I’m posting a chapter from my latest fantasy novel for free every Monday and Friday (click Zervakan above for a synopsis and to start from the beginning). It’s in a “pre-published state,” meaning you might find the occasional spelling/grammar mistake. If you do, please leave a comment below or email me at robsteiner01 [at] gmail [dot] com.
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Thanks, and I hope you enjoy it!
by Rob Steiner
Taran felt more at home on a swaying ship than most of his companions. While he stood on the bow, watching the front of the ship rise and fall in the waves, many of the Speaker’s aids, and a few Shadarlak, leaned over the side of the ship emptying what was left of their breakfasts, lunches, and dinners into the Gulf of Pagilah. Even the Speaker looked ill, though he fought back his nausea stoically.
Taran shook his head. In a relatively land-locked country, where train travel was commonplace, travel by water had become the choice of foreigners and exporters. Taran had grown up sailing with his father and grandfather on Lake Maximohr, which could be just as violent and wild as the Gebremeden Sea or the open ocean.
The journey to Markwatch took little less than a day, compared to the three days it would have taken if the mission had traveled the dirt roads that snaked through the forests of Turicia. That country had not yet taken to the idea of modernity, much less trains, and it had taken lengthy negotiations to get them to accept a wiretype line through their country so the Compact could communicate with its embassy in the Turician capital Goray.
The town of Markwatch was one of the largest towns in Turicia, though it was slightly bigger than Kaneta and much older. Stone walls twelve feet high ringed the town’s northern boundary facing the forest, while Markwatch Keep, a large, multi-spired stone castle, sat atop a hill that dominated the center of town. Besides the tall lighthouse on a small island a mile offshore, the castle was the first thing Taran saw as the sloop approached.
The sloop crept into the town’s dock. The crew set the anchor and tied docking lines to rusted metal cleats on the stone pier, all with experienced proficiency. It was a little before midnight, so once again the Compact mission entered a town that slept.
From the railings of the sloop, Taran saw the Lord of Markwatch, Sirucz Ven Demeg, standing in front of three other bearded men who looked thin and haggard. Ven Demeg had the same black hair and dark beard as the King of Edellia, but Ven Demeg was just as thin as his advisors and did not have the smiling eyes that King Hamacz had. Speaker Edoss descended the gangway to the dock and made the customary bows to Lord Ven Demeg. They talked a few moments, and then Edoss said something to General Myndehr. Myndehr turned and issued orders to Captain Latish, who then bellowed out to his Shadarlak to begin unloading the ship.
The Edellian crewmen stood by as the Shadarlak unloaded their gear, not helping as they had in Sydear. Rumors of the incident at Kaneta had already spread among the crew, creating palpable tension between the Compact passengers and the Edellians. Though Taran loved to sail, he was quite happy to be off the Edellian ship before another incident exploded.
“Dr. Abraeu,” Edoss called from the dock, motioning him over to Lord Ven Demeg. Taran grabbed his large duffle sack, slung it over his shoulder, and walked down the gangway to the Speaker.
“Dr. Abraeu is the Compact’s only Mystic expert,” Edoss was saying to Ven Demeg. The Lord’s eyes were tired and vacant, his chin pointing more toward his chest rather than held high like King Hamacz. With the quiet, exhausted shuffling of the dockworkers nearby, Taran was getting an uneasy feeling about Markwatch.
Ven Demeg nodded his head, and said in a deep voice, “Welcome to Markwatch, Dr. Abraeu. I would be most interested to hear your opinions on the Blessed Ones and”—pointing to the sky—“Ahura and Angra.”
There was not a hint of an accent in Ven Demeg’s voice, which surprised Taran, since Turician and common Recindian were such different languages.
But Taran was more interested in Ven Demeg’s terms for the Mystics. To the Turicians, the Mystics were the avatars of Ahura and Angra. Most Turicians had a prophetic faith in the Mystics, that the Mystics would return when the world needed them most. Taran assumed the appearance of the rings would be a celebrated event in Turicia. But the hollow faces of Ven Demeg and his advisors, along with the dockworkers, told a different story.
“Thank you, my Lord. I would be most honored to discuss my theories with you. I was wondering why—”
“There will be time for talk at my dinner table tonight.” Ven Demeg turned to Edoss. “Excellency, these carriages will take you and your advisors to Markwatch Keep.”
Edoss bowed, then ordered General Myndehr to march the Shadarlak to the Keep. Ven Demeg held open the door to one of the carriages for Edoss, who climbed in, followed by Lee Cursh, two Shadarlak, and Taran. Ven Demeg climbed in last. General Myndehr chose to march with her men to the Keep. The carriage lurched forward as soon as Ven Demeg shut the door.
The town at the foot of Markwatch Keep was eerily quiet, even for midnight. In many sections, there were no souls on the streets, even outside taverns and inns. There were even sections where many of the homes and buildings had recently burned to the ground. Taran gave Ven Demeg a questioning look. The Lord of Markwatch stared back at Taran, his eyes in shadow.
“The night after Ahura and Angra returned,” he said in a quiet voice, “a terrible pestilence began in the surrounding farms, then spread to Markwatch. People vomited blood. Blood poured from their eyes, noses, ears. Oozing sores covered the infected. Our healers could not determine how the disease passed from person to person, for there were healers who cared for the sick from the beginning and never developed a single sore. But then a farmer on the outer fringes of my lands would develop the disease even though he had no contact with the infected. It killed over half the population of Markwatch within a week.”
Ven Demeg stared at the empty buildings. Taran thought Ven Demeg did not see empty buildings, but the corpses that must have once been piled high around them.
“And after a week, the dying stopped, just as suddenly as it began. Those who were sick recovered within a day.”
With fevered intensity, Ven Demeg declared, “It was Ahura who saved us from the Angra-spawned plague. We had not shown proper respect to the gods when they re-appeared, so the Blessed Ones allowed the Angra plague to punish us. Once we showed proper repentance, the plague stopped.”
Ven Demeg returned his gaze to the empty streets of Markwatch. Down one of the streets littered with razed buildings, Taran saw a figure sitting in front of a collapsed house, a lantern by its side. The figure rocked back and forth.
“What do you mean by ‘proper repentance?’” Taran asked.
Ven Demeg still gazed at the streets of Markwatch. “It was my responsibility to ensure my people were prepared for the return of Ahura and Angra. It was my responsibility to ensure they showed the proper reverence for the gods. It was my failure, not theirs. It was my duty to suffer, not them.”
When he turned back to the Compact men, his face was more sunken than it had been moments before.
“In days of old, it was the king’s family that paid for the king’s sins. So I put my entire family to the sword. Once I did, the dying stopped.”
“Now I understand why the Compact abandoned religion long ago,” Ladak said to Taran while washing his face and hands in the bowl of water Ven Demeg’s servants had set out for them.
The room on the third floor of the Keep was small, maybe five paces by ten paces, but felt like a ballroom compared to the cramped quarters of the bunk Taran had shared with Ladak on the train, and the even more cramped hold on the sloop. There were two small beds on either side of the room, both with well maintained quilts and blankets finely embroidered with silver swirls and whorls on dark green fields. Taran sat at a small desk next to the paned glass window thumbing through a treatise on Turician theology where it concerned the Mystics. Night had fallen, and Taran was barely able to make out the words from the small candle on the desk.
“That wasn’t religion,” Taran said, flipping through the pages of the book. “It was desperation and madness. There’s nothing in Turician theology that says a king or lord has to sacrifice his family to appease Ahura. There are legends that speak of Turician kings burning their families so the old gods—pre-Ahura—would grant them victory in battle. Even then there was nothing about killing the royal family to atone for a lack of faith.”
Toweling his hands and face, Ladak said, “Well, simply having dinner with the man was enough to make me want to run to the nearest Pathist Teacher. He actually believes that murdering his wife and three sons was what stopped the plague. What do you think? Was it natural or caused by harrowers?”
Taran shook his head, shutting the book and eying the bed through a stifled yawn. “We’ve seen that harrowers can control the weather and turn living creatures into monsters. Why not unleash a plague?”
Ladak climbed into the bed across the room from Taran, and said, “How do we fight an enemy who can strike us with plagues?”
Taran stared at the dark sky through the clouded window. “With the help of the Mystics.”
Only they can cure Mara of her own plague.
Ladak grunted. “I suppose we’ll see tomorrow, won’t we?”
“Yes,” Taran said.
He felt the familiar surge of excitement over meeting the Mystics, a feeling he welcomed over the constant terror and unease he had felt throughout the journey here. Tomorrow he would meet the Mystics. Tomorrow he would meet the people who would return his daughter to him.
That night Taran dreamed of fire and blood.
He stood before his house in Calaman. It was the only house still intact, for the surrounding block was a charred ruin. The stink of burnt flesh mingled with the rotting corpses festering in the ruined buildings and on the street. He ignored it all, and walked up the steps to the door to his home. He entered the house, saw Teacher Owhn Feshaye sitting on the couch consoling Adhera, who leaned against Owhn’s shoulder crying. She was naked.
Owhn looked up at Taran and said, “I’ll take care of her now, lad.” He gave Taran a leering smile, then lifted Adhera’s chin and kissed her deeply.
Taran turned away and climbed the stairs to Mara’s room. As he reached the top, he saw a shadow enter Mara’s room at the end of the hall, and then heard her cry.
“Papa!” she screamed.
Taran wanted to sprint forward, but as is typical in dreams, his feet would not move as fast as he wanted. He could only shuffle forward in small steps. He wanted to yell out to her, to let her know he was coming, but he could not open his mouth. All the while he heard her crying for him.
After an eternity, he reached the closed door to her room, then pushed it open. Mara lay on the bed on her back, her sleep clothes stained yellow from recent vomit. Blood seeped from her eyes, her ears, her nose. The shadow hovered above her, its black wispy, tendrils stabbing at Mara like spears. She looked at Taran, her long black hair wet with sweat. When she opened her mouth, a gout of blood spurted from her mouth and ran down over her chin.
“Help me,” she cried in a gurgling voice.
Taran could not move, but he found his voice. He screamed at the shadow, “Get away from her!”
The shadow continued stabbing at Mara, but a face formed in the chaotic swirling mass. It was not a face that Taran recognized, but it was distinct in its features. The nose was long and pointed, the eyes set far apart, and it wore a well-trimmed beard that was barely more than stubble. Though the face swirled in a black mist, Taran knew that its hair was reddish.
“You want me to stop?” the face asked in a harsh whisper, then laughed at Taran. “So stop me.”
Taran could not move or even speak. The shadow continued to stab at Mara, and her sudden screams of anguish and horror were like nothing he had ever heard come from a human throat.
Ladak woke him.
“Doctor?” he said, a hand on Taran’s shoulder. “We have a big day ahead of us.”
Taran looked up at Ladak through sleep covered eyes, confused for a moment. The dream was still vivid in his mind, and he wondered if Ladak was part of the dream. Ladak stared at him. “Are you well? You look pale.”
Taran swallowed a spitless swallow, his throat dry from the night’s sleep. He blinked his eyes again, then said, “I’m fine. Just didn’t sleep well.” Was this conversation a dream…?
Ladak nodded, then sat on his own bed to lace his shoes. “I can imagine. You’re about to meet the people for whom you’ve been searching for ten years. You must be quite excited.”
Taran slowly swung his legs out of bed and reached for his pants. “Yes. Excited.”
For the moment, his mind returned to the Mystics and how he was about to fulfill a quest that started when Mara was struck down with the Blood. But he could not help but feel that the dream had something to do with them, for he felt uneasy about meeting them now, whereas before last night, it was all joy. The dream felt more real to him than being awake in this small room in Markwatch Keep. What did the shadow mean when it said, “So stop me?” And whose face was in the shadow?
Taran gathered his gear and made his way down to the stables with Ladak. The Keep was ancient, old even before the Faith Wars. It had dark hallways made of granite where not even a candle burned. There were very few servants in the halls, but the ones he saw were subdued and walked about with lowered heads. The horror of the plague and Ven Demeg’s “cure” was bound to fill the residents of Markwatch with grief and despair. Taran wondered if this town would ever recover.
Taran and Ladak found the stables near the western gate of the Keep. Most of the Shadarlak were there organizing themselves into squads. There were maybe three dozen Shadarlak now, since the attacks during the journey had depleted them from the fifty that had started in Calaman. Taran didn’t think it could be possible, but the men who remained wore harder expressions and seemed more focused than when they had set out. They went about their preparations without a word.
Ladak went to see to his luggage, while Taran approached the Speaker as he talked to Ven Demeg.
“Once again I want to apologize, Excellency,” Ven Demeg said in the same deep, subdued voice he had last night. “The plague even struck our animals. Many of our horses succumbed to the Angra scourge.”
Edoss shook his head. “Please do not apologize for events that were beyond your control, Lord Ven Demeg.”
Taran winced, and saw Ven Demeg’s eyes flash briefly. Ven Demeg believed the plague was entirely his fault, and Taran knew that to say otherwise was to say that he killed his family for nothing. Edoss seemed to catch his error as soon as he said it, and he quickly added, “You are a wise ruler and you have done everything within your power to take care of your people.”
Ven Demeg’s face continued to twitch a few moments, and then he said, “Here are the guides who will take you to the border.”
He motioned to two men striding through the Keep’s open western gate. Both wore green cloaks with pins that were molded into the crossed-spears crest of Ven Demeg’s house. One man was in his middle years, with gray flecks in his reddish-brown hair, while the other was barely past twenty and looked remarkably like the older man. Taran instantly recognized them. Judging by the smiles they gave him, they also remembered him.
Ven Demeg said, “Ulrike Laneve and his son Alton. They own land near the Beldamark border, and they also guide Turician pilgrims to the Markers. They will take you along the swiftest route.”
Both of the guides bowed to Edoss. “My Lord,” they said with a heavy Turician accent.
Then to Taran, Ulrike said, “It is much good to see you again, Abraeu.”
“Happy to be back, Ulrike,” Taran said, clasping hands with the older guide. “I only hope this expedition goes better than my last two.”
“Ahura lights your way this time,” Ulrike said. “The Blessed Ones will invite you for sure.”
Edoss and Cursh gave Taran questioning looks, and Taran said, “Turicians believe that no one can enter the Beldamark without an invitation from the Mystics—er, Blessed Ones.”
Cursh asked the two Turicians, “Have you ever been into the Beldamark?”
Both looked at Cursh as if he had just asked if they had ever jumped off a mountain top. “No, sir,” Ulrike said. “The Blessed Ones not ever invited us.”
“How do you receive an invitation?”
The two guides looked uncomfortable, and glanced at Ven Demeg, who gave them a blank stare, then nodded. Taran remembered how guarded Turicians were about their religion. Speaking of Turician theology with outsiders was usually forbidden to common folk, requiring the permission of either a priest or a commoner’s lord.
Ulrike turned back to Cursh. “You die, sir. If you have lived virtuous life, then Blessed Ones take you to their realm where your spirit enjoy eternal life.”
General Myndehr approached as Ulrike talked of dying. “We have an invitation from those who claim to be the Blessed Ones. They asked us to come here. Surely they will not try to kill us?”
Ulrike shook his head. “The Blessed Ones are of truth. If they say they want to meet you, they want to meet you. If they want to kill you, they will tell you so.”
Cursh said under his breath, “That’s a relief.”
Edoss said, “General, are your men ready?”
He seemed impatient to get on with the trek through the Markwatch wilderness. Taran wanted to ask the guides more questions, but he figured he would have time during the march.
The same carriage pulled up that had taken Taran, the Speaker, and Cursh to the Keep yesterday, with the same driver and the same horses. Ven Demeg pulled open the door for the Speaker, who thanked him and climbed aboard. Once Taran and Cursh were inside, Ven Demeg closed the door.
Through the open window, Ven Demeg said to Edoss, “May the Blessed Ones favor you, Excellency, and your mission.”
Edoss nodded, and then the carriage rolled forward through the western gate and into the cobblestone streets of Markwatch. The empty buildings in the town soon gave way to empty homes, and then farm fields that were overgrown with a month’s worth of weeds. Scavenging animals—and humans—had already stripped the fields of harvestable produce.
The morning sky was gray and the air was misty, making even the tall green pines covering the surrounding hills look as gray as fresh-spun wool. There was no sun to be seen, yet the rings of Ahura and Angra still penetrated the thick clouds. Taran still marveled at that, that the rings could be simultaneously of the sky, yet apart from it. He tentatively scanned the Angra ring—the mere sight of which made him cold—for the tendrils he saw during the Calaman storm and the harrower attacks, but he saw nothing. Nor did he see tendrils coming down from the Ahura ring, making him wonder if Ahura Mystics drew their powers from the rings in the same way as the harrowers.
Ulrike and Alton strode quickly down each winding path and road on which they led the column. Often times the hard packed roads became nothing more than two-wheel tracks before turning back into hard dirt again. Ulrike and Alton took many turns, making Taran wonder if the Turicians deliberately designed the road to the Beldamark to confuse as many people as possible.
Edoss and Taran stepped out of the carriage occasionally to walk with the two guides, asking them questions about life next to such a mysterious land. Both Turicians were quiet at first, but soon opened up to Edoss when he continued to press them.
Ulrike’s family had lived on the border for hundreds of years, and not one of them had ever heard of someone entering the Beldamark and returning to tell the tale. Many had tried to enter, and were magically turned around, heading back in the direction from which they came, not even remembering that they had turned. Those who watch someone walk past the Markers will see that man suddenly turn around with a blank expression and begin walking the other way. Unless he is stopped, or “awakened,” he will walk all the way back to his home without remembering the journey. Once home, all feel as though they had awakened from a dream.
Around noon, the column stopped in a large clearing for lunch and rest. Ulrike told Edoss and Taran that the column was making good time. Ulrike said that they should reach the Markers in another three hours. At first Taran was a bit impatient that it would take them three hours to march another ten miles. He was so used to the comforts and convenience of train travel that he quickly forgot that outside the Compact and parts of Edellia, this was how the majority of humanity traveled. To Ulrike, the whole column was moving at an astonishing speed.
Just as Ulrike had estimated, the column arrived at the Markers after another three hours of marching. The Markers were simply two stone columns as tall as a man on either side of the two-wheel track that ended abruptly in a clearing in front of the stones. Ten paces past the stones were tall pine trees clumped so close together that the light of day could not penetrate much farther than another five paces into the forest.
They had reached the border of the Beldamark.
Taran took out his pocket watch. It was near half past noon. The Shadarlak sergeants shouted orders to the men to form up and secure their flanks, even while General Myndehr told Captain Latish to have his men keep their sabers sheathed and their revolvers holstered if the Mystics should happen to appear. But she also ordered him to ensure their revolvers were loaded. Taran could not blame them for being cautious, but he knew in his heart that they had nothing to fear from the Beldamark Mystics. He could not offer any proof of this, but it was something he was as sure of as he was standing there.
Taran walked to the Marker on the right and studied its carvings once again, just as he had done on his previous expeditions. The glyphs were faded by time and erosion, but they were carved deep enough to view. They told him that it had not been the Mystics who had erected these Markers, but the local Turicians. They had began simply as markers of the place where the magic of the Mystics turned the uninvited away from the Beldamark, but they soon became religious relics to the Turician pilgrims. Farther down, near the base of the Marker were carvings in somewhat modern Recindian, the common language of the continent, asking for the “favor of the Blessed Ones who dwell in the Heavenly Lands.”
Edoss came over to Taran. The Speaker’s dark eyes squinted as he peered into the shadowy forest. “You’re the expert, Doctor. Do we wait for them or do we enter?”
“We have to wait, Excellency. Any attempt to enter without permission might—”
Taran’s eye caught movement in the forest. At first he thought it was a deer or some other animal, but three shapes materialized out of the trees and mist. All three were draped in an amalgamation of animal furs, with hoods that left their faces in shadow. They held walking staves, though the way they navigated effortlessly through the underbrush of the forest showed a dexterity that seemed to make the staves unnecessary. They walked straight toward Taran and Edoss. Several Shadarlak rushed over to Edoss to encircle him, but Edoss angrily told them to stay behind him. The three tall, fur-clad figures seemed to ignore the Shadarlak, but remained focused on Edoss.
They stopped right before the Markers, then they pulled back their hoods. There were two women and one man, all with pale complexions, red hair, and thin, almost gaunt faces. The man was older, with a gray-flecked beard and long hair that fell around his neck. He wore a light green dyed sash over his furs that was tied like a belt around his waist. The two women, one older and one younger than Taran, wore their hair in a single braid that ran down their backs. The younger woman had a scarlet sash tied around her waist, while the older woman wore a light green sash similar to the man.
Taran was a little stunned at their appearance. He had not expected the Mystics to be bathed in radiant light, but nor did he expect them to look like beggars from the Wild Kingdoms.
Edoss bowed to the new arrivals. “I am Dylan Edoss, Speaker of the Recindian Compact. Are you the ones who invited me here?”
The older man and woman looked to the younger woman. She spoke to the other two in an elegant, flowing speech that sent a jolt down Taran’s spine.
Taran was among the first Recindians in a thousand years to hear a Mystic speak that language. He could discern several words, but most were pronounced in ways he did not recognize. What Taran could make out was that the younger woman translated what Edoss had just asked. The older man and woman spoke to the younger woman, and Taran heard something about Edoss being late. Although it could have been something about Edoss being early. It was definitely something about Edoss’s arrival.
The young woman turned to Edoss and said in sharp Recindian, “I am Fatimah of Kulon Fields, Priest of Ahura, and Servant of the Holy Seat.”
Taran stared at the young woman, astonished that she had such a strong command of Recindian, despite her people being secluded in the Beldamark for a thousand years. How did the Mystics stay educated on Recindian languages? Surely the language had changed in the last millennium.
The younger woman pointed an open hand to the man and said, “This is Dornal of Fedalan, Servant of the Worldly Seat.”
Dornal nodded to Edoss, and then the young woman motioned to the older woman and said, “This is Ida of Defallon, who also serves Worldly Seat.”
After the older woman nodded to Edoss, the young woman said, “The Tuatha of the Beldamark greet you, Dylan Edoss, and welcome you into our lands.”