Sunday, 30 September 2012

Markan Sword Sample Chapter (3 of 3)

And the third part:


Part 3
Reunion
Belaika moved fast and low, keeping his head below the height of the grass.  He used the stars as guides, quickly closing the gap between his small camp and the larger one to the east.  Any other scouts out would be humans, which meant he held a slight advantage.

He glanced up at the sky with its countless glittering stars.  However imperfectly, even humans could see in this.  Even he would be seen if he stood upright.  Still no hint of a moon, another advantage.

Belaika paused often and looked around carefully for anything out of place.  After pausing for a quick sniff, rabbits ignored or moved out of his way; if any humans were near, the rabbits' behavior would be quite different.

Soon, he saw no more rabbits.

He stopped and carefully lifted his head, hoping no light reflected out from his eyes.  His instincts were good.  A dark shape ahead, that might be mistaken for a rock, but for the wind rippling what he assumed was a cloak.  He lay lower in the grass.

Scout.

Earpoints twitching and eyes questing for more scouts, Belaika went around this one, but the perimeter guards were the next humans he saw.  At least these were easier to spot than the scout, because they moved about and stood out against the sky.

He slipped past undetected.

Only a couple of fires still burned, threatening to destroy his night vision.  Wagons surrounded tents in a series of defensive squares and only a few soldiers were still about.  But what a camp!  Stretching for some distance, the watching sylph estimated at least two thousand here, including camp followers.

He began to recognize the people here.

Tempted to report immediately, Belaika remembered how camp sylphs had pointed him out the last time he reported this particular army's location.  And that had led to humiliation.  Though this army had somehow shrunk in size compared with last year, he knew that there were well over a hundred sylphs here, all with ears that would now recognize a scout's whistle.

Not only the first sylph scout captured by an enemy, but so far the only sylph scout captured by an enemy.  His face burned in embarrassment.

He successfully and easily evaded the perimeter guards for a second time, moved carefully until past the scout again (the man had not moved, which surprised the sylph) and had almost reached the byawta before pinging Fhionnen.

The reply came almost immediately, so the boy had not fallen asleep, another of the good things about him.

"Well?"  asked Fhionnen, silvery eyes glowing faintly as his companion returned.

"Mirrin's Eldovans," replied Belaika.  "They will make contact tomorrow."  He stood, facing Kelanus's small group, and whistled his report.

Faintly, he heard the report repeated, so Shyamon must be still awake.  He turned back to Fhionnen.

"You have improved," said Belaika.  "You saw me before I arrived."

Fhionnen grinned.  "Three more years and I might be as good as you," he replied, referring to the length of time the Calcan scouts claimed it took to train.  Five years to reach the required standard, and Fhionnen had joined the corps two years earlier.

Shyamon's whistle reached their ears.

"Kelanus-ya is pleased," said Fhionnen.

"I heard," replied Belaika.  "You had better go back to sleep; it's still my watch."

***

Belaika and Fhionnen paralleled the Eldovans as they continued along the road.  The two scouts sent no messages between each other, just in case any camp sylphs were listening.  As a further precaution, they stayed beyond the range of the human scouts with the army.

In daylight, Belaika saw more familiar faces.

Lieutenant Kadyah must be the senior officer, riding ahead of the long column on a white stallion.  A patch of blue showed where his sylph - Wenna, if Belaika's memory served - walked at his stirrup.

The fat quartermaster Jurabim rode on the lead wagon, also surrounded by sylphs, most walking, but one sat beside him.  Belaika knew without looking there were four, all without owners.  There had been six, but two had decided to stay with the Markans for their own reasons.

Belaika grimaced, pleased that Gajaran had chosen to stay behind in Marka with her new owner.  The only infertile who had ever made him feel uncomfortable, she blamed sylph scouts for her previous owner's death.  He hoped she and Sandev had bonded well.  And he hoped he never saw her again.

He glimpsed Cavalry Sergeant Somersen on his horse and shuddered.  The man had not been pleasant to the scout during his captivity.  The man had never given any hint of an apology; did he hate all sylphs, or just scouts?  It must be only scouts; Somersen had displayed no cruelty to any other sylph.

So many faces he remembered and he could put names to most.  Once the enemy, but now a defeated and disarmed - if still disciplined - group of men with their camp followers.

Men Kelanus hoped to use.

Belaika shivered.  He had his own reasons for coming here, but part of him felt Kelanus's plan was either madness, or perhaps bold and daring.  The best plans always appeared insane in the sylph's view.

Belaika grimaced again when he spotted a couple of Eldovan scouts.  He remembered his chats with Nalred and Vaul.  The Eldovan scouts had adapted, wearing drab clothes, and now painted exposed skin brown and green for better camouflage.

Perhaps he would be in trouble for showing the humans the way.

Nearing the borderstones, Belaika stiffened, watching General Mirrin and Yeoman Taved, ride forward to meet their old comrades.

Kadyah held up an arm, and the column halted.  Eventually.  More men rode or walked to the head of the army to huddle with Mirrin and his yeoman.

Belaika sat back in the grass, so he could just see the wagons and keep an eye on Mirrin.  Now everybody else had stopped, any movement from him might be seen by the wrong people.

Would the returning Eldovans see things Kelanus's way, or want revenge for last year's defeat?  Apart from the sylph scouts, only Kelanus, Hanmer and Felis were Markan, though Tahena might be able to use the Gift to help them all escape.

Kelanus had taken a huge gamble and Belaika hoped it worked in the Markans' favor.

***

"S'ranva's breath, it's good to see you again, Sir!"  exclaimed Lieutenant Kadyar.  "How did you get here before us?"

"Long story," replied Mirrin.  "Let's just say ours wasn't the only defeat last year.  Hingast got routed, but he fled and left the rest of his men to sink."

Kadyar's blue eyes hardened.  "Those rumors, about Hingast being not what he seems."

Mirrin nodded.  "That's why we're here.  The real Hingast has a son and if Eldova is ruled by an imposter, we will put him on Eldova's throne."

"How can we prove it?"

"We'll prove it, Kadyar.  Tell me, how was the journey home?"

"Not good."  Kadyar's lips thinned before he continued.  "We armed ourselves with staffs but still got attacked several times.  We also lost a lot of men who've turned mercenary and sold their services to petty lords along the way."

Mirrin grimaced.  "How many are left?"

"Just over half, Sir."

Mirrin growled an oath.  "Half?"

"If all had come, we'd have starved before now.  The Barren is aptly named."

Mirrin glanced along the column.  About two thousand men, plus whatever might return from the northern group, who were the Eldovans he didn't trust.  The men here might have to be enough.

"Janost is with me," said Mirrin.

Kadyar, not yet as politically minded as Mirrin, nodded.

"And a Markan general.  Kelanus."

Kadyar nodded again.  "Has he brought any abominations with him?"

"Five."  Mirrin forced a smile.  "Two will be around here somewhere; they reported your approach late yesterday."

Kadyar scowled.  "I suppose we could use them."

"Come meet Kelanus and listen to what he has to say."

"We'll come," promised Kadyar, "and we'll listen.  But beyond that, we'll make our own decisions."

Mirrin smiled.  "Of course."  He hoped his men would make the right choice.

***

Kelanus had expected a rough ride and he wasn't disappointed.  Understandably, the Eldovans refused to trust a word he said, even if respect tempered their opinion of him.  After all, he had defeated Hingast not once, but twice.

But they were reluctant to believe that Hingast was an imposter.

Only officers and sergeants were present, their weapons still locked away in the wagon.  Should they decide to take matters into their own hands, there was little anybody would do to stop them.  Perhaps why they had not, so far, made any demands concerning their arms.

"You expect us to infiltrate our own city?"  demanded Sergeant Somersen.

"No," replied Kelanus, "I expect you to exercise discretion until we learn what the man who calls himself Hingast has said or done about you.  He fled the field last year and returned home.  He and those with him do not want to see you ever again.  You fought honorably, but he fled home, so politically, you are all potentially embarrassing.  He will have worked out a story to explain his presence and your absence."

"How do you know he fled the field?"  demanded an anonymous sergeant.

"He fled the field," said Janost.  "I was there."

Silence met that.

"He ran," insisted Kelanus.  "He saw an opportunity to go and abandoned everybody with him.  Should any appear, his position is weakened.  The man I suspect who is really Hingast will realize that and will have done something about it.  You will be the ones accused of treason and cowardice."

A growl of disgust met that.

"Exactly.  This is the sort of man you're dealing with," said Kelanus.

"Sounds nothing like the Hingast I know," said Nalred, Sergeant of Scouts.

Kelanus smiled.  "That's because he isn't the Hingast you know."

"Then who?  And how can he pass as Hingast?"

"His name is Ranallic Eydren and he is a sorcerer of some considerable ability.  I've seen him at work, when he fled a field of contest, again as a coward."  Kelanus's mouth twisted with the memory.  He'd had him and still the man managed to escape!

"Ranallic Eydren is a southerner," said a doubting voice.  "No way could he pass as Hingast."

Kelanus stared.  "You know him?"

Quartermaster Jurabim stepped forward.  "Sure I do.  And I won't be alone in that.  Anyone in the army more'n ten years will remember Ranallic.  Ended up a lieutenant and deserted at the turn of the century."

Kelanus exchanged a look with Mirrin.  "Do you know the man?"

Mirrin shook his head.  "I've always been posted south of Eldova."

Jurabim warmed to his theme.  "He was well in with Hingast.  And his advisor, ah, Dervra."

Kelanus stared.

"He used to find sylphs for Hingast to hunt," continued the quartermaster.  "Some of 'em were already half-dead for some reason."

Kelanus turned to Tahena.  "Everything fits," he whispered.  "It explains the gap between leaving Pensdren and surfacing in Sandester.  He must have learned sorcery from Dervra.  Even how he manages to pass as Hingast; he must know him better than almost anybody else."

"But what do you intend to do?"  asked Kadyar, quietly.

"My plan is simple."  Kelanus smiled.  "I intend to kill Ranallic Eydren."

He continued to smile throughout the uproar now surrounding him.

***
***

As always, feel free to comment!!
 

 

Markan Sword Sample Chapter (2 of 3)

Here is the second part:


Part 2
Contact
Nobody had brought large campaign tents, but small canvas affairs that each man could carry.  Even Shashi had her own tent, which she erected within whispering distance of Mirrin.  Only the scouts would sleep under the sky, even Shyamon who remained in the camp.  Kelanus liked the idea of small tents and decided he would introduce them to the Markan army when he returned.  Even so, with four carts and fourteen horses, the camp took some time to set up.

Grayar had wanted to keep the group even smaller, but Kelanus could manage no fewer than eight humans and six sylphs.  Grayar then suggested leaving the sylphs behind, but Belaika and Shashi objected loudest to this.

Understandably, Shashi did not want to be separated from Mirrin, but Belaika seemed very shy of revealing his motives.  Ever since he had caught wind of Kelanus's plan during the winter, he insisted on coming along and not even his owner could stop him.

Worst of all, there were no cooks until the remnants of Eldova's proud army joined them.  Those who had never before cooked for themselves now learned new skills, with varying degrees of success.

By unspoken agreement, the camp was divided.

Kelanus and Tahena sat to one side with Shyamon, the sylph tending the pot hanging in the flames of their small fire, using a wooden spoon to stir the stew.  Yeoman Hanmer and Messenger Felis were both Calcanese and wanted to have as little to do with the Eldovans as possible.  Their small tents were set up close to Kelanus, if still far enough away to allow privacy.

But the Eldovans were also divided.  Mirrin sat with Captain Jediyah, Yeoman Taved and Shashi, while Janost set his tent up slightly apart from the rest.

Of the Eldovans, Kelanus trusted Janost least.  The man had acted honorably enough since his capture, having the decency to surrender before all his men were slaughtered, but he had been Hingast's man to the core.  Even now, he refused to believe that the man who now called himself Hingast was an imposter.

Even more secretive about his reasons for coming than Belaika, the marshal seemed quite happy to stay away from everybody else.

"A shame we couldn't have lost Janost," muttered Kelanus.

Tahena glanced towards the Eldovans.  "Can we be sure of Mirrin?  Of any of them?"

Kelanus glanced at Shyamon.  The scout concentrated too hard on stirring the pot not to be listening.  "Belaika seems certain we can," he replied.

"He is close to Shashi.  Be careful."

Kelanus chuckled, a bass rumble.  "Not that close," he replied.  "He was their prisoner, not a guest."

"Those," retorted Tahena, "are usually the most dangerous relationships of all."  She looked at Shyamon.  "What do you think?"

The sylph scout squeaked and almost dropped his wooden spoon into the fire.  His earpoints thrashed momentarily before stabilizing again.  "The stew is ready," he said, a touch breathlessly.

Kelanus laughed aloud.  "Do you think Mirrin can be trusted?"

Shyamon's eyes betrayed wariness and his earpoints wilted.  "He is Eldovan," he replied, as if that explained everything.

"We'll take that as a no," said Kelanus.

Shyamon said nothing further as he used a wooden hook to pull the pot free from the flames.  Setting out three wooden bowls, he served the vegetable stew in characteristic silence.

***

General Mirrin sat cross-legged before his small tent, one hand resting atop his alovak.  Shashi ignored all protocol and sat immediately in front of her owner and leaned back in the hope he might tease her earpoints, an increasingly rare treat these days.

Shashi wriggled closer as Mirrin remained silent.  Her expectant smile faded and, feeling neglected, looked over her shoulder.

The general's eyes focused and he forced a smile.  " All of us from Eldova have been played for fools, Shashi," he said, answering her unasked question.

His sylph blinked, but wriggled around to face her owner, earpoints slanted forward to show she paid attention to his words.

"Hingast never wanted the throne for himself," continued Mirrin.  "He wanted to destroy it and Marka.  He intended to use us to enslave or massacre Marka's people."

Shashi shivered; sylphs disliked such talk.  "Makes no sense."

"Makes every sense," retorted Mirrin.  " Hingast wanted to remove the competition and build a new empire based around Eldova.  That's why he allied with Re Taura and didn't care about them monopolizing trade in the Bay of Plenty."

Shashi, who had never seen the sea, shrugged.  "Thought you agreed he wasn't the real Hingast."

Mirrin smiled.  "Hard to believe that Sandev's claim might be true.  All right, so it is true.  If Kelanus gets his way, we'll soon find out."

Shashi shivered again.  She knew what Kelanus "getting his way" meant.  More death and another killing.  Would humans ever learn to adapt without slaughtering each other?  This sounded like more danger for her owner.

She motioned sideways with her eyes.  "What about him?"

Mirrin glanced across to Janost, sniffed and pursed his lips.  "It's never easy to learn that you've been living a lie," he said.  "Some people adapt quicker than others."

"Why did he come?"

Mirrin smiled.  "Most observant," he remarked.

It was Shashi's turn to sniff.  She waited for an answer.

"Perhaps he wants to see for himself.  He might know something no imposter can possibly know."

"From the way he has been talking, he knew last year that Hingast was an imposter."

"Whatever his reasons for coming," said Mirrin, "we'll find out what they are soon enough.  Perhaps he's just homesick, like the rest of us."

They fell silent as Yeoman Taved and Captain Jediyah returned with more water from the stream.

"How much longer before they get here, Sir?"  asked Taved, more to make conversation than through genuine enquiry.

"Days I expect," replied Jediyah.  "They can't be all that far away."

"And it'll be our lads who get here," added Mirrin.  He glanced towards Janost again.  "I'm not sure the other lot can be fully trusted.  Though they should come in along the North Road."

"More sylphs," said Shashi.  "Instead of... them."  She glanced towards Shyamon and her earpoints wilted.

"Thought you liked them now," said Mirrin.

"Belaika yes," qualified Shashi.  "He stopped them from killing you, enya."  She blinked back sudden tears.

Mirrin decided that sylph interpersonal relationships were often confusing and said no more on the matter.  From the far southwest of Eldova's small empire, Mirrin preferred to surround himself with men from Eldova's outer prefectures.  He trusted such men before any others.  And the rest might have been tainted from their association with Hingast.  Or whoever had replaced him.

In the gathering gloom, Mirrin shuddered.

***

Belaika and Fhionnen worked quickly together.  Based to the east of Kelanus's small group, they would be first to make contact with any Eldovans making their way home after last year's battles.  Belaika would know all those expected to come along this road.  He had hoped never to see some of them again.

Working together they scraped out a shallow byawta, but made only one sleeping place.  The two scouts would share the watches, to prevent anybody or anything from surprising the small group of humans from this side.

They worked well together, despite one being not yet fully trained.

In fairness, Fhionnen's skills had improved over the winter.  After last year's adventures, the field held no terrors or discomforts.  One of the few city sylphs recruited in Marka to be retained by the scouting corps, he had earned the already-trained scouts' respect.  And one of the few not overawed by the more experienced sylph.

Being the first sylph scout ever captured, Belaika had feared ridicule after suffering this ignoble distinction.  His experienced colleagues had certainly teased him over this humiliation.  But the rest...

He had been captured, resisted giving anything away despite interrogations by one of The Ten, and he had escaped.  All Belaika's protests about the help that he received fell on deaf ears.

Belaika was special and somehow more than an ordinary sylph scout.

Fhionnen resisted such nonsense.  He knew Velisar had rescued the prisoner, rather than Belaika escaping from the Eldovans.  He also knew about the restrictions forced on Nicolfer and her methods.  And he knew how terrified Belaika had been most of the time, rather than the heroic figure imagined by the less experienced scouts.

But Fhionnen had done and said nothing to silence them, either.

The sylphs inspected their work.

In byawta rankings, it might manage somewhere near the bottom, though in fairness they had very few materials to work with.  They had cut a couple of saplings to form a square for a roof, and Fhionnen found enough broadleafs to tile that roof before Belaika piled some earth over and grass over the top.

"At least it cannot be seen more than a paca away," said Belaika, after a moment's silence.

"Probably the best we can say for it."  Fhionnen grimaced.  "If the Eldovans are further away than Mirrin thinks, we can always work on it a bit more."  He glanced at his trenching tool and shrugged.  "At least it will not fall in on us."

Belaika grinned.  "On you," he replied.  "I will take first watch tonight."

Fhionnen decided it might be better for him to try and sleep now.  He took his blanket and disappeared inside the byawta.

Belaika found a place slightly away from their small cave, where he sat with his back against one of the small trees dotting the deserted land.  As darkness strengthened, he continued to think.

And watch.

Before long he stiffened.  Firelight?  Belaika stood and glanced at the short tree.  He decided it would hold his weight and shinned up.  He saw a good three dozen specks of flickering light out there.

He hoped people were still awake.  He sent a pinger, and waited for an acknowledgment.  It came eventually, suggesting Shyamon's attention had wandered, or he had been asleep.  Belaika sent his report and waited again.

Over there, Shyamon was probably waking Kelanus and asking for orders.

Belaika waited.

Maybe the other scout dithered, but he had worked with Kelanus before.  Shyamon would know there would be no trouble, even if Belaika had got it wrong about the fires.  There were fewer now, but that only meant the people out there were beginning to settle down.

Finally, a reply.

Investigate.  Do not get captured this time.

Belaika scowled in the dark and acknowledged the command.  He deliberately ignored the dig about capture; that sounded more like Kelanus than Shyamon.

He woke Fhionnen.

"We have company," he whispered, and explained what he had seen.  "You stay here, I will go and see."

"You think it is them?"  Fhionnen had woken in an instant, one of the good things about him.

"It might be."

Fhionnen sat outside and glanced around.  Thanks to the stars, the sky was more gray than dark, and clearly delineated from land, but no moon basked the land in light.  A large, bright star moved briskly across the sky, the Ark Star continuing its eternal voyage.  Wind rustling through the grass would help Belaika, but also mask the sound of anyone else moving.  If that camp belonged to the Eldovans, they would have their own sentries and scouts.  And the camp sylphs might have heard the whistles carrying their messages.

"Lots of light," he said, looking into Belaika's faintly-glowing eyes.

"Too much."

"Good luck."

Belaika left.  Even to Fhionnen's sylph eyes, the experienced scout had disappeared before he had taken more than a few steps.  He would of course keep low in the grass, so he would not stand out against the starry sky.

All Fhionnen could do now was wait.

***
***

 

 

Markan Sword Sample Chapter (1 of 3)

Today, I reveal another sample chapter from my current work in progress, Markan Sword.  Chapter 3 in the book, this is the first chapter of the Eldovan sub-plot.

Hingast, or the man masquerading as Hingast, continues to rule in Eldova.  The man seems very reluctant to welcome home soldiers returning from the east, after the previous year's disaster.  Kelanus is convinced he knows who the man pretending to be Hingast really is, and is determined to track him down and end a quarrel that began years before.

I have broken the chapter down into three parts.  Here is the first part:


Part 1
In The West
The ilvenworld is full of oddities.  Like here, a land with no people.

Of course, lots of lands have no people, but such places are usually natural.  Dense forests and frozen wastelands are rarely seething masses of humanity.  The casual observer might feel the sights here are also natural: long, still-growing grass waving in the gentle breeze, and early spring wildflowers providing splashes of color.  Everything the same, as far as the eye can see in all directions.

There is a road, made from packed earth and rutted by the passage of caravans.  Nothing remarkable in that, if people choose not to live in a place, it doesn't mean they never pass through.  There is also a small row of borderstones, proof of some human interest in this land.

But the trees dotted about, a few in copses, are all less than a decade old, and should our casual observer decide to look closer at the grass waving in the wind, much would be familiar agricultural plants, oat, barley and wheat allowed to grow wild.  Which meant this land was not unpopulated, but depopulated.

And further east, if that observer cared to look, lay land spoiled by quick-growing softwood trees that would usually only be seen at much higher latitudes, altering the soil's acidity and making it useless for growing crops.  A land deliberately wasted.

Sad, but nothing particularly strange about that, either.  People fight wars and are rarely pleasant to the losers.

The oddity here is not the land, but four wagons.  Ordinary canvas-covered carts, each with two tethered horses.  The animals are eating peaceably and waiting for the heavy work to begin again.  The nosy observer might move closer to the carts before realizing the canvas hides cages, each locked and faced with wood, so nobody can see what's inside.

Perhaps these are not the real oddity, either.  After all, there are plenty of carts to be found near roads, and they are usually pulled by either horses or oxen.  But carts also have people.

There is nobody here.

Until...

The air shimmers and a group of fifteen people, six on horseback, materialize from nowhere.  Well, nine of the fifteen are people; the other six are sylphs, earpoints slightly wilted, now busy rubbing their arms and staring at each other with wide eyes.  Five of those sylphs have a surreal appearance, painted gray, green and brown, all with black slashes across face and chest.  The only normal thing about the painted sylphs is that all wear black leather collars.

The fear the sylphs are displaying is natural, as no sylph enjoys having the Gift used within sensing distance.  No matter how important their task.

***

A silver-haired old man stared at the small group of soldiers and sylphs with piercing blue eyes, before nodding grumpily to Tahena.  He glanced at the wagons, two carrying food and water, the others swords and equipment.  A grimace twisted his mouth.  He understood necessity, but he had not liked moving those weapons.  Precepts might only be guidelines, but they existed for a reason.

Despite appearances, Grayar was never as grumpy as he pretended.

"You are a very persuasive man," Grayar told General Kelanus, the man in command, "but do not call on my services for anything like this again."

Kelanus, still mounted, looked down at Grayar and inclined his head, his pale-blue eyes expressionless.  "Sandev refused to help, with her... foci."

Quickly suppressed, but something very like rage flashed across Grayar's features.  "You might find Sandev has no more of those," he snapped.

Kelanus opened his mouth to speak again, but Tahena laid a hand on her husband's leg.

"Thank you for your help, Grayar," she said.  "Once again, you have proved invaluable."

Grayar's disapproving sniff was almost a snort.  He nodded again to Tahena, looked at the sylphs, then wandered towards the copse of trees.  Despite putting distance between himself and the small group, when he finally projected, all six sylphs subconsciously rubbed their arms and stared at each other again.  They knew what caused their sudden unease.

Marshal Janost, the senior Eldovan present, smiled as he stared across the verdant landscape.  "The Barren," he announced in tones of deep satisfaction.

"Prefecture of Feylkin," corrected Kelanus, absently.

"The Barren is a good enough name," murmured Hanmer, Kelanus's yeoman.

With no other sign of human habitation, the road ran east to west, and even Eldovans still called it the Marka Road.

"Certainly a waste of good land," said Tahena.

Overhearing, Janost sniffed.  "Hingast had the people moved, Mistress Tahena.  These lands are a buffer no army moving against Eldova can cross easily.  Further east there is no agriculture, so no food to plunder.  A defensive ring for Eldova, at little cost."

"Except in people's lives, Marshal Janost."  Tahena's voice was cold.  "Hingast had more butchered than were moved."

Janost shrugged, an almost imperceptible movement that Tahena would have missed had she not been watching for it.

Janost carried on as if he commanded, rather than being a prisoner.  All four Eldovans here - three humans and the only sylph not covered in scouting paint - were prisoners, captured either by Kelanus - as in Janost's example - or the Shadow Riders.  Though what their exact status would become once the rest of the soldiers rejoined them remained unclear.

General Mirrin - another Eldovan - joined them.  "Waiting here for the walkers to catch up before we move into Mpopa?"  he asked, jerking a thumb westwards.

Most of the Eldovan prisoners had been disarmed after their capture and later released to make their own way home.  Roads from the east eventually led here, where the Markan Road entered Mpopa, part of the Eldovan lands.

"Yes," replied Kelanus.  "They cannot be far away now, so with luck we'll not be waiting long."

Kelanus and his small group had cheated, using Grayar's Gift to move them westwards from Marka.  The Gifted had not been happy about that.  Not so much moving the people, but the weapons.

Unable to carry them all, the victorious Markans had buried the defeated Eldovans' swords and axes.  Everybody feared the Eldovan soldiers regrouping again for another attack; it had happened once already.  Attacks were difficult when the enemy was stripped of weapons.

But Kelanus had asked Grayar to take him and some soldiers to the battle sites and recover the buried arms.  This, Grayar had frostily informed the general, skirted very close to the edge of principle.

Two of the sylphs - Belaika and Fhionnen - had projected with them to the western battle site.  These two sylphs had suffered three moves using the Gift, but looked to be holding up better than the other four sylphs, who had suffered one.  Perhaps the first two had gotten used to the Gift.

"Grayar feels we abused his talents," said Mirrin, making conversation.  Of the Eldovans, he was the easiest to get along with.  The sixth sylph in the small group - named Shashi - belonged to him and she now heeled her owner.

"He's done it before, so I fail to see what his problem is this time," countered Kelanus.  "We had to get ahead of all those returning to Eldova and we had to recover their weapons.  The Gift was the only way."

"But done under protest."  Mirrin's dark-brown eyes looked towards the copse where Grayar had last been seen.

Kelanus turned his attention to the five sylph scouts that, by some small miracle, he had been allowed to bring with him.  "Except for Shyamon, the rest of you disappear and get on with it.  Ean, you take Samel; Fhionnen stays with Belaika."

"Se bata!"  came from four sylphs and they scampered away, quickly blending into their surroundings while they formed a ring around the small group.  Shyamon's earpoints twitched as the scouts sent pingers to each other while they found the best positions.

"Right," said Kelanus, "we'd better get our camp set up."

***
***

 

Today's Walk: Above Barmouth

Just to let you know that I've posted today's walk over at my other blog: Nick's Wicked Walks



Sunday, 23 September 2012

Writing Update - Markan Sword & others

Best let everyone know what I'm up to!

Editing/2nd draft of "Markan Sword" is coming along nicely.  More than halfway through this now.  As important, the artwork has now been ordered from Joleene Naylor, and I'll be sharing that as soon as I have it.

I'm also re-editing "Markan Empire", removing typos and tidying up sentences here and there.  With luck, the new version will also be released before Christmas.

Planning work on "Gifted Avenger" has been on hold this week - it is possible to have too many projects on the go at once!  However, the broad outline of the plot is there now, work will begin on it in earnest once "Sword" is complete.

Looking ahead, tentative plotlines are forming for the next trilogy of Ilvenworld novels.  As many of you have already noted, there are plenty of loose ends for me to follow up.  Why did you think I'd left them? lol  More on planned books on future postings.

Right, I think you're all now as up to date as me...

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Monday, 10 September 2012

Markan Sword Sample Chapter 1 Part 3

Third and final instalment from Chapter 1 of Markan Sword, second draft.  I hope you've enjoyed the samples posted here, please feel free to comment!

Sample below:


Homecoming

Reaching the edge of the forest, Neptarik pointed.

"Over that way," he said.

Reshiad nodded, but said nothing.  He left the sylphs and trudged towards his home in silence.  The late afternoon sunshine bathed everything in a warm, pink glow and he hurried ahead.

When the buildings came into sight, he heaved a sigh of relief.  For some strange reason, he imagined that they might have been burned.  He had feared that the soldiers would vent their frustration at his escape on his family.

He glanced back at the forest, but saw nothing of his two rescuers.  At least Neptarik would be invisible with his paint, but he should still be able to see Tektu.

Clearly, they had not waited.

When he saw the sheep, his relief evaporated.

That one might be resting was normal enough, but woolly mounds dotted the gentle pasture and not one raised its head as he approached.

Crimson stained every fleece.  Even the lambs, still very young and barely able to keep their footing, had been slaughtered, together with their mothers.

Reshiad gritted his teeth and increased his pace.

No smoke rose from the chimneys, where his mother should be cooking a meal by now, or the sylphs heating water for baths.  None of the sheepdogs raced out to greet him, as normal.

Nothing but silence.

Entering the farmyard, Reshiad took one look and began to scream.

***

Revulsion shone in Neptarik's silver-gray eyes as he looked around the farmyard.  Tektu wore a bored expression as she looked at each human and sylph corpse in turn, ignoring the clouds of flies.

"Why?"  Tears streamed down Reshiad's cheeks, but anger shone in his hazel eyes.

Neptarik shrugged.  "Maybe because they resisted.  Maybe because you got away."

"So it's my fault?"

The male sylph eyed the boy.  He had seen this sort of reaction before, even suffered from it himself.  "The fault lies with the men who did this," he replied.  "And with the man who sent them."

"Because they think I might be this... what's-his-name."

"Awen Adelbard Haist," said Neptarik.  "Yes, they think you might be."

Muscles in Reshiad's cheeks twitched.  "You knew, didn't you?"

"No."  Neptarik kept his voice quiet.  Beside him, Tektu tensed.

"You knew they killed people who resisted!"  shouted Reshiad.

Neptarik spread his arms.  "I did not know they would come here to kill your family," he protested.  "Once they saw you, I believed they would carry on hunting you."

"While we were yapping, my family was being murdered!"

"Shouting at Neptarik will change that?"  Tektu stared at the human boy, more than a hint of aggression in her eyes.  "The soldiers killed your family, not us.  Soldiers sent by the Prefect."

Reshiad stepped forward.

"You have my sympathy," continued Tektu, expression and earpoints hinting her words were a lie, "but lift your hand any higher, remember what I said the last time you tried that.  Lift your hand to the Prefect, not me or Neptarik."

Reshiad gave a bitter laugh, almost a sob.  "The Prefect?  How can I lift my hand to him?  I'm just a peasant boy."

"You are a human," answered Neptarik.  "You can be anything you want."

Tektu looked at Neptarik.

"Come and speak to my owner," said the painted sylph.  "He might help."  His earpoints wilted and he inspected a fingernail, as if embarrassed.

"Might?"

Neptarik shrugged.

Reshiad looked from one sylph to the other.  "Where is your owner?"  he asked.

"A day or so away, if we move fast," replied Neptarik.

Reshiad looked at the sky.  "It will be dark soon.  And we must bury the dead."

"We?"  whispered Tektu.

"Yes," said Neptarik, giving the strange infertile a furious look.  "We will help you do that."

***

"Thought you said you could run."

Reshiad grimaced at the near contempt in Tektu's voice.  "I didn't realize you meant all night," he grumbled.

He had not taken much from his home, just a couple of blankets and a change of clothes, all wrapped around a firebow and the bundle in turn wrapped inside his oilskin.  His knife hung from his belt, and he'd tucked a sling into a pocket.  A flexible saw - a narrow strip of metal - acted like a second belt.  It looked like a shiny length of string, but would cut through wood as easily as a sharp knife through cheese.

"Lucky those soldiers are not still here," replied Tektu.  "They would catch you otherwise.  Annoying after all the effort we have put into you."

Reshiad almost squealed when a shadow transformed into Neptarik.

"The way is clear for milas," said the painted sylph, using the human tongue for Reshiad's benefit.  "But keep quiet; you never know if I missed anything."

Although he heard sincerity in the sylph's voice, Reshiad doubted if Neptarik missed a thing.

"We will carry on to the next byawta," continued Neptarik, "and rest there."

"Next what?"  asked Reshiad.

Neptarik shrugged, ignorant of the human word he wanted.

"Means a cave we made ourselves," said Tektu.  "Now run."

Reshiad feared he might die before they reached the dugout.  They ran beside the road, ready to jump into the ditch at the side to hide from any soldiers.  From anyone at all, he suspected.

When the road led into forest again, the sylphs turned aside, Tektu now having to fully guide the night-blind human.  Not even starlight penetrated here.  Soon, the sylphs pulled branches clear from the next dugout.

"How many are there around here?"  asked Reshiad.  He addressed his question to the air, for there was not even a glow from sylph eyes to show him where they stood.  "The, ah, byawtas."

"Byawtula," corrected Neptarik, absently.  "One is byawta, more than one-"

"All right, I'm not altogether ignorant."  Reshiad failed to keep irritation out of his voice.

"Mind your head as you go in," said Tektu, helping the boy to the entrance.  "You can crawl into the right.  Do your best with your blankets."

Reshiad fumbled with his blankets in the dark, grateful that breeder sylphs were more or less the same height as humans.  If they were all infertile-sized, he might not be able to straighten out properly.  Even so, once comfortable, he turned his face to the wall and hoped Tektu would not overhear him weeping for his dead family.

***

"This is Merley," said Reshiad, looking about him.

Walking beside him, Tektu nodded.

Too large to be a village, yet too small for a town, Merley consisted of houses, a couple of inns and a handful of shops crammed alongside the single road, with more houses erected in no particular order behind.  A river flowed nearby and fields surrounded the buildings.

Neptarik had ranged ahead very early, returning with the welcome news that no soldiers rested in Merley.  Then he was gone again, and Reshiad hadn't seen him since.

Reshiad had visited Merley several times, but he had never traveled further from home.  He glanced at the road leading further west.

"This way," said Tektu, turning between one of the inns and a smithy.

She led him to the stables at the back of the inn, where Neptarik, still painted, waited for them.

The male sylph grinned at Reshiad.  "Welcome to the Willam's Leap," he said.  "The beds are more or less comfortable, but the ale is a bit, well, off."

"Why did you bring me to the stable?"  asked Reshiad.  Several horses filled the stalls, and a hint of sinabra warned him that sylphs were about.  They probably helped the stablers by polishing tack and mucking out.

Neptarik's smile remained in place, though his earpoints betrayed his irritation by a violent twitch.  "Discretion," he replied.  "You never know who might be watching in the common room.  Spies looking for boys a certain age, perhaps."

Tektu gestured with her head towards the upstairs windows.  "Mya is with him?"

"Yes."

The infertile sniffed.  "Then I will wait out here."

Neptarik's attention turned back to Reshiad.  "Coming?"  he asked.

The boy followed the sylph into the back of the inn and up a narrow servant stair, emerging beside a door that led to one of the back rooms.  Neptarik opened the door and indicated Reshiad should lead the way inside.  The sylph came in after him and closed the door quietly.

Reshiad's gaze flickered around the room.  Despite being a back room, it was one of the largest the inn offered, with doors leading off to the sleeping chambers.  Two men sat on the far side of a polished dining table, light from the window framing, but not obscuring them.

Both looked like soldiers, one older than the other.  The younger man perhaps twenty years or so, with blue eyes and dark-brown hair curling over his ears.  The other boasted similar hair and eye color, but more heavily built, with lines showing around his nose and mouth.

A female sylph crossed the room to Neptarik.  A quick touch of fingertips and foreheads, then the pair parted again.  Reshiad watched and realized these two were emotionally involved.

"Alovak please, Mya," said the older man.  "For three."

"Se bata."

Reshiad relaxed.  At last, a more normal human and sylph relationship.

The younger man leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table.  "I am Verdin Branad Vintner," he introduced himself, "and this is Balnus Kenta Pinton."

Reshiad smiled and nodded his head.  "I am Reshiad Wajrun Helzar," he replied.

The smiles remained in place, but Reshiad sensed they were somewhat more forced.

"Not Awen Adelbard Haist?"  Verdin's voice now held a definite edge.

Reshiad shook his head.  "No."

Balnus turned his full attention onto Neptarik; the sylph's earpoints wilted and almost tucked away.  Reshiad failed to hide his pleasure that something fazed the creature.

"The explanation why you have the wrong boy," began Balnus, "had better be outstanding."

***

End of the third part...

More samples will be posted as work on the second draft progresses.

Markan Sword Sample Chapter 1 Part 2

The second part extracted from Chapter 1 of Markan Sword.  Feel free to comment :o))

Sample below:


Rescue

Reshiad opened his eyes.

Not what he expected from paradise, he blinked at the mixture of tree roots and dirt barely incas above.  His head throbbed and a shoulder ached.  He lay on a blanket, which in turn covered something soft, and a second blanket covered him, pulled to his chin.  They looked clean, but smelled strongly of sylph, and sinabra hung in the air.

Turning his head, he tried not to groan at the flash of pain.

This strange cave looked recent, hollowed out from the bare earth.  He saw a narrow walkway and another recess opposite.  Leaves hung to dry from the ceiling and ragged edges showed where parts had been torn free, for whatever purpose.

He pushed the blanket aside and realized his clothes were gone.  He glanced around again, but saw no sign of his breeches and shirt.  He felt under the lower blanket, where more leaves and grasses were stuffed to make the bed more comfortable.

Woodsmoke tickled his nostrils, so he must have company.  He would remember making the dugout and lighting a fire.  Besides, his hair was still damp, so there hadn't been enough time.

The dugout darkened as someone entered and Reshiad stared.

Painted gray, green and brown, the newcomer wore snug short breeches.  Earpoints twitched forward and cat-slit silver-gray eyes widened.  A sylph, despite his coloring.  The only normal thing about him was a leather collar, with a nametag appended.

"Awake now?"  asked the newcomer.

Reshiad nodded.  He stared as a second sylph entered the dugout.  This one wore a shirt as well as breeches, but no paint.  The infertile at least looked normal, until he realized she wore no collar.

"Has the boy got a name?"  asked the painted sylph and his earpoints twitched a little.

Reshiad spluttered and his eyes widened in outrage.  "How dare you?"  he snapped.  "You will tell me your name and that of your owner.  Now."

At home, sylphs always showed due respect and obedience, knowing they would get what for if they dared step out of line.  They always lowered their eyes to him, none daring to meet the gaze of a freeman.

These two were different.  The painted sylph looked amused - even his earpoints twitched.  When Reshiad used this tone of voice to other sylphs, their earpoints always wilted.

The infertile's eyes hardened and her earpoints slanted forward.  Bizarre: anger from a sylph?

"He saved your life," she said, indicating her painted companion.  "The least you can do is give your name.  Or we might put you back where we found you."

"I am Reshiad Wajrun Helzar," he replied.

Both sylphs blinked.  "Does Awen Adelbard Haist mean anything to you?"

Reshiad shook his head.  "Should it?"

The painted sylph pulled himself together and shrugged.  He exchanged a look with the infertile.  Stranger and stranger; breeders and infertiles rarely had much to do with each other.

"Now you have my name, you should at least return the courtesy," said Reshiad.

"I am Neptarik and this is Tektu."

"Just Neptarik and just Tektu?"

The infertile scowled at him again, behaving in a most unsylphlike manner.

Neptarik shrugged.  "Neptarik-y-Balnus."

"And?"  His attention turned to the infertile.

"Tektu-y-Neptarik," she snapped.

Reshiad stared.  "You belong to him?"  he squeaked.

"Long story," smiled Neptarik.

"One you are not about to hear," added Tektu.  She glanced at her companion.  "I will see if his clothes are dry yet."

Reshiad blinked again.  No hint whatsoever of deference in the infertile's tone, but she must be the inferior in status.  An odd pair.  With Tektu gone, he suspected Neptarik might be easier to converse with.

"What is it you want of me?"  he asked.

"Probably nothing," replied Neptarik.  "After all the effort of saving your life, I do not want to leave you to the soldiers."

Reshiad inclined his head and wrapped the blanket around himself as he swung free from the recess.  "Thank you for that.  Why did you ask about the name?  Um, Awen."

"The oldest son of the last true Prefect of Turivkan," replied Neptarik.  "He had two sons and the present Prefect wants them dead."

"Why?"

"You ask me that?"  Neptarik's eyebrows and earpoints rose in unison.  "A mere sylph."

Reshiad eyed the sylph's paint.  "That word does not begin to describe you," he admitted.

Both turned as Tektu rejoined them, carrying a bundle.  "Damp here and there," she said, "but wearable."

Neptarik looked Reshiad straight in the eye.  "We will give you privacy to dress," he said, before leading Tektu back outside.

Reshiad's shirt and breeches smelled faintly of smoke, but "damp here and there" proved something of an understatement.  Thanks to the fire, his clothes were warm and wet, instead of cold and wet.  His boots felt worse, but he stamped his feet into them anyway and cheered up.  His jerkin went on next, followed by his belt; he blinked in surprise to find his knife still in place.

He crawled from the dugout and eyed the two metal trowels.  Surely the sylphs hadn't dug this using just those?  He felt grudging respect as he saw no other tools anywhere.  Once outside, he took deep breaths of clear air.  He could tolerate sylph sinabra in small doses, but it had almost overwhelmed him inside the dugout.

From beside the fire, Tektu stared at him with barely concealed hostility.

"Where is Neptarik?"  asked Reshiad.

For a moment, he thought the infertile might ignore him, but she shrugged her shoulders.

"Looking around," she replied.  "Making sure the soldiers are not coming here."

Reshiad glanced at the fire; the lack of visible smoke meant the sylphs had found very dry wood.  "Do you think they might?"

Another shrug.  "If I start to run, it might be a good idea for you to keep up," she replied.

"Why are you helping me?"

Tektu looked him directly in the eyes.  No infertile would dare hold a human's gaze this way!  Why was she different?  "Now that is a question," she said, after a long moment, "to which I have no answer."

Reshiad did not believe her.  Something about Tektu bothered him, and not just because she acted nothing like an ordinary infertile.  Or like any other sylph.  She did not quite fit.

He jumped as Neptarik abruptly materialized and pretended he had not noticed Tektu's smile.  He masked irritation as the sylphs conversed in their own language and wished he had taken the time to learn more of it.  He only caught one or two words, but not enough to follow the conversation.

"I'd like to know what you want with me," he told them, "when you've finished jabbering away."

Both sylphs looked at him.

"You are both from further east," continued Reshiad.  He pointed to Neptarik.  "Marka?"

"Calcan."

"Why are you here?"

"Told you.  Looking for the boy who should rightfully be Prefect.  Sixteen years old.  Hazel eyes.  Dark hair."  Neptarik paused.

"Lots of boys have hazel eyes and dark hair," countered Reshiad.  "Especially around here."

"You were five when evacuated from the palace," said Neptarik.

Reshiad laughed.  "You have the wrong boy.  I cannot remember much from age five, but I remember my sister being born and she is four years younger.  Before the time you say I was taken from the palace."

The painted sylph shrugged.  "Perhaps."

"And I would remember having my name changed."  Reshiad gave the sylphs a level look.  "You know your name from very young, maybe even before you can speak."

"Awen," said Neptarik.

"Reshiad," insisted Reshiad.  "I'm not the boy you seek."

"Put him back where you found him," interrupted Tektu.  "Or hand him over to the soldiers.  There might be a reward.  Choca."

Neptarik subconsciously licked his lips.

"I'm not a commodity to be traded," snarled Reshiad.

"If choca is involved you are," said Tektu.

"Enough, Tektu."  Neptarik did not raise his voice, but the infertile immediately subsided.  The male sylph regarded the human boy for a few moments.  "Very well," he said with a shrug, "wait a little longer and I will take you home.  Tektu, get ready to move on.  Reshiad's home is on our way."

Tektu disappeared into the dugout.

"Why are you looking for the real Prefect's son?"  asked Reshiad.  "Why now?"

"My owner wants the real Prefect's son," replied Neptarik.  "We want him alive because Dervra wants him dead."

"To cause trouble?"

"More for true justice.  Boys your age disappear and we think that what happens spoils their day."

Reshiad looked away.  "I'm glad it's not me."

"It could be."

"So your owner sent you out here to look for someone who might be him.  Anybody could claim to be... whatever his name is."

"Awen Adelbard Haist."  Neptarik shrugged.  "Until we find him and get people behind him, these killings will continue.  All very cruel."

"He might already be dead," said Reshiad.  He saw Neptarik's earpoints suddenly twitch up, sag down
and jerk upright again.  The human boy leaned forward.  "You know more than you're telling."

Tektu saved Neptarik from answering.  She left the dugout carrying blankets and the leaves from the ceiling.  The sylphs quickly divided the blankets and leaves into two bundles, securing a trowel in the middle of each.

"Neptarik."  Reshiad used his firm no-nonsense voice.  It usually worked well with his father's sylphs.  "Tell me about Awen."

Neptarik ignored him.  "We should leave now," he said.  He looked at the dugout.  "We might need it again."

Reshiad sat back and watched the two sylphs maneuver branches across the entrance.  When they finished, nothing looked out of place.  If not for his anger at being ignored, he would admire the sylphs' skill at concealing the small cave.

"Tell me about Awen," insisted Reshiad.

"Want me to put him back in the river?"  asked Tektu.

"Shut.  Up."  Reshiad scowled at the infertile.

Tektu glared back.  "No."

Reshiad lifted his hand...

...and flew through the air until he crashed back to the ground.  Tektu stood over him.

"If you ever lift a hand to me again, I will break every bone in it," she threatened, voice calm.

"Enough, Tektu."  Neptarik turned to Reshiad.  "It might be wise if you try not to attack her.  She can get irritable now and then."

Reshiad surreptitiously rubbed his hip and avoided Tektu's eyes.

Neptarik turned back to Tektu.  "I will lead, you follow."

"You should discipline your sylph more often," said Reshiad.  "Sylphs do not act like that."

Neptarik smiled.  "Leave the when and how to me.  Keep your hands to yourself; we are not on your father's farm."

They left the small camp in silence.

Reshiad followed Neptarik, marveling as the sylph appeared and disappeared, thanks to his paint.  Without the sylph's movement, he would be unable to see him at all.  He felt less happy with Tektu bringing up the rear.  What was she?  That throw had hurt, but she couldn't be strong enough to hurl him into the air.

"We must cross the river," he pointed out.

"We know," growled Tektu from behind.  "Keep moving."

Neptarik dodged this way and that, pausing occasionally to listen.  The sound of the river grew gradually to a roar.  The sylph scrambled over rocks, keeping his footing easily, unlike the unfortunate Reshiad, who slipped a few times.

"You don't mean to cross here?"  squeaked the human boy.

He stared wide-eyed at ragged rocks with water foaming between them.  Wet, green and black with growth, those rocks looked very, very slippery.

Neptarik leaned close.  "Put all your weight on one foot at a time.  Think and look before you move."

"I'll be in the water," protested Reshiad.

Neptarik shrugged and pointed upriver.  "There's a road through the forest fifteen milas that way, and a bridge, if you prefer to go around.  Perhaps soldiers are there too."  He pointed across the river, roughly in the direction of Reshiad's home.  "My owner is that way and the way we go from here."

Reshiad tried and failed to see exactly where Neptarik placed his feet, for the sylph moved like a dancer, crossing the river in moments.

"You moving today?"  Tektu grumbled from behind.

Reshiad glanced over his shoulder, then looked back to where Neptarik waited impatiently on the other bank.  He stared at the water and rocks.

"If you do not start moving farmboy, I will leave you here and you can walk around."

"What are you?"  Reshiad's gaze searched the sylph's face.

Tektu sniffed.  "If I charged for that question, I might get rich.  Now get over that river."

All weight on one foot at a time.  Reshiad picked a likely looking spot on the nearest rock and stepped onto it.  His boots protected him from the rock's sharp edges and he wondered how the barefoot Neptarik coped.

He looked for his next foothold and tried to ignore the water foaming between his rock and the next.  He stepped across the torrent and imagined the river rose up to take him.  Momentum carried his other foot forward to the next rock, but he only leaned against that one; his weight still on the rock behind, as Neptarik had suggested.

He glanced over his shoulder to see Tektu watching impatiently.  Those silver-gray eyes glittered at him, perhaps willing him to fall in.

The infertile wasn't his problem right now, but he must cross this river.  He put pressure on his forward foot.  Slippery, this rock would not hold him.  He shifted position and tried again.

"Go on, farmboy," urged Tektu.

Reshiad resisted the urge to snarl or swear at her, but one good kick from behind and he would be in.

No turning back.

That last thought almost froze him to the spot, but he fought sudden panic.  He shifted position again as he chose where might be a good spot.  He transferred his weight by moving his body forward...

...and slipped.

For a moment he dangled, aware of something holding on to the back of his jerkin, pulling him back onto the safe rock.  He panted and looked over his shoulder.

"You are strong," he told her.  "Thank you."

Tektu shrugged, but her expression was neutral, an improvement on disapproval.  "Careful," she cautioned.  "Try that rock instead."

Two more steps and Reshiad was faced with something more than a step wide.  Though not whipped to foam here, the water still moved swiftly.  More than a pace wide, the gap was wide enough to make any jump to the next rock something of a leap of faith.

"Is that one slippery?"  he called to the waiting Neptarik.

"Yes," came the morale-sapping answer.

Reshiad paused.  "I'll have to jump it," he called.

"Fine.  I did too."

Reshiad blinked.  "I'll be off the other side," he pointed out.  "I'm probably twice as heavy as you.  More."

"Too well fed," came from the doom-monger behind.

The nimble Neptarik jumped back to the last rock and moved to one side.  He tapped a spot immediately in front of him with a foot.  "Aim for that," he suggested.

"And?"

"Keep your eyes open and get ready to hang onto the far bank."

"What?"  Reshiad shook his head.

"Keep your weight forward as you jump," continued Neptarik, "so no backward slips."

"Go on," urged Tektu.

Reshiad took a deep breath, and flung himself forward.  Hitting the rock, his leading foot immediately slipped from beneath him and his upper body leaned forward.  So near, yet he would still end up in the river.


Abruptly, vaguely aware of a hand somewhere on his lower back, his speed increased and he flew across the last step to crash into the far bank.  Remembering Neptarik's urging, he clung on.

"Now climb!"  shouted Neptarik.

Reshiad obeyed and finally pulled himself to relative safety.  He lay panting on his back and stared up at the gently swaying treetops, vaguely aware of the two sylphs following.

"Well," he said, "thank you for getting me across."

Neptarik grunted something before slinging his small pack across his back.

Tektu rearranged her pack and stared down at him.  "Might have been quicker to let you walk round."  The familiar glower had returned.

"Why are you resting?"  asked Neptarik.  "The hard part is done now.  Thought you wanted to go home."

Pulling himself to his feet, Reshiad resisted a growl.

***

End of Part 2.