Time for the caveats before a sample of my writing. Below is an unedited-but-sort-of-proofread copy of Emergence, Chapter 1. Note that it’s a long chapter, and initially was TWO chapters that got stuck together during restructuring (and might become two again!). Also, the paragraph formatting got screwed up in the copy-and-paste, but I’m leaving it as-is.
I am looking for feedback. Like it? Hate it? Too wordy? Too much action? Not enough action? Lacks creative language? Trying too hard? Not trying hard enough? Of particular concern to me is the “hook” of the first chapter; does it make the reader WANT to read more. Does it introduce enough to make a reader think “this could be good”, or “I wonder what is going to happen next!”. To be fair, I intended the first *several* chapters to accomplish this goal, but agents and publishers sometimes just review the first ten pages or the first chapter in order to make a buy/no-buy decision.
Please know that I am open to criticism because it will help me to become a better writer moving forward. So let me know what you think. Of course, “It Freakin’ Rocks!” is good too.
Have at it!
Argand only raised an eyebrow as the fat, black-bearded brigand slowly drew a cruelly curved scimitar from the sheath at his waist. He had a raw, angry looking scar running straight down the center his forehead and onto the bridge of his nose, and looked like the kind of man who was accustomed to drawing blood.
The thin, hawk-nosed man to his left and the young, angry looking man with the pock-marked face to his right both took the cue and drew the short swords they wore on their waists. Behind them two other thieves, hooded and menacing, drew their weapons
“Here now”, the fat bandit grumbled in a deep, gravelly voice, “less not make doin’s get ugly here, young masters.”
He slowly pointed the broad bladed sword at Argand, standing tall and expressionless twenty feet away across the small clearing, then at the shorter, stockier form of Kosin next to him.
“Ain’t no need for either of the two of ya to get hurt, y’know,” he continued, grinning a nearly toothless grin through his thick and matted beard, “just toss yer weapons and toss yer gold, and we’ll call it smooth.”
Smoke still sputtered upward from the remains of the last night’s campfire, and the two one-man tents that Argand and Kosin carried with them were not yet fully bundled. It was perhaps one half hour after dawn on a cloudy, cool spring morning. A fine time of day for highwaymen to attempt to take travelers unaware.
But not all young travelers are so easily waylaid.
“I am Argand Mason of Eagle’s Reach,” Argand spoke in a loud, commanding voice. “I will give you this one chance, cutpurse,” He squared his broad shoulders lifted his cleft chin high, while gently resting his hand on his leather bound sword hilt. “Leave us. Now. And I can promise you that you will not be injured. This is more than I expect you deserve given the nature of your work… but nevertheless. You have this one chance.”
Argand’s face was set like stone, his square jaw looking as if he were a king passing judgment, not a weary young traveler being assaulted by highwaymen. His thick, wavy black hair was slightly disheveled, as were his clothes. Like a man suddenly roused from sleep, which he was. But his youthful face radiated strength, eyes set, lips a tight line, as if he fully expected the bandits to back down.
And they nearly did. For a moment, the fat thief with the scar hesitated. A look of confusion seemed to cross his face, as if he was not really sure what he was doing. Then he seemed to remember himself.
The skinny thief laughed aloud mockingly, as if trying to cover his leader’s hesitation, while the others just shook their head and smiled in a show of pity. The scarred leader, now recovered from his momentary lapse, waved his scimitar menacingly while he broke into a smile.
“O’ reeeally???” He drawled, stepping closer to the two young men. “Now, lemme see, Eagles-Reachling. You, tall as ya might be, holdin’ maybe twenty-five Summers in the land? And yer wee-short companion there with ya? And yer gonna… uh… let US go unhurt??? When it’s five on two? Mighty bold words, don’t ya think?!”
“Let’s just take these fools, Argand,” muttered Kosin under his breath, “they’re common cut-throats. We can beat them easily enough.” Kosin was almost a foot shorter than his broad-shouldered friend, with wavy black hair and green eyes. He was very muscular for his size, broad in the chest and rather thick-armed. He spoke in a quiet, flowing voice that always made Argand think that he would be a good singer.
“We can take them,” agreed Argand quietly, “but it’s the eight men that have crept up behind us in the brush that concern me, Kosin.”
Kosin’s eyebrows climbed up his forehead in alarm. Argand kept his face frozen, feeling the presence of all of the brigands through his feet as he always did. Every step, every shuffle, every pause… he could feel all of their movements, their very presences, through the ground itself when people were this close to him. It took very little effort for him to differentiate the pulses in the ground and pick out the eight hidden assailants and their movements. He still wasn’t sure exactly when he had realized that the odd sensations actually meant something, that they were so very useful. But during this most recent few weeks of eastward travel from theHighlandsalong the crime-riddenJury Road, he was sure the tell-tale pulses had saved his life repeatedly.
The lead thief had heard Argand. The grin faded from his face, replaced by a puzzled frown that made his raw forehead scar bulge grossly. “How…??? Ya couldn’t have possibly known…,” then he gathered his wits and raised his oversized sword to attack position.
“Well, then, young tho ya are, I guess we’ll be havin’ to do this the hard way!” He advanced.
“Ummm… Argand?” Muttered Kosin under his breath as he slowly drew two of his short, hilt-less daggers from within the folds of his cloak. “Thirteen men? We have been pretty lucky before, but…”
“RUN!” Argand breathed at Kosin, then he took off at a full sprint to his right. He bounded over the dying embers of the fire and disappeared into the brush. Kosin paused for half a heartbeat, then dashed after him.
The five thieves took off in pursuit, and the grunts and exclamations from the nearby woods announced that the rest of the bandits had joined the chase.
Argand angled sharply left through the thick brush and occasional thin trunks of burban trees, his long legs pumping in the chill morning air. Kosin was faster, though, and soon was right on his heels.
“Get ready, Kosin,” Argand panted, swatting saplings from before his face and leaping over a few deadfalls. “A few of these slime are mounted… we can’t outrun them.”
Kosin slid and bounded along next to Argand, much more like a dark-clothed blur than a man. He had a much easier time leaping over obstacles and weaving his way among the woodlands than Argand did, and it wasn’t just due to his smaller size. He had always been especially skilled when it came to athletics, his body just as fluid as his voice was.
“Okay… up ahead,” breathed Argand as he saw the beginning of a thickly grouped patch of adult pith trees, their trunks as big around as a horse is long. There was very little undergrowth between the huge trees due to the lack of light under their heavy canopies. Argand knew the trees were there moments after he had started running. He had no idea HOW he knew, but he knew.
The sounds of horses and men drew closer as Argand and Kosin broke out of the brush and into the pithwood.
“You go up, and I’ll go around,” panted Argand. But Kosin was clearly already of the same mind as he ran straight for a tree.
Kosin said nothing. He rarely spoke during their recent encounters with brigands, cutthroats, and other diverse miscreants all over Jesserin duchy. He leapt at the nearly black trunk of the largest pith tree in his line of sight and hit it hard, letting his fingers find the natural cracks and crags in the rough surface while his toes almost instantly found purchase beneath him. He sped up the tree almost as fast as he had been running a moment before.
To Argand, this was nothing new or surprising. Kosin Fletcher had been climbing trees, walls, rocks, and just about anything else vertical since he could remember. Argand slowed, glamncing back to watch Kosin as he reached the canopy and stepped out onto a large branch positioned over the area. Kosin squatted low, balancing easily, while he pulled several of the razor-sharp, hilt-less throwing knives he carried. He had nearly two dozen of the six-inch long weapons hidden amongst the folds of his cloak and clothing, each held in place by a thin leather sheath lined with steel. The short man was nearly invisible in the dim pithwood canopy, seeming to fade right into the shadows of the giant trees.
Argand knew that Kosin didn’t really want to kill any of these ruffians, but he knew that it might be unavoidable if the thieves proved either too skilled or too persistent. As Argand slowed, he tracked Kosin out of the corner of his eye; he was jumping nimbly from branch to branch, throwing blades held between several of his fingers, working to gain a better line of sight based on wherever Argand chose to hide.
Ahead, Argand saw a small clearing in the wood that would serve his needs, dominated by a group of short, six foot wide stumps of ancient pith trees that had clearly been felled by loggers some years before. Crouching down behind the largest stump and closing his eyes, Argand focused on the peculiar, pulse like surges he felt in his feet and legs and read them as if he were scanning a book. Through the sensations, he could tell that the horses had stopped, the riders now on foot, and that his earlier count had been accurate; he and Kosin were powerfully outnumbered. The brigands likely knew that the two young men were going to try to hide, not run. Argand knew it would take some show of force to deter them at this point. The chain mail he wore, the sword at his side, even his and Kosin’s clothes would fetch a fair weight of gold and silver on the streets of nearby Jesserin City or Oakbridge – not even counting whatever coins might be found in their pouches. No, they would not give up this chase easily.
The dim woods felt ominous and foreboding as Argand waited, stone-like in his stillness. Slowly, silently, he drew his broadsword from its sheath as he felt the thieves grow closer. He always felt a little more confident, almost as confident as he acted, once he had his blade in his hands. This sword had been a gift from his father, as was tradition in the Highlands, but he had still not named it. Maybe today would be the day the name would come to him. Perhaps this was going to be that memorable of an event.
Or perhaps he and Kosin were about to come to a premature end.
Without thinking, he placed one hand on the ground as he crouched. His eyes popped open in shock as suddenly he felt strong waves of warmth stream up his arm to his shoulder and beyond, as if a flow of heated bathwater had been injected into his veins. He jerked his hand up and almost cried out, but the feeling vanished instantly. All he could feel now were the sensations in his feet. There were brigands less than 50 feet from him, and they were closing from behind his hiding place.
He carefully returned his hand to the ground and the shot of warm energy again coursed up his arm in waves. It was not painful in any way, but was almost overwhelming in its power. It took him a second to realize that the sensations in his arm were exactly aligned with the familiar, pulse like surges in his feet. It was the same feeling, but magnified a hundred fold. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the surges.
The energies climbing into his consciousness from the ground itself seemed to solidify, suddenly coalescing into vivid images in his mind. The fat leader of the band, closing in on the pith tree stump at a slow trot, the other thieves lined up behind the leader with their bows and swords at the ready, two other mean closing from the left with short swords and daggers, two more men with bows closing slowly from the right, horses tied to trees about fifty yards distant, a man wearing silver gauntlets holding a strange-looking sword standing in a clearing ringed with deep shadows, a trader’s wagon pulled by a team of four workhorses along the Jury Road, the crowded marketplace in Oern village, leagues away on the river —
Argand jerked his hand from the ground and gripped his hilt in both hands. His eyes were nearly watering from the intensity of the sensations and flitting pictures that had just flashed across his thoughts. The images of those men and places were so… CLEAR… this time around, with his hand in the soil and fallen leaves. He had never before felt anything like it. What’s happening to me? He thought.
But there was no time. He could hear the heavy wheezing of the fat lead thief just on the other side of the stump. Argand held his breath, uttering a silent prayer to the Creator for help… and for continued accuracy from Kosin. He didn’t want to end up with one of those perfectly-sharp throwing knives ruining his day.
In one fluid motion, Argand popped up from behind the stump and slashed powerfully with his big blade, knocking the sword out of the fat thief’s hands and sending it flying. Without pausing Argand leapt over the stump and brought his sword’s pommel down hard on the leader’s bearded, filthy head with a sickening crunch. But before the thief’s round body could hit the ground, Argand was upon the next three brigands like a storm of metal, attacking furiously with the short, circular arcs of the Highlander blade technique. Less than two heartbeats later he disarmed the first of them with a fake slash followed by a quick twisting jab to the thief’s wrist, then felled the other two by shattering their short swords with two lighting fast, crushing overhand swings followed by a swift kick to the gut of the nearest man. The first man’s arm was clearly broken by the blow which had demolished his sword. His screams of pain merged with those of the other shocked, wounded bandits. It was clear that they were in no way expecting such a powerful response from Argand.
But the others, led by the scrawny fellow with the hawk nose, had recovered from their surprise at Argand’s furious onslaught. Hawk-nose stood in front of Argand with his sword at the ready as the men behind him quickly fanned out to cut off any escape. Two of the thieves had bows up and drawn. Argand’s time was up, and he knew it. He charged ahead anyway.
Then Kosin struck.
Both of the bowmen screamed loudly as their extended hands were pierced by shining metal knives that came whistling down from the canopy above. They released as they howled, their arrows launching aimlessly into the ground around them. Half a heartbeat later, the hawk nosed man and his companion dropped their swords and screamed in pain, blood gushing forth around the throwing knives that split their wrists from the back to the front.
More screams erupted from the woods to the left and right, and Argand could sense – again via the pulses in the ground – that several of those men that had been attempting to flank them were now bolting for their horses. The wounded and bleeding men in front of him turned and sprinted out of the pithwood, cradling badly sliced hands and working to stop their bleeding. A few of them managed to yank the knives free and drop them as they ran. Argand was careful not to move at this point; Kosin’s aim was impossibly good, but he didn’t want to mistakenly move into the path of one of his deadly blades.
At that moment Argand sensed that there was still one thief that had not run, hiding behind a tree to the right. Argand held his sword at the ready, but knew he had no chance to cross the distance in time if the bandit had a bow.
Quickly searching the canopy high above, Argand was able to spot Kosin. With unreal agility, he ran down a tree limb almost over Argand’s head, slid around the trunk, then vaulted up and over several thin branches to land on another, higher branch. Kosin scooted down this one nearly to its end, balancing nearly on the tips of his toes as he approached the farthest point out that would bear his weight. Then he dropped into a crouch.
Argand slowly lowered himself into a crouch and placed his left hand on the ground. The chorus of images quickly cleared into a vision of the hiding thief, and he did indeed have a bow with an arrow on-string. He was older, with thick, matted white hair falling down his back and a round shield strapped to his back. Glancing back into the high pithwood canopy, Argand gasped in alarm as Kosin drew and threw one of his gleaming knives as hard as he could towards the open space in front of Argand – and simultaneously there came the high twang of a bowstring release.
Argand reflexively tensed for the arrow’s blow, but it never came. He heard a quick cracking sound, then the thud of the arrow hitting the ground somewhere nearby. A moment later, another scream pierced the early morning air. Argand sensed the archer’s steps as he ran out of the pithwood, doubtless carrying another one of Kosin’s blades in his flesh.
Kosin landed on the soft ground in front of Argand, his black cloak flailing around him as he fell instantly into a crouch. He still had a knife in his right hand, pinched between two fingers, but Argand lowered his sword and heaved a sigh.
“That’s it, Kosin. That’s all of them,” he said, finally breathing easily.
“No,” Kosin said, slowly spinning in place in his crouch and surveying the trees, “No, you said there were thirteen. I don’t see any others either, but I nailed eight with knives, and you got four with your sword. Where’s the other?”
Argand’s smile faded. He sheathed his broadsword and focused on the sensations in his feet. The pulses were there, But they revealed no other bandits in the vicinity. He squatted down in a crouch mirroring Kosin’s, and laid his hand gingerly on the ground.
The warm energy spun into his arm once again, but Argand was expecting it and quickly focused on the pulses and their meaning. He instantly saw images on the surface of his thoughts, like vibrant oil paintings come to life. He saw the thieves as they gained ground on horseback and on foot, working their way eastward back toward the fishing village of Oern through which Argand and Kosin had passed on the previous day. They would be seeking medical attention from the local physician, and fast.
But the thirteenth figure, the one in the silver, shimmering gauntlets, was gone.
“What’s this?” asked Kosin, frowning at his crouching friend. “A new trick? Or are you worn out from your swordplay with the fat man?”
Argand grinned and stood, brushing the soil off of his hand. “Well, yes. A new trick. I will explain it to you… if I can… later. But no, there’s no one else anywhere near here. I picked out thirteen men, yes, but the thirteenth was no thief I think. Someone was standing farther off – maybe a lot farther off – not sure. I couldn’t tell the difference.”
Kosin stood and slid his knife deep into the folds of his cloak. He still scanned the pithwood warily as he began hunting for his remaining knives among the leaves and dirt. It took a lot to get Kosin to relax after an event like this. And events like this were happening nearly all the time these days in Jesserin Duchy.
What was the land coming to?
“Four men, Argand? You took down four men, hand-to-hand, and don’t even have a scratch to show for it??? It’s hard to believe, but you are getting even better with the sword, aren’t you.” It wasn’t really a question.
Argand sighed. “Kose, it wasn’t even that hard. It’s like… like they were ridiculously slow. As if they were moving through a bog and I was going full speed ahead. If it hadn’t been for the bowmen, I feel like I could’ve taken them all!”
“Well, this time I thought you weren’t gonna make it, Argand,” Kosin said seriously as he picked up another bloody blade and cleaned it on a handful of fallen leaves. He frowned. “I thought that last bowman was going to force me to continue my travels solo.”
“You and me both, Kosin!” Argand laughed as he leaned against the stump. The fat thief still lay at the base of the once-huge pith tree, out cold and snoring softly. He would have a colossal bruise and an equally large headache once he awoke. “If that last one had a decent aim, I think you would be carrying me on your back to the nearest cuperative for an emergency arrow-ectomy right now!”
Kosin’s frown faded, but neither did he smile. Argand caught his change of mood and looked at him pointedly. Kosin looked away and walked over to an arrow laying on the ground a few dozen feet away, then tossed it to Argand.
Argand caught the… the half arrow, and looked at it closely. The arrowhead was intact, but the shaft ended abruptly as if it had been cut. He raised an eyebrow. A second later, Kosin tossed him the other half of the shaft with the fletching still in place. Argand’s eyebrows rose high on his forehead as he again looked at Kosin, watching as the small man bent to pick up the last of his throwing knives, buried almost up to its end in the soft earth. This one had no blood on it.
Argand’s mouth gaped open.
“Right,” Kosin said, growing a little pale. “Your bowman didn’t miss. I… uh… I hit the arrow. In mid-flight. With one of my knives.”
Argand closed his mouth, then blinked hard. “A new trick, Mr. Fletcher?”
Kosin smiled then, but still looked a little worried. “Well, yes. I’ll explain it to you… if I can… later.” He slowly shook his head, grinning at his old friend.
“Argand,” Kosin said, head still shaking in confusion, “what is happening to us?”
“I have no idea, Kose old friend. I have absolutely no idea.”
* * * * * *
Kosin couldn’t stop laughing, despite the chill rain and northerly breezes that had both him and Argand huddled under extra shirt layers and their waterproof caynspun rain-cloaks as they walked.
“No no, Kosin! That’s not what I meant at all! Its not that she wasn’t pretty…,” Argand said indignantly, embarrassment ringing in his voice. “She was, well, she was… acceptable… in terms of looks…”
Kosin erupted into another wave of laughter, shaking his head as they sloshed along the muddy Jury Road just west of Haverlin City. Ten yards ahead off them a wide wooden wagon pulled by a team of old horses creaked and groaned its slow progress through the foggy, rainy haze.
“Acceptable? Acceptable????” Kosin laughed even harder. “Has there ever been a bigger indictment of one woman’s looks than calling her ‘acceptable’? You might as well just come right out and say ‘below average’!!”
“She wasn’t that bad!” Argand insisted, giving in a little to Kosin’s infectious giggle. “Okay, okay… maybe she was a little bad.”
Kosin nearly howled.
“But that’s not the point, Kose!” Argand insisted, stepping around a large, muddy puddle that might have threatened to pull his boots off. “When it comes down to it, I want to find someone strong, you know? Not a push over, not all demure and face paint with no inner spirit.”
Kosin took off his wet gloves and wiped his tearing eyes, still snickering. “Okay, okay, Argand. If you say so. So what are you looking for then, a Dramini warchief? You want a woman who can, and does, pretty much beat you up every day?”
Argand snorted. “Not exactly, Kose. Well, not at all. I dunno… I just think I will know her when I find her.”
Argand kept smiling after that exchange. It was the most they had laughed in a week or more. The frequency of trouble that they had endured since leaving the Highlands had been wearing on them, with bandits and even a few encounters with Mindonites keeping them on edge. Their most recent encounter in the pithwood had been far too close of a call for either of their tastes.
But coming across Roca the lamp trader on his way back to the east from the Highlands had been a boon. Although the wrinkled, white-haired old trader already had four guards on detail to keep him safe along his journey, he was quick to offer 50 weight of silver each – plus meals – to Argand and Kosin for their services. He had clearly been hearing rumors about how much more dangerous travel was getting in the western lands, and the sound of an empty wagon meant a trader with full money pouches; a surefire target for highwaymen.
So the last several days were relatively uneventful for the two old friends. The four original guards, middle-aged men that had probably worked on local patrols most of their lives, kept to themselves well ahead of the wagon while Argand and Kosin brought up the rear of the procession. Each night, the group of men slept in the bed of the wagon while two at a time stood watch along the edges of their camp.
On several occasions Argand had sensed the approach of groups of bandits while he was on watch, fluttering pulses of energy in his legs solidifying into life-like images in his mind, but each time the assailants had withdrawn instead of attacking. Also easing their jobs as trader’s escorts was the proximity of this stretch of the Jury Road to the Kirill river. As they walked, the road’s edge was sometimes only a few feet from the steep, tall banks of the muddy flow. While this sometimes made Roca nervous as he guided his horses, it meant that there would be no bandits sneaking up on them from that side.
“So what about you, Kose?” Argand asked. “Whatever happened between you and little Kalia Linon? For a while there I thought you were going to put our plans aside and settle down with her in Jesserin City- maybe open up a new outlet for your dad’s shop.”
“Nahhhh… it wasn’t meant to be,” Kosin answered, pulling his hood down even lower as the rain grew more intense. “You know I could never settle down in Jesserin. Kalia was a great girl, no doubt about it, but her future is all planned out in her mind. Take over her dads bakery, build out and expand, then take over the Land via baked goods! There was no way I could sign up for that.”
Argand pictured the buxom blonde girl that had lived just a few doors down from Kosin throughout his youth. On one of Argand’s father’s many visits to Jesserin City, which always included a stop by the Fletcher’s for a visit and a meal, Argand had met Kalia and her family. She was the daughter of the man known as perhaps the greatest baker in all of Greystone. And she had been smitten with Kosin for years.
“How did she take the news that you were leaving?” Argand asked. “That couldn’t have gone well.”
Kosin sighed. “I didn’t tell her.”
Argand’s eyebrows rose in shock.
“I couldn’t! You met her once… you know how she was.” His frown deepened. “I really should have just faced her, told her my plans, but in the end… I just left her a note.” There was a hint of pain in Kosin’s voice, the laughter gone.
He continued. “I told her to find someone else, someone who could share her dreams, and to take good care of herself. And left it on her desk at the back of the bakery. She probably pitched a royal fit, truth be told! But she will be better off for it.”
Argand watched as a train of a dozen or so large wagons rolled past them on their left, heading westward towards the mountains. If they had not been so close to Haverlin now, Roca doubtless would have stopped the passing traders and asked them about road conditions ahead. But the road markers they had recently passed told them that they were close. They would make it into the town before nightfall. That meant payment from Roca, cold ale, hot food, and sleeping on a warm, dry bed for the first time in a great while. Argand grinned in anticipation. He had been unable to shake the chills of early Spring for the past few days.
“But if we succeed,” Kosin added, turning to look at Argand through the cowels of each of their hoods, “if we actually succeed at going on Venture and surviving, and bring back the head of some wyvern or tamrof, and we become knights? She would come with me, I think. As much as she loves the bakery, loves her father… if I were Sir Kosin Fletcher, I’d bet she would give it all up to come with me.”
Another line of small carts passed them on the left, also heading west. Argand could hear Roca calling out to them to make way; they were crowding much too close for comfort on the narrow mud road, and Roca’s wagon was dangerously close to the edge of the river’s bank.
“But I won’t do it,” Kosin finished. “I couldn’t do it. There was just something missing between us, you know? Something always seemed not quite right. Close… but not close enough. Does that make any sense?”
But Argand wasn’t listening. At that moment, a twenty foot long section of the river bank beneath the right side wheels of Roca’s wagon gave way in a rush of sloppy wet mud.
“Roca!!!!” Argand yelled, running up to the rear of the wagon.
Roca quickly took stock of the situation, and screamed for his four guards to drop back to the rear and help push as he began frantically whipping and calling his horse team to pull.
The passing wagons had forced him too close to the edge, and in the blink of an eye the road had collapsed. The big wagon had stopped and was tipping, teetering above a fifteen foot drop into the cold and rushing waters of the Kirill.
Within seconds, the four older guards had joined Argand and Kosin at the rear gate of the wagon and were pushing and lifting for all their worth in the slippery mud. The oldest of the guards, Renald, had lined up closest to the collapsed river bank, and really wasn’t providing much lift at all as he fought to find purchase for his feet.
“Renald, get out of there!” Argand yelled through the sheets of rain. The wind began to pick up as well, driving into their faces as they strained against the wagon.
“No, I’m fine!” He yelled back.
“A weight of gold to each of you if you get ‘er clear!!” Screamed Roca in his dry, raspy voice. The men needed little extra motivation, though. All of their belongings, save swords and cloaks, were in their packs in the back of the wagon. Plus losing Roca’s wagon would mean earning no pay once they reached Haverlin.
With a rushing slurp, several more feet of ground broke away under their feet. Argand side stepped but kept his footing somehow, almost shin deep in the mud that now was the very edge of the river bank. But with a yell, Renald lost his footing and slid down the slope and into the waist deep mud being quickly washed away by the river.
Renald’s cries for help pierced the sounds of the downpour, the shrieking calls of Roca, and the grunts of the men just as a crack of thunder split the afternoon air. Argand glanced down to his right at Renald as he thrashed and pulled against the liquid mud, but he had already sunk up to his armpits as he was slowly pulled out into the current of the deep river. Nightwings!, Argand thought. He’s wearing his mail shirt. He’s too heavy to escape the mud and water. Can he get it off in time?
The horses were pulling for all their worth, Roca standing up on his wagon seat to urge and whip them on, as Argand, Kosin, and the three other guards pushed and lifted with all their strength, but the wagon was just too heavy and off balance. It began to slip down the slope.
Argand felt the earth beneath him begin to dissolve in the thundering downpour. The bank was giving way, and his lifting efforts were pushing him straight down. He was up to his knees in the slowly dissolving mud, and within seconds would be sucked down the bank into the bog like Renald. He couldn’t extract his feet, every motion pulling him deeper. Panic began to set in. He was also wearing a rather heavy mail shirt under his heavy cloak.
“We’re losing her!!!” Kosin called out as the wagon shifted right again. The horses were growing tired. They were all nearly out of time.
“We need to bail out, boys!!” The guard next to Kosin, Opren, screamed against the wind and rain. Another massive peal of thunder rolled over them. “It’s too late!”
Suddenly the mud lurched downward, and Argand felt himself begin to fall with the weight of the wagon almost entirely on him. Straining to get free, he screamed NO!!! in his mind, digging within himself for more strength. No! I have to get sound footing!!
And suddenly there were the pulses.
He had almost forgotten them in the strain of the moment, thunderstorm raging around them as the earth collapsed, but there they were. Surging through his feet and legs, he could feel and nearly see everyone around him clearly despite the gale, the five soaking wet men giving their all at the rear of an old, empty wagon, the wrinkled old trader, terrified of losing his cask of gold, his wagon, and his team of horses to a mudslide, the slender but muscular man in the distant shadows wearing the silver, almost shimmering gauntlets, his black cloak flapping in the stormy gusts. And something else. Something that felt solid, strong, and moving upward towards his feet from deep below the wet ground. He focused on the feeling, which was strangely familiar for some reason, and a heartbeat later he felt solid rock under his feet. Solid rock that was rising, slowly but inexorably upward.
Argand could feel the stone, and in his minds eye he could almosts see it in the mud below him; an impossibly broad shelf of solid rock, lifting him and the other men upward steadily as if a giant’s hand were buried deep in the earth with no other purpose but to shore up their steps. Soon the wagon began to rise as well, its back wheels suddenly having solid support.
The wagon lurched forward as the horses feet suddenly hit stone just an inch or two below the mud, and seconds later Roca had the wagon safely on the far side of the road. Just as the guards and Kosin stepped out of the now shallow mud near the high river bank, Argand remembered and cried out.
The men spun to the rushing, swollen river but saw no sign of Renald. Then a hand broke the surface frantically some fifty or sixty feet off shore and even further downstream to their left. It quickly disappeared below the surface.
But Argand knew where he was. The pulses were still there, coursing through his legs in a torrent that nearly equaled the rain, and through them he could make out the faint image of Renald’s body floundering under the murky surf.
Argand did not hesitate. Before he could even consider what he was doing, he had discarded his soaked cloak and outer shirt, then yanked off his slate colored chain mail shirt and tossed it to the ground. He turned to Kosin as he unclasped his sword belt, squinting at the shorter man through the pouring rain.
“I’m going to need your help again, Kose,” Argand said simply. “I can get to him, but you are going to have to get us back out.”
Kosin’s brow furrowed, but he nodded once quickly as he took the sword and sword belt. Then Argand turned to face the Kirill.
“What? What’re you doing?” asked Roca as he approached, staring in disbelief at Argand. “You can’t save him, man! He’s gone… lost! It’s suicide to-“
Roca cut off abruptly, his jaw hanging slack, as Argand leapt off of the bank with a powerful bound and quickly sank into the churning, rushing mire of mud and water.
* * * * * *
“Rope!!!” yelled Kosin as he ran upstream, scanning the ground. Opren, who was the youngest of Roca’s guards, sprinted over to the wagon. He had a large coil of spring rope in his hands in seconds, which he tossed to Kosin as he ran back to the bank, splashing and sliding in the muddy lane. More thunderclaps seemed to punctuate the haste they knew they needed to make.
Roca and the other guards were staring out into the wind and rain-beaten river, but Kosin didn’t look. He knew that Argand was stroking for all of his worth towards Renald’s position. And he knew that he had to be ready to help them both.
Kosin finally found what he was looking for; a fallen tree branch, about five feet long and two inches thick at its widest. He tied one end of the rope to the fat end of the branch with amazing speed.
“Mate,” said Opren in his Falon accent, shaking his soaked head and squinting in the driving rain. “Its too late. Renald’s gone, and your friend is already way to far out to reach.”
Kosin ignored him as he turned to just see Argand disappear beneath the opaque surface of the water quite a distance downstream. He took a few quick steps backward, then trotted toward the bank with the branch held back like a javelin. He planted his left foot and heaved the branch into the open air above the Kirill, high and arching, with the spring rope trailing behind it like a streamer as it rapidly uncoiled from its pile on the ground.
The branch hit the water point down and plunged below the surface.
“Grab the end!” Yelled Kosin as the rope fell limp along river and earth. He picked it up himself and got a firm grip with a coil wrapped around his wrist. Opren and the others, bearded Flint and short, stocky Eron, didn’t move.
Then the rope went taught, straining and leaping out of the water.
Opren’s eyes went wide, and he nearly dove onto the rope as the others followed. They pulled in unison, then began running westward along the muddy road, quickly bringing first Renald’s then Argand’s heads into view. Argand had his arms wrapped around Renald’s chest and held the spring rope and branch in clinched fists right in front of Renald’s face. Coughing and sputtering, the two mud-soaked men were hauled up the solid, smooth low cliff of the river bank.
Renald lay face down in the muck in the pouring rain, coughing and vomiting as Opren leaned onto his back, forcing the filthy water out of his lungs. Renald had managed to take off his cloak and boots, but he still wore his chain mail shirt. Argand seemed fine, however, if soaked and filthy. He knelt beside Renald and assisted Opren. Roca’s wrinkled face was as white as his hair. Flint and Eron were staring incredulously from Kosin to Argand to Renald and back again, speechless.
“I have good aim,” Kosin said, grinning at them all. “Thanks for the rope.”
Two hours later, Roca’s wagon rolled past a series of large family farms that marked the outskirts of Haverlin. The rain had finally subsided and the air seemed warmer, but it seemed to Argand that the chill in the air had grown stronger anyway. He hoped he wasn’t getting ill from all the wet weather.
Even though their journey with Roca the lamp trader was about to end, the conversation had not.
“I tell you, it’s just not natural, mates!!” Said Opren again, nearly yelling. “You felt it, Flint! You too, Eron! Stone doesn’t just grow up out of the ground like a burban tree in summer! That wagon was a gonner, mates… there weren’t nothing there but mud! Then all of the sudden–”
“And I told you that Kosin and I didn’t feel anything odd, Opren!” Argand lied cooly. He had secretly told Kosin to play along, and given their history, Kosin was quick to agree with no questions asked. “We just finally shifted the wagon onto that firm rock area. The horses get all of the credit.”
The five healthy men walked along next to the open rear gate of the wagon, while Renald sat on the wooden slats of the wagon bed. He looked exhausted and still coughed uncontrollably, lungs having taken in far too much muddy water, and he had developed a fever. It was tremlung, a treatable but still very dangerous disease common to those who survived drowning. He would need medical attention, and soon.
“And then that throw, mates? Dropping that branch like a war-spear exactly where Argand’s hand could find it???” Opren continued, undeterred.
“No, no,” said Renald, taking a long drink from a water skin to help quiet his cough. “No, it was way more amazing than that, Opren, like I said it was. I couldn’t see anything! That muddy flow was pitch black at 1 inch under the surface! I was done for, given up, I tell ya,” then he stopped for another coughing fit.
“Sinking, drowned, done for!” Renald continued. “But there I was, still reachin’ for the surface, prayin’ for help. And then Argand’s arms were around me, holding me up as if I were nought more than a small child! Next thing I knew, we were being hauled up onto dry land. Incredible.”
“Like I said, the credit for the throw goes to Kosin,” Argand said. “The branch splashed in right near me, so all I had to do was grab it!”
“Look, I told you all,” Kosin said, shaking his head, “and Argand can attest to this, I have always had good aim! It was a lucky throw! Anyone might have made it!”
Opren threw up his hands in surrender. He had been talking non-stop about how that huge area of bedrock had just risen out of the muddy earth, challenging them all to provide an explanation that didn’t include mass insanity. Flint had been agreeing with him consistently, scratching his beard thoughtfully and looking confused, but didn’t talk about it with nearly the conviction of Opren.
Then Eron, the youngest of the four guards at around forty Summers, spoke up for the first time that afternoon.
“It’s just like in the stories, men,” he said quietly. “My old pa, Creator keep him, he used to tell me to pay attention to all the old Bard’s tales. Used to say, ‘those stories had to come from somewhere, son’. Told me that he had seen things, with his own eyes, in his youth in the Grey Shields. Strange things. Magic things. I never belived him. Nope. Not one bit.”
Then he raised his eyes to look first at Kosin, then at Argand. “Not until now.”
Renald nodded his head emphatically, coughing all the while. He was convinced that the Creator himself had intervened and saved him.
Argand and Kosin prepared to launch into more denials, but Roca halted his horses at that moment and jumped down from the wagon seat. They were at the west gate of the walled city of Haverlin, and as was tradition, Roca would pay them and release them from service before crossing the town’s threshold.
“Much obliged to the each of ya, sirs. Much obliged,” Roca said as they prepared to go their separate ways. “I’ll be here in town for about a week… if any of you are looking for another route, I’ll be headin’ east for Greystone City. I’d have ya all back, frankly. Same rate, Same deal. If so, look me up. I’ll be at the Green Maiden Inn, near the wharf.” While he addressed them all, his eyes lingered on Argand and Kosin.
They shook hands all around and began to depart, but Renald held Kosin’s hand for an extra moment as he caught Argand’s eyes. The older man’s eyes were wet, his voice rather shaky.
“I owe you my life, young men. I don’t know how you did it, but I am in both of your debt. You ever need anything, you look me up. I am always in and around the Jury or Cayn Roads on duty, but I live back in Oakbridge. Look me up, men, you here me?”
He broke into another fit of coughing then, almost doubling over.
“You take care of yourself, Renald. I’m sure we’ll cross paths again,” Kosin said simply, then joined Argand to pass through the west gate and into Haverlin. They were waved in by an imposing group of Haverlin local patrolmen without inspection or comment.
They felt their wet spirits lift once they were into the crowded, marsh-oil lit evening streets. Vendors lined the avenue here near the gate, still hawking their wears despite the late hour. Boots and caynspun shirts, dried peppers and sweet fruits imported from Cronia, hats of every type, small weapons, light shirts of mail, it was all available within a few feet of the Haverlin threshold.
At almost the same instant, the two men wrapped their nearly-dry outer cloaks tighter around themselves. Kosin was convinced that he must be coming down with a cold due to all of the Spring rains, but he knew that Argand would be far more susceptible after his stint in the cold Kirill river rescuing Renald.
“You too, huh?” Argand said. Kosin nodded and shrugged. “It doesn’t seem like it should feel this chilly, but I tell you, Kose… I want to get in front of a fire in the worst way!”
“Not surprising,” Kosin said. “We haven’t exactly been keeping dry and warm, you know. If Renald’s spare clothes didn’t nearly fit you, I’d wager that you might be on your way to the nearest cuperative.”
“’Nearly’ fit is right! I need to get back into some pants that I can actually be seen in public wearing.”
They passed out of the gate’s market area and turned right onto Fish Street, one of the main thoroughfares across Haverlin City’s hilly expanse. Fish Street split the city nearly in half, circling right around the Mayor’s mansion at the center of town, then continuing on to the wharf along Lake Haverlin on the far side of town. Kosin knew that Argand was going to try to talk him into dipping a little deeper into their money pouches than usual in order to stay at an inn close to the city center. Kosin hated spending money on pretty much anything, but given the wet conditions they had just endured and the powerful chill he was feeling, a more expensive inn might be worthwhile.
“So what really happened back there, Argand?” Kosin said suddenly, now that they were quite far from both Roca and any of his four guards. “The rock really did grow. ‘Like a burban tree’, as Opren put it. I felt it, and I know you did too. So… given your fondness for talking to the ground…”
“Kose, you know I have no idea. I thought I was done for. The whole bank was giving way, I was trapped past my knees in the muck with the wagon practically falling on me… I couldn’t have escaped. I had no way out.”
He paused in front of a fruit vendor, and handed over two weight of silver for a bag of beautiful, bright oranges.
“Then the pulses hit me again, out of no where,” Argand continued. “And I could feel the stone, the rock itself, moving up beneath me. I don’t know how it happened. But thank the Creator it did!”
Argand tossed his old friend an orange, and they both began to eat as they walked.
“I wasn’t thinking about stone or rock… I didn’t do anything or think anything at all, except for how desperately I needed firm footing,” Argand said. “I could feel it… but I don’t know how I actually DID it.”
“And there was something else, Kose,” Argand added, sounding less sure of himself. “Remember back in the pithwood? Think back to… okay, remember when I thought there was one more thief than there really was? You were waiting for the last guy to pop up and attack us, but I told you that the last person I had sensed was gone? That last man was way far off, and sort of hidden, but I saw him. He was a smallish man in mostly black, except for shimmering, almost glowing silver gauntlets. He was just standing there, facing me, still as a statue, holding a sword that kind of resembled a spear…then he was gone.”
Argand turned to catch Kosin’s eyes. “I saw him again during the mudslide. The man in the silver gauntlets. For a fleeting second, there he was, off in the distance, standing in the storm. It was him. And afterward, once we were all clear, nothing. No sign of him.”
“Are you sure it was the same man?
“No doubts. None at all. There’s something… different, profoundly different, Kose, about seeing someone ‘this way’,” he pointed to the side of his head, “versus seeing with the eyes. I think I would know him anywhere now. Whoever he is.”
Kosin looked troubled. “So you think we’re being followed.” It was not a question.
Argand shrugged. “I guess so, Kose. Either that or I am just imagining the guy. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just going crazy.”
“Ha! There’s no doubt you’re crazy, Argand,” Kosin said, “but what difference does that make since I’m crazy too? I believe you. Period.”
A pack of men on horseback raced past them at that point, forcing them to give way to one side. They wore the white berets of the Haverlin local patrol, and they were in quite a hurry towards the center of the city.
“So what about you?” Argand continued. “How did you possibly hit a moving target in the middle of a rushing, muddy river, with a stick weighted down with 100 feet of spring rope?”
“Like I told the old mercenaries, Argand. I have good aim.” Kosin took a big bite of his peeled orange, turned to Argand and grinned. Another wave of shivering hit him just then, and his grin faded. He felt cold right through to his core.
“You know that’s not nearly enough of an explanation, right?”
“Yup. Now let’s get some dinner and some sleep.”
Argand sighed, and the two walked deeper into the city in search of an inn and a warm fire.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Thanks for reading!
The First Proving: Emergence Copyright Kevin E. Jackson 2011