This is the first two chapters of my, hopefully to be published, book. Hope you enjoy it!
Karl’s bony hand reached out as quick as a snake and clamped around the other man’s throat, beginning to squeeze off his air supply.
“Just what didja think you was reaching for, ya palsied oaf?”
“I weren’t reaching for nuthin’. You was sitting on me blanket, ya damn fool.” Perch’s face was getting redder by the second as he gasped out an answer to Karl.
“Hoy, you two! Knock it off over there! We got an early day tomorrow if ye want to hoof it to Iniquity before the colder weather starts setting in. I, for one, do not want to be getting there dead last and having to winter in some hole in the wall. Now cut it out and be getting to sleep. You’ve wasted enough time being idiots for one night.”
Dropping Perch as hard as he could manage without further angering the accepted leader of their little group, Karl growled and laid down, tucking his belongings under him and glaring at Perch again. Perch, for his part, moved his own gear further away and rubbed his abused throat gently. He glared at Karl’s back and willed for something to come along and eat him in the night.
Spanner watched the two through narrowed eyes and snorted. If they weren’t so good at their “special” skills, he would have killed them himself long ago. He waited until he was sure they were not going to try to kill each other again before finally laying down. His head had barely touched down on his bedroll when he heard the sound of something crashing about in the undergrowth. It was getting louder. Whatever it was, it seemed to be heading in their general direction.
He jumped up and saw that Karl and Perch were already rising, daggers balanced lightly in their hands. People in their profession learned to sleep lightly or they slept forever. Gesturing to the others to climb into one of the trees that formed a natural ring around their campsite, he grabbed up one of the light weight tarps they used to keep rain off and climbed up a different tree.
Suddenly, a figure burst out of the forest and into the clearing, looking around as if completely lost. It looked at the banked fire and at the gear lying seemingly unprotected on the ground. It bent towards the pan that had the remains of the night’s dinner and Spanner jumped down. He tossed the tarp over it and bore it roughly to the ground. The other two men landed on the ground beside him, Perch reaching for some rope from his pack.
“Ha! So did you think you were going to be stealing from us? Well, we’ll be showing you what we think about that.” Sharp kicks and well place punches punctuated every word Spanner said.
A screeching sound, the likes of which they had never heard, suddenly filled the skulls of all three men. Pain lanced into their heads like a thousand daggers impaling their brains. They dropped to the ground screaming horribly and clutching their heads between their hands, blood pouring from their ears and noses as they writhed in agony.
The figure darted out from under the released tarp and ran off into the night, blind and deaf to anything but the need to escape, to run and just keep running . . .
In the wake of her flight, there was silence. Three men would not be caring about winter, or any other season, ever again. Their faces were contorted and their eyes bulged wide with the fear that had filled them. Their hands were full of their own hair, as they had clawed desperately at their own heads trying to stop the painful sounds. Broken bones from the violent writhing had frozen their bodies in bizarre positions. Small flames of the campfire crackled, sending up small sparks, its cheerful sound an odd counterpoint to the now very quiet forest.
“Well this has certainly been an uneventful patrol.” Faranor chuckled, a note in his voice that sounded almost like disappointment.
Shani cast a stern, sideways glance at the young man beside her. “You should be glad, Fara. Quiet for us means quiet for the others.”
“Oh I know. I didn’t want anything big to happen just, well, something remotely interesting.”
She grinned, unable to help herself. They had been partners for a while now and she was used to his occasional bouts of boredom with a dull patrol. Faranor was several years younger than she and had been born in the caravan. He had never known what it was like to feel truly unsafe, but Shani did. She remembered all too well how things were before she had come here. Her village was not far from Iniquity and had often been a stopover for the unsavory types that called that place home. Her routes on patrol refreshed her in ways she could not explain and never more so than when nothing out of the ordinary happened and she knew that everyone was safe.
For his own part, Faranor knew Shani was right but sometimes he wanted so badly to pit his skills against something more substantial than their meal for that night. He wanted a chance to make a name for himself, to distinguish himself in some manner. It never occurred to him that he already had done so in the eyes of the people he guarded. Everyone considered Faranor a kind, generous and dependable young man, his sporadic bouts of restlessness aside. Still as with most young men, his daydreams were filled with young women swooning and whispering words like brave, daring, or heroic as he rode past. Yes, that would have been far more to Faranor’s taste than being called dependable or reliable.
“Shani, there’s a stream just ahead. I know it is a bit early but let camp there tonight. It will only add about an hour to tomorrow’s leg home, but it’s a nice little spot,” he suggested from several feet ahead of her.
“Alright, sounds like a plan to me. Do you want to find tonight’s dinner or should I?” she asked.
He thought for a moment then answered. “I’ll gather the wood tonight and get the camp set up and the water boiling. I want to do some repairs on my saddle tonight and a little extra light will be nicer than trying to do it by firelight.”
Nodding, Shani caught up to him and threw her packs over his horse’s rump so he could set up her tent as well as his own. She knew the spot he was talking about and as she handed off her mount’s reins to him, she dismounted at a trot and took off into the forest around them to find some dinner.
The forest was lush, green, and full of game and it wasn’t long before she had a brace of nice fat rabbits hanging from a hook on her belt. She had been tempted to bring down a buck she had seen but this was the last night they would be on patrol and there was no need to bring down that much meat. She turned to head back to camp after hanging the last rabbit from the hook, deciding to take a short cut through some higher brush rather then follow the small game trail she had been following. She wasn’t more than a dozen steps from their camp when she tripped over something and fell on her face. Cursing colorfully at her clumsiness, she got up, turned to see what had tripped her up, and gasped aloud.
“Faranor, come over here quick! I’ve found something,” Shani called out to her partner and moved closer to a bundle of what had appeared, at first, to be rags. She could have sworn she saw them move slightly. As Faranor ran back down the trail towards her, Shani bent to get a closer look and pulling back the topmost rag, she let out a gasp. “Fara, it’s a . . . CHILD!”
“Be careful Shani. Is it dead?” He had not meant it to sound as heartless as it had come out but training was overriding instincts.
“No, I don’t think so. I think I saw it move. It is hard to tell whether it is a girl or a boy. We cannot leave him . . . her . . . here, Fara. It’ll be night soon. It won’t be safe out here, whatever it is.”
“I agree,” Faranor said quietly. “I’ll cut some saplings and we’ll rig up a travois. Let’s take it back to the camp first. We can make it back to the caravan by morning if you want to head out tonight.” He pulled a small hatchet from his pack and began to cut some thin supple saplings from the surrounding forest. Grabbing their ropes, he quickly had a triangular travois rigged up and attached to the back of his horse’s saddle so it would drag behind them.
“I think that’s a good idea,” Shani said thoughtfully.
Shani wrapped her own blanket around the child making sure it would not slip off the travois on the journey home. The two of them mounted up and turned to the south again to rejoin the current camp of the Raven’s Wing Caravan.
Turning around now and then to check on it, Shani and Faranor discussed their little finding.
“How could a child have come to be out here in the middle of nowhere? I didn’t see any signs of others having been with it.
“I don’t know,” Fara answered his voice tight with anger. “From the looks though, whomever the child belongs to needs to be thrashed for treating any child the way that one has been. Did you see the bloodstains on the rags, or all the scars on the one arm?”
Shani nodded silently. The two of them worked well together as scouts for the caravan. They were of similar temperament most of the time and had complimentary strengths and weaknesses. They were also good friends and could pass the time just as comfortably in silence or in chatting. This was one of the silent times. Thoughts about the small creature riding behind them filled both their minds. A small moan interrupted Shani’s musings. “Fara, stop,” she said needlessly. The other scout had already heard the soft sound and had brought his horse to a halt.
Faranor reached the travois first and he leaned over the child. “Child? Are you awake, little one?” he asked gently. The eyes fluttered open and eyes of palest blue glassily gazed up at him. Shani knelt beside the carrier and smiled brightly, trying to put as much reassurance in her smile as possible.
“Well hello there, little one. I’m Shani and this is Faranor. Are you . . .”
She never got any further though. As Faranor reached towards the pathetically small creature, meaning only to move the blanket out of the way a bit, the child’s eyes filled with terror and it began to thrash around violently. The two jumped back instinctively evading what looked like an attack. As the child thrashed they realized it was really just trying desperately to escape as fast as it could from the perceived danger of their proximity.
“No, little one, it’s all right! Please! You’re going to hurt yourself more then you already are. We aren’t going to hurt you. We mean no harm to you, child!” Shani crooned repeatedly, trying to calm the wildly thrashing child.
However nothing seemed to make a difference. Shani tried to reach out again to hold the small hand, much as she would have with her own nieces and nephews when they were afraid or upset and as she did, a blinding pain exploded in her mind, making her vision swim. She pulled back, her face going pale and she looked at Faranor, who was holding his head in his hands and sitting back on the ground on his rump. Shani suddenly felt an overwhelming desire to hurt the other scout, and hurt him badly. No, she didn’t want to just hurt him . . . she wanted to kill him.
Suddenly the child turned white and passed out. As quickly as it had started, the storm of fear and violence was over. Shani blinked several times and turned her head away quickly to hide the blush of shame that colored her cheeks. Small patches of blood were seeping into the child’s blanket where wounds, which had been crusted over somewhat, now oozed again from all the thrashing about.
“Dear gods, Fara. What just happened?” she asked, rocking back on her heels, her fingers rubbing her temples gingerly.
“I don’t know, I just don’t know. It felt like someone slid a dagger right into my brain and was dicing it with impunity and the terror . . . I felt like running and hiding and never coming out again.”
Nodding, Shani grunted as she got up. “I felt the same way. All I wanted to do was flee so that no one could ever find me. And then,” her voice broke, “I wanted to kill you. I wanted to hurt you so badly and feel you die in my hands.” She kept her face averted, her hands shaking badly as she pretended to be adjusting something on her horse’s saddle.
“Shani,” he spoke with a hint of humor in his voice. “You aren’t the first woman who’s wanted to kill me and I doubt you’ll be the last. Believe me.” She appreciated his attempt to lighten the mood with a bit of gentle teasing, but she still couldn’t stop the trembling in her hands.
“No this was different . . . “
“I know it was. I’ve never felt such pain and such anger in my life. I don’t mind telling you how spooked this has me. I just don’t want you to beat yourself up over something that was obviously out of your control.” He looked down at the pale and thankfully unconscious child. “Let’s ride straight through. I want this in Markus’ hands as soon as possible. I’ll send out one of my birds right away.” As Shani nodded, they fastened child in snuggly again, hoping and praying that it would not awaken again until they got home, and could hand it over to someone better able to deal with, well, with whatever this child was.
Markus stood leaning against his wagon, breathed in the softly scented night air, and smiled contentedly. He loved this life. He loved being out in the fresh air, no one to answer, no crowds of people all crushed into a space far too small for many bodies. Stretching, he felt the soft shirt tighten slightly across his muscles. It felt good to be out of travel clothes. The bright colors he liked best became too filmed with dust for him to wear when they were on the road. A long camp allowed him to don something besides the practical leathers he usually wore. He propped his leg on one of the wagon spokes, looked around the large encampment, and was satisfied.
They had done well this season, even making a tenuous arrangement with the Laecians for some of the rare spices out of As’dir Dhamat to the west. Markus loved spices and he smiled impishly thinking of the wonderful meal “experiments” he would create for his friends. It was a measure of Raven Wing’s reputation that the Laecians or “Nomads” of As’dir Dhamat had sought them out for the metal goods they wanted.
Running his fingers through his short cropped red hair he looked around at the camp’s layout again. While the majority of the wagons had positioned themselves in a large circle, there were a few, which had taken spots around the perimeter.
Wagon. The word didn’t do justice to the marvel of artisanship and ingenuity that went into these homes on wheels. Each one was custom made to fit the needs of the family and most made improvements and changes as they could afford. Teams of four large horses usually pulled the larger structures. Being merchants, the wooden sides on most of them could be dropped down to allow air to flow freely or to serve as a counter when they were open for business. Families who could afford the more elaborate wagons were able to raise the roof several inches to allow light in and air to flow freely. This gave them an additional measure of privacy as well. Each family lovingly kept up and decorated their wagons so that they reflected the nature of the family who called them home.
Tonight, as with any other night when weather permitted, many of the younger folks were sleeping outside in small groups with their friends. It was fun for them and it gave their parents a night of privacy. That they felt safe enough to sleep so exposed made him feel proud and thankful.
He couldn’t ask for a finer group of people to call the Raven’s Wing Caravan “home”. They were, in every way that mattered, a family. Many had been born in these very wagons. Jerrol had started this train with such understanding of people that it had quickly flourished under his leadership and had become one of the most prosperous, and well respected, caravans in the land. Some trains were simply tolerated so long as they had goods that were needed, but the Raven Wing train was treated more like welcomed guests.
In each place, they tried to leave the grounds where they camped in better condition than when they arrived. If an emergency arose while they were camping near a town, they would work side by side with the villagers to give whatever aid they could. Many of their most loyal customers year after year, were those who owed the salvage of their property, land, or crops, or in some instances, their very lives to the efforts of Raven Wing members. These things combined with the quality of their goods ensured they were welcomed just about anywhere. Their success also ensured that his people were happy and satisfied, and because they were, they were sure to be as careful as he was about who traveled with them or joined them on short journeys, so that that safety wasn’t compromised. Most were families with children and it was important to Markus that they grew up loved and feeling safe, even if they did not live in a city or town.
As was his usual wont, Markus walked around the perimeter of the camp speaking softly to the sentries and beast handlers as he passed. The animals were dozing contentedly under the watchful eyes of their keepers and there was a feeling of peace in the night air. He closed his eyes and let that feeling seep into his bones, knowing it could change in a heartbeat, but not quite willing to let it go just yet.
“You have the same look on your face that those drowsing cattle have on theirs,” an acerbic voice quipped from the shadows to his left.
“Oh, nice way to talk to your caravan master,” he muttered back, still trying to get his racing heart to slow. “Must you sneak about all the time, ‘Sella? I swear you take ten years off my life when you do that to me.”
A figure emerged from the shadows, and Gyselle approached, still with an unnerving silence even though he could see her now. With a smirk, Gyselle fell in beside him and looked up at the sky.
“Yes, and we both know you can’t afford to lose too many more years, old man.”
“You’re a cold-hearted woman, ‘Sella, do you know that?”
Gyselle chuckled softly, but didn’t bother to deny the comment. This was the jibing of old and very dear friends and the two of them took great pleasure in it.
“I’ve had word from Faranor. He sent one of those birds of his to Selie with a message.”
“Is something wrong?” Gyselle asked, her voice automatically changing to reflect her concern. While she taught all the scouts to never get too complacent about the “routine” patrols, this was a fairly decent stretch of area and problems were few and minor; usually minor enough to wait until they returned to report.
“They’ve found something and are bringing it back with them.”
“That’s what the message said. The birds can’t carry large pieces of parchment in their leg tubes. All it said was Something found. Bringing it back. Very unusual. Darn bird actually made it back here. I’ll have to eat crow on that one.” He grinned at her sheepishly and Gyselle laughed, giving him a clap on the back.
Faranor was convinced that the black Cara’fi birds he was breeding could regularly be used to carry messages. Their handler would attach messages to their legs, they would fly to other handlers that they already knew, and would return home bearing an answering message. Personally, Markus privately considered it far too chancy and thought the annoying birds were more trouble than they were worth. He always tried to be encouraging of his people’s attempts to find ways to better life for the caravan though, so he tried to be open-minded about it.
Gyselle laughed aloud, knowing his tone for what it was. “Well so far he has done fairly well with them, Markus. They aren’t 100% reliable, but they’re still young and he’s trying various methods of training them until he finds one that works best. I think it’s a rather creative idea.”
“You would. Between you, Fara and the other keepers, the animals will outnumber the people soon. I may as well be leading a circus train instead of a merchant caravan.”
His voice was heavy with sarcasm, but tempered by the glint of humor in his eyes. Gyselle knew all his griping was bluff and bluster. The truth was, Markus liked the reputation his train had for being unique.
“You like the notoriety and we both know it, and speaking of notoriety, you’re going to be the envy of every caravan when you show up in Cannyn with those new spices of yours.”
“Don’t I know it!” he said grinning broadly at her. “We have limited supplies this year, of course, but if the Laecians are happy with the prices we fetch for them, we’ll get a good deal more next season. That arrangement you came up with to be their sole distributor in Shae’ana was a brilliant idea. It benefits both our people.”
“Thank you. The Companies often have to make creative arrangements with people as they travel from contract to contract. Of course, we also get around more than most merchant caravans since we don’t have to follow trade routes.”
“That’s true. I have to admit, I would love to see the raft towns of Thantir in the southeast though. I hear they’re amazing and that the Thantiri rely heavily on trading.”
“They do, but getting used to the ground always moving under your feet is no easy task. Frankly, I prefer my ground to stay put.” She grimaced and Markus laughed, patting her on the back comfortingly.
Gyselle’s mind automatically began to picture the lands of Shae’ana as she knew them. Shae’ana, which meant “Many Souls”, had a number of neighboring lands. As’dir Dhamat, “Land of the Dancing Fire”, was to the west and was the home of the nomadic Laecians. It was a hard land of hot dry deserts broken only by the occasional lush, green oasis. The Laecians were a solitary people with a quiet dignity that Gyselle liked. To the southwest was the great ocean Khelzith Anani which meant “Thundering Waters”. There were a number of coastal towns along that vast stretch of dark, pounding waters, but the weather systems could be erratic and wild along those parts. Only the hardiest of folks called that region home. If you followed that coast line you would come to a huge promontory of land called Essendia. The Essendians were secretive and very few ever caught so much as a glimpse of the canopy-living people. North lay the unfriendly lands of Shindaria, separated from Shae’ana by the mountain range known as the Dar Ristra, or “Boundary of the Gods.” The northeast region of Shae’ana was a wild region. The mountain may have been considered a boundary between the two lands, but in the northeast corner of Shae’ana that line was vague and crossed often. The people who lived in that area were an odd lot and the two cultures formed a mongrel mix of practices, rituals, and beliefs. The great Adar lay to the east. It was a beautiful, temperate ocean of crystalline, aquamarine waters. The Aurok Mountain range, while still part of Shae’ana itself, dominated the northwest corner and it was in those mountains where an unknown quanity of ogre clans dwelt. Few lowlanders were welcome there among the fierce and tribal clans. It was rumored there were other peoples far past the Aurok’s to the northwest, but only the ogre clans knew how to get through the Aurok’s and they weren’t telling.
Smack dab in the middle of all this was Shae’ana. It was a spacious land, but had no central government of any sort. Historically, it had never needed one, and the only battles that took place usually were along the northern borders with Shindaria. Those had been repelled and it had been a long time since any had last tried to invade Shae’ana. It was good fertile land and had everything from snow-capped mountains to coastal beaches, fertile lowlands to thick forests.
Markus’ voice cut into Gyselle’s thoughts. “Is all set for the night, ‘Sella?” he asked, not really because he believed it needed to be asked, but more out of habit.
“Yes, Markus, all is well. Dara should deliver in the next couple of hours, but other than that it should be quiet.” While the caravan was not often the target by marauders and brigands, it was not impossible either.
“Good, thank you ‘Sella. It’s largely due to you that we are bothered so rarely. The reputation we have, thanks to the training you give our people, has brought a safety to us that not all caravans enjoy.” He turned and smiled at her warmly as he spoke. “I think I’ll retire now. I want to hear Shani and Faranor’s report as soon as they arrive. I think it would probably be best if I didn’t fall asleep in the middle of that report, eh?” he laughed, changing the mood of the moment.
“Good idea. The elderly need all the rest they can get.”
Markus’ laugh came softly to Gyselle’s ears as he walked away, letting her have the last word.