’s hearts called out for the mystery of underground... You find what they want, you can control them just as easily as with using fear.
“Then don’t act for me,” I said, steeling my nerves. “Act for yourself. You don’t want the invaders to win, do you?”
At this, his body tensed. “Of course not, but—”
“If you want your vengeance, lying tied down to a healer’s bed isn’t going to get you very far. Please, Fridrik, we can help each other.”
He hesitated. Then, grudgingly; “Alright.”
Despite the alarm bells going off in my head, I untied all four restraining cords and let him sit up. He rolled his shoulders, wincing at the strain on his back, and slipped into a shirt, which had been laying discarded on the floor beside the bed.
“Do you still have that weapon?”
“No. I didn’t see who picked it up.”
“Pity,” Fridrik muttered under his breath, striding outside.
The expression on Tanja’s face when we came out was the same one as a captured wolf pup might sport when first viewing her abductors. She needn’t have worried, since Fridrik strode past her and Ari as though they weren’t there, although most of her terror was probably linked to the looming shapes growing ever larger in the sky.
I didn’t want to watch them. I kept my eyes firmly trained on my feet, making sure I was still moving and not paralyzed back at the healer’s house, and that Ari and Tanja were both matching my pace. One foot, other foot, their feet... Of course, there was always a chance I was hallucinating the whole thing. There was a chance I was still in orlog, and it was all a test. The murder sign, the discovery of the tunnels, Renate and Torgny, just Torgny, Fridrik, the invaders, all of it. I’d wake up and be congratulated by the viska for coping so well, and given a perfectly ordinary trait like ‘courage’.
Right. I had to stop lying to myself. Convincing myself it wasn’t real didn’t change the actual reality of it all. Still, I couldn’t shake off the dreamlike veil that seemed to be clouding over everything, making me feel oddly displaced. Here I was, following Fridrik, without the slightest idea of where we were going.
We’d made our way back across the plain, almost to where the people were gathered. I could see a few separate discussions between adults trying to figure out what to do, but most everyone appeared as numb as I was, mesmerized by the boats.
Fridrik didn’t go all the way to the crowd, instead falling back behind a small stone building used for storing farm equipment. I moved to do the same, but found that Tanja had dug her heels into the ground.
“I can see Modir and Fadir,” she whimpered. “I want to go to them.”
“I’m not stopping you.”
“You have to come with me,” she begged, regarding me with those same wolf pup eyes. “And Ari. Please, Jorun, I don’t want us to all be separated.”
It was so different from her normal attitude, I had to pause before responding to take it in.
“Go, stay, just be quiet,” Fridrik muttered. “But know that when the boats arrive, they’ll go straight for that crowd.”
Tanja made a series of incoherent squeaks.
“You’re going to help us, though?” I managed to ask. “You’re not going to let them hurt anybody here?”
“It’s not up to me,” he replied stiffly.
“But you saw what happened last time,” I said, trying and failing not to sound too desperate. “You can predict what they’ll do.”
“It’s funny how fast you’ve gone from viewing me as a joke to a lifeline.”
“Do they ever,” he said with a shudder, turning his back on me. “Look, I escaped, and that was it. The only reason I’m sort-of helping you is because I want to see if I’ve got any hope of inflicting some damage on the invaders, and if it comes down to it, your safety is my last concern.”
I swallowed the painful dryness in my throat. If only I had the weapon. I shouldn’t have wasted the other shot. I should have tried harder to make my own when I still had the chance. On the assumption that my fate really was murder, then I wanted it to be defending my family.
“Jorun,” Tanja whined for the umpteenth time, tugging on my sleeve. “Look!”
It wasn’t until Ari started gasping like a fish on a line that I finally relented. Fridrik, too, had gone a sickly white at the sight.
The sound reached me first. It was a steady hissing, and the closest thing I could think of to compare it to was the noise made when you blow over an empty glass bottle. Hollow, echoic, but loud. Where the sound was coming from was all the more disquieting.
These weren’t the slender, simple vessels we were used to. These were bigger than four or five of our houses combined. They were made of a polished wood adorned with fancy golden trimmings, especially around the prow and top of the ship, and the bodies were dotted with what could only be windows. They had to be boats, since they followed the same basic shape as ours, but the similarities ended there. They didn’t belong here. Especially not what was making these ships float.
“Are those bags?” Tanja asked incredulously. “They look like upside down bags!”
She was right. The boats all had between one and four...bags...attached to their decks with thick rope. Some sort of steam appeared to be filling them, so that the fabric material which they were composed of strained and flattened from trying to hold it all in. These were bigger than the boats themselves, blocking out the very sun.
Someone was rushing over to us from the plain, wildly shouting my name, but I physically couldn’t look away from the boats, now near directly overhead. The shadows of people were beginning to appear on the decks, throwing rope ladders over the side. They were coming down.
“Jorun, what are you doing?” the person kept shouting.
Too late. Too late. They were here.