My fantasy novel, “Selah of the Summit,” is about a slavegirl who fetches water from a well. She sees the distant mountains and imagines things she has never known–like trees, stars, lakes, and snow. Her Master Regan and The Craft have kept nature from the valleys, damning rivers and turning all to desert. They weave their material spells upon the slaves, and nothing ever changes. Then, one day, Regan summons Selah to serve him at a banquet. As she fills a goblet, a stranger in a hooded cloak speaks to her and gives her one unmelted snowflake. That very night, the stranger named Micah leads Selah outside the Keep and across the valley, to meet a band of travelers. They journey through hills, moors, and highlands to Mountain Gate. Selah finds beauty, music, and love in the mountains. Regan and his soldiers follow, capture Selah, and imprison her again. She must face loneliness and The Craft to reunite with Micah and journey to the Summit.
Here is Chapter One:
“Selah of the Summit”
By Lonna Lisa Williams
The rider of the red horse takes the lead. Many follow him, on white and sorrel horses, through myrtle trees. They enter the plain and cross it, climbing hills, high meadows, and slopes until they stop before the Mountain Gate.
“Who are these?” a voice calls from the Gatehouse.
“We are the riders sent to patrol the land,” the red horseman replies.
“Come, give your report,” the Gatekeeper commands.
The Gate opens, doors made of white stone like cliffs parting inward. The riders enter, hooves echoing upon the slate-paved path.
As she approached the Great Hall, Selah heard voices and the clanging of metal against crystal. She stepped slowly toward the doorway and peeked in. Already the long table held a hundred guests. Serving dishes lined the sideboard, and tapestries covered the walls. Torchlight danced in the corners.
There were no windows. And though it was midday, the thick stone walls made the room unnaturally dark.
A lone slavegirl stood by the door. With both hands, she held a golden pitcher. She was tall and thin with red curls peeking out from under her cap–and a fresh scar across her cheek.
“Hurry,” she whispered to Selah, bending down toward the smaller girl. “The Master wants you to serve him tonight.”
“But Lillith, you usually serve him at banquets,” Selah protested. “You are graceful and wear a gown, but I am awkward and dusty from fetching water at the desert well.” She lifted one bare, suburned arm. “See, I spilled water all over me, and it turned into mud. Even my dress is dirty.”
Lillith sighed, trying to balance the heavy pitcher without spilling what it held.
Selah reached up and touched the older girl’s cheek. “Did he strike you again?” she asked.
Lillith nodded. “I spilled some of the soup,” she explained, blushing as if the scar were her fault.
Selah was usually quiet and shy, but for some things she had to speak.
“Regan is a cruel man. You have been his slave all of your life, but I have had many Masters at many Keeps across the valley. Some Masters are openly evil, always violent. Slaves know what to expect from them. Other Masters seem good. Some are even women. They hide their service to The Craft. Perhaps they are the most dangerous because they pretend to be what they are not. But a Master like Regan is the worst. You never know what to expect. One moment he can say kind things, and the next he will yell at you, his words cutting into you like a knife. To me, the words are worse than beatings.”
“Well, you can expect a beating if you don’t go in there now,” Lillith warned. “And you should be careful what you say, even to me. Someone could be listening.”
“I don’t care,” Selah replied. “I don’t see how things can be worse than this. Nothing ever changes.”
“Here, put this over your dusty skirt,” Lillith insisted. She set the pitcher down on the sideboard and untied her yellow apron.
Selah frowned as she wrapped it around her. She knew she looked like a dirty little slavegirl, no chance to take a bath or wear a pretty dress. She knew that Regan knew that, too, and that he wanted her humiliated in front of his royal guests.
‘It will be all right,” Lillith suddenly said, leaning to whisper the words. “You can be walking along the same dark hallway you have trod for years, and suddenly, around the corner—comes unexpected help, and everything changes.”
The words seemed visible, like a puff of ice crystals blown up from newly fallen snow into the air. Selah breathed them in and stepped back against the wall.
“What did you say?” she asked.
Lillith merely smiled. “I must go find my little daughter. She is waiting for me.” She wiped a swath of dirt off Selah’s cheek, then turned and hurried down the hallway.
Selah stared at the golden pitcher and sighed, weary to her bones. Three trips to the well beneath the desert sun had dried up her strength like sand, and her work was just beginning.
How can I serve at the Master’s table? she wondered. I must watch out for more than spilling soup.
She sighed and picked up the golden pitcher, trying hard to balance it as she stepped into the dim, noisy room.
“Approach!” the Master called from his place at the head of the table. It was a grand table, carved of wood painted over with gold and holding marvels of crystal, cloth, and porcelain. Selah could not help but stare at each place set with knives and spoons and goblets.
“You have been out too long in the sun again,” the Master observed as she approached him.
She stopped still at the words, amazed that Regan would speak to her in front of his guests. She looked up sideways at him, wishing a veil could cover her. He shone in the light of candles: a slender man, still young, with a handsome face of smooth, pale skin and gray eyes. His hair was long and white, and he wore no beard. A heavy neckchain of white-gold triangles set with moonstones shone above his white silk tunic.
“Come here, girl,” he said, still staring at her. He reached for an object on the table, a small brass bell. He held it up and rang it—once—and the sound, like a single note of music, summoned her.
Selah forced her feet to move across the tile floor. With each step, she felt those eyes upon her. With each breath she felt the risk of dropping the golden pitcher. She could not bear to think of all the other eyes in the long, wide hall, that watched her.
She stopped a pace away from him. He reached out and touched her reddish arm, just above her bronze armband that glistened below her short sleeves. His hand felt hot on her skin, and she flinched, hoping he would not notice.
“Your skin is lovely when not scorched by the sun or covered with a layer of dust. Perhaps we can keep you from having to go outside again. Perhaps we can exchange this bronze armband for a golden one. Tomorrow, come to my Suite. I’ll give you a hot bath and some salve that will fade your sunburn.”
Selah blushed as red as the binding of a book she glimpsed beside a candle when Regan set down the bell.
He laughed at her discomfort. “Don’t just stand there. Serve my spiced wine,” he commanded.
She started pouring the scarlet liquid into his crystal goblet. Her hands shook, and she spilled a drop of red on the Master’s white sleeve.
“Clumsy girl!” he yelled, lifting his arm to strike her.
“Now, Regan,” a calm voice said beside him. “The girl is not used to this work. Give her time to learn.”
Selah looked up at the source of those words. Who would dare give advice to the Master?
A stranger sat at the Master’s right hand. He wore a dark green cloak with a hood over his head so that all Selah could see were blue eyes and a glimpse of reddish eyebrows.
“Yes, you are right. She is used to the sun, not torchlight. I must be patient with her,” the Master relented, lowering his arm. “Now, what do you all think of my plans for the valley?” he asked his general audience of guests, forgetting Selah for the moment. She stepped back against a tapestry woven with blue and gold and red. It showed the image of a fiery bird, and she wanted to hide behind its outstretched wings.
The Master saw her from the corner of his eye and said, “Serve my guests, girl. When you are done here, you may retire to the private room I have reserved for you at the end of the hall.”
His words sucked the breath from her chest, and she stepped forward and gasped for air, her face as pale as Regan’s. Why would the Master take her out of the slavegirl quarters and give her a private room?
She had no time to think of this new problem, for she had to serve. She started with the stranger who had defended her, careful not to spill wine on his verdant sleeve. He watched as she served him, and when she tilted her face to see, she thought his eyes were the brightest blue–like the sky above the mountains. Each time, over the long years, that she had fetched water from the desert well, she had stood to watch the colors that the mountains bore like a promise on the horizon.
“Weeping may last for a night,” he whispered to her while the Master loudly addressed his guests, “but joy comes in the morning.”
Had she imagined the words? Why would a guest of the Master speak to a slavegirl? What could they mean?
As if in answer to her unspoken questions, the stranger smiled, and a light far different than candles or torchlight entered Selah’s dormant heart. She stepped back, almost giggled, and looked for the stranger’s face. He had turned toward another guest, and it was hidden under the hood of his cloak again.
With a lighter step, Selah continued serving the long line of Craftmakers. They paused between each of many courses to say words she did not understand, ring bells, consult books, and toss handfuls of chemicals into candle flames. Her job was simply to fill the goblets with sweet, narcotic wine. She had to refill the golden pitcher several times, from a metal cauldron on the sideboard. But the worst part of her duty was to wait. Poised, ever alert, she held the heavy pitcher with both hands, not able to set it down for an instant, the smell of melting wax and morphine-laden wine, the heat of torches burning on the walls, the sound of voices droning on like insects, the heavy darkness like a veil upon the room—all combined to lure the waiting Selah to a place of waking dreams.
As the afternoon turned to evening and the evening to the night, Selah could barely stand. Her head ached, her feet throbbed, the muscles in her legs and back stretched painfully. Just when she thought her strength would fail and she would fall unconscious on the floor in front of everyone, Regan called her to his side again.
“I have another job for you,” he said. “Go fetch the cauldron from the sideboard and bring it to me.”
Selah lowered her head and forced herself to walk to the far end of the Great Hall. There, in the center of the serving table stood a huge iron pot filled with hot water used for boiling herbs. She set down the golden pitcher and picked up the cauldron with both hands, groaning as she felt its weight against her arms. To keep from spilling it, she held it tight against her chest. Step by step, she managed to bring it to Regan without spilling a drop. He waved her away, and she retreated to the waiting wall again.
She hoped they would not practice the deepest secrets of The Craft. Its signs were everywhere: pointed symbols embroidered on tunics, cryptic words whispered under velvet hoods, pouches of herbs hidden among cloakfolds. But the guests would not likely practice The Craft’s dark spells openly, for that was usually done in a room so private that even slavegirls could not see.
Seeing her fear, the Master looked up and dismissed Selah from the Great Hall.
“Go, get some rest in your new room,” he ordered. “In the morning, you will find new clothes on your table. See that you bring them with you when you come to my Suite.”
He smiled at her, a twisted smile–nothing like the one the stranger had given her.
As she walked past the master’s table, she looked for the green cloak among the many brown and black ones, but the stranger’s chair was empty. Where has he gone? She wondered as she brushed her hand across the spot where she had filled his crystal goblet. Something glistened in the empty glass, and Selah reached in and pulled it quickly out while Regan’s face was turned. As Selah walked toward the open door, she held an object, small and cold, within the circle of her hand.
Read the rest of the story here: