I am nearly at the 50% point in the proofreading effort for Emergence, but I have taken a break to re-wicker the chapter breakdown in the first half of the book. So with that in mind, I am re-posting the revised chapter 1 (which has only minimal changes from the first half of the original chapter 1) and all of chapter 2, “The Galleon”.
All comments are welcome!
* * * * * * * * * *
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 the brigand’s 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 while standing ever-so-slightly on the balls of his feet. Kosin was always ready to move.
“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,” he sputtered. 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!” The fat thief 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 nearbyJesserinCityor 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 theHighlands, 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 fifty 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 fishingvillageofOernthrough 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 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.”
2 The Galleon
“HOOORAAAAYYY” came the wall-shaking third cheer, followed by the loud clanging of metal mugs full of ale being slammed together by the scores of soldiers that crowded the tavern. Loud slurping gulps followed that, as the minstrels at the far side of the room resumed playing their upbeat, celebratory song. The Galleon had not seen a crowd so large and so happy in many months. The fat tavern keeper had a smile plastered on his face even as he barked orders at his sweating serving girls, poured trays full of ale while gathering fistfuls of silver and gold coins, and generally tried to maintain some order within the chaos of food, beer, music and men. The room was warmed against the Spring evening’s chill by a series of small hearths set in the wall opposite the bar, and was brightly lit by marsh-oil lamps suspended from the wood beamed ceiling in round, wooden chandeliers.
Maximus Chemael held three brimming mugs of ale up high as he quickly weaved his way back through the throng to the small table where his companions waited. He was a tall man, giving him a good view of the masses, but that wasn’t why he was able to so smoothly navigate his way through a crowd that was jostling and bumping nearly everyone into significant spills.
“Dinner is served, fellows!” he crowed as he sat down, passing one mug to blonde-haired Brien and the other to the nearly bald Varix. All three pushed their empty mugs to the edge to be scooped up by the next passing server, then attacked their new ale with fervor.
“Next rounds on you, Var,” Max continued loudly to be heard over the noise, wiping the foam from his lips with a sleeve slightly rust-stained from his gauntlets. “I get the feeling that this might really BE our dinner! I doubt this place has enough meat on-hand to feed this many victorious fighting men with no advance notice!”
Max was fairly sure this was the truth. Gilston was a small town along the Palladon road, and existed more as a convenient waypoint for traders trekking betweenGreystoneCityand Pallas than anything else. But today, the Pathwatch of Greystone had struck a mighty blow against the bands of Mindonite attackers that had been disrupting that critical trade route. It was rare for bandits and barbarians to be organized and cooperative with one another, so large battles were pretty much unheard of. But when word reached Queen Lorillin that just such an organized mass had taken up residence near Gilston, she sent two one hundred-man groups, each formally known as a ‘blade’ of Pathwatch soldiers, to eliminate them. The battle was short and one-sided; the men of the Pathwatch, like Max, Varix, and Brien themselves, were well trained and well armed. Many of the Mindonite thugs fought with clubs and crude spears and wore little to no armor.
And so the celebration had landed in Gilston, and the Galleon – the only tavern in town – was bulging at the seams with Greystone peace-keepers being praised as heroes by the townsfolk.
“You’re not going to hear any complaints from me, Max,” said Brien, taking a long pull from his tankard. “These Heartland ales just hit the spot, you know? And for two-weight silver, who’s gonna complain, even if it tasted like marsh-water!”
“Nahhhh, these farmer’s brews aren’t for me, Brien,” answered Max, jerking his upper body to one side as a drunken reveler was jostled into a fall right towards him. The tipsy soldier bounced unceremoniously off of Max’s chair back then collapsed onto the floor. A few other soldiers hustled over to the moaning man, helped him up, and nearly carried him off towards the privies in the back of the long room. Max leaned back again.
“This will do for a party night,” he continued, “but for my money you can’t get ale like they brew up north, near Jalsmin. Right near the source, you know? All the wheat and barley in the Land, right there at your fingertips!” He took another long pull.
Brien shook his head, wagging a finger in Max’s direction. “The plains are great for common ale, sure… but if I had my druthers, Max, it would be theHighlandsfor their icewine! Now there’s a drink for you. Smooth. Sophisticated…”
“Expensive!” laughed Max. “I mean, you pay like fifty-weight of silver for a jug, don’t you?”
“Well, yeah,” Brien agreed loudly, leaning back in his chair and waving casually to Jod Marivan, a bowman in their unit that had just dropped into a chair at a nearby table. “But its worth it! Everything up in theHighlandscosts a ton! But its worth it! And it doesn’t come in JUGS Max, you cretin! Sure wish I had some of that icewine now.” Brien’s deep-set blue eyes seemed to lose focus for a second, as if he were suddenly deep in thought, but a hard bump from two men working to squeeze past behind him snapped him out of it.
“This place is getting out of hand fast, fellas,” Max nearly yelled. “Maybe we should bail out and see if we can get a room in town somewhere? Lodging’s sure to be tight tonight. It’d be nice to not have to sleep on the ground back in camp.”
“Normally I’d be the first to agree,” shouted Brien, “But I heard there was a Bard in town tonight. If so, she’s bound to come here, right? This is the only gig in town!”
“Oh, you and your bards, Brien,” chided Max, then he drained his tankard and slammed it down on the rough wood. “Have you ever met one you didn’t fall in love with on the spot?”
“So I like music??!! What’s the problem with that?”
“So it’s music you like? There’s a fine quartet of minstrels over there just performing their hearts out for you, then! Why don’t you go sit at their feet and ogle them for a few hours, eh?” Max leaned forward and pointed towards the small cluster of musicians, playing a triumphant victory song as they sat against the far wall. It was hard to hear the drums or the hand-harps over the increasingly intoxicated crowd. Max also realized that the number of women in the tavern had been steadily increasing for the past few minutes. While it made the crowding even worse, it certainly improved the view.
A chorus of shouts broke out just past their table, with more mugs of ale being banged together high over the heads of a group of men. “Hail to the Captain!!!” and “Victory for the Fifth Blade” were being shouted by two dozen or so men standing around a long thin, dining table.
Captain Britness was making his way through the crowd, a mug in each hand, suds spilling down the front of his huge brown beard streaked with grey as he alternately drank from one and toasted his men with the other while making a circuit around the room.
“Hail to the victors!!!” came his booming response. Brit was a bear of a man, broad shouldered, thick-armed, and imposing despite his nearly fifty Summers in the Land. He stood around six-foot five inches tall, which made him approximately the same height as Max and Brien, but he towered over the shorter Varix. Brit’s skill in leading Pathwatch blades was legendary, as were the tales of his prowess as a Captain in the Grey Shields.
“Hail Captain Britness!!!” Max, Brien, and Varix cheered together as he passed, mugs held high overhead.
“Hail to you, my victorious friends!!! Max Chemael, Var Cooper, Brien Page, to you!!” He yelled back, pausing for a moment to look them each in the eye as he saluted them with his tankard. The Captain took pride in knowing all of his blade by name, despite the fact that the ranks assigned to him from the Grey Shields changed every season.
“Varix!” Brit boomed, looming over their table and smiling broadly. “I can’t believe you aren’t in the local cuperative!!! I was about 30 paces off when you took that spear to the gut, man! Nightwings! How are you sitting here in one piece??”
Varix smiled up at the Captain, lifting his tankard high as he spoke. “Luck of the Creator, Captain Britness!” he yelled. “He took a good stab at me, yes, but it glanced off my mail and did only a little damage. Nothing a few tankards can’t numb, at least.”
“Well, good on you, my young champion! Enjoy your evening, my boys, but watch your time in the morning. We pull out for Pallas at first light!” Britness then pushed his way forward through a couple of young-looking local girls who were being chatted up by a few great-bowmen, and continued his personal parade around the tavern.
At that moment, Max’s mind was filled with the flashing image of a broad-shouldered, older serving woman carrying no less than 6 giant tankards of ale… falling right toward Max’s own back. OH NO!!!, he seemed to hear in a nearly screaming woman’s voice.
Max released his tankard and spun out of his chair in a flash with one hand under the woman’s arms and the other catching her around the waist. His feet were planted firmly and wide in his near crouch, so he was rock-stable as he grabbed her, panting, and leaned her back up onto her feet. The server had been mistakenly tripped by Captain Britness as he shoved his way through the crowd, but Max’s fast action prevented a near flood of fresh ale.
The men near their table who noticed the save began clapping and cat-calling in appreciation. Brien joined in, laughing as he did so. Max stood and produced an audacious bow, then slid back down in his seat and retrieved his ale. Varix drank his beer and said nothing.
“Thanks, sir! Thank you! My name is Verlin” the server said, working to catch her breath and smiling a toothy grin at Max. She had to have more than 60 Summers in the Land, but her arms looked strong enough to wrestle a bull. “That was… amazing! How did you do that??”
“My lucky day, I suppose!” grinned Max. “Besides, what’s a worse way to end a good day then by taking a six-tankard bath in a crowded bar, hmmm???”
“Good point, sir, good point!” Verlin said as she began to worm her way through the crowd toward her original destination. “By way of thanks, the next round for you and your table-mates is on me!”
“You, my dear, have a deal,” said Max. Brien lifted his mug in salute in Verlin’s direction as she departed.
“That wasn’t luck, was it, Max,” said Varix in a flat voice.
The smile faded from Max’s face as he turned to Varix. He was light-haired and light-eyed, but had tanned skin and an often grumpy expression. He very rarely talked during their nights out on the town, whether inGreystoneCityor out on Pathwatch duty like this trip to Gilston. He was of medium height and build, but was fearless in a fight and had quickly caught the Captain’s eye years back when the three young men had first applied to join Greystone’s army, the Grey Shields.
“Ive seen you do some pretty amazing stuff,” Varix continued, sitting forward, his face expressionless, “but that last bit there? That was more than you usually let slip in public. The ale is just making you drop your guard a little bit, yes?”
Max still didn’t respond.
“So what’s your point, Var?” asked Brien, leaning forward and toward Varix. “So he’s good? You’ve fought next to him, you KNOW how good he is. So maybe it’s not luck. Call it skill! Is that your point?”
“No, it’s not. Max, what you have been doing is– well, it’s not natural is it,” Var continued, catching Max’s eye. “I’d be willing to bet you can’t even describe it, can you. And don’t know when it started, right?”
The three sat silent for a moment, the revelry continuing all around them.
Max sighed. “Yes, Var, it seems weird at times. Not very natural, in fact. Yes. I can agree with that. So what? It keeps me alive out on the battlefield, and that, in my book, is a plus. So like Brien said, what’s your point? You’re always kind of cryptic, but this is even unusual for you!”
Varix looked down at his nearly empty ale, then seemed to make a decision. He pulled a short dagger from his waist. It was the largest weapon allowed through the doors of the Galleon, whose bouncers figured that small weapons would lead to a minimal set of problems when the inevitable barroom fights broke out.
He held the dagger in his right hand, and looked up at Brien, then Max, who both exchanged a quick alarmed glance at each other.
“Var, hey… what are you—“ began Max.
“Var, put that down! If the Captain sees—“ started Brien.
But they were both too late. Varix turned the blade tip towards his left wrist and jabbed the blade home, pulling upwards toward his elbow as he sliced. Instantly both Max and Brien were on their feet, lunging after Varix’s arms and crying out. But then they froze. Varix had finished his slash and pulled the blade back already. Except… there was no slash. No blood. Nothing.
No one around them even noticed that anything had happened as the raucous group began to get well into their ale and war stories.
Max and Brien sat back down, mouths agape.
“I have been pretty sure about this for months now, guys,” Varix continued, still holding his dagger. “I found out by mistake, of course. Dropped a practice sword on my bare foot one morning, point down. Practice swords are dull, but the points aren’t. When nothing happened, I got suspicious.”
He again placed the tip of the dagger against his forearm, then dug in with a quick thrust. Max grimaced, then relaxed as he again saw that nothing happened.
“Today was the ultimate test,” Varix continued. “That Mindonite spearman didn’t miss me. His blow didn’t ‘glance off of my mail’ either. He had knocked my sword out of my hand, then he proceeded to run me through with a spear that would have spitted a decent sized boar. It hurt a little, kind of like being punched in the gut, but… but then I grabbed his spear, wrestled it from him, and planted it in his gut instead.” He looked down at his own abdomen and frowned at it.
“I don’t even have a bruise,” he said.
Brien reached out and took the dagger from Varix’ hand. He carefully tested the point with his finger and jerked back in shock as it easily drew blood. For the first time that day, Varix smiled. A grim, unsure smile, but a smile nonetheless. Brien handed the dagger back.
“Max, when I say ‘un-natural’, that’s exactly what I mean. I don’t think I am alone. You’ve got something going on, don’t you?” Var said, re-sheathing the dagger.
Max said nothing, and neither did he meet Var’s gaze. How do I explain something like this? he thought to himself. How do I explain something that is totally inexplicable? He took a deep breath.
“I knew that you couldn’t be hurt in today’s fight, Var,” Max said, leaning forward and speaking just loud enough for the others to hear. “I don’t know how, but I knew.”
Var’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “You knew? How could you possibly know?”
“I think there’s a reason we have all become such good friends,” Max continued, looking into Brien’s confused eyes. “I feel like we are supposed to stick together. I have no idea why, but… well… I have always known there was something different about the both of you. And about me.”
“Well, don’t try to stick a knife in my arm, please,” Brien said, grinning uneasily.
Max chuckled. “No chance of that, old friend,” he said.
Max and Brien had known each other since grade school in the central Cardinal district ofGreystoneCity, and had been friends from their first meeting. The two met Varix years later during their training to join the Grey Shields, but he also clicked with them right away despite his quiet and sometimes surly demeanor.
“What does this mean, Max?” Var asked, leaning even further in.
A hush passed through the room at that point, most conversations tailing off as all attention was directed to a red-cloaked figure that had climbed on top of the long, rainwood bar. The Bard had arrived.
* * * * * * *
Thanks for reading!
The First Proving: Emergence Copyright Kevin E. Jackson 2011