Chapter 2 is a good example of the types of changes I am making throughout THE PROVING. It still tells the story of Argand and Kosin in the mudslide, using their hidden powers to save themselves and their comrades. But it also contains the first appearance of one of the main antagonists, Julian, and displays some of his evil might at work while dealing with the fat thief from the opening line of Chapter 1. Enjoy!
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Chapter 2 – Along the Jury
Kosin couldn’t stop laughing despite the chill rain and northerly breezes that had both him and Argand huddled under their waterproof caynspun rain-cloaks as they walked.
“No, Kosin! That’s not what I meant at all! It’s not that she wasn’t pretty,” Argand said, 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 HaverlinCity. Ten yards ahead off them a wide, wooden wagon pulled by a team of old horses creaked and groaned its slow progress through the rainy haze.
“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 ‘well below average’!”
“She wasn’t that bad!” Argand said, giving in a little to Kosin’s infectious giggle. “Okay, okay… maybe she was a little bad.”
“But that’s not the point,” said Argand, 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 glances and face-color 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. 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 weeks. 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 Granite Hills had been a boon. Although the wrinkled, white-haired old trader already had four guards on detail, he was quick to offer fifty weight of silver each – plus meals – to Argand and Kosin for their services. He had clearly been hearing rumors about increased crime along the western roads. The sound of an empty wagon meant a trader with full money pouches; a surefire target for highwaymen.
The last several days were had been uneventful. 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 approaching bandits while on watch, fluttering pulses of energy in his legs solidifying into life-like images in his mind, but none of them had attacked. 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 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?” Argand said. “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 JesserinCity – maybe open up a new outlet for your dad’s shop.”
“No… it wasn’t meant to be,” Kosin answered, pulling his hood down further as the rain grew more intense. “You know I could never settle down in Jesserin. Kalia is a great girl, no doubt about it, but her future is all planned out in her mind. Begin managing her dad’s 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. 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 the Touran Protectorates, 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.”
“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 HaverlinCity now, Roca doubtless would have stopped the passing traders and asked them about conditions ahead. But the road markers they had recently passed told them that they would likely 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 folds 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 oncoming carts passed them on the left. Roca called out for them to make way; they were crowding much too close for comfort on the narrow mud road. The wagon was dangerously close to the steep edge of the river bank.
“But I won’t do it,” Kosin said. “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. A cold pit had formed at the bottom of his stomach, and an icy stab of near panic sent shock waves through his body.
Something was wrong. They were in danger.
At that moment, a twenty foot long section of the river bank beneath the right side wheels of Roca’s wagon collapsed in a rush of 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 big wagon stopped and was tipping, teetering above a twenty-five foot drop into the cold and rushing waters of the Kirill.
The four older guards joined Argand and Kosin at the back of the wagon and pushed for all their worth in the slippery mud. The oldest of the guards, Renald, lined up closest to the collapsed river bank, and providing little lift 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!” said Roca, fighting to be heard through the rain and wind. But Argand needed no extra motivation. All of the group’s 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 HaverlinCity.
More wet earth broke away next to them. Argand heaved against the wagon while sinking shin deep in the mud that now formed the edge of the river bank.
With a desperate yell, Renald lost his footing, slid down the slope, and plunged into the river.
Renald’s cries for help pierced the sounds of the downpour, the shrieking calls of Roca, and the grunts of the men. 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 as Roca stood on his wagon seat to urge and whip them on. Argand, Kosin, and the three other guards lifted with all their might, 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. More of 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 set in.
“We’re losing her!” Kosin called out as the wagon shifted right again. The horses were growing tired. They were out of time.
“We need to bail out, boys,” the guard next to Kosin said. Another massive peal of thunder rolled over them. “It’s too late.”
Suddenly the mud lurched downward, and Argand began to fall.
NO! he screamed to himself, digging 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. The flowing surge through his feet raced into his mind, and he could suddenly see everyone around him clearly despite the gale. The five soaking wet men giving their all at the rear of the 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 and strong, rising towards his feet from depths below the wet ground. He focused on that solid feeling, which was strangely familiar, 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 mind’s eye he could see it in the mud below him; an impossibly broad shelf of solid rock, lifting them all 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 supported.
The wagon lurched forward as the horses’ hooves 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.
The men spun to the rushing 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 Renald was. The pulses were still there, coursing through his legs in a torrent as strong as the rain, and through them he could make out the faint image of Renald’s body floundering under the murky surf.
He did not hesitate. Argand discarded his soaked cloak and outer shirt, then yanked off his slate colored chain mail and tossed it to the ground. Turning to Kosin, Argand unclasped his sword belt
“I’m going to need your help,” 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 as he took the offered sword and sword belt.
“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 stopped, his jaw slack, as Argand dove off of the bank with a powerful bound and plummeted into the river.
“Rope,” called Kosin as he ran upstream, scanning the ground. Opren, who was the youngest of Roca’s three original guards, sprinted over to the wagon. He returned with a large coil of spring rope which he tossed to Kosin.
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.
Kosin finally found what he was looking for; a fallen tree branch, about five feet long. He quickly tied the rope to the wider end of the branch.
“Mate,” said Opren in his Falon accent, shaking his soaked head and squinting in the rain. “It’s too late. Renald’s gone, and your friend is already way too far out to reach.”
Kosin ignored him. There was no sign of either man, so he decided to just guess at their location. 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 the ground.
The branch hit the water point down and plunged below the surface.
“Grab the end,” said Kosin calmly as the rope fell limp along river and earth. He picked it up himself and got a firm grip. Roca, Opren and the other guards, bearded Flint and short, stocky Eron, didn’t move.
Then the rope went taught, leaping out of the water.
Opren’s eyes went wide. He 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 smooth, low cliff of the river bank.
Renald lay face down in the muck, coughing and vomiting as Opren leaned onto his back, forcing the filthy water out of his lungs. Kosin saw that Renald had managed to take off his cloak and boots after falling in, 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 HaverlinCity. The rain and storms had given way to the sun, but it seemed to Argand that the chill in the air had grown stronger. He hoped he wasn’t getting ill from the wet weather and his swim in the Kirill.
“I tell you, it’s just not natural, mates,” Said Opren again, his voice insistent. “You felt it, Flint. You too, Eron. Stone doesn’t just grow up out of the ground like a burbin tree in Summer! That wagon was lost, 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 coolly. “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 bed. He looked exhausted, coughed uncontrollably, and 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 a dose of hannon very soon.
“And then that throw, mates? Dropping that branch like a war-spear exactly where Argand 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 one 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 said as he shook his head and shrugged. “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 naught more than a small child. Next thing I knew, we were being hauled up onto the bank. 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.”
“Men,” Kosin said, “I have always had good aim. It was a lucky throw. Anyone might have made it.”
Then Eron, the youngest of the four original guards at around forty Summers, spoke up for the first time that afternoon.
“You’re not saying that they’re Emergent, Ren. Right?”
A heavy silence fell. Argand’s throat tightened as he fought to keep his expression unchanged. Only the creaking of the wagon could be heard for a full three heartbeats. Then Renald exploded.
“Nightwings, no, Eron! That’s not what I’m saying at all. They just saved my LIFE, for Creator’s sake. Who ever heard of a mad Emergent doing something like that?” Then a wave of deep, wet coughs took his voice away as Eron waved his hands and shook his head vigorously.
“I’m just making sure, that’s all,” Eron said. “No, I don’t think they are either. It’s just… it’s just that you hear so many stories nowadays, you know?”
Argand was 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 and release them before crossing the town’s threshold.
“Much obliged to the each of ya, sirs. Much obliged,” Roca said. “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 Coradis. I’d have you all, 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, his eyes lingered on Argand and Kosin.
They shook hands all around and began to separate, but Renald held Kosin’s hand for an extra moment as he looked at Argand. The older man’s eyes were wet, his voice 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 hear me?”
He broke into another fit of coughing, almost doubling over.
“You take care of yourself, Renald. I’m sure we’ll cross paths again,” Kosin said, 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. Argand did a double-take at an official-looking sign posted on either side of the open gateway. EMERGENTS ARE A PUBLIC THREAT. REPORT THE UNUSUAL TO THE HAVERLIN LOCAL PATROL. Heaving a sigh and pointedly not looking at Kosin, Argand crossed the threshold.
The marsh-oil lit evening streets were bustling with activity. Vendors lined the avenue 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. Argand looked longingly at the expensive travel wear and accessories.
With a shudder, Argand drew his cloak tight around his torso. He was convinced that he must be coming down with a cold due to all of the Spring rains and his swim in the Kirill.
“You too?” Kosin said.
Argand cocked an eyebrow. “You’re feeling cold? I figured it was just me. I hope we’re not both getting sick.”
“It’s really not surprising,” Kosin said. “We haven’t exactly been keeping dry and warm.”
They passed out of the gate’s market area and turned right onto Fish Street, one of the main thoroughfares across HaverlinCity’s hilly expanse. Fish Street split the city in half, circling right around the Mayor’s mansion at the center of town, then continued to the wharf along Lake Haverlin. It was going to be difficult to convince Kosin to dip a little deeper into their money pouches in order to stay at an inn close to the city center. Kosin hated spending money on pretty much anything, but given miserable conditions they had endured and the powerful chill he was feeling, Argand desperately wanted fine lodgings.
“So what really happened back there, Argand?” Kosin said suddenly. “The rock really did grow. ‘Like a burbin tree’, as Opren put it. I felt it, and I know you did too.”
“Kose, you know I have no idea. I thought I was dead. 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 nowhere,” 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 if I actually did it.”
“And there was something else,” Argand added quietly, his eyes scanning the crowd. “Remember back in the pithwood 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. For a fleeting second, there was the man in the silver gauntlets off in the distance. And afterward, once we were all clear, nothing. No sign of him.”
“Are you sure it was the same man?”
“Positive. There’s something different 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 frowned. “So you think we’re being followed.” It was not a question.
Argand shrugged. “I guess so. Either that or I am just imagining the guy. I don’t know.”
A pack of men on horseback raced past them at that point, forcing them to give way. They wore the white berets of the Haverlin local patrol, and they were racing towards the center of the city.
“So what about you?” Argand continued. “How did you possibly hit an invisible moving target in the middle of a rushing, muddy river, with a stick weighted down with a hundred 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.
“You know that’s not enough of an explanation, right?”
“Yup. Now let’s get dinner and some sleep.”
Argand sighed as he wrapped his cloak even tighter against the inexplicable chill. Once again he reminded himself that they both seemed fine, perfectly stable. And if that changed, if either of them seemed to lose grip on reality and begin to turn into a murderous Emergent, the other would act to make sure that no one was harmed. They were counting on the fact that they were unlikely to snap at the same time if indeed the worst came to pass.
The central market of Jesserin City was packed with early morning vendors and price conscious shoppers hoping to take advantage early-morning specials. The morning air was cool and crisp, and a thick layer of clouds rolling in from the Black Mountains promised that more mid-Spring rains were on the way.
But neither the shoppers nor the weather were on Turog’s mind. Every vendor’s call seemed to split his head, each clinking weight of gold or silver made his pulse pound in his temples, and all he could think about was downing a half-barrel of ale and sleeping for a week.
That is, he thought, an unwholesome grin splitting his face, AFTER I collect the rest of my pay.
Turog stumped and pounded his way around the broad expanse of the market, finally stopping to lean against a stone wall near the front of a small florist shop at the southwest corner of the square. His ponderous girth was not exactly easy to hide, but he did his best to look inconspicuous anyway. He made a show of adjusting the straps on his pack while checking to see if he had been followed. It was pointless, he knew. He had covered his tracks completely. A few weights of silver in the right hands had made sure that several of his thieving crew hadn’t made it out of the Oern cuperative. Then a few more weights had ensured that a midnight raid along the Cayn Road had eliminated the few men on his crew that remained. But one could never be too sure.
He hoisted his pack and leaned against the wall, head hung low as if he were a common derelict on a street corner. Once he had counted one hundred passers-by, he ducked into the dark alley next to the florist and broke into a jog that made his head throb horribly.
Is it natural to have a headache for this long? He thought as he turned right, then left, then right again to wind his way deeper into the warren of back alleys just off of the market square. I might need some hannon. Of course, in a few minutes I will be able to afford all the hannon I need.
He passed a few shopkeepers hauling sacks of goods or trash into the alleys, circled a few empty light wagons, and finally stopped at a black door at a dead end. Looking closer, he noticed that it wasn’t just black. It was impossibly, perfectly black. Like the darkest corner of a closed grave brought to life in the shape of a door. No handle, no markings of any kind, marred its emptiness.
He wiped the sweat from his brow with the filthy back of his hand, almost blacking out from the pain behind his eyes. But he grinned through the pain. This was the spot. He could almost smell the wealth he was about to acquire.
He knocked on the black door, a special pattern that he had been taught when he accepted this job working for the Trax. While he did not like the inevitable strings that always came with working for the expansive crime syndicate, Turog had heard of many common thieves cashing in big by working for them. Now it was his turn.
The door did not feel like wood; his fist produced a dull wet sound as if her were beating wet earth instead of a hollow echo. While curious, Turog resisted the urge to touch the door further. He had the distinct feeling that something bad would happen if he did. So instead, he waited.
Minutes passed. Turog began to sweat, despite the chill in the air. Come on, he thought. If I went through all of this pure hell for nothing…
“Speak,” a low voice whispered from behind him.
Turog spun around, then toppled as a cascading dizziness struck him. He fell to one knee, gasping as he fought to clear his vision.
“Yes, kneeling is appropriate,” the voice said with a calm amusement. “What is the key?”
The man was young, certainly no more than 20 Summers old, which shocked Turog. He was very tall, square jawed and shouldered, and suddenly seemed very familiar. Turog must have seen this youth before. He again wiped an amazing amount of dirt onto his head from the back of his befouled hand.
“The Dead Pass,” Turog said in a near-whisper, giving the pass key as he had been taught. “I was told to meet a man called the Vulture. Are you his messenger? I don’t want a middle man, son–,”
He stopped short, suddenly confused. He could not rise from his squat, no matter how hard he tried. His knee felt fused to the stone alley floor. Dropping his hands to the pavement, he strained until he swooned. Turog could not move.
“What is this!?” he cried, looking up into the stranger’s dark eyes. “How are you doing this?! Who–”
“I am Julian,” the young man said quietly, coldly. “The Vulture is one of my servants. And as I said, kneeling before your betters is appropriate.”
Turog swallowed hard, his pulse echoing within the confines of his skull in a painful cascade of sound. His clouded thoughts raced as many of the rumors and stories of the past few years leapt to mind. Stories of the inexplicable, stories of magic. Stories of Emergents.
Turog grew afraid. The corpulent thief quickly decided to change his approach.
“I think ah found what yer looking fer, master Julian, sir,” he said quietly. His voice had gone dry. He tried to clear his throat, but the moisture wouldn’t come. “’Bout a week or so ago, ya see. My crew and ah, we were trackin’ some good hits movin’ east along the Jury. Easy pickin’s mostly, ya know, master, sir. Small wagon trains, lone ‘orsemen, anythin’ looking like it might be both easy an’ cheap, ya know–,”
“Get to the point,” Julian said abruptly, with a note of finality that made Turog’s heart skip a beat as he knelt. The stone under his knee and hands began to feel unnaturally cold.
“Right, surely, right, sorry, master Julian, sir,” Turog stumbled, bowing his head repeatedly and again wiping his aching brow. “Errr… maybe if we could go inside, we can sit an’ ah can tell ya the whole long story—“
“Yes sir, master Julian sir!” Turog tried to let himself simply topple over, but whatever held him would not let him fall. He pressed on.
“Ya see, we was about twelve strong, workin’ our way along the Jury, an’ we came across these two young bucks. All alone, ‘bout dawn. Not forty summers if ya added ‘em both together. Well, they whooped us! Knocked me clean out, broke a bunch a my crews arms, then the lil’ one… er, sorry, master, sir, the one with the sword was big and tall, and the one with the throwin’ knives was short and lil’… well, the lil’ one was a hidin’ who-knows-where up in the pith trees, see, and split the hands of half-a-dozen of my men with throwin’ knives from so far away ya couldn’t believe it! Now this same crew, master, sir, we’ve taken troops of fifteen to twenty men when we caught ‘em unawares. An’ ah had bow hunters, too! Good shots, they were, but none good enough t’get those two. If that don’t sound like young ‘uns with ‘special skills’ like ya wanted, ah don’t know what does.”
Turog noted a change in Julian’s expression. The young man’s eyes widened and his brows rose. The thief took this as a good sign. He once again imagined the weights of gold that would soon lay at his feet. “What’s more, master Julian, sir,” he continued, “Not a man was killed, ya here me! Just like The Vulture said, they din’t kill a one of us. Now, how’re two young pups like that gonna be that good? They fit the bill, master, sir. If those two ain’t Emergent, then nobody in all of Pasaron is! Uh… not that there is a thing wrong with bein’ Emergent, master, sir. Anyways, I reckon they’d have made it to Haverlin by now. Oh, and the big one? He gave his name. Argand, of Eagle’s Reach.”
Turog noted the edge of intensity in Julian’s youthful eyes. The young man looked like a burglar who was about to make a tremendous score.
“What did he look like?” Julian asked quietly.
It hit Turog at just that moment. “Well, come ta mention it, master Julian, sir, he, uh… he kinda reminds me of you. Sir. Like the two of ya could be kin to each other. Crazy as that sounds.”
Turog’s skull was pounding; the huge knot on the top of his head from that sword pommel hurt worse than ever. The angry red scar that ran down the front of his face seemed to want to split open. There were spots in the corners of his vision, and his legs and arms were cramping terribly in his forced crouch.
But it was finally time to get paid.
“Well done,” said Julian with a smile.
Turog licked his lips, and risked a smile. “That’s two-hundred weight of gold, right, master Julian, sir?” he asked.
“It is worth more than that. Much more.”
The fat thief’s smile suddenly faded as he felt the stone beneath him shift, soften. His eyes widened in horror as his hands and knees began to sink into the solid stone as if it were marshland mud.
“Remain quiet,” Julian said calmly as Turog began to struggle and buck against his descent with all of his might. And at those words, the guttural scream that was about to escape from Turog’s lungs evaporated into a whimper. The cold stone filled him with pain and stillness as it swallowed him whole. The last thing he saw before his eyes sank below the solid cobbles was a small grin on Julian’s chiseled face.
A moment later, Julian stood alone in the quiet alley, considering what he had just learned. He turned to the black doorway.
“Did you get all of that, my teacher?”
“Yes indeed, Julian,” came an aged voice from the black door. “We have found them. But again, you may by no means seek a confrontation. That time has not yet come.”
“I understand, my teacher. I will be patient.”
“Return to your brothers and let them know of our success. I will alert you when you are needed again.”
The black door’s color began to fade. A slick of inky film, suddenly freed from whatever force had held it, drained downward into the dark shadows of the threshold. Julian now stood before a perfectly normal oaken portal.
“Tomas, I am ready to return,” Julian said to the open air. Then he vanished utterly, with neither sound nor flash, leaving no trace that anyone had visited the alley at all.
* * *
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