I know I keep talking about my upcoming novel and sharing chapters, but my goal is to finish it by the end of July and publish it by September so you’ll get to read the whole thing soon!
I thought I’d share the first chapter with you all so you get a taste of what the book is about. Let me know in the comments if you want to read more!
Note: This story is set on a fictional island in Scotland in the future. The first chapter is narrated by a fourteen year old girl called Scarlett Cliff, but her family call her Scout for short. Archie Cliff is her six year old brother.
Dark Princess – Fiery Skies
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and incidents either are the product of the Author’s imagination or are use fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2021 by H.R Phoenix
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any manner without written permission of the copyright owner except for the use of quotations in a book review.
When I arrive home, the first thing I notice is that the curtains are drawn. The first thing I hear is silence. The first thing I see is my mother bending over my brother’s body.
My rucksack hits the ground quickly, heavy with the fresh rabbit I caught in my father’s snare.
Archie lays there as limp as a fish out of water. As I near, I see his chest rising and falling like the tide and I know he’s still alive. Just not here. His eyes have a glossy, faraway look.
I don’t speak. The first thing I do is kneel down on the floor of our cabin and mop the sweat off his pink forehead with the end of my dress. Ma is shuddering beside me, cradling Archie’s hand. I am frantic inside – and confused. I have no idea what has happened, but I know he is not alright. The whole island is not alright.
It is a quiet and cold July morning; the rivers still sparkling with frost, mud still wet from rain. But my brother is unusually warm – a kind of warm that tells you to help him before it’s too late.
“Archie, can you hear me?” I say urgently. He doesn’t reply. I can see the pain in his eyes as he just stares at me, begging me to do something. I don’t know what to do. I just don’t know what to do.
For a moment I feel the familiar feeling of helplessness. Before it can get to me, I shake it off.
I scan him quickly, making a mental note of every tiny thing. The liquid in his eyes, the way his brown hair is damp with sweat, the way his lips are parted, and his tongue sticks out a little, how his arms and legs jerk slightly. How his heartbeat is slowing.
“She said…” he hisses. “She said.”
“Help him, Scout,” Ma whispers. She clutches my arm. “I tried so hard. I really did. Don’t open the curtains. I don’t want anyone to see.”
I pace around the living room and see flowers scattered over the armchairs, on the dining table, across the mantlepiece. Some are bright purple, some white, some big and gold. And then it dawns on me.
“Did he vomit today?” I say finally.
“All over the floor.” Her voice is faint and crackly, like butter in a pan.
“Did…did you give him anything?”
Ma rocks to and fro, forehead wrinkled. “I made him chew ice chips. Nothing but ice chips.”
I nod thoughtfully. “That’s good. Has he fainted yet?”
“Thrice,” she says and holds him closer. “He was fine last night. Then I wake and he’s on the floor shivering. With a flower. In his mouth.”
“Ok. So it’s. Poison,” I say through gritted teeth. “But…he’s six, Ma. He’s not dumb. He’s smarter than I am. Why would he eat a flower, let alone a poisonous one?”
Archie grunts. His eyes start to close ever so slowly. “She said…”
“I know. It’s strange and we…” Ma’s voice cracks. “We have to help him. I don’t know what I’ll do if we don’t. I…can you…while I stay here, can you fetch the Healer? If he’s swallowed it we need medical assistance immediately. I was going to, but I couldn’t leave my boy.”
“Waste of time. The Healer can’t even cure his own cold. He’s had it ever since I could remember.” I slap Archie’s face gently. “Archie open your eyes.”
“The Healer can at least help! You can’t.”
“I can,” I say staunchly. “I’ve read about poisoning. Did you take the remaining pieces of the plant out of his mouth?”
“Of course I did. It was the first thing I did after I saw him. Please Scout – call the Healer.”
I pluck the flowers off our furniture instead and inspect them.
“Lantana. Hydrangea. Rhododendron. I’ve learnt about them but never saw them up close. They’re deadly poisonous. He could’ve mistaken Rhododendron for honeysuckle.”
I raise an eyebrow. “People have been finding these flowers in their homes, you know. Recently. And you know they don’t grow around here. They only grow in Toirmisgte forest.”
“I know and I don’t care. How do we save him?”
“You gave him ice chips for vomiting already. I think we need to keep him cool.” I carefully take off Archie’s boots and loosen his clothing to help him breathe properly.
“Please open your eyes Archie, please. Ma, help me sit him upright. And erm…what was it…yes, activated charcoal? Do we have it?”
“I made some activated charcoal a week ago,” Ma says. “With coconut shells.”
“Well I read that if you mix it with a little water it treats poisoning. I’ll go get it.”
“No. It’s ruined.”
“Thrown down the sink.” Ma sniffs and breaks out of my stare. “When I came down this morning, there were flowers thrown about and the grounded coconut shells were washed down the drain.”
Someone doesn’t want us to help him. Someone out there wants him to die.
“Has anyone been in here since I left? Except you and Grandma and Archie?” I ask, slapping a hand over Archie’s forehead and feeling his temperature.
“Well I was upstairs, wasn’t I?” Ma says indignantly. “Stop asking questions that won’t help your brother. Just…tell me what to do.”
“I don’t know!” I cry. “I’m not the Healer! I’ve done…all I could.”
“So you’re going to let him die.”
“You haven’t been helping much either!” I sigh deeply, eyes blazing as I try to stay as calm as possible. “Ok. Ok. Give him more ice chips. Do we have coconut shells? I can grind more activated charc-”
“I’ve run out.” Ma narrows her eyes and turns away.
“No worries.” I clear my throat even though I’m burning inside. “The skin around his mouth is reddening. You get more ice chips and then we’ll rinse his mouth and face.”
“Is that a wise idea, Scout?” Ma says.
“Do you have any better ones? I guess it’ll get rid of the poison on his skin and inside his mouth.” I snap back.
“We need to give him…ginger biscuits. And ginger tea for nausea. And erm…plenty of water. And fresh air. Yes, I remember, fresh air is the first step. We need to carry him outside immediately.”
“Scout.” Archie’s eyes flash open, wet and dilated. I feel his icy grip on my arm. His tiny fingers curl tightly around my skin. “Scout.”
“Yes?” I gasp finally, gripping him back. “I’m here. How are you feeling? Thirsty? Hungry? Guess what? I caught a bunny in Daddy’s snare and Ma will cook it for you. Your favourite.”
“Please go, Scout,” Archie wheezes. Ma gently props him against the wall and loosens his t-shirt. “Please?”
“What’d you mean?” I say. A terrible feeling is trickling through my veins. “Archie?”
“You need.” He swallows. “…to go because she said she’s. Coming.”
“Who? Who said? Are you feeling okay? Do you need water?” Ma says in a voice so soft I feel she may break at any moment.
Archie fixes his dark brown eyes on me. “The woman said. She said for you to run because she’s coming. She coming to get you. She wants you. Scout, she’s angry. She wants to get you, Scout.”
“Are you hungry?” I change the subject completely. “I swear, you’ve never seen a rabbit as big as the one in my bag. I’ll skin it and Ma will cook it with carrots and we’ll have a feast.”
“And she said you have something she wants,” Archie carries on huskily.
“And she said she won’t stop till she gets it. And she said she’ll hold on to Daddy till she gets it. And she said if I don’t eat the honeysuckle, she’ll kill you.”
“It’s the nausea,” Ma concludes. “He’s hallucinating.”
“That wasn’t honeysuckle, Archie, it was a poisonous plant,” I say quietly.
“Are you hearing me? Scout?”
“I can hear you,” I breathe.
“She wants you. The woman with black hair. She said to tell you.”
“Tell me what?” I press and hold his hand tighter. “What?”
“She said I have to tell you that everywhere you…go. Eyes are watching.”
“God is watching,” Ma says. “Hush now.”
Archie pants heavily. A bead of sweat rolls onto his neck. “Um. Um. She said for…every second that you don’t give her what she…wants, she’ll hurt our father more. She said she is everywhere. She said the more you…delay…it. The more pain…she’ll give you…and the ones you love.”
“God save us from evil, who said this? Who told you to repeat this?” Ma hisses.
His forehead creases. “She said to tell you, Scout. She is everywhere and in everyone. And you’re going to try to stop her. You’re going to try and get rid of her. But. But by the time you find out her name, everything you ever loved. And knew. Will go up in flames.”
“What does that mean?” My heart is lodged in my throat. I do not understand.
“And she gave you a gift. On your bedroom floor. It is a flower. And…she said she can…make you eat it…just like she made me. Scout, you need to leave. She’s coming. Fiery skies are coming.”
Then his eyes begin to close, and the ghost of a frown dies on his lips.
There are some places that you would not like to visit. Wicked places.
Some say Talamh is full of evil.
I think that Talamh is cursed.
But still, Talamh is home and always has been.
If you came here to visit, you wouldn’t think it was cursed.
But if you lived here for months and years, you would notice that the birds don’t sing, the grey wolves don’t howl and the winds don’t whisper, they claw at you.
Everyone stays in their homes. Locks their windows and doors. Keeps themselves to themselves.
It’s that girl’s fault. The one with black hair. The one who died here fifteen years ago. They call her princess because when she was young she could make people do things they didn’t want to.
Hardly anyone believes that she’s alive today. The princess. Just like they don’t believe the Hounds, her dark-hearted hunters, exist today. They only believe in curses and the curses the Hounds will bring – should they return.
I believe that they’re real and they hide in Toirmisgte forest, past the rockpools.
That’s what our Mayor, Judy Snowstone, calls the dark, leafy forest that lies on the other side of the beach.
She says it’s Toirmisgte, forbidden, because it’s her private property. But though she never admits it, we all know deep down it’s actually because Toirmisgte is cursed.
I’ve never been there, of course.
Though I seek adventure, I’m far too sensible to enter the wicked part of our land, and I know it’s wicked because everyone who wanders in there never returns and Judy is always trying to cover it up.
Perhaps the Hounds are staying silent and waiting. Waiting for the right moment.
Every month since the start of this year, a red-haired child under the age of sixteen disappears.
Perhaps they’ve moved away to another place. Or perhaps they’ve just been taken by the Hounds because no one wants to leave. Not since the Red Tide.
I have never seen another island and know of nothing beyond the waters where the familiar blue hues meet a startling jade green.
It’s quiet and haunting, yes.
But here the air is fresh and cool, and the skies are clear, and the fields are a kaleidoscope of bright green and yellow hues. The houses here are crooked like the ones in story books. The trees give good fruit, and the seas give good fish.
This is Talamh. The cursed land. Welcome to my home.
You may live on a different island, and if you do, you may think I’m crazy. You may wonder why I’m gabbling through the pages. But if you live on my island, you’re probably scared too, and I want you to know that you’re not alone.
I often gabble when I’m afraid, so afraid that I can’t even stop my hands from shaking when I talk about the Hounds these days.
I’m not a chicken. I don’t get scared of everything.
The dark, spiders, thunder. Claustrophobia, acrophobia, zoophobia, ophidiophobia.
Well I haven’t quite finished teaching myself to let a snake curl around my shoulders, but I can pet one. I like saying ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) because it makes me feel older than I really am, and long words impress adults.
Name a common fear – I’ve most likely tamed it. Most likely.
I’m almost fourteen years old and there are only three things in the world I’m very afraid of.
And losing the people I love the most.
It all started with my walk back from school. Ma’s always telling me to come straight home after school. But there’s something so alluring about the nature and foliage on the way home that makes me wander off the path.
There’s something so compelling about the tall oaks scattered around the fields that makes me want to dart up them and sit amongst the leaves and imagine I’m a brave hunter in one of my story books.
And so four weeks ago, that’s exactly what I did.
Stray off the path when I was meant to return home.
Climbed an apple tree and hid behind the mushy fruit.
I didn’t know the Hounds were planning to come for me that day.
Like, how could I have known? But I guess it is still my fault. Which means if my father is dead, I’m guilty.
The Hounds looked everywhere. And because I was nowhere to be found, they took my father instead.
Which was strange because they don’t kidnap adults, says our Mayor. The dark-hearted hunters are focusing on kidnapping red-haired, green eyed, fair-skinned children between the ages of five and sixteen.
Perhaps I’ll never see him again. Perhaps the Hounds have killed him and left his body in the sea for the waves to carry him away. Perhaps he’s dead and I’m responsible.
I wake up, screaming his name like I always do and hit my head on the ceiling.
Sunlight dances around the room, sweeping pretty patterns across the walls. My head aches. I put a hand to my forehead faintly and feel sweat.
There is mud on my bed, clumps of damp soil and grass. I shake it off the sheets, not wanting to get scolded. It’s probably from my dog, Kyla. I don’t quite know why there’s crushed leaves in my hair though.
I clamber down from the top bunk, pull on my leather boots and step over Kyla who is sprawled out in the doorway, careful not to wake her.
I saunter into the bathroom, turn the tap, and watch river water splutter out. As I wash the sleep from my eyes, my mind runs through an invisible list of names. The names of all the red-haired children who live here, including myself and Archie.
I quickly dress and think about which child the Hounds will take and how our Mayor will cover it up.
Archie’s bed is empty. Beside it is a tray of black bottles and medication. He is so weak these days, it must’ve taken a really horrifying nightmare for him to get up and rush to Ma’s room.
He was plant-poisoned over a week ago and still refuses to say a word. Even if I offered to give him my jar of boiled sweets, he wouldn’t talk. He hardly swallows a mouthful of Ma’s stew. He faints more times than you would believe.
Archie’s words echo in around my head, “But by the time you find out her name, everything you ever loved. And knew. Will go up in flames.”
I feel like running outdoors and screaming at the sky. Or screaming at the ground. Screaming at wherever the black-haired woman may be. Screaming at her because Archie may never laugh or smile again.
Screaming at her because my father may be dead. It makes me feel warm all over whenever I think about it.
Just now, I peered into Ma’s room, hoping to greet him, and found Archie instead.
I stare at Archie’s troubled face as he murmurs in his sleep. He is a reflection of my father, inside and out.
There are not enough words in the entire world to describe how much I miss him.
We all are so used to hearing his voice boom around the cabin. Sometimes I stand in the corridor, waiting for Daddy to return and ask me to do something useful.
I strain my ears, listening for his footsteps coming up the path. His lips pursed as he whistles a funky tune. His fists, pounding on the door like a heartbeat.
My own heart is deflated. My blood has run cold. Like someone poured icy water through my veins. I can’t talk about Daddy without my voice going all croaky, like a frog.
Before the poison incident, Archie was fine with Daddy’s disappearance. He’s only young and can’t understand what Ma and I are going through. He doesn’t know about the Hounds. He thinks bandits have taken our father and they’ll return him soon.
Perhaps he’s correct. If he were, perhaps my heart would begin to thaw a little.
Even though Ma doesn’t like to admit it, her and I both know very well that we’re dealing with people – or creatures – far more dangerous than a group of bandits. In fact, everyone on this island knows it, deep down, even though they say the princess and her Hounds are tales. Even our Mayor knows it. I can see the fear in her eyes. Though she doesn’t admit it they’re real either.
I don’t get adults sometimes. Some of them know something is wrong and decide to keep it in, like it makes them stronger or something. It doesn’t.
And that’s why I’ve always been inquisitive. I’ve practically grown up around people who keep in the wrong things and decide not to tell anyone. Perhaps if they did, we can help out – or be warned at least.
Bandits are taking all the red-haired children of Talamh. Lie.
The princess isn’t real. Lie.
Hounds aren’t real, they don’t live in Toirmisgte forest. Lie.
They’re not going to take you Scarlett. You’re very safe. Lie.
If you’ve grown up around lies, it’s quite easy to be a detective like the ones in my books and search for the truth yourself.
And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
End of chapter one.
Let me know what you think below, and if you have any questions!