Excerpt 2

Bare feet flat to the padded floor of the practice room, he just brushed 6 feet tall, making him a good hand-span or two taller than the blonde man stretching in preparation across from him. His limbs were long and toughly muscled, as opposed to bulky – built for distance and endurance over brute strength. When not tied back from his high forehead, and matted black with sweat, his shoulder length hair was the dark brown of polished delan wood. Rough chopped ends testified to his impatience with guild rules which dictated hair could be no longer, and with custom which had short hair as the province of the ruling Houses.

“So you’re actually going to take the trip? Sim hadn’t been at the ale after all?” The other man on the mat gripped his practice sword in a two-handed stance and prepared to attack.

Luk shrugged and raised his own sword in defence.

“Seriously? You’re going past the borders?” the blonde shifted forward and then circled before lunging.

This time the only answer Luk gave was a grunt as he easily parried the blow and started an attack of his own.

“But with Tribal guides?” The shorter man stumbled backwards from the force of the attack, but kept up his stream of questions. “And one a woman?!”

“They’re the best”. Luk swung his wooden blade up under the guard of his opponent, twisting it so the other blade flew to the floor with a clatter, and his own ended up resting at the base of the other’s throat. “You weren’t even trying, Jac”.

“I had my mind on other things!” Jac – Pirael Jiacomo, as he was listed on the guild rolls – retorted as he stooped to collect his blade, then made to return it to the racks at the side of the room. “Enough. The only time I ever could best you was when you’d had the hide thrashed off you by a Master and even then you were fighting with your right hand tied behind you in forfeit. I’ve had about all the humiliation I can handle at your hands today. Time we sat down with a brew and you explained to me how the best mercenary on the Guild’s books got himself marked for guide-dogging a merchant through the borders with just the backup from some tribal scurf of dubious descent”.
“And a scholar. Don’t forget there’s a scholar as is one of those I am to guide too”. A tiny grin lifted the edge of Luk’s wide mouth.
“How could I forget the scholar!” Jac threw his hands in the air and pushed his tall companion out the door towards the changing rooms. “Shower – beer – explanation. And in that order. I’ve a feeling I’m going to be needing as much fortification as I can get down my throat to get a handle on this news”.

Just a thousand words

The third night out their pattern changed. They drew up to camp, aways back from the road, shortly before dusk as usual, but Rofan was edgy. Lukam watched as he muttered something to his brother and then approached Jariel Janir where she stood watching the campfire catch on the tinder.

“You sure?” her low voice carried to where he stood with the horses.
“I am sure, my lady” Rofan growled back. Jariel nodded, then stared at the ground for a moment, stiring the dust with her boot toe. Satisfied with something, she stooped down and picked up six, no seven, objects from the ground. Lukam would swear later they were just pebbles like the countless others scattered around the clearing. Next he watched as Jariel walked slowly round their burgeoning camp at the limits of the firelight, bending down at intervals to place a pebble on the ground.

“Ei, doi, kay, hir, vir, lar-tei” she muttered one word with each stone. Back at the fire, she raised the last and seventh pebble to her forehead, muttered “sai” and placed it in the pouch that hung from her belt. Lukam felt as if someone was watching over his shoulder, but as he made to turn, Jariel knotted the pouch shut and the feeling was gone. He shook himself slightly, shivering at the cool night air. Jariel then continued her preparations for their dinner as if nothing out the way had happened.

“What was that?” He queried Kriss as he neared the fire himself.
“What was what, mercenary?”
“With the pebbles? What LeiLei – he had slipped into the habit of calling her the Chalman for lady as all the others did early on – was doing?”
“Oh. The lady was just casting the boundaries”. Kriss caught his puzzlement. “More’n that, you need ask the lady your questions yourself”. Kriss turned away to check on their guests, effectively closing the conversation.

Nothing loath, Lukam approached Jariel at the cookpot.

“Jariel Janir? May I talk with you?”
“Of course mercenary. Sit. You can peel those roots whilst you’re at it”. Grey eyes smiles over her saibu. Recognising a superior authority, Lukam grinned in return, admitted defeat, and set to work on the mound of tubers.
“What did you do just then? With the pebbles?”
“I cast the boundaries” she spoke as if that was all he needed to hear.
“And that means?”
“Ai, I forget at times you are Nation-born, mercenary” she settled back on her heels and looked afresh at him.

“The taught you of Toth, in the village where you were born?”
“I was raised to follow Toth, yes”.
“I sense something else though, in your tone. I would guess you spent time with the Sisters?”
“Eh, yes. Now you ask, the Sisters had the raising of me and my brother for a year or so after my mother took sick. Then I started Layishan and that side of thing sort of took the hind step”.
“So your understanding is of the Nation world. You know of this world and the next that follows. You were raised in a land where death follows birth and Spirit follows death in a clear line”.
“In Chalman we see things a mite differently. Our lives are more… ‘circular’ – I use that Nation word, but it does not translate direct. For our purposes now it will serve. We acknowledge something beyond Spirit. Our name for it is ‘Sula’, which is closest to your ‘power’ I would think. Ah, I see from your eyes you have heard of Sula. From a Healer, perhaps?”
“Our healer for a term at Layishan was Chalman trained. His reputation was formidable”.
“I am not surprised. Not for nothing, the best healers on Kenmarkiu come out of the sands. But I stray from our point. Sula, power, ties us all to this world. It turns through us all, to differing degrees. It lets us do things your Nation tutors would have slandered as ‘magic’. Casting the boundaries like I just did is simply that. I set the limits to our camp. Oh, it will not be some impenetrable barrier, so hide your skeptiscm Rikart Lukam. It will simply let us know if people approach”.
“The words? You spoke… it sounded like a chant to me”.

“Counting words only, mercenary”. She raised a reassuring hand. “Worry not, I will try to refrain from corrupting you with my desert magic till we are well beyond the reach of Frenan witch hunters”.
“Why do you tell me this so freely?”
“You asked”. She smiled again over her saibu. “I am a Healer, Rikart Lukam. Part of the reasoning for my very existence is to impart knowledge. If a savage Northern blademan is all Ruad presents me with then, by the six tribes, I shall make the most of the opportunity”. She held her arms wide to the night sky for a moment then dropped, the moment of levity passed.

“Get some rest, mercenary. The boundaries are cast and are as safe as we can make them. Ne’el has first watch, then Rofan. You have third, so I suggest you sleep while you can. From here out our journeying is going to get a little more exciting. I would rather we had been further on our way, but we deal with the hand the fates have given us”. She rose to her feet gracefully, patted him on the shoulder, and took the basket of tubers to Kriss at the other side of the large fire.

Excerpt 1

Because he asked so nicely, this is for Josh. It’s unfinished. I’m still not sure where it fits into the whole picture (though from the character interaction we’re talking later on in the story) and I’m still not totally convinced I’ve separated the two world-views out enough, but enjoy…
p.s. – any comments on how art mirrors life, and I will take my revenge by eviscerating you in fiction. I know that I use my writing to work things through. I don’t need my nose rubbed in it :p

She sat there, watching quietly as Luk stirred the fire, making the coals collapse against one another and give out more heat in preference to light. She loved how the amber glinted off his bones, spare with decades of fighting, making them softer; the bones he would have had had fate not stepped in.

“What is it, mei sa?” Luke turned to look at her over his shoulder. “You’re quiet tonight, quiet even for you”.
“Just thinking, ma sona. Thinking what life would have been”.
“Deep thoughts, Je-Je, but why think them? Life is as it is. We have nothing to gain by pondering on how it might have been different”.
“Now who sounds like a Healer, hey?” Jariel grinned. “I know thinking this line won’t get the horses watered, but it intrigues me. How much of life comes because of our actions and responses to situations, and how much was predestined for us. Would I be here to today, the person I am, if a Healer two centuries ago had not fore-spoken my birth and my actions? Or of if the Shantarican had not ordered the death of the Kainapas because of prophecy — would I still be Saiauri? Jariel Janir?”
“You would be who you are”.

Luk got to his feet and walked over to where their saddle packs were slung on a high branch against night-crawlers. He rummaged for a pack of trail bread and split it as he came back to the blankets. He tossed half over to her and flopped back to the ground. “There is no point in wondering what this alternate Jariel would be like because you are here. Those things did happen. The result is the lady who sits beside me, chewing her thumbnail, worrying about things even she lacks the Power to change. You are Saiauri. There is no changing that. You are Fomori and Kainapas. You are respected. You are feared. You are loved. You just are”.

“I worry you miss my point, Rikart Lukam. I am not saying I want to change the me I am now. I am just wondering if an alternate route would still have brought us to this point in time. Fireside conjecture, but I am too much a guide not to wonder about shortcuts and the paths not taken”.
“Mei sa, I am a mercenary, a fighting man. I deal with the enemy and the life I see before me. More than that I cannot manage. I leave the deep thinking and route finding to those better trained for it. But I will say this – I am here with this Saiauri, with this Jariel Janir. I know that it is the she who sits beside me, and she alone who could have brought me over to the Tribes. Factor that into your thinking, dear Guide of my life. If you look at an alternate you, you need to look at alternates of everyone else, and personally? I like the version we are today”.

On that, Luke turned back to the fire, carefully adjusting the pot so it sat in the best cooking coals. Jariel sat and watched him for a long time. Could the mercenary be right with his Northern pragmatism? She was trained to look for the complexities in every argument. Could it really be as simple as making the decision to be the person you saw in the mirror each day and to ignore the “what if’s”?