Authors: Kevin L. Nielsen
Future House Publishing
Copyright © 2015 by Kevin L. Nielsen
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form
or by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either
the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover design by Garrett Hamon
Cover design © 2015 by Future House Publishing
Developmental editing by Helena Steinacker and Mandi Diaz
Substantive editing by Emma Hoggan
Copy editing by Heather Klippert
Interior design by Emma Hoggan
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Ami, Ryan, Mandi and the rest of
the Future House Publishing Team
This book is primarily for Kaitlynn, who upholds the flame.
However, I would be remiss if I did not name the others who were also important to the process. My writing group, Team Unleashed, has provided invaluable assistance. The people at Future House have been wonderful to work with and I thank each of them in turn—they know who they are. My parents also deserve their moment, for supporting me when I needed support and giving me tough love.
And finally, the two who originally inspired me to write: Kevin Bailey and Ms. Wolfe. Thanks for the motivation to start. May death’s shadow pass over you all. Always.
I know the voice of the girl child screaming. Am I the cause of those screams? The enemy has come.
-From the Journals of Elyana
The crowd pressed close as the outcast juggler tossed flaming brands into the air. Near the middle of the crowd, three children scuffled. Two boys pushed a little girl out of the way and scrambled to get a better look. The little girl fell with a muffled shout, landing hard enough to scatter sand across the stone floor.
Lhaurel watched the children out of the corner of her eye, waiting for the parents to step in. None came. She moved to the girl’s side, gently helping her to her feet. One of the boys, perhaps no older than seven or eight years, made a face at her, but Lhaurel glared at him until he sniffed and turned back to the show. Lhaurel turned back to the girl and dusted her off. There was a small cut on one of her cheeks that bled down in a thin, red line.
“Hey,” Lhaurel said softly, licking her thumb and wiping away the blood. “It’s alright. Do you want to see the juggler?”
The little girl swallowed and bowed her head, shuffling her feet and sniffing as her nose ran.
Lhaurel sighed. Most of the children in the clan had been told to stay away from her—the clan’s bad influence—at one point in their lives. It appeared they were starting even younger now.
“Come here.” Lhaurel swept the girl into her arms and then up onto her shoulders.
The girl whooped, drawing angry glares from more than one of the watchers, but none of them said anything. Little hands fastened in Lhaurel’s bushy hair, and a little chin dropped onto the top of her head. Lhaurel smiled and turned her attention back to the performance. And for a moment, at least, the stresses and weight of the next day faded away.
The juggler gave way to a pair of acrobats, who contorted themselves into strange positions and performed stunning jumps and leaps that left the crowd gasping. The little girl laughed and clapped her hands. Lhaurel laughed along with her.
Castoffs from the seven clans of the Rahuli people, the outcasts, were typically shunned and ignored, left to wander the Sharani desert alone unless they found another of their kind. Except, of course, when there was cause for celebration. Then they were commissioned to perform.
Even under invitation, though, they were kept at arm’s length. Unwary people were sure to lose any valuables they had on hand if they let an outcast any closer.
The little girl—Lhaurel thought her name might be Kesli—tugged on Lhaurel’s hair. “Look. They’ve got red hair like you.” The girl pointed one pudgy hand at the acrobats, who bowed to the clapping audience and stepped away from the stage.
Lhaurel tugged on the girl’s foot, and she giggled, dropping her hand.
In truth, Kesli was half right. Lhaurel’s hair did have a certain reddish cast to it, especially in the sunlight, but it was a deeper shade of brown beneath. The acrobats had hair the color of fresh blood, bright and vibrant even in the dim light of the cavern in which they performed.
Not many people paused to consider the difference, though. More than one family had passed Lhaurel along based on the color of her hair. That and her height, another similarity she and many outcasts shared.
The acrobats vanished into the small group of waiting performers behind the stage, and an older woman stepped forward amidst the claps and shouts from the crowd. This woman’s hair was streaked through with white, only a few strands of brown remaining. She had been acting as the main narrator, introducing the next performance and interacting on behalf of the group as a whole. It was almost as if she were their leader, a preposterous idea. Even the Matron of the Warren had to bow before her own Warlord. Yet Lhaurel admired the outcasts for it.
In the back of Lhaurel’s mind, seeing this outcast woman leading the tribe only made her that much more nervous about what lay before her.
“Wasn’t that something?” the woman said, her voice a scratchy, grating sound like the wind against sandstone rocks during a storm. “We will now be graced with the story of a great warrior, a man of great stature and strength. Gavin, master of lore and legend, will tell the tale of Eldriean.”
She raised her hands wide, and a young man stepped forward, garbed in simple, dusty robes. He adopted an easy, practiced pose just slightly off from true. His red-brown hair fell casually in his eyes, but he stood stiffly like he was afraid of something.
he was simply nervous. If she were the one on the stage, she’d be stiff as well. And trembling on the inside.
The crowd applauded. Several of the younger children pushed forward through the crowd in an effort to get closer to the storyteller. Stories were rare, and this one was a favorite.
Lhaurel leaned forward slightly, though not enough to unseat Kesli. In her seventeen years, she’d only heard the story one other time, and it had been so long ago she’d forgotten much of it.
The man, Gavin, kept his eyes forward, focused beyond the crowd at a distant point on the wall behind. When he spoke, there was no quaver in his voice. It resonated and echoed off the cavern walls as if a chorus of men were speaking.
“The Salvation War, War of Recovery, The Deliverance. It went by many names. In the last years of the long, bitter struggle, Eldriean became leader of the Rhiofriar, greatest of the three clans.”
A focused hush fell over the listeners. Even the small children fell silent.
“It was a happy time for the Rhiofriar, for the Enemy had abated its furious onslaught. The clans could take a few months, mere moments against the span of years of death that came before, to breathe once more. To have a few moments of peace.
“But the blood of past deaths rang heavy in Eldriean’s ears, a clarion call to arms. He rode forth to the Lord’s Council on the back of the Winds, his mighty Weapon at his side, won from an Enemy slain in battle. With a voice of thunder, he claimed leadership of all the clans, not just his own. He demanded their fealty and their strength. He drew forth his Weapon and brandished it in the face of those who opposed him. One, Serthim, stood against him longest, but all fell away, bowing to his might. They surrendered to his glory.”
The man paused, letting the silence grow heavy with weight. Emotion roiled in the cavern, curiosity mixed with confusion. Who was this Eldriean? And the Rhiofriar? No such clan existed.
“The hordes came in waves,” Gavin continued, “from the earth and from the air, leaving destruction and death in their wake.”
“The genesauri!” Kesli whispered. Lhaurel felt her shudder in fear. A matching one worked its way into the pit of Lhaurel’s own stomach.
“Yet Eldriean brought the clans together in unity in the one place where life still clung. The clans met the enemy there upon the cliff that surrounded this place of lush fertility. There they ringed the walls with bodies and with flesh, armed with lances and swords and spears and magic and will. There they faced the final charge. There the Weapon that so much sacrifice had earned was unleashed in full at long last, unleashed in all its might and glory and horror. There they found victory and defeat. There they found their salvation. And their destruction. There upon the cliffs.”
Gavin waited, his eyes growing unfocused. His hands shook at his sides, and he clenched his fists into balls. Behind him, the older woman made a small grunt.
“Eldriean fell there, upon the cliffs,” Gavin continued, his voice so soft that Lhaurel had to strain to hear. “Betrayed by Serthim, who had never truly bowed. His mighty Weapon, which had rallied the clans and unified them under one rightful King, pierced Serthim there, slamming the traitor into the rocks even as he fell, sealing the fate of the Rahuli.
“Leaderless, left to fight the enemy on their own, they became lost and broken. Three tribes became seven—and the outcasts. But it is said Eldriean’s Weapon lies there still atop the cliffs of the Oasis, there for the time of great need when the clans shall once again need a King.”
For a moment after Gavin stopped speaking, the silence seemed a living thing, an entity unto itself.
The man stood upon the stage, head bowed and fists clenched, as if telling the tale somehow left him afraid. Or maybe angry. Lhaurel couldn’t decide which.
A bark of laughter shattered the ethereal blanket that had covered them all.
Jenthro, Warlord of the Sidena, stepped forward. “And every year in the Oasis, at least one of you fools dies trying to scale those rocks and find it. Now
is a performance I like watching,” he said, raising one hand and spreading it before him.
Behind him, several people laughed. Atop Lhaurel’s shoulders, Kesli giggled as well, though Lhaurel wasn’t sure the girl knew what she was laughing about.
Lhaurel herself maintained her silence. The man was an outcast, but he was still a person.
“Wasn’t it just last year there were two of them who tried?” Taren asked. He was an older warrior, the effective second in command behind Jenthro. “I think I remember watching that one. A husband and wife, I recall. One of them tried to fly when they fell, flapping his arms like a bird until he hit the sand.” He mimicked flailing arms, and the Sidena laughed again.
The man on stage, the youth, really, shook with suppressed anger. Lhaurel was sure his nails were digging into the flesh of his palms. The outcasts who had already performed were stony faced or else turned away, backs stiff.
Only the older woman seemed unfazed. She stepped back up to the stage and smiled sweetly down into the jeering faces. With one hand she pushed the young man back in the direction of the others. He retreated with reluctant steps, leaving her alone on the stage.
“Mighty Sidena,” she said with a bow that a woman her age shouldn’t have been able to accomplish with such alacrity and grace. “We will take our leave now. If you would kindly provide us our payment, we will leave you to your festivities.”
Lhaurel winced at the reminder. As much as she enjoyed the performers, she would rather they not be here at all.
No, I won’t think about it. Not now.
Jenthro laughed and gestured with one hand. “Three goats, I believe.”
A disturbance arose at the back of the crowd, followed by renewed laughter. A younger warrior came forward, pulling the leads on the three goats. Lhaurel felt a moment of pity when she saw the creatures.
Scrawny and obviously sick, the goats were in such bad health they were likely only a few moments away from being culled from the herd. Lhaurel could count the ribs on all three of them. One even had a large, festering sore on one flank that was causing the animal to limp.
Lhaurel felt a moment of simultaneous anger and pity warm her chest. The goat and sheep herds were a large part of what sustained the Sidena. They were cared for, fed, and looked after with more care than some of the children. These animals had been purposefully underfed and neglected to mock and demean the outcasts.
It was vain, foolish posturing. The act was one she should have expected. One more strike against a clan she would never call her own.
“Three goats,” Jenthro said with a bow much less graceful than the lady’s had been, “as promised.”
The woman accepted them with another bow, not even raising an eyebrow at the condition they were in. She was an outcast. They were used to such treatment. At least they got paid at all. Other clans may have chased them out at the point of a sword.
Lhaurel admired the grace the woman showed in the face of such hostility, a grace Lhaurel wished she herself were able to imitate. She’d thought about joining them before but had always given up on the idea. Life in the protection of a large clan was better than life as a clanless nomad.
Yet, as the small group of outcasts gathered up their possessions and left the warren, pulling wide-wheeled handcarts and escorted by a half-dozen Sidena warriors, Lhaurel couldn’t help but wonder if her life was really any better off than theirs.