Official site for the high/dark fantasy books of authors Barb Hendee and J. C. Hendee, including the Noble Dead Saga (a.k.a. The Noble Dead series), the Mist-Torn Witches series, the Vampire Memories series, and TNDS: Tales from the world of the Noble Dead Saga.

New Beginnings… Part 5

#fantasy, #fiction, #excerpts

Time again from another couple of scenes from a work in progress. As always, these are initial drafts with little revision and subject to much more refinement. Grab your tea or coffee and again settle down for a few quiet moments of escape into another world…


Chapter 2, Scene 1

Bug-eyed, boney, skinny, and too tall, Devnik completed most tasks—for the most part—as ordered by Master Kriändul. But he did so because the master had secrets he couldn't learn anywhere else. At first, he'd been doubly reluctant when his mother pushed him into another apprenticeship. Never-mind that he was running out of trades in which to apprentice and fail, or that this time it was to some distant “cousin” of his mother. That wasn't quite the relationship of Venon Kriändul to her, but Devnik didn't really care.

The more he listened—overheard—and the more he learned—snooped—the more he realized a few things. Compared to those other failed apprenticeships, he had stumbled into something different this time.

Life for most was twice the work for half the gain—except for alchemists.

Everyone scrounged for “easier” if not “better” but never got both—except for alchemists.

And maybe especially for one like his new master, who also kept changing his age somehow.

You had to find an angle, a catch, and or a special secret; alchemists had all three and kept those to themselves. Devnik wasn't going to fetch and haul for a lifetime before he found such through Venon Kriändul.

All that matter was that he would escape everyone else's stupid drudgery. So far, he hadn't found much except hints to how to find something else. There had been a lot of fetching and hauling and scrubbing and grunting along the way. More than he cared for, more than he'd always avoided, but not today.

He took a cart with one fat mule from the storage stable hidden in the shore's bank above the mill. Everything about the mill was kept out of sight of the coastal road. At least a cart would do for a more leisurely if only slightly quicker trip into Bela. A rough path left unkempt to avoid attention was the only way to reach the main coastal road. None of the Trion's private guards stopped him along the way, not even at the iron gate halfway there.

Up on the road, no one could see the salt-mill—not until if and when its great mirrors and lenses rose out of the earth to magnify sunlight down into the Trion's underground compound. That only happened in late mornings when no one was around to see. More curious to Devnik were those racks and rows of crystals far below ground that stored the sun's heat and light to vaporize seawater over and over.

At the ocean's edge, you couldn't see the stone pipe-channels that drew in the water. Those ran below the earth and came up beneath the ocean a hundred yard's beyond the low-tide mark. How those had been built under water and earth, who knew.

Alchemists, that's who.

You also couldn't see where excess water flushed out of the mill's upper levels, after the steam cooled and condensed, though Devnik wondered something else about that.

A lot of steam was generated during salt extraction and more during its repeated purification. Even so, less water was dumped out than was drawn in—too much less. It took a while to figure that out. One late evening he spotted other senior workers hauling off wet and heavy barrels to who knew where. In permitted reading of Master Kriändul's few texts kept at the mill, Devnik came across multiple mentions of “thrice-purified” water.

Maybe that's what was in those barrels.

Either way, the Trion was making a lot of coin from that highly refined salt. That wasn't all that Devnik gleaned in his short time with Kriändul. And some of that wasn't with the master's approval.

As instructed, he headed up the coastal road into Bela and toward its port though not directly to it. Even if the Haroun had come in, it wasn't going anywhere, and its foreign captain wouldn't hand off the master's long awaited whatever to just anyone. So the master wouldn't know the difference if his apprentice made one extra stop.

Devnik patted his shirt and vest front, checking again that Master Kriändul's envelope was safely tucked away. As the cart rocked along the road behind its one bulky mule, a second thought came to him. He pulled out the envelope, held it up to early dawn's light, but he still couldn't make up anything written on the sheet inside. And he couldn't see a clean way to get the envelope open and then reseal it.

Was this Captain Fas'sud expecting a “sealed” letter or not?

Uncertain, he tucked the envelope back into shirt.

That the first place he wanted to go shared something in common with the captain's homeland didn't occur to Devnik. Coincidences rarely registered on him, or they happened so often that he didn't notice anymore. Two city blocks upslope and inland from the waterfront's southern end, he heaved on the cart's reins, pulled the mule to a stop, and hopped out before Moufud's Wolfin' Bits.

It was best to come late after sunrise, once the air warmed, stirred, and carried off some of the eatery's morning stink. In working for the master and the Trion, Devnik had encountered smells that most people would never know. That stink to end all stinks hid a favored delight.

Devnik ignored kids milling about the big shed around the corner and headed straight for the narrow door of the narrow eatery once an inn. When he grabbed the door's handle, he heard squeals, shrieks and shouting from around the corner. He was too fixed on what he'd come for to wonder about those. A small bell clinked more than tinkled as he pushed the door open and stepped in.

That smell hit him in the nose even stronger than outside.

Devnik twisted between patrons stuffed in on stools around table's barely bigger than stool tops.

“Ay!” a rough-faced sailor snapped. “Watch ya' steps!”

He half-hopped the other way, backed into someone else, and almost fell over the top of whoever.

Wolfin' Bits was more crowded each time he chanced to sneak in here. By the time he wriggled to the plank counter halfway back and face ahead, he almost reeled away into another patron.

A fat, muscly, grisly and hairy man stared at him from beyond the rough counter plank bridged between two empty barrels. Dark-skin as if always tanned, even in winter, the man's wide-jaw was ever-shadowed in needing a shave.

Moufud crossed thick arms over a full-length, grease-n-smoke stained apron.

Devnik hesitated well out of reach, just in case.

“What you come?” Moufud rumbled, glaring upward a bit for Devnik's height. “Pay? Yes… pay!”

Devnik exhaled sharply. He'd hoped to slip in a few more treats before paying up in leaning on his master's reputation for credit. By then or later, the Suman cook might've forgotten how much he was owed.

“One—today,” Devnik answered, still hoping for another treat. “Fresh… from oven… you understand?”

After a year in Bela, Moufud still didn't speak Belaskian that well. The bulky foreigner obviously understood when he slammed a meaty fist on the counter plank. Trays of smelly goods jumped at both ends of the plank, and nearby patrons flinched and faltered in chatter as they looked over.

Devnik glanced aside as one end tray shuddered to stillness, which didn't hold what he wanted most. When he looked back, Moufud was holding up three fingers. Devnik blinked twice.

The big Suman inverted those fingers, tapped them once harshly upon the counter board, and re-crossed his arms. He stood silently waiting.

Devnik's eyes widened in outrage. He grumbled but dug out three groats and placed them on the makeshift counter.

“Now… my treat,” he said through his teeth.

Moufud didn't move at first. Without unfolding his arms, he extended two fingers of his right hand.

Devnik's breath caught; that was double what he'd ever paid—eventually. After another stare-down, he paid two more groats and pointed off beyond Moufud.

“From… oven,” he repeated.

At the back of the front room and next to the right-side stairs was a narrow doorway. In place of its door was some old swirly-patterned, foreign drapery. Who knew what lay beyond and all the way to the back door, but everybody knew Moufud's odd muck-n-clay oven was in the back alley. That didn't sit well with other shopkeepers nearby. Moreso in that Moufud kept his part of the alley blocked off with old carpet drapes.

Still, people peeked in. A few were caught and banned for life from Wolfin' Bits.

Without a blink of his dark glare, Moufud turned and headed off through that curtained doorway.

Devnik didn't look at the other trays of foodstuffs in an old bookshelf on the back wall beyond the counter-board. He thought only of his treat, and that it had cost him more than he'd planned.

Muffled shrieks and a slightly clearer shout carried through the windowless wall to his left. On some other day, Devnik wouldn't have cared. In having to pay up on his treats, that racket got on his nerves.

 

 

Chapter 2, Scene 2

Tryskiäna raised her eyes from the final sheet of last moon's ledger. She glanced toward the front door and at Vàtz's back, that unscrupulous, manipulative, conniving…

She stopped with an exhale, pushed the too-big spectacles up her little nose, and cleared her thoughts. As she returned to the accounts, a shutter banged open on one window, and the shack-stable-office of the FFPS filled with sudden extra light.

Vàtz clomped back to her desk; without asking, he snuffed the lantern there and took it away.

Tryskiäna neither paused nor looked up from her work.

The others at the FFPS needed income far more than her—including Vàtz but more importantly little Pìnt. So did the “stragglers”—the young ones who came every dawn in hope of a day's work and wage. She would not fail any of them, especially the staff for their end of the moon percentages of the profits.

She did wish they were all paid more and more often.

In truth, Tryskiäna did not need her own wages at all. If anyone had known this let alone why, they might have asked what she was doing in this place. She might even lose her position, at that. One of them did know, the one her father had arranged as her dawn-and-dusk escort. That one would never tell anyone, not if he wished to keep the secret of why and how he had lost his last position.

Then again, she did not know everything about that.

Tryskiäna eyed Ded still standing vigil by the front door.

“Tryx, you got the lunch money ready?”

She looked up with a quick clench of her little jaw, but it was not Vàtz before her desk. Bolo as well as Took—Ewariatō—stood waiting. She faked a slight smile to cover her ire.

“One moment, please.”

She spun a quarter turn, dropped off the high stool and down to her knees, and crawled under her desk between its sides of drawers. In the back of that cubby was a steel lock-box chained to the floor boards, though a strong adult man might have ripped it out.

Considering how worn was this old shack or stable, Vàtz had spent a surprising amount on some things. Where he had acquired that amount was a mystery—for now—and she had not found a single clue to it in the past ledgers.

Tryskiäna sat up on her knees, and her head just barely brushed the desktop's underside. She reached into her shirt collar, hooked and pulled the loop of a narrow, white satin ribbon around her neck, and out came another small key.

Only Vàtz had one like this one for the strong box. That he actually fed his porter teams was startling for someone like him. It might be the only meal of the day for most of the stragglers. And even this was not why Tryskiäna tolerated that underhanded, duplicitous…

She took another breath, unlocked the box, and pulled out four little pouches prepared that morning from sorted tray-racks of coins. When she had first taken this position, the lock-box's contents were not so properly organized. There had also been fewer profits in those early days of the official FFPS. She crawled out and up and handed a pouch each to Bolo and Took.

“Thanks again,” Bolo said with a broad smile.

The pair turned away to carry bearer poles and ropes outside. Vàtz backed out of the doorway to let them through. And the day's preparations were as yet incomplete.

Tryskiäna removed her spectacles, which only helped her see close up. “Katrina?”

When the other reprobate of the FFPS turned, she tossed the third pouch as best she could.

Katrina—Kat—snatched its cord in mid-air and whipped the pouch into that same hand. She nodded back as she too headed for the door. Vàtz side-stepped out of her way but again returned to watching outside.

Tryskiäna eyed the back of his messy-haired head with the forth and last pouch still in hand. If she threw it, she might—likely would—miss. Any coin that tumbled out to be lost, even one tiny iron groat, was someone's lunch. She dropped the last pouch on her desk, struggled up atop her stool, and picked up her quill to dip it in a squat ink bottle.

Yes, she scribed final ledgers in ink; she was that precise and perfect at what she did.

“Where are they?”

Tryskiäna raised only her eyes this time.

Vàtz leaned out of the front door and looked up and down the outer slanted street.

Yes, where were the twins? They came only every other day from wherever. Of late, they had come later and later. That they often brought additional stragglers gathered along the way would not make up for their continued tardiness.

Vàtz leaned back, hesitated, and looked aside. “Maybe you should go look for them?”

Tryskiäna fixed instantly upon Ded. The eyes of the FFPS' tall, pale “guard” widened slightly and he fixed Vàtz with cold stare.

Very little unsettled Ded. Tryskiäna herself at times, and then there were the twins, but she decided to rescue him.

“They will come,” she called out, and when Vàtz glanced back at her, “the twins always come, eventually.”

“Eventually,” he grumbled, leaning out the door again, and then, “Finally! What took you two this time?”

“Sorry, sorry,” a high voice called from afar.

Another added, “Yeah, sorry, sorry, but we brought more hands.”

Vàtz backed into the room as he shouted, “Bolo, Took, Kat, get in here! Some changes!”

He retreated to lean-sit on the front of Tryskiäna's desk as the other three poured in past Ded. And Tryx—oh, now even she thought that awful nickname—was about to peek around Vàtz.

Hey… Ded,” the twins crooned in unison.

Tryskiäna could not see Ded flinch this time, though he did so every morning they greeted him upon arrival. They were neither ugly nor fat, but they were the stockiest, thick-bodied, dull-brown haired girls that Tryskiäna had ever seen. She finally leaned wide to peek around Vàtz.

Mauri, or Maurianna, had once defeated Bolo at arm-wrestling, much to his embarrassment and some later angry pouting. Of course, that was not an acceptable pursuit for a young lady in the first place. She was also slightly taller than her sister though few noticed unless they stood close together. As the second to enter, Lauri—Laurianna—leaned in a on Ded with an affected grin and a wink.

Ded did not truly shrink away, but Tryskiäna saw his back nearly touch the wall boards.

“Stop foolin' around!” Vàtz snapped. “We got work to do.”

“Sorry, sorry, chief,” the twins piped in unison.

As they joined the others crowded around Vàtz, Tryskiäna again stared at the back of his head—and then at the last pouch laying conveniently nearby. Even she could not miss at this distance. The women—the girls—of the FFPS needed to stand together, including the felonious Katrina. Not that Vàtz held femininity against anyone.

And even this was not why Tryskiäna remained at the FFPS.

Vàtz glanced over his shoulder, spotted the last pouch readied for his own team, and snatched it up. He tossed it up and caught it twice, appeared to weigh it thoughtfully in hand, and then frowned.

“Is something wrong,” Tryskiäna challenged. “The amount perhaps?”

He was so obsessed with coin that he seemed to always know exactly how much he held without even seeing it.

Vàtz dropped the pouch on her desk with a huff. “No… it's fine,” he grumbled.

Again, Tryskiäna glanced at the pouch within reach.

That Vàtz would have been irate about a lost coin was a given. That he would have also been upset—though less so—about a lost lunch for a day-worker was also not why Tryskiäna remained at the FFPS.

“Took, Bolo,” Vàtz said, “If there's not enough worthwhile stragglers, you'll have to share with the twins.”

Took frowned. “Do we even have enough strong ones today?”

Vàtz glanced toward the door. “Ded?”

Ded peeked outside, apparently counting. “Not enough.”

Vàtz groaned again.

Tryskiäna still remembered the evening when the twins had first come to the FFPS. She had been shocked by two girls seeking work as porters, though Vàtz never noticed or asked them why. Katrina did not count, as she was a team leader.

“Sorry,” Vàtz had told the twin girls. “I've all I need with what business I can get.”

It was a half-truth by what Tryskiäna had seen in the FFPS ledgers, but at least it had been polite. Fate quickly played its role, for Bolo had returned with baggage still lashed to his team's bearer poles.

No client accompanied hm.

The client had been unable—or unwilling—to pay the agreed fee upon arrival at the destination. After notifying the city guard, it was then legal if slightly unethical to hold any baggage until the fee was paid. Such confiscations had to be kept in good faith for at least two moons. This happened more often to private porter teams than those of the warehouses.

Then and presently, the FFPS storage room was partly full of items yet or never reclaimed. The other half was filled with stores, equipment, extra rope, etc. In the middle of all of this was little Pìnt's huge trunk full of junk, but on that past evening…

Bolo barely unlashed the first large chest when Mauri heaved it up by herself and carried it inside.

Wide-eyed Vàtz hired the twins instantly. He was less satisfied when they informed him that they could come only every other day, at the most.

All that mattered to Vàtz was that whoever he hired could do the work. Unlike most other establishments in the city, that the stocky twins were girls meant nothing to him after that moment. And even this was not why Tryskiäna remained in his employ.

“Not to worry, Chief,” Lauri said, cocking her head toward Mauri. “We only need two stragglers. We'll fill in for the day.”

Tryskiäna knew the standards for the porter teams: there should be four bearers minimum. The team leader was then free to handle all else, including a difficult client or taking the place of an injured porter.

“Do as Laurianna says,” she instructed.

Vàtz glanced back at her.

“The twins can handle this,” she added, “and you must greet Captain Fas'sud personally.”

“What? Why?” Katrina challenged.

Perhaps she was offended at an insinuation, considering that arrangements so far might imply that she was to meet the captain. Tryskiäna continued to only Vàtz.

“Fas'sud is more than a regular private client. He is a primary one. His business accounts for more than a fourth of profit from such… according to past ledgers.”

Vàtz pursed his lips in thought and nodded. “Give my lunch pouch to the twins. I'll get another later, if I can scavenge an extra team.”

Tryskiäna nodded in return—typical Vàtz, so easily steered by profit.

Katrina scowled, but Tryskiäna did think it best that Vàtz go with the “Kat” to greet one of their best, private clients. As if still insulted, Katrina climbed up on the narrow table to check her chest again. She then eyed everyone, as if from up there she might spot who had taken whatever had been taken.

Katrina's nose twitched with a grimace but Tryskiäna ignored this

“All right, everyone knows what's for the day,” Vàtz added loudly. “So,… divvy up… the stranglers… and…”

He trailed off with a sharp sniff, then a scowl, and finally a suspicious glance over his shoulder.

Tryskiäna was instantly indignant at him looking to her. It did not matter that she now smelled something as well. She bathed regularly, unlike others, but she had no chance for further offense.

That smell grew more horrible with each breath, thickening quickly in the room. She gagged and clamped a hand over her mouth and little nose. Even the eatery next door had never smelled this bad. One by one, everyone began moaning and griping and looking at each other. Took pinched the front his own shirt and sniffed it.

“Aw, not again!” Vàtz groaned.

Tryskiäna followed his wide-eyed stared toward the rear of the main room. The first thing she notices was the storage room door was somehow now wide. She had not heard that, and then…

There stood little Pìnt.

How did he always do that, appear out of nowhere?

This time, he was soaked from head to big boots, and a puddle was growing around him on the floor. With his face streaked all over in grimy sludge, Tryskiäna could not quite tell who Pìnt fixed with that overt attempt at a mean glare.

But she could smell him.

“Ah, bou'ods!” Bolo growled, grabbing his nose. “Get that little stinker out of here!”

Mauri covered her mouth, visibly queasy, and gulped as if choking her breakfast back down. Lauri cringed away from her sister, just in case. Took backed toward the front door, bumped into Bolo, and ducked around him. Even Ded shifted halfway out of the front door while glowering toward Vàtz's little cousin.

Tryskiäna covered her mouth and nose again as Vàtz rose off her desk.

“How'd you get in the sewers again?” he shouted at Pìnt

Pìnt did not appear to notice his own smell. He stood there in his soaked and sagging wool pullover, its rolled sleeves now weighted down so much that they stretched over his hands. As if not hearing a word from anyone, he still stared in one direction and a little upward. His round face usually had a wide-eyed expression, as if the world was a wonderful puzzle he did not understand.

Pìnt's big blue eyes were half-closed in an accusing glare.

Tryskiäna followed that glare to Katrina.

The “Kat” returned Pìnt's stare in kind, though she did choke and gulp. Then her eyes widened.

“You?” she hissed at Pìnt. “You took it!”

“What've you done… this time?” Vàtz snapped.

Amid Tryskiäna's queasiness, she mistook that as for Katrina. She tried to lean over her desk and reach for Vàtz's sleeve. At the sound of her effort, he looked back, and she shook her head at him. They both knew Pìnt never stole anything from anyone, except if someone had first stolen from him.

Vàtz turned on Katrina. “What'd you take from him?”

Katrina flinched. Her expression fluctuated between ire and shock and resentment and ire again.

“I… it… he didn't need it,” she shot back. “He's got one already.”

And Vàtz shouted again, “What'd you take from Pìnt?”

Katrina's mouth clamped shut in defiance.

Bolo and Took turned about on her, though Took did not reach up and back for the too-big saber's hilt. Bolo inched another step toward Katrina's high position atop the narrow table. If there was one thing that most of the staff would never tolerate, especially those from before the official FFPS, it was anyone abusing mute little Pìnt.

“I don't have it,” Katrina muttered. “It's… gone.”

Tryskiäna grew tired of not knowing what it was. Katrina so obviously avoided this on purpose, though now that Tryskiäna knew there were two of whatever, spotting it might be easier. If Pìnt had recovered whatever Katrina had taken, probably from the boy's huge trunk of junk, he would not have let it out of his sight again.

“Pìnt,” Tryskiäna said quietly, mostly because the smell was becoming even worse. “Please empty your pockets.”

He turned his big blue eyes her way. With his hair still wet-flattened on his head, the cute attempt at meanest faded on his slime-streaked, round face. Pìnt was never mean to anyone, and likely did not know how to be truly mean. He then rolled up his bottom lip in a pout.

“Out with it,” Vàtz added. “All of it!”

Pìnt slouched, reached deep into both pockets of his dripping, baggy pants, and shuffled out of the growing puddle in which he stood. When he neared the inward end of Tryskiäna's desk, the first thing he toss upon it was a slightly bent, tin butter knife. And then…

Bent wire, wine cork, a sand-smoothed bit of green glass, several buttons…

Tryskiäna waited patiently, still choking her breakfast back down. In her desk's bottom right drawer was a paper box. In that were little bits that Pìnt had “gifted” her during her few moons at the FFPS.

A tiny tin cup, pewter corkscrew, more smoothed glass but blue, some waded paper…

Most of those gifts were things only Pìnt would find alluring, but she had kept all of them. Once there were enough of worth, she intended to take them to a second-hand shop. Any coins gained, along with some of her own, would be kept for Pìnt's future needs. This included a proper education, though it might require a special tutor, considering the boy could not speak. And he had a very bad habit of disappearing when no one was watching.

Crusty folded parchment, a half-rotted little box, a woodworking detail chisel with a chipped blade, three random playing cards now soggy…

Vàtz cross his arms in grumbling, though he appeared unsurprised by what he saw. Tryskiäna was surprised—and then troubled—by how much came out of Pìnt's pockets.

It was an impossibly amount.

A crack magnifying lens, a worn ivory ladle, some odd coins, a fist full of seagull feathers…

“Hurry up,” Vàtz demanded. “I don't have all morning.”

A small crystal of perfect prisms tumbled across Tryskiäna's open ledger and stopped at the far end of her desk.

“A sage's crystal?” Vàtz whispered, and then louder at Pìnt, “What've I told you about taking stuff from sages?”

Tryskiäna was riveted by the crystal in now knowing what it was. Unlike what she had heard about such an object, it was not glowing at present. Pìnt never stole but rather found, and yet such an item was not something he should have. Of course, in trade, it might add more than a few coins to an orphan boy's future….

She cringed at thinking like Vàtz.

Splat!

The wet sound startled her, but before she turned…

“What the…” “Is that a…” “Get that out of here!”

More shouts, gasps, and scuffling filled the old stable. Everyone but Vàtz backed away from the desk, stumbling, tripping, and shoving to get around each other. Vàtz stood frozen, his mouth working in rapid pants below wide, unblinking eyes. And then Tryskiäna saw it still wet and soaking the ledger's pages.

It was not another crystal.

She sucked a breath that would not come out. When it did come out, it was a shriek.

Tryskiäna lunged backward and toppled over her tall stool to the floor. When she pulled herself up and hesitantly peek again, she grew instantly nauseous and clamped a hand over her mouth for a third time. All that she could do was stare at Pìnt.

With his hands still stuff in his pockets, he stood there ridged with a blank expression, as if utterly confused by everyone's reaction.

Atop Tryskiäna's now soaked ledger lay a pale, severed hand.


That's all for today. See you again soon with more. –J.C.