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Survival can be summed up in three words–Never Give Up. Bear Grylls Sydney Waters finds herself alone in the harsh and unforgiving Rocky Mountains. No sign of Jordan or the great hound, Dogma. The threat of snow in the air. Her choices whittled down to one: she must continue alone toward her goal or die. Book Three of the Upheaval series, Solstice Moon concludes Sydney’s courageous journey, traveling down twisty and challenging paths the reader never imagined.
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Copyright © 2018 by Charley Marsh
All rights reserved.
Published 2018 by Timberdoodle Press.
Solstice Moon is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and places are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. For more information contact the publisher: http://timberdoodlepress.com/
All rights reserved
Cover Art: dreamstime.com and depositphoto.com
E-Book ISBN# 978-1-945856-05-1
Print Book ISBN# 978-1-945856-40-2
About the Author
Also by Charley Marsh
Jordan James slowly, reluctantly, awoke, aware that something was amiss. Dogma was no longer beside him. He heard her growl low in her chest and realized her growl had wakened him. Wide awake now, he automatically reached for his staff but it was gone.
He stilled, using the senses that had sharpened since he lost his sight, to test his surroundings. He heard birdsong, a slight breeze high in the treetops, and Dogma’s warning growl. He opened his eyes and gasped with surprise.
Four auras were bent over him, their pulsating fields of energy meeting over his body in a strange canopy of colored light.
The ability to see auras was a recent development for Jordan. He could not only discern people and animals, but plants and rocks as well, a fact he had only shared with his friend and traveling companion, Sydney Waters.
“Who are you?” he asked the figures bent over him, striving to hide his fear under a stern voice. The auras didn’t answer. He slowly sat up, resisting the urge to clutch his blanket to his bare chest as a shield from their prying eyes. The auras straightened, giving him room to sit upright, but didn’t step back.
“I said, who are you?” he demanded again, louder and sterner. Still no answer. Now that he was sitting he could see two more auras standing off to the side. Six against one. Terrible odds, even with Dogma. He couldn’t take the chance that they were armed, wouldn’t risk Dogma’s life that way. If he could see and was armed himself maybe he could fight them.
If only, if only. He had learned early on in his life not to dwell on if-onlys. They only depressed him. If only his parents hadn’t come to his baseball game. If only the drunk who hit their car had passed out before getting behind the wheel. If only someone had taken the drunk’s keys away so he couldn’t drive.
After a while a person had to stop looking behind and concentrate on looking forward instead. Otherwise they’d grow bitter and hard.
Jordan’s blanket was snatched away from him. Too late, he tried to hang on to it. Dogma’s growl grew louder but the auras seemed unbothered by the large dog. Who were they? Two pairs of hands grabbed each upper arm and hauled him to his feet. One of the auras bent down and then he felt his second blanket draped over his bare shoulders. They gathered around him, two on each side with the fifth in front and the last following, boxing him in.
Dogma pushed through the bodies and pressed against his thigh. He wound his fingers tight in her thick ruff and concentrated on keeping his expression blank.
“Where are you taking me?” Still no answer. His escorts were a band of mutes. Wouldn’t that be ironic, he mused. Me blind, them dumb. Or perhaps they’re a band of monks who have taken the vow of silence and they’re escorting me to their monastery. Perhaps they want to recruit me.
It was possible. They had found him alone in the forest, perhaps they thought they were rescuing him. They had no way of knowing he wasn’t traveling alone. He didn’t dare tell them about Sydney. If they turned out to be bad people he didn’t want to put her in danger. If they knew she was out there somewhere nearby they would look for her, he felt sure of it.
He didn’t want to think about how Sydney would feel when she returned from hunting and found him gone. She would panic, thinking he had somehow wandered off and become lost. He tried to think of a way to leave her a message but nothing came to mind.
“Where is my staff? he demanded in a loud voice. “I’m blind, I need my staff.”
The group stopped. No one spoke, then his staff was pushed into his hand and they began to walk again.
The return of his staff eased some of Jordan’s tension. His captors, whoever they were, couldn’t mean him ill if they were willing to let him keep Dogma and his only weapon. For a brief moment he considered lashing out at them. He could easily take down half the group if he caught them by surprise. His hands tightened on his staff, then relaxed. No, it was better to go with them peacefully and see what they wanted with him. With no hospitals or medicine it was dangerous and foolhardy to risk a serious injury.
He wished his captors would speak, if not to him then at least to each other. Their continued silence was eerie and unsettling.
Jordan took a deep breath, sucking in the sweet smell of dead pine needles and the sharp pungent odor of evergreen, odors he had never smelled before yesterday. He had been born and raised in Iowa and traveled the world performing on the piano before the earth’s great upheaval. Whisked from plane to limo to hotel to concert hall and back home again, he had never ventured beyond his family farm or a city’s limits before meeting Sydney.
He felt the play of light and shadow upon his face and shoulders. The trail--he assumed they were on some sort of trail--climbed and dipped. He concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and regulated his breathing, glad that he was in better physical condition than he’d ever been. All the miles that he and Sydney had walked together had done him good.
He grew confused despite his efforts to keep track of the direction his captors were leading him. The trail twisted and turned until a general ascension was the only thing he felt sure of. The trail steepened and he was glad of the staff. He wondered how long they had been walking. He wondered where they were leading him. He wondered if Sydney would be able to follow or if he had seen the last of her. The thought of not being with Sydney again made him feel sick to his stomach.
They hiked until he felt the last of the sun’s rays on his left cheek, telling him they had turned north. The group stopped and silently set up camp. They gave Jordan his sleeping gear and set their own bedding around him, making it impossible to escape without stepping on one of them. They broke camp with the first cold light of dawn and handed Jordan a piece of jerky to eat as they walked.
After half a day’s travel the trail leveled off and Jordan realized they were walking through an alpine meadow. He heard the faint buzz of bees and other insects collecting pollen and smelled the fresh sweetness of some flower he couldn’t identify. The sound of flowing water reached his ears. A mountain stream, he realized.
The air held a brisk edge to it and he pulled the blanket tighter around his bare shoulders. His request for his shirt had been ignored. He wondered if his captors had brought along his bag. He was going to need warmer clothes if they intended to keep him here for any length of time.
The thought made him lose his concentration and he stumbled and jerked forward. Hands grabbed both arms and held him upright, then released him. The group never slowed. They were like automatons, silent and unstoppable.
It was at that moment that Jordan realized his life had changed once more. Unless Sydney managed to track and find him he was doomed to remain with the silent ones forever, or as long as forever turned out to be. Escape was out of the question. A blind man alone in the mountains? There was no way he could survive, even with his second sight. If he was lucky he’d fall off a cliff and die immediately, otherwise he’d wander, lost forever, and slowly starve to death.
The thought frustrated and depressed the hell out of him.
Several minutes later the lead aura began to rise. At the same time Jordan heard boots on wood. Steps! He looked up and sensed a large building looming over the group. Hands grasped his arms again and guided him up the stairs. The sun on his back disappeared and they walked across what he took to be a covered porch.
The group stopped. A heavy metal knocker sounded three times. They waited what was probably only several minutes but it felt like an eternity to Jordan. Where were they? What happens now? He had a feeling that he was about to discover if his captors were friendly or if he was about to be brought before an evil leader and sacrificed at the evening ceremonies.
He scratched between Dogma’s ears and tried to appear nonchalant while they waited. She seemed reasonably calm and he took heart from that. Perhaps he had been found by a local clan of do-gooders and would be fed and housed for the rest of his days.
The door squeaked open. He heard the low murmur of a woman’s voice, then hands guided him over the door stoop and into the building. Jordan had the sensation of standing in a large hall, but he couldn’t be sure. His six escorts still surrounded him and Dogma while a seventh aura walked away from them and abruptly disappeared.
Again they waited, this time for a much longer spell. Jordan started to fidget.
“Do you guys have any food? I’ve missed a number of meals and I’m pretty hungry.” He spun around in shock when a woman’s voice answered from behind him.
“Don’t worry, you will be fed soon enough. What is your name?”
Her voice sounded stern and uncompromising and he had the impression of a school teacher or governess. Someone who expected to be obeyed and have her questions answered or else.
Or else what?
“I am Jordan James, at your service, ma’am,” he said. It never hurt to be polite. “Who are you and where are we?”
“My name is unimportant. Where you are is unimportant. Were you traveling alone?”
“Yes.” Jordan was glad he hadn’t mentioned Sydney. Something about the situation and the woman questioning him made him feel uneasy. Even though no one had threatened him–yet–he sensed that something was amiss.
“Mallory Dunne will see you in good time and will decide what to do about you. Wait here until your presence is requested.” His interrogator turned and exited the hall through a different door than the one the seventh aura had used. Three of his escorts broke off and trailed behind her.
Well, one of them can speak at least. What do you make of this situation, Mr. Piano Man? Apparently he was not in a monastery, or they were an equal opportunity organization and allowed women to join their ranks. Something told him his captors were not monks.
He wondered who Mallory Dunne was. And how large the building they were in was. He sensed a great deal of bulk around him and guessed that the building was substantial, if only from the way the entry hall echoed.
He ran his hands over the ram’s head carving on top of his staff and wondered where Sydney was and what she thought of his disappearance. Would she be able to track him through the pine forest or would the thick bed of needles that carpeted the forest floor hide all traces of his passage?
He had no idea. He had become blind too early in his life to learn the skill of tracking. Not that anyone would’ve taught him. He had assumed he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a farmer. Raise corn and soybeans. After the accident that took his parent’s lives and his sight his sister helped him focus on music so he could support himself.
But Sydney was a capable young woman who knew her way around the wilderness and he had faith in her. If anyone could find him he would place his bet on her. The problem was he didn’t know yet if he wanted her to find him. He didn’t know how dangerous this Mallory Dunne, whoever he or she was, would turn out to be.
Jordan frowned. He didn’t want to expose Sydney to any more danger. It seemed that everywhere they went they ran into some nutcase and ended up fighting for their lives. First Driftwood and the gang of escaped convicts, then Graceville with its crazy citizens. Now…now what? he wondered.
Sydney sucked the clean, crisp air deep into her lungs. She reveled in the sharp smell of pine and balsam and the deep evergreen color that covered the mountainside. The foothills of the Rocky mountains were a welcome change after the bleak, colorless desert that used to be Nebraska farm country.
It had taken two weeks of steady travel, first in the Gator their friend Silas had gifted them, and then on foot when they ran out of gas, to reach water, forests, and a source of food again. She and Jordan had endured a long week of terrible heat and eventually thirst. Near the end she had despaired that they would survive.
But survive they did. Even the two russet-colored hens, Henrietta and Ginny, had endured. They were now happily chasing insects and pulling fresh green shoots back at camp.
Sydney smiled. She had left her two companions stretched out side by side, sleeping on a deep, soft pile of pine needles while she hunted for fresh squirrel meat for the soup pot. Jordan James, a handsome, blind piano player and his giant dog had proven themselves to be entertaining and loyal friends. She felt fortunate to have their companionship.
When she set out from her family farm on the banks of the Mississippi River several months ago she had had no idea how difficult and dangerous the trek across the country would be, especially for a young woman alone. Hooking up with Jordan and Dogma had turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
She popped out of the forest onto a rock promontory. Pale gray-green lichen covered the granite surface in delicate whorls shaped like the petals of a prehistoric flower. She stepped carefully so her heavy hiking boots wouldn’t damage it. She knew that lichen took years, many, many years, to establish itself.
Although Sydney had always respected the natural world, she had become even more conscious of man’s effect upon the wilderness after the upheaval, when Mother Nature had said “Enough,” and risen up against mankind to take back her planet.
Sydney looked out over the wilderness stretching before her. The view from her perch was spectacular. Rolling green foothills were backed by tall mountain peaks that piled up one after the other, disappearing into the silvery mist as far as she could see. Snow dripped over the uppermost reaches like icing on her favorite angel food cake.
She sighed with a sharp, piercing longing. Her mother had always made two cakes for her birthday: angel food for Sydney and chocolate with chocolate frosting topped with coconut for her twin Shannon. Shannon was crazy about coconut. She used to eat it straight from its bag.
Now they were both gone, her mother taken by the tsunamis that hit the east coast, and her sister raped and murdered by the Desperate Ones who roamed the countryside after the disaster. Sydney had tasted her last birthday cake a lifetime ago.
The pain of her loss was still sharp and immediate, but it didn’t send her into the emotional downward spiral that usually caught her when she thought of her family.
Perhaps she was starting to heal, to become reconciled with her losses. Mother, father, sister, grandfather--all gone, leaving her alone to face a dangerous new world.
Sydney thought about that as she watched a bald eagle soar on the updrafts flowing along the foothills, looking for food, just as she was. Was she starting to forget the people dearest to her?
No. She would never forget her family, never forget the beast who had taken her sister, her better half, from her. Nor would she ever forget how her cowardice had prevented her from going to her sister’s aid. She knew intellectually that she would have met the same fate as Shannon if she had, but her heart still condemned her for her lack of courage.
Sydney turned and plunged back into the forest. Survival meant focusing on the now. Dwelling on the past didn’t put food in their bellies. She heard the rapid chatter of an aggravated red squirrel and went to look for him, nocking an arrow in her bow as she went. She would think of Shannon later. Right now she had two hungry companions waiting for her back at their campsite.
Two hours later Sydney walked into camp holding three squirrels aloft.
“I found dinner! We won’t go to bed hungry tonight.”
No reply. Puzzled, she lowered the squirrels and looked around the deserted camp. She spotted Henrietta and Ginny tied to their downed limb off to the edge of the small clearing, scratching in the ground cover and clucking softly.
“Jordan? Dogma!” Sydney raised her voice and hollered for The Great Beast, her affectionate nickname for Jordan’s canine guide and protector. Perhaps Jordan had woken and wanted to stretch his legs and explore. It was the only explanation she could find for the deserted camp.
Even though he had been blinded as a young boy in an auto accident, since hooking up with Sydney, Jordan James had developed extraordinary skills that allowed him to function with relative ease in his dark world. His uncanny ability to sense objects had grown to the point where he rarely bumped into anything anymore.
More recently he had acquired the ability to see the auras of animals, plants, and people. Jordan rarely behaved like a man with a handicap and Sydney often forgot that he was blind.
Only he was.
Sydney frowned. What if he had wandered off and fallen? He could have walked onto a rocky point like the one Sydney had found earlier and walked right off the edge. He could be lying in a ravine with a broken leg, unconscious, even bleeding to death…or mauled and carried off by a bear or mountain lion.
Panic rose in her chest. “JORDAN!” Sydney called as loud as she could, turned in the opposite direction and called again. She listened, hands cupped to her ears to magnify sound. She heard nothing but the soft whisper of a gentle breeze wafting through the pine and fir treetops.
It was then she realized that the bed of pine needles where she had left Jordan sleeping peacefully was empty, Jordan’s blankets gone. She looked around the campsite and saw that his pack was missing as well.
Surely a wild animal would not have taken Jordan’s possessions. Either Jordan took them himself for some reason she didn’t understand, or they had been stolen.
“Oh no.” Sydney ran to the log next to the hens and heaved a sigh of relief. Her pack lay where she had placed it, behind the log where it would be out of Jordan’s way. She stood and turned a complete circle. Where was he? It wasn’t like him to take off without letting her know. If he needed to be by himself for a while he simply told her he needed alone time and she obliged, no big deal.
Something was very, very wrong. Even if Jordan had felt like taking a walk after his nap he would not have taken his pack and blankets with him. They had agreed to stop traveling for a few days, to remain in this spot while they recovered from the ordeal of crossing the Nebraskan desert.
Where was he????
The sun dipped below the mountains and the air temperature immediately dropped to near freezing. Sydney built a small, smokeless fire using the dead branches she had gathered that morning. She cleaned her squirrels and placed them in a pot with some water from a nearby spring.
Despite her efforts to act as if nothing was wrong, unease made her nervous. Jordan should have returned by now. Dogma would’ve led him back to their campsite, she felt sure of it. Where could he have gone? Even if he had felt the need to be by himself for a while he wouldn’t have taken his duffle bag. Jordan’s disappearance made no sense.
She stood and walked to the edge of the small clearing and peered into the gathering gloom. She had looked for Jordan’s tracks earlier but found nothing to indicate which direction he had taken. This was so unlike him. He would never knowingly make her worry like this.
Frustrated, she walked to the opposite edge of the clearing and peered through the trees, hoping to see Jordan and Dogma making their way back to her. She saw nothing but dark trunks fading into deep shadow. “Damn you, Jordan,” she whispered.
She returned to her fire and sat on the ground, leaning back against the large boulder that had caught her eye several days earlier, the reason she had chosen this site to make camp. She made an effort to push any thoughts of Jordan lying somewhere injured from her mind. Thinking negative thoughts never helped any situation. She knew that, but it was still an easy trap to fall into.
She reminded herself of the story her friend and mentor Smokey had once told her about an old man who carried a trunk containing all his worldly possessions aboard a train. Once on the train he refused to set the trunk down and let the train carry the burden, even though the trunk was very heavy and hurt his back.
“Don’t be like that foolish old man, Sydney,” Smokey had told her. “Let the Great Spirit who abides in every living thing carry your burdens. Trust that it will take care of you.”
It was a lesson she constantly struggled with.
The squirrels finished cooking and Sydney forced herself to eat one even though worry had robbed her appetite. She looked at the two remaining squirrels, one for Jordan and one for Dogma, and tears filled her eyes. She dashed them away with the back of her sleeve.
Tomorrow she would begin the search for her companions. She could do nothing in the dark except wait for dawn’s light. Sydney hung the leftover meat in a tree away from the clearing in case a bear or mountain lion came hunting, then shook out her sleeping bag and laid it next to the boulder. She carefully put out the campfire with the extra water she had carried for that purpose, and crawled into her bag.
Images of Jordan and Dogma lying broken at the bottom of a steep mountain ravine flashed in her mind’s eye. She firmly pushed them away. “I will not dwell on the negative,” she told herself firmly. “They are safe and sound, only lost and waiting for me to find them.” Sydney closed her eyes and willed sleep to come. Fortunately the hot meal combined with utter exhaustion soon dragged her into a fitful sleep.
Jordan’s legs were tired. He wanted to sit. He wanted to eat. He wanted to put a shirt on and cover his naked chest. He was tired of standing around the entryway, tired of waiting with the silent auras. He grasped the blanket more firmly, giving in to the need to hide himself from any curious eyes.
“Is this going to take long?” he asked, “because I have places to go and I really need to be on my way.”
The three auras ignored him. Just when Jordan thought he couldn’t continue to stand one moment longer, his interrogator returned.
“Mallory will see you now. Follow me.”
Hands urged Jordan after her receding aura. They reached a wall and turned right. He felt carpet under his feet, sensed walls on both sides and a long space before him. I’m in a hallway, he realized.
His escorts hustled him down the hall and stopped at what felt like the midpoint. They turned him a quarter turn until he faced a wall. Now what?
Jordan heard the muffled murmur of many female voices. He strained to hear the deeper tone of men but heard none. Was this a women’s meeting? Why were they bringing him to a women’s meeting? A small shiver of fear raced down his back. Was he on the program as today’s sacrifice?
He didn’t know what brought the image of a sacrificial alter to his mind but he wished he hadn’t thought of it. Recent experience had taught him that with the world gone crazy human sacrifice was a real possibility.
The interrogator pulled open the door and Jordan forced himself to stand straighter and shake off his fear. Whatever he was about to face he resolved to face with dignity.
The voices grew louder and then suddenly stopped. His captors escorted him through the door and he found himself in a large room filled with auras. The auras parted into two groups and Jordan was led between them to the front of the room.
Like the parting of the Red Sea, only he wasn’t Moses.
Jordan picked up the faint smell of sweet perfume and burning sage. At least this group keeps themselves clean. They stopped in front of three auras standing above shoulder height.
Unless these three are floating in the air they’re standing on some kind of dais or a stage. One of these must be the mysterious Mallory Dunne. He bowed his head briefly toward the three and waited for someone to speak. The room remained silent although he could hear the others breathing and feel their collected body heat.
Nothing happened for several long minutes. Jordan had the sense he was being inspected. Anger began to replace his fear. Who did these women think they were, treating a stranger so rudely? He thrust his chin forward and took a breath to speak.
“Jordan James, what brings you to our mountain?”
The voice was lovely: smooth and melodic, mesmerizing. Jordan immediately forgave her for keeping him waiting. Any woman who possessed a voice this beautiful had to be a lovely person.
“I am a simple traveler, ma’am. Dogma and I are searching for a place to call home. We wandered here after crossing the Nebraska desert.” Best to stick as close to the truth as possible.
“You crossed the desert? No one has attempted that and survived.” The voice held a hint of sharpness and surprise now. If Jordan’s hearing were not so acute he would have missed it. Apparently Mallory Dunne didn’t like the thought of someone crossing the desert. He wondered why that bothered her.
“It was a near thing,” he answered. “We barely made it to the foothills and water.” If it hadn’t been for Sydney he and Dogma would be long dead. She was the one who unerringly led them to a small stream on the desert’s edge.
Jordan decided it was his turn to ask questions. “Who are you and what is this place?”
“I am Mallory Dunne, High Priestess of the Temple of Gaia.”
Jordan frowned. “Isn’t Gaia another name for earth? I’m sure I’ve heard that word somewhere before. Is it Hindu or Indian possibly?”
“Very good, Master James.” Mallory gave a low chuckle. “It is indeed the word for earth, but it is from Greek mythology, not the Far East. Gaia was a goddess, the daughter of Chaos, mother and wife of Heaven. She is earth personified and has recently made her presence known to lowly men.”
Jordan chose to ignore the comment about lowly men. For now. “Hmmm, it sounds a little kinky to be the mother and the wife of someone, wouldn’t you agree? A little incestuous perhaps?”
“Not when we are discussing the Gods, Master James. They are not governed by the petty rules and hangups of man.” The sharpness in her tone was more pronounced now. It gave Jordan a small jolt of satisfaction to learn that he could get a rise out of the High Priestess.
“My apologies, Ms. Dunne. My comment was in poor taste. Perhaps you could tell me where this temple is located. I’m sure it is lovely, but as you know, I am blind and am unable to fully appreciate what I’m sure is a beautiful place.”
“Apology accepted, Master James. Our temple is indeed lovely. It was once a private retreat owned by a multi-billion dollar corporation. We sit on the side of a mountain with panoramic views and a mountain stream complete with waterfall and alpine meadows. It is a place that has been blessed by Gaia.” A murmur of amens sounded behind Jordan.
“Is there anything you would like to tell us about yourself, Master James? We can see that you are a very handsome man, indeed, other than your blindness you are a fine specimen of the male of our species.”
Jordan felt the heat rise in his neck and cheeks. He had never gotten used to hearing himself labeled as handsome and he wasn’t sure he liked being referred to as a specimen. “Thank you,” he muttered.
“Have you been blind from birth?” Although the question was asked in a friendly manner Jordan got the distinct impression that the answer was important for some reason.
“No, I was born sighted. I lost my vision in a car accident as a young boy.”
“Very good. I am sorry about the accident of course, but happy to hear that your affliction is not congenital. Is there anything else you care to share with us?”
Jordan wondered why the timing of his blindness mattered. “Hmm, well, I play piano fairly well and can sing. Before the upheaval I performed around the world and entertained royalty.”
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