The Leavers by Jenna Whittaker

When Novia found herself in a swamp, her memories gone, she thought herself alone. Yet after finding an injured Leaver in the mud beside her, she brings them both to the village of the Seep–a place where she discovers her family, friends, and those who want nothing more than to kill Leavers and all who associate with them.

From the murk of the swamp to the sanctuary in the mangroves, Novia learns more than she could ever imagine about the dragons that roam the Seep, herself, and the truth of the Leavers.

After she takes those of her people who wish it to escape the marshes, to fly on the backs of dragons to another reality–the Beyond–where the Leavers become changed, Novia fights against her rescuers, who have darker purposes than they initially claimed, to find hope for her people once and for all.

 

*Note: This book is distributed by Writers Exchange, we are not the publisher for this title.

GENRE: Fantasy     ASIN: B076DRLPJB     Word Count: 53, 806

Chapter One

 

On the morning she lost her memories, the fog was heavy, covering the world in a grey miasma. The woman lurched to her feet, shuddering as the acrid stench of blood and dirt that hung in the air assaulted her; tinged with something cold, akin to fish. Her head spun, and she dropped to her knees in the muck. Blood streaked her face and torn, muddy clothing; sticks matted her tangled hair. Nauseous, the woman emptied the contents of her stomach, heaving; coughing.

She glanced up at a rustling sound nearby, her eyes red-rimmed and swollen. Looking back down in the murky, ankle-deep water of the swamp surrounding her, she saw her reflection–a stranger.

Her hair was coated in mud, but she could see that underneath the grime, it was a brilliant red. Her skin was coloured a mottled, pale green. Is that normal? The contrast was shocking, and considering the world spinning around her, the woman wondered if it was because she was ill.

When she could stand, the woman heaved herself to her feet once more, resisting the urge to throw up or pass out as she swayed. She leaned against a mangrove root, resting against the wet, mouldy bark until the dizziness passed.

Where am I? Who am I?

She turned in a circle. A marsh surrounded her. Mangrove trees reared above her, trunks above the shallow water, held up by a maze of roots. She could barely see in the distance but through gaps in the trees where the water was deeper, and she saw some sort of river. Where there was some ground above the surface, grasses grew. Lilypads dotted the brown water, a contrast of pale green against the gloom. Dark reeds speared out of the mud on every bank, making any direction look treacherous. Try to climb through the mangroves? Swim in the deeper water–surely full of crocodiles and eels–or trust the appearance of solid ground? It was likely what appeared to be dirt and grass could sink beneath her weight, submerging her in the muck; or it could just be surrounded by sharp reeds and leeches.

Despite her missing memories, the fear that speared her made it clear the woman knew the dangers that could lurk here. She knew this place.

As the woman stood, studying her surroundings, she noticed that there was a clear delineation in the environment before her. Almost as solid as a line drawn in the mud, to her left–just under her foot, which she drew back quickly as soon as she noticed–the muck merged with clearer, cleaner water; the mangrove trees disappeared, and only a blue, undisturbed surface stretched into the distance.

If she had believed there to be land far out there; real land–not something she wanted to risk, given that she couldn’t even see the hint of any from here–she may have attempted to swim, for it appeared much safer than any other direction. But something about the stark difference, something that shouldn’t exist in nature; it chilled her. A sense of danger washed over her, though she did not know from where, or why.

And then she saw the warning signs. Sticks driven into the mud, along the line; beads and raven feathers, tangled with carved pieces of wood and stone, dangled from them. It told her to keep back.

Another soft rustling startled her, and the woman jumped, her heart in her throat. It came from the darkness of the mangroves. Raucous croaking of frogs in the reeds, the shrill chirp of crickets, and the occasional caw of a raven in the branches silenced for a moment, and in that second, it was as if the world held its breath. Then there was a groan; as though a man in pain–not an animal–and it came from the muddy strips of land before her. Compared to whatever beast moved in the darkness, silencing the other creatures, this seemed a better option.

As she approached the sound, she saw a man lying in the mud on his side, half submerged. He was tan, but his skin tone was sallow with sickness; a stark contrast to the dark muck and drying blood on his skin, covering the searing red of the scratches and cuts that covered him. The woman knelt down beside him in concern–would he be alright? If it were not for his moaning in pain, she’d think he was not even alive. His clothing was torn and shredded, and the bruises covering him were extensive. His waist-length hair was matted with mud.

“Are you okay?” The woman flinched and cursed herself for such a stupid question–of course he was not. A blind man could know that. “Don’t move.”

He mumbled, and from what she could hear, it was gibberish. Perhaps his head was more injured than the rest of him, as bad as it already looked–and she knew what happened to those struck in the head. They lost their mind, and there was no saving them. Perhaps it was shock, she hoped. Time would tell.

“We have to get out of here,” she murmured, more to herself than anything. The beasts in this place…was that what had done this to him? It was not safe here. All she could recall told her not to move a man so injured, if she even could, given their size difference, but the alternative was not a wise decision. A night in the swamp…it could kill both of them.

A scraping, sliding sound outside the border, a low snarling, made the choice for her. Heart pounding, the woman gathered all of her strength, slipping on the mud as she heaved the man to his feet. His weight was belied by his slender frame, much to her relief; he couldn’t have been much heavier than her.

She supported him against her shoulder, him muttering and mumbling as they began a slow, painful trek. There was no path, no clear way to go, but the only choice was in the opposite direction of whatever was making those noises.

*

Everything ached. Muscles burning, the woman concentrated on each step, putting one foot in front of the other. It felt like hours, but must have only been minutes before they reached an expanse of solid ground, just as the sun sank below the mangroves. Warm shades of red bathed the sky as it slowly faded to twilight.

Walking was infinitely easier, despite the darkness, and the woman was glad for the respite from the muck and the leeches. Her legs and the spaces between her toes burned with bleeding sores from the black creatures. The thundering racket of the crickets and frogs became deafening, but the birds had fallen silent–there were no more caws of ravens, nor the chirping of finch-birds.

As the hot, humid air cooled, she was forced to swat away near-constant swarms of mosquitos, and almost wished for the leeches back in return. Almost. She thought as she scratched at yet another itchy welt on her arm.

As the trees thinned, she saw lights in the distance. The man was leaning heavier and heavier on her shoulders, his steps slowing and dragging, and she knew he couldn’t make it much further. The land may have been dry, but the mangrove trees still surrounded them, mingled with larger oaks, whose leaves blocked out the stars and moon above. The golden lights–man made–glowing in the distance were a beacon of hope.

His murmuring gibberish had descended into barely discernible mumbling, and the woman put a hand against the man’s forehead. His brown skin damp and sallow, and burned hot against her hand. He’s very sick. The woman frowned. This didn’t bode well at all. Perhaps the owner of these lights would be able to help–that was her only hope. His only hope.

The forest opened out into a clearing, the ground raised and dry. Lanterns dotted a path leading into a small, ramshackle village–huts of curved, stripped branches tied together, perched on stilts above the dirt.

It was a settlement of huts built in stilts, all a dark wood coated in something that seems like tar, to protect it from the fog, mildew, and mould of the high humidity environment. Still, moss and greenery shrouded the roofs and hung down the walls where no one had bothered to cut it or remove it.

Everything was slightly familiar, but she didn’t know why. It was a memory forgotten, and the woman found her heart racing. Did safety or danger lurk within these walls for her?

“I’ve been here before,” the woman whispered, more to herself than anything as she headed to the closest house. Perhaps someone inside–anyone–could help this man. And maybe, she hoped, help her.

Breathing in gasps, she half-carried the man up the steps and onto the veranda of the first home, and knocked on the wooden door with the last ounce of strength she had left. She could see through the slats that people were inside, lights were burning, but she didn’t recognise anyone. They were all strangers to her.

A softly murmured conversation was quickly stopped; a pause, and then footsteps approached the door. As it swung open, a woman peered around the corner of the door cautiously. She was older–her mottled green and brown skin was wrinkled at the corners of her eyes and mouth, but still her hair was a vibrant, pale green, without a trace of grey. At first, she appeared confused; holding no recognition for either of the pair, she simply gazed at them blankly–for who would knock on a stranger’s door after sunset.

Before the woman could explain to the homeowner why she was there, the man, leaning weakly against the doorframe now, moaned in pain. The older woman’s gaze flicked over to him, and now noticing him properly, looking closer, a flash of recognition passed over her face.

To the woman’s shock, the elder hissed and slammed the door shut in their faces.

She stumbled backwards, her head spinning. What?! The response was completely and entirely unexpected, and she was reeling. Where can I go now, then?

There was nothing to do but try the next house, and hope for a better response. However, when she knocked, and the door opened, an old man stood there. He saw the pair, shook his head, and, looking at her with derision and disgust, closed the door in her face.

Despair settled on her shoulders like a heavy weight, but the woman shrugged it off as best she could. I can’t give up, she determinedly heaved the man down the steps and to the next house, though she really wanted nothing more than to do exactly that. She was utterly confused, and so very tired. Why do these people hate me? Or him? What have I done?

Finally, at the third house, when an older woman answered the door, she quickly blurted, “I was hoping you could help me, I don’t know where I am and we’re both injured.”

Her words drew no derision or scorn, nor shouts to leave the house. This time, as soon as the older woman heard her voice, she gasped, holding a hand to her mouth, “Novia! What happened? Where have you been?”

The lady’s skin was a pale green like hers, and her eyes were huge in her elfin face; pale blue-green, with gold radiating from the pupils. Her skin looked soft and smooth, despite the wrinkles of age, and her features were delicate; a small, pointed nose; full, darker green lips, and small ears. Her hair was tied behind her head, but Novia could see that untied, it would easily reach the back of her calves.

Novia. The name sounded alien and yet the most familiar thing in the world to her. She was thoroughly confused. Novia? That’s my name? How does this woman know me…Do I come from here? Is that why this place is so familiar?

When the woman saw the expression on her face, the words, ‘I don’t know where I am’ registered, and she stopped dead in her tracks, the friendly smile dropping from her face.

“You…you don’t know who you are? Or where you are?”

“No.”

A hand to her forehead, a concerned frown, and the woman sighed in relief. “You’ve not been touched by the fever, that much is evident.” She paused for a moment, and then seemed to reach some sort of decision.

Leaning out, looking this way and that outside of the doorframe, the older woman quickly ushered them in.

Two people sat at a table inside; a man and a boy child. The man had browner skin than the boy, still with dark, forest green tones–especially on his hands, arms, and legs–and his eyes were the same forest green as his limbs and hair. The boy looked like a miniature version of his father. Both looked up as the strange pair entered their home.

The husband, quickly introducing himself as Respen, turned to the injured man, face flushed with fever. Using strength Novia only wished she’d had at the beginning of their trek that evening, Respen carefully heaved the man to his feet, leading him over to sit on the couch in the livingroom.

The warmth of a flickering fire was more welcome a feeling than any Novia had felt yet. She was chilled to the bones, and she couldn’t help but smile as feeling slowly started to return to her extremities–bringing with it, though, stinging and burning pain the numbness had held at bay. She felt light after having half-carried the injured man that distance, and to have him lying on the couch now was a relief like none other.

The woman–introducing herself, finally, as Pyria–shushed the boy’s curious look and quick question, sending him off to bed in a nearby room, much to his dismay.

At Pyria’s meaningful glance, her husband stood and cleared two beds–simple woven mats on the floor near the fireplace. There was one already there, and by its size, she guessed it to be the couple’s bed. Their son’s room was closed to the warmth of the fireplace, while his parents slept closer to the door of the house–for protection, Novia surmised. The beds were thin, but covered in a thick, warm blanket. Nothing looked more inviting in the world, and it was all Novia could do to remain standing.

Pyria was bustling about, locking the door, dimming the lanterns, and getting a pot of boiling water off the clay fireplace. As the water cooled, she began wiping the blood and dirt off the man with cloths. Novia and Respen stood and watched, though Novia would surreptitiously sneak a glance at Respen when it seemed like he wasn’t paying attention.

She couldn’t tell by his expression what he was thinking, and it worried her. Not knowing these two put them on unequal footing with her. Let alone the fact that they were helping her, and it seemed like they didn’t want anyone to know it. Why?

Pushing aside the myriad of questions–who and where was she? Who were these people? And why did everyone but them seem to hate the very sight of her?–Novia stepped forward and helped the woman take the old, muddy clothing off the man–barely more than scraps now–and bundle it up with the dirty rags used to wipe down his skin, gleaming with fever. As his torso was revealed, Novia saw dark tattoos etched into his skin; strange patterns she did not recognise–they could be important and she didn’t know it. With her memory lost, anything at all could be vital.  I’m utterly lost here, Novia sighed in frustration, and I don’t know how or why.

Even as she stared, Novia saw that Pyria too had sighted the tattoos, and had paused for a moment. Noticing Novia’s gaze, the woman quickly kept cleaning the man, but Respen had shifted his position and she saw some emotion on his face for the first time–but she didn’t know what. It’s impossible to read people I don’t know at all. Or don’t recall knowing. But it was clear, those markings meant something to them.

Once tidied and in clean clothes and sheets, the man’s wounds cleaned and bound and a cold cloth on him to help with his fever, the pair turned their attention to Novia. With a smile, Pyria invited her to sit at the dining-room table, and as Novia did, they both took a seat across from her. Their united front unnerved her, and the heavy looks they exchanged. She was so utterly confused, having completely lost her bearings in this world she didn’t remember, and there were several undercurrents at play that she could only just detect but not understand in the slightest.

“Well,” Pyria sighed after the man was settled, “This makes for an interesting evening.”

Her husband snorted, a sound neither his wife nor Novia had been expecting, and he seemed surprised by the fact he did as well. “It certainly does,” he agreed.

“It’s so, so good to see you, ‘Via! We’ve been worried. I know you must have…oh, so many questions,” Pyria said to Novia, eyes kind; ignoring her husband’s smirk. “We will answer them as best we can.”

“Thank you,” Novia smiled, but remained cautious. They might have helped her, but it could still be an act. Regardless, she needed answers, be they lies or not, they were better than nothing. And these people offered her a place to sleep–better than any had done yet. “I…I don’t remember anything. You called me Novia?”

“Yes,” Pyria nodded, “That is who you are. You’re from here, like the rest of us. To be born and die in the swamps,” she shrugged, “that’s our life.”

“Right,” Novia recalled, “you did call me by name. How do you know me?”

“You’re one of us, ‘Via,” Pyria laid a hand on Novia’s shoulder, “This is your village as it is ours. As it is your family’s.”

“You know my family? They’re here?” Novia half-stood, wanting to go and find them immediately.

“Yes,” Pyria nodded, holding up a hand to halt Novia’s headlong flight out of the hut, “and we’ll take you to them in a moment, but…you need to be careful. You’ve been gone for days, and all assumed you dead, or to return a mad one. To be neither…it’s going be a shock,” Pyria cast a cautious glance at Respen, as if unsure of how much to share, but then continued, “Some people won’t understand. Let us come with you, to show you where you lived and to explain your situation.”

“Alright,” Novia sat back down again. It made sense. “Uh, can you tell me who my family is? Do I have siblings; aunts or uncles, anything like that?”

“You do,” Respen said, “Your parents, your younger brother, and many aunts, uncles, and cousins. We all are a family here, really, so you’ll find you’re related to most everyone in the Seep.”

A brother. Novia shook her head. She was surprised enough to learn that this place was her home, let alone that she had family here–and many? It seemed too good to be true. At least I won’t be alone here, she thought with a wry smile. It’d be perfect if I had my memory back…I hope they’re good people.

She asked as much to the couple, and they both grinned, “Yes, Novia,” Pyria reassured her, “Your family are lovely people. They aren’t perfect–”

“Which is why we need to come with you,” Respen interjected.

“Exactly.”

*

From what Novia saw that day, Pyria never explained to her son or anyone else why the visitors were there, or who they were; a fact she explained to Novia as a matter of necessity. There were certain people surrounding the family–the village, really–that would love nothing more than to persecute the tattooed man, and Novia for aiding him.

“Why?” The question had been at the forefront of her mind for ages, and so Novia didn’t hesitate to ask when Pyria brought the subject up; voicing the fact that they were pariahs of some kind only confirmed Novia’s suspicions.

Yet, the woman seemed taken aback, before realisation bloomed. Her lost memories. Of course Novia couldn’t know. She saw all of this dance across Pyria’s face before she replied, “It’s…very complicated. This man,” she gestured to the tattooed figure lying in the living room, once more asleep even before the sun had set, “is part of a people that ours here consider…defectors. His skin shows this.”

The woman hurriedly bustled out of the room to avoid any potential further questions, and sensing that was all she would get from Pyria right now, Novia didn’t ask any further. However, it was clear there was so much more that lurked beneath the banal surface of what Pyra had described.

And I’m going to find out what that is, and why, Novia decided. It wasn’t fair, otherwise. Not to herself, and not to that man, to be treated badly without even knowing why.

There remained peace for the second day, Novia hiding out in their home, afraid to even be seen through the windows, while the tattooed man still thrashed in fevered sleep. That relative peace was shattered as they awoke the third morning to frantic pounding on the wooden door. Pyria and Respen stumbled out of bed, stepping over Novia even as she opened her eyes blearily. It was barely sunrise, and she’d spent the night kept awake by the man’s fevered ramblings as he tossed and turned without ceasing.

Respen opened the door, and stepped back in surprise. Pyria had but a moment to throw a blanket on the chairs, curtaining the view to where Novia and the man lay on their mats, before the woman stepped up to the doorframe, peering inside.

Novia peered under the blanket carefully. A woman stood in the doorway; pale green skin with tints of yellow, matching her blonde-green hair, she was slight–but the look in her forest green eyes, the same colour as Respen’s, made her foreboding. Her lips were pinched, and she looked for all the world as though someone had done her the worst disservice.

“What are you doing here?” Pyria hissed, and Novia’s heart pounded at the animosity in the air.

Without answering, the woman snarled, “Where is he?” She whirled to look around the small home, even as Respen blocked it as much as he could with his body. But her eyes alighted on Novia peering under the blanket from the corner of the living-room, beside the small crackling fire, and her face lit with such a venomous expression, Novia’s blood ran cold.

Pyria stepped in front of her view of the pair, arms crossed and legs wide; a literal protective shield. “Again, Esie, what are you doing here?”

“I knew it,” the woman growled, “you let him in your home? A mad one? Have you no care for your child?!”

“You cannot tell me how to raise Loren,” Pyria sighed in such a resigned tone, Novia knew she’d said it far too many times before. “He may be your nephew, but he is my son. And this man is injured. Leave us be.”

“You’re not fit to be his mother!” Esie’s voice rose to a shriek while Respen gently herded her outside. She stopped on the veranda shouting over his shoulder, “I’m not letting you get away with this.”

Pyria sighed as Respen closed the door behind him, face sallow. “I’m sorry,” he sighed, “I didn’t know she’d do this.”

“She must have heard from the others you saw before us,” Pyria nodded to Novia, “but even knowing your sister, I’d never have thought…she’s taken the healer’s diagnosis hard, hasn’t she?”

Respen nodded gloomily.

“It’s not fair that she takes out her childlessness out on us.” Pyra began cleaning up the home angrily as Novia, sitting up on her mat now, watched in silence. The pair of them seemed suddenly very tired, despite having just woken up, and Pyria’s tone was sullen.

“Or…maybe it was too much to expect of Loren,” Respen sighed, sitting down at the kitchen table, “and I’m not surprised. You know Esie probably was staring out her window last night, hoping to see something, and pounced on him the moment he left the house.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Pyria’s eyes widened, “Perhaps it was Loren.” Suddenly, she turned to Novia, beckoning her over to the table as she mustered up an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry you had to see that.”

Novia smiled back. She’s obviously used to apologising for her sister-in-law. Why is that woman so venomous–let alone to that tattooed man? Whatever did he do, or who is he, that everyone hates him so just by sight? The woman had barely spared Novia a glance once her eyes had alighted on the man. Burning with curiosity, she asked as much of Pyria; her questioning more urgent this time.

“I suppose I should explain,” she sighed, “Since you don’t remember. The man you found…he’s what most people here call a ‘mad one.’ This village,” she spread her hands, indicating the homes around them, “is named for the swamp in which it was built by our ancestors. The Seep. We’re surrounded by a boundary here that no one, ever, can cross.”

“Why’s that?” Novia cocked her head.

“Well,” Pyria amended, “you can cross it. That is what mad ones are. Leavers–people who crossed and came back. Most who cross don’t ever return, and it’s a mercy–one is never the same afterwards.”

“I saw that,” Novia said slowly, “the line of sticks with the feathers and stones tied to them?”

Pyria nodded. “Those who cross the boundary of the Seep…Well. We never go there. It is a cursed place… Most disappear never to be seen again, but even when they return they are… damaged somehow. Some go mad. Some imagine horrors that only their eyes can see. Some never speak again.”

“That’s why…I saw it; I didn’t cross it, but I felt it. That’s why I can’t remember anything.” Novia finished. It made sense now.

Respen, who had been silent ever since Esie had left, cleared his throat. “You’re lucky,” he shook his head, “For as Pyria was about to tell you, our people have an intense hatred for the mad ones.” He shrugged, “We disagree, as it is not the fault of the Leavers for their punishment, nor are they conscious of it, of what they’ve lost, or what people think of them. It’s a fear of the unknown, of what might happen to them too if they become a Leaver–that’s what fuels the hate.”

“But these mad ones, these Leavers,” Novia asked, brow wrinkled, “what do they do?”

“What’s so bad about them?” Pyria sighed, “Nothing. They don’t harm anyone. They made the mistake of being different. Now you know why we don’t agree–and you didn’t either, before you forgot.”

Just then, after what seemed like only moments after Esie had left, a knock resounded once more, shattering the fragile peace. Novia didn’t move–she couldn’t hardly breathe.

Respen creaked the door open slowly, but a large hand darted inside and shoved. The heavy oak slats hit the wall with a bang, and Novia nearly jumped out of her skin.

A crowd stood outside, blocking any escape. Has all of the village come here? Novia gaped, still frozen solid.

Their speaker was no woman with a family quarrel this time. The broad-shouldered man–clearly a woodsman–stood in the doorframe. His eyes burned with anger and disgust as they alighted on the man lying on the mat further inside.

“You’re harbouring an enemy of this town,” he hissed. “Why do you allow a mad one here? And the girl who brought him–” he pointed directly at Novia, “–how do you know she is not also afflicted?”

The group behind him murmured their assent. “She left,” another piped up, “she is a Leaver. Unwelcome in this town.”

Respen stood there for a moment, clearly fuming. He seemed a quiet and gentle man, but Novia could see that his patience was wearing thin.

“She is no mad one,” he stated firmly, facing the man without flinching. “She is family. And this man,” Respen indicated behind him to the living room, “has done none of us, nor you, any harm. He will be leaving as soon as he is well.”

The woodsman made a move to speak, but Respen held up his hand peremptorily. “If you have issue with this, take it up with the lawholders. I will listen to what they have to say and none other.”

“I will do no such thing! I–” the man began to yell, veins bulging in his neck. Suddenly a smaller girl stepped out from the milling crowd behind him, and laying a calming hand on his arm, whispered quietly to him. Novia couldn’t hear what the girl said, but he stopped short.

The look in his eyes as he turned to face her was of tenderness. That’s his daughter, Novia reckoned. They looked similar enough. Either way, throwing out one last threat over his shoulder, the man turned to leave, and the group followed not long after.

The girl stayed behind for a moment, and her gaze was apologetic. “I am so sorry,” she murmured. “I support what he’s fighting trying to do–to protect us, all of us–but my father can be a very angry man sometimes.”

Respen nodded. “Thank you,” he said simply, closing the door as the girl turned and left.

The evening ended with peace when no one–lawholder or mob alike–returned to their door. Still it seemed as though all in the house were holding their breath, just waiting for something to happen.

“I think we’re safe for now,” Respen noted as they sat before the fire. “You can go into town, Novia, but I’d still be cautious. Just in case. If the lawholders haven’t come, no one’s going to exile you for appearing…but it’s not good to flaunt it.”

Novia agreed.