As I know I should post something but don’t really have time to write an origibal post, below is Chapter Two of The Lost Temple (the sequel to The Dragon Star). Please note, this has not been fully proofed, so please forgive the inevitable typos. They’ll be gone by the time it’s published.
THE FUGITIVES — SHA-KUTAN
STALE SWEAT and animal dung, dead fish and sour incense, hot meat pies and pungent wood oil. These and dozens of other smells jostled for dominance in the narrow streets beside the water. A faint breeze only helped to more thoroughly mingle the scents in the air along the docks of Tashi Gano, the pilgrim town up the coast from the city of Tanjii. Five ships sat nearly ready at those docks, the last supplies carried by workers up slender gangplanks to the waiting vessels.
Sha-Kutan wrinkled his nose as he walked through the crowded wharf-side street. Sao-Tauna’s legs clung to his shoulders, her hands gripping tight to his wide neck. The girl insisted on riding in this manner whenever they walked for long periods of time or when she wished to see over the heads of a crowd. Her high perch afford her the best view. Not that she commented on what she saw as most children would. Her only communication came at the times when she decided to get down, gently tapping the side of his head as though giving manual instruction to a simple beast of burden. Sha-Kutan took no offense from the gesture. Sao-Tauna meant no insult by anything she did.
He glanced over to where Lee-Nin walked beside him. She looked back, the expression on her face unreadable. He often did not know if she felt amused or annoyed or something in between when looking at him. At least she did not express fear. He usually relied on her scent to tell him her state of mind, but interference of the aromas near the docks rendered that impossible. His feelings in reaction to her regularly proved more difficult to untangle. What were those feelings? Their unfamiliarity and their frequent intensity left him routinely disturbed by their source and nature.
We could mention it to Ogtankaa.
We could mention it to Lee-Nin
Ogtankaa walked behind them. A part of them, yet apart from them. He did not need to see or smell her to know where she was nor the mood of her minds. At this distance he sensed her feelings as easily as he felt his own skin, and she the same for him.
“What do you think he wants?” Lee-Nin did not look back up to Sha-Kutan. She often complained of needed to crane her neck when speaking to him because of his height. Too often. Instead she stared ahead to the back of the teenage boy who led them through the streets.
“I am sure he will tell us.” Sha-Kutan did not understand why the captain of one of the five pilgrim vessels preparing for departure wanted to see them. He wondered at the mystery himself. How had the man even known they were in the town? They arrived only three mornings prior.
“You could speculate.” Lee-Nin looked askance at him. Long enough to make it evident that her mood tended toward annoyance rather than amusement.
“I will allow you to speculate.” Sha-Kutan turned sideways to dodge running in to an overly large woman with a basket of bright orange squashes balanced upon her head. He turned back to find Lee-Lin glaring at him briefly before herself needing to sidestep a pedestrian encumbered with produce.
“There is no need to speculate.” Ogtankaa stepped close to their heals to avoid the need to shout in the crowed street. “He wants something.”
“How can you know?” Lee-Nin looked back to Ogtankaa.
“Unfamiliar men never ask for mysterious meetings unless they want something.” Ogtankaa sounded certain of herself.
Nee-Nin seemed to consider this a moment and then nodded silently in agreement. Sha-Kutan could not find fault with this thinking based on his experience. However, what the captain wanted was not as important a question as whether they would wish to provide it. This issue raised notions of how the coming meeting might play out and Sha-Kutan adjusted the strap of the sack over his left shoulder and across his back. The sack held their limited possessions, but most importantly it contained his sword. A large sword drew too many worried looks and gathered too much unwanted attention, so he kept it in the sack and kept the sack on his shoulder. Ogtankaa did not hide her sword. However, the blade at her waist, her own surprising height for a woman, the long coat flaring out below her knees, and the stern features of her face left most passersby feeling imposed upon regardless of their sex or their size. Were it not for the little girl roosting upon Sha-Kutan’s shoulders they would have appeared to be two formidable guards for the small woman they walked beside. He ruminated briefly on the knowledge that Sao-Tauna presented far more danger to anyone they encountered than he and Ogtankaa, either alone or together.
It is a shame the man who hunts us knows to fear the girl.
It is a shame we do not have time to hunt him.
“This way.” The boy they followed turned onto one of the newly rebuilt piers and headed toward the largest of the five pilgrim ships.
Sha-Kutan stared up at the three tall masts and the sails bound around their cross beams. He remembered the names of those parts of the ship. The yards. Foremast, mainmast, and mizzenmast. Oddly he could not quite discern which of the minds within his mind originally knew those words and why. Regardless, the ship gave the impression of swiftness and power and even a hint of grace. He wondered what it would be like to sail across the open waters upon such a vessel.
They trailed behind the boy as he led them up and across a gangplank crowded with sailors and pilgrims hauling crates, caskets, sacks, and baskets of supplies aboard the ship. He led them in a weaving pattern between the people hustling around the main deck, to the rear of the ship, and up a short ladder to a raised second deck with a tall rudder wheel.
At the stern.
Our minds are truly…
Beginning to merge.
Near the wheel rudder of the ship, leaning against a tall wooden railing, stood a man with a short-cropped beard and rich dark skin. Not a small man, he nonetheless looked surprised by the size of Sha-Kutan when he climbed up the steep stairs. Two other men, crew members by the look of their clothes and bare feet, cleaned the deck with mops.
Swab. Swab the decks.
What a strange word.
Through silent agreement, borne as much of natural inclinations as previous experience, Lee-Nin spoke for their small group.
“You asked to see us?” Lee-Nin stepped before Sha-Kutan as Ogtankaa joined him at his side.
“To see if you are real,” the man said in Pundareese tinted Shen. He walked forward and offered his hand to Lee-Nin. “I am Captain Faragg.”
“What do you want?” Lee-Nin clasped the captain’s hand only briefly. Sha-Kutan noted that she did not offer name.
“As I said, to see if you are real.” The captain looked toward Sao-Tauna atop Sha-Kutan’s shoulders with a smile. “And to see if she is real.”
The man’s mention of Sao-Tauna unsettled Sha-Kutan and visibly disturbed Lee-Nin and Ogtankaa. Lee-Nin stepped back, reaching up to take Sao-Tauna down from his shoulders as Ogtankaa brushed aside the long flap of her coat and placed her hand upon her waist near the hilt of her sword. Sha-Kutan made no motion for the sword in the sack on his back. No need to forewarn potential enemies of one’s armament. The two crew members stopped cleaning as they noticed the tension and motion of the strangers on deck. They stood holding their mops in one hand while gripping the work knives at their belts with the other.
“All is well.” Captain Faragg raised his hands in a supplicating fashion as he looked to his crewmen. “Leave us.” The captain gestured to the men and waited until they climbed down the stairs to the main deck before turning back to his guests. “My apologies if I upset you. I mean no harm. I saw you in the streets of the town this morning, but I have been dreaming of you for some time.”
“Dreaming?” Lee-Nin still looked wary of the captain and held Sao-Tauna at her side. The girl seemed unfazed by the captain or any of the events transpiring around her.
“Not recently, not since the Goddess’s dreams ended for everyone, but before that yes.” Captain Faragg looked from Lee-Nin to Sao-Tauna. “For weeks, I dreamed of you all. Seeing you walking with pilgrims on the old road or alone through fields. Sometimes it seemed you were being chased. But the dreams always centered on her, on the girl. I believe the Goddess sent me these dreams for a reason.”
“Why would you dream of us?” Lee-Nin sounded skeptical.
“I believe the Goddess wants me to take you to the Forbidden Realm.” Captain Faragg stared at Sao-Tauna. “To take her.”
“You are offering us passage?” Lee-Nin glanced to Sha-Kutan and Ogtankaa, her face confused.
Sha-Kutan understood her confusion. They had been discussing the problem of how to get to the Forbidden Realm since arriving in the pilgrim town and discovering that places on the five ships slated to depart were already claimed. They had assumed they would need to wait for weeks or months to gain passage to their destination. Time where they were easy targets for the man still hunting them.
“What do you want in return?” Sha-Kutan asked this question.
“Nothing.” The Captain shook his head, looking offended at the idea. “I am giving you passage on my ship to serve the Goddess. She gave me those dreams because you are important. Because the girl is important. I don’t even know your names.”
By his tone and his scent, Sha-Kutan judged the man to be honest. It seemed passage to the Forbidden Realm came more easily than expected.
“I am Lee-Nin. This massive lump of flesh is Sha-Kutan. The stern looking one is Ogtankaa. And this is Sao-Tauna.” Lee-Nin eased her hold on the girl.
Sao-Tauan said nothing, as usual, merely raising her small free hand in silent greeting. The Captain raised his hand in reply.
“You are all welcome to my ship.” Captain Faraag looked up from Sao-Tauna. “I will have my first mate find you good accommodations. Do you have any things you need to fetch.”
“We carry what we have.” Sha-Kutan shrugged his shoulder to indicate his bag.
“What about the blockade?” Ogtankaa looked out toward the bay beyond the town’s docks. Upon their arrival in the pilgrim town everyone they met told them about the blockade and speculated what it would mean and how the Goddess would break it.
Sha-Kutan did not entirely understand why the peoples of the other realms, acting as what they called The Alliance, enforced a blockade of ships departing the city, especially pilgrim ships. They claimed that an ambassadorial vessel carrying representatives of all four realms sank after an attack by a pilgrim ship. This seemed implausible to Sha-Kutan, and to everyone they spoke to in the town. But it did not matter. The blockade of twenty-some ships from the other realms worked in concert to prevent any vessels leaving the bay without being boarded and checked for pilgrims. He doubted the Tanjii elders would stand for such an imposition for long. He also doubted it would take much time before pilgrims began to depart from other ports around the realm.
“We’ll stick close to the coast and sail at night with no lights.” The captain stared out to the open water. “We should be able to get past their ships, and even if we encounter them, they can’t stop all of us. This ship…”
A man’s voice, shouting from a distance, turned Sha-Kutan’s attention from the captain’s speech and toward the docks of the small town. He spotted the man yelling man easily enough. The man pointed to the roof of a nearby building. Although he could not make out what the man said, a sense of danger pervaded the man’s tone. Sha-Kutan extended his preternatural senses as he turned away, sighting a second man standing atop the roof of a two story building holding an empty bow in one hand, his other hand still held at his cheek. He recognized the man instantly — the soldier who hunted them.
Sha-Kutan shoved Lee-Nin, knocking her into Sao-Tauna. He saw no flying arrow, but hoped to push the woman and girl out of the projectile’s path. Sao-Tauna’s cry of shock and pain told him of his failure even before he saw the wooden shaft sticking from her tiny breast. She collapsed to the deck, her eyes blinking in surprise and pain. Sha-Kutan knelt beside her and checked the entry of the arrow and examined the wound.
“Sao-Tauna.” Lee-Nin crouched at the girl’s side, holding her frail, trembling face.
“What is happening?” Captain Faragg looked around and then bent beside Sha-Kutan and Lee-Nin.
“It will be okay.” Lee-Nin stroked Sao-Tauan’s head as the girl panted and moaned. The arrow pierced her right lung, making it difficult for her to breathe. Judging from where the shaft lodged, the intended target had been her heart.
“Find him.” Sha- Kutan spoke to Ogtankaa, still standing above them. Her gaze followed the man on the roof as he ran away. He did not need to tell her to kill the man. She understood the anger in his voice.
We should have killed him…
Killing is never the right choice even when it is the only choice.
Ogtankaa looked to Sha-Kutan and nodded in reply before leaping down the stairs to the main deck. She would find the man. And she would end the threat he posed. How had the soldier managed to get so close to both he and Ogtankaa without being noticed? Had he learned to mask his presence somehow? Other questions demanded his attention more urgently.
“Can you save her?” Lee-Nin stared into Sha-Kutan’s eyes, her own brimming with tears.
“The arrow passed clean through.” Sha-Kutan examined where the arrow shaft exited the Sao-Tauna’s slender back. “We can cut the arrow and pull the shaft out, but her lungs will fill with blood. I do not know what to do to stop that.” Sha-Kutan had seen such wounds. They never ended with survival of the wounded. Already Sao-Tauna’s breath came in wheezes accompanied by an unsettling gurgling sound.
“We need a healer.” Captain Faragg stood. “I know a man on one of other the other ships.” He ran to the railing and shouted to one of his crewmen on the main deck.
Sao-Tauna coughed between small cries of pain, blood spewing from her delicate mouth to cover her dress.
For a moment, Sha-Kutan found himself incapable of moving, unable to think properly. She could not die. He looked from Sao-Tauna to Lee-Nin and back again, his heart burning with anger and anguish and recriminations. He had vowed to protect the girl and had failed.
She cannot die.
We must save her.
As she has saved us.