Updates:  Chapter 17 of Mystic Seasons Series Mythopoeia Book -8 posted, chapter eight of Lady in the Labyrinth posted high fantasy booksyoung adult fantasy books

William Myrlhigh fantasy books, young adult fantasy books

Chapter Seventeen

        The centaur picked through the remains of another campsite, this one very different from the first that he had found. This fire had been started with woodscraft, not by mancy, and whoever had made it had left behind the unwanted portions of a kill. Bones, fur, it was easy to identify what had once been a spotted dog. Likely the more delicate portions left behind had been devoured by more of its own kind. This was a different sort of traveler than the skree. He was wasteful and dangerous, and yet, they were together. The lizard creature had left behind a few flakes of scales, an unmistakable sign. The winds were drawing the centaur in the direction that this other, heavier footed traveler had gone.

       So his prey was not alone. The centaur tested the edge of his blade along the ball of his thumb. A red line grew. He moved on.

                                                                                        *      *     *

       "What I would really like," Black said, "is gold."

      Tiddles shuffled beside the blue-robed man in the shade of his most admirable hat. His little hands were in his little sleeves, and he made polite noises as his companion talked and talked. He was very much like a wizard, this one, in the way he rambled and in the way he expected you not only to listen but to pay attention. At times there were penetrating questions intended to throw Tiddles off guard, and he handled them expertly. What did he care about the secrets of the Tower? As it stood, he was beginning to feel as if he had never left.

       "Gold is the magic of magicless folk. It places one above another. It raises walls and brings them down. It kills, is killed for, and yet gives life. I've had gold, gold in heaps and hoards, but it always seems to slip away, like I've been cursed."

       Tiddles cooed sympathetically.

​      "How many wizards sit in the Council?"

      "Seven," Tiddles answered automatically.

      "Has it been that way long, or only as long as you know?"

      "It fluctuates. They don't do much, so whoever wants to serve serves. They haven't had a full council in centuries is what Corneus would always say and that the Consulship was passed around like a party favor."           He could have gone on, but deep and velvet anger radiated palpably from beneath the Hat.  Tiddles knew when to hold his tongue. Whoever this fellow was, he almost certainly had a connection to the Tower. He may have even lived there for a time. He was probably a wizard himself, only there weren't supposed to be any wizards outside of the Tower, not real ones, anyway. That was in the Laws.

       There was silence between them for the rest of the afternoon, until the closing petals of the sunflower caused it to begin to dim. The grass went on in endless uniformity, with the only occasional punctuation of thorn bushes, or a cluster of Silas trees with their twisted limbs suggestive of torture. Once, Black commented on the presence of Endu, and Tiddles hopped valiantly in his attempt to see, but to no avail. The only animals he had managed to espy in their time together was a pair of Swanapards. Those awkward, long necked beasts had been stealing the leaves of the poisonous Silas trees with looping, dexterous tongues. They were very large, even accounting for Tiddles extreme smallness, and he was able to observe them with something akin to wonder, though wonder is stunted in one raised by wizards.

      "Gold," Black said finally. "Treasure." These words, to him, appeared to constitute complete sentences.

      They were preparing a space for camp when Black looked up suddenly.

      "Lizard," he said casually, "do you know anything about centaurs?" 

      "Some. Why?"

       "One is coming our way."

                                                                                        *      *     *


        Ursula did not enjoy life in the dunjon. It was cramped, and hazy, and foul. She was used to the emptiness of Petronia's immense capital palace. Beside that, this place was a cage. Ursula hadn't known that anyone actually lived in donjons anymore. Except for bandits and vagrants. They harkened back to the times of trouble in the centuries after Valanthia fell, when the old things were still breaking, and no one was united. Men who had any kind of power built defensive structures. Most of them were only wooden Keeps, and those were inevitably burned or abandoned to rot. Pale fyrn wood, of course, lasted forever; all of that would have been harvested and carried away for use in grander structures. The men who had stone had used it, throwing up their dunjons like boils all across the countryside. It was a time when sieges were rare, and siegecraft unheard of. All one needed was a raised entrance and a few towers to be virtually impregnable. So many of the 'Child's Keeps' were built that some could exchange bowfire from their facing battlements. They were neighbors. 

      Now most of them were gone, and Ursula had never imagined she would set foot inside of one. They may as well have been living in a cave.

      Daya brushed Ursula's hair, as was her morning custom, and the younger girls looked on jealously. She was still first princess, so there was nothing they could say. They sent withering looks in in her direction, the last bed in that dreary chamber. Soon the day's sewing would begin. Ursula had discovered that this was their chief purpose in life, this and gossip. There were two score live-ins and regulars in the dunjon at any given hour, and this was the optimal number to provide an endless outpouring of tales and tells. Ursula could hardly keep track of a fraction of the chatter, perhaps because they had yet to include her in their inner circle. Perhaps because she did not care.

      In the dead hours of the night men would sometimes sneak into the chamber and go to a favorite bed. There was no privacy in this place. Daya slept beside her, and she could feel her handmaiden's shuddering discomfort when the other girls were with a man.

      Tam Delali approached the bed, picking her way across the chamber like an arthritic spider with a rumpled cloth face. 

      "I just love having you here, princess. I just love it. I know today you won't be doing anything strange, will you? Today you won't. We need every hand we have with our chores."

      Ursula nodded wordlessly. She had been going over her notes and drawings the day before, to remind herself of what she had saved, and to set her mind moving again along creative paths. The girls had seen her from their knitting circle, whispering to each other, and Tam had scuttled over to speak with her. Reading was frowned upon, and writing restrained to lean but highly embellished notes to one's noble knightly love, if such there were. As Ursula did not, it was unseemly for her to be writing, especially when there was work to be done in honest daylight, not that much of that filtered in through the arrow slit embrasures.

      All this knitting and needling, what was it for? They mended clothes, and embroidered everything, and yet Ursula was sure that the cellars were bursting with superfluous stitching. All these women worked all day, there was not so much mending for an army. Ursula half thought that they had given themselves this distaff duty as a way to avoid going mad, only to go mad anyway. The only day they didn't needle was twelfth day, and that was a day for rest and contemplation, certainly not for reading, which was unwomanly. 

                                                                                        *      *     *

      The centaur knew that he was close. The winds of his summoning had stilled, and the spirits had all gone. He could feel the closeness of his quarry, the geas that the wizards had woven in him throbbed with electric anticipation, like the sparks the old ones made by teasing amber stones. He still could not see them, but he smelled them on the breeze. The skree was likely oblivious to his approach, but his companion would be more aware.

      The centaur did not care. His people did not hide or sneak. They did not even stalk. They tracked, they hunted, and they killed. No beast alive could outstrip him on open ground, and these plains were nothing if not open.

​       Suddenly, he exploded onto a cleared stretch of savannah. His weapon was at the ready, its curved blade glinting in the sunflower's regard. He saw the lizard person cowering by a dead firepit. He saw an enourmous, comical hat on the ground beside the skree. 

​       He did not see Black. 

                                                                                        *      *     *

       Black stood over the corpse of the horse-man, long, lank hair shielding his face as he looked down.

      "That was anticlimactic," he said, sheathing bright blue daggers in his voluminous sleeves. They were a darker blue than his robes, and deeper. Tiddles had not seen the blades being drawn, he had only seen the centaur falling after the spine of its horse body had been severed. Then the second dagger had disappeared into the base of the back of the horse-man's skull.

       Black was searching the body. A couple of pouches at the creatures belt. Some herbs, some dried meat, nothing of any value. He took the twinned daggers the creature had carried and tossed them at the feet of the skree. Tiddles had already wet himself, so at least this didn't cause him to do so again.

       "Take those," the scary man said. "You might need them someday."

       Then he put his hat back on.

       Tiddles dithered over picking up the blades. To him they were not daggers, but short swords. "What am I supposed to do with them?" he asked.

       "Wear them. It will make you seem taller."

       Tiddles strapped them on. He noted the markings down the sheathes were in a language he did not comprehend. Centaur runes, he supposed. He had read that centaurs were rare before the War of the Nine. They had been servants of the Exalted Elali. After the war, who knew? Elali was one of the gods that had not tried to fight. He had retreated from the wizard's hero, and they had not pursued him. Tiddles knew nothing else about the creature that had attacked them. At least it had seemed like it was trying to attack them. Black had killed it so quickly that it was hard to be sure. Maybe it had just been running from something.

       "Was it after you?" Tiddles asked the face in shadow.

       "No, but it looks like there's good meat on the horse half."

       Tiddles snout twitched, and his forked tongue flicked out, a habit he had thought he was rid of. It did look like good meat.

       "Why did you kill him, if he wasn't after you?"

       "He was after someone," Black said. "Now he isn't. Pity these things don't carry money." He took out his skinning knife. They got their camp settled, and once he was done with it, Black dragged the corpse into the grass. They roasted centaur over the fire, and Tiddles worked his wards into the earth in concentric rings of power. This was for practice. Animals, fierce or not, didn't come near his companion. It made him feel more useful to try even if it was unnecessary. Tiddles wondered what his tablet daemon would have had to say about all this. He had certainly warned him about coming into contact with this character. He was afraid to reveal that the tablet was in his possession, that it would be taken from him. But he couldn't get away from Black long enough to activate it. The man watched him always.

       The following day, they reached the end of the plains. 

                                                                                        *      *     *

      Shiro watched them return from Limina, the two young people alone. He himself had not gone into the city. The cities of the Fuketsu Nano, the filthy ones, held no interest for him. They were disorganized and loud and above all soiled. Men threw their garbage in the streets and took less care of their bodily excretions than animals of the wood. The boy and girl that the barbarian had taken under his considerable wing were coming from the West Gate. Something had happened in the city.

      Shiro was invisible in the rocks and scrub, six or seven runs from their camp. His chakras were shut. Even the slightest drawing of power could be enough to be sensed by the one called Bawn. Shiro had no idea how sensitive the man was to stirrings in the Mondial, or if he was sensitive at all. He would take no chances. With Kuro dead, the mission could afford nothing but the utmost caution. Not for the first time Shiro wondered why the emperor had not sent with him another white instead of a black, an equal instead of an apprentive. The emperor's wisdom is infinite, he reminded himself. The emperor would send no more and no less than was needed. Shiro would not fail.

       Already, he was formulating a plan.

      They had camped in the nadir of a dale, its steep sides providing little cover for any approach, open on two sides, so they could not be boxed in. They lit their fires only at night, when the sunflower had gone, and the moon reigned over the blooming stars. Who were they hiding from?

      Shiro slipped over the ridge, flowing down the scree. He used none of his hard won power to blur his form and blend his color with that of the earth over which he passed. He could not afford to tap the energy of his spirit. In this case, the skill of a Bloodhunter of the highest rank, one of only three who wore the white, was enough. Shiro had an intuitive understanding of where they would not look, and he was there.

      He was close enough to hear their voices.

      "Where do you think we'll go now?"

      "He hasn't told me. Somewhere in Petronia, I think." The girl was looking worriedly toward Limina, her back to Shiro.

      "Do you think he'll be okay?"

      "I'd be more worried about Limina," the boy said, and actually looked directly at Shiro as his eyes wandered over the dale. And yet he saw nothing.

      Shiro drew so close that he could have pounced. Then he sensed a shift in the Mondial, the approach of a titan compressed into the shape of a man. Bawn was coming.

      Shiro withdrew.

     His plan could wait until another day, when everything was perfect.

© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl