Authors: Garrett Robinson
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Dark Fantasy, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Coming of Age, #Epic, #New Adult & College, #Sword & Sorcery
Copyright © 2015 by Living Art Books. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, businesses, events or locales is purely coincidental. Reproduction in whole or part of this publication without express written consent is strictly prohibited.
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To my wife
Who gave me this idea
To my children
Who just make life better
To Johnny, Sean and Dave
Who told me to write
And to my Rebels
Don’t forget why you left the woods
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THE SUN BROKE THE HORIZON east of the King’s road, spilling fallow rays across miles of empty landscape that ran down from the mountains far, far away. Amber light wrapped around the boughs of the forests to the west, painting them a heady mix of yellow and green. A summer sunrise, a golden dawn that promised a warm day with little wind for relief.
Loren greeted the sun with a raised water skin as if in a toast and then placed the skin to her lips to drink.
She had slept little the night before, too wrapped up in thoughts of her dagger and Jordel and, above all, Xain and Annis. The wizard and the merchant’s daughter could be anywhere by now, miles ahead on the King’s road, or lying in wait around the next bend.
Such thoughts spun behind her eyes in endless circles, and in the grey hours before sunrise they had pitched Loren from a restless slumber. After creeping from camp to relieve herself, she had nestled against a carriage wheel to await the dawn.
From the other side of the carriage she heard Gem’s snores, loud and insistent like a rusty-toothed saw. Though thin and wasted, the orphan boy slept, snored, and ate enough for two grown men. Now his grunting invited a smirk to the corner of Loren’s mouth—but it could not last long before her face grew solemn again.
“Deep thoughts are more troubling when wrestled alone.”
Jordel’s voice, smooth and soothing, shook Loren from her reverie. She shifted against the carriage wheel, ill at ease. The Mystic sat beside her, folding his legs and pulling his dark red cloak aside to avoid crushing it on the grass. Once settled, he settled his hands upon his knees and stared with Loren into the east. For long moments, they sat bathed in sunlight and silence.
“Not all thoughts bear mention,” said Loren at last, uncomfortable with the quiet.
“You alone would know. But rest assured that if they burden you too greatly, I bear a ready ear to share them.”
“I am assured of little, and rest comes hard.”
Jordel nodded, and again in silence they sat. Loren did not normally mind the quiet but was used to the forest’s peculiar hush, a stillness filled with the murmur of life. She did not have much experience with another person’s tranquility. Only with Chet were words unnecessary.
Thinking of Chet brought his face into sharp, sudden focus, and Loren felt a hollow ache in her gut. How long had it been since she last saw him? More than a week. More than two, but not yet a month. It felt like five lifetimes. The Loren who lounged now against the wagon wheel bore little resemblance to the one who had fled the Birchwood upon the heels of a wizard, leaner and stronger.
Thoughts of Xain pulled Loren to the present and to Jordel by her side. His forgotten promise came to mind. “You said you would tell me of the badge you carry. What is a Mystic? Are you a sort of wizard?”
“No, not that, though many wizards fill our ranks. They are prized among our number and so highly sought that many think we accept no others. But if that were the case, I would not wear this cloak of red.”
“It is a . . . Mystic cloak, then?” Loren feigned indifference, as though curiosity did not burn hot within her.
Jordel smiled. “We have nothing so uniform as that. I must confess again my surprise that you know nothing of our order. Though our numbers grow spare when measured to yesteryear, we are not uncommon across the nine lands.”
“You are rare enough in the Birchwood,” said Loren. “Never did I see such a badge of office nor hear of it in any tale.”
“Our work rarely sends us among the simpler folk. Still, there might have been tales.”
“There were not.”
Jordel shrugged as if that were answer enough.
“What, then, is your purpose? What sends you after Xain?”
Jordel licked his lips. “It is . . . difficult to explain, and not all words are mine to speak freely. In the most general of terms, you might say we keep order.”
“Like the constables.”
“Not unlike the constables,” Jordel nodded. “Our dress bears common origin with the red of their leather. Some of us might wear a red tunic, perhaps, or breeches. But rarely do we travel in our full regalia. Not all look upon us kindly. And many of our deeds must be done in secret.”
“They do not sound like honorable deeds.”
Jordel smiled. “So says the would-be thief.”
Loren felt a flush creep into her cheeks. “Tell me of my dagger. What danger must it promise to sour your face as it does?”
“’Tis a rare weapon.” Jordel shifted. “Well made, as you no doubt know. You would find it difficult to dull the edge, and it will not break without great effort. Only a few were made, crafted by gifted and magical smiths when the nine lands were young.”
“And what have they to do with the Mystics?”
“Your blade is . . . of special significance to our order. Any Mystic would recognize it at once. And if some of our highest members were to espy it, your danger would be grave. As would any in your company.”
“I seek no trouble. I wish no one harm and am no fighter besides.”
“I am aware,” said Jordel. “As that is something I admire in you. We all must draw our lines in this world, and the one who will not take a life is stronger than many would say. But you will not find that all agree, nor will everyone treat you the same.”
“Am I in danger from you, then? Do you, too, see more in my dagger than steel and leather?”
Jordel cocked his head. “I am odd among my brothers. I hold certain of our laws less dear, while some I value above all else. I would not kill you for holding the blade, nor would I readily reveal your possession to my brothers.”
“Nor would you take it from me. You could have done so easily while I slept in Cabrus. Why did you refrain, if the blade is as you say?”
Jordel shrugged. “As I said. Some laws, however revered, must accommodate our time. You bear the Mystics no harm; indeed, you did not even know of us until I told you. And while I hope you will cast the dagger aside for your own sake, that decision is yours to make.”
“I will not abandon it. It is mine, taken as token of payment for a lifetime of wrong.”
“From your parents, you mean.”
Loren looked at the Mystic, surprised.
“You still bear some marks,” said Jordel, pointing to her eye. “And if such has been the lot of one so young for many years, those who raised you must have had a hand.”
Loren touched the skin around her eye. She had seen it reflected in the water; its nasty blue had faded, but a dull brown still kissed her skin. “You make a good guess. And for repayment, I have only this dagger and the arrow I planted in my father’s leg. But I cannot carry that arrow with me nor clutch it at night when I ponder their cruelty.”
Jordel thought upon that. The air rang with Gem’s snores. “Very well,” he said at last. “Though I pray you will see reason to change your mind while you can. I warn you again: Let few see it as you may, and none from my order. If word were to reach them and they learned where you came from, your parents would feel the full brunt of their justice.”
Loren’s stomach clenched as she thought of Damaris. She had feigned ignorance about the dagger, but Loren knew better than to believe a word from the merchant’s mouth.
For some reason she could not place, it bothered Loren to think of her parents dragged from their ramshackle hut and put to the question, cruel and stupid though they were.
Still, she said, “Such justice would be well placed.”
“Very well.” Jordel nodded. “Let us break our fast. Leagues beckon ahead.”
“Where shall we go now? We do not know where Xain might be, nor Annis. How will we find them?”
“I have thought on that much of the night, when I did not sleep as deeply as you. I think that if the wizard and the girl did not wait, or were forced to move on, then they would have made for Redbrook—a riverside town well south of here, where the King’s road bends west along the Dorsean border. In their place, I would make for Redbrook and wait for our arrival, for there are precious few other destinations lining the road south from Cabrus.”
They rose and made their way to the fire, where Loren roused Gem with a hard shake. The urchin woke bleary eyed and blinking. He cursed at the sun as it fell into his eyes.
“In the city we never saw the daylight until we were ready,” he groused. “No wonder country folk are half-mad.”
They had a quick breakfast of hardtack and bacon, both supplied by Jordel, along with fresh drink from the river that followed the road. Its water was cool and sweet.
Seth, Jordel’s driver, was a crafty man with a criminal look; he had a sharp smile and a cruel laugh that came too easily. He shaved his head, which bore many scars that crisscrossed from crown to jaw. Loren looked at the man with apprehension, but Jordel seemed easy in his company.
“Ain’t seen aught but birds this morn, sir,” Seth told Jordel in the middle of their meal. “I have had me bow ready just in case.”
“Do you think the constables follow?” said Loren.
“The constables? No.” Jordel shook his head. “But they are not the only ones who seem to bear a grudge against you. The family Yerrin has a long reach, and their fingers never stop grasping.”
“I shall cut those fingers off, they poke around us,” said Seth.
Gem laughed, but Loren only felt her appetite wane.
THE ROAD REMAINED CLEAR FOR many days, rolling down before them as the stream plunged close and then far again. Hours passed dull and slow, broken only by the midsummer sun beating down and the occasional rush of a scampering animal startled by the sound of their passing.