(WOOHOO! You’re entered for the giveaway. Now for the free first chapter. But first . . . a DISCLAIMER: This is a rough draft! So it’s a real behind-the-scenes sneak peek. The story starts with Adah, an unmarried young woman whose home is attacked. Her connection and importance to the story is that eventually she becomes Noah’s mother! I hope you enjoy reading.)
“You will not dishonor your family.” Father’s words rang against the wooden walls of their home as he ducked past a beam to step near. His head tipped like a boulder on cliff shoulders, and Adah straightened to match his stare, waiting for what would surely come tumbling out of his mouth.
“Irad,” Mother warned as she stood against the wall on Adah’s left, kneading dough on the only table in their living room. Her shadow stretched double in the light of the candles burning on the opposite side of the room, mirroring her husband in size and shape.
“Lenah,” Father mocked, not looking from Adah. “Don’t say my name like an obscenity. Our daughter is throwing away our lives, the labor of our ancestors. The stress will be the death of me.”
Mother dusted her hands so the dough wouldn’t stick. “You are fine.” The table’s legs danced on the packed dirt floor with the shifting of weight.
Father’s face darkened as he turned. “I spent the last month lying in bed coughing blood.” He thrust a finger toward Adah. “And what has she done? Learned from that vagabond how to chisel symbols into clay?”
Adah’s shoulders tensed. “He has a name, if you would only care enough to remember it. I chose to better my future. The furthest you can think is next spring.”
Father laughed. “Did you drain our wineskins with that mouth of yours? The early frost killed half our crop, and if you would have been anywhere you should have been, we could have saved twice as much from the second frost already descending.”
“Stop shaming her.” Mother rested one hand on the table, the other on her hip. “You know as well as I do you refused her offer to help harvest weeks ago.”
Father slapped the beam. “I didn’t need her help weeks ago!”
“If you would have but told me,” Adah said and remembered finding Father when he first caught sick—clawing his throat and wheezing. Since childhood, she had thought him indomitable, but seeing him too weak to breathe had opened her eyes to a new reality. Even now, months later, he could handle only half the workload he could before.
“Look what you’ve done,” Mother said. “Her face is pale. And she’s shaking, the poor thing.”
Father sat on a stool beside the candles and rubbed his face with a callused hand. “I trust Jubal. He is a good man. I just want my daughter to be with a good man.”
“I know,” Mother crossed to him and rubbed his shoulders, dusting his tunic with flour. “She knows.”
Adah’s fingernails bit her palms like clutched cinders. “Good is not enough.”
“She wants to be free,” Father glanced up, “like some wild animal in the forest. But she is no deer. She cannot run off with every charismatic foreigner who wafts through our village. My heart tells me that vagabond is a coward. And what will they say?” He flicked his hands as if to cleanse them. “She must marry a man like Jubal and stop this foolishness before she throws away our dignity.”
“I hate him,” Adah said, and her insides shook.
Mother squeezed her arm. “Now dear, you don’t hate Jubal.”
“I will care for the farm,” Adah said. “You claim I’m more knowledgeable about farming than any man you’ve met. Yet now I’m not enough?” Cold breath burned Adah’s nostrils.
Father frowned. “A woman may do a man’s work for a day, but not a lifetime. Do you not think of shame?”
Embers spread through Adah’s chest. “You’ve shown me nothing else.”
Father glanced at Mother, who shook her head, crossed to the table, and squashed the dough with renewed vigor.
“The farm may thrive under your ownership,” Father said. “But when you die, all your labor will be choked by weeds. You need children, and to have children you need a man. How many times must I say it?”
“Explain to me how choosing my own husband is anything but fair,” Adah said.
“I ask you to obey, not to understand. Do you really think I would let you marry that fool vagabond? His hands have known as much work as an infant’s.”
“What she asks is fair,” Mother said.
Father’s brow creased like freshly plowed fields. “Our daughter is fiery enough without you tossing her kindling.”
“You can afford to give her what she asks for,” Mother continued.
“And you can afford to keep silent.”
“This isn’t about—”
Adah skirted them to the door, threw it wide, and exited the house. The air was crisp and opaque. Shadows bled from the fog rolling over the tilled farmland toward the forest rearing like a host of spears, ice-tipped and glittering. The mountains loomed beyond, crowned white to match their weaponry.
Adah noticed a hatchet lodged in a stump and heard Father’s voice rising against Mother’s. She took up the hatchet in both hands, returned, and set her back to the door as they noticed what she held.
“Hand it over,” Father said.
“You taught me I could be anything I wanted.”
“Give me the tool,” he stepped forward, but Mother stopped him by the arm. He glanced back. Set his jaw.
“If I were a boy,” Adah continued, “our struggle would be over. So why not let me be what you always wanted?”
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Mother said.
“I’m no fool,” Adah continued. “I hear the intent behind your words louder than what you speak.” She chilled her voice until it was colder than the iron in her hands. “You’re ashamed I wasn’t born a boy, that you have no heir, no legacy. So you wish to trade me to gain one.” She smiled humorlessly. “Barter the worth of my womanhood for the benefit of your pride.”
Father’s eyes flashed like glowing sickles, and Mother spoke before Father could. “You’re upset. We understand.”
But they didn’t. They couldn’t. Not unless she showed them. So before they could say anything more, she grasped her hair into a thick tail and, as Mother cried out, she sliced it through and let it fall to the ground.
Mother blinked and knelt to grasp at the hair on the floor. “This has been growing since you were a babe.”
Father let a breath grate his teeth. “You should have let me take the hatchet.”
Mother lifted a fistful of hair. “You think that would have made a difference? She’s forced your hand, you old fool. No man would dare marry her now, save the one you call a vagabond.”
Father turned toward Adah. “Nothing in this world has made me more infuriated than you. You terrible, insolent daughter.” He approached, his voice and gaze sharper than obsidian. “But I would take you over five sons. You’ve no right to claim I wouldn’t.”
Adah dropped the hatchet and balled her hands into fists. Mother rolled the severed hair between her hands, grimaced and let it fall. Adah closed her eyes in preparation for what might come next. She had experienced it all too often—the harshness of Father’s voice as he shrunk her actions to shameful little things.
But Father stepped near, embraced her, and kissed her forehead instead.
Her breath stumbled on the edge of a sob, though she managed to maintain her composure for she knew these tactics too. Father would humble himself to elevate his rebellious daughter to something more elegant—to anything but what she was.
She stiffened to show him she was no fool, not anymore. But her throat ached, and in truth, what good would resisting do?
Her stomach knotted with the realization that part of her, the part that really was still small and weak, wanted his tenderness, wanted to hug her father and weep into his shoulder and tell him she was sorry she couldn’t be what he wanted.
She scowled, blinked burning eyes, and shook her head.
Father inhaled as if to speak, but five knocks at the door silenced them.
The three turned, and the knocks returned, followed by a voice muffled past the pitched wood. “Open, in the name of the God-King.”
Mother said, “What?”
“Hush,” Father said, and swallowed and stared until the knocks became pounding. “Who beats my door at such a time?”
“Messengers of the God-King,” came a deep, throaty voice. “Open the door.”
Father turned toward Adah, sweat glistening across the bridge of his nose. “Hurry,” he whispered, “to the cellar. Do not—”
“They have no right to be here, don’t let them in,” Mother said.
“You speak of what you don’t understand. If—”
“Open the door!” The voice came louder.
“Men such as these do not abide being made to wait.” Father’s eyes grew dark and hard, “Go. These are foreigners.”
Mother started to protest, but Father cut her off. “Their king has been visiting our city since midway last season. I fear more than inconvenience in their visit tonight.”
Mother frowned, grabbed Adah’s arm, and urged her back.
“No,” Adah said.
Mother jerked her close. “Enough.”
Adah set her jaw and dug her feet in, but after an insistent shove from Mother, a furious gesture from Father, and more violent pounding on the door, she allowed herself to be marched into the other room.
The cellar door was heavy on its hinges, and Mother eased it open, careful not to let it creak. When it was wide enough for Adah to slip through, Mother pushed her in, and Adah tripped and caught herself on the skinned lamb hanging from chain hooks anchored in the cellar’s ceiling. She twisted around, glared, and wiped the blood on her dress.
“Hush,” Mother said, and pressed the door shut.
All was dark. She reached for shelves but failed to find them. Her belly tingled and she felt uneasy. Chains swayed and jangled as she crouched and hugged her knees. Blood dripped to cold puddles. Wind buffeted the house, bending it minutely, beating moisture from wood. She could hear each beam settling slowly, the weight of their bulk pressing into the earth.
If her parents thought they could continue treating her like this, they were mistaken. But Father had never ordered her into the cellar before. Something was wrong, that much she knew.
Deep voices. She wished she could hear what they said, but the walls were too thick.
Her head spun. She pressed her hands to the floor to steady herself. An insect scurried up a wall, and she turned toward it, eyes straining.
Father’s voice overwhelmed the others, warm and powerful at once. The voices grew. Adah’s breaths came and went like the tide, shallower with each pulse.
Father yelled, a scream tore the air, and the house shook. Adah twisted, her shoulder knocking pots off the shelves, shattering them on the floor, spilling spices and pungent oils. Her trembling hands reached for a broken shard. She found one, gripped it hard, struggled to her feet, flung the door wide, and sprang into the light.
There, in the entryway, lay two strange men. Blood seeped from the corners of their mouths, and though Adah had never seen a dead body, they lay disturbingly motionless. Father leaned against the wall beside the open door, holding the hatchet. Mother shut and barred the entrance as Father pressed his back to the door and slid to his seat.
Adah trembled, staring at the motionless men. “What happened?”
Father cursed. “They saw the hair. The hair! They wanted you, Adah. Do you hear me? Thought we were trying to trick them, make them think you were a boy. Gods protect us.”
“Why did they come here?” Adah said.
Father offered a glance that said more than words could. “This is not the first house they visited.”
Mother stood with a knife in her hand and wildness in her green eyes. Adah looked at the men and noticed curved horns sprouting from their skulls. The horns were so foreign her mind hadn’t let her see them upon first glance.
From outside came muffled shouts. Adah’s skin tingled and her face chilled. She closed her eyes hoping it were all a dream. But as she opened her eyes, everything remained.
There came more pounding and new demands, but Father only leaned against the door and stared at the bodies. Mother wrapped her arm around Adah, who stood examining the knife clutched in Mother’s hand, and the pottery shard in her own.
Mother said, “Do you hear that?”
Father moaned, tested his wounded arm, and grimaced.
“We need to clean that wound,” Adah said, her voice high and brittle. “If we don’t—”
Mother chopped the air. “Listen!”
There it was. Crackling. Popping. A low drone.
“They’ve set fire to the house,” Father said.
Adah searched for signs of the flames, closed her eyes and kneeled, holding her head in her hands. “This is all a dream. I’m going to wake up now.”
“Something must have gone wrong,” Father said. “We knew they were a warlike people. . . but this? I fear our king is dead.”
“Wake up now,” Adah said. “Wake up!”
“Stop, Adah!” Mother turned toward Father. “We can’t just wait here in the entryway. Why not run? Or hide in the cellar? Irad, what is happening?”
“The cellar won’t save us. They’re waiting outside, likely listening to us now. My grandfather didn’t build this house cheaply, like the others. The wood is thick and strong. It will take longer to burn, and will look worse than the others while remaining safe. We wait until we can no longer. Then we run. But not yet.” He closed his eyes. “Not too soon.”
“You’re betting our lives on your grandfather’s woodcraft.”
Father did not respond.
“Gods help us.” Mother paced.
Flames crept through cracks and licked the ceiling. Fire spread and rippled, danced and shifted, filling the house with black fumes.
Adah’s head spun. She bent to her hands and knees. Sheets of flame rolled and snapped. She opened her eyes against the heat and saw the horned men aflame and her Father leaning against the door—a final island in a sea of red. His face was pale and his good hand clasped his throat. His other lay limp on the floor as he coughed in the smoke.
Mother found Adah’s arm, and they shuffled to the door. Father’s body blocked it. They rolled him to the side, unbarred the door, and pulled it open.
Burning air tossed them back. Adah’s hair crackled and she yelled and smothered it with her arms. She looked up. Flames poured in from the edges of the doorway as if the world had been pitched on its side and down was in and up was out.
Mother hauled Father through the doorway, then pulled him smoking across the yard and slapped at the flames. Adah struggled to her feet and hobbled out, feeling a burst of cool wind across her shoulders.
A voice sounded behind and to her left. She turned.
Strange men tossed a net over her and she tumbled to the ground, enmeshed. Mother screamed and ran to her aid, but the men kicked her to the ground. Father crawled toward them with sickle eyes brandished, but they laughed at him.
“Stop!” Adah said. “Leave them alone!”
But they didn’t. So she watched the polished surface of their horns reflecting the red and black of her burning home until the wooden end of a spear slammed into her temple and she succumbed to the relief of emptiness.
*insert dramatic cliff-hanger music*
Hope you enjoyed reading! Thanks so much!