Emergence, Chapter One – Final Draft

Hello, all! I am going to post the first six chapters of Emergence in their “final” draft form (the form currently being submitted to agents and publishers all over the fruited plain) here on the blog. There have been quite a few changes since I initially posted the first few chapters, so I figured it’s a good time to give any casual readers a chance to see a more polished product.  I have had a few  additional “nibbles” from agents and publishers over the past few weeks (including one request for a full manuscript!) so things are happening! Who knows… maybe this little project will grow into something bigger one day. Or not. Either way, it’s all good.

So without further ado, Chapter 1 – Pithwood.

* * *

1 Pithwood

 

Argand only raised an eyebrow as the fat, black-bearded brigand slowly drew a broad scimitar from the sheath at his waist. The thief had a raw, angry looking scar running straight down the center of 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 angry looking man with the pock-marked face to his right both took the cue and unsheathed their short swords. Behind them two other thieves, hooded and menacing, bared their weapons.

“Here now”, the fat bandit grumbled in a deep, gravelly voice, “let’s not make doin’s get ugly here, young masters.”

He pointed the rust-spotted 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 as a nearly toothless grin appeared through his thick and matted beard, “just toss yer weapons and toss yer gold, and we’ll call it smooth.”

Smoke still drifted 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 that carried the smell of approaching rain. A fine time of day for highwaymen 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 and lifted his cleft chin high, while gently resting his hand on his 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 man being assaulted by highwaymen. His wavy black hair was slightly disheveled, as were his clothes. He looked like a man suddenly roused from sleep, which he was. But Argand’s 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 crossed his face, as if he was not really sure what he was doing. Then he seemed to remember himself.

The skinny thief laughed mockingly to cover his leader’s hesitation while the others shook their heads and smiled in a show of pity. The scarred leader, now recovered from his momentary lapse, waved his scimitar menacingly while he resumed his grin.

“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 thick black hair and green eyes. He was very muscular for his size, broad in the chest and thick across the shoulders. 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. During these recent weeks of eastward travel along 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,” the fat lead thief 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 as he took off at a full sprint to his right. Argand 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 dense undergrowth and occasional thin trunks of burbin 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 solely due to his smaller size.  He had always been especially skilled when it came to athletics, his body was just as fluid as his voice.

“Okay…up ahead,” breathed Argand as he saw a large group 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,” called 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 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 they were both children. Argand slowed, glancing back to watch Kosin as he reached the canopy and stepped out onto a large branch. 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, 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 dominated by a group of short, six foot wide stumps of pith trees that had 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 sweet smell of pith tree sap filled Argand’s nostrils. The pleasant aroma contrasted sharply with the foreboding dimness that filled the wood. With practiced stealth, he silently drew his sword from its sheath as he felt the thieves grow closer. He always felt more confident, almost as confident as he acted, once he had his blade in his hands. The sword had been a gift from his father, as was tradition in theHighlands, but Argand had not yet 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.

Without thinking, he placed one hand on the ground as he knelt. His eyes popped open in shock as 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 rush 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. It was not painful, but was almost overwhelming in its power.  It took him a second to realize that the feeling in his arm was exactly aligned with the familiar, pulse like surges in his feet. It was the same perception, but magnified a hundred fold. He closed his eyes and concentrated.

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 men 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 with a strange-looking sword and silver gauntlets 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 the sword hilt in both fists.  His eyes were nearly watering from the intensity of the sensations and flitting pictures that had just flashed across his thoughts. The views of those men and places were so clear this time, with his hand in the soil and fallen leaves. He had never 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 rose from behind the stump and slashed powerfully with his big blade, knocking the sword out of the fat thief’s hands. 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. He engaged them with the short, circular arcs of the Highlander blade technique, and the sound of ringing steel filled the shadowy wood. Less than two heartbeats later Argand disarmed the first of them with a fake slash followed by a quick twisting jab through the thief’s wrist. He 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 that dropped him to his knees. One of the thieves’ arms appeared 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. 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 the 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 step into the path of one of those deadly blades.

Then Argand sensed that there was still one thief that had not run. He was 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 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 long white hair worn in a braid and a round shield strapped to his back.  Glancing back into the tree tops, 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 squat.  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 hit eight with knives, and you got four with your sword. Where’s the other?”

Argand’s smile faded.  He sheathed his sword and focused on the sensations in his feet. The pulses were there, but they revealed no other bandits in the vicinity. He squatted 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 moving images on the surface of his thoughts, like vibrant oil paintings come to life. He saw the injured 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.

But the thirteenth figure, the one in the silver, shimmering gauntlets, was gone.

“What’s this?” asked Kosin, frowning. “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 I don’t think the thirteenth was a thief.  Someone was standing farther off – maybe a lot farther off – not sure. I couldn’t tell the difference.”

Kosin stood and returned the knife to the folds of his cloak.  He continued to scan 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.

“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. “Kosin, it wasn’t even that hard. It’s 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 archers, 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 said as he leaned against the stump. The fat thief still lay at its base, unconscious and snoring softly. He would have a colossal bruise and an equally large headache once he awoke.  “If that last one was a good shot,” continued Argand, “I think you would be carrying me on your back to the nearest cuperative right now!”

Kosin’s frown faded, but neither did he smile. Argand caught his change of mood and looked at him pointedly. Kosin walked over to an arrow lying on the ground a few dozen feet away, then tossed it to Argand.

Argand caught the arrow and looked at it closely. The arrowhead was intact, but the shaft ended abruptly as if it had been cut. 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 archer 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.

“Argand,” said Kosin, head shaking in confusion, “what is happening to us?”

“I have no idea, Kosin. I have absolutely no idea.”

* * *

 

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