I am nearly finished editing Dragon Star sequel (The Lost Temple). I hope to have it out by the end of the year. I should blog more, but I don’t see that happening soon. In the meantime I thought I’d post chapter 4 of The Lost Temple.
THE PHILOSOPHER — KADMALLIN
BIRD CALLS and the endless rhythmic crash of ocean surf against rocks filled the air along the desolate stretch of coast at the south side of the small pilgrim town. Kadmallin stood watching the waves, gnawing on a piece of dried fish. While not the best-tasting meal, it filled his stomach. Beside him, Sketkee sat writing notes in a leather-bound journal, frequently dipping her quill into a bottle of ink balanced on a nearby rock. Behind them lay their tent, far enough from the water to keep it dry, and farther still from the edge of the pilgrim town to keep them safe. While the pilgrims had offered them space in an overcrowded barn, only recently patched to habitability, as usual, they preferred to keep a distance from the humans. Close enough to seem part of the town’s congregation, but far enough to ease curiosity and concern over Sketkee’s rakthor nature.
“I am going to head over to the docks.” Kadmallin had spent the better part of each day since their arrival, a week ago, working at the docks to help prepare the ships for their voyage. All the pilgrims contributed some manner of labor to the effort of reaching the Forbidden Realm. Even Sketkee helped in her own way. Unable to walk freely in the town without attracting unwanted attention, she volunteered to guard the edges of the pilgrim settlement each night. While nothing had occurred since they arrived, apparently, the local Kam-Djen fanatics from Tanjii had attacked the town on more than one occasion in the past.
“I will await your return.” Sketkee continued scratching her marks in the journal. “Tomorrow, you should remain here to guard the tent. It will have been three days since I examined the artifact, and I wish to note any changes.”
“The ships plan to sail tomorrow, so that will be fine.” Kadmallin watched her writing and envied her ability to wait patiently. He hated guarding the tent and their possessions while she took a day to journey into the city of Tanjii. He had no notes to keep him occupied, and he remembered the words of the one book he possessed by heart. It left his mind with too many hours to consider their situation.
They had convinced Viktik that it benefitted them for Kadmallin and Sketkee to live near the pilgrim town and become part of the community there. They needed to be seen as true pilgrims to have any hope of being assigned a place on one of the ships. Sketkee assured Viktik she would not flee, as he retained control of the artifact in the rakthorian ambassadorial house at the center of Tanjii. The trip to the city from the pilgrim town took less than an hour by boat down the coast or two hours by foot along an old, rocky road. Sketkee tried to make the journey every few days to examine the device and ensure that Viktik did not change his mind about accompanying them to the Forbidden Realm.
Kadmallin, at first, hoped to bribe one of the five captains of the ships to give them a berth, but this proved impossible. The vessels held no spare space, and the captains found their faith in their goddess more rewarding than coin. Had they arrived a month earlier, there might have been a chance, but too many pilgrims now crowded the once abandoned houses, barns, huts, and even old sheds of the town.
“Do you wish me to bring anything back with me when I return?” Kadmallin chewed the last of the dried fish and reached inside the tent for the water skin to wash it down.
Sketkee looked up from her writing. She blinked at the brightness of the sun.
“Any new thoughts?” Kadmallin pointed to the journal in her hands.
“None.” Sketkee turned back to her task, applying the inked iron quill to paper. “Merely cataloging what we know by areas of interest rather than chronological order of discovery in hopes it will lead to a new understanding of the device’s nature and purpose.”
“Well, good luck with it,” Kadmallin said.
“It is a matter of categorization, not chance.” Sketkee continued to write.
Kadmallin smiled. He knew better than to press further with such a conversation.
“I’ll be back before sundown,” he said as he walked away. Sketkee said nothing, and he expected no reply.
He climbed up a small wooded embankment to the coastal road into town. While not dense, the woods shielded their campsite from the lane and curious eyes. As he walked along the hundred paces to the edge of the town, he thought about the journey ahead of them. Convincing Viktik to pursue the mystery of the ancient device to the Forbidden Realm counted as an accomplishment, even if Sketkee did not control the device directly. They still hoped for some opportunity to regain possession of the artifact from Viktik, but no circumstance with any likelihood of success presented itself. They talked each night about possible plans to steal the artifact, but without passage on a pilgrim ship, even a successful theft left them with little gained. Viktik would simply track them to recover the device once more. And getting aboard a pilgrim ship seemed likely to take months. While five ships prepared to sail the next day, hoping to slip past the blockade of allied realms around the harbor, no more vessels stood ready to follow them. The only hope lay in waiting for ships to return from the Forbidden Realm. He did not look forward to that wait. Sketkee’s restless mind, even more so than his own, eventually needed something active to focus on.
Possibly, they could use a rakthor embassy ship to get past the blockade. He made a note to mention the notion to Sketkee that evening. He did not fully understand the rationale for a military cordon. It seemed an act more likely to provoke a war than to receive retribution for a claimed grievance. He gave no credence to the explanation than a pilgrim ship attacked and sank a vessel carrying high-ranking representatives of all four foreign realms. Firstly, why would rakthor, wyrin, yutan, and roagg ambassadors be on the same ship? And how might an unarmed pilgrim vessel sink it? The whole tale sounded concocted as a ruse to stop the pilgrims from leaving the Iron Realm, but for what reason, he could not fathom. What did it matter to the peoples of the other realms if a few thousand humans tried to sail to the Forbidden Realm? Their success posed no threat, and failure only highlighted the sanctity of The Pact — the ancient urris edict that forbade war between the realms and especially proscribed travel to the Forbidden Realm.
Kadmallin nodded hello to a family of pilgrims leaving their small, allotted home as he reached the edge of the town. He marveled at the level of organization of the settlement. A great deal of thought and planning went into the structure of the small society by the ocean. People were assigned to various roles, from baking bread to harvesting vegetables from nearby garden plots, to restoring buildings for habitation or repairing and stocking the ships at the newly reconstructed docks. And all of it accomplished without the exchange of currency. With nearly every need provided by their fellow pilgrims in return for their own participation, each person had few desires not met by the labor of the town. It worked as a system for a small town of people all dedicated to the same common goal, a goal held close in sight, but he wondered if such an arrangement could ever work elsewhere. Possibly in the rakthor realm, but his experience of human nature and its history led him to believe it would be difficult to achieve anywhere else in the Iron Realm.
As he came to the docks and neared the ship he’d been helping to ready for its voyage the last two weeks, something caught his eye, something that did not belong in the pilgrim town. A man stood atop the roof of a building across from the shipyard, a bow held in his hands, an arrow pulled tight to his cheek. At first, Kadmallin thought the man must be aiming at a bird near the ships, intending to down a fowl for dinner. But as he traced the line of sight from the man’s arrow tip, he saw several people standing on the aftcastle of the ship. He recognized one of them as Captain Faragg, the ship’s captain that he had tried unsuccessfully to bribe. Before the captain stood two women, one short and a taller one armed with a sword. A small girl, and one of the largest men he had ever seen stood there as well. As meaning burst upon his mind, he called out.
“Look out!” Kadmallin shouted at the people on the high deck of the ship, pointing with one arm toward the man with the bow on the nearby rooftop. As he turned to the man with the bow, he saw that it no longer held an arrow. He snapped his head back just in time to see the little girl fall, a wooden shaft embedded in her chest.
He had assumed the man with the arrow aimed for the captain or one of the adults. Who would shoot a child and for what reason? Maybe the shot flew astray. As he looked back to the rooftop, the man with the bow glanced at him and then ran, leaping down to a lower roof and then jumping to the ground.
Kadmallin did not hesitate, ignoring concerns and questions about who would want to kill a little girl. His boots hammered against the old boards along the docks as he raced to follow the man from the rooftop. He lost sight of the man behind a building, but soon stood where the archer had jumped down to the lower roof. Where did he run? Back into the heart of town to blend in with the thin crowds? The town did not hold enough people to hide effectively. The hills, then. Kadmallin gripped the hilt of the dagger at his belt and ran along the alley where the man had fled. He wished he had his sword with him, but carrying weapons in the pilgrim town only made people nervous. He pulled the dagger out as he ran, not knowing when he might catch the man, but certain he would need the blade handy when he did.
He ran from the cramped alley and into a narrow street. Looking both ways, he saw the back of the man’s brown shirt slide behind the corner of a decrepit house. Kadmallin dashed after him, skidding as he came around the corner of the building, a whistling sound filling his ears as wind brushed his face and a sharp pain stabbed at his chest. He looked down, his shirt sliced in a line, blood welling from the thin cut along his chest muscles. He looked up. The man he chased glared at him, the empty bow held high. Had Kadmallin not turned his body as he rounded the corner, the arrow would have gone clean through his heart. No doubt remained. The man’s archery could not be questioned. His first arrow had meant to kill the girl. Kadmallin wondered briefly if the girl would die and why. Vowing to find the answer to the second question, he launched himself down the street at the man.
His quarry ran behind another house and Kadmallin chased him, rounding the corner of the building more cautiously this time. He did not spot the man, but he noted a fence in a nearby yard bent where someone might have leapt over it. Trees of pine and spruce rose behind the boundary. He jumped over it and walked into the woods, moving as fast as he dared. His years of tracking wild game for dinner in his childhood in Punderra came back to him. He noted where the man went, branches bent, weeds crushed, stones overturned. The man moved fast and with little care for concealing his trail. Kadmallin ran through the trees, crouched low, as much to better his view of the trail as to make himself a smaller target should the man again choose to try and skewer him with an arrow.
He followed the traces of the man but found no sight of him. After a few minutes, the woods thinned. He glimpsed a rocky plateau through the needled branches of the trees. At the border of the woods, he finally spotted the man, standing at the edge of a cliff, open air behind him, the bow raised once more to his cheek. Kadmallin instinctively moved behind a tree but only realized the man did not aim at him until the arrow flew from the string. He turned and saw the taller woman with the sword from the ship as she dodged sideways to avoid the projectile. She stood straight again, sword raised, and ran for the man. The man threw the bow down, shrugged the quiver off his back, turned, and leapt into the air.
Kadmallin ran for the lip of the cliff, reaching it only moments after the tall woman in the long coat. He looked over the cliff edge, waves slamming into the rocks a hundred paces below. Water churned and foamed near the jagged stone outcroppings, but he saw no sign of the man.
He panted with the exhaustion of the chase as he turned to the woman. He noted that she held the sword with familiarity and ease. His own dagger blade felt small and pointless. He slipped it into the sheath at his belt as the woman turned and appraised him, lowering her sword blade to point at the ground. He found himself uneasy under her stare, his heart still beating strong, his breath quick. The woman did not look winded. Something in her stern, dark features and the intensity of her gaze spoke of a power not entirely evident in her tall frame. It made his stomach tighten to realize that he never wished to face the woman in combat.
“Why did you chase that man?” The woman swiftly re-sheathed her sword.
“He shot a girl with an arrow.” Kadmallin didn’t think more explanation necessary, largely because that comprised the extent of his motivation in running down the man.
The woman nodded at this.
“Is she alive?” Kadmallin could not help but ask.
“I do not know,” the woman replied. “I go now to find out.” Without another word, the woman turned and ran back into the woods.
Kadmallin looked after her for a moment, then again over the edge of the cliff to the swirling waters below. He did not know what story he’d briefly crossed into but found himself glad to be walking away from it. His own story with Sketkee provided more than enough mystery and danger. He did not need to unnecessarily seek more of either. He wondered what Sketkee would make of the events when he told her of them that evening. He also wondered what her response would have been to seeing an unknown girl struck with an arrow. He knew that while her motivations might have been different, her actions would have been similar. He wondered as well if he would ever know what happened to the wounded girl.