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Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Last Battle. Cover #4. Extract.

My latest FB entry:

With even greater trepidation than earlier, I present my latest (and probably last) effort, "The Last Battle" cover, version 4.  By the way, my 13,000 word fantasy novelette "The Last Battle" will be somewhere inside the cover. 

Freshly stolen from the January 23 "Daily Scroll" entry, here are the first few pages of "The Last Battle".

The Last Battle

The Old Woman

Everyone was passing me by on the dirt road, gifting me with dust and the stinks of sweat and animal droppings. I was so tired, I woke now and again from a nap the length of a single stride. My feet hurt. It was all I could do to dodge the obstacles on the path.

I stopped and drew a breath through cupped hands, chiefly to look behind and then ahead of me. In the seconds before someone grumbled and elbowed my back, I glimpsed massive sandstone walls proclaiming the proximity of the king’s summer citadel. Only the weekly market booths stood between me and the twenty ell high bronze-braced entry doors. Just before dusk, praise to the One!

The light of the setting sun caught on the armor of warriors pacing high above us across the parapet or circling slowly behind the machicolation in the closest towers. Peddlers, customers, gawkers, beggars and weary travelers were shifting into the restless shadows cast by surrounding trees and a handful of outlying merchant tents. Soon, the market would begin its slow plunge into the denser dim of the great edifice.

I limped as quickly as I could into the midst of the market, dodging others where possible or waiting impatiently for a way to clear. Sweaty filthy bodies, bodies choking in a miasma of drink or cloying perfume surrounded me.

A single trumpet sang one golden note. The first of three warnings, or so I’d been told, before guards and draft animals began closing the gates. Already within sight of the gates and hearing only the first warning. I grinned, the movement of facial muscles puffing caked dust into my nostrils.

Hawkers cried out to me whenever I slowed my pace.

“My lady! My lady! Fresh! Strong as iron! Savory… Precious… A bargain…” Their claims blurred into the common plea for a full day’s profit.

Lady. My lips curved at the word, tugging at skin where splashed mud had dried hours ago. A word only a flattering hawker would use, clad as I was in a mended cape & the piebald patched clothing of a spent fighter.

I blinked and drew a breath.

Cobbler. I was looking for a cobbler.

Would a cobbler have a booth out here on market day? Those with imported satin slippers and tooled leather boots did. Importers, crafters of fine shoes meant for nobles would likely live as close to the courtiers’ manses and the royal palace as they could afford. One who lived by repairing shoes and boots might expect his custom to seek him out somewhere in the narrow interlacing streets just within the walls.

I stopped, realized I’d done so again, and limped forward lest the second warning trumpet find me this far from the gates. Newly-massed peddlers and beggars shoved others aside to clutch at me and gabble meaningless words. Buzzards shrieking a warning to any who might disturb their feast.

I grumbled and clutched at the haft of my smaller dagger. Street patter laced with flattery transformed into curses and a couple half-hearted kicks. I snarled and pulled the dagger free. The buzzard-spawn scattered.

Now to get through the gates lest lingering catch me hungry and without shelter. Merchants were thrusting small objects into lined bags. Others, their eyes on the crowds, reached beneath their tables and carts fumbling out folds of rough canvas sacks, even as they kept up a steady patter for one last customer.

I turned and took a few more painful steps toward the gates.

“A moment, my lady!” whispered near in the soft cracked voice of an old woman.

Not a peddler—unless her voice had given way from a day of hawking.

Reluctant to hang back from the gate, I glanced over my shoulder without stopping.

Somewhere bundled within a clashing collection of tunics, trousers, a skirt far too short, a hood and two shawls each claiming a shoulder was a small dark woman. Her black eyes--reflecting light borrowed from the setting sun—were a compass to her features. Too thin, cheekbones too prominent but she was smiling like a doting granny.

I offered the briefest of nods.

Like quiet water reflecting paired stars, the sparkle of her eyes greeted my gaze.

A breeze crept through the torn patches of my tunic. I shivered and shifted a step backward with my good foot. My hand froze between dagger and sword hilts, echoing my thoughts torn between pity and terror.

The woman’s face crinkled into a smile. “No danger here, my lady. But peril lies within if you are not careful. I have something for you.”

Just another peddler. I allowed my hand to drop.

“Something you will need. Alas, my granddaughter refused my gift and my protection. But you won’t, will you?”

My head shook of its own—making a decision in which my thoughts had no part. Already dismayed at making one choice before considering it, I held out my hand. My sword hand. Fool!

She smiled--the smile showing the gap of a missing tooth—and lifted the strap of a small bag from one shoulder. Surely only the russet shawl had been there a moment before.

Blended dirt and old sweat obliterated what once might have been intertwined flowers on the bag’s padded strap. Wandering past where the strap ended and the bag began, the intricate design laid gentle claim to the ovoid surface of the silk bag.

The flowers—if they were flowers—were varied in hue, bright then shadowed as if caught in turn by noon rays or misted moonlight. No light varied near us except when vendors and beasts passed with their heavy packs.

The woman turned about and scurried away. Yet her voice came clear. “Open it when they think you sleep…”

A growl and a grunt warned of a brawl about to start. I stepped away from the sound but kept my gaze fixed down the twisting empty path beyond the crowds hurrying toward the gate. Shorn of the sun’s light, the garish hues of her clothing deepened into evergreen, violet and the midnight inkiness of the sea on a moonless night. Then nothing.

The second warning rang out over the babbling crowds and the protests of donkeys and oxen.

I hurried toward the city gates, one person caught up in the slow jostling of a multitude. A man clutched my left elbow and forced his way through a gap barely big enough for a child. Had he had a mind to steal the old woman’s gift he might have succeeded. I slung the lightweight bag up on my left shoulder, clenching its strap between my arm and side.

A whisper echoed by many whispers crept within my ears. “The cobbler lives in the third street. Turn right at the shrine. Look for a thicket of sticks once a fence and a green light in a window.” 

The Cobbler

Once past the well-lighted gates and guard posts, night took possession of the thoroughfare. Wary of any cutpurses, I adjusted my grip on the gifted bag the better to use it as a shield. I probably appeared more threatening than the travelers searching for shelter or the city people hurrying from workplace to a beckoning meal and sleep.

In spite of my new grip on the strap, the silken bag swayed and bounced on its shortened tether in rhythm with my uneven steps. I knew nothing of its value but then neither did any would-be thief. Perhaps small loss if it were taken. Perhaps not. Thieves were sometimes known to incapacitate their targets before they knew what prize they might gain.

No longer in the midst of a crowd, I took note of those behind me and to either side.

Many had taken advantage of the first inn we had passed and departed from the group. I should have joined them. The corner of a common room beckoned in my thoughts. Dozing. Warmed by even the scant fire a tin-pinching goodman would permit. Filled with something warm and soothed by the inn’s best brew.

I faltered a step, and blessings that I did! The shrine’s roof peeped over a crumbling stone wall on my right. Just beyond it lurked smoky chapel candles in three arched windows. Gentle song—accompanied by the familiar lilt of a pipe—sounded from the darkened yard. I saw no one.

I looked as far as I could see around the corner. Those still hurrying up and down the crossing street could scarce be deemed a crowd. Had I left all the shops and inns behind?

With a second glance about, more careful than the first, I turned right as instructed. Suppose the shop were no longer open? Had all the city’s proprietors given up on further profit for tonight? Not worth staying open for custom intent on an inn, tavern or brothel.

Just to my left, firelight flared and heavy boots clattered. I spun toward them. My attacker cried out and backed up, sprawling half in the road and half on the shallow steps he had just descended.

A shadow blocked out most of the light. A woman screamed, “Don’t hurt him, I pray you!”

My sword was out. I didn’t remember drawing it. Instinct rarely left memory. I took a backward step. Two. And finally remembered to sheathe my sword.

Amidst a flood of imprecations, the man heaved himself back to his feet. The woman, likely his wife, asked if she should run for the watch.

He shook his head. “Back inside! Just a misunderstanding.” He didn’t look me in the face. Too intent on seeing if my hand would keep its distance from my hilt?

“My apologies, sir! I…”

“…came from the wars recently.” He finished for me. “Where were you?”

Scattered memories of our last battle lurked behind clenched teeth. I shook my head.

“Well, we were in Itera…”

“…the peninsula battle? I was up-river. Thanks for keeping them downwind.”

The man chuckled. “Wilderness Ward, huh? Actually, I missed it.” He lifted a cane and briefly pointed the end at me like a sword.

I thought his leg was intact but the dark and his cape left me unsure. We both drew back another pace—beyond the range of bladed weapons. Twin apologies echoed between us. Why he offered one I couldn’t guess. Then he hurried on the way I had come...   SNIP 

1 comment:

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