By R. Barrett
Copyright © 2016 by Dea Barrs
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
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Cover Art by Richard Barrs
To Richard for your unstinting support, guidance, and encouragement. There is no one with whom I’d rather spend my life.
To Richard Andrew, whose hard work, creativity, and editing are an inspiration to me. With only twenty-four hours in a day, you devoted most of your off-hours to helping me with all aspects of this book, leaving no time for your own. I am deeply grateful and humbled.
Javen Legacy of the Seers
Javen Legacy of the Curse
Chapter 1-3 of Javen: Legacy of the Curse is included at end of book.
Chapter 1 6
Chapter 2 11
Chapter 3 17
Chapter 4 20
Chapter 5 25
Chapter 6 30
Chapter 7 35
Chapter 8 37
Chapter 9 43
Chapter 10 47
Chapter 11 50
Chapter 12 53
Chapter 13 57
Chapter 14 65
Chapter 1 69
Chapter 2 71
Chapter 3 76
In and out, her orders had been explicit -- get the info, and get out of town. Well, she was in.
She pressed herself into the still, warm body. As kisses went, she’d had worse. She gripped him hard, kneading the man’s muscled back. Her audience, two barmaids with their drunk escorts, snickered and then made their way from the alley. She understood the snickers.
A tottering, humped-back old crone in the intimate embrace of a young, viral stud; it wasn’t the stuff of fantasies. The body began to slip and the old woman stepped away as the stud’s corpse crumpled to the ground beside a water barrel. Except for a bloodstain spreading across his chest, he looked much like any drunk. She arranged a bottle at his fingertips, completing the sleeping-it-off appearance. The look was finished by rearranging his tunic to conceal the blood stain. She cast a glance over her artistry, replaced the blade in the handle of her cane and wrenched the cane from the mud.
A kill’s success was all about diversion, she recited silently. Her stumble had been perfect, the dagger unnoticed until too late and the kiss inspired. As for the corpse, it wouldn’t be discovered until flies began to congregate.
Shoulders hunched and leaning heavily, she exited the alley into Beto’s swarming streets. Her bum leg was a nuisance, but it was inseparable from her black attire. Besides, it was an excuse for her questions. And there were plenty of people to ask, but she needed to be more cautious; too many dead bodies led to inquiries. In her defense, though, how could she prepare for such a clown? She didn’t look back to where body was hidden. Lesson two: never return.
“Yer beyond help,” she murmured under her breath, repeating the dead guy’s answer to her question.
As she passed the mercantile and its long waiting line, she spied a lone woman sitting on a stoop beside the rail. Her mouth was grim-set, but she had a busybody look.
With a well-placed groan, the old woman eased herself down on the other side and rubbed her bum leg. “Know a healer, round here?” The old woman asked the same question the joker had responded to -- and died for.
The other woman’s grim mouth pursed and she examined the old woman’s black attire, clearly understanding its meaning. The old woman realized her mistake. This one wouldn’t be fooled. The old woman scooted closer as though to hear.
“Never knowed a witch-wife ta need a healer,” the woman said. “What’s the game?”
A knife slid silently between her ribs and she slumped against the rail. The old woman didn’t check for a pulse. She hadn’t missed the vital spot. Returning the blade to her cane, she levered herself up, and back into the street.
The leg was really acting up. If she didn’t get information soon, she’d be crawling. At least the rain had let up. She waded through the muddy road as a group of rowdy teenagers careened across, nearly bumping her off her feet. She waved her cane meaningfully as they laughed. The noon bell rang and her leg almost buckled. This trip had taken too long, and her return trip would add another hour. Her leg throbbed as another cluster of citizens blocked her way.
She had the mercantile to thank for the swamp of inhumanity. It was their yearly reopening. In Beto, that amounted to a high-holiday. Every citizen was either in the street or trying to get into the packed mercantile’s stall. But she really couldn’t complain; the circus atmosphere hid the bodies.
Other than her leg…and not discovering any information yet…and the dead bodies…and the crowds…her plan wasn’t going too badly. Few could fault her. Well, perhaps Varus would. Though on the subject of abilities, his mental ones didn’t exist. In other words, she wouldn’t ask his opinion. And of course, Feral would fault her. His penchant for perfection would demand it. It was the very reason she’d never tell him.
She could hear him already – know your battleground. He’d say, her mistake was not knowing the scene, the possible problems, and the escape routes. He’d probably add that her lack of preparation had led to poor judgment when choosing her informers. Thus, she’d placed herself needlessly in danger’s way and been buffeted about by half the town in their mania. Nope, he’d never hear of this from her.
Then she spotted her. An old woman – older than her – smacking her gums and jabbering to every passerby. That woman would talk. She would know everything. And she wouldn’t look too closely at who she told.
Several long minutes later, and loaded down with more drivel than she knew existed about ailments, the old woman made her way back the way she’d come. She sighed on nearing the inn. A band of ruffians was spread across her path, rating each passerby. Her dagger was useless. Pressing herself to the inn’s wall, she squeezed through. In the end, she used her cane as a prod when a couple toughs got in her way, ranking her below zero. Her thin lips smirked as she passed, enjoying the howls of the two rowdies with badly bruised knee-balls.
She slowly shambled past the cobbler, the bakery, the livery, and the forge to the end of the small, inhospitable town. If anyone had cared to watch, they might have wondered at her destination. There wasn’t much to the west of Beto. But no one cared.
Partway down the road, the woman turned onto a faint path, following it until she reached a fork, just out of sight from the town. Putting her fingers to her lips, she whistled. A company of soldiers appeared from the trees, surrounding her.
Their leader stepped forward and grabbed her cane, “Three vechin’ hours! Three lousy vechin’ hours we been waitin’, you crone!”
The woman spun away, surprisingly agile. The men stepped back as the wrinkles melted from her face, and the smooth pale skin of a woman in her thirties took their place. Her limbs and back straightened. Her stringy gray hair lengthened, curled upon itself and changed color, becoming bouncy.
The woman ran her fingers through her long strawberry blonde curls. “I’m a body-forger, Varus! Not a conjurer or informer. I forge into kills that are weaker and slower than myself; cause strength don’t transfer! If it were otherwise, believe me, I would’ve ‘forged’ into that buff, strapping meat-cleaver I bumped off last year, and pummeled you to death three days ago. As it is, I’ve been stepped on, shoved, and mocked, in getting you what you want. So, you’d best change yer tone or I’ll conjure myself elsewhere!”
Varus turned and barked, “Back to your posts! NOW!” As the men disappeared, Varus grabbed her arm and dragged her down the dirt lane. “By gad, Zulie, so ya gotta few bumps and bruises. What of it? Don’t you ever…”
She jerked her arm from his hold and slapped him. “Step softly, oaf! And it’s, ‘Lady’ Zulie.”
Varus’s hands balled and his eyes flashed. He wanted to knock her flat, but he needed the information she had and then there was Lord Feral to consider. He barked, “Get on with it.”
“Lord Feral was right,” she said. “There’s a Seer in the area. Story is, she’s a healer, but I’m sure she’s a Seer. Said she’s got amazing healin’ powers. She’s raisin’ a boy too. So, that’ll give you two for the price of one if you can keep from mucking up. She’s old and the boy’s barely in his teens. I’m thinkin’ you might be outmanned.”
He flushed and raised his fist to her face.
Zulie didn’t flinch. He was a dull blade, but not dumb enough to try to take her…again. He was big, sure, but predictable. And a salted slug moved faster. Not to mention, she cheated. I mean, why exert when a little juju weed could sap the strength of the biggest brute. And that was her chief advantage. She was eons smarter – an ancient mind compared to a larval brain.
She watched uncertainty flicker in Varus’s eyes. She saw it, read it: the risk of looking a fool in front of his men. When hate and frustration took uncertainty’s place, she knew she’d won. One day he’d jump her, but not today. She waited for him to process the information, run-down the odds and come to the same conclusion.
Dim though Varus was, he didn’t miss Zulie’s contempt. He saw red, but his fist fell limp. Blasted harpy needed a beating. He huffed and growled for her to finish it. She rattled off the healer’s direction. When he’d given her the agreed upon fee, he watched with relief as she returned the way she’d come. She mumbled something about having unfinished business with some roughs. He bellowed, calling his men together. Within minutes, they’d quit the area, heading east.
~ ~ ~
A thoroughly sucked piece of cheese rind sailed across the room, just missing Javen’s head. It smacked the window, leaving a greasy smear as it slid to the ground. Javen turned from his view of the rain and scowled at the thrower. Another scrap flew, hitting him in the neck. He snatched it and flung it to the ground. He wanted to storm out, but the rind-throwing hag said, ‘not yet.’ And she was in control—for now.
“Sun up. Can I go, Gatty?” He asked, with as little attitude as he could muster.
“No!” the old woman barked, and spat a piece of rind to the floor.
His angry gaze returned to the window, locking on the spring house. He hated her…no secret there. His fingers clenched his staff. He could knock her out. Awake and asleep, it’s all he’d thought about the last four days. But if he did, he’d lose his only chance; Gatty would never follow-through. Again, he felt the throbbing ache near his heart. The bruised, empty feeling started to spread, clogging his throat, and filling his eyes. He shut his mind. He couldn’t. She had him and she knew it.
An hour later, the rain slowed and the sun emerged.
“The rain…it’s stopped…” He glanced at the elderly woman dressed in black.
As she had for much of the last four days, she sat rocking in front of the fireplace surrounded by cores, and crusts. When she wasn’t eating, or using a squat pipe in her clawed fingers as a pointer for something she wanted, she was puffing furiously on the stem filling the cabin with musky smoke. Everything smelled like her.
Javen ignored her as best he could -- a habit he’d acquired during the same agonizing four-day period. She said this was the last of her list, the last ingredients. Then he could get his life back, life before Gatty.
She slid the pipe from between her teeth and pointed it at him. “The rain stopped, ma’am.”
“The rain stopped…ma’am.” His hand strangled his walking stick. “What about it?” He asked, not altogether keeping the bite from his tone.
Her green eyes narrowed. She stood and crossed the room. He knew what was coming. Her claw connected with his face. Javen didn’t draw back, or even flinch, as nails dug stinging slashes into his cheek.
“Remember, dead’s a long time,” She snapped.
Hate shot from Javen’s eyes. “What am I getting?” He asked, tempering his fury.
“Hockberries, omak, nightcorpse and stinkweed. And be back by nightfall or else,” she said, shooting a spew of spit to the floor.
Javen didn’t respond. He grabbed his staff, snagged a hunk of dry bread, and dashed for the door. He allowed the yellow, stone cottage’s door to speak for him as it slammed. He crossed the garden and flew toward the spring house. It felt like a bad dream…a nightmare. But he couldn’t wake up. Gatty said she’d fix it. All he had to do was get her the stuff. Bringing back the dead seemed impossible, but his grandmere had often healed the impossible. Besides, he had nothing to lose. He felt tears again and blinked. He reached for the spring house door.
“Brat! Yer flirtin’ with a thumpin’! Get outta here!” She screamed from the window behind.
He mumbled, “witch,” under his breath and turned away from the spring house, hurdling through the garden and out the gate. He ran up the grass-covered rise and headed into the woods. Tall phey grass blades were snatched and stuffed in his pockets. He didn’t need them, but gathering was habit. All the while, he kept the usual eye out for odd shadows and strange animal movement. Deputies and their whips patrolled the woods. Slavers and their carts on occasion also traveled the area, looking for the unsuspecting. He wasn’t as worried about the watch wardens. They usually stayed to the townships; though their prods were a thing to avoid. He knew that from experience.
At a familiar rivulet, he leapt and scrambled up the bank to his destination, a large bay tree. He grabbed some bay leaves, pocketed them, and pressed himself to the large trunk. Just beyond the tree and a needley-gorse bush, grew the riskiest item of the four: hockberries. He plunged his staff in the ground and crouched, listening. Crawling through the mud toward the gorse, he dropped to his belly and scooted through the dripping brush. He was soaked. Sharp needles scraped his flesh. He desperately wanted to itch, but he resisted. Unnecessary movement wasn’t a good idea.
The hockberry patch didn’t strictly belong to anyone. But for years, the Malcaster magistrate and his deputies had booby-trapped the most desirable rabbit warrens, peahen coveys, hockberry patches and hunting spots, making hunting and harvesting risky. It wasn’t that the Malcasters wanted the people to starve; a starved citizen wasn’t of use. What they wanted was for them to subsist on the second skimmings, the bruised and the lean, leaving the fatty portions and delicacies for their plates alone. But Javen wasn’t thinking about the politics of Malcaster greed. He was far more concerned with avoiding the sting of their whip and getting the berries for Gatty’s recipe.
His head poked from under the gorse. His gray eyes widened eagerly. Three of them! Three leg-breakers peeked from the dirt. He suddenly sobered. There was no one to sell them to. Then again, they might be useful if Gatty didn’t follow through. Still he didn’t move, listening for clanking swords against metal leg-studs. The ornaments, which the deputies wore with such pride, were the very thing that warned of their presence.
Only forest noises met his ears, so he dragged the first leg-breaker toward him. With two sticks, he disabled its iron jaws, flinching when the jaws snapped shut. He wrapped the chain around his waist and performed the same procedure on the second trap. He reached for the third.
Javen’s hand froze. His eyes narrowed at an odd sight. A whole squirrel lay unmoving near the trap’s jaws. Squirrels were smart. They very rarely got trapped. Shot, yes; trapped, no. He leaned closer. And this squirrel wasn’t trapped; it was on top of the chain. He poked it. Definitely dead.
He examined the chain; it looked different, more evil -- if that were possible. His suspicions high, he noted an acrid sharp smell and a darker than usual color to the berries, not as shiny. A chill ran up his back. These were dark Malcaster matters, the kind laced with deep poisons and curses -- not the usual stupid deputy tricks. Gran would know... His sad gray eyes studied the abnormal berries. Too risky. He wiggled from under the gorse.
Once he was behind the tree, he disassembled the leg-breakers and dropped the pieces into one of his sacks. Grabbing his staff, he took off for plan ‘B,’ as in Beto.
It took half an hour to get there, but once on the south side of Beto, Javen’s pace slowed as he picked his way down narrow alleys. His bare feet skillfully avoided broken bottles and rusty leavings littering the ground, and sidestepped raw sewage running in the road. The foul-smelling rivulets were especially swollen due to four days of heavy rain, cutting the road with deep channels. Beto’s ripe stink was familiar to Javen, but he still gagged when he entered the more confined alleys, where the smell was sharp and acidic.
Passing backstreets lined with tumbled down row houses, he wove his way through wash lines loaded with mud-gray laundry; many taking advantage of monsoon season’s brief lull to dry their few clothes. Behind a small press of cottages, he gathered a handful of pebbles to the rear of the fourth cottage. He flicked two through a small opened window.
A mop of brown hair and two brown eyes, one eye surrounded by a black-and-blue shiner, appeared over the sill. The boy’s eyes flashed right and left. “Shouldn’t ‘ave come,” the mop-headed boy said.
“No time, Oder,” Javen said. He didn’t remark Oder’s black-eye. He’d seen the handiwork of his dad before. “Let’s go! Need to see your dad.”
A low growl rose from inside.
“Not a ‘specially boss idea,” Oder whispered loudly. He looked nervously over his shoulder into the room.
“Save it! I’ve got information…for your dad.” Javen wouldn’t normally volunteer the location of the rabbit warren to a Malcaster deputy, but he needed those hockberries. “I’ll trade him if he’ll let me get some hockberries from the second patch,” Javen said more loudly and again heard the growl. “Is that Chaw?” Javen asked, referring to the guard dog that was always at the side of Oder’s dad.
The whisper came hurried and harsh, “Yeah, he’s me keeper. Finally got him outside the door and he’s bitin’ mad. He’s tryin’ to get through. Best steer clear.” His head disappeared. Javen heard Oder kick the door. The dog growled again.
Oder’s head reappeared a few seconds later. “Keep away from me dad, unless ya want one o’ these,” he indicated his eye. “He’s none too keen on either o’ us right now fer disablin’ that peahen trap. I didn’t tell him, but he knew it were us. But that tradin’ idea’s a boss one, jus’ not…” His whisper was cut off and his head disappeared as he was dragged from the window. “Today!” His final word was shouted.
Oder wouldn’t appear again. Chaw was well trained. The dog would pin Oder to the floor. Javen had seen Chaw do it in Beto, under orders from Oder’s dad. Oder used to laugh at the poor saps trapped beneath the dog. Javen never thought it was that funny.
Since Oder’s dad had Javen on his black list, he had to think of another way to get the berries. He ran to the window. “Shredded potato,” he shouted, referencing an old remedy for black-eyes.
Chaw tore across the room toward Javen’s voice, barking wildly, his nails scratching the wattle and daub wall.
Oder scrambled up and ran to the door.
“On the eye!” Javen bellowed and took off as Oder slammed the door between him and the dog.
The dog cleared the sill as Javen tore through Beto’s alleys. He was fast, but Chaw was faster. Much faster. His heart raced, hearing the dog’s massive jaws barking every second. Javen tried to eke out more speed, but it was wasted. The dog had twice the leg power working for him. Javen crossed town in record time, but so did Char. A little used chest-wide backstreet helped him bypass the mercantile’s crowds, its exit depositing him near the woods. His feet were a bloody, filthy mess, but they weren’t a thought as he plunged into the woods, dog on his heels. The bay tree again came into view. His foot found a well-known knothole, and he clambered to the lowest limb as Chaw shot past. The dog kept barking as he climbed.
Javen circled the tree to the far side and straddled a thick branch. He panted, laying his staff across two branches. Settling down, he poured water from his flask over his feet, staring at the branch in frustration. Trapped. He sighed heavily and then his breath caught.
Windfall! The branch hung directly above the hockberry bush. Twisting to his stomach, he hooked his leg under another limb and grasped a handful, checking the color and smell. He quickly filled his sack.
With job one accomplished, he studied Chaw through the leaves. He had minutes before someone reported the racket. A chill crept up his back. Two disassembled leg-breakers and a sack full of hockberries, he wondered how many lashes his crimes would rate. He’d seen a few whippings: one had been a repeat egg-sucker; then there were the two manure-mashers and the last was a cream-skimmer. He was pretty sure his offenses as a corn-kiper would be considered top-tier stuff.
His stomach clenched. He could hide the berries easily enough, but not the traps. His proximity to the missing traps would convict him. As an added bonus, he’d be lashed every time a ‘breaker’ was broken or missing, even if he wasn’t to blame. He was minutes from a lifetime of pain.
His stomach growled and he popped a couple hockberries in his mouth. As he chewed, he had an idea. Searching among the leaves in his pockets, he selected small white marillis flower petals, adding leaves for potency. Digging again, he withdrew the bread he’d stuck in his pocket for lunch. He spat on the bread to moisten the dry brown crumb and rolled it around the petals. He edged around the tree and dropped the blob near the dog. Chaw barked a few more times before investigating. He sniffed it thoroughly and swallowed it whole. His barking continued. Within a few minutes, he sat. Then his barking slowed. Soon he reclined, snoring softly. In the distance, a deputy shouted. Javen hurriedly slipped down the tree.
“Now we got ‘im!” A voice bellowed.
On silent feet, Javen ran.
Another shouted, “That’ll learn him to leave our dreggin’ traps alone…”
“Is that Chaw? Chaw! Pust and blast! He kilt Chaw!” A third person, Oder’s father, howled.
“No more ‘scuses! I wants him dead! A vale for his name, a bow for his dreggin’ skin!”
They fanned out.
Javen set out north away from their search. It was definitely the long way home. The route wound through a woodland along the Lugar Basin Road. A wide meadow bordered the woods and a red road cut through the meadow. Across the road, stretched an endless forest the locals called the ‘primal morass’. It was a dense weald draped in creepy gray moss and thick vines. Few ventured into it.
From the direction of the road, a deep rumble came. Words became distinct. Deputies! Javen ran to a fir and hid in its branches. He could just make out the rise in the road, where a company of Malcaster troops appeared, chanting. Not deputies, slavers, he thought as a slave cart came into view. A boy was being dragged behind, tied to the bars.
“Cut the foothold free.
Watch it swing; see it swing.
Cut the foothold free.
Watch it swing.
As the blue face bloats
and the dead eyes bulge,
cast the bundle
on a string
in the wind;
see it float.
It dances with a lurch and a lunge.
It dances with a lurch and a lunge.”
The captive struggled through the road’s wet clay. Though covered in muck, angry red welts could be seen crisscrossing his back. His dark features were veiled by long silver hair that hung limply over his bowed head.
A pothole jerked the rope, wrenching him to his knees. The boy howled as he was dragged face first through the mud. The ropes at his wrists dug deep and rocks ripped along his body. A nearby soldier snagged the rope and yanked him to his feet. His rod whistled, marking the boy’s back with another stripe. He buckled, crying out.
The soldier roared, “Cut yer rot!”
The rod fell again. The boy wailed as he stumbled forward.
The fronds near Javen’s face tickled his nose. His grimy hand moved to swipe, but halted. The dark, moss-covered forest across the road started to shimmer, twinkling like stars amidst the dark shadowy vines. He squinted. It was like something out of a dream. As he watched, the trees parted. The glittering woods transformed into a detachment of dark skinned, silver-haired warriors.
The band moved behind the Malcasters, and one loosed an arrow. The Derg with the rod was struck dead without making a sound. As he fell at their feet, the Malcasters drew their swords and turned, charging the attackers. The silver-haired warriors stood their ground.
Javen scrambled downhill and tripped, landing face-first in a puddle. He rolled to his feet, swiped the mud from his eyes and took off, his face an unrecognizable mess. At an old gnarled tree across from the battle, he stopped. Edging around to the front, he gaped, motionless. Body parts dropped, some being heads. He suppressed an urge to vomit. Even helping gran, he’d never seen anything like it.
As he stared, a tall silver-haired warrior hacked his way to the cart and severed the boy’s rope. Two Dergs noticed and bore down. The tall warrior drew them away from the boy. The boy crawled under the cart and sliced his bonds with a blade, still clenched in the hands of a lifeless Derg. When a path cleared, he bolted across the meadow toward the woods.
Javen pushed himself away from the tree and forced himself to go. Gatty and her recipe were… Suddenly, the tall, silver-haired warrior dropped, thrust through. Javen watched horrified as the two Malcasters tore after the boy. He hesitated and then raced down the tree line to intercept the other boy. He zigzagged through trees, his eyes glued to the runner. The Dergs gained. The boy wasn’t going to make it.
Abruptly, the Malcasters stopped. The big one shouted and slugged the shorter one, sending him sprawling. The tall Derg kept shouting as his gaze frantically searched the area. His comrade got to his feet and did the same. They glanced back at the fight raging near the cart, but both seemed to decide the boy was more important.
The captive was almost to the woods; and though the Dergs should have plainly seen him, they didn’t move. Javen crouched and silently drew near the boy’s position as he entered the woods. Checking the Derg’s location, Javen tugged, jerking the boy behind a tree. The boy pulled away, groaning at the rough handling. Javen placed his hand over his mouth. The boy drew away again.
“Come,” Javen said.
The Dergs’ shouts neared. The older boy nodded. Javen rushed him through the brambles to a nearby tree. Pushing aside thick vines, he motioned the boy inside the hollow tree.
“Hair,” Javen pointed to the boy’s silvery head.
The boy ripped his tunic and wrapped it around his head, hiding the tell-tale glimmer. Javen backed out, arranging the vines over the opening and hiding their trail with leaves. He ran through a thicket of gorse bushes to a cave-like hole beneath the roots of a larze tree, stashed his staff in the leaves and squatted.
“Move inta the woods, Luxton,” shouted the tall Derg to his stout companion, as they pushed into the brushwood. “He can’t have gone far.”
“Him’s a Seer! You see him disappear? We shoulda brung more men,” the stocky Derg grumbled, reminding his companion of his earlier suggestion.
The tall Malcaster ignored the complaint and hacked the bracken with his sword.
The stocky talker rounded the tree root in which Javen was hiding. “Reg’lar people don’t disappear, Gagnon. Not right ‘fore your eyes.” He prodded the bushes a couple times with his sword and moved on.
Gagnon shifted toward the tree in which the silver-haired boy was hiding.
“Jus’ ‘cause he disappeared don’t mean…” Gagnon snapped, “Good gad, connect yer brain to yer mouth, fer once! He were jus a Illencer. Didn’t you see him tied to the back o’ the wagon?” Gagnon crept around the tree, stabbing at shrubs. “‘Seers ‘ain’t been ‘round for years.”
They thought the boy had disappeared? Javen thought. What nut-balls! He was right in front of them.
Furious barks sounded in the distance. The puzzled look dropped from Javen’s face, replaced by fear. Chaw was awake and on his scent. Javen cursed his clumsiness, fingering the brewberries in his pocket. Usually, when the deputies’ dogs were on his tail, he’d drop brewberries at random intervals. But he’d bypassed the ritual, thinking he’d be long gone by the time Chaw came-to.
He dropped a handful of berries into the dirt, pressed them into the ground with his toe and edged toward the opening. If he could sneak out, the dog would find his hiding place and burn his smeller on the berries. He took a deep breath. But first he had to get out.
“Look!” Gagnon pointed. “A foot under them big-rooted trees.”
Javen slid back. Some choice, slavers or deputies, maybe both, if they found him at the same time. Chaw’s barks sounded closer. He tried not to think about it or his important mission, which was about to fail. If only he’d kept going. As the Malcasters stepped slowly toward his tree, he prepared to bolt. He knew he’d never make it past two Malcasters, but he had to chance it.
“Check it Luxt…” Gagnon fell silent as an arrow flew from the trees, piercing him through the back. He toppled to the ground.
Luxton’s sword rose. The archer drew his bow, eliminating him also. The silver-haired boy peeked out from between the vines, recognizing the whistle of his people’s arrows.
The warrior lowered his bow and ran toward the young man, bowing his head slightly. He whispered urgently, “Arlas Majes, Mar shaj undara sargola!” Together they rushed to the warriors waiting in the meadow.
Javen sprang from his hiding place and ran, not looking back. As he passed a clump of stinkweed, he jerked it from the ground and smashed a pile of brewberries into the dirt. Then he sprinted deeper into the forest. If the deputies didn’t notice the berries, Chaw’s nose would need help finding its way home. Hopefully, all the dead bodies would distract them from the chase.
At the meadow, the warrior lifted the rescued boy onto a waiting horse, as ten warriors surrounded him. The boy looked back, searching the woods. He shouted, pointing in Javen’s direction, but they grasped his reins and pulled him into a gallop. They disappeared into the dark forest. Nothing marked their presence except an empty slave cart and dead Malcasters.
~ ~ ~
Gatty watched over her potion, which she slowly stirred. The potion was an extra step, but necessary to disguise the smell of the contre-vail. She resettled the flat lid onto caldron careful not to displace the contre-vail which was drying on top of the lid. She tried not to breath; the smell of contre-vail was putrid. Not to mention, inhaling too much, in rare cases, had been known to cause blackouts.
She touched the dry leaves, finally ready. She dropped them in the potion. With a snort of satisfaction, the smell of contre-vail disappeared. Her plan was to dump the whole concoction in the well. For four blasted days, the suspicious brat had refused to eat anything from her hand, but last night she’d thought of the well. He’d never suspect it. Then he’d be dead and she could pick the place clean. Eman would be pleased, and the pocketful of golden bows he’d promised would please her.
She hefted the vat of her mixture toward the back door, stumbling when the door burst open. Her caldron crashed to the ground.
Soldiers poured into the room until there was little room to stand. The commander entered last, and circled the sitting area, kicking chairs and furniture from his path. Crossing in front of the fireplace to the dining corner, he toppled the table.
Varus still chafed from Zulie’s insult that he’d muck it. If her information wasn’t good or she lied, he’d make sure it was the last thing outta her mouth.
“Where’s the ‘second’ and the Keeper?” he asked as he crossed the room in three strides. His men pressed into each other to make a path. “I’ve got information that you and a kid are Seers, and have the second.”
Gatty backed away, cowering against the wall. “I don’t know!”
“Don’t lie! Where ‘re the other Seers?” Grasping her shoulders, he shook, “The ‘second’?”
“Ya got it wrong!”
He slapped her.
She blubbered, “Ask the boy.”
“Get the neck-breaker!” He shouted and turned to the woman, “I’ll get my answers! The ‘second,’ the Keeper and the Seers, now!”
“No! No! In the spring house! Not me! Not me!”
A soldier returned with a contraption. A wooden brace, three metal spikes, a thick rope and five rusty gears comprised the torturous device. Gatty took one look and turned to run. Varus grabbed her hair and flung. She landed hard on the rocking chair, which upended, slamming her head into the carved stone of the fireplace. She didn’t move.
“Hook her up,” Varus shoved her unconscious body with his boot.
The soldier knelt to attach the first rung to the woman’s neck, and slapped her hard. She didn’t move. He pulled his dagger and held it beneath her nose. “Vech,” he swore, “she’s dead. Lord Damerik said alive.”
Varus shoved the man aside, his bulk kneeling awkwardly. Once down, he gripped her nose and covered the mouth. It was impossible to pretend to be dead long like that. When she didn’t struggle, he rose, kicking one of the carved chairs to splinters. “Pust ‘nd blast!” he cursed. “Search this place – the spring house too!” Turning to his lieutenant he ordered, “Search fast, we’ll set up in the woods outta sight an’ get the dreggin’ brat.”
By the time Javen had everything on the list, it was twilight. As he ran from the woods to the rise above his cottage, a breeze parted the tall grass in front of him. His stomach turned. Malcasters? He darted low through the grass toward the cottage and ducked beneath the window. He easily heard the thundering voices of soldiers as they grilled Gatty. He peeped over the sill, smiling when the Malcaster slapped her. He’d been aching to do that himself.
Then she flew over the chair and slammed into the fireplace. His stomach dropped. He barely kept himself from rushing into the room. She couldn’t die yet; he needed her!
Orders were shouted to begin searching, and Javen dashed across the yard to the spring house. He closed the door fast, but quiet, and immediately went to the lifeless body of his grandmere lying on a table. Gatty couldn’t bring her back now. The hollow place around his heart swelled and his throat closed with tears. “I’m sorry, Grandmere. I tried, but…” Pain washed over him. And anger. His stomach clenched so hard, he wanted to vomit. He could barely breathe. He heard men approaching, their armored boots sucking deep in the mud.
He drew a shuddering breath and kissed her forehead. He scrambled to the wall and shoved. The slab opened into a small cave dug into the side of the hill. He squirmed in, avoiding the sides where the ice was stored and pulled the slab back into place. He was sweaty from his race through the woods and the icy cold froze him to the core. He and Gran had used the ice-room only once as a hiding place, during a storm. Of course, then they’d had candles…and blankets…and each other. He shivered. A stream of cold made its way down his filthy cheek. He wiped it away, not even aware he was crying.
Crockery shattered inches from his hiding place. Voices mumbled between breakage. They seemed afraid, probably of their boss. He pressed his ear to the cold slab door, barely making out words. The soldiers were talking about the Seers and the ‘second’ again. He tensed when talk changed to something about Drial not being pleased with this careless treatment of the dead. He figured they were near his Grandmere’s body, but it didn’t sound like they touched her.
The boots finally stomped out, and Javen peeked. Broken shards lay everywhere. They’d even shattered a crock of butter. He tiptoed to the door, and cracking it an inch, stole a look. They were leaving. The leader gathered his men; and they disappeared around the far side of the house, heading toward the road. Javen pushed on the door to exit, stepping back quickly as a soldier appeared again from the far-side corner of the house. He took post on the hill, overlooking the cottage.
The house was now off-limits due to the guard, but he had to get in the house and check. Worse, there might be more guards. His thoughts tumbled, if there were other guards… but must make sure…maybe Gatty wasn’t…dead.
Twilight seemed to take longer than normal to pass. Javen sat in the doorway, hugging his knees, thinking dark things. Finally, full-night descended and the first star appeared. With a last look at his grandmere, he slipped through the doorway, hunching low. He hurried toward the near side of the house. The window had been smashed with one of his grandmere’s etchings. He picked it up from the ground, staring sightlessly at the engraved picture of their garden. He felt the tears again and his thumb rubbed the corner of the stone. Gently, he set it down and studied the window.
Sharp shards stuck out from the frame as a gruesome barrier. Carefully, he picked out the glass, stacking each piece out of his path. When he’d pulled out as much as he could see, he waited, listening for breath or footfall. All was silent. He levered himself up. He felt tiny glass pieces pierce his hands and then pain. Quickly, he threw his leg over the sill, following with his body. He picked his way through the dark room across what had been his grandmere’s sleeping chamber, not even aware of the drops of blood falling from his cut hands. The room was in shambles. The soldiers had destroyed everything.
He paused before entering the main room, edging around the jamb slowly. Laying on the floor, he crawled to Gatty’s body across the room. His heart sank. She looked dead. He gasped as his staff was wrenched from his hand. Her eyes opened.
He whispered, “Gatty? What’s the recipe? I have all the ingredients. I can put it together and I’ll, uh, I’ll give you some.”
Gatty blinked, two angry blinks and tried to spit, but it dribbled down her chin.
“Please, Gatty. You killed her…you have to help bring her back.” His hands trembled, wanting to pound her into the ground after four days of rage, but he still needed her.
Again, the blinks, though this time she didn’t spit.
“You’re going to die. I can bring you back, but I need your recipe.” His heart rebelled at the idea of saving her. “I…promise.” He told himself he was lying, to save his grandmere. That he would let her stay dead. But, he knew that he’d honor the promise.
She cackled, trailing off to a wheezing grunt. “Stupid brat,” She rasped and stilled. She was dead.
He felt tears. They weren’t for her. He snatched his staff. What a fool he’d been. Leaden feet took him back out the window. At the last minute, he remembered the guard and ducked on his way back to the spring house and his gran’s side.
“I’m…sorry,” he choked. His eyes overflowed. “I’m sorry.”
His finger shook as it traced her cold cheek. She was gone… forever gone. Everything hurt. His breath stuck in his chest, right next to the empty place that used to be his heart. All because, I…just…stood…there. Each silent word was punctuated with a stab of something dark and lonely and final. He had so many questions. Now, there was no one to ask…no one to answer…nowhere to go. Minutes passed, hours, eons; he was beyond caring, but the waves of pain grew farther apart. His breath shuttered. He rubbed his cheek along her brow. He had to go. He had to hide…but where?
A horn blew in the distance. They were coming back. It must have been a trap the whole time. He didn’t care. With hunched shoulders, he went to the door, not bothering to hide
He expected to see Malcasters riding towards him, but instead he watched as the guard charged into the woods away from the cottage. His steps faltered. From beyond the trees, steel-on-steel and soldier’s cries broke the night silence. He raced toward the sounds, holding to the shadowy woods. At the edge of the clearing, he froze, as the moonlight illuminated a battle of singular strangeness. Riders, wearing the Malcasters’ black and gold thorn vine, fell from their saddles as a hooded stranger on horseback slashed his way through with his sword.
A blue streak of lightning arc’d across the field. Javen dove to the ground, watching as a Malcaster froze in place and burst into blue flames, never making a sound. He was dead.
Cold metal touched his ear, and slid down to the side of his neck. A knee was placed behind his own, and he was hefted to his knees, the blade still at his neck. Brusquely, the staff was knocked from his hand.
“Get off me or…” Javen spat while jerking wildly.
The Derg’s hold tightened, “Or nutin. Shut it ‘r I’ll cut it!”
The Malcaster dragged him into the woods. Javen’s leg wrapped around his captor’s leg. His head exploded in pain, as the Malcaster slammed the dagger hilt near his ear.
The Malcaster carried on unhindered. “Lord Damerik sayed not to kill ya, but nutin’ ‘bout not givin’ ya a whoopin’.”
The outline of the narrow clay road in front of his cottage appeared. The Derg huffed with satisfaction as several Malcaster horses came into view. Grasping the reins of a pitch black one, the Derg grabbed Javen roughly and tossed him over the saddle, mounting behind. Javen levered up from face-down.
The Derg growled, “Conchus or un-conchus yer choice.”
Javen settled down and the horse took off at a bone-jarring trot. He gagged and slipped.
“Un-conchus,” he heard and felt pain as the Derg followed through with his threat.
As the Derg rehoused his dagger, he slid from the saddle, shot through. Javen’s senseless body fell, landing at the feet of his dead captor.
Several days’ ride from Javen’s home, in the forest, north of the town Byrn, stood Castle Byrn, the Malcasters’ main stronghold. Its stone walls stood a massive fifty-feet wide, with plenty of room to race two draft-wagons side by side. Two stables, a forge, seven gardens, an orchard, several training rings, an arena and the castle were located within the wall. The castle itself soared skyward, its five turrets and four round towers glistening white against the sky. Its beauty was the work of Cartenian slave labor.
A wide cobbled road exited north, west, and east through small towered arches. The main thoroughfare snaked south, between two imposing towers that led to a drawbridge which spanned the white, churning waters of the mighty Sphere River. From within, Lord Damerik reigned as master and Malcaster Overlord of Cartenia.
In the castle’s main dining hall, Lord Bonard rose on unsteady feet. He raised a tankard, and his voice boomed, “Where’s the entertainment? Find me a minstrel. I feel the need of a song.”
Two passing Boares, hearing Lord Bonard’s request, burped a local tune into the dining hall. Bonard’s dagger hurdled, plunging itself into the door jamb.
“Back to your eatin’ troughs, you dreggin’ swine!” He shouted at the Boares, who fled down the corridor. Bones and spit flew toward the doorway as several Dergs emphasized the order, and their better manners.
A well-built, blond, blue-eyed man entered and wrenched the dagger from its sticking place. As he passed Bonard’s chair, he impaled his stale bread-trencher, saying, “Since you threw the last minstrel from the gallery, Bonard, volunteers take the long way round Byrn.”
Bonard scoffed, “Who said anythin’ ‘bout volunteers, Feral?”
The crowd roared and Feral said, “With your permission, perhaps your lovely wife will fill the void.” The men glanced at the women seated at their own table near the fire, ignoring them.
Bonard proposed, as he had done many times, “Seryn’ll perform, if my riddle you un-puzzle.”
“It lights, without fire
in even’s dark attire.
Love’s light to inspire,
seeking signals, they admire.”
An animated debate arose throughout the hall. As Feral sat, Lord Omreh gestured toward him with his mug, “Thought you were with Varus, apprehending the old woman. Weren’t you chosen since you sort of found them,” he mocked and took a swallow from his tankard.
Tension hung over the head-table. Since Feral’s arrival many years before, more than one bloody altercation had resulted between the two men. As Lord Damerik’s son and heir, Omreh had rank. As a warrior of extraordinary prowess, none could best him. But Feral’s sharp wit and cunning ways repeatedly sent him over the edge.
“Varus was given that honor solo,” Feral replied, well aware of the envy eating the younger man. “And since his arrival is long overdue, your father suspects foul play. He sent Thadhold to discover the situation. He knows I’m no undertaker.”
Lady Zulie slid into the seat next to Feral and reached for his ale. His blue eyes skewered hers.
Her eyebrow rose. “May I?” She asked and drank, placing the tankard precisely where it had been.
Feral picked up his mug and poured the ale on the floor, replacing it empty in front of her.
Zulie shrugged. Her brother was easy to provoke. She sat back. “So, Varus is dead…told him he was outmatched. Think I’ll stick around for his Benecation. I’ve noticed, the more incompetent the dead, the bigger the send-off,” she said, referring to the five-month Benecation of Mourning for the lords and the one month Benecation of Mourning for the lower orders. For the upper orders, a commemoration feast was held on the twenty-ninth day of all five months, accompanied by the sound of prayer chants by the priests of Drial. The more eminent the individual the more days of chants.
“Is that your snide way of referencing my mother’s Benecation?” Omreh asked without real interest. He knew people still spoke about her memorial, which had been extended a month out of gravity for the murderous deed and her pregnancy.
“Of course,” Zulie said, ignoring Feral’s warning look. “Look at Prouda. Notice how she managed the whole affair: got Damerik’s…affection, got pregnant and then five years later with a brat on her skirts, permanently rid herself of the wife, your mother. That’s competence. Your mother was wasted in the role. Mark my words, you’re next.”
“Marked.” Omreh downed the last of his ale, wiped his lips on his sleeve and said as his tankard hit the table, calling for another, “There are two uses for women, one being childbearing. Mother certainly wasn’t unique. Take you, for instance, only one use for you,” Omreh said, as Jonathan his aid-de-camp entered the hall.
“Why Omreh, shall we post the bans?” Zulie said, batting her eyes. Omreh snorted as Zulie continued, “No, no, it won’t do. Jonathan’s possessiveness…it’s a deal breaker. You’ll have to love me from afar.”
Feral murmured, “A suitable distance.”
Zulie shot him a grin.
“You’ll go too far one day, Zulie,” Jonathan said as he sat.
“I getta thrill just thinkin’ bout it.” Zulie’s gaze traveled around the room. “Save the bluff, Jonathan. With Varus dead, I’m contemplatin’ my new pincushion. And you’re eminently qualified.” She glanced over as Jonathan’s grip tightened on his tankard. “Easy boy, Bonard’s at the top of the list. He’ll squeal nicely.”
Feral grabbed a handful of nuts and crushed them in his palm. Tossing one of them in the air, Zulie caught it before it landed in his mouth and popped it in hers. He extracted another nut from its shell and said, “You may find Bonard’s mate too sharp for even your nimble maneuvers.”
Zulie gave her brother a piercing look and then glanced across the room to Seryn, raising her eyebrow. “What fun.”
Omreh grunted and said in an audible murmur to Feral, “How’ve you kept from throttling her?”
Feral rolled a whole nut between his fingers, allowing Zulie the reply, “What’s a knot without a rope, or rope without a knot?”
Omreh shook his head and snorted at her puzzle.
“Without the knot, the rope has no handhold. Without the rope, the knot has no form,” Feral explained. He nodded toward his sister. “Knot.”
“Rope,” she said, lifting the empty tankard toward Feral.
A young slave boy ran to the dais with Feral’s refill, tripped and spilled the ale down Omreh’s legging. Omreh jumped and kicked the boy across the floor.
Zulie stood with a stretch and moved to leave. Swooping up a rag, she tossed it at Omreh. “Have a care, there’s crockery about.”
Omreh snagged the cloth with a grunt, as a page approached the table nervously clearing his throat, “Lord Omreh, your father would like to see you in his solar.”
Feral looked up sharply. Omreh strode from the room, waving Jonathan to his seat when he started to follow.
“Hey Feral, show us you’re more than a purty face. Bonard’s starting ta look mighty pleased wif ‘imself,” one of the knights prompted. “Don’ let ‘im best us wi’ his puzzle. Put ‘im in his place.”
Feral turned from his contemplation of Lord Damerik’s message for Omreh. “What has light at evening, but a lightning bug?” Feral offered in a bored tone.
“What inspires love while seeking its own, but the firefly?” Zulie finished as she swept out the door, not staying to watch Bonard’s grin of victory faded.
The darkly beautiful Seryn arose with her lute from beside Prouda, Damerik’s wife, whom she served as companion. For the first time that night, the room was quiet as Seryn’s dark head bent over the instrument. Her breathy voice beguiled the crowd with a ballad of love and treachery.
He’d tarried far too long beside the dull backwater.
Idle he strolled, tall, lean, dark-water.
Her footsteps bridged the span, heart beat aflutter,
Locks flowing loose and free ran the Laird’s daughter.
Look long, look low.
You’ll not see them go.
You’ll never see them go,
You’ll never see them go.
The morn it tarried not, its gray recedes with color.
The sun shines forth the day, bright as any scholar.
The Laird set out the search; every man to find her:
High, low, ebb, flow, all land, and every holler.
Look long, look low,
You’ll not see them go.
You’ll never see them go,
You’ll never see them go.
The Laird’s wails rent the air, her body it was found.
An oath of death was sworn, to he whose hand did drown,
And steal his heart away, along the watered ground.
High, low, heat, snow, the oath did sound, the cry resounds.
Look long, look low,
You’ll not see him go.
You’ll never see him go,
You’ll never see him go.
The setting sun’s glow warmed the dark wood paneling of the solar. Dusky shadows crossed the vaulted ceiling of arches, which met in cone-like points at the center. In the middle of the room, Omreh stood beside a high-backed leather chair on which his father was seated. Two large black pointers were at Damerik’s right and left hand, growling softly. All looked grim as Thadhold delivered the expected message: the troops, and the woman they were sent to capture, were dead -- some by unnatural means.
“Seers,” Damerik said to no one.
“Some men sayed twere da DeLeScar,” Thadhold offered tentatively.
Damerik glared at the disagreement and then snorted. “Were they mutilated? Dismembered? Eaten?”
Thadhold shook his head.
“Obviously, Seers,” he emphasized. “And what of the boy she was rearing? I suppose he vanished also?” Two guards at the door moved behind Thadhold. Damerik’s Soulsworn didn’t move from his position near Lord Damerik. A Soulsworn’s only job was to protect his master.
The dogs growled louder, sensing their master’s mood. “Didymus! Demos!” Damerik scolded.
Thadhold said that a grave had been found, plus the body of a second old woman in the spring house. After making sure Thadhold had investigated the grave to ensure it didn’t hold the boy’s remains, he dismissed him with an order, “Send for Feral.”
Turning to his son, he picked up a conversation that had begun before Thadhold entered the room, “In my absence, my orders will be followed exactly. Understood?” His hand absently stroked Didymus’ head, while Demos looked on jealously.
Omreh stiffened at the tone. He replied tightly, “As always, Father.”
Within minutes, the door opened. Feral stepped to the center of the room. “You sent, my lord?” he asked, placing his fist over his heart.
“Your information about the old woman was correct, but Varus bungled it. Track the Seers again. Find the boy, use him. They’ll come for him. When they’re located, send for Omreh. He’ll lead a contingent for their destruction. I want the Seers and the ‘second,’ so molest, but don’t kill, until we have all. Understand?”
“Yes, my lord, as you command.” Feral bowed and exited.
As soon as the heavy door closed, it opened almost immediately. An auburn-haired woman swept in. Upon his stepmother’s entry, Omreh bowed rigidly to his father and exited.
“I’ve been told by Seryn,” Prouda said, casting a look of contempt at her retreating stepson, “that we lost the woman and the boy. Actually, that two women are dead and the boy is missing.” She advanced into the room, choosing a low divan on which to recline.
“As usual, your source is correct,” Damerik replied, getting up to pour a second goblet of wine. He placed it in his wife’s outstretched hand as his two pets followed. “Did she also inform you of the loss of a company of soldiers?”
She took a sip. “My lord,” Prouda responded, “their death was assured the moment they failed.”
“Perceptive as usual,” Damerik replied, again taking his seat. “Fear not, my dear, we will prevail. I leave on the morrow.”
Javen awoke to a pounding head. He forced his eyelids open to an unfamiliar room. A shaft of fear jolted through his gut. His grandmere’s walking stick leaned against the wall, and his memory returned in a suffocating rush. His grandmere…Gatty. His eyes stung. Where was he?
Rough-hewn stone walls enclosed a small windowless room; the only light coming inexplicably from three, hanging, teardrop-shaped glass containers. A very fine mirror that his grandmere would have loved hung between two chests of drawers across the room beside a second bed to his right. His feet nudged a small table at the foot of the bed table, which wobbled against two chairs before settling. The only visible exit was a door to his left.
The door rattled. Javen shut his eyes and steadied his breathing. A sharp pain stabbed through his head and he almost gasped, giving himself away.
Someone entered whispering his grandmere’s name, “Davena…lament the loss.”
A wave of sadness crushed him and he held his breath.
A soft voice interrupted, “He’s awake.”
Javen opened his eyes to a young woman with short, brown curly hair of about seventeen. Standing next to her was the shortest woman Javen had ever seen. She barely came up to his chest. She had long, black hair and luminous skin.
The young girl placed a tray of food on the table. “You’re awake. I was afraid I’d have to wake you. I’m Dakaria. Brought you some food.”
Javen sat up. His head spun. It felt lopsided, and his face pulled taut. He leaned back against the wall. His head viciously throb and he reached for his forehead, noticing his hands were slightly bandaged. Carefully, he felt his face, discovering a thick bandage covering the side of his head to his ear.
The woman answered his unasked question, “You were hurt.”
The girl laid the food on the table. “I’ve brought some hot bread, sliced pommes, and cheese. Eat up!”
Javen threw back his covers and stood. The throb became a full-body pulsation. He wobbled on his feet, but he choked out, “Why’d you kidnap me?”
“What!” Dakaria said, spinning from the table to face him. “We didn’t…you weren’t kid… You…we…”
The other woman reached for Dakaria’s hand and squeezed, “You go on.”
Dakaria moved but looked back at Javen as she stood at the door. “I’m…you’re…” she started and ran from the room.
The woman said quietly, “The Malcasters killed your grandmere…but you know that.”
Javen stared. The Malcasters? Gatty killed his grandmere. He didn’t correct her lie. The silence lengthened. He gazed into the little woman’s face. It seemed gentle. Her voice was deep and calm. Though he didn’t feel threatened, something was off.
“And you’re free to leave,” the woman hummed a low tune under her breath as she spoke, “but Savan Labrium would like to see you. Since you aren’t hungry, perhaps we should proceed.”
His tension drained, as the woman continued the low hum. Nodding compliantly, he accompanied her to the door, turning back at the last minute to get his staff.
“Javen, right?” She asked in the same soft tone. “Sharona,” she said simply.
How she knew his name he didn’t ask. He didn’t care. He needed an escape. “Where am I? How long’ve I been asleep?” Javen asked, hoping for a hint at his location.
“Valley of the Seers…two day’s journey…sleep four,” she answered.
“Four days.” Javen murmured, drawn out of his investigation of the corridor window and the long drop. “How can that be?” His head turned sharply toward her, pounding at the movement.
At a stone spiral staircase, they climbed. Sharona replied, “When you arrived you were injured and suffering. Rest was healing.”
“What is this place?” He asked, passing more doorways in a windowless hall lined with faded tapestries. The place was huge, corridors and stairwells appeared and veered off every few feet. There was no way he’d find his way out without a guide.
Sharona said, “Savan Labrium will explain.” She paused outside a door, indicating Javen should enter.
“Coming?” Javen asked, with as much indifference as he could muster. He should feel apprehension, but, for some reason this woman, Sharona, made everything seem all right.
The woman shook her head. A deep voice from inside the room called for Javen to step forward. Any calm he’d felt fled as he entered.
An old man with a long white mustache and dark hair motioned to a chair in front of his desk. “Javen,” he acknowledged and continued, “I’m Savan Labrium; this is Savan Kand.” A younger man with short dark hair sat next to the chair the old man had indicated. He nodded in Javen’s direction.
Javen stood stiffly, rolling his staff between his thumb and fingers.
“Take the chair,” the old man said gruffly.
Kand noted Javen’s anger and distrust. He raised a hand in truce, “We don’t bite.”
Javen scanned the large room for weapons -- or an exit. A massive sword twice his height, rested in a metal holder beside an extremely tall bow. There was no way he could lift that sword. If either of these two could, they were someone he didn’t want to wrangle with.
He glanced right. There was a sitting area that could have held half his cottage, but no door. To his left there was a shadowy recess. It appeared small and there might be an exit but, if he chanced it, he might end up trapped. Before him an arched window spanned the room in front of which an old desk larger than his Grandmere’s herb cabinet sat. The old man was seated behind the desk. In theory, the window was an exit, but it was followed by a long drop to a deep valley. The bronze colored mountains stretching in all directions were discouraging, requiring wings or four legs.
Despair welled and his eyes stung. He wasn’t on a mountain; he was inside one! His gut wrenched and hopelessness seized him. Escape was impossible. He was hemmed in, surrounded, and even should a way open, he had nowhere to go.
His grandmere’s determined face rose before his eyes. She’d been the strongest-minded person he’d known. She wouldn’t think of giving up; how could he? He would escape. Inside a mountain, up a tree or held by a Malcaster, he would find a way out of here. If the only exit was the door behind and the only weapon was the staff in his hand, so be it.
Two slow steps brought him to the offered chair. He stood behind it, free hand resting on the back. The old guy wasn’t a problem; he could outrun him easily. The younger one…he was trouble. The man was in good shape, with long legs and a powerful body. His dark insightful eyes seemed to be reading Javen’s every thought. Javen felt his resolve momentarily weaken again. Surprise was his only option. He relaxed, to put them off their guard. The man behind the desk was talking, and Javen slowly started hearing the words.
The gruff voice proceeded, “…rescued you from that Malcaster. Now, Javen, about your grandmere’s death. We’re very grieved -- that is, sorry about it.”
“What?” Javen snapped, startled by the mention of his grandmere.
“Known her years,” he said. “When she asked us to take you in, well, we came, but late.” Labrium smoothed the edges of his mustache. “It’s tragic -- the Malcasters killed her before we got there.”
Javen struck his fist on the chair, “Liar!” he shouted in uncontrolled rage. His head exploded in pain, but his mouth carried on. “If you were old friends, you’d know that wasn’t my grandmere!” He swung his stick at the younger man’s knee, and lunged for the door, knockin the chair over on his way. Kand leaped and grabbed his arm, twisting him into an unbreakable embrace. Javen writhed and jerked, straining every muscle to free himself. “You never knew my grandmere! Who are you? What do you want with me?” He screamed. Strain, weakness, perhaps rage, took their toll and he began to feel lightheaded.
“Hey kid, calm down.” Kand’s embrace was secure, but it wasn’t painful. “We’re not going to hurt you.”
Javen stilled, and after a few seconds, felt the man’s arms loosen.
“Besides, where would you go?” Kand continued.
“Sit down,” Labrium ordered. His tone said that his authority wasn’t to be questioned, and rarely was.
Javen slowly turned from the door and returned to the back of his chair. Kand kept his position at the door.
“Javen, we haven’t seen your grandmere in ages. She sold us her herbs and leg-breakers for years through a representative. Those getting you didn’t know her by sight and assumed -- it seems wrongly. Where’s your grandmere and who was the dead woman?”
Javen’s grip tightened on the back of the chair. “Leg-breakers? You buy my leg-breakers? Sent to get me? Who are you?”
“I answered that. She sent a message to come get you,” Labrium answered unhelpfully, out of his depth with the angry young man. He again pulled on his mustache.
Kand approached Javen from behind and placed a hand on his shoulder to diffuse some of the tension. “You’ve had thirteen Namedays. You can’t ride a horse. And you have a diamond shaped birthmark on the inside of your forearm and a burn scar on your left leg.” He glanced toward Labrium trying to encourage him to continue. Labrium’s recital of the events had lacked warmth and sympathy. Javen could be forgiven for thinking he didn’t care.
Labrium picked up with details Kand couldn’t know, “Your grandmere loves double strength peppermint tea. She doesn’t eat with her fingers, even if the food calls for it. She files her nails to the quick, for sanitary reasons and never wastes anything; believes everything has a use.” Labrium paused as his mind went back years. “She’s the most compassionate person I’ve ever known,” He said in a softer tone
“Did she never mention seers?” Kand prodded, gently.
“No. She never said,” Javen answered slowly. Seers, again. And she’d been sending him away. He felt a different kind of heaviness stir in his stomach. This had to be another lie. She’d never send him away. “I don’t know you. What I do know, I’m not sure I trust.” Javen stared obstinately ahead.
Labrium rose. Stepping into the shadowy alcove, he approached the far wall and removed something from a crevasse. He approached Javen and handed it to him. It was an etching, depicting the whole kingdom of Cartenia. There were two other land masses far beyond Cartenia’s shores, one labeled Fallyn and the other Ariss. It was old, and with surprise, Javen noticed in the corner the mark of his grandmere. She’d called it the apogee mark. He had seen her make the same mark on all the etchings she created. He shifted slowly toward the man, leaning his staff against the wall.
Javen traced the etchings with his finger, “My grandmere made this.”
“Yes, years ago. Look at the back,” Labrium said.
Javen flipped it. ‘To guide you Labrium, Be Strong, Davena.’
Labrium continued, “Haldar, the royal moon, at apogee, it’s the mark of the Seers.” Labrium placed his hand on Javen’s shoulder. Javen didn’t draw away, “Here,” Labrium handed Javen a piece of vellum. It was his grandmere’s handwriting.
It is time. Though it rends my heart to part with him,
age, – both his and mine – is demanding it.
I will prepare him. Come at your earliest convenience.
As always, Davena
Kand added, “She wants you here.”
“She wants you trained,” Labrium said. “But where is she?
Javen returned the note, but continued to hold the etching in his other hand. It fit. It explained her last words, which were cut short by her last breath. Even so, he found it hard to let go of all his distrust which was bound up in his grief and the remnants of his anger. He flipped the etching over and read the inscription again. He would reveal a some…
“Gran sent me for herbs. When I got back, I heard shouting and ran to the door. An old woman in black had my gran around the neck and she was screaming at her. As I started in, Gran saw me and shouted for me to run. The old woman picked up one of gran’s etchings and hit her over the head.” He took a breath. “She was bleeding everywhere. Gatty, the woman’s name was Gatty, uh, tried to run. I knocked her out with my staff. Gran was barely holding on, uh, and then she died. When Gatty came-to, she told me she could bring Gran back to life, said she was a witch-wife. I just had to do as I was told. But the Malcasters killed her before she could bring Gran back,” his voice cracked and he swallowed. “They thought she was Gran too.”
Labrium’s countenance fell as Javen related Davena’s death. “Gatty lied. Once a person’s dead, the life spark is gone,” He said slowly. It was difficult for most to tell, but Labrium’s grief was there to be seen for those who knew him well.
“A Malcaster, especially, can’t bring a person back,” Kand said. “They gain their power by taking life.”
“Witch-wives are Malcasters,” Kand said.
Javen closed his eyes. Fool. He should have known; the signs were there. What a blind fool.
“Why do you say the Malcasters thought Gatty was your gran too?” Kand asked as he stepped forward. “Maybe they were looking for a witch-wife?”
“The Malcaster asked about Seers, the Keeper, and something called ‘the second.’ Gatty kept saying she didn’t know and it wasn’t her. Meaning it was my gran they wanted.”
Labrium became silent, stroking his mustache in an unconscous tic. Javen wanted to ask what had interested him about his information, but Kand held out his hand for the etching, indicating the interview’s end. He placed it on the desk as Labrium walked Javen to the door.
“Can I leave?” Javen asked. He hadn’t meant to ask, but the thought had been running around in his head for too long to dismiss. The Malcasters had taken everything. He wanted to hit back, to make them hurt, and he couldn’t do that here.
“No, absolutely not,” Labrium said.
Kand shook his head at Labrium’s curt order when he joined them at the door, “Javen, I know you’ve visions of revenging yourself on the Malcasters, but you have to see you aren’t prepared. You weren’t able to bring me down, do you think a Malcaster will be easier? – and the Malcaster won’t give you a second chance. How would your death help your grandmere or anyone, for that matter? It isn’t time. Besides, what about your grandmere’s request? She wanted you here.”
Javen slowly nodded. He figured it was the fastest way out of the office. He reevaluated his need to leave. Kand was right. He wasn’t ready – yet. But he would keep his options open.
A chest-high bluish-grey creature with wild gray hair silently appeared in the doorway. Labrium nodded, “Here’s Lopner. He’s part of our Gnome community. Lopner, please take Javen to Savan Plat and then the spring. He needs a swim. And, he’ll need to see Merla and Noni after.” Lopner bobbed as Labrium and Kand retired to the office.
Clicking his tongue, Lopner said, “Go, go, fix, wet.”
The crunch of a woven, grass runner underfoot was the only sound as Javen followed Lopner down several long passages and stairs. The arched windows that ran down the outer hallways confirmed his thoughts regarding the fortress’s location. Etched words over the doorways and windows were marred by time, mold, and erosion, rendering most of the text unreadable. Instead of glowing rocks in hanging glass teardrops, the way was lit by long-handled metal torches. Each torch had a permanent black smoke stain that reached to the roof and an accumulation of black ash that looked burned into the floor. Tapestries hung from the hallway walls at intervals; their once colorful images faded into muted sameness. The fortress was very old.
At a double door, Lopner clicked his tongue, saying, “Fix, fix.”
A man with deep red hair looked up from a herb counter as the two entered. He waved Lopner down the aisle to his side. Javen followed examining the large room of beds. He immediately recognized the smell of herbs. This was definitely a healing place.
“Been expecting you,” the man said. “I’m Savan Plat. Let’s see how you’re doing.”
Plat reached for Javen’s head. Javen instinctively drew back sending the room into a wild spin. Plat stuck a chair under his rear and pressed him into it.
“Nothing to be afraid of. Just changing the dressing. You’ve a nasty cut. Fraid they took off part of your ear.”
Savan Plat untied the bandaged. “Lobe part. Lots of blood, but stitched up fine. Won’t affect your hearing. Done what I can about the cut on your cheek and jaw. Missed the vein, good thing. Kinda deep, so might scar a bit. As for the knot on your head, it’s a beaut. Bet your head’s been pounding like a drum. Here take this.” He dropped a small amount of tincture into a cup of water and handed it to Javen. His actions were fast and sure, much like the way he spoke.
The bitter smell of blacknutte was familiar to Javen and he swallowed quickly. The telltale smell was bad but the taste was infinitely worse. His grandmere always had a supply, but she usually laced it with peppermint. His thoughts jumped to his ear, not viewing the loss as glibly as the man. It was just one more thing he owed the Malcasters.
“This’ll dry hard,” he said, using a sticky ointment to seal Javen’s ear. He continued down the slash that followed his neck and jaw. “It can get wet, but not the stitches. Don’t rub it or it’ll come off. Now, outta here.”
The bluish grey creature reappeared, and propelled him down a multitude of stairs as Javen’s thoughts returned to what he’d learned about his grandmere. Clearly, her life had been one of secrets. How did she know these people? It was a puzzle with many missing pieces. Had she known the answers? His feet moved, but his mind was in a fog of dark thoughts. The distant sound of kids playing interrupted. Six young people barreled past, as another stairway approached. Javen paused, watching, feeling his murk lift.
Lopner clicked, “Come! Come!”
The hike continued and a close hallway branched to the left and still down. The atmosphere noticeably changed, heavy with water and the smell of mold and damp. The lighting dimmed and the walls became rough and bare. Javen’s shoulder bumped the wall and came away wet. The place was dismal. At the end of the corridor, they stopped before a locked, gated archway. It felt like a trap. Javen glanced around, preparing to bolt.
The sound of laughter and running water calmed him, replacing some of his fear. More stairs, these uneven and slick, descended through a long-arched tunnel. At the tunnel’s end, Javen stopped as it opened into a cavernous cave. He goggled at the sparkling roof which shimmered from the reflection and movement of the water. The spring itself covered the center of the massive cave pouring its excess over a flat, raised ledge at the cave mouth. From the mouth, it was joined by several smaller streams making a river which swept in a long, slow twisting snake to the valley below. The kids in the water shrieked and his stomach clenched. He turned his back.
Lopner shuffled to a pile of clothing on a rough-hewn shelf and sifted through the available garments, handing him one of suitable size. He pointed to the dry area at the rear of the cave and a half dozen floor-to-roof pillars.
He stubbed his toe on a rock and dropped for a moment to massage it, hoping the blue guy would leave. But he stood unmoving. He was forced to continue toward the far reaches of the cave. His destination proved intriguing. The stone pillars were naturally hollow and used for changing. A comfortable seat had even been chiseled.
He took his time, hoping his companion would move on to other tasks, freeing Javen from the watery ordeal. His hands were clammy and his stomach wouldn’t stop jumping. This whole swimming thing was a bad idea. He wiped his wet hands down his swimming pants, trying not to think about his fear. He ran the soft fabric through his fingers. He’d never felt anything like it. Gran’s home-spuns were durable, but rough. He fingered the fabric, missing his grandmere again. A shadow fell across the pillar’s opening and Javen looked up.
“New guy! See Jalnor, pay up. I were right. It is a new guy! We’ve got ourselves a new supporter.” A jowly, red face leaned into the opening. The boy’s long, red, wavy hair fell over one eye, while his other eye looked Javen up and down. A second darker boy stood behind in the shadow.
Javen opened his mouth to introduce himself as the redhead continued, “Though, not sure it’s human, more like an earless freak. And check out the mud. Looks like he bathed in it.”
Javen swallowed his words and started to reach up to cover his ear. He resisted and fingered his staff instead.
The talker noticed, “I’ll take the belt n’ staff. Entrance tax, pay up.”
Javen hesitated. He wondered if it were part of the rules. He didn’t care if it were. “No,” he said.
The red head scowled. Javen was immediately on guard. He was also trapped inside the narrow pillar, his staff useless. With a low grunt, Javen plowed into the boy’s chest. The other boy stumbled back, but Javen couldn’t run as his head spun from the impact.
The redhead recovered and crouched with a growl.
The second boy looked scared. “Tharn ‘re you sure? Remember what they said…”
A girl emerged from the pillar nearby and shouted, “Fight! Fight!”
Tharn bounced on the balls of his feet as Javen fingered his staff. Oder would have said, “take him down like you mean it.” Javen swung. Tharn dodged. The staff hit the stone pillar. The impact vibrated through Javen’s entire body. Pain erupted from the cut on his face to his pounding head to his spinning stomach. Javen had just enough sense to stumble backward, dodging a swing that would have dropped him cold.
The sound of shouts and running feet came from the spring.
An adult voice in the distance shouted, “Stand down!” Tharn glanced over his shoulder. He swore, kicked sand in Javen’s direction and ran off.
A blonde athletic looking boy arrived first trailed by a shorter, extremely freckled redhead. Behind them was someone far harder to place. The boy, if he could be called that, was tall and pale, with a nearly blue-green complexion, and a short, flat comb of gold hair.
The blonde boy nudged the redhead. “Guess Tharn changed his mind, Clarick. He doesn’t wanna fight after all.” The blonde turned to Javen, “You’re new.”
Javen brandished his staff.
“Whoa!” The blonde said as he raised his hands. “I’m Ravel.”
Javen lowered the stave.
Ravel indicated with his thumb, “Clarick’s the freckled guy. Splog here’s a Clamfisher. Swimming’s his game.”
Javen’s head hurt, even his eyes were feeling strained. But he didn’t want to end up back in his bed or worse in the healing place, so he forced himself into attentiveness. Ravel seemed friendly, the red head hadn’t said much, but he found it difficult to not stare at Splog. He’d never seen a Clamfisher before. His comb of gold hair glinted in the torchlight and his large violet eyes sparkled brightly.
“Not too smart takin’ on someone like Tharn,” Clarick said, adding a condescending sniff.
Javen retorted, “He was coming ‘round.” The freckled guy had a way about him, and Javen didn’t like it.
“And you really wanna clean up. Kinda crusty,” Splog said and wrinkled his nose.
“You do know how to swim?” Clarick asked as they wove their way out of the pillars.
“Water and I go way back,” Javen answered. It wasn’t exactly a lie.
“Let’s go then! You can leave your staff n’ stuff with Savan Tunga,” Ravel said and headed toward the spring. “Can you get in with the…?” Ravel asked as he pointed to his ear.
“Yeah, sticky stuff.” The others nodded, apparently having experienced the substance.
After dropping his staff and clothes with Tunga, who was a Seer and a Clamfisher like Splog, he followed them to the edge of the spring. While the others jumped in, Javen looked down into the clear water straight to a sandy bottom. Where were the steps? Where was the gently sloping bank? He frantically searched the edges. Soon they’d wonder why he was hanging back. There had to be a safer way in. He spotted it, cattycorner to his ledge. Steps leading to a small beach – his beach.
He’d barely turned before two identical blonde girls ran to each side. “What ya waiting for?” one of them asked.
“Don’t be shy,” the other said. They grabbed his arms and pulled, shouting, “Jump!”
He flailed as he fell over the edge, and his belly smacked the surprisingly warm water. Before he could assess his stinging face, he sank. Frantically clawing and kicking, he fell deeper. His struggles slowed. Water pressed in. His chest burned. In a burst of fear, he kicked and clawed. Someone tried to grasp his hand, but he fought blindly in his panic.
Splog tried to hold Javen, but Javen fought, wrapping his arm around Splog’s neck, nearly taking him down. Javen dragged a breath as Splog disengaged. Javen’s again sank. The struggle weakened him. He had no more fight. He took a breath, filling his lungs with water. Splog surfaced alone and he shouted for help. The blonde girls screamed. Tunga ignored them and dove.
Within seconds, Tunga had Javen on the surface. Flipping him to his back, he towed him to the edge. Hands lifted his still body to shore and he was placed on the ground. The kids circled. Blood flowed down Javen’s neck from the reopened wound.
Tunga knelt, pinched Javen’s nose and breathed into his mouth. He pumped his stomach several times, burps of water draining slowly from Javen’s mouth. One of the girls ran for Plat, while the other onlookers remained hushed. The only sounds were the breathing and grunting thuds of the rescuer. It seemed like hours, but was more like seconds when Javen jerked, coughing up water. Tunga held Javen’s head over as he vomited.
Lopner said, “Javen, Javen, sleep, sleep, up, up.”
Tunga eyed Javen closely, “You can’t swim.”
His cheeks colored. He coughed, rasping weakly, “Was it noticeable?”
“Idiot! You can’t swim?” Clarick flared.
“Asked and answered,” he croaked with a slight glare, but the effect was lost in another cough. He tried to sit but Tunga pressed him to the ground.
“You’re bleeding. Be still, Cresta went for Plat,” Tunga said.
He cleared his throat. “On second thought, it wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done. How’d I get up here?”
“It was stupid,” Clarick replied, “and Savan Tunga saved you, after you tried to drown Splog.”
Javen ignored the irritating boy and sheepishly apologized to Splog.
Splog swiped his gold hair back with his fingers and said wryly, “I recommend swimming lessons…soon.”
“Move!” Plat cleared the area with one word and knelt. “No rubbing! Didn’t I say that?” With sure movements, Javen’s wounds were again wrapped. “No more swimming.”
Javen grunted but it came out like a sigh. A little drowning, some blood, and the whole swimming thing gets a miss. And there was the bright side… he wasn’t dead. If things weren’t exactly looking up, he wasn’t going to complain about an interval not involving catastrophes.
Plat continued his instructions, “Come tonight, I’ll change the bandage. Lopner, please bring him.”
Lopner waved his arms, “Javen! Go, go Merla, Noni.”
“Sounds like you’ve got a date with Savans of tailoring and cobbling,” Ravel said, nudging Javen. “Glad it ain’t me.”
“You’d better scram. They’re a mite ill-tempered about tardiness.” Clarick pressed.
“They’re a mite ill-tempered, period,” Ravel said in an audible undertone.
With this cheery warning, Javen hastily changed into a set of second-hand clothing provided by Lopner, and allowed himself to be herded to the gate.
Merla answered her door as soon as Lopner knocked, “Been waiting for ages, tsk, tsk. Got much work to do, tsk, tsk. No time for dilly-dally. Hold up hands, tsk, tsk.” The very tall, skinny old woman spent the next couple hours firing orders at Javen as she transformed a piece of material into a tunic and pants. His sides were sore from pinching as she measured and re-measured his waist, legs, and arms.
As he changed into his new clothing, listening to Merla prattle about the other sets she’d send his way the next morning, “tsk, tsk”, a booming voice thundered from the doorway. “Merla, yer takin all day. Shurla you’ll send him my way.”
A very small, rolly man bounced in the door, as Merla continued to, “touch up, tsk, tsk, Javen’s tunic,” ignoring the man completely.
“Looks good, looks fine let the boy have shoes. Come now, my time before the light I lose.”
Merla looked disdainfully down her long, sloping nose, “What do you know, tsk, tsk?”
“I know you should be done. I know I’ve not begun.”
“Fast is slow, tsk, tsk and slow is fast tsk, tsk.”
“Slow or fast, it don’t matter. Let him go, no more chatter.”
The two continued to argue as Javen moved from Merla’s rooms to Noni’s chamber, where he was given just enough time to swallow a lump of sweet bread and cheese before the next round began.
Hours passed and the sun had set as Javen tried to adjust to having his feet imprisoned. Lopner returned, and as they walked Javen noticed that the leather boots were both squishy and suffocating. Savan Plat was waiting and his bandages were again changed as he received a lecture on listening.
Once finished, Lopner finally led Javen to his room, after a detour to the privy. He was tired and hungry. The smell of roasted meat and onions met him at the door. His mouth watered and he wolfed it down. Done, he wiped his greasy fingers on the tablecloth. Ripping off his new boots, he wiggled his toes, enjoying the freedom. They would take some getting used to…a lot of things would. He sobered, glancing at the mirror across the room. The time had arrived.
Steeling himself, he removed his bandage and approached the mirror for his first look. The bright red slash, started at his missing earlobe, crossed the top of his jaw and ended just below his cheekbone. He leaned in, studying Savan Plat’s stitches. They didn’t follow the cut line as faithfully as his grandmere’s stitches, nor were they as tight, so there’d be a scar, but it wouldn’t be too bad. His whole earlobe was missing, though -- not the tip, the whole lobe. He tilted his head back and forth, getting a good look. It wasn’t pretty. After a last look and grimace, he rewrapped the wound and crossed to his bed. He thought of his ear…his home…his gran. Gone.
He stretched out, holding his staff. He missed her. He wanted to tell her about his day. He rubbed his thumb over the carvings on the staff. Emptiness and misery enfolded him. When he couldn’t keep his eyes open, he finally slept. He didn’t notice the rucksack and long, cloth bag on the other bed.
Nine days after receiving Lord Damerik’s orders, Feral arrived at Javen’s deserted cottage. Agitation met him at the door and grew as he entered. He knew the source. Feral surveyed the wreckage, wondering if any clues had survived. Varus’s troops had been thorough, and it was a shame. The furniture, what was left of it, was beautifully carved. He ran his hand along the now two-legged table’s carvings of woodland scenes and moved to the fireplace mantle. Flowers of every description were carved along its face. A dried pool of blood in the corner marred its beauty.
He toed through the ashes of several fires, finding nothing useful. He squatted, scooping up some of the scattered herbs that were everywhere. His earlier feeling of agitation and the dried herbs, confirmed Zulie’s information. The woman had been a healer. At a cupboard, he searched, noting the few cooking essentials strewn across the floor. He moved to the bedroom area of the two-room cottage. Palming his dagger, he slit a mattress that lay part way up a wall and rummaged inside among the soft husks. Nothing.
In the corner on the floor, he found stone-etchings in front of a shelf, several broken. They were masterpieces. He wrapped them and stuffed them into his rucksack.
Satisfied, he scanned the room one last time and strode out. Through the garden, he moved to the shed, rifling the gardening tools. From there, his investigation took him past a fresh grave toward the spring house. The smell of death grew stronger the closer he got. In the spring house, he picked his way through the debris and knelt, examining the floor. The wreckage was pushed to the side in front of a wall. The wall opened. Inside, he saw what he expected: small footprints, like those of a boy.
“Ignoramuses,” he muttered.
He examined the body on the shelf. She’d been dead a while; the decomposition was far along. It wasn’t pretty, but rotting flesh never was. He swatted at the flies. His blue eyes scanned the walls as though looking back in time. “Where are you kid?” He murmured.
As he left the spring house, he again passed the grave. It was shallow. Deep black cloth peeped out of the dirt. A witch-wife.
They mistook a witch-wife for a Seer. “Imbeciles,” he growled.
At the broken window on the nearside of the house, he knelt at a neat pile of glass shards. On the yellow brink was a small, muddy handprint. He stood and looked through the window, noticing the drops of blood. He came back. Feral thought as he scanned the ransacked room, wondering when the kid returned, and more importantly why.
He circled the garden, finding a surprising number of few plants he could use for his own use. He carefully placed each one in a pouch at his side. At a small blue patch of flowers, he paused.
“Contre-vail,” he murmured in an undertone of surprise. He knelt, picking one of the flowers. He couldn’t help but wonder how a woman of little means managed to get one, let alone several, of these plants.
The flower was rare and very expensive. Their only habitat existed at the northernmost edge of the Emerald Divide. For an apothecary or a destroyer, this plant is a prize indeed. Feral reflected as he carefully collected seeds from the underside of the petals, avoiding the false seeds hanging from the stems.
Throwing his rucksack over Saygon’s saddle, he considered the contre-vail. Since expense made the purchase prohibitive, it must have been a gift or she traveled to the region. Traveling that distance for a flower was unlikely. Especially since, as a healer, it would have been unnecessary. He wondered if the gift-bearer was a Seer, like the ones who showed up in this out-of-the-way place killing Varus and his men. The more he thought about the little blue flower, -- which carried in its leaves the power to heal an ailing heart or stop it cold -- the surer he was that this was the clue he’d been searching for. Feral patted Saygon’s neck and turned west.
The dream’s familiar end tore Javen out of sleep, and he jerked upright, breathing hard. Panic set in at the unfamiliar surroundings. Then he remembered. He leaned against the headboard. How many nights would his sleep return him to the worst day of his life? It was like he was living someone else’s cursed life. He closed his eyes and let misery fill him.
A thunderous sound came from the neighboring bed. Javen jerked at the noise. A high-pitched, careening whine replaced the thunderous rumble. The whine was followed by another deafening snore. Just what the scene needed, he thought. He’d never get back to sleep. He turned on his side and stared at the pile of sheets that was his snoring neighbor. He flipped restlessly to his other side and put his pillow over his head. From under it, he gazed at the door. When he finally drifted off, his dreams were full of drums, thunder, and a yowling cat.
“Morning!” a chirpy voice said.
Javen’s sleepy eyes opened. He took in the other rumpled bed and the boy standing at its foot. He was an extremely skinny, sandy-haired boy of about his age. He shot Javen a tentative smile. As Javen swung his feet to the floor, his roommate bent over an unusual basin carved into the wall and unplugged a cork. A small trickle of water spilled from a chute into the basin. He gasped when he splashed his face, quickly moving to his hair and teeth.
Javen inspected the water stream in amazement. This would have been useful back home, no early morning water fetching. He approached the basin as the other boy backed away and grabbed a cloth.
“Yoreck,” the other boy said, after drying his face and hands. He nodded a greeting. Javen introduced himself and returned the nod. After removing his bandage and making sure the bleeding had stopped, he carefully doused and toweled. Then Javen stood uncertainly, twisting his damp cloth.
“Your stuff’s in that chest,” Yoreck said as he drew on his own pair of sand colored trousers he’d removed from the first of two chests. “It all came last night, so I put it away. You were out, cold. Rearrange however you like.”
Javen rounded the first chest and opened a drawer. Ignoring the brush on top, he inspected several linen shirts with ties at the wrist and laces at the neck lay neatly folded in the top drawer. Alongside the shirts, gray knitted under-drawers, handkerchiefs and several pairs of hose were neatly folded. Trousers occupied the second drawer. The last held open-fronted over-tunics with their matching belts. Everything was either brown, gray, sand or black. Javen selected brown trousers, an off-white shirt, an over-tunic of sand and a brown belt. As he did up the inner tie of the over-tunic, Yoreck finished tying his brown one and quickly brushed down his fly-away hair.
“Here, hold my belt,” Yoreck said, as he put the brush back on the dresser. “I’ll show you how the belt works.”
The belt was wider in the middle and Yoreck positioned the widest portion of his sand-colored belt in front at his waist. He wrapped the tails around his waist at the back and crisscrossed, returning the ends to the front to be tied together. After brushing his hair, -- which was a first for Javen – he grabbed his staff and started to head for the door.
“Don’t forget boots.”
Javen groaned internally. He didn’t like the boots, and neither did his feet. His feet were perfect; they didn’t sweat, require lacing or pinch. With an angry grunt, he grabbed his boots from beside the wall and started to put them on.
Yoreck tossed him a pair of hose and a small rucksack. “I highly suggest hose, else the boots’ll chew your feet up. You’ll hate life then. Ask me how I know.”
“Thanks,” Javen said. “Think I’ll give that a miss.”
“Oh, and the sack’s got your eating utensils, a traveling flask, and a knife. Hunther told me you’ll be joining us today.”
Javen asked as he struggled with the boot strings, “Hunther? Joining us?” After several attempts trying to recreate the knot he’d been shown by the cobbler the day before, he did a quick loop knot, like he did when skinning a rabbit.
“Docent. Kind of in charge of the tyros, that’s us. He and Hogar make sure we complete our duties and our punishments. Speaking of punishments, if your bed isn’t made, you have to wait until lunch’s first serving is finished, before eating. They make you stand at the door, it’s kind of embarrassing and if you’re hungry, well, you have to wait.” The two dressed their beds, tossing sheet and coverlet over the whole and smoothing it down.
Javen glanced over, “Now?”
Yoreck nodded, “Now.”
Yoreck shut the door and they started down the corridor.
Javen asked, “Anything else I should know?”
Yoreck pointed to a door as they turned at a hallway, “That’s the privy. You’ll want to know how to get there. Every floor has one.”
“I think I’m gonna need a guide,” he said as the turned down the third hallway.
Yoreck snorted, “You’ll get it. Mostly it’s a grid. Larger hallways have exits from the fortress. Double doors are usually common rooms, like the dining hall, the game room, and the odiun. Not allowed beyond the privies after lights out. Lights out is ten bells.”
Several floors down, Yoreck pushed a carved double door and Javen entered the dining hall. It was enormous and round. Colorful tapestries hung from large rectangle cut-outs in the stone walls. Down the center, carved pillars supported a tall arched ceiling. On the east and west facing walls, two large marble fireplaces assured that the colder months wouldn’t be too uncomfortable and several shuttered windows along the southern curve allowed in light and a morning breeze.
Round tables occupied the spaces and were filled to capacity with kids. Each table was covered with rapidly emptying platters and pitchers. His empty stomach growled. Seeing the bowls of disappearing porridge, he had to remind himself that it wasn’t his favorite meal.
Yoreck heard, “Hungry? Mobsby’s already here. Afraid we’ll have to fight for it.”
From a nearby table, Ravel motioned, “Hey, over here.” He pushed the other kids around the jammed bench to make room.
They crossed to the table. As they approached, a heavy-set boy grabbed Javen’s cup and spoon and set them beside Ravel. He pointed at the seat. Javen looked over at Yoreck and raised his eyebrow.
Yoreck shook his head and shrugged as he squeezed into a spot.
The stocky boy poked him, “Whatcha waiting for? Load up!” Javen took the seat as the other boy continued, “In case you’re interested, I’m Mobsby.” Javen started to respond, but he wasn’t given a chance as the boy continued without pause. “And if you’re not, I’m still Mobsby.”
Mobsby plopped a large spoonful of porridge into Javen’s bowl, adding a dollop each of cream and peaches. Using the spoon as a pointer, Mobsby made introductions, “For those of you who have been living under a mountain, this is Javen.” It was apparent to Javen that he wouldn’t be required, or able, to speak for a while; so he plowed into his porridge, taking three heaping bites.
“Intros are on me,” the talkative boy continued, “standing with his back to us, with the black hair is Hunther. He’s a docent; meaning he’s the monitor. He’s kinda bossy and a leetle nosy, but overall, scary as a pack of ragnors.”
Hunther turned and raised his eyebrow, making it clear he heard.
Mobsby cleared his throat, “Moving on, the freckled kid across the table is Cloen. Next to him, the gorgeous silver-haired creature is Shara; she’s Glendor’s sister, so hands off. Glendor’s the buff, over-protective, silver-haired guy on the other side of Cloen.” Glendor shook his head at Mobsby’s nonsense. Mobsby continued non-stop, “Floag, Splog’s sister is beside Glendor. Are you getting all this?”
Javen stopped eating, trying to keep up. He noticed that Floag had Splog’s same pale, blue-green coloring. The gold comb that crowned her brother’s head, covered hers completely like a silky, translucent veil of gold, sweeping past her shoulders to the middle of her back. It shimmered and stirred with every movement.
Javen pulled his gaze away and asked quickly. “Is there a test?” He stuffed the last of his porridge into his mouth.
“But of course. Next to Floag, with the long black ponytail, big eyes, and bigger smile, is Cresta. I hear you met her at the spring.” Cresta’s smile lit her face and she nodded. “She ran and got Plat so you didn’t bleed to death.”
Mobsby continued “Yoreck, you know. Besides, no one with his snoring-skills can aspire to anonymity.” Yoreck shot Javen a shy grin. “Although, I suspect the snoring is a ploy so he can have a room to himself. Anyway, he’s your problem now. The last two are Splog and Ravel, whom you’ve already met…”
“You clean up nicely,” Splog said as he spread butter on the split side of a round biscuit making sure it was thin and evenly distributed. “Shame about the ear.”
“Glad they missed my head,” Javen replied. He stuffed a biscuit in his mouth, grabbing another as the plate passed.
“Splog…you interrupted,” Mobsby said.
“It’s the only way,” Ravel said, talking around the grape in his mouth, “Other than knocking you senseless.”
“What’re you tryin’ to say, Ravel? Spit it out,” Mobsby said eye-brow raised. “Don’t be shy just because we’re roomies and I know your darkest secrets.”
“You might as well know, Javen, Mobsby’s the fortress jawbone. What he doesn’t know, isn’t worth anything…well, anything monetary that’s for sure.”
Mobsby preened, quite liking Ravel’s description.
“Thanks for the warning,” Javen said.
“Exactly,” Splog murmured. There was no way to misread the fact that Mobsby’s talent for gossip had resulted in many headaches.
Mobsby snatched Javen’s biscuit as he was about to take a bite and held it in the air, “Ok, Javen, we have been very patient. You saw the battle. You can’t keep something like that to yourself. Come on, and don’t leave out anything…especially, how you got your battle wound.”
Ravel choked, “You mean there’s something you don’t know?”
Yoreck placed his hand over Mobsby’s mouth and the biscuit dropped. Javen snatched it as it rolled off the table.
“Ok Javen, now tell us about it,” Ravel said.
His grandmere’s face swam before his eyes. With a deep breath, he related the bizarre battle, sparing no detail. As Javen wrapped up his account and the table began to buzz, Savan Tunga slipped behind Mobsby.
He cleared his throat, startling the kids, “Has someone declared a holiday? Helloooo…you’re the only ones still sitting. If you’re not out hasty-like, every one of you’ll be doing privy duty the rest of the week. Who’s brave enough?” Tunga flexed his skinny arms.
The group dispersed, rushing past two waiting Gnomes and eight tyros with clean-up duty.
At the water basin, Mobsby shouted, “Hey! I’m on privy duty this week! You got rid of my help…”
The kids fled.
Javen started to follow Yoreck, but Hunther pointed toward a short, stocky boy standing outside the doorway, “You’ll join Hogar. He’s your docent. Hey, Hogar! Get o’er here an’ meet Javen.”
Hogar jogged over, wearing a big goofy grin, “Hunther! Tryin’ to nab my crew?”
Hunther slapped him on the back, “Bring him up to speed. I gotta off.”
“Jaden?” Hogar asked and trotted down the stairs.
“No,” Javen said as he rushed to keep up. “Javen.”
“Right. Now, first ya need to know about the duty roster. Today Jaben’ll be added to the Seers’ job rotation and lessons’ lists.” Javen opened his mouth to correct, but shut it with a snap as Hogar’s instructions shot at him like darts. “It’s your job to make sure an’ let me know if yer not. Got it?”
They stopped in front of a pegged board. Jobs and lessons were carved across it and times down the side. Javen started to answer but turned it into a deep breath as Hogar rattled on, “Good. Tomorrow you’ll be assigned a color. Pegs o’ the same color’ll show up. Watch for ‘em. Every week you’ll hafta check ta see where your pegs is put, see.” Hogar shoved a cream-colored peg into the slot under laundry and one under the Herbal Remedies time slot. “Got it?”
“Great!” Hogar took off again, dashing past the kitchen, dairy, granary, pantry, cellar, cider press, herbarium, and laundry, pointing and naming each. They exited the fortress at a courtyard. “Courtyard,” he said unnecessarily. He hustled Javen to the edge and pointed down the mountain’s terraced slope into the vague distance. “Gardens, river, spring, orchard, smoke house, metal forge, kiln, stables, training arenas.”
The race continued across the wide grassy courtyard to a corridor, which led to two wooden double doors. Hogar threw open the doors. Javen’s breath caught. He’d never seen a library. The place was huge.
Hogar sneezed. “Not my kinda place, but you’ve the look,” he said and pushed Javen ahead of him. An overseer ‘shushed’ from his desk.
Hogar whispered, “That’s Savan Goen. He’s…well, anyway. I’ll introduce you and you can have at it. Got it?”
“Savan Goen, this is Jalen. Gotta get,” And he was gone.
Javen corrected his name for Savan Goen, who was a Kai with the characteristic round, bulging honey-brown eyes. Not typical, but just as eye-catching was his face, which hung in baggy folds of skin. The overseer ushered him on a tour of his much-loved domain. The massive three-story room had five spiral staircases of carved stone, several engraved pillars, and numerous cubby holes and shelves. Each held collections of books, scrolls, and maps. The Savan knew every scrap, map, and book’s location in the vast library.
Lifting the monocle hanging from his waist to his bulging eye, he examined Javen minutely. “Young sir,” he said in solemn tones, “if you are interested in any of the reading material within this library, put your request in writing, hand it to one of the assistants and they will procure it for you. Writing tablets and implements are on every table. The assistants wear green leather jerkins,” he said and dismissed Javen with a wave.
Javen passed a counter with a pile of books at the end. He walked around looking for an assistant, but the area was vacant. Returning to the pile, he snagged, ‘History of Empyra’, some paper and a stub of hardened charcoal.
A massive open window framed by two substantial green curtains beckoned, and he stepped through to the library’s outdoor balcony. He stood at the railing, which overlooked a river and meadows. In the distance, the surrounding mountains rose. He chose one of the benches under a wooden roof near the railing and tossed his rucksack at his feet. Leaning back, he brought his knees up and opened the book.
‘Many ages past after a deed of courage, three brothers discovered, what they called, a ‘sea of potential’ flowing invisibly everywhere. This is the source of the Seer’s power. After many experiments, 0they learned that selfish thoughts and actions twisted the ‘potential’ into a destructive force. It was this destructive force, which the youngest brother used to satisfy his grasping nature. This bred the Malcaster destruction we know today…’
Javen reread the paragraph three times, copied it down. He stopped again several minutes later at another odd part, ‘Two ages of waiting have passed since the last Gatekeeper.’
The shout was a violent blow in the quiet place. Javen looked up and saw Savan Goen in what looked like a fit. The gray wrinkles on his face shook as his long limbs rushed him from table to table.
“Where is it?” Savan Goen snapped at a green-vested assistant. The Savan stopped at a cubby hole, examining its contents with jerky movements.
Javen returned to the book, ‘…but the Seers persevere in ‘the waiting’ time, searching the…,’
Abruptly it was snatched from his hand. “I’m sorry young man. This book is beyond you.” Savan Goen closed the history book with a snap and placed it under his arm. “There are many histories for your age. Lonai? Please procure an appropriate history for this young man.” The young girl took off.
After the Seer had left, Javen jotted the odd sentence down, puzzling over the Savan’s behavior.
Far to the west of Empyra at the northern edge of the Emerald Divide, two young Trealingers, and an elderly man traveled a dirt path toward the town of Raynor. Ramus, the older of the two Trealingers, ran ahead backwards, showing off. His bright, upright, red hair fanned forward over his light greenish features, as he stuck his tongue out at his sister. She shrieked in frustration, since she was hampered by a sprained ankle.
The old man placed his hand on Rena’s head, smoothing her spiky, bright orange hair. “Calmly Rena. The drama’s excessive.”
Ramus shook his finger, “Yeah Rena, listen to ‘Unctle’ Shey.”
“Ramus, your teasing’s unhelpful,” the old man rebuked mildly.
At the town center, a mass of villagers milled near the entrance to the alehouse, the largest building. Shey heard angry words directed toward something (or someone) inside the alehouse as they passed, but he didn’t stop. He had to settle Rena and Ramus with Mu Jumba. Then he could wade into whatever had caused Mutser, Raynor’s bailiff, to send for him.
Shey knocked on the door of a gray daub cottage.
An old, very broad woman opened the door. Her wide, poufy lips broke into a toothy smile, “Tank you, Shey. Dey won’ wait. You betta’ head back. Come younglin’s, I’ve some freesh apple fritters coolin’ on de rack. Come, come.” The sweet smells floating through the doorway drew the children in.
Returning to the alehouse, Shey squeezed into the common room and settled into a corner.
Lord Bonard’s steward, Fraque, stood on a box near the bar, his lipless slash of a mouth droning, “Slave-men, the bailiff will issue special orders personally and divide your duties accordingly. Though, overall your workload will be the same. An extra half day a week on Lord Bonard’s holding is all that’s required of you.
“Merchants, however, will have an increase in tariff by seven silver vales, which puts your payments at seventeen.” The grumble of the crowd rose and Fraque quickly continued, “Freemen working Lord Bonard’s holding are now required to pay an extra five silver vales per piece of land they own. The use of Lord Bonard’s mill, oven, and wine press will require an extra two silver vales for rental. The use of his woods for hunting and feeding is terminated, except for the slave-men. They are exempt from these fees and rulings. Any free-man or merchant wishing to leave this holding must pay a forfeit of fifty silver vales.”
Standing silently beside Fraque, Feral observed the building anger with satisfaction. As the protests gained volume, Feral’s two retainers unsheathed their swords. The crowd subsided into silent fury. Feral’s divisive plan was working. Those of means, by far the minority, simmered in rage at the new decrees. The basically unaffected slaves stood docile.
Fraque continued, “The new fees and regulations are the command of Lord Feral’s and won’t affect: the innkeeper, blacksmith, brewer, and baker. Their fees are to be paid by the miller, the chandler, the tanner and the glazier.” The meeting was dismissed.
The other merchants glared at the four men, resentment and suspicion adding fuel to their furor. Feral strode through the crowd to the favored men. Shaking their hands, he presented each with a small bag of vales. Emotions were high as the crowd disbursed.
Feral surveyed his work as the room emptied, and he turned his attention to Fraque. “Well done.” He went outside and mounted his horse, to return to Bonard’s keep, satisfied with the success of his plan.
“No, stay,” Feral said, when Fraque started to do the same. “Emphasize our goodwill with our four new friends. Those men touch everything that passes through Raynor. Our favor will ensure their isolation. When the plague I passed takes hold, it will spread fast. Disunity will make organization more difficult when the Seers emerge to stop it.”
Fraque bowed low, stating with fervent compliance, “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” and backed from the horse as Feral set off.
Feral cantered down the fir-lined road to Bonard’s red stone keep, entering with little fanfare. He caught his reflection in a pewter bowl, noting the new creases lining his blue eyes and the slightly dull cast to his blonde hair. The plague he carried took years off his life every time he passed it. The alteration of his features pained him, but the sacrifice would be worth it when he brought the Seers in.
After dispatching a message to Omreh and his troops at Castle Byrn, he warned his five guards to make scarce for a while. This was no time for overzealousness. These weren’t dumb mutts they were baiting. To reel them in would require cunning and the element of surprise.
~ ~ ~
The silence was eerie. Six days after the alehouse meeting, Raynor was a ghost town. Its once bustling streets were deserted. A wailing song rose and fell at intervals. At the inn, Shey sighed as Pria, the four-year-old daughter of the brewer breathed her last. Shey gently closed her eyes, which he’d done the night before to her dead father. The mother threw herself across her daughter’s body and sobbed violently. Shey placed a hand on her shaking shoulder. One day had seen her widowed and then bereaved of her only child.
There were so many in this dark place, so many dead. From a distant house, a mourning chant rose. It was the ‘Song of the Dead.’ The broken woman slowly straightened. Her voice croaked as it joined the others, but strengthened when other faceless voices joined.
Cold, cold and alone, you may be,
But too, painless, released and free.
Illness, no more, wracks your frame.
Toil, no more, on the chain.
Shedding the torn,
Shedding the worn,
Break toil’s decree,
Painless and free.
Break toil’s decree,
Break toil’s decree,
Painless and free,
break toil’s decree.
Bodies soon became too numerous and the population too diminished to deal with burial, so a mass grave was dug outside the village. It wasn’t yet full, but the smell told the tale of wholesale death. Among the living, there was panic. Many had already packed what little they had: the ‘free,’ willing to lose their land as a penalty for their exodus; the slaves, knowing their lives were forfeit should they be caught running.
Yet, some stuck it out, locking themselves in their homes, hoping to be spared. Others remained to profit from the homes left unattended. The elderly and infirmed, unable to flee, suffered unnoticed in their beds, and died un-mourned. If a neighbor called, they might remove the body, putting it by the side of the road for the death-cart that evening; but most wouldn’t take the risk. A small number took advantage of the shelter and succor of the inn, where they waited for their end – or a miracle. On the overlooking hill at the manor house, the Malcasters watched but didn’t hinder.
Shey remembered with dread four days before when Rena and Ramus had run into their cottage after they’d visited Raynor. They’d been arguing about drawings on their friends’ locked doors – drawings of snakes. It was a deadly warning for all to avoid that house. As a Seer, and as a messenger, he sought help. Though his messaging abilities were impaired, he’d tried to contact Labrium about the plague, begging for assistance. Receiving no reply, he’d moved to Raynor to do what he could, consistently repeating his message to Empyra.
After installing Rena and Ramus at Mu Jumba’s cottage, with a stern warning for them to stay within, Shey headed to the inn. The innkeeper had sent messages throughout the area, encouraging the villagers to bring their sick to the inn. Some had come; most had not, choosing their own path. And that had increased the reach of the plague.
The blacksmith whispered from his cot as Shey changed his bedpan, “It’s dat Malcaster. He’s up to somethin’. Set us against each other.” The large man gasped weakly, “No reason for his boon. Didn’t do nothin’. You mus’ believe me…my son, my son.”
The blacksmith coughed hard, spewing black vomit down his arm to the floor. Shey knelt to clean the mess. His gaze swept the still form of the blacksmith’s three-year-old son, Tain, on the bed nearby.
Shey wiped his face, “Shhh, it’ll be all right. Rest.” The man’s eyes closed, but his sleep was restless.
Walking to Tain’s cot, Shey tried to quiet his disturbed senses and clear his mind. He again sought to communicate with Empyra, reiterating his suspicions regarding the Malcaster plot, and the need for caution and speed.
~ ~ ~
Omreh spurred his horse toward Raynor. His troops had already been waiting a full day. He cursed the delay. Then her cursed Prouda. The fault was entirely her’s. If it weren’t for her over-protectiveness toward Bainor, he’d be where he should be…with his men. His father’s second son was destined to become an insipid sack of spineless manhood, mooning over broken fingernails, and split-ends. When away from his mother, Bainor was almost normal, otherwise he transformed into a clingy, bleating goat-like thing.…
Suddenly, Omreh’s chest caved and he was thrown from his horse. Three brigands threw themselves on him before he recovered, and seizing his weapons, tied him firmly. It was completed in moments. With hands bound behind his back, Omreh was powerless. He cursed himself for being distracted with thoughts of the she-witch, and then cursed the she-witch. No one should be able to get within ten paces of him.
“There’s nowhere you can hide!” Omreh shouted, jerking at the bonds. “I will hunt you and I will hurt you.”
One of the men bowed mockingly, “We’ll just ‘ave to keep our peepers peeled, Govna’.” He delivered a brutal kick to his side and mounted Omreh’s horse. The man noticed one of his companions approaching with a club to break his legs. “Naw, don’t break his pins. He’ll be needin’ ‘em to git back ta the castle. It be a two-day walk.”
So, they knew he was from the Castle, but they couldn’t know his identity, or they’d never have attempted this lunacy. The talker was big, dark, and burly with bushy, brown hair. A diamond-shaped silver patch with a rose etching covered one eye. The second was a big-headed Boare, exactly like other big-headed Boares. And the last was tall and hooded, with only his low healed ragnor-skin boots to distinguish him.
Omreh watched in a rage as his assailants disappeared over the rise. Straining, he worked off his boot and a knife was soon in his hand. Back on his feet, he contemplated chasing his attackers. There was no time right now for vengeance, but he’d make time soon.
Shey cooled Tain’s hot brow, and at the same time listened for the sound of aid in the form of the Seers, whom he’d been summing each and every hour for six days. A bedpan clattered to the ground masking the quiet bird call from the back of the inn. Shey heard the second call and rushed to the rear door.
“Plat, thank goodness! Hurry. Follow me. There’s a child barely hanging on, among others.”
Shey led Plat, Rusk, and Shad into the inn, directing the healer to Tain. The child’s condition was dire and Plat wasn’t sure he was in time. He pressed his palm against his forehead and hoped. From Tain, he traveled to the other plague victims who were located on the floors of the three main rooms, and down the hallways. His heart broke beside the bed of a young mother who’d passed before his arrival. Her inconsolable husband stood at her side, his face yellowish with the tint of plague. As the man wept, Plat held him and palmed his head, seeking to stay the scourge.
At the edge of the main room, Shad, Rusk, and Shey spoke softly among themselves. “Tell us about the Malcaster situation,” Shad said in a low voice, “Your message wasn’t clear.”
Shey explained his suspicions regarding the Malcaster’s involvement in the plague and new decrees.
“Trap,” Shad said, agreeing with Shey’s suspicions.
Plat was oblivious to the conversation when he reentered, and headed to Tain’s bedside. His grave eyes spoke his unease. Rusk crossed the room and joined Plat. Dampening a cloth in a nearby water basin, she cooled the boy’s hot neck and face. In a low tone, she hummed an Illencer lullaby.
Shad talk to several of the victims, gaining as much intelligence on the town and situation as he could. As ten bells pealed, he knelt at Rusk’s side, “I need you. Plat’ll have to take over.”
Rusk nodded and stood.
Tain’s eyelids fluttered and blue eyes peered up. He croaked, “Angel,” gazing raptly at Rusk’s silver hair, dark skin, and golden eyes.
Rusk’s eyes sparkled and she said softly, “Ju fil le fin,” in her native tongue.
Shad’s expression also lightened, “Yes, he’ll be fine.”
Rusk stepped to the foot of the bed as Shey moved to the bedside with a steaming teapot.
“Where?” Rusk picked up her cloak from the chair.
“Manor house, for a little eavesdropping,” Shad said. “We think this is a trap. Need to be sure.”
Rusk nodded, glancing quickly at Tain while tying her long, bright hair in a knot.
“Shey, take Plat. You’ll be going door to door.” Plat looked up sharply. Shad continued, “A couple men told me there’s an old mine-shaft under the mill which connects to a network of caves. That’s our escape. If this was to draw us here, we’ll draw the Malcasters away. Both of you, urge everyone you see to tell the Malcasters we’ve gone through the tunnel. Plat, you have five hours to do what healing you can. I’ll inform the town leaders. Big job.”
Shey deposited restorative tea next to Plat, grabbed his cloak flinging it around his shoulders as Plat helped Tain drink the tea. Shey called the innkeeper and handed Plat his cloak as Plat whispered hurried instructions to the innkeeper. Together they slid into the shadows of town.
Shad and Rusk followed shortly after.
It didn’t take long for Shad and Rusk to confirm the trap, and they rushed back to Raynor from Bonard’s keep. As they rounded the corner near the livery, Shad caught sight of a guard and touched Rusk’s arm in warning. They slipped into an alley as a death cart, covered with black ‘X’s’ drew up outside the tanner’s hut. Wailing and the ‘Song of the Dead’ could be heard from inside. The Seers edged past, silent.
Two guards appeared, stopping at the head of the alley. “No way! Ain’t goin’ in there, Barfor. Nothin’ but stink and death. ‘Sides, we’re not ‘sposed to be here till Lord Feral says.”
“I see’d, a shadow.” The second soldier turned the corner and crept down the alley. “An’ I were right,” he said and vanished into the shadows behind the cart. He stabbed his sword into the darkened corner, feeling the give of a body. Reaching in, he felt hair and yanked, drawing up a plague victim’s corpse.
“AHH!” he shouted. Flinging the body to the ground, he ran.
“Lord Feral sayed to stay outta it!” The second soldier roared as he joined the first. “You an idjot!”
The seers dropped from their hiding place on the thatched roof to the dark road.
“Close,” Shad said.
Rusk rose from her crouched position, but didn’t respond. That wasn’t unusual for the quiet Seer.
Rusk and Shad entered the inn as Shey entered from the opposite entrance. “This is no empty threat. There’s no time to lose,” Shad said urgently. “Where’s Plat?”
Shey set the kettle on the stove to boil as he answered over his shoulder. “He heard the ‘Song of the Dead’ at the blacksmith’s house and went to see what he could do. Said he’d meet me here. If you don’t have new instructions, we’ll start on the west side of town.
“Good. Rusk, assist Shey and Plat,” Shad said. “But cover your hair. It’s too bright. I’ll take care of any guards… Shey, we leave in three hours. Make sure the inn is cleared of the sick, that way those we’ve helped won’t be persecuted for not reporting us. Make haste.”
A predawn gray edged up the horizon bringing an end to the hectic night. A heavy mist obscured the outline of buildings hanging damp and eerie over the scene. Shad and Plat stood over the old mineshaft entrance, which was hidden beneath the mill floor.
Shey came last, holding the hands of his unusually quiet wards. Rusk swept flour out the door to hide the children’s footprints.
“Well, we did what we could,” Shey whispered. “I saw lights on the hill. We won’t be alone long.”
Plat backed down the opening, “The miller said, follow a small rivulet all the way until the path evenly forks. The trickle will go right, but stay left the rest of the way.”
“Can we talk now?” Rena asked, her high-pitched voice creating an echo as she gazed down into the hole at Plat’s departing ginger head.
“Peace,” Rusk whispered, picking up the young Trealinger and entering the stairway.
From inside the tunnel, Shad used his shoulder to slide the heavy slate back into place, cutting off all light except their torches. He sped down the stairs and joined the others already in the tunnel, hurrying them.
“We need to pick it up. They’ll be on us within the hour,” He said as he took Rena from Rusk’s arms, and she cuddled up to the big man.
Weaving his way to the front, Shad pressed the group forward. Narrower tunnels led away from the main shaft into darkness, but they easily followed the larger vein. Winding their through rivulets that crisscrossed their path, the group moved swiftly, listening intently for pursuers. As they hastened, the torches created eerie shapes and shadows on the walls and floor.
Ramus jumped when a shadowy monster grew toward him. He ran with a scream, tripped, and cried out as the shadow neared. The torch shifted and the ‘shadow monster’ shrank behind the casting stalagmite.
“Quiet, Ramus. Unless you want to see us all dead,” Shey scolded, pulling him to his feet by the elbow.
Ramus hiccupped to silence.
Shad placed a hand on his shoulder. “Your uncle needs help. Warn him when there’s a tricky spot?”
Remus knuckled his eyes and quietly joined Shey.
Hours seemingly passed, and they may have, when they reached the tunnel’s fork, and the rivulet veered right. The group turned left. Shad paused momentarily to transfer Rena to his back.
Ramus’s feet dragged over a rock and he stumbled, scraping his knee. He bravely stayed silent.
Plat knelt next to him, “Brave boy. Want a ride?”
Plat coaxed, “You can pretend…I’m a…I’m a…horse.”
Ramus’s eyes brightened and he climbed on Plat’s back.
Several hours later, with Ramus asleep on Plat’s back and Rena snoring softly on Shad’s, a cool breeze from ahead alerted them to the tunnel’s mouth. As they exited, the sun’s descent was just reaching the treetops. It was late afternoon.
Shad handed Rena to Shey and adjusted his sword, instructing Plat, “Head west with the children. Follow the river to the coast then north along the cliffs. Obin’s Moor is almost two weeks’ journey by horse, -- much, much longer by foot with the little ones -- so move as quickly as you can. Rusk and I will catch up after we deal with followers.”
“You’re late!” Feral said as Omreh rode into the courtyard before sunrise. “Your men have been here for three days.”
“I’m here now,” Omreh snarled as he motioned for Feral and his men to mount up.
Feral didn’t retort. If the plan failed, it was Omreh’s head. He urged Saygon forward.
The stench of death was strong as they entered Raynor. It was also quiet. Very quiet. “Three strangers arrived last night, according to my sources,” Feral said as they neared the blacksmith’s forge. “Said there was a lot of activity. We should take the inn first. It’s where they were corralling the sick.”
Omreh divided his troops, surrounding the inn with half and taking the other half inside. Feral spied a young man peeking out of the livery across the street. He changed his direction for the livery.
Omreh and his men spread out, but the place was empty. There weren’t even corpses.
“Over here, m’lord!” someone shouted from the pantry.
The town alderman fell at their feet, propelled by rough hands. He still clutched a pilfered rasher of bacon and a wheel of cheese to his chest. The man took one look at Omreh and dropped the food, throwing himself at Omreh’s feet, even kissing the gold clasp of his boots.
“Where are they?” Omreh barked.
“Well, me lord,” he said as he slowly stood. He hedged, “expenses bein’ what they…”
“Where?” Omreh’s patience snapped, and he kicked the man, who flew into the wall, ribs shattered.
The man gasped, “I knows, I do, but…” He stopped. “Mercy, me lord.”
Omreh crossed the room and pressed his foot to the man’s chest. A red stain spread slowly from under Omreh’s boot and the man whimpered, “Tunnel…rivulet.” before expiring.
Feral entered the alehouse as the man died. “Brilliant, you fool!” He mocked as he crossed the room to confirm the man’s death.
Omreh fingered his blade. “What do you have, that you challenge me? Anything?” Omreh shouted as he met his rival.
“They left through a tunnel located under the mill, which you’d know if you hadn’t killed your informer,” Feral said with scorn.
Omreh gathered his troops with a shout, disregarding Feral.
“We should question more townspeople,” Feral said, as they left the inn.
“To the tunnel,” Omreh ordered.
They marched toward the mill. Feral followed. He was relatively sure Omreh was about to learn that he wasn’t dealing with dumb mutts.
It was late afternoon when the troops reached the fork in the caves.
“I’ll take my men right, you left. Commander Glont, you’re with me.” Omreh ordered Feral over his shoulder, “If they elude us, we’ll meet south of town. They’ll likely head for Galfre.”
Omreh shouted and tried to shove forward when a sudden pileup occurred on entering a narrow corridor. Those behind pushed as the shaft began to rumble. The men turned to retreat but the wall behind collapsed, trapping some under the rubble and blocking their escape. An instant later, the floor beneath caved in with a crash. They plummeted into the darkness, their cries lost in the falling rock. For fifty feet, they fell, splashing into the sea cave beneath.
Water, harsh and cold closed over them. Glont with one hand still on Omreh, grasped his knife and began to saw at the leather bindings of Omreh’s heavy mail armor. Omreh understood, and began to do the same for his captain.
As they freed themselves, waves slammed them into rocks hidden beneath the waterline, beating their unprotected bodies. The swells rose, forcing them under their icy crests. The contest was uneven, with the sea doing what it did best.
~ ~ ~
Rusk murmured, her eyes on the opening, “They’re minutes from the mouth.”
As the enemy emerged, Shad and Rusk waited within sight. The troops charged. Shad dispatched three of them with his sword, a dagger, and a wicked elbow to the throat. Rusk maneuvered around two attackers disarming one, along with his hand, and ducking the second as his club whizzed overhead. With an upward thrust, she silenced the club. The rest of Malcasters fell in the same way.
A slight rustle was their only warning, as an injured Malcaster struggled to one knee, aimed his bow and fired. The arrow ripped into Rusk’s side and she fell. Shad disposed of the Malcaster before a second arrow could be nocked, as he ran to Rusk. It wasn’t deep, but something was very wrong. Rusk was becoming delirious. Removing the arrowhead, and saving it for Plat, he packed the wound with herbs. He heaved her over one shoulder, and ran toward the cliffs.
As the two disappeared, Feral slipped from behind a boulder and trailed. Shad followed the river for miles, as Feral tracked him. They came in sight of the cliffs as the sun quenched itself, sending a pink blaze across the sea. A league down the cliff’s edge, a campfire flickered in the dusk.
“Plat, hurry. She’s been shot!” Shad shouted as he neared.
Plat ran to Shad as he continued with Rusk toward the fire, “Place her on my bedroll! And I’ll need cathalt and fosue for a drawing poultice.” The two Seers ran for the evergreen woods, which flanked the cliffs as Plat searched his bag for the more common herbs.
Feral crept south toward a rocky pile, well out of the Seers’ path. He reclined in a depression in the rocks and decided to grab some rest. It had been a stroke of brilliance to have the men tip their arrows. He knew that once they realized they didn’t have the ability to deal with the poison, they’d move quickly toward their stronghold. Only a master of healing would notice the slight green hue bordering the wound. And fewer still would know the concoction of poisons as hendain and quash. By morning, they’d recognize the futility of their situation.
Movement below on the beach and a flash of gold braiding caught his eye. He crawled to the edge for a better view. Two soldiers in Malcaster dress had washed ashore – one was recognizably ornate. He had only one strategic option. With a quick look, he made sure the Seers were settling in for the night. He had time. He ran along the cliff and down a steep rocky descent to the beach. The goodwill gained by Omreh’s rescue, or his body’s retrieval if dead, would go a long way toward his ultimate goal. Feral dragged the bodies onto the rocky shore and uncorked his wine skin to revive them.
He could kill them, but besides there being no tactical advantage, the cliffs were overlooked by anyone. Never knowingly, would he place himself at someone else’s mercy. Should someone observe, they’d know he did everything he could to save Lord Damerik’s son. That was tactical and advantageous.
Haldar hung low over the trees, and Drayhon was beyond view, by the time Feral returned to his post south of the Seers. Their shadows showed every once in a while by the firelight; so he crept to his cliff-side bed and lay down for a couple hours sleep. All in all, it had been a long night’s work. After reviving them, Feral had half-dragged, half-carried Omreh and his commander west, away from the Seers. At the Temple of Lost, he’d paid a year’s wages to the head cleric. The cleric agreed to nurse the two and set them on their way. Without a second thought, he’d handed over the coin, making sure of Omreh’s confinement -- at least for the night.
No way, he’d give Omreh the opportunity to take credit for the discovery of the Seers’ hidden fortress, especially considering his muck up at Raynor. And now, Omreh owed him a life-debt, which could be strategic in the future. As he’d been taught: it was always wise to grant a favor…that cost nothing but coin.
The next morning, he cursed his decision to sleep as the Seers left on four horses which they had commandeered during the night. And worse, they’d stolen Malcaster horses bred for speed and stamina. Keeping up would be impossible, and finding a worthy horse in route, highly improbable.
A frustrated Feral followed their tracks north for four days until he finally procured the semblance of a horse. He arrived at Shueson Fjord, ascending its steep banks, and heading slightly inland. Had his horse been of even insignificant stock, his detour inland to an easier fording point would have been unnecessary, but the nag was a sad example of horse-blood. The only benefit to the plodding pace was that it made it easy to glean word of his quarry; and according to the word, he was well behind.
On Feral’s twentieth day, his inquiries led him into Obin’s Moor. He crossed the boggy heath and gazed once more upon the heather-covered battlefield of thirteen years earlier. He’d been a lowly captain at the time and eager to prove himself for many reasons. He’d watched as his comrades had defeated the Seers, captured a dilapidated fortress, and discovered the ‘first,’ the stone which Lord Damerik carried at all times.
He discovered the Seers’ horses in a farmer’s paddock. The farmer had happily boasted about his good fortune. He’d said that a robed stranger had given him the horses almost a two weeks earlier, before disappearing into the moor. Feral spent the next few days on the moor, searching for a sign of the long-gone Seers until his thoughts returned to Omreh. He dare not risk arriving at to Byrn Castle after Omreh, or he might craft a favorable tale.
Commandeering one of the Seers’ horses, -- over the weak protests of the terrified farmer -- he turned his direction to Byrn Castle. He was determined that Raynor’s fiasco wouldn’t cost him his head. Goodwill from Omreh was one thing; self-destruction was fish of an entirely different stench. Feral was resolved that Omreh should fully experience the consequences of his folly.
Lopner opened the door and ushered Shey into a room Shey knew almost as well as his own home.
Labrium turned from surveying the sky and smiled at his friend.
“Labrium, I’m indebted to you,” Shey walked over, and clasped his hands, “but how’s Rusk?”
“Shey! And I understand you didn’t come alone.” Labrium poured some mead. “Did they travel ok?”
“Yes, yes, Ramus and Rena, quite a handful. Fova met us at the ‘ami dormir’,” he said referring to the secret underground animal conveyance, which connected all the fortresses in Cartenia. Shey cracked two knuckles and accepted the drink distractedly. “After she put them to sleep, they made the trip unconcerned. But, how’s Rusk? She was senseless when we got to Obin’s Moor and was whisked away as soon as we got here. I’ve not heard a thing since.”
Labrium’s face reflected his thoughts, “It’s bad. Plat’s healing abilities are considerable, but the arrow was tipped. We aren’t sure with what. The amount of time that passed…anyway, it’s not good.”
“Call for Davena. She has…amazing restorative skills,” Shey placed his untouched glass on the desk looking pensive.
“Davena,” Labrium murmured as he crossed the room.
Shey cracked another knuckle and joined Labrium in the sitting area, “I’d never second guess you, but this is a heavy price. There must be a better way to handle these conflicts than with armed combat. We don’t have the men to lose.”
Shey’s point of view didn’t surprise Labrium. It wasn’t a new conversation, having been debated many times.
“The Malcasters are looking for the ‘Rill,’-- or the ‘second’ as they call it -- and the Gatekeeper. They seek his death, of course, but I’ve seen no sign of his arrival. We can only hope they’re overzealous, and not on his track. We need to find him first.” Labrium swirled the liquid in the bottom of his glass, adding, “Regardless, things are only going to get worse.”
“How could they know about the ‘Keeper’? We must gather all the Seers, get Davena here for Rusk. Bring them to the fortress. They’ll never find us here.”
“Davena’s dead…witch-wife brutally killed her. We got to her cottage just in time to save the boy. Shandro and Breen just got back from burying her…in the meadow near her cottage.” Labrium nodded toward a vase of flowers collected from her gravesite.
“Witch-wife? Davena…gone!” Shey’s face froze. He gazed sightlessly out the window as two more knuckles cracked.
“The town of Beto won’t be far off. Every place a Seer’s abandoned becomes more easily subdued by the Malcasters and their ‘curse’. The village near your home will be the same. Only a matter of time. As you say, we haven’t the men.” The Labrium’s forehead creased with strain.
Shey dismissed his dark reflections. He turned from the window with a sigh. [_ It seemed that either way, – war or curse -- there would be destruction and pain. ] He amended his thought, _already was destruction and pain.
Labrium broke the silence, “We’ll not settle an age-old argument, to war or not, in one sitting, especially when our minds are anxious over Rusk. Tell me about your wards while we check on her? Maybe there’s been an improvement.”
~ ~ ~
“So, Omreh, what part of my orders were unclear?” The Lord of Byrn addressed his son, one hand resting lightly on Demo’s head as Didymus lay at his feet. For once Prouda sat quietly.
Omreh had explained the delay and the bandits twice already. He silently stared at his father.
“So little to say? Your troops are dead. The Seers we’ve been tracking for months, nay years, are gone because of you. If you weren’t my son, you would be dead right now. In fact, I am trying to think of a reason, I shouldn’t kill you anyway. As it is, I’ve had your commander, Glont, executed.”
“Father, I will destroy the Seers. I will find the ‘second’ and the Keeper. I promise. This will be rectified.”
Damerik studied his son and then glanced over at his wife, “Have you anything to add?”
Prouda stared stonily at her stepson. Damerik’s gaze returned to his son, “Redeem your name! Now leave.” Demos growled at his master’s tone, and Didymus sat up.
After Omreh had left, Damerik turned to Prouda, “Now, my dear, can you tell me why you needed to detain Omreh?” Damerik rose, took her hand, and drew her from her chair. Soft padded feet followed as lord and lady crossed the room.
“My lord, are you blaming me for Omreh’s failure? I merely asked for his help carrying Bainor to his room; at which time he stayed to give his opinion, which I didn’t need. He decided to send his men ahead and catch up with them later. I was busy with your very sick son Bainor when I heard of Omreh’s rout at the hands of the highwaymen. We really must do something about the crime in this kingdom.”
Prouda acted her part well while secretly reveling in the fact that her plan, arranged by Seryn, had been flawlessly executed. After the ruffians had been located and paid to ambush her stepson, she had contrived a delay which separated him from his men. She’d made four sacrifices to Drial that day, petitioning that the delay would bring about his failure. It had surely been by Drial’s hand that they’d lost the Seers, bringing shame upon Omreh’s head. She hoped his disgrace would lead to his exile. Nothing would be more fitting, except perhaps his death.
Damerik stopped, taking her hand, and placing it firmly on his forearm, he said, “Don’t you have slaves for that? What were you thinking? Don’t ever interfere with Omreh’s duties again, Prouda. Do I make myself clear?” He warned sternly. He waited for her nod of agreement and mocked, “I find it hard to believe you needed Omreh’s help when you have Seryn. I’ve never known her to need help in any matter, let alone a sickness. We must remind her of her place. It wouldn’t be seemly to let Omreh challenge her position.”
“I’ll speak to her directly, but there’s something that’s been weighing heavily with me, my lord.”
Damerik’s eyebrow lifted. “More heavily than the loss of a chance to find the ‘second’ and remove the Seers. Pray continue, I’m intrigued.”
“Remember, you told me to summon the Wandering spirits for an answer about the ‘second,’ and the Keeper,” she said, by way of dragging his needs into her own plans. “I attempted, with Bainor’s help, to acquire answers for you. As I sought, I discovered a plot on your son’s life.”
His steps froze and he dropped Prouda’s hand, “What! Why didn’t you tell me this while he was here?”
“My lord, it’s not Omreh that’s in danger, it’s Bainor. I’d like some men, to hunt down the threat.” Prouda sensed resistance, “It’s your son’s life! You can’t deny me.”
“I couldn’t have heard correctly,” Damerik said, his eyes cold. “You did not tell me what to do? I need my men elsewhere. They’re not available to appease your fears. Hold Bainor within the keep, he’ll be safe. I am not pulling men off to nursemaid when I’m this close to my goal.”
“But…” Prouda started to protest.
“No, and the answer’s final. Lock the boy in the castle, if you are worried. Don’t weary me with any more female concerns. Now, tell me about the temple’s progress while we dine. Considering the coin the ‘red hands’ are getting for their blasted lokee oil, it’s about time they put some of it back in the economy. Syntor Nogyr’s been skulking about, hounding my steward for more funds. I told Goth to tell the old ‘red’ goat to curb his avarice,” he said and laughed at his joke.
Damerik’s irreverent sarcasm toward Drial’s head cleric was for once overlooked by Prouda. She was busy forming a secondary plan to save Bainor, but she’d need Damerik’s absence. One of his mysterious trips would provide that, in time. Prouda forced a thin smile and emphasized that the temple must be of the highest standard to honor Drial.
“Honor Nogyr, more like,” Damerik murmured.
With effort, Prouda held her tongue, as she entered the dining hall on her lord’s arm with the dogs at each side.
~ ~ ~
A robed figure paused in the doorway. A cold midnight draft blew in. The man tucked his face-covering more securely and crossed the threshold. The room was one of the upper ones at Empyra. It was deserted, which was the reason he chose it. Moonlight cast the dark room in shadows, but was sufficient for him to navigate to the window. A few minutes later a shorter figure, entered. The taller wasn’t concerned by the other’s approach. He knew who it was.
The shorter was much less comfortable, his eyes shifted constantly. He shuffled beside the tall one. “To the strong, spoils belong,” he whispered the code words he’d been advised to use in the note he’d received.
“I understand you’re a collector of information,” the taller said, muffling his voice to keep it from recognition.
“You got somethin’ good?” the shorter one whispered, glancing back toward the door.
The informer grunted and shared his information.
“A Malcaster spawn? You’re sure?” The shorter repeated softly. He recognized the value and was already considering the best use of the information.
“I’m sure. The father was a Seer, who turned traitor during the war.” The informer paused, watching as the listener gazed out the window toward the dark peaks of the mountain range. He could see by the suppressed excitement that he’d chosen the right vehicle. He again considered his strategy. Only a matter of time, he thought as his plan unfolded again in his mind.
“Very interesting.” The nervy one bounced back and forth on the balls of his feet.
The informer growled, “I wouldn’t.”
The other grunted, acknowledging that he’d planned to run off without paying. Coins passed. The two speakers separated, slipping down the hall in opposite directions.
Three weeks passed and each day Javen was growing more accustomed to his new home. This day the pegboard directed him to the library where he dusted and shelved books. He heard his name whispered and glanced up. A library assistant was pointing a tall, wrinkled Illencer toward him. Sliding a book into place, he watched out of the corner of his eye as the man approached. He’d never seen him before.
The man came to his side and murmured, “Can you take a break?”
Javen nodded, placed his books on a nearby counter and followed the man to the balcony. The man chose a chair at a table in the open, stretching one long leg to the side. Javen selected a seat opposite.
Shey cracked a knuckle and said, “I knew your grandmother.”
Javen felt like he’d been hit. He’d actually been able to think about other things today.
“I wanted you to know how sorry I am about her passing. We were friends for many years.” Shey quickly added, “I knew Aven, your grandfather, also -- though they were only joined six months before he died. Even met your father.”
“She never mentioned…” Javen stumbled to a halt. “Um, Gran said my grandfather was a big man, very powerful; my father was too.”
Shey could hear the hunger in Javen’s statement. His mind traveled back. “You’re named for your grandfather. He was a great warrior. Died in battle. You look like your father, though. He was bigger, of course. I remember him chopping wood. He was strong…I mean, really strong, even then. And very well-mannered. He always seemed to be rescuing someone or some animal that was in trouble. Once when I was visiting, he came home with about twenty Trealingers, covered in spots. Davena wasn’t cross at all. She just went to work healing and feeding. Everyone loved Davena. She was a very powerful Seer.”
Javen gaped, hesitated, and shook his head, “You must be mistaken, sir. My grandmere wasn’t a Seer. If she’d been a Seer she could’ve destroyed the witch-wife who killed her.”
“No, your grandmere never killed anyone,” Shey said. “She was a healer, quite exceptional. She was also a very skilled artist, as your beautiful staff indicates. I remember her carving it,” he said softly. After a slight pause, he continued, “Not all Seers are warriors, at least, not in the sense they battle on the battlefield.” Shey shifted in his chair, seeking a comfortable position. “Some Seers, like healers, messengers, and perceivers, enable others to defeat the Malcasters.”
“Were my grandfather and father Seers too?”
“Yes, they had strength. Your grandfather could lift a tree trunk singlehanded. It was a sight. Me, I’m a messenger, or I was until I injured my head. Messengers communicate with other Seers far away or to give clarity of thought.” Shey scowled momentarily, and continued, “These days, I must have complete silence, which is why I’m not of much use.”
Javen considered his grandmere’s herbs and plants. He’d collected them for her to use in potions and teas, which she’d then taught him to concoct. “Grandmere knew herbs. She used them on sick people. Is that what you mean by healer?”
“All Seers are skilled with herbs, but a healer’s abilities go beyond herbs. You never saw her press her fingers against a person’s forehead, even yourself, when ill?”
She’d always touched the sick. When he’d gone with her, she had shown him how to set a bone from a fall or close a gash from a leg-breaker. He remembered a night when someone had come to the cottage crying for his grandmere. They had sobbed Tely was dying. Gathering her herbs and potions, she’d told Javen to be good, and had gone to help. Later when he asked his grandmere about Tely, she’d said all was well.
It seemed kind of sneaky to him that she’d been doing more than binding wounds and checking fever. Then he remembered that she wasn’t doing anything anymore.
Shey saw grief enter Javen’s eyes, he placed a hand on his shoulder, “Come to Savan Rusk’s ‘Unbirthing’ tomorrow night, eight bells. It’s the Illencers’ way of saying goodbye.”
“Savan Rusk died?!” Javen asked stunned.
Shey slowly nodded, “A couple hours ago.” Abruptly, he stood, “I won’t detain you any longer.”
Javen was relieved when the man left. Too much death. He didn’t want to think about it anymore. He allowed his mind to wander to anything else: the view of distant rust colored mountains, the shouts and laughter from the courtyard, the smell of mold, old and dust on his hands. He reentered the library and noted that his allotted time was up. Handing the leftover books to his replacement, he left, crossing a short corridor to the courtyard. As he rounded a pillar, he walked into Mobsby, who was whispering to Ravel, and Yoreck.
“Great! You’re out,” Mobsby said.
“We’re gonna go riding,” Yoreck said before Mobsby could take over.
Ravel added, “Wanna come.” The boys jumped down one of the wide grassy terraces which stair-stepped down to the valley below.
“Never done it,” Javen confessed, but followed the boys just the same.
They jogged the flat grassy area and leaped to the next terrace when they reached the edge.
“Don’t worry we’ll—”
Mobsby was ruthlessly cut off by Ravel. “No, we’ll not teach Javen how to ride. If you think Savan Kregor’ll allow us to tutor a first-timer, you’re crazier than I thought. He’d ban you from the stables after ripping off your hide with a few choice words. I’d rather not watch that…again.”
Mobsby swallowed, “You’re right. I’d forgotten the Savan.” He shot a glance over his shoulder toward Javen. “You’re on your own. Savan Kregor and I…I…I have a healthy respect, -- make that -- fear of the Walrabi.”
“The Walrabi?” Javen asked.
The three boys exchanged amused looks and Ravel replied, “You’ll see.”
The boys rounded the gardens closest to the fortress, and a large stable jutting from the foot became visible. The sharp smell of manure and hay met them the moment they entered the round red doors. Forty stalls, housing horses, and ragnors lined two long aisles.
Javen gave wide berth to the ragnors. He was very familiar with the temperamental three-horned, spiked-tail beasts. The last and only time he’d seen a ragnor, it had been near his cottage. He’d watched from a tree as it had tossed a full-grown bear on its horns like a doll.
A ragnor kicked the stall as they passed and the boys jumped.
“What are they doing here?” Javen whispered, nervously eyeing the stall door, and judging the strength of its reinforced oak.
Mobsby’s mouth opened, but Ravel quickly answered, “Savan Kregor trains them.
“Trains them?!” Javen exclaimed.
“Sure! They’re stronger,” Ravel continued, “obviously, with way more stamina than horses. They’re ferociously loyal. Though, you have to raise them from an egg. An egg-raised ragnor has only one rider, forever.”
Within minutes, Javen found out that a Walrabi was just another race in Cartenia. Savan Kregor had a slightly humped back, claw-like hands and single, horn-like bone curving from his forehead to his nape. These were distinct Walrabi features.
After the others had ridden off, Savan Kregor began Javen’s lessons with the basics of horsemanship and maintenance. He spoke in short, clipped sentences. He sharply rebuked when Javen did something wrong; but his praise, though abbreviated, was real.
He told Javen at the end of the hour, “Practice, you’ll be solo in weeks.”
Javen sat on a hay bale waiting for the others, after which they brushed down their mounts. In high spirits, the boys trotted toward the exit. Two boys Javen had never met were moving horses into the aisle. Javen took a second look at the golden hair and striking face of the shorter one – he couldn’t tell at first glance if it was a girl. The beautiful face sneered, and the boy spat on the ground. Javen sighted peach fuzz. Nope, definitely not beautiful and definitely not a girl.
Ravel glimpsed the two and stiffened at the sight of the brown-haired boy.
“I feel sorry for those horses, Vaun’s really hard on ‘em,” Mobsby said when they were in the open air. “Gill’s little better. Saws at their mouths.”
Ravel scoffed, “Vaun’s got close ties to the business portion…”
“Master Mobsby!” a voice from behind roared.
The boys turned. Savan Kregor was standing in the stable’s doorway. They walked uneasily back.
“This was in your horse’s shoe!” The Savan held out a small stone. “You tryin’ to lame him? Get in the stable! You’ll muck till you remember to care for these animals!”
The Savan tossed the stone to the ground and stalked off. Mobsby, with a puzzled look, headed back to the stable.
As the three joined him, he murmured, “I checked; didn’t see no stone.”
“Odd,” Ravel ribbed, as they entered the stable, “blindness isn’t one of your numerous faults.”
The four quieted as Gill came into view, whistling lightly to himself. Vaun was close behind.
Vaun bumped Gill with his saddle and threw it over his horse. “Good thing you told Savan Kregor about that stone, Gill.”
“Yeah, Vaun,” he sniggered and shook his golden locks behind one shoulder.
Mobsby sniggered and flung his short hair back, “Yeah, Vaun.”
Ravel and the others laughed.
Vaun rounded his horse to cinch the girth and continued, “Hey, Barrel-belly, I want my horse’s stall spotless.”
“Yeah Barrel-belly, spotless,” Gill echoed, as he stepped up on the mounting block.
Ravel tossed a pitchfork of soiled hay, just missing the two, “You forgot lunch.”
“Look Gill, ‘fatty’ has a champion. Didn’t you used to be a champion bed-wetter? Probably still are.” Ravel’s face burned. Vaun continued, “As I was saying, good thing you found that stone. Oh look,” Vaun said and pulled something out of his pocket. Gill sniggered again. “Another stone. I wonder how that got there?”
The knob of Javen’s stick smacked his palm as he moved toward Vaun. Ravel dropped the pitchfork and joined Yoreck, seizing Javen’s arms.
Vaun laughed. “Take my reins, Gill,” he ordered, “the earless-freak wants a lesson.” Savan Kregor’s voice floated through the doorway. Vaun glanced over his shoulder. “Your lucky day,” he said, before stepping onto the post to mount. He and Gill set their horses to a trot.
Javen jerked from the loosened restraints, “Why’d ya stop m…?”
Ravel interrupted, “I took him on once. Made him eat dirt. Won’t lie. Felt good. Did kitchen duty for ages… and was warned any repeat and I’d have to leave.” Ravel nudged his shoulder, “Where would you go?”
Javen didn’t respond.
Ravel continued and grabbed a pitchfork, “I decided Vaun’s not worth it…yet. I’ll admit, sometimes I wanna shove his stupid down his throat, but…”
Yoreck glanced toward Mobsby, who’d gone very quiet, “Guess you really didn’t miss the stone in the hoof.” He paused, “You ok?”
He intentionally ignored Vaun’s comment to Ravel. Repeating it would only make it worse. Very little was known about Ravel before Empyra. His bed-wetting and night terrors had lasted a couple years. At some point, the bed-wetting had stopped. Though every once in a while, the night terrors still surfaced. Strangely, the rumor-mongering died only after Ravel’s roommate was changed to Mobsby. Normally, the fortress blabbermouth about all things, he was silence itself regarding his roommate’s troubles.
Mobsby said thoughtfully, “I figured it out. Vaun’s jealous.”
All three boys gazed, speechless. There he stood, framed by the stall’s gate, reverently patting his belly. Ravel rolled his eyes, Yoreck snorted and Javen shook his head.
As the first pile of muck hit the pushcart, Mobsby came out of his reverie, “Who’s the old geezer in the library? We decided to wait outside when we saw you talking to ‘the stranger.’ Not that I willingly enter that place anyway.”
Javen pitched a pile of smelly straw, “He’s a Seer, and Ramus and Rena are his wards.”
Mobsby grunted as he grabbed a bale of new hay. “Must be a full-time job. When I offered to take them to see the goats and sheep, I know you won’t believe this, but I ran out of words.”
Yoreck and Javen exchanged amused looks. Ravel scoffed, “You’re right, I don’t believe. But I’d love seeing you speechless.”
“Not kidding. Those two’ve more questions than there are answers.”
Ravel took the piece of straw out of his mouth and pointed at Mobsby, “We aren’t buyin’. You, as the center of attention -- not to mention, a mass of questions to which you can make up the answers. Your idea of paradise, I’d think.”
“You talk too much,” Mobsby said and turned a serious face to Javen. “Just a warning. If that guy came to introduce himself as those two terrors’ ward, he has plans for you concerning them. I would un-introduce myself as quickly as possible.”
Javen focused on the hay and its placement, replying, “Actually, he knew my grandmere. That’s really why he came.”
Yoreck peered over the stall’s partition at Javen’s bent head, “Your grandmother knew a Seer…as a Seer? That’s a mite unusual.”
Javen spread some clean straw, “Not that unusual. My grandmere was a Seer too, so were my grandfather and father. I just found out.”
Mobsby looked up, surprised at his ignorance.
Javen wryly smiled and said, “Savan Shey, the old guy in the library said my gran was a healer. He said, my grandfather and father were strong.” Javen examined the clean fluffy straw and walked the horse back in. He moved on to the next stall, walking the horse to the aisle and shoving it to one side.
The other three picked up their work. Mobsby hurled the old straw over his shoulder aiming for somewhere near the cart and asked, “Grief Javen, how could you not know she was a Seer?”
Ravel chucked some straw over the stall’s wall and onto Mobsby head saying, “Accident!”
Mobsby loaded some manure on his fork and challenged, “Accident? I’ll give you…”
“Get it, Mobs?” Yoreck interrupted as he plucked straw from the back of Mobsby’s head. “Anything Javen’s grandmere did probably seemed natural to anyone who didn’t know. To the observer, she would seem to be very gifted with herbs and stuff.”
“Any idea why she didn’t tell you?” Ravel asked.
“Not really. The day she…” Javen cleared his throat. “The day she died she told me she had a surprise. I figured it had to do with my Nameday since she’d already given me her staff.” Javen nodded toward his staff by the wall. “But then Gatty killed her.” He paused as he remembered. “You know, the first time I ever ever heard about Seers was that day. Some Malcaster slavers mentioned them. After that, the ones who grilled Gatty kept asking about Seers – course now I know. But they also mentioned something about the ‘second’ and a Keeper too. Ever heard of ‘em? Savan Labrium turned inside-out when I told him and ordered me to stay here. Said I’d be safe.”
Ravel leaned against his pitchfork, “Never heard any Seers mention the ‘second,’ or a Keeper, but that doesn’t mean much. It doesn’t sound like something they’d chitchat about.”
“The Seers? Hah! Secrets ‘re a way of life, but I’ll root it out.” Mobsby said and wheeled the barrel down the aisle closer to the exit.
“Seems you came to the right place,” Ravel said, moving on to the final stall. “The gossip-miner is open for business.”
“And if anyone can discover a secret that wants to be kept, it’s Mobsby,” Yoreck said and swept soiled straw into the cart.
The lunch horn blew.
Four heads rose in unison, and then bent to hurriedly finish the final stall.
Sniffles and sobs filled the dining hall as word of Rusk’s death traveled in whispers from table to table. Soon there was only silence and tears.
The reaction was from shock as much as grief. All had lost family to the Malcasters, but few had seen the Seers at a loss. Safe within Empyra, death seemed remote, and the death of a powerful Seer impossible. Rusk’s death ripped away their security and brought near the threat they thought they’d escaped.
Savan Labrium entered, moving to the fireplace. Tyros, carrying platters piled high with food, hesitated at the door. Labrium waved them to the tables.
“As many already know,” he began, “we lost Savan Rusk. It’s a sad time. We’ll have an hour of memorial after lunch. Take time to remember Savan Rusk, and prepare for the Lighting of the Pass, which will be held tomorrow evening at sundown. Those of you needing to talk, Savans Illia, Tunga and Hina will be available.”
“For those Illencers wanting to attend her ‘Unbirthing,’ Savan Shad’s making arrangements. It will be held tomorrow evening at the mouth of the river when Haldar is at its height, eight bells. The ‘Unbirthing,’ is for Illencers only, and those specially invited. Don’t disrespect their ceremony by showing up unasked. This includes spying. You may carry on.”
Javen’s face wore a puzzled look as Savan Labrium left the hall.
Yoreck nudged him with his elbow and nodded toward the window. “You’ll come with us,”
Javen became even more confused, “Didn’t he just say we aren’t allowed?” He glanced at Floag, beside him, doing her best to sob silently. Javen took his kerchief and offered it beneath the table.
Floag accepted the cloth with a slight nod. She whispered, “The Unbirthing is for Illencers only. The Lighting of the Pass is for everyone. Go anywhere that reminds you of Savan Rusk. It’s to help you think of the word, the one word that you hold to describe her.” Floag broke down again.
Yoreck continued, “For her lighting, a forever light is crafted inside a stone urn by the person closest: spouse, family member, friend or mate. Everyone Rusk touched will pass before her light, speak their word, and place their memorial item in the urn. At the end, the forever light is lit, by the one who made it.”
“What do I do?” He asked; but his thoughts swirled. Why hadn’t his grandmere had a ‘lighting’ or a memorial. She was a Seer too, wasn’t she? His fist balled, but he kept his thoughts to himself.
“Stay with,” Yoreck said and grabbed his arm. “It’s easier to see than explain.”
“I say animals first,” Mobsby said.
Clarick and Splog left for the belvedere, which was a round, open-air watchtower on the upper landing of the fortress.
Floag and Cresta joined the boys using the kitchen exit. A golden and purple butterfly lay dead near the daisies past the kitchen garden. Floag teared up. Collecting it, she wrapped it in a leaf and placed it in the rucksack at her side.
Passing the walled flower garden, Javen peeked through the gate and saw several kids wandering among the flowers. Ravel paused beside a golden wisteria branch that cascaded over the wall into their path and snapped off a bloom with a sigh.
Yoreck whispered to Javen, “Savan Rusk mentored him. He liked her a lot. It was her favorite flower.”
As they neared the goat enclosure, the squeals from within were unlike any animal Javen had ever heard. He ran to toward the noise, reaching the gate as Tharn and Jalnor approached from inside.
Behind Tharn, the two young Trealingers, Rena and Ramus were sprawled in the dirt, crying.
Rena screamed, “Nooo, stop, you bad boys. Give them back.”
Javen stepped in front of the gate, holding it closed. He met and held Tharn’s furious gaze.
Cresta ran around to the other side of the fence with Floag following. They spoke softly to the Trealingers. Yoreck and Ravel joined Javen at the gate as Mobsby stepped behind them.
“Scunner, you’ll look good in black and blue,” Tharn said and jammed a shoulder into the gate. It flexed, but didn’t budge.
Tharn eyed the four. It was obvious he was unsure whether he could take them all. He moved down the fence and lifted his leg to climb while Jalnor looked around nervously. Javen kicked his foot off the rail as the boys shifted their blockade to where Tharn stood.
Floag shouted to Javen and the others, “He took their neck-collars.”
Cresta added, “It’s all they’ve left of their parents.”
Javen held out his hand. Tharn looked at it and snorted dismissively. His sneer froze as Savan Kand rounded the corner of the enclosure, heading toward Savan Myana, who was walking among the lambs. Tharn’s gaze shifted from Kand to Javen.
With a growl, he dropped the neck-collars on the ground and pressed them into the dirt with his foot. “I won’t forget,” he said. The boys stepped back as Tharn kicked the gate open and stalked out.
Yoreck immediately rescued the nut and seed collars, doing his best to remove the dirt. He gave them to Cresta. Mobsby bounded past them, chattering, and scratching himself in his best impression of a baboon. Cresta tied the collars around their necks as they giggled at Mobsby’s clowning.
When Mobsby returned from escorting the Trealingers to the fortress, the boys continued their memorial search. Yoreck spotted a tuft of lamb’s wool stuck in some fencing and pocketed it. Located on the far side of the meadow in a field of wildflowers, the aviary, a dome-shaped building dotted with small holes, sat like an overgrown hive. Several tyros were there already. A dove’s feather caught Mobsby’s eye. He soon had it tucked under his belt.
Cresta ran into the middle of the meadow with her arms outstretched. She twirled, her head tilted to the sky. After a second, she collapsed to the ground, wrapping her hands around an assortment of wildflowers and yanked. Clutching the bouquet to her chest, she joined the others with tear stained cheeks.
As they returned to the fortress, a bright golden flower growing between two rocks reminded Javen of Rusk’s eyes. The moment Javen plucked it, he understood. It reminded him of Rusk’s compassion.
“You know, Javen, maybe Tharn’s the one who rifled your stuff yesterday,” Yoreck interrupted his thoughts.
“Maybe. But he left my belt,” Javen said. The others listened raptly to the newest treachery as they passed the kitchen garden. “I’m pretty sure he would have taken it.”
Ravel threw open the fortress door.
Cresta was confused, “Why would he do it? Why take the necklaces from Rema and Ranus?”
Mobsby stomped over the threshold, leaving clods of mud behind. A Gnome passing to the kitchen cleared his throat and pointed.
Mobsby turned back to the door, and grabbing the sweeper, sent the clods outside. “Does he need a reason?”
“Good point,” Ravel agreed.
“Anything missing?” Floag asked.
“No, just a mess,” Javen said as they moved together to the staircase and ascended.
“Far be it from me to defend,” Cresta said from behind, “but we don’t know he did it.”
“Hold that thought, if it gives you comfort,” Mobsby responded sarcastically.
The group dispersed at the pegboard on the main level, each to their afternoon activities.
The next evening, the crowd dispersed slowly from the glade after the Lighting of the Pass. The boys walked quietly. Javen looked back. He could easily see the glow from Savan Rusk’s light in the meadow. Yoreck had told him her light would be placed in the Valley of the Fallen the next morning, joining all the Seers who had passed.
“Why didn’t my grandmere have one?” Javen murmured, as his heavy thoughts finally voiced themselves.
“One what?” Yoreck whispered.
“A ‘Lighting’ or a memorial.”
Javen glanced over.
Yoreck answered, “A few days before you arrived.” Yoreck could tell the information disturbed Javen. He tried to explain, “It’s always held the day after, um, someone passes or the day after Savan Labrium is informed.”
Javen looked up the mountain toward the river’s mouth. Near the spring’s entrance, he saw movement. He stood on the bridge, peering into the darkness. Ravel and Yoreck joined him.
Mobsby noticed that no one was following and dashed back. “No spying…remember.”
“Not spying,” Ravel replied. “Invited.”
Javen murmured, “Invited.”
“We’d better go,” Ravel said to Javen.
“We’ll meet you after, in the game room,” Yoreck said as he joined Mobsby.
Javen was glad Ravel didn’t feel like talking. He wasn’t sure he could fake it. Memories flooded him -- his last days with his grandmere - her lying on the floor. Guilt smothered him; hate choked him. He raged against the feeling of helplessness. It didn’t matter that he’d been wrong, that they had had a memorial ‘Lighting’ for his grandmere. He hadn’t been there. The thought filled him with an unquenchable rage, and he didn’t know why. Angry words tumbled around in his head in no clear order. Javen pushed the jumble away as they neared the cave. Later.
Glendor and Shara were standing in the distance with a slight Illencer girl he’d never met. Shad was lighting candles on a low-lying boat. Inside the boat, Savan Rusk had been positioned. She was wearing a royal blue shift with silver threading that was belted about with a golden girdle. Her silver hair was braided through with flowers and an elaborately decorated facemask was over her face. Thick gold candles were melted into holes in the bottom of the boat. After the candles were lit, the wax would melt away, and the boat would sink.
Along the banks, small glowing lanterns of wood and gold paper sat. Each lantern had a painted glyph depicting a character or trait. Glendor, Shara, and the others picked up a couple of lanterns, and placed them in the water whispering each trait. Javen and Ravel did the same. As they floated down river, the light trail became gilt pinpoints.
Shad lit the candles in the boat and gazed down on Rusk, sighing heavily. “You gave more than you took. You set free more than you confined. You listened more than you spoke and in everything you did, you were grace itself. Return oh daughter of the water, to the ocean’s womb. May our tears escort you, as you sail this final voyage. Go, join those who’ve made the trip before. May Arete and Laven meet you.”
Shey unbound the ropes which held Rusk’s craft and set it adrift. The boat eased down the river. Its glow disappeared briefly as it went under the bridge, and then vanished forever once the vessel drifted into the ravine between the mountains. Ravel and Javen followed the others from the ceremony.
From behind Javen heard Shad whisper, “Goodbye, sweet Rusk.”
~ ~ ~
Feral found Omreh in one of the practice fields within the Castle’s walls, beating his sword on the buckler of his rapidly retreating squire. The young man’s strength failed, and he fell to the ground, throwing up his arms for mercy. Omreh booted his squire through the air.
Feral snagged a cloth with his blade and flung it. “You should take it easy on Neft. A good squire can be worth your life.”
“Who said he was good?” Omreh wiped his face with the cloth. “And when I need your opinion, I’ll kill you, then ask.”
Feral braced his arms against the top rail of the fence and propped his foot on the lower, unmoved by the threat. “You knew the score when you were late. Take your lumps like a man, everyone else does. Other men have died for disappointing your father, your commander included.”
“Your venom’s wasted. I know my duties.” Omreh snapped. He pointed his sword in Feral’s direction. “If I promise to take it easy, maybe you’d like to go a few?”
Feral vaulted the rail. On landing, he saw Jonathan, in the distance, stiffen and change course toward them. Feral silently cursed, he didn’t need Jonathan’s hovering presence. He wanted answers. Suddenly, a flurry of brightly colored skirts replaced Feral’s grim look with a smirk. Zulie and several other women swooped down on Jonathan, propelling him toward the gardens. As they reached the maze, Zulie shot her brother a wink over her shoulder.
Feral’s blue eyes glinted. “Boy, your brains are addled.” He stripped down to his shirt tails and drew on some light mail, “When I need you to take it easy on me, I’ll kill you, then I’ll ask.”
Omreh mocked, “Where’s that famous wit?”
The two began to circle.
“You gonna talk or fight?” Feral probed with a thrust, but Omreh’s buckler blocked the blow. “Prepare for loss.”
“You speak as a fool,” Omreh mocked and lunged, meeting Feral’s parry.
Feral had eight years of experience on Omreh, but experience in no way made the fight between the men even. The match wasn’t long, ending in Feral’s expected defeat.
Recovering his breath, Feral raised subject, which was the reason for this far from chance meeting, “You banished?”
“You don’t need to know the grizzly details. Suffice to say, I’ve volunteered my services in the search for the Seers, the ‘second’ and the Keeper. I’m heading south tomorrow to recheck the old woman’s cottage for clues you probably missed.” Omreh observed Feral’s shuttered expression closely, “We’re competing again.”
Book 2 of Javen’s Legacy
By R. Barrett
The month of Torrid Moons had passed and Cartenia sighed with relief as the milder days of Wheat Moons cooled the land. The mellower breezes gently rippled the goldenfern meadows, which were almost ready for harvest. The bows of the pomme and cherith trees bent low, heavy with fruit. High in their branches, young slaves harvested. On the ground, older slaves collected the fruit in tall baskets. When the baskets were full, they were strapped to their backs and transported to waiting wagons. Overseers kept the pace brisk.
Onto the scene, heading southwest along a small road which cut through the Lugar Forest, two slave carts rumbled. The carts, under the management of four Boares, were keenly watched by the overseers in the fields.
The trailing cart was full, but the lead cart wasn’t. The Boares ignored the temptation to steal from slaves among the trees, overseen by their three large, very alert overseers. The slaves weren’t worth a limb or a head, which was the penalty levied for getting caught stealing a slave.
Of the two Boares on the lead cart, one drove while the other dealt heavy blows to a slave inside -- an old man. The man curled away on his side while the six other slaves were unmoving as stones.
The aft cart wobbled drunkenly as its two Boare drivers argued the merits of frackweed as a stimulant. The argument escalated. The Boare in the lead cart turned from the man he was beating, and heaved himself to the top of the cage. Coiling the whip behind, he swung, nailing one of the arguing Boare on the nose and the other -- who was just slightly less dim-witted -- on the back of the head.
“Sodfert! Muckler!” he shouted, “We’ve a cart full of merchandise needs watchin! Stop fussing!”
The young but wide-awake Boare driving the forward cart called up to the leader, “Zapain, there’re some riders coming o’er the ridge.”
“What ya waitin’ for, Slag?” Zapain snapped.
~ ~ ~
The boys reined-in at the top of a rise. “Shouldn’t we head back?” Yoreck asked. His saddle creaked as he turned and squinted up into the fall sky. “Only a couple hours til supper.”
Javen’s horse snorted impatiently next to the others, waiting for Mobsby to catch up.
“Ya know Javen, if you’d left your staff with Savan Kregor like he said, I wouldn’t have so much trouble passing you. It’s sticking outta your saddle like a lance,” Mobsby complained as he drew near.
Javen looked back. “Till I met you, Mobsby, I’d never seen a horse crawl.”
“Just biding my time,” he said riding up next to Ravel. He shouted, “Come on, I’ll beat ya to the road and back!” Spurring the horse, he shot off, determined to win. It was a dream. Even Javen beat him, and he’d only been riding solo a month.
The boys careened after Mobsby and overtook him. They galloped wildly past a wall of tall hedges. Abruptly, their necks snapped back as their heads were wrapped in short ropes with flat rocks at each end. They flew from their horses, hitting the ground hard. The horses reared and bolted.
Zapain snagged one horse, cursing as the rest evaded his grasp, taking off the way they’d come. Sodfert and Muckler started to chase, but their leader screamed, “Forget em, you lose em good. Come here.” The two darted to Zapain. He shoved the bridle of the captured horse into Sodfert’s empty hands and barked, “You get the four! I’ll get the wrappers. An’ don’t lose the horse! One horse is worth four brats.”
Javen’s senses returned when one of the Boares flung him into their cart. His elbow hit something hard, and he heard Yoreck gasp. As they came round, they rubbed their bruises and slowly sat.
“Sorry,” he mumbled to Yoreck rubbed his head, where Javen clipped him.
Moving between the boys, the Boares grabbed wrists and clamped them in shackles chained to a bolt in the floor. The door crashed shut, and was locked. The boys exchanged terrified looks.
Ravel whispered, “Slavers never venture this far from the main road!”
Yoreck murmured, “Nobody’ll know.”
Javen strained against at the iron shackle. It wasn’t going anywhere. Defeated, he examined the other occupants.
An old man groaned in the corner, his back facing the commotion. Nearby a woman crooned to a squalling infant and a man with a heavily bleeding leg slept beside a young boy with a tearstained face who was whimpering softly. In the back corner, a skeletal woman snapped sharply at her whiny young son.
Javen looked away and caught Yoreck’s eyes, reading in them his same desperation.
~ ~ ~
Savan Kregor entered Labrium’s office without announcement, “Labrium, four tyros took horses out this afternoon and one horse is missing. The other three returned ‘bout ten minutes back. And the four boys aren’t returned either.”
“Who’s missing?” Labrium asked returning his quill to the silver holder.
“Those four that’s always together: Mobsby and his friends.”
“Which way’d they go?” Labrium stood and rolled the parchment he’d been examining. He stepped to the wall, placed it on a shelf and selected another parchment.
“Followed the river through the pass. I sent someone to bring em back. Figure they’re loafing. Didn’t tie down the horses. Thought you’d wanna know. Gotta get back, there’re others out.” Kregor said in his curt way.
Labrium placed the large parchment under his arm. “I’ll send a search party beyond, in case it is more than a boyish mistake. Yoreck isn’t likely to have forgotten to tie his horse. Nor Javen.”
He followed Kregor to the door as Lopner entered, “Ask Joyla, Thera, and Kand to attend me. Stress the importance.”
Lopner bounced away at a faster pace than usual. Returning to his desk, Labrium unrolled the map of the region, determining the search area. Minutes later, Kand entered and approached Labrium. A pale, slim, brown-haired woman in her twenties soon followed, along a handsome dark-skinned woman in her late forties. They joined Kand beside their leader.
Labrium pointed at the map, relaying Kregor’s information. The three Seers talked briefly, and then left to search of the river and surrounding foothills.
Mobsby didn’t take long to begin probing the other captives. Urel and Sage were husband and wife, and their sons were Glorn, an infant, and Krain, a four-year-old. Varna and Brund were a mother and three-year-old son. The old man ignored Mobsby.
“That doesn’t look good,” Mobsby whispered pointing to Urel’s cut. “They do it?” He nodded slightly toward the Boares.
“The Boares chased us down a hill,” Urel answered weakly. “I lost my balance, fell, and cut my leg trying not to land on Krain. We were caught when Sage stopped to help me.”
Urel shot a sad smile toward Sage to show it wasn’t an accusation. But fear still shadowed his eyes. His gaze took in his family. They lingered on his wife, whose eyes were filled with the same dread. Their kidnapping was illegal, but who would care in a land where law was a commodity, sold or perverted at the whim of the governing? He was powerless. The thought of what they’d do to the children…Sage… It almost unmanned him. He closed his eyes and tried to push the fear away.
Javen could almost feel the man’s emotions. He was thinking of the babies, so small, and with no one to take care of them, love them… Javen could see it in the stroking of their hair, and his tight hugs as if he would never let them go. The glances at his wife felt like a stab for Javen. He could feel a lump grow in the Urel’s throat, or it might be his own. Grandmere had given him that same look…at the end. Javen looked away, out of the cart. He wouldn’t cry here.
Somewhere between Empyra and the southern Tongue region of Cartenia, the atmosphere turned sticky damp and the temperature hot. Every hue of green along with bright reds and yellows colored the evergreens and tropical flowers along the road. The dirt road had become sand at some point in which hidden sandspurs waited to pierce tender bare feet.
The slavers made camp – sort of. The Boares inhaled their frackweed and scrutrat supper, sqwabbling over everything and screaming manically when one of them accidently stepped on a hidden sandspur. Scraps of raw scrutrat entrails were occasionally tossed into the first cart, for which the starving slaves scrambled and fought. The frackweed spines, thoroughly chewed, were the second carts usual portion. On the rare occasion, when chunks of the raw meat made it to the boy’s cart, Yoreck immediately confiscated it, and portioned it out equally.
After dinner, the Boares switched to the usual cabbage ale. They drank and argued, until a disagreement erupted about the best way to dispose of dead bodies, resulting in one bloody nose and two black eyes. The losers sulked and drank, while the winner gloated and drank. Finally, snores filled the air.
Javen whispered to Yoreck who had shifted to his back, “Where’s your penknife?”
“Right pocket,” he replied over his shoulder not wanting to turn and rattle the chain, “but it’s on the chained side. Shackle’s too big…I can’t get it.”
“I know, stretch out. Quietly.”
Yoreck eased into a flat position behind Javen, placing his pocket as close to Javen as possible. Then the rain came. It wasn’t a gentle, sweet, drizzly rain. It was a stinging, gusty thunderous rain. It sent the Boares under the carts, which were placed side-by-side for more cover. Slag’s eyeball could be seen through the floor slats, crushing Javen’s plans.
“Not now,” Javen and Yoreck mouthed over their shoulders at the same time, but neither smiled.
“Not now,” persisted for three nights and looked to be their companion at daybreak on the fourth day, but mid-morning the sun burst through, pushing the heavy dark clouds east.
That night Yoreck again positioned his pocket near Javen’s hand. The knife was tangled in the fabric at the bottom. His fingers stretched, trying to reverse the pocket. Time crawled. Brund’s crying put everyone on edge. Every time a Boare shifted, they stilled.
Mobsby and Ravel worked at getting Ravel’s knife in the same way. There was momentary elation when the cloth ripped, and the boys thought Mobsby had succeeded, but a heavy clattering followed.
“Slukerd! Way to lose it!” Ravel cursed under his breath. “You lose the knife in the slats and ripped me a hole!”
“I think you moved.” Mobsby responded meekly.
“I think you should stop thinking,” Ravel snarled back.
“Shhh,” Yoreck said urgently.
The Boare leader restlessly rolled, snorted, and coughed himself into semi-wakefulness. The boys froze as he glanced toward the carts.
“What you up to?” he bellowed. Flinging off his bedding, he approached the cart at a trot. “You’s sleep…now!”
“Who can sleep with the crying?” Ravel snapped. “They need food!”
“’They need food,’” Zapain’s voice rose in a mocking pitch. He grabbed the bars of the cart and glared at Ravel. “Who’s you think you is? You ain’t in charge, so do’s yer told, Uman-rotter.”
“Too bad you survived the Boare Purge of Fallyn,” Ravel murmured.
“Ravel!” Mobsby whispered while the rest of the cart looked on in horror, not knowing of the specifics but realizing the Boare wouldn’t appreciate it.
“Wat you say, you seed-of-a-wormhor?” Zapain rounded the corner of the cart and unlocked the door. “Wat…did…you…say?!”
“All I said was that the kids are hungry. It’s hard to sleep with their crying,” Ravel hedged as the Boare entered the cage in the grips of a towering rage.
“Is that all, dregger?” He slammed his fist into Ravel’s face, and then again. Ravel’s head snapped, hitting the bars of the cart. His body sagged.
“An’ I takes care o’ the cryin’ too.” Zapain jerked Brund by the arm and slapped him.
“Stop!” Varna, his mother, wailed.
“Doan like that? Hows bout this?” Zapain flipped Brund in the air, caught him by the foot and shook.
“Please!” Varna croaked hoarsely.
Brund’s cries ceased abruptly. After a couple more shakes, Zapain dropped the child to the floor. Ravel’s eyes slowly opened and he shifted.
“Him’s quiet now. Sleep, I say.” Zapain pointed at Ravel, delivered a last brutal kick, and stomped from the cart.
Varna glared at Ravel.
He crawled to a sitting position and leaned against the bars, with his eyes closed.
Varna spit at him. Another minute passed, and Brund stirred and then wailed. Varna collapsed face first to the cart floor, sobbing, and whimpering soft words until the boy fell fitfully to sleep.
Later as the cart slept, Yoreck whispered, “That was too close, Ravel. Ummm, what’s the Boare Purge thing?”
“A good idea,” Mobsby mumbled sourly.
Ravel murmured, “Don’t know,” and returned to his study of the floorboards.
The boys traded looks, but no one dared ask any further questions. Ravel’s closed face didn’t invite questions.
Yoreck resumed his position and Javen again strained for the knife. Inch by inch he pulled the fabric closer, until it popped free. There was no celebration; all fell into a restless sleep.
The next day felt like forever until the Boares fell asleep.
Mobsby whispered into the darkness, “I wish they’d drink themselves into a permanent blackout.” He glanced at the sleeping children.
Javen snorted agreement while using his fingers to locate Yoreck’s manacle keyhole.
“Ow,” Yoreck grumbled when the penknife stabbed his wrist.
“Sorry,” Javen mumbled, trying again. Finding the opening, he began to work it.
After a while, Javen quit and lay down to sleep while Yoreck took over while the other boys looked on. Javen’s dreams returned to his grandmere’s final moments.
The routine didn’t change. For three days, they jostled and bumped west across the Amora Tongue Road. Their blank eyes stared at the palm trees outside the bars, uninterested in the chief foliage of the western Tongue region. They stirred when strangers passed, but their cries were ignored. Nights were busy hours as Yoreck’s lock was worked. Javen occasionally felt the locking mechanism jiggle under his attempts, but never high enough, or long enough to release the bolt.
Urel looked on, pitying the boys their disappointment.
Dusk on the ninth day of captivity saw the carts pass Avelry. Camp was set beyond the city. Sodfert and Muckler were sent to get fresh meat. A couple hours later, they returned with two small sheep. Zapain was unimpressed with the ‘skinny’ sheep, and even less impressed when he spied a follower peeking from behind a tree in the woods. After warning the two not to move, he slipped into the trees.
He roared into the camp when he returned, “You two genus’s di’nt think ta see if there’s were someone b’hind you!” Zapain punctuated each syllable with a kick. “If it hadn’t been for me findin’ that spy, we’s would all be in trouble, but I taken care of him. An’ don’t even think about havin’ none o’ this sheep. Go ‘n catch yourself a scrutrat.” Zapain turned his back and consumed one of the animals, almost raw.
That night, laying on his side, Javen’s stomach dropped on hearing the pen knife snap in two. He turned with the rest of the cart and gaped at Yoreck’s unbound wrist. He was free. Even Urel’s eyes bugged at the sight.
Pocketing the broken sliver, Yoreck whispered, “Where’s your knife? I’ll get you loose.”
Ravel nodded to his knife stuck between the floorboards. “Thanks to Mobsby. And of course, his knife is absent, slukerd,” He cursed under his breath.
Mobsby blushed and shifted.
Javen whispered, “Right pocket. Don’t waste time trying to free us. Start working on the cart door.”
By afternoon two days later, they were deep into the Wald Land and heavy dust had combined with sun and sweat to create a crispy shell on their skin. But to the captives, the scorching heat was minor, after eleven days of scant food and a lifetime of slavery hanging over their head.
Hazelmere was their destination. Neither the arid brown Wald, nor the distant craggy Meon Range, rising like battle-hardened warriors to the north, were remarkable, when compared to the large city in the west where the slave trade was brisk.
Mobsby licked his dry lips and whispered over Brund’s howls, in a pathetic attempt at optimism, “Don’t worry. We’ll get outta here.”
Urel murmured softly to Krain as he whimpered, but didn’t discourage Mobsby. He’d have plenty of time later for that.
The old man in the corner mumbled, “You won’t be smilin’ when we reach Hazelmere.”
Darkness fell, and the Boares began their ritual of drinking until drunken sleep overtook them. Yoreck resumed his work on the door lock.
“Make it happen, Yoreck,” Ravel murmured. “Time’s runnin’ out.”
Yoreck snorted over his shoulder.
Zapain’s eyes flew open and he jumped unsteadily to his feet. “Hey you!” He shouted, stumbling toward the cage. The other Boares didn’t move, either too drunk or too lazy to care. “I say sit. No standin’ in my cart.”
Yoreck sat with his hands behind as Zapain approached, “Dat’s better. Wait!” The Boare pointed to Yoreck. “You, stand up ‘nd show your ‘hind!”
The cart was quiet, and they all looked anywhere but Yoreck’s freed hand. Zapain neared with keys in hand, inserting the brush key into the wooden locking mechanism. Inside the cart, the Boare shoved, sending Yoreck staggering sideways. Yoreck directed his fall toward his empty manacle on the floor. His shoulder hit hard without his arms to save him, and he rolled smashing his nose. With a moan, he rolled to his back, holding the manacle to his wrist.
Zapain laughed harshly.
Slowly, Yoreck got to his feet and turned to display the shackle. He stood stock still, feeling his heart pound.
Zapain tugged at the manacle, ripping it from Yoreck’s hands, understanding the situation in a moment. He twisted Yoreck’s arm behind his back, wrenching the knife free.
Zapain continued to twist, though Yoreck remained defiantly silent, despite the sharp pain. “All knives, now!”
The boys held up their hands showing them empty. Zapain grunted. As he refastened Yoreck’s manacle, he spotted Ravel’s knife in the floor crack. Shoving Yoreck’s head into the wood, he pried the knife free and exited. No one moved; no one dared.
Sleep, when it came that night, was fretful. Brund woke several times crying, which set-off Krain, Glorn or both. Mobsby rolled restlessly; Yoreck didn’t snore; and Ravel cursed several times under his breath.
Javen lay with his eyes closed and tried to think himself somewhere else, but his imagination wasn’t that good. All he could feel was terror. So, he stared sightlessly through the bars, wishing he could kill every Malcaster alive.
Three more days of dry arid travel followed. As morning broke on the seventeenth day of captivity, it began as other mornings. Sodfert and Muckler argued about breakfast, they argued about driving, they argued about snoring, they argued about arguing.
The Meon Range became hoary outcroppings in the mid-day sun. Their harsh peaks a diminishing horizon, when the Boares spied a young girl pulling a cow down the road. The area was desolate but still they hesitated. Their sly gazes scanned the area for overseers. Getting caught would cost them body parts they didn’t want to lose. Once their solitude was certain, they shot off the carts.
The four bore down on the unsuspecting girl and her cow. Javen watched, riveted to the horror, almost forgetting to breathe. The Boares gained. The girl suddenly turned, her eyes grew wide. She dropped the rope and ran.
The animal was consigned to Slag, who kicked the cow in a fit. The cow returned the gesture, sending Slag air-born with a hoof print on his chest as a reminder of his stupidity. The Boares’ slowed significantly as they got bogged down in the sandy terrain. The girl’s light frame, though, seemed to skim the ground as she raced past low, jagged wrinkles of dry gray earth. Suddenly the Boares stopped.
Javen gripped the bars as he stared at the scene, wondering if they were giving up or it was some kind of trick.
Zapain screamed, “Where’d she go?” He slapped Sodfert and Muckler. “What happen to her? She just disappears! Find her ya idjots! Find her, I says, ‘r I’ll grind yer bodies into food fer the guzzards.”
Javen’s knuckled were white and his face taunt as the girl stopped, her foot stuck in a leg-breaker. She didn’t make a sound as she snapped several dry sticks trying to pry the teeth from her leg. The trap didn’t budge. The hinges were locked.
All the while, the Boares thoroughly searched the area as though she wasn’t there.
Mobsby murmured softly, “They can’t see her. They think she’s gone.” He glanced over at the others, and then back at the girl, whispering, “You think she’s a Seer?”
Yoreck said in a soft undertone, “Impossible. It takes years to train for that kinda control…especially under stress. She’s too young. Anyway,” he said, “they see her now.”
“Her ankle’s broken,” Javen remarked after the Boares removed her foot from the trap.
The incident reminded him of another event. That time there had been a chase and a disappearance, except the boy had escaped. There was definitely something strange about this girl.
“Yeah, it’s hanging,” Mobsby said, stating the obvious.
“Maybe she’s a Seer and can bend her ankle backward?” Ravel murmured under his breath.
The Boares thrust her through the door, not bothering with chains. Her eyes were squenched tight in pain, and tears fell, but she still didn’t make a sound. Her ankle lay bent at an odd angle, the splintered bone visible to Javen and Yoreck, who exchanged looks of frustration and helplessness. Only Urel, his family and the old man were close enough to be at her side. Javen had to stretch his chain out completely, losing one arm to look at her wound. Yoreck was just behind him. It was bleeding heavily into the waste and sawdust of the cart. If she didn’t die of blood loss, she’d surely die of infection. The cart jostled as it gained speed.
The girl took deep, controlled breaths, her body rigid, finally losing consciousness.
As the sinking sun set on the distant Labes Mountains, Zapain ordered the caravan to stop and supper preparations to begin. Frackweed and scrutrat scraps were thrown through the bars as the Boares prepared their meal. The captives divided the leavings and ate. As usual, the stuff was foul. At length, the Boares were drunk and then asleep.
Sage chanted a soft lullaby to the deathly pale girl, who, though unconscious, had begun thrashing as red, feverishly patches bloomed on her pasty cheeks.
A continuous stream of blood ran from the ragged wound, pooling under the girl’s leg, where the bone jutted out. The skin screamed in swollen, angry redness that looked to give way easily to puss and rot. Javen had no doubt of the resulting blood poisoning.
He caught Yoreck’s eye. “How bad?” Yoreck asked.
Javen sighed. The girl was already thin and weak. Plus, under the grime there were clearly other unhealed wounds. She needed help now. “I don’t think…”
Javen growled in frustration and pulled on his manacle. He could get it above his knuckles, no farther. The shackle was loose, but his hand was too big. He looked at Yoreck’s progress. Being thinner, he’d gotten it a little farther.
“Pull…pull it,” Yoreck held out his wrist. “Keep pulling, no matter what.”
Javen pulled, but even in the dim moonlight, he could see the manacles cutting into Yoreck’s skin, taking the heart out of his efforts.
Yoreck groaned and grasped a bar with his free hand, whispering harshly, “Harder Javen. Ravel help him.”
From an angle, Ravel stretched and pulled the chain with Javen. Sweat beaded Yoreck’s face. His teeth cut into his lip to keep from crying out. His knuckles burned as metal scraped slowly across hard bone and his skin ripped. There was a searing pain. He bit back a cry as a bone cracked.
In one final bone-ripping tug, his mangled hand tore free.
There were tears, but no one remarked them. His hand burned like something rent in two. He looked down. His thumb was odd, crooked. It was definitely broken. Huge chunks of skin were scraped off. He tested, moving his little finger. A sharp stab shot down his wrist, and he gasped.
“Oh, Yoreck,” Sage said softly.
Javen said, “Lemme see.”
Yoreck shook his head. “Get Zapain. Get him in here—”
“No. First, let me look.” Javen demanded. “We get one shot. If you fail because of your hand, it was for nothing.”
“She doesn’t have time!” Yoreck hissed, nodding at the girl on the floor. He met Javen’s eyes and acknowledged the truth of the argument by slowly extending his hand.
Ripping a piece of the cleanest spot remaining on his garment, Javen gently cleaned and blotted Yoreck’s hand until the blood congealed. “Sorry, I can’t cover it yet, or Zapain will notice it.” He slowly removed the bloody cloth, careful to not restart the bleeding. “We’ll deal with the break later.”
“Thanks. Now let’s get him in here. Keep him busy. I’ll stuff the lock with…”
“Feces and wood chips would make a vile kind of clay,” Urel said softly. He nodded toward the waste on the cart floor.
“I’ll use that,’ Yoreck said with a nod toward Urel for the idea, gross as it was. “It’ll keep the lock’s wooden tines from falling into position. Then I can just slide it open after they’re asleep.”
Mobsby jumped to the task, scraping a pile of stool and wood chips together. It was dry, so he kneaded spit into the mixture. Ravel and Javen joined him when he went dry. It didn’t take long for them to form foul little snakes.
Scooping up the creations, Yoreck dragged his manacle beside the doorway, leaned back and whispered, “Get ‘im in here.”
Javen reached through the bars and knocked a water skin to the ground. “Hey!”
Zapain’s snorted himself awake and his eyes opened.
“Hey, you! Wake up! I want water.”
Zapain hurled a giant gob of spit as he stood. “You wanna? Don’t care, what you wanna, dregger.”
Ravel grabbed Mobsby around the neck and squeezed. “How ‘bout I kills one of your merchandise?”
Mobsby coughed and beat on Ravel’s arm, struggling to breathe, but Ravel’s iron grip held.
Zapain pounded toward the cart with a growl. He jammed the brushy-key into the wooden lock with such force it snapped off in the lock. He spent a couple seconds trying to pick it out, but it had broken off inside. Bounding into the cart, he slugged Javen in the gut and spun for Ravel. Mobsby fell to the ground gasping for air as Zapain grabbed Ravel by the hair and slammed his head into the floor.
Blood ran freely from a cut on his head, but Ravel rolled to his knees, “That your best?”
Yoreck shook his head, trying to get Ravel’s attention. The Boare’s fist pounded Ravel’s face and then kicked him in the stomach.
Ravel doubled over, lip split, nose bleeding.
Javen whispered, “Ravel,” but he didn’t hear. Javen tangled his feet between Zapain’s legs, but the Boare back-fisted him before aiming another kick at Ravel’s side.
“Yep, it was,” Ravel rasped, as another fist slammed him in the eye.
Rolling to his knees, Ravel finally caught Yoreck’s glance, and he dropped boneless to the floor.
With a grunt, Zapain kicked him again. When Ravel didn’t move, he strode from the cart. The door slammed and bounced open. He glared at the ruined lock and pounded the bars in a rage. He glanced around, snatched a length of rope, and tied the door closed.
The whole cart seemed to be holding its breath as Zapain finally returned to his spot near the fire; though it wasn’t until he was soundly asleep that anyone began to relax. Javen crawled as close to Ravel as he could, but was waved away.
“I’m fine,” he mumbled. “It hurt, but nothing’s broken.”
“Wasted…literally.” Yoreck scrapped the feces off his good hand onto the bars. “But thanks, Ravel. You stirred him hard enough and he destroyed their only key…in the lock. We’re almost outta here.” He looked at Javen, “What next?”
Javen whispered, “You know gourse?”
Yoreck nodded, waiting for the list.
“Get some roots. Shouldn’t be a problem, it’s all over the place. It’ll help with infection, but it may not be enough. She’s bad. And grab a pocketful of those yellow and white flowers on the side of the road by the rotted posts. Get leaves too. They’re a good sleep drought. Don’t go out of your way but if you see any mint, grab it. My own breath is making me nauseous.”
Javen was surprised at the slight snickers.
Yoreck’s skinny face took on a determined expression, “Got it.”
“I think, Yoreck should get the key and let us loose,” Mobsby whispered. “I for one have had all the fun I can stand. I’m ready for home.”
Urel whispered, “Mobsby, where would you go?”
“Huh?” Mobsby asked not comprehending his question.
Javen explained, “Look, if he gets the manacle key, – and by chance doesn’t get caught – and unlocks the shackles, – and doesn’t get caught – and we all pass the Boares, – and don’t get caught, how long do you think it’ll take them to track us down in this waterless wilderness? And the next time they may shackle our necks. Try getting your head through that. No, I’ve gotta better plan. We’ll escape in Hazelmere. There’re lots of people, and places to hide. A surefire sleeping potion’ll help. Besides, what about the girl? Do we leave her behind?”
Meanwhile, Yoreck untied the rope, which took much longer with only one hand. Keeping to the shadows, he slipped from the cart, seizing the water skin from the ground. In a crouch, he headed for the water barrel at the cart’s front.
“Get four very straight—” Javen’s head jerked toward the Boares when one of them grunted in their sleep. “sticks.” He finished whispering.
Yoreck disappeared into the dark beyond the fire. Before Drayhon had moved across the sky one-quarter, Yoreck was back in view. Borrowing the small black caldron from the back of the other cart, he moved toward the fire. Again, he faded into the darkness around the sleeping Boares.
He knelt beside the fire pit and slowly added a few sticks. Placing the caldron in the fire, he stepped into the shadows, waiting for the water to steam. A jurag snarled in the distance and Slag rolled a little too near the fire. Yoreck disappeared around a tree as Slag awoke, aflame. He shrieked, and ran in a circle as the fire danced up his pants.
Zapain woke along with the other two and he started yelling, “Roll! Idjot! Roll!”
Slag continued his crazed circuit. Zapain sprinted across the camp and tackled him, rolling him through the dirt with vigor. The flames died. Slag sat up licking his wounds and the other three spent several minutes roasting him. When he didn’t rise to their baiting, they got bored and settled for sleep.
Time passed. The captives stared into the darkness, but Yoreck didn’t appear. Almost a half hour later, a slow-moving shadow rescued the boiling water from the fire. Back in the cart, Javen eagerly took the caldron and water skin from Yoreck, who loosely secured the door.
Yoreck unwrapped his injured hand from his tunic and cleaned it with the hot water. Meanwhile, Javen mashed the yellow flower petals, leaves, and stems that Yoreck had dropped. Javen poured the juice and crushed leaves into his flask and then held it open for Ravel to stream hot water into.
“That’s for the girl. Now your flask,” Javen whispered, “for a Boare cocktail. It’s their party.”
Javen held his flask steady, while Ravel filled it, adding some of the mashed-up flowers and juice. Then they added the crushed gourse root to the left-over water in the caldron. Javen drew Yoreck over, cleaned and wrapped his broken hand in a piece of tunic.
“Almost, and you can give the hand a rest,” Javen said. “On behalf of everyone this cart, I’d like to thank your hand for its service.”
Around the cart, people murmured their thanks. Yoreck blushed, but remained silent.
With one arm, Yoreck helped the girl sit. Sage held the flask to her lips.
The girl drank, whispering through puckered lips, “Tastes like weeds.”
Soon, she was asleep. Yoreck scooted the girl to Javen. He tore a piece of the girl’s overshirt and dipped it in the gourse water, dripping it slowly into the shredded flesh surrounding the broken ankle. When it was clean, Javen straightened the bone. There wasn’t an unsoiled scrap of cloth among them; so the girls’ dingy vest was used to wrap the ankle and secure the sticks.
When he was finished, Javen whispered to Yoreck, “Drag her to the back of the cart to hide the trussing.”
Yoreck pulled her, resting on his haunches between stages. Meanwhile, Javen cleaned Ravel’s bloody face. The remainder of the water he slid to Sage, who cleaned Urel’s leg. When she finished, Yoreck replaced the caldron and returned to his position, making sure his manacles were in-hand. As he lay down, a soft moan escaped his lips. Javen reached through the bars with the water skin and dropped it back to the ground.
Malcasters now rule Cartenia, through slavery, bloodshed and their curse. Occasionally, small warrior bands rise up, letting the Malcasters know they stand opposed, and giving the tyrants someone to hunt. It’s a volatile relationship. The Trealingers, Illencers and the Seers all have such groups, though the Seers stand unique because of their abilities, their secrets and the fact, that at one time they controlled Cartenia. Currently, much diminished and weakened, due to Malcaster conflicts, the Seers mostly hide in their last remaining fortress. Some, however, scattered among the townships, live undercover and do what they can. To say that the Malcasters seek the Seers’ stronghold, is too obvious for words; that they've spent years looking is a given. When they finally track down an old woman Seer and her grandson, they salivate, lusting for the culmination of their search and its inevitable conclusion. But timing is everything and they're just a little too late, for the old woman is dead. The boy however… But it's fall and rebellion's in the air. Seeing an opportunity, the Overlord's son deposes his father, who is then murdered and impersonated by a cunning woman. The Overlord's widow seizes the throne, vowing vengeance on her treacherous step-son. Her plans disintegrate, when her husband, or someone looking very much like him, returns, not dead, taking control. War is inevitable. Malcaster leadership may be in flux, but their trackers continue to hunt for the boy, Javen. When he becomes enslaved, but escapes, Javen’s direction is discovered by a tracker, and he and a friend are seized. Using Javen's friend as incentive, the Malcaster tortures him, demanding information. When their rescuer is cut down, Javen, knowing that his friend’s death is certain, waives his escape, placing himself in the Malcaster's power.