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Sample Chapter from In Shades of Grey

"Life cannot be defined in simple black and white.  In everything there exists both good and evil.  It is perspective and motivation that define a thing. An action of evil may have to occur for the greater good, while this may be viewed as either black or white depending on perspective. It is the motivation that makes it grey. 

Our world itself displays this.  For those of the Elder Blood who remember, it is a prison they cannot escape.  For those of us who were born here, it is a home to be protected.  For all of us it is a battlefield. Be it by sword or word, the wars between the Houses have raged since creation.  Both the war and the individuals who fight in it are far more than black and white.  With every word we speak, with every action we take, we exist in shades of grey.  It is the motivation for our actions that define how dark of grey we are. It is perspective that defines what shade others see us in.  There are those in this world whose motivations are nearly white, but our perspective of them names them outlaw.

~Quoted from Christian Morcaillo during a debate on Ethics at the Sanctuary Academy.

 

 

 


 

 

Prologue

Veir

 

Death sang loudly, her mournful voice composed of the screams of the wounded and the clashing of steel.  The sound was as unwelcome as the bloody waves crashing against the sand near his feet. A funeral dirge for my land and people.  Damon mused and spat blood from his mouth.  It wasn’t his blood; it belonged to the fool that was even now charging back in for another strike at Damon. His first strike to the man had been a savage one, which nearly severed the arm. The spray of blood had caught him full in the face. By rights, the soldier should have dropped from that wound alone, but battle lust had him too far in its grips. Have I ever actually felt battle lust? Damon wondered. His mind was working far better than his body at this point. With a weary sigh he brought his sword up at the last moment and sank it deep into the man’s chest, adding another scream to the symphony.  It was not a grand flourish, not even done in anger.  It was done simply of necessity as every other death he had dealt this morning had been delivered.  Damon was too tired for anger and had never been the sort to show off.  Wearily he pushed the man’s corpse from his blade and barely spared it a glance as it fell to the sand.  His eyes were already scanning his surroundings for another fool that he would have to kill.  His stretch of the coast seemed to be blessedly free of anything moving though.  Corpses lay sprawled in a circle around where he stood.  He suppressed a snort of disgusted laughter.  He’d been on enough battle fields to know to avoid the man who had the circle of corpses around him; obviously these fools hadn’t had such learning. No doubt they all wanted the honor of bravely killing High Lord Veirasha.  Damon shook his head at the mere thought and his gaze rose to the ships rocking at anchor off his coast.  Undoubtedly, thousands more fools lacking proper learning awaited there, just as eager for his head.  This first landing had merely been those too eager to keep on the ships.  A test of sorts to see what kind of fight Veir could put up in its current state.

He turned away from the ships. He was too tired to contemplate how many enemies waited or how skilled they were. He would face them as they came for the time for strategy was long past. To use strategy you needed an army. While a year ago his had been the strongest there ever was, it was no more.  Now he barely had enough men to hold this small strand of coast.  The fabled Knights of Veir were gone; all that remained was a ragged bunch of men fighting back sickness as much as they were fighting off the invaders.  His eyes roamed down the coast and where his youngest son was directing what remained of his men. If his son was feeling the effects of the sickness, he wasn’t showing it.  He sat tall and proud above them from the back of a prancing black war horse. One of the few horses left in Veir now. He felt a pang in his chest at the sight of his son who didn’t belong on a battlefield. There was no doubt that Zachary could fight; he simply belonged in a brighter place.  He was more suited for tourneys than the blood and mess of war.  The year before, Zachary had been a tourney knight and the girls had swooned at the sight of him.  Damon smiled bitterly at the memory. Although it wasn‘t often that he left his lands, but he had gone to see him ride. He himself had never been the sort for tourneys but to see Zachary had filled him with such pride.  He had taken after his mother with strong characteristics of charm and vibrancy that Damon himself had never possessed, even at the boy’s young age of seventeen. His son had come in second in the lances and had bragged over it for days.  The young man on the white horse beside Zachary had taken first place.  He couldn’t see his son’s third companion but his eyes fell on the huge red horse the young man had been riding.  Its body was half buried in the rising tide with sea foam the color of rust rushing over it.  He hoped the young man hadn’t joined his horse in death. He had liked the bluff spoken little Firym.  All three of them were too young and too filled with life for this much death.  Damon gave a weary sigh and felt his lungs clench in protest, fighting back a fit of coughing as he watched Zachary and his remaining men finish off the last of the invaders.

     “Father,” a voice called softly from behind him.  My other son, the stoic and practical one that is a pure image of me at a younger age. Damon mused. He shifted his weight and pushed back from where he had been leaning on his sword and turned to regard Tyber.  His son looked about as bad as he himself felt.  His skin was pale and his blue eyes were sunken.  Blood smeared across one cheek though Damon doubted it was his son’s blood.  His normally pristine armor was covered in gore; his tabard was torn and bloody.  His eyes were the worst though; they reflected every emotion Damon himself was trying to push away.  Disgust, anger, grief, and further back at just the corners where it could almost be ignored lurked despair.  He held the reins to his grey gelding and waited for his father to bid him to continue.  Tyber was always proper.  Zachary would have blurted out whatever he wanted to say before Damon had even turned, but Tyber waited patiently as he always did.

     Damon looked past his son to the gelding.  The creature’s head was held low, almost to the ground.  His sides were sunken and his legs were braced in a fashion that suggested they might buckle soon.  Puss trickled down from the corner of the animal’s eyes and its breathing seemed labored.  With blister-filled lungs, he would soon begin bleeding from nose and mouth. Damon had lost his own horse days ago in the same fashion.  With the first sign of the plague being fever, a loss of appetite was soon to follow. And soon after that, things became truly unpleasant. It had started with the animals before it moved to his people.  Only the strongest of the beasts had survived the first wave, but now apparently they too were succumbing. 

    “I know Father, he is almost done for.  I wish I could end his suffering. He deserves better. But I fear I may need the last of his strength.  We’ve just gotten word that Merro’s men have broken through in the north.  If we don’t answer they will win through to the capital.” Tyber’s voice was thick with grief and came out almost choked.  “I doubt he will make it too far but anything is better than nothing.”  He added. 

    Damon remained silent.  He was unsure how to tell his son there was nothing in the capital to save.  Word had come this morning before the battle that his wife and daughter were victims to the plague.  Damon gritted his teeth and forced his imagination away from the images of their bodies twisted in sickness.  He wanted to keep his last memories of them as pure as they had been.  There could be no denial though; he would have to tell his son they were dead.  He would have to tell them all that the capital was burning.  He had ordered it so himself.  It had reached the point where it was easier to move the living from the city than it was to move the dead.  He stared past his son in the direction of his home, his former home he corrected.  By now, it would be nothing more than ashes. How exactly did one tell their children that their beloved mother was dead? The woman, who had nursed them at her breast, cradled them when they were upset and loved them so fiercely.  How could he tell his two sons that their little sister, who was not even old enough to have known a first kiss, was dead despite how they had always protected her.  No matter how strong they had been, no matter how large their armies, no matter how proud their house, Veir had fallen.  Slain by an enemy they could not fight before this army had even arrived.  House Veirasha’s last survivors stood on this corpse-littered beach with an army twenty times their own rocking at anchor in their harbor.  Veir was lost; there could be no denying it.  Despair crept over his mind again and he firmly pushed it away once more.  He had two children left; he must do what he could for them.

    “Father?”  Tyber’s voice came again, pulling him back from his dark line of thoughts.  He looked back at the gelding before turning his attention to his son.  Damon could remember teaching his son to ride on that horse.  Tyber had spent countless hours training with lance and sword on the sturdy grey.  Not for tourneys of course, Tyber was his father’s son and had never been the sort for that glamour.  He and that horse had trained for this day to come when Veir would need protecting, if it were ever invaded. There was no way to train for what they faced now; no way to prepare for plague-stricken lands.  Damon watched as the animal swayed back and forth. It was so far gone, yet refused to give up. No matter how hard Tyber had pushed the animal during training it had remained as stubborn and solid as his son; never admitting defeat and never giving up.  Sometimes we are not given a choice on the matter though Damon thought grimly. What was that saying the knights had? ‘A knight is nothing without his horse.’  There was also ‘A knight is only as good as his horse.’ neither rang well on his ears at the moment.  His son was still watching him, his grief turning to concern at his father’s long silence. 

    “Put him to rest, Tyber.  End his suffering in thanks for the loyal service he has given you.  Then fetch your brother and his comrades and bring them to me at my tent.  We have much to discuss.”  Damon’s voice was barely above a whisper. 

    A ragged cheer broke from his pathetic army and they both turned to look in amazement.  A cheer was the last thing Damon expected from a defeated army wracked with plague.  These men could barely stand and hold swords; how did they possibly find the energy for yelling?  His eyes found the source of their attention soon enough.  Victory, the young man on the white horse, gestured towards a ship with one hand.  Damon tried to ignore the sick irony to the boy’s name.  It was like the Faydwer to name their children in such a fashion no matter how wrong it might prove to be in the future.  No, that wasn’t fair; this was his defeat not the young Faydwer’s.   Damon felt the brush of strong magic wash across him.  He narrowed his eyes and watched Victory with curiosity.  The boy’s hand was still raised out in front of him, his arm rigid with the muscles straining.  His palm turned upwards as though he were lifting a great weight. 

     Tyber raised his eyebrow and looked to his father.  “The ships are protected; the Barllen on the hull’s will absorb the magic.  What is he doing?”

     Damon shook his head slowly in answer.  Tyber was right about the Barllen.  They had discovered that one the first day of the assault.  Magic was useless when Barllen was involved. The metal was not picky about what it absorbed. Whether helpful or deadly, it stole both. 

    Victory’s hand rose slightly and his horse pranced in the surf sending a spray of sea water several feet in the air.  Damon wondered idly how it was that the plague chose its victims with such care.  Only days before Tyber’s horse had been as hale and healthy as the white.   Today, it stood on death’s door while Victory’s danced.  His musings were suddenly silenced as the army gave another cheer and a thunderous bellow split the air.  The water around the anchored ships boiled and churned.  Screams of terrified men washed back towards them.  A scaled head nearly the size of one of the ships broke above the waves and let loose another bellow that seemed to shake the ocean itself.

    “By the Aspects.” Tyber said in a voice barely above a whisper.  “He summoned a bloody serpent and a damn big one at that,” he finished in a tone of disbelief.

    The enraged serpent rose higher in the water with its neck and head now cresting nearly thirty feet over the biggest of the fleet.  With a triumphant yell, Victory released the magic that controlled the animal and sagged in his saddle.  Cheers erupted from his army once again as the serpent turned its full wrath upon the ships.  The sound of cracking timbers and dying men came to them faintly across the harbor and Damon watched in silence as half a dozen of his enemies ships found a grizzly end. 

     “Impressive,” Damon admitted with a slight nod.  He turned back to Tyber.  “Still not enough though.  See to the horse Tyber and then fetch them as I said. He said as he walked slowly towards his tent. As far as he could see only one choice remained to save his son’s and it wasn’t a good one.  He could try to convince them to simply leave Veir, but he knew without speaking the words they would refuse.  As much as he himself would refuse had anyone suggested it to him, which left only the most drastic of choices.    

    The tent flap pushed open and Zachary strode in. Although his raven black hair was in disarray and he seemed worn down, he worse a fierce grin. “Did you see the serpent, Father?” He asked.

    “How could he miss it?”  Havoc muttered as he followed into the tent.  The Firym was typical of his people in coloring with swarthy skin and red hair. In this tent he looked as out of place as a cardinal amongst ravens.  Damon gave a slight nod and motioned them to a seat.  The news he had was not pleasant and he’d rather his son be seated and disarmed.  Getting his sword away from him was doubtful but he would settle for seated.  Zachary was fiery of temper, a trait he must have gotten from his mother. Damon doubted he himself had ever qualified as fiery. 

     Victory entered next looking exhausted from his efforts yet triumphant.  He gave a respectful bow to Damon and took a seat himself.  Damon motioned the boys to the food on the table.  He himself had no appetite He hadn’t felt hungry for days, especially not since the fever had finally gone.  And it’s already begun on my lungs he thought grimly.  He watched the entrance and waited patiently for Tyber.

     The tent flap pushed open for a last time and Tyber entered, his expression bleak and his eyes filled with grief.  “I just received the report from the capital, Father,” Tyber said.

    Damon gave a slight nod and motioned his son to sit.  “Your brother has not as of yet, either,” he reminded Tyber gently.

    “What news?”  Zachary asked his tone filled with concern.  He looked between his father and brother and his expression darkened.  “What news?”  He asked again, this time making it more of a demand.

    “Calm yourself, Zachary,” Tyber warned.

    Havoc and Victory exchanged glances and Victory rested a hand lightly on Zachary’s arm.  “I’m sure that is why Lord Veirasha has called us in here, Zach.  To tell us.”  Victory smiled gently as he spoke in a weak yet firm voice. 

     “They have broken through our northern border, Zachary,” Damon began.  He watched Zachary tense at the words, exactly as he had expected him to.  If he didn’t push forward now Zachary and his two companions would be riding north within the hour.  It would seem the way to tell his children the wretched news was quickly and bluntly.  He didn’t have the luxury of time to spare Zachary’s feelings. “Our capital was already lost, however. I received word this morning that your mother and sister died in the night.  What remains of our people have set the city to flames.  There were too many dead for the survivors to properly tend.”  Damon watched grief wash over his child’s face and had to force himself to continue speaking.  “Veir is lost,” he finished, his voice hoarse with emotion.

    “We still live! Veir is not lost until I no longer breathe!”  Zachary all but yelled his defiance in a voice that burst with pure raw emotion. 

     “My Lord Veirasha, if I call, my people will answer.  Give me leave and I will send for Faydwer’s armies. I know my father would never refuse you,” Victory offered.

    “The Firym are always ready for a fight.  We will guard your borders while your lands recover.  My cousin waits even now with a full contingent of Flame Riders at the borders. Give your word and they will fight either here or in Merro,” Havoc added, not to be outdone by Victory.

    Damon shook his head slowly.  “Your offer is generous, both offers.  But, no, I will not bring my troubles to allies. I cannot risk that the plague would spread further,” he said with regret.

    “You mean to surrender?”  Zachary demanded in an incredulous voice

    “Never,” Damon returned.  For that single word the grief and despair was gone from his voice and the word came strong and filled with determination. Damon Veirasha High Lord of Veir did not surrender.

    “What do you mean to do?”  Tyber said, cutting his brother off before he could speak again.

    All eyes were on him, each expression as different from the next, Damon noted. He saw grief and hope and outrage painted clearly.  Victory alone wore an expression of respect as if the boy could already see what Damon would do. “I mean to end this,” Damon answered in cold finality. 

    “How?”  Tyber asked in a voice heavy with skepticism.

    Damon ignored the question and turned his attention to Zachary’s comrades. “While I cannot think of proper words to thank you both for your assistance I’m afraid the two of you will have to leave Veir very soon.  This is not proper treatment for such valued friends but I’m afraid it’s for your own safety that I ask you to go.”  He stated in a cool and firm voice, there was no room to argue with him when he used that voice.

    “As you say, Lord Veirasha.”  Victory bowed his head and gave Havoc a light smack on his arm.  “We will not argue, Havoc. We will do as the High Lord requests,” he spoke firmly and Havoc’s eyes narrowed. 

    Damon watched the two of them for a moment.  Neither of them realized he knew of their status with the Fionaveir.  Normally he would avoid bringing the topic up given the Fionaveir were considered outlaws by most, but he did not have the time for delicacy.  “I would ask you take word of this day back to the Fionaveir.  I would ask you give my regrets to Caspian.  I think his plan would have worked had we been given the time,” he said and both young men froze.  Havoc actually looked down at his own arm as if to see if the tell tale tattoos of the Fionaveir were showing.

    Victory recovered first; the shock slowly melted away. As his green eyes stayed attached to Damon’s face, he gave a slight bow. “As you say, Milord.  We will report all we have seen,” he agreed.

    Damon gave them a nod and turned his attention back to his son’s.  “I do not intend to surrender.  Veirasha do not surrender.  Death before dishonor.” He reassured them both.  He picked up a bottle from the table and poured them all a glass of the fine dark wine.  “All of you have one last drink to Veir and House Veirasha.  We end this soon and when it is finished neither will exist.  Drink to the memory of what was bright and true.  What is left will be much darker I fear.”  Damon lifted his own glass to his lips as he spoke. He watched the confusion play across their faces but they humored him and drank.  “Tyber,” he said and waited until his son set his glass back down and gave him his full attention.

     “Yes, Father?”  Tyber asked.

    “I name you lord of this land now before these witnesses.  What is left of me after this will not be fit to lead.  What remains of Veir will not be much and you may hate me in time for what I gift you with.  But if our line is to continue we must take what remains to us and make it our strength.”  Damon’s voice was filled with resignation. 

    Both of his boys looked at him in confusion and Zachary looked ready to object but Damon silenced them both with a gesture.  “Victory, Havoc you should go,” Damon said as he looked back down at the wine in his hand.  It set poorly in his stomach and he wasn’t sure if it was the sickness or the situation.  Either could turn a man’s stomach.  He watched the two outsiders leave and looked to his sons.  “Be strong, be honorable, and always remember this day. This plot was not Merrodin‘s alone, Tyber. Merrodin hasn‘t the wit for the plague that was sent to us.  Watch for his accomplice and see that he is punished for his crimes.”  He said and stood slowly. The boys followed him out of the tent, their expressions unsure.

     “I have no idea what is going on,” Havoc complained.  Victory had nearly used the last of his magic to transport them beyond the borders of Veir.  He sat on Avalanche his great white warhorse with his eyes locked on the green hills of Veir in the distance.

    “Damon is going to do something very drastic,” Victory replied, his eyes never leaving the distant hills. 

“But what?”  Havoc asked.

    Victory ran a hand down his horse’s neck and gave a slight shrug.  With a grim smile he slowly dismounted.  “Why don’t we see?”  He offered.  With a slight gesture of his hand a small circle of light formed before the two of them. In moments it coalesced into a perfect image of the encampment they had so recently left.  They both watched in silence as Lord Damon moved to a hill overlooking his eastern seashore.  The lord scarcely looked older than his two sons.  He moved gracefully despite the plate mail he wore and his jet black hair was as unmarred by grey as his face was of wrinkles.  Tyber and Zachary followed in his wake.  Zachary walked with a defiant set to his shoulders with the reins of his horse held in a clenched hand. Tyber followed moving with grim determination.  To anyone watching, the remaining Veirasha did not look defeated.  Tired? Yes. Grief stricken? Most certainly, but not beaten.  Damon took a moment then, at the top of the hill.  He turned and looked to his lands.  The lush green fields once so full of life. The once shining sands of his coasts now reflected the blood-stained battlefield.  It looked to Victory as though he were trying to commit these last sights to his mind. 

    Havoc raised an eyebrow and looked to Victory with a questioning glance but remained silent.  Victory shook his head slightly and gave a faint shrug but never took his eyes off of Damon.  The old lord was gathering power.  It was done so subtly that Victory had thought him simply admiring his lands.  He should have known better.  Damon was coldly practical and that was an action of a sentimental man.  He was gathering a lot of power Victory realized.  Far more than he himself would even dare to attempt to hold.  Tyber and Zachary seemed to realize what was happening then and they looked to each other for an answer.

    It all happened so quick not even the greatest mage could have countered it.  Damon gave very little indication he was gathering power and none at all when he released it.  The air around him blackened and the sky above went pitch, all signs of the clear spring morning gone.  The land of Veir began to wither and what remained of his army died where they sat.  Victory watched dark mists swirl around the Veirasha lords and they seemed to disappear in its embrace.  With a roar the magic consumed Veir with savage hunger, and then standing in the midst of it all was Damon.  Stepping from the black mists like some terrible wraith.  With a pale hand he gestured towards the ships and then to the east, towards Merro and the Lord who had sent these disasters upon them.  The magic seemed to swirl faster and part of the blackness gave way leaving Veir seeming to be trapped in twilight. 

    “I claim destruction.  I claim the mantle and if any dare challenge me let them do so now,” Damon said in a voice as cold as ice.  He waited for a long moment then turned to his son’s.  Their once silver armor was darkened to black.  A halo of shadows seemed to surround them as they moved.  “Veir is gone, what remains shall be Oblivion.  They sent death and destruction to us, so we take it now and make it our strength,” Damon said to his sons.  They looked at him with faces devoid of emotion and solemnly nodded.  Victory gave a slight shudder at the sight of Zachary so cold, he had known him for half his life and Zach had always been vibrant.  He seemed a shell now after the magic.  Damon motioned towards the encampment below and shadowy and twisted forms began to rise.  They bore the vague shape of a man but nothing more than that.  All humanity had been stripped from these souls in death.  “These are your subjects now, Tyber.  Manage them well for they will always be eager to destroy.  Keep them on a very short leash, and when you find the accomplice…remove that leash. Never remove the strength of Oblivion from them, to do so would be to surrender them to death.”  Damon’s voice was cool and firm, his son’s knew better than to speak when he used that tone.

     Victory shivered slightly as he watched and glanced up to Havoc. His scry began to flicker and then died. His strength was too far gone to maintain it summoning the serpent had simply been too draining on him. 

    “What in the name of the Aspects was that? He just destroyed his own lands,” Havoc muttered.

     “That was the ascension of an Aspect. Out of all of them, Lord Veirasha will be the closest to a true god. He has just claimed destruction a mantle no other dared to take up,” Victory answered.  He had never thought to witness such a thing.  His gaze turned towards Merro.  “Woe be to his enemies,” he muttered.

    Havoc remained silent for a long while as he stared at the distant black cloud where Veir had once proudly stood.  “So we report to Caspian now. I’m sure he will just love this report.”  Havoc sighed.  

    Victory shook his head slightly in disagreement.  “No, now we?  Let me rest and regain a bit of power, and then we go to see what remains of Merro,” he corrected in a quiet voice.  He doubted they would find anything remaining at all.  In the conflict of Merro and Veir, there was no victor. As Damon had said he would, he had ended it. A Veirasha was always good for their word.  “I told Lord Veirasha we would report all and we can’t do that until we see Merro.” 

    Havoc gave a slight nod of acceptance.  “Rest then if you think you can, I know I won’t.  Whether he was walking or not I believe I just witnessed the death of a friend.  That creature in the black armor was not Zachary Veirasha,” he spoke in a quiet voice his expression solemn.

    “Zachary Oblivion now, I suppose, or something of those lines. We will know in time,” Victory said as he unrolled his bedroll and wondered if he actually could sleep. 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

Chapter 1

Northern Merro

 

 

The sky was lightening with dawn when the first of the noises started below.  She listened carefully, straining her ears for the sounds.  First was the soft cry of her brother, followed soon with mother’s soft footsteps and soothing sounds.  Then the heavier tread of her father as he headed downstairs.  She had learned that there was a proper time to leave her room.  If she were up too early Mother would know she’d had another nightmare and that upset her.  Silently, Jala adjusted her position in the window sill and watched the last of the stars fade from the sky.  She’d go down when the rattle of dishes started.  If Mother was occupied with cooking breakfast she wouldn’t notice how alert she was. Father would of course, there wasn’t much he missed.  The nightmares didn’t seem to bother him though, not like they did Mother.  She didn’t really understand that but didn’t spare much thought for it either.  It’s just how they were and she accepted it. 

Last night’s dream had been the worst ever, but she hadn’t run to her parents.  She hadn’t cried either, she had huddled for a time snuggled against Cap and the dog had eased some of the terror. The amulet had helped, too.  She lifted her tiny fingers to the necklace.  Her Aunt Carissa had given it to her when Father had told her of the dreams.  She was a priestess of Fortune and said her god himself had blessed it. 

A whine came from the bed behind her and she turned to see Cap poking his black and white head from under the blankets.  By now, the collie was used to the routine too and he had heard the tell tale rattle of breakfast.  With a quick nod to him she slipped back down from the window sill and pulled her boots on.  She had dressed hours ago but had known better than to put on shoes.  Bare feet could move silently while booted ones would not.  Cap stood waiting silently by the door by the time she crossed the room, his shaggy tail wagging as his eyes gleamed at her expectantly.  With a grin she ruffled his head.  He was gone as soon as she opened the door. She closed her door quietly and listened to the clatter as he made his way down the rough wooden stairs then the chuckle as her father opened the back door for him.  She made her own way downstairs her pace somewhat slower but not by much. 

“Morning, sweetling,” Her mother called as she entered the kitchen.  Her brother was already seated at the small table with a glass of milk and bowl of thick porridge in front of him.  He gurgled his own greeting to her and clapped his hands.  With a quick hug to her mother she surveyed the countertop to assure herself that her brother would be the only one eating the porridge.  Thick slabs of bacon sizzled in the pan and her mother was busily finishing biscuits.  She concealed the sigh of relief and gave her mother another quick hug as she headed off to find her father.   

As she had expected he was seated on the back porch stairs sipping his tea and watching the world outside awaken.  She moved as quietly as she could and sat beside him leaning her head on his arm.  It was their routine.  How they spent every morning.  She would awaken first and pretend she hadn’t, Mother would cook and she would sit by father and his steady presence would diminish whatever lingering parts of the dreams refused to be ignored.  He didn’t even have to say anything, it was just him.  It didn’t matter what was wrong he could fix it. 

“Going to be a good day for riding today,” he said quietly after a long silence.  His voice was deep and mellow and as soothing to her as it was to the animals. 

     “Momma said I had to help in the garden today,” she answered just as quietly.  Her own voice reminded her of squeaking compared to his and she frowned.

     He looked down at her and smiled.  “Let me handle your momma, I said you could go with me to check the cows and Blackjack will need to be exercised.”  She grinned back up at him and nodded. 

     “Want to help me feed?  Not right for us to be getting breakfast when everyone out here is hungry, too.”  He asked as he slowly stood and set his tea mug on the railing of the porch.  “Your mother will be wanting fresh milk, too. Best see if you can find Daisy and round her up.”  With a bound she was on her feet and racing off towards the barn.  This too was normal and she knew exactly where to find the old cow. 

      He was just finishing graining the horses when she entered the barn leading the docile old Daisy.  She gave the lead readily to her father and moved to the horse stalls.  Buck, her father’s huge roan, ignored her and stayed completely intent on his grain.  

     Blackjack, however, looked up with curiosity as she clambered up the stall to sit on the top rail.  She thought he was smaller than Buck by a good deal, but sleeker with a coat the color of pitch, four white socks, and a thick blaze.  Not a mark on him either; he was perfect. He was by far the best name day gift she had ever gotten, aside from Cap of course.  Father had given her the collie last year and Blackjack this year. Mother teased that just once he should give a gift that didn’t eat. Jala, however, disagreed. There were no children close…well, none her age anyway, and so she had her dog and now Blackjack for company.  She had her brother of course, but her horse and dog was a lot more fun than a baby.  Maybe when Jacob got older he would be fun to play with but she doubted it.  Wrapping one arm around a post to keep her balance she reached out and pulled hay from Blackjack’s forelock. He nickered to her quietly and pushed her gently with his muzzle.  She’d only had him three days and already he knew her well enough to expect treats.  “I’ll bring them after breakfast.”  She whispered to him.  When no carrots or chunks of dried apple were produced he went back to eating his oats and she turned to watch her father milk the cow. 

      He had rolled up his sleeves for the milking and she studied the tattoos on his left arm thoughtfully.  He had scars as well, long narrow ones that crisscrossed both arms and a couple on his shoulder, though she had only seen those once.  She cast a glance back towards her father’s horse.  Buck had scars like that too, one long one that ran down his shoulder and another smaller one across his jaw. 

     “How come Buck has scars, Daddy?”  She knew he wouldn’t talk about his own scars because she’d tried asking before.  He would speak of those no more than he would speak of the tattoos. But maybe if she found out about Buck’s she would understand his. He’d joked once that he’d had the horse longer than he’d had his wife and he’d sooner part with the wife. Old man Walker had been trying to buy the roan at the time, Walker had laughed and mother had swatted father lightly and the matter had been dropped.   Her father glanced over his shoulder towards her and smiled. His dark hair fell down over his eyes briefly and he gave a slight shrug as he pushed it back with his arm.    

     “Because he wasn’t always a farmer’s horse anymore than I’ve been a farmer.  He earned his right to this relaxing life, same as I did.” He replied and turned his attention back to the cow.

     She frowned at the answer.  Father’s life was hardly relaxing; he worked from the time the sun rose to when it set.   She chewed on her lip a moment and considered his words.  It was no more than she got when she asked about his scars.  She looked back toward Buck.  The horse’s head had risen at the sound of her father’s voice and he watched him intently. “But how did he earn them?” She tried again not really expecting an answer.  Her father was silent so long she was sure he wasn’t going to answer.

      He stopped milking and began to stand slowly to not spill the milk.  She clambered back down from the rail and took the pail from him.  “I suppose the simplest way would be to say he was a soldier.”  His voice was quiet and thoughtful.  He rolled his sleeves back down and turned his gaze to Buck.  She remained silent hoping he would continue.  He smiled down at her and took the pail back knowing if she carried it to the house she would spill over half of it despite her best efforts not too.  “The simplest answer is not always the best answer though; soldier isn’t exactly the right term since we never served in an army.” 

     He started walking back toward the house and she followed closely on his heels.  What he had given so far was more of an answer than she usually got and she wasn’t about to let the topic go so easily.  Father never spoke of his life before she was born.  Mother would occasionally speak of life in the city; hers was a boring past though.  She would speak of fancy dresses and parties and things of very little interest to Jala. 

      Jala tried desperately to think of a way to phrase another question before they got back to the house because she knew he wouldn’t speak anymore on the topic once they were inside.  “Where did you fight if not with an army then?”  She asked hopefully. 

     He studied the clouds as he walked with the same thoughtful expression.  “Oh just about everywhere I suppose. I’ve been to most of the other lands.  I fought when and where I was needed to fight.” 

     She felt her smile grow wider.  “So you were a Justicar, then?”  Excitement was thick in her voice.  She’d heard plenty of stories about Justicars from the Walker children and the thought that her father had been one thrilled her.  They were noble protectors in all of the stories, dashing knights saving villages and protecting the weak.  Her father had stopped at her words and she gazed up at him with adoration.  Her father was tall and strong with hair still dark with no sign of grey.  She could see him protecting the weak easily.  Her father must have been the best of all of the Justicars. 

     “Where did you hear about Justicars?”  He asked, his tone was not one she was familiar with.  He didn’t seem upset, or unhappy, it was guarded almost cautious sounding.  He was looking down at her with little to no hint of his usual grin on his face.

 

     Her enthusiasm died a bit and she answered quietly.  “From Nathan Walker.  He was telling stories about the troubles in the South near the capital.  He said everything was a mess until the Justicars sorted it out.”  Of course there had been more than just the most recent story but she wasn’t sure about her Father’s mood right now and unlike his words earlier the simplest answer did seem the best to her.

    He nodded slowly.  “Nathan does like his stories.  But you must remember life is not like stories.  Things may seem beautiful when you hear about them, but once you see them the truth is not so pretty.”  He started walking again by now they were almost to the porch.  “And no, Jala, I was never a Justicar.  Not even close to being a Justicar.  Run on ahead and see if breakfast is ready while I strain the milk,” he asked.   She nodded to him and ran on ahead not missing the fact that her father was staring off towards the south.       

     Her mother was setting the table as she entered the house.  The delectable scent of fresh bacon and gravy made her mouth water. Watching her mother closely, Jala crept toward the table with her violet eyes fixed on the stack of biscuits. 

    “Wash your hands,” her mother directed without even a glance up.  Jala hurried to the basin and hastily scrubbed her hands clean.  She hadn’t really thought them dirty. All she had done was lead a cow and pet a horse but mother was particular about such things and it didn’t pay to argue.  She dried them quickly and found her seat at the table.  “Wait for your father,” her mother added needlessly.  She sighed and fidgeted and watched the door for her father.  By the time the door finally creaked open she was sure she was about to fall over from starvation.  He crossed the room and set the cream bowl and the milk pail down before giving her mother a kiss.  He cast a smile at Jala and ruffled Jacob’s hair as he took his own seat.  Jala felt a nudge by her leg and glanced down to see Cap looking up to her hopefully she grinned and ruffled his head the same as her father had Jacob’s then found herself glancing quickly at her mother.  If she had noticed Jala touching Cap she would make her wash her hands again. 

     “Looks good, Maggie,” he said as he surveyed the piled biscuits and gravy.  Her mother smiled and sat down as well.  Jala watched them a moment. It often amazed her how mother could seem so serious but a few words from father could make her expression soften so much.

    “Just simple fare.”  She replied and began piling food onto the plates.  She had braided her hair up into a tidy bun and her dress looked fresh pressed.  Jala ran a hand through her own wild curls and frowned.  She should have braided it before she came down.  That would have pleased mother.  Her mother always looked tidy, no matter what time of day.  She was always neat and pretty.    

     “The Walker boys are coming over to finish plowing the north field this morning. I expect they will be here within the hour,” her father began, pausing only long enough to pour himself another cup of the hot bitter tea he liked so much.  Jala wrinkled her nose at the smell of it and took a sip from her own cider.  “I asked them to bring Becka along to give you some help in the garden.”  He finished and began to eat his breakfast. 

    Mother looked to Jala then back to her father.  “Becka would be fine help but I have Jala to help me.  Surely Becka’s own mother could use her help.” 

     “The Walker’s have more children than I do cows, half the time I wonder how they feed them all.  I’m sure Lacey will have plenty of help in her garden and Becka will earn a few coins by helping in ours.  Besides, she is twelve; she will be more help than Jala.”  Jala kept her eyes on both parents as she ate. Her mother had an eyebrow arched and her father had that slight grin that showed he knew he was going to get his way.

    “Jala will need to learn how to garden or her family will starve.  Remember the first year we settled out here.  Half my plants died and we had to buy most of our food. By spring we could barely afford more seed.  I wouldn’t wish that on my daughter.” 

    “Jala is only seven with plenty of time to learn,” her father countered smoothly. 

    She felt the nudge at her leg again and slipped Cap a thick piece of bacon sure neither parent would notice.  Taking another bite of food she sat back and watched as her father smoothly guided the conversation.

     “I won’t have time to watch her, better that she helps me so I know she isn’t getting into mischief,” her mother said mildly.  She had recognized the direction of this talk by now and her objections seemed half hearted.

     Her father looked shocked at the words, his expression almost comical.  Jala repressed a giggle and fed another piece of bacon to Cap.  “Jala?  Mischief?  Why I don’t believe the two have ever met.”  He raised an eyebrow at Jala and gave her a grin.

    Her mother repressed her own grin and shook her head.  “Of course not, not your sweet, innocent Jala.” 

    “Indeed not, my Jala couldn't do any wrong.”  He leaned over and gave her mother a light kiss on the cheek.  “I will be taking her with me to check the cows, surely Mischief won’t find her if she is with me.” 

    Her mother did laugh then.  “No doubt, it knows you far better, why stop at a child when it can visit an old friend.”  She gave another sigh, her smile still showing.  “You do realize you have a daughter, right?”  She asked with another shake of her head.  “You treat her more as a boy; look at her patched trousers, oversized shirt, and wild hair.”

    “Aye, Maggie, I know she is a girl, and I know I’m working on limited time here.  Soon enough she will be all braids and ribbons and afraid of dirt.  Her concerns will be of young boys and new dresses.  Keeping her poor old father company while he checks the family cows will be her last thought.  Let me have the few years of her childhood I have left, please.”  He looked at her with exaggerated pleading and sipped from his tea in time to hide the wide smile.  His eyes danced merrily over the brim at her mother who was laughing softly again.

    “Over played that a bit, didn’t you?”  She asked through her laugh.  “You poor old withered thing, I suppose you can take your daughter out before she turns on you completely.  I think she is going to wear the hide off that poor pony though. She’s been riding him more than walking since you gave him to her.” 

    “He’s a horse not a pony,” Jala objected quietly.  Her father grinned wider and her mother simply rolled her eyes.

    “I’ll saddle Blackjack for her and she can ride about the yard a bit while I get them started on the plowing, then we will be off and should be back by late afternoon,” he stated

     Her mother frowned slightly.  “I don’t like her riding by herself yet, Toby, she is still so little. Wait on the saddling until you are back and she can help me pack a lunch for the two of you.  If you are going to be out till late afternoon you will need it.” 

    “She’ll be fine, that pony wouldn’t spook if you tied a snake to his bridle. Jala has good balance, too.  We shouldn’t need much of a lunch.  Some dried meat and cheese should do fine.  I can fix that myself before we leave out. No need to trouble yourself.” 

    “Horse, not a pony,” Jala objected once again.  A pony was short and stubby and while Blackjack was smaller he certainly wasn’t stubby.

  Both of her parents once again ignored the objection and she sighed.  She slipped another piece of bacon to Cap and watched her mother wipe Jacob’s face free of the newest batch of slobber. 

    “Jala, that’s the third piece of bacon I’ve seen you feed that dog.  One more and he will be banned from the house.”  Her mother didn’t even look up from the baby as she spoke and Jala froze. 

     Her father gave a chuckle and pushed his chair out.  “Com’on, Curly, let’s get that pony saddled.”  Jala hopped out of her chair quickly and raced out the door before her mother could voice another objection.  Cap ran lazily along beside her nearly tripping her twice.  She could hear her parents still talking behind her but didn’t pay attention to the words.  Just as he said he would her father had handled Mother’s objections nicely.  He always did as he said he would.  She wasn’t too sure about his arguments though, she couldn’t imagine ever being the girl he described.  How could dresses ever be better than trousers, you couldn’t climb in dresses. 

     “Now I told your mother you wouldn’t go past the brook until you were with me,” her father said as he sat her carefully into the saddle.  Buck stood saddled and waiting restlessly nearby, and she could see the boys on the road riding towards the house.  She wouldn’t have long to wait before he was ready to go and she tried hard to hide her excitement.  This would be the first time she had gone out with him on her own horse. 

    “I won’t,” she agreed, readily taking the reins up in her hands. On a normal day she would object to not being able to leave the yard, but she wasn’t about to do anything wrong this morning.  Her being able to ride all day well away from the house more than made up for not being able to leave the yard for the short while she had to wait.

     “Shouldn’t take me more than an hour to get them started and then we will be off.  Keep yourself out of trouble till then and don’t go past the brook,” he repeated with a smile.

     She smiled back at him and nodded, watching him swing onto Buck and ride off to meet the boys.  She gave a sharp whistle to Cap and turned her horse toward the yard.  She had no interest in seeing the Walker boys or Becka. The boys tended to tease her and Becka never had anything important to say. 

     Mother was just setting Jacob down near the garden patch as she rounded the house. Smiling she waved happily to her. 

     “Not past the brook, young lady,” her mother called out. Jala nodded back in response.  She eased Blackjack into a trot and took a few turns around the yard, occasionally glancing up to watch either her mother talking with Becka or her father hitching the huge team of draft horses.   She was getting bored quickly and father hadn’t even taken the team up to the field yet.  She looked around the yard trying to devise some game to keep herself busy and out of trouble and her gaze stopped on the large tree near the brook.  It wasn’t past the brook; it was right at the edge.  Her eyes climbed the branches and landed solidly on the thick dark fruits hanging heavily on the branches. 

     With a gentle nudge she urged Blackjack beneath the tree.  She could smell the scent of the fruit now, rich and sweet and too good to ignore.  She judged the distance to the lowest branch carefully.  If she stood in the saddle she could reach it and then pull herself up.  It was still early spring but there was a chance a few of the Jimpa would be ripe enough to pick.  The peaches and plums were still a good month away from harvest, but Jimpa ripened fast and was nearly as sweet as candy. 

     The thought of finding enough to take with them spurred her on and she stood carefully in the saddle and stretched till she felt her fingers brush the branch.  With dexterity that would make a monkey jealous she pulled herself into the tree and began climbing her way to the upper branches where the thickest of the fruit hung.  She glanced back down the tree to see Blackjack daintily nibbling on the grass below the tree, exactly where she had left him.  She smiled and began checking the fruit for ripened ones.  It would be a simple matter to drop back down into her saddle once she was done and then she could surprise Father with the treat.  She looked up toward the north field to see Father riding Buck up the hill while the boys led the draft horses and plow behind him at a much slower pace.  That gave her about twenty minutes to find the fruit and be back down in the saddle before anyone even noticed she was in the tree.  There was plenty of time as far as she figured. 

    She had found three ripened enough to pick when she heard Cap give a sharp bark below the tree.  It was followed by another more urgent bark.  She looked down to see her dog staring toward the south.  Blackjack gave a snort and his small ears pinned back.  She nearly dropped the fruit in shock as the horse gave another snort and bolted running hard towards the north.  In utter bewilderment she watched him run and looked back down at Cap who was whining pitifully.  She followed his stare toward the south and watched in complete confusion as a black cloud covered the entire southern horizon.  It billowed and ebbed almost seeming to pulse with life.  She heard a cry of alarm from behind her and turned her gaze back to see her mother staring after the quickly disappearing form of Blackjack. 

     “Jala!”  Her mother cried out frantically. Her hands were clenched in her apron tightly while her eyes searched the yard.

       “I’m here, Mother,” she called back, her mother’s confusion quickly turning to fear. Cap gave another sharp bark and her mother’s searching eyes found her.  Instead of the anger she had expected she saw relief and fear written on her mother’s features.  If anything that scared her more.  She looked frantically toward the north field and saw her father racing back towards the house.  Buck was stretched out in a full run, the fastest she had ever seen the horse move.  The sky above her began to darken and she heard herself cry out in fear. 

     The entire world began to slow. Jala saw her mother running towards her with outstretched arms, beckoning Jala down from the tree. Behind her she could see Becka rushing back into the house with the wailing baby clutched tightly in her arms.  Her dog barking frantically below, the thundering hoof beats of her father’s racing horse it all faded a bit. The air about her seemed alive and grasping and the sky continued to darken.  She felt a sharp pain on her chest and looked down to see the amulet glowing brightly as the entire world crashed back into full speed. 

     The sky gave a deafening roar louder than any thunder she had ever heard and then a bright flash blinded her to the surrounding world.  She felt a moment of vertigo and realized she was falling, with a cry of alarm as she twisted to land on her back.  The ground seized her roughly and she felt the wind knocked out of her.  She was still blinded from the flash her eyes refusing to focus. The area around her was as silent as death.  She blinked, willing her eyes to work and felt tears welling up.  She wasn’t hurt from the fall, perhaps a few bruises but nothing more, it wasn’t pain that brought the tears, it was fear.  Her mother should have reached her by now; she should hear her father’s horse.  There shouldn’t be this silence.  The world should be chaos right now, not still and utterly silent.  A sob burst from her throat and the noise filled the void as loudly as the thunderclap had a moment before.  There was no answer to her cry.  Her mother didn’t gather her up as she was supposed to.  Her father wasn’t there as he should have been.  The world around her slowly came back into focus and she didn’t recognize any of it.  Everything was black.  The house was gone, the yard, the tree she had been in a moment ago, all of it, gone.  The ground around her was covered in ash, a thick layer of it with more falling from the sky like grey snow.  She stood slowly on shaking legs and scanned the area around her frantically.  Vast, black, and empty.  No sign of her mother or her father or even Cap.  It was all simply gone.  Her mind labored to digest what her eyes were seeing.  Light filled the sky once again followed by a heavy rumbling that actually sounded like thunder this time.  Rain began to pelt down over her.  She knew she should find shelter but there was nothing.  She felt herself begin to tremble of both fear and chill due to the icy rain.  Too cold for this late in the spring.  She scanned the horizon again pleading with any of the gods that would listen to see her father.  “Daddy!”  She called into the pitch, her voice quavering loudly.  A low rumble of thunder was her only answer.  “Momma!”  She called her voice more frantic.  She strained her ears for anything, a bark from Cap, a yell from her father.  Desperate, she called again.  “Momma! Daddy!”  Another sob burst from her chest and her tears ran down her cheeks as much as the icy rain. 

     She stood for what seemed like hours sobbing and staring and feeling all hope drain away.  She was alone and she didn’t even know what had happened.  There had been a flash and then this.  How could an entire world just vanish?  Maybe she had been taken instead.  It made more sense to think she had been stolen by magic than her entire world had been stolen.  Easier to believe she had been whisked off…her mind froze.  Whisked off to where?  She looked around again at the bleak empty landscape covered in ash.  She sniffled heavily again.  In all of the stories she had ever heard at the hearth from her father or from the Walker boys, the only place this reminded her of was the Darklands.  Father said those who are dark and cruel of heart went to the Darklands when they were dead.  The Walker boys said demons roamed the Darklands tormenting the souls of the damned. 

     She felt herself tremble again.  She wasn’t dead though, and she wasn’t dark of heart. She might be dead if she had fallen wrong and landed on her head or neck. She didn’t feel dead but then she didn’t really know how it felt.  She shook her head in dismay and sought her mind frantically for another reason.  She wasn’t dead she decided firmly.  And if this was the Darklands, Father would come and get her and fix everything, he always fixed everything.  And he had been a soldier he had said so, so no demons would stop him. He would cut them down and ride up any minute.  All she had to do was wait. 

     She sat down and tried to ignore the icy rain and forced herself to be brave.  That itself was getting harder to do.  She couldn’t remember ever being so scared, and no nightmare she had ever had was half as frightening as this.   She couldn’t remember ever being alone before.  Even at night she had Cap with her.  He was trying to warn me, she realized with a sniffle.  Blackjack had run but Cap had stayed and tried to warn her.  She felt tears grow heavy in her eyes again and bit her lower lip. 

    “Be brave and wait, Daddy will fix it,” she whispered to herself.  Maybe if she had stayed with Blackjack instead of climbing the tree he would have carried her away from whatever spell had brought her here.  It had to be magic that was the only thing it could have been.  A dark evil spell; just like in the stories. 

    She folded her arms across her knees and rested her forehead on her arms.  She closed her eyes and shivered, trying to force herself to think of something other than the cold and how scared she was.  She wasn’t sure what else she could do and mother always said when you are lost stay in the same spot and someone will find you.  By now, she was sure she was lost; it made more sense than the entire world was lost.  She kept her mind from focusing on details such as why anyone would steal her away; she didn’t want to closely examine the logic of her decision.  That path held too many options she didn’t want to consider.  Hers was a better one, in hers, the world was still as it should be and her father was coming to rescue her.  She steadied herself and began to piece the story together in her mind.  Her father had been a soldier and he had thwarted the plans of a Sorcerer.  So for revenge, the evil Sorcerer had stolen her away.  As she pieced the story together, she felt herself warming to the idea that her father was the hero of this and that heroes always won.

 

 

 

Copyright © 2011, 2012 Melissa Myers
All rights reserved, photos are the property of Melissa Myers