New Excerpt

Excerpt from my latest manuscript:

Chapter 1

Kai stumbled over a body. He tugged at his collar stiff with dried blood, staggering against waves of nausea. Liquid sloshed in his boots and he didn’t want to know why. His right leg refused to bend, dragging like a beggarly dog. Most of his limbs were numb. He moved like a man undecided between life and death. He tore off his bloodstained coat and threw it to the ground. We’ve lost, he realized.

His senseless body carried him south of the burning battlefield pitched over the miles between two dry arroyos and their clusters of shattered elder pines. The sky stretched overhead in orange and crimson hues, streaked with stacks of rising black smoke from fires that burned with nothing to fuel them. How the fires continued without their mages escaped him, but he avoided those twisting flames of greens and reds and blues. The hazy smoke surrounded him, obscuring his vision and direction—the world endless bodies at his feet. The air was lacking and his lungs ached with each breath. Black vultures floated in the stained sky; they crowed to Kai, the dead, and the dying.

His legs collapsed without warning and he braced himself and fell amongst a line of corpses. He urged his body to move but it wouldn’t budge so he waited. The corpses wore his uniform. They were the faces of his country or with no face at all. He retched.

He didn’t know how much time passed before he was able to move again, and even then, when his limbs responded, the effort was limited. He crawled, raised himself on his arms, and sat against the carcass of a nearby horse, another corpse in the same position beside him.

He had hardly the energy for surprise when the corpse moved.

She was an officer of his army, half of her charred, arm mangled. Her once sky blue uniform was torn and stained, her shako crumpled. She struggled to turn, gave up, and looked at him sidelong with her bad side.

He could think of nothing else to say but, “Hello.”

She groaned. “Just how I left things. Would have been fine not coming back.”

“You’re alive.” It was almost a question.

“They left me for later.”

He was young with barely a mustache and didn’t know what she meant.

She smiled to him, blood in her teeth and hair plastered to her dirty face. “It doesn’t matter if we won. Did we?”

After a moment, he said, “Yes.”

“What happened?”

He surrendered the truth. “I was standing near a wagon, the air hissed, and I flew. When I woke up we were all dead.”

“You were in the front, too?”

“Middle.”

She grimaced and briefly closed her eyes. “The cannons. Didn’t expect so many of them. And their range was different, longer.”

“Why couldn’t the mages protect us?”

She waved in the air absently as if at flies but nothing was there. “Who can say? I’m no mage. Seen their amazing and horrifying abilities. We thought. We just thought…”

The battlefield was sundered with chasms wrought by magic.

He had seen hellish fire swathe men, melting them, vanishing their bodies like raindrops into a lake.

And they had still lost. Without the mages, what hope was there?

“It’s over then?” he said, hoping she would argue with him.

The officer coughed blood. She looked at him with her disfigured face and raised a hand and cupped his chin. Her hand trembled until he stilled it with his own. He felt puss and blood sticking to him.

“Time will tell,” she said. “Our people are strong. But this?” She tilted her other hand at those flies. “We have never dealt in war like this.”

He felt his breath leave him and maybe more. His head screamed with the cries of his countrymen, telling him to run, ordering him to fight, and pleading for their fathers and mothers. His family was long dead, gone in the war’s shadowy initiation. What did this world hold for him any longer?

“I wish this had never happened,” he said.

She recoiled from him, clutching her chest, face clenched in pain. “Sorry to leave you with such a grand time. It really wasn’t the goal.” She wheezed with a laugh only to cough more blood, the volume greater.

“Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Take this to my family.” She breathed raggedly as she pulled a medal from within her coat.

“Anything else?”

She grinned. “Tell them I died looking like an angel.”

And she died.

He turned the bronze medal in his hands, running fingers over the embossed elder pine—the emblem of his country. On the back were etchings he couldn’t read, symbol forms he would have learned if his family were alive. He sat for a long time. The strength of her presence remained in her grotesque yet peaceful face. He was ready to die, he thought.

A man called behind him in his language.

Kai turned with hope but upon sight of the soldiers found only dread. His conquerors.

The Strahani soldiers had their muskets shouldered and leered at him. They were men roughly his height, several shades lighter from his dark complexion, and had braids of hair bound in varying numbers of iron rings. One of their rank was not Strahani yet foreign and carried only a staff, which he gripped beneath sharp knuckles as he gazed at Kai. Behind the soldiers stood a coffle of his countrymen looking beaten but otherwise alive.

From the Strahanis, the only man with six iron rings in his braid spoke to the others then approached Kai and in Kai’s tongue said, “You’ll be the last.”

Some soldiers were forcing the coffle to kneel. Another pair pulled Kai to his feet, bound his hands, and roped his feet to the line of his five countrymen. The prisoners were older than him, their faces bruised, blood and dirt crusted in the folds of their noses and ears.

Six Irons stood in front of the kneeling coffle and said, “In order to save your country, you must live. Men like you can keep the worst from happening.”

“The worst has already happened,” one of the prisoners said.

“No. The weakest are all that is left of you: your children, your elders.”

Some of the soldiers whispered in their language and snickered but were silenced by a glance from Six Irons. He was broad man with a jagged beard reaching to his chest and wherever he cast his eyes his aura of command intensified.

“Reformation demands strength,” Six Irons continued, “and without strong men from the war, your weak will suffer. Then the worst will happen. This is your chance to prevent their suffering.” His fluency in their native language offended Kai, a perversion of their tones.

“You expect us to help the Reformers?” the same prisoner said.

Six Irons shrugged. “You remain. You are strong.” He leaned closer. “And you are not mages.” He walked and stood before the prisoner farthest from Kai. “Now you must make your choice.”

Gray streaked the prisoner’s short hair and creases in his forehead furrowed as he stared down the line of prisoners, meeting their eyes. “Never,” he said. He turned to Six Irons and spat at his feet.

Six Irons sighed and turned to the soldiers and waved his hand. They formed a semi-circle with their muskets at the center and barrels skyward. Six Irons plucked a musket ball from his belt pouch and dropped it into one of the waiting barrels. The soldiers curved their crescent to bear on the prisoner. At the word of Six Irons they fired into the prisoner’s chest.

The air thumped and Kai flinched instinctively, his ears ringing and useless. Gunpowder plumes pervaded Kai’s senses, the heavy sulfur odor suffusing the air. He quivered and could not steady himself.

The executed prisoner remained kneeling, as if he might rise, had only paused to rest. As if he could wish and dream and aspire to live. His soul seemed undecided between the corporeal and ethereal. But he was dead. He toppled and the bond connecting him to the prisoners tugged at them.

Six Irons crouched beside the next prisoner, didn’t say a word, just nodded his head at the man like the two shared a sympathy.

The prisoner looked sidelong at the others before shaking his head in resignation, closing his eyes and tilting his face to the sky, his last sun, last cloud. It was only black up there.

Wave.

Load.

Blast.

Kai tried to shake the ringing from his ears, but it only amplified as the next prisoner refused and died. The rings filled his chest.

Only three prisoners remained. It was Kai’s turn.

He wanted so badly to lick his lips but his body had drifted beyond his control. It felt as though he were looking down at himself. He dropped his head and stared at the ground. How fine the dirt looks when finality looms overhead.

Boots filled his vision and a strong finger lifted his chin, forcing Kai to meet Six Irons’ dark auburn eyes. Six Irons lifted his eyebrows and nodded, mouthing soundless words, finger still under Kai’s chin like a fatherly chide.

Kai nodded and a groan fled his body.

The other prisoners howled.

The man beside Kai died with betrayal in his heart and eyes that glared until his last moment was gone in a shroud of gunpowder.

The final man looked at Kai then his alternate future. He nodded.

Six Irons rose, surveying the dead prisoners and shaking his head. He spoke to the other soldiers and a trio cut the other prisoner from the macabre coffle and escorted him away, disappearing amongst the patches of unrelenting fire and banks of smoke. Six Irons freed Kai’s hands and offered him a filthy rag, waving a finger in circles around Kai’s face. “My name is Maka.”

Kai pushed the rag away. “What’s the point?”

Maka shrugged and wiped his own face. “You need to know my name.”

Kai continued as if Maka hadn’t spoken. “I’m ashamed and no rag will fix that. I should be dead, but I chose to live like a coward. I’m not even brave enough to face death.”

“To live another day is brave. You made the right choice for your people and yourself. Trust me.”

“I don’t trust you.”

Maka scoffed and scratched his thick nose. “Good. Skepticism keeps you alive in our line of work.”

Hate—not skepticism—burned in Kai but he kept this to himself, let the anger sear into his memory. He still had her medal in his hand and he gripped it.

“You can keep that,” Maka said walking away.

He had nothing else.

-end-

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November Story #1

Hello!

A short little clip I want to provide for you, my dear reader. Hopefully, you enjoy it (and even if you don’t, expect to see much more from this new character). As always, please leave me any comments/feedback wherever you can!

The Mage Without Magic
~500
He was not sure whether the darkness was in his mind or reality. Several times, he blinked and rubbed his eyes until his vision was sprayed with stars. And yet, when the stars faded, nothing remained of his sight but complete darkness. He knew that this unsettling darkness was real. “What is my name?” he said to the darkness, and when not even an echo dared to reply, he became unsure whether he had ever spoken at all. He opened his mouth to speak again, by habit mostly, for he realized that his voice held no value, that speaking meant a conversation, and a normal one with two people. He would be insane to hold a conversation with himself, or so he thought. So he did not speak.
What is my name?he thought. Where am I, in darkness so absolute, that I dare not take one step? If I take one step, and I reach nothing, have I truly gone anywhere? If I cannot see that my step has taken my somewhere, is it still a step?
He hugged himself and found that he was naked, yet comfortably so. Hesitantly, he reaffirmed the existence of his limbs, the long scrawny arms with barely a hair to the soft skin and the legs, thin, yet still retaining some of the once-muscular form. He tugged at each ear lobe. With his left hand, he snapped his fingers continuously, tracing from his left ear to his right, and back again, then snapped away from his ear and repeated the snaps nuzzled close.

So I exist, he thought to himself, and suddenly, he knew that he had made this assertion before, that this whole act had happened to him already. And fear became real once again.
This is not right! I should be free, with my family, my dear wife, Rona, and my sweet children, Daisy and Dylan, but instead, I am here, in this god-forsaken darkness, trapped not only with my thoughts but also my body. Damn!
Something like a groan escaped his body as the memories flooded back to him.
His name was Kyborn Tjelvjekr, student of Doshta Firn, descendent of the Mountain Circle. He had once been a mage, and that had meant something. People had respected him, sought him for advice, aid, and ability. What did it mean to be a mage? Kyborn searched his mind for the answer to this question, and when none appeared, his hopelessness—much darker than his environment—bore down on him. He crumpled, only vaguely wondering whether his fall would be infinite. It hurt him that he should not know the answer to this question; it hurt him more than knowing he would never see his wife and children ever again; it hurt him, beyond all his memories, and struck deep in every muscle and fiber of his body. He knew he used to be a mage, and yet, with the certainty of his breath and bones, he did not know how he had been a mage.

In his fetal position, Kyborn Tjelvejkr cried himself to sleep, hoping full well that when he awoke, he would forget all he had remembered.

Excerpt #1

Now, I hate making promises, but I said I’d post an excerpt to my manuscript and so here it is (Aside: I suppose I could have edited my last post so that my promise never existed but that’s just shady). Obviously, I’m an insecure writer and will preface this entry by saying that this is a rough, rough draft. Haters gonna hate, but please, not too much. On a more serious note, if you have any feedback at all, please shoot me a message. I’d love to hear from you. On to the excerpt!

—-

Wesley knocked on the thin door, stepped to the knob side, waited, and wondered if cats felt this way outside a mouse hole. A wood stool scraped against a wood floor, and hurried whispers came from inside the room. Heavy boots shuffled and approached the door. What did a cat do when a dog appeared instead of mouse?
A loud and unwavering voice said, “Who is it?”
The faint glimmer of light beneath the door did little for the dark hallway. Wesley closed one eye and placed himself in front of the door and said, “Arm of the State. Cardon Twins, open up.” He returned to the side of the door.
The whispering renewed.
A different voice spoke through the door, rushed and uncertain, “And how are we to know you’re an Arm? You could just be some common thug.”
Wesley grinned. “The only people suspicious of me are the ones I’m supposed to collect. Now, open the door. I’ll give you a moment to consult your twin.”
He placed his ear close to—but not over—the gap between the doorframe and the door. Two blades shivered as they left their leather sheaths. A loud gulp preceded quick breathing. A window inside shattered, followed by startled yells. Wesley hefted the short wood club in his hand, braced a foot against the wall, and yanked the door open. The flimsy door and worse lock flew off their bolts.
The room was small, and a flagging candle sat on a table by a single bed. A chair lay smashed in pieces on the floor. On the opposite side of the room, Brawtin danced. His leather boots slid amidst the shattered wood pieces. He deftly sidestepped the slashing daggers of two men in the room. He maneuvered until he was in front of Wesley, the bed between them and the Cardon Twins. Brawtin flipped the table over and onto the bed. The candle fell off, and the room went dark. Wesley opened the eye he’d shut from in the hallway and closed the other.
The Twins, in their matching skunk fur hats, attacked, only to fall over the bed frame and upturned table. Brawtin grabbed one Twin’s head and bashed it into the table. The man went limp. Ranter, the larger Twin, rose up and faced them but froze as his eyes struggled to focus. Wesley flanked left and as Ranter turned to him, Brawtin kicked the bed at Ranter’s knees. Ranter flailed back, and Wesley dashed forward and struck him upside the head. Wesley and Brawtin exchanged glances, looked at the unconscious men, and laughed silently.
Outside the inn, in the dark night with a slim moon and stars bright overhead, they loaded the unconscious Twins into the back of a prison wagon, slapped the railings, and watched as the horses drove off. They began to light their pipes.
The innkeeper ran out, wiping at his balding head with a dirty towel. “My room, have you seen the damage you’ve done to my room? A horse must have run through it the way everything was broken. I was given no word the Arms would tear apart my establishment!” He stood, panting and flustered.
“The Arms will pay you compensation, sir,” Wesley said. “The paperwork takes a while, but it goes through.” He lowered his pipe, as the innkeeper drew in a big breath. It usually happened like this.
“Compensation, compensation. I have heard of this. It is never enough,” the innkeeper said. “Other inns have had the same thing, and this compensation they get does nothing but pay for damages.”
“Maybe if you denied criminals a room at your inn, this wouldn’t be your problem. Besides, what more could the compensation possibly cover?” Wesley said. He glanced at Brawtin, who shrugged and lit his pipe. Typical Brawtin, helpful as always.
“What more? What of my guests? They flee like sheep from wolves when they hear you upstairs breaking,” and the innkeeper ground his swollen hands together, “and smashing my things! Then what? What then, Arms? I have no more guest money. It has run out my door!”
“Most sheep pens have latches,” Wesley said. “That’s the most I can offer you, sir.”
 The innkeeper squinted sharply as if he were imagining Wesley without his head. He bustled off, shaking his hands in the air and cursing. The inn door slammed shut, and the sign overhead rattled.
Brawtin pointed to a cluster of stars with his pipe and released smoke from his nostrils. “You handled him a bit roughly, Wes.”
Wesley frowned as he breathed life into his pipe. “Me, the rough one? He thinks a horse destroyed his room; but let’s just chalk it up to your lousy footwork.”
“Lousy? They’re the ones who broke the stool, Wes. The window… well, that was my fault, but I wouldn’t have had to do that if you didn’t take your time getting through the door, which—need I mention—you broke. I went through the window and nearly had the both of them before you even showed up. We can bill the Twins for the stool and tack on the window while we’re running the tally.”
“If only that was how it worked.”
They sat smoking by the inn. The streets were quiet an hour before dawn, the only time Wesley considered the middle quarters of the city a nice place. Not everyone felt that way. With the flood of Ash Wars refugees into Irisoth, the middle quarters became the safest spaces in the crowded capital of Strath. The landlords had boosted their prices and rubbed their ringed fingers together. Only the wealthy lived in the middle, where guards from the city’s inner keep patrolled.
Wesley, stood, tapped the ash from his pipe against his boot heel, stowed the pipe, and breathed into his hands. “Let’s head back.”
“Aye.”
They sat in the Arms’ mess hall eating rice and meat porridge, large bread halves and spoons in their hands. Chatter in the hall died down as boots stomped through the aisles and the clattering of armor drew stares. A tall, stooped man, wearing a bright red smock, faded turquoise pantaloons, and a feathered cap cameto a stop at the table of Wesley and Brawtin, scroll in hand. A pair of Irisoth guards stood behind him. Brawtin covered a smirk, porridge dripping from the spoon still in his hand.
The messenger unfurled the scroll, raised it to the light of the late morning sun, and pronounced, “Arms of the State, Tander and Yasule, your presence is commanded by the Baron Tavinstromcask this noon and no later. Do you understand what I’ve told you?” He looked down his nose at them. They stared back and nodded. “Very well; good day,” he said. Quickly rolling up the scroll and tucking it under an arm, the messenger spun on his heels and left in the direction he came. The other Arms had already resumed their idle chatter, and the hall forgot the appearance.
Brawtin leaned back and picked at his teeth. “No later than noon he says? To the center of the city?” He let out a sigh of disgust. “We need to find some wolfish Arms to take our spots, Wes. I’m sure we could find some thirsty kippers willing to take our rotation. Just look at Kepler and Gideon. Those two morons have been drafting their own ale; they’re so bored. Let’s give up the spotlight for a little while.”
Wesley looked at Brawtin levelly, “And then do what?”
Brawtin frowned. “Then what? We live, Wes. These two-week rotations are killing me. We’re not old, but we’re not getting younger, if you know what I mean.” He raised his cup of ale to Wesley, downed it in two gulps and slammed it down on the table. Froth dripped from his unkempt beard. He rubbed his stomach, the other hand stroking against his square jaw.
“I can tell.”
“So, then? What do you say?”
“Let’s just hear what the Baron has to say.”
“Aw, come on, Wes.”
“We can talk it over on the ride.” Wesley stood from the bench, and Brawtin pursed his lips and followed.
Three sections divided the city, one large square surrounding the next: the lower quarters around the middle quarters and the city keep in the center. They climbed into an inbound city wagon that passed the Arms’ headquarters at the southern intersection of the lower and middle quarters.
On board, scraggly passengers from the lower quarters crowded together. Oozing sores covered their faces and limbs, and they could have been heading to the doctor, or maybe the morgue—in which case, they were headed the wrong direction. The government tried its best to keep death outside the city walls, but the Ash Wars had brought sickness and swarms of refugees. Despite the end of the wars, both remained rooted in the lower quarters.
Every person on the wagon, except the Arms, was coughing. A young woman next to Brawtin coughed into her threadbare mittens. He groaned and shifted away from her. “We couldn’t have ridden our own horses?”
“Get to the stables and make it to the keep before noon? I’d like to see you try.”
At the rim of the middle quarters, sewer outfalls gushed their contents, fetid runoff coursing down the cobbled streets, sometimes overflowing onto the wagon tracks. As they drove deeper into the city, the tracks cleared. The wagon sped inward.
“So, what I talked about earlier…” Brawtin said.
“I thought about it,” Wesley said.
“And?” Brawtin raised an eyebrow.
“Not a fan of it.”
“So if you won’t take reduced rotations for your own sake, what about Danai’s? When was the last time you saw your girl, Wes?”
“We need money to live, which means I need to work. I couldn’t really think of anything past that. You?”
Brawtin was silent.
The inner keep was the last sanctum for nobility in the city. A few privileged nobles resided by the wall and their servants attended the keep’s outer landscape. Short, manicured hedges surrounded gardens of roses and orchids. Wesley deflated at the sight of the beautiful flowers. Every spot of land should be dedicated to food when people in the lower quarters were starving. The glistening petals, in their colorful splendor, served as a noble slap in the face. Their wagon empty, they passed under the raised portcullises in the gatehouse, guards eyeing them as they disembarked in the bailey. The portcullises slammed down behind them.
Archers with nocked arrows stared down from the wall. Stable boys rushed forward to check the horses. Two guards inspected the wagon for several minutes.
One approached the Arms. “Weapons?”
Wesley and Brawtin showed they had none.
“Follow that boy.”
“Not much of a welcome,” Brawtin said.
“I wasn’t expecting one,” Wesley said.
“You nervous, Wes?”
“About?”
“Meeting the Baron.”
“Only if we screw it up.”
They followed the boy into the Baron’s hall until he turned and flashed his hands for them to stop. He stepped toward the Baron’s dais and said in a high voice, “Arm Tander and Arm Yasule stand before the benevolent Overlord of Strath, The Golden Gryphon, Baron Tavinstromcask.” The boy scurried away.
Wesley and Brawtin knelt and looked at the floor, each planting a bare fist and palm against the floor, at the steps of the Baron’s dais. Plush red runners swept from every direction like rays from the sun. Drapes hung from the double hammerbeam rafters, embroidered with the Baron’s symbol of a gryphon. Empty pews faced the end of the hall, hemmed in by tables similarly empty.
Guards stood at attention on every runner, placing themselves between the pews and the dais. The Baron sat with his legs crossed. Neither touched the floor, one foot bobbing, and the other tapping against one of the legs of the wood throne. His hands fidgeted on his lap. Frayed, greasy, and long brown hair fell down his aquiline face. He stared down his large nose at them and flicked his hair to the side. He looked more like a resident of the lower quarters garbed in ridiculous finery rather than the Baron of Strath. Not that he was much of a politician. Wesley wondered if the Baron had ever done more than inherit a marginalized throne.
“Can you two tell me why you allowed the Twins to live?” The Baron’s voice was deeper than Wesley imagined, which wasn’t much.
Neither Wesley nor Brawtin spoke. This must be Brawtin’s way of getting back at me, Wesley thought.
“We didn’t deem the Twins to be a viable threat. Sir.”
“I see, and which Arm said that? Please stand.” They stood. “Much better. Regarding the Twins, of course they weren’t threats to two Arms. Especially a pair as well-reputed as yourselves.” The Baron spoke while twirling a single finger in the air as if a large ring spun on it.
“Your instructions for that mission were to eliminate the Twins, not to bring them back to prison. We don’t need more prisoners, as—I’m sure you are aware—they simply return to their criminal ways in less time than it takes for me to order a feast.” He sniffed. “Which is fast.”
“But the point is that you went against your orders and preserved the lives of these miserable cretins. Why?”
“We take pride in our ability to stop murders, not commit them.” Please, don’t be the wrong answer, Wesley thought.
“I see,” the Baron said, “and you carried your mission on during the night, with limited information, and decidedly non-lethal force.”
“Yes, sir. We felt that we could handle the mission, despite the circumstances. There was no need to leave the mission for others.”
“Would you have killed them if they were viable threats?”
“If Arm Yasule or my life was in danger, the mission takes precedence.”
“A diplomatic answer, Arm Tander, and a good one. I trust you’ll stick to this principle for your next assignment. I understand that you two are the best pairing that Mind Sarvant has seen since before the Ash Wars. He talked at length about my father’s era. I got bored, but he said you two were good and that’s what I need.” He paused.
“Anything for—” Wesley began.
“I wasn’t finished.” Wesley felt himself redden. Brawtin was going to have a ball with this one.
“My father’s Ash Wars are over, thank God, but there are still problems with my state. I need it in order. Do you understand?”
Neither Arm spoke.
“Good, you learn fast. Mind Sarvant hasn’t lost his edge yet, it would seem. Here’s the problem: towns are burning. Just yesterday, we received a hawk messenger from the Caroq Outpost near Fandlo. They were attacked, everything burned to the ground. The State Army regiment didn’t get there in time. They found no survivors. As far as we can tell, it was no act of war from Proxelos. I cannot have this nonsense happening in my state.” His voice rose. “Do you hear me?”
 “Several regiments of State soldiers deserted during the war. If it’s them, I want to know. The Liege believes remnant mages from the Ash Wars are responsible. It may be them; it may be them and the deserters. I don’t care who it is. Find those responsible, and if you can eliminate them. I don’t care for you to consider their viability as threats. Needless to say, be wary of whom you reveal your mission. The treachery may run deeper than mages and deserters.”
“But no matter who they are, they have murdered citizens of Strath. I will have order in my land.” The Baron breathed heavily, as if he had never expended that much breath or emotion before. Wesley certainly had not expected this. Rumors always spoke of how the Baron was aloof and uncaring for his subjects, but here, he sounded angry and authoritative.
“Without repercussions, this will happen again. You will not let that be. Find the reason and end it. Those are my orders.”
“I don’t like it,” Brawtin said.
“We don’t get much of a say.”
They sat on another empty wagon, heading back into the middle quarters. The wheels rolled smoothly down the slotted tracks. It was a few hours before dusk and well-dressed pedestrians strolled past one another on the sides of the street. Merchants, with their wares stacked and lined along the road, discussed prices with basket-laden shoppers. Silver coins passed between hands.
“We’ve never left the city, Wes. It’s not our area of expertise that the Baron is throwing us into.”
“It’s not? Seems like it is. We’re trackers. He needs us to find people.”
“Or not people. Mages, Wes. Might be we could have tracked them in Irisoth, but it’s different out there, and don’t act like it isn’t. It may be less violent than when our dads were Arms, but that doesn’t make it any better. And the world isn’t all made of people you can track.”
“I’m not worried about that right now. I need what the Baron’ll pay us.”
“And you don’t need to go dying on Danai, either.”
“What are you trying to get at, Brawtin? We can’t refuse this mission.”
“We can if we aren’t fit for it.”
“But we are, and none of the others can do it. Sarvant chose us. We owe it to him.”
Brawtin scowled. “You got a funny sense of debt, Wes.”
When they neared the lower quarters and the faint scent of putrid sewage, the wagon stopped. Brawtin got off. “See you in the morning,” he said.
“See you,” Wesley said.
The wagon continued pass the middle walls and into the lower quarters. It stopped a hundred yards from the city’s final walls, grimy and soot-stained, towering over the refugee campfires. Wesley looked back up the wagon tracks, at the walls of the middle quarters and the keep, tall on its motte, above it.
“You getting out, Tander?” the old driver called.
“Sharp as always, Bill. Take care of yourself. I won’t be around much starting tomorrow.”
“Sure, see you when I see you. Look after your own self, kid.”
Wesley hopped over the rails. Bill waved a hand overhead without looking, and the wagon—filled again with coughing passengers—sputtered for the refugee camps. The markets in the lower quarters, often resembling muddy hamlets, were crowded with refugees searching for a free morsel or a place to sleep. It hummed with conversation, bickering, and hawking. One false step could land you in a makeshift tent and its perturbed occupant. Wesley stopped at a shack, with broken boards and a ripped canvas covering, and picked up some bruised vegetables. He fished bronze coins from his meager pouch and handed them to the expectant vendor.
He was walking home when a woman yelled, “Wesley, hey, get over here!”
Wesley spotted Emma beside her butcher cart and enormous bull of a husband.
As he reached them, Emma threw a wrapped slab of meat at him. He caught it and looked up in surprise. “Emma, I can’t pay for this. Not even half of it.”
She glanced at his vegetables. “You’re feeding Danai those things? Take some meat, Wesley. You’ve more than helped us before.” Her husband turned for a moment to give a quick nod and grin.
“I can’t take this from you, Emma. You’ve got children, too.”
“And they get meat, Wesley. Give it all to Danai if you want, though even you’re looking leaner than usual.”
Wesley smiled. “You don’t like them lean anyway.”
“Off with you and trim that thin beard. It may as well match your hair. Go on; keep the meat. I won’t take no or money for an answer, but say hello to Danai and ma’am Tander for me.”
“Of course.” He waved goodbye, and Emma turned to shooing off beggar refugees and gathering customers with money.
Wesley climbed the creaking stairs to the landing of his flat. Damp spots stained the walls and dark curves in the ceiling sagged. Oily layers of dirt coated the banisters. Wesley avoided them. When he opened his flat’s door, a child’s scream shook the walls. He quickly—and gently—placed his groceries in a basket by the inside of the door and lowered himself, hands ready. Danai, with her bedtime clothes and huge tangle of black hair, rushed out of the back room and into his arms. Wesley took her up and swung her in the air and into a tight hug.
“Dad, you’re squeezing too hard,” she squeaked between laughs.
“You’re going to get the neighbors upset at me again with a scream like that,” he laughed. “How’s my girl? You behaved for Grandma today, right?” He set her down, and she saluted him sharply.
“Yes, sir!” She marched off, picked up the food, and hurried into the kitchen. “Yum! Meat!”
Miranda, with her cane and old magenta robe, came from the same back room. Her gray hairs looked grayer and her easy smile broke along the familiar wrinkles of her face.
“Somehow getting meat? You’re a magician, Wesley.”
Wesley laughed. “‘That’s about all magic is good for,’ Dad would have said.”
They both laughed.
“Though if there were still mages in the city, maybe then people wouldn’t be starving.”
“Nonsense,” Miranda said. “Mages never did a good thing, and your father and his men fought for the right reason. You should know better. Come on, let’s make some dinner.”
As they ate, Wesley said, “Mom, I got assigned to a long tracking mission. I’m not sure when I’ll be back, but the money will be good. Sarvant will send it over to you while I’m gone.”
Miranda put down her spoon and clasped her knobby hands. “Wesley, what have I told you? It’s not about the money. You have got to make sure you can be here for Danai. She needs you more than a gob of money. Leaving won’t help, and money isn’t a good father. Your own father never learned that.”
“Dad, you’re leaving?” Danai said.
“Not for long, sweetheart. Mom, I’d rather we all get out of here. It’s worth the risk.”
“To where? The middle quarters?”
“No, somewhere else. I don’t know. Another town, Thysdeel, maybe.”
Miranda didn’t say a word, nodded, and looked at her food.
“I’ll see what it’s like out there, whether it’s safe or not, and we can finally live somewhere in peace. We could grow our own food instead of…” He pushed at their thin stew with his spoon.
“You’re going to go no matter what I say?” Miranda said.
“I think so.”
“You had better know if you’re going to leave your young daughter here with her aging grandmother. She can’t go and lose both parents. You’re the last person I should need to remind.”
Wesley sighed and rubbed his eyes. They felt swollen, irritated, and tired. “Let’s not get into that. Please.” He stood and gave his bowl to Danai. “Here you go, sweetheart. Dad’s not hungry anymore. Eat it all, I know you like Grandma’s stew. After that, it’s time for bed.”
“Thanks, Dad! Grandma, I love your stew.”
Miranda smiled wistfully as Wesley left into the backroom. In the dark, he lay on his sleeping mat, listening to the squeals of Danai, the bickering flats below and above, and the skittering mice inside the walls. How often did the cat wind up with the mice?
Outside the city, Brawtin met Wesley at the stables in the morning. They shared a knowing glance.
“How’d Mama Tander take it?” Brawtin said.
“About as well as I bet Helen took it,” Wesley said.
“You got that right. I’m hoping we can wrap this whole mess up quick, Wes.”
“You and me both.”
They rubbed the horses and prepared the saddles and gear. Brawtin nudged Wesley and nodded toward the gates, where a pair of men separated from the stream of traffic and headed in their direction.
“Can you tell who they are?” Wesley said, squinting.
“Looks like Gill and Pommel,” Brawtin said. “You think they’re coming with us?”
“That doesn’t make much sense. They’re terrible trackers.”
“Serviceable. You think everyone is a terrible tracker compared to you.”
Wesley smiled. Tracking was the only gift and remembrance from his father.
Arms Gyller and Pommenisk were one of the stranger couplings. Most Arm pairs were similar in everything except for skills, when opposites complemented one another. In looks, however, Gyller was average sized, with a flat face and nose, hairy hands, and a black braided beard that extended to his round stomach, while Pommenisk was near a foot taller than Gyller, even with his slouch. Pommenisk’s stubble chin, baggy eyes, heavy brow and pockmarked cheeks gave him a haggard face. They both wore the standard brown leathers of the Arms, with the Arm crest: a red fist over a white hand. It reminded Wesley of the sun burning through a drifting cloud.
Arm Gyller waved a hand in greeting. “You two get the same orders from the Baron?” Arm Pommenisk stood stiffly with his arms crossed.
“I guess so,” Brawtin said. “Depends what yours are.”
“Fair enough,” Gyller said.
They continued talking, but Wesley stopped listening. Among the Arms, there were good pairs and bad pairs. Gyller and Pommenisk, while capable enough to have passed the entry and subsequent qualification tests, were notoriously bad. It hardly made any sense for their pairs to be joined on the same mission. Unless they didn’t have the same orders.
“Wes? Wes, you ready to go or what?” Brawtin was peering down at Wesley from his horse. Gyller and Pommenisk were horseback as well.
Wesley blinked a few times. “Sorry, let’s go.”
As they rode from the city’s walls, with Gyller and Pommenisk ahead, Wesley sidled closer to Brawtin. “Did you find out their orders?”
“Gill was about as secretive as I was. Pommel didn’t say a word.”
“No kidding.”
“What’re you thinking?”
“They must have different orders than us.”
“What? That doesn’t make any sense, Wes. The only reason for them to be tagging along is because they have…”

“Right. It’s going to be an interesting trip to Fandlo.”