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 Sixteen

       Limina was not a place of legends. It was not littered with ancient megaliths, or faces sanded out of rock by time. There were no grand cathedrals here, because it had not become a city until after the fall of Ashtar, and the people here worshiped a hodgepodge medley of gods that brooked no ostentation. It was the closest thing to a cosmopolitan bastion on the western continent. There was remarkably little cultural distinction between the people of the Three Kingdoms and those of the Keepholds, but there was some. Here, those people met. More striking to the natives was the occasional troupe out of the Boundless Plains, usually in the company of a professional interpreter, who helped the dark-skinned foreigners to navigate the markets. The Tang people were viewed with a mixture of amusement and contempt, as one would treat an indentured who tried to be more than he was. Of course, indenture was outlawed in Petronica, but they had serfs there, and that's much the same thing.

       Shops and inns friendly to the plainspeople hung strings of feathers beside their signs.

       Aric and Kerrigan had gone in ahead of Bawn to find him a cloak. The shopkeeper at first had not understood.

      "Your sister is a pretty girl. She must not dress this way. Here, I have the perfect cloak for you." He held up a fine red example that had been badly cut, the edges were ragged, and it looked second hand. "Three silver bases. A bargain, yes?"

      "No," Aric said. "And no. We're not buying it for her. We have another friend. He is this tall," Aric waved his hand about a foot higher than his own head, "and so wide."  He made another gesture.

       The stallkeeper, a small man with shadowed feature and a billowing blouse, looked unconvinced. "You want a cloak for a bull? Where is this friend of yours? I see no one."

       "Just show me a cloak that will cover him."

       The merchant clicked his disapproval, muttering to himself as he went rooting under his stall. A minute passed, and then, "Here!" He reappeared holding a massive hooded blanket of grey wool.

       "Two silver," he said. "A bargain, eh?" The little man was astounded when the young traveler handed over the silver without another word. The girl in boy's clothing took the ratty, moth-bit cloak and strode away toward the western gate. The merchant shook his head sadly. What world was it where young people did not even know how to haggle? And what strange young people, certainly hiding from someone, the way they glanced all about them all the time, and came hunting for a disguise. The cloak had not been worth even one silver. The poor fools would be eaten alive.

       Outside the city, Bawn watched the sun. he had told the children that they had the length of one turn before he would come in after them. Nobody wanted that.

                                                                                        *      *     *

       Slime was looking for people who didn't belong; rural people, foreign people, naive people, preferably all of the above. It was his daily stalk, picking the weakest flavors out of the stew; the ones that didn't know how to get help, or who couldn't afford to. The West Gate belonged to him, at least for today, as favor came and went within the Hanse. He would make good of his opportunity while he could.

       The Hanse took twenty percent of whatever he earned, but they also gave him a place to stay. Besides, there was no way for them to know exactly how much he stole.

       He crouched beside a midden heap in a narrow alley between two long brick tenements. No one ever looked too closely at the heaps. Proximity had its downside, though, and his name was one of them. Slime spotted his mark. 

       A pretty boy and a girl dressed like a boy were pointing out delicacies to each other over a sweetmeats cart. Slime scratched at a hook nose that had developed a rash. He decided the trousers gave a nice shape to the girl's rear.

      He slunk out of the shadows and into the market crowd. Some wrinkled their noses at his passing, but truly, the odor wasn't far worse than the fishmongers who brought their wares down from the lakes. Slime slipped among them across the busy, dust filled street.

        "Hey. Hey. Hey," Slime said, sidling close to the girl. They turned to look at him, holding pies. When their eyes alighted on him, happiness slid from them as grime slides from the bricks in the rain. 

       "You are new to Limina, yes? I will show you everything, very cheap. Three coppers and I take you all the way to the East Gate. What do you say, eh?" He smiled at them broadly enough to reveal his full complement of blackened and shattered teeth. Before he had become a member of the Hanse, he had taken a severe beating at the hands of a pair of guards. Leaving him for dead had been simpler than holding him for judgement. Naturally, being a sign carrying member of the Hanse wouldn't protect him from overzealous enforcers of personal security, but it gave him friends, and a place to lick his wounds.

       "We don't need a guide," the pretty boy said. "Be on your way."

       Such arrogance! Who was he, a prince? To speak to Slime that way. The oleaginous thief swayed ever closer, then back, scratching at the rash on his tremendous nose, and giving full show of his denticular ruin. 

       "Of course, sir, lady, I did not mean to offend." He was bowing away backwards, his right hand moving to deposit the coins he had cut from the girls lovely hips in one of his many hiden pockets.

       Something huge caught his wrist, and he whimpered as the thin bones there snapped. The coins bounced on the dust, and Slime went to his knees before some gargantuan creature in a musty, edgeworn cloak. He whimpered again.

       "Bawn! What are you doing!" The girl exclaimed, her eyes enormous green and white. "Don't hurt anyone!"

       "He is a thief," the cloaked man said. "Check your purse, Kerrigan."

       Kerrigan gasped when she found the cut. She hadn't felt a thing. But people were beginning to pay attention.  Eyes focused in the crowd around them, and she quickly recovered. "Let him go anyway. It was just a few bases."

       "I give back," Slime moaned, scrambling in the dirt. I give back!" He presented a fistful of copper to the giant called Bawn, his other hand held protectively at his chest, the wrist screaming agony in his head.

       "No," the girl said. "You keep it. Just get out of here."

       "Yes, thank you, mistress. Slime thanks you." Haughty bitch. Alms to the poor, is it? But only after you break my hand, take away my livelihood, and all for a handful of copper! "Mistress is so generous." He sidled like a crab, moving around the terrifying man in the ratty cloak.

       "There's going to be a problem," the pretty boy said.  Indeed, a face Slime new well was shoving and shouting its way to them. Gameson, one of the market guards, had already spotted him, and there was a familiar glint in his deceptively pleasant eyes. 

       "Stop! Don't take another step, Slime." Headless gods, the thief thought, why can you not let me be?

       "I'm not surprised," the guard said. "Not at all." He was clean shaven, as was custom, and burly. He had many years of experience and absolute authority behind him, plus the petty malice of the street thug he had once been.

       He kicked Slime in the ribs by way of greeting, and the cursed coins went soaring yet again. This was not his best day. 

       "What's that, Slime? More ill gotten goods?" Gameson grinned incongruously. He looked up sharply when Kerrigan cried out. "Don't hurt him!"

       "What's that, girl? Who are you, anyway? A fellow thief? Is this a setup between the two of you?"

       "Don't be ridiculous," the pretty boy said. "She's the one who was robbed." 

       "Then she better stand back and be grateful for the swift justice of Limina law. And you, what's your part in this?" He rounded on the hooded, hulking figure. "Speak up or be on your way."

       Bawn said nothing, and Gameson, staring up at him, was leaning imperceptibly backwards, as if he was resisting the slow building press of a great weight.

       "He's ours," the boy said. "He's our bodyguard."

       "Eh?" The city man said. "You a merchant's brat, then?" He was plainly wondering whether he should stop bothering giving them any respect.

       "Hey!" He kicked out savagely at Slime, who had begun to crawl away, but was now on his belly again, where he belonged. Kerrigan started forward, but Aric moved in front of her.

       "There was no harm done. You can let him go."

       Slime whined as he was struck again.

       "No," Gameson snarled. "This is my jurisdiction. I'd appreciate it if all three of you moved...it...along."

He punctuated his words with further blows. 

       There was a thump as Bawn tapped Gameson on the chest with a lazy backhand that him sent head over heels, tumbling backwards. Men and women scattered from the path of the guard's flight, shouting with surprise and then clamming up, not wanting to draw attention to themselves and thereby be drawn in. Gameson clambered to his feet, shaking his head to clear it. He was not a small man, and very unused to being thrown around so offhandedly.

       "What the fuck was that!" He shouted, drawing his scimitar. "You're all under arrest!"

       Aric revealed his straightsword, leveling it at the guard. With his other hand he showed the wooden card that marked him as a member of the Hero's guild.

       "I apologize, sir. This is a misunderstanding. We'll just be leaving then." His voice was firm, but slightly high, and notably young. 

       "You probably bought that badge down Hel street," Gameson said, advancing. "I'll run you through for impersonating a member of the Hero's guild."

       He slashed at Bawn first, who simply backed a step out of range, and then he attacked Aric. The would be hero had indeed been practicing, but Gameson was an old hand, and stronger as well.

       Aric nearly lost his arm to the first swing. Recovering, he barely blocked the backblow. His fingers stung to numbness, and his forearm felt strained. He dropped his Hero's card in his haste to strengthen his grip on his weapon, taking the hilt in both hands.

       Bawn crossed his arms over his chest and watched, face conspicuously hidden by the hood of the cloak. Kerrigan's hands went to her own blades, only to find they were not there. She had decided not to carry the weapons into the city. They were finely made, and would have garnered too many stares being on a girl's hips. Now, she froze, feeling like a fool, as Aric was put back on his heels.

       Gameson wielded his scimitar with one meaty hand, toying with the dandy who had drawn on him. What could this boy have been thinking? Wanted to impress the girl, most like, and it would get him killed. She was a pretty thing, though slimmer than he liked. Gameson would have gladly tied her to a post and...

       As if he heard the man's thoughts, Aric went on a furious offensive. His form was terrible, and he wasn't powerful enough to overbear the guard, but he was quick. Right, left, thrust. Gameson parried the first two easily, and nearly took the third in his gut. At the last moment he pushed his opponent's straight blade aside, leaving half the youth's body open to attack. Gameson's scimitar slid down to the boys crossguard, he was ready to turn it up and take him in the throat. The boy had nearly been lucky enough to skewer him. It was time to end this.

       Gameson's world went abruptly black.

       No one could say they had seen the big man move. His hood had fallen back, revealing a perfectly round, perfectly smooth and bronze skull. There was a broad, handsome, stolid face with eyes like two copper bases set upon the whites. He had hit the market guard from behind and stood over his prone form, facing Aric.

       The young man sheathed his sword. Kerrigan's hands were over her mouth, her green gaze wide and white rimmed. A panicked scream had lodged in her throat. She had almost believed that Bawn was going to allow her friend to die.

       "We must go," the barbarian said. The people nearest them in the market were disappearing. Slime took the opportunity to crawl around the nearest stall, moving instinctively and unerringly toward an alley behind it.

       The three companions angled for the gate from which entered Limina. It was only a few hundred paces away. Bawn could see it over the heads of the crowd. He could also see the knot of patrolmen at the edge of the market, and the people pointing as well.

       Bawn stopped, and his two charges slowed.

       "Go," he commanded them. "I will meet you at the camp."

       Kerrigan hesitated, but Aric seized her forearm and pulled her from behind. They would blend in easily enough. The patrolmen were already moving in.

       "This is why I hate cities," Bawn muttered. He took a quick step to the side, picked up the nearest marketgoer and threw him overhand into the oncoming problem.

                                                                                        *      *     *

       Aric pulled Kerrigan into the crowd. No one was watching them. Everyone with eyes had focused on the cloaked giant who had apparently decided to take up juggling. He wasn't very good at it. People kept hitting the ground.
      "This is our chance," he shot at her.
      "What do you mean?" She was looking over her shoulder, as absorbed by the spectacle as anyone else in the melay.
       "He could track us over open ground, but he could never find us if we slipped away now. He hates the city, and there are too many people."
      Kerrigan's head snapped around. "I told you," she said furiously, "I'm  not leaving him."
     They had reached an opening in the crowd and no longer had to fight through a press. They could see the way straight down to the open city gate, a square cut out of the thickly bricked wall. Another group of guards was hustling in their direction from the gatehouse, but Aric didn't have any mind for them.
      "What about your mother? What about the estates? What's going to happen to your whole life because your're out having an adventure?" They both stopped. "Why do you care!" Kerrigan tore her arm out of his grasp. "She's the one who said we couldn't be together!"
      "I want you to be safe," Aric said, thinking, 'Wait. Does she mean we're together?'
      "You want me to marry some fat bastard out of the Dog's kennels!"
      Aric didn't know what to say to that.
      "That's who she was going to give me to!" Kerrigan screamed. "One of Lord Dog's two dozen sons! She'd have given me to all of them at once if it meant she got to keep her indentures and her pretty things." Then Kerrigan began to cry, and allowed Aric to press her head against his chest. He smelled like rust and sweat. It was the hand-me-down armor that did it, but she didn't mind. Such was the scale of Bawn's distraction that they may as well have occupied a private room instead of a busy main street. The men from the gatehouse rushed by, waving halbreds and shouting for them to get out of the damned way.
      "I'm sorry," Aric said, and wisely left it at that.
      "If I go back," Kerrigan said, "I don't know what I'll find. Maybe we've already lost everything. The indentured that were escorting us said it was too late. They said people were going to seize my father's estates. It could have already happened."
      "And if it hasn't?"
       "I'm where I was. I marry some disgusting Dogson and they take control of everything anyway. Mother thought she could handle any man, but the truth is that my father was just too nice to treat her like another would have."
       "I'm sorry," Aric said again.
       Kerrigan pushed away. "We need to go to the camp."
      Their eyes met.

                                                                                        *      *     *

      Bawn was becoming bored with the guards. He snapped their weapons and batted people aside. The marketgoers had all retreated well out of his reach now. They were quick learners. Many had squeezed into the alleys, once the shops were full, because at that distance curiousity outweighed terror.
       A halbred was thrust at his face, he snapped it off the staff. The blade clattered on top of the others collecting around his feet. He was making an effort to be non-lethal. That was the only reason they were still trying to attack him instead of fleeing for their lives.
      A few arrows whistled through the air only to veer around him. Bawn's eyes glazed as he utilized another sort of sight. He saw Kerrigan, a blaze before his eyes, walking under the West Gate. Aric was beside her, an unusually powerful spark himself, and yet nothing compared to Kerrigan's shine. He thought this must be why the boy was so drawn to her. She called to him unwittingly.
      The giant came back to himself. People were still trying to stab him. He turned his back, and began walking steadily toward the East Gate, no longer bothering to acknowledge the guardsmen. He felt a few pricks, nothing he considered a wound, and once it was obvious that he was leaving Limina they mostly stopped trying. 
       "Should we shut the gate?" someone asked the captain.


      © Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl