A bridge over a beautiful waterfall

A bridge over a beautiful waterfall
Nature brings magic

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Only A Name - Chapter 1

(Here it is...in all its rough glory...the first chapter of Only A Name)

Scat, child, be ye awake?” A calloused hand gripped her shoulder and shook it.
“‘M awake.” Scat rolled over onto her side.
Hush. I don't want the slave master to hear ye.” Old Spade was kneeling next to her. “Scat, did ye see the guards come ridin’ in ‘bout supper time?”
Scat sat up and rubbed her eyes, thinking hard. “Aye, I saw ‘em. Heard Master tell Mistress they was comin’ from the High Lord.”
Spade nodded. “That’s what I heard. I also heard somethin’ else.”
What?” Scat asked.
They be here to purge the silver haired slaves.”
The old ones like ye and Daisy?” Scat shivered and wrapped her arms around her chest.
Spade shook his head. He tugged on a few strands of her hair, which had been allowed to grow out from the close crop slaves were normally required to wear. The tips were silver and silver flecks shimmered in the black strands.
Us?” Her voice was barely audible.
Me and Hawk and Bay, we’re runnin’ for it. I want ye to come with us.” Spade held out his hand. “We're dead either way, child. Let's die on our feet and not on our knees.”
Scat thought hard. The only slaves she knew of that had noticeable silver in their hair were the three men and her. It wasn’t the silver of age either, though Spade had that as well. The tips of their hair shimmered and reflected light just like a mirror or a silver coin. Spade and Scat also had silver flecks all through their hair. It looked almost like they’d been around where someone was shaving silver and flakes had settled in the strands. No amount of washing could get rid of it either.
Bay and Hawk’ll keep up fine but I be too small to run with ye.” Scat trembled in the dark.
Ye gotta try, Scat,” Spade said. “I can’t make ye come with us but I don’t want to leave ye at the mercy of the High Lord’s guard. And if ye fall behind, I’ll carry ye if I have to.”
When we leavin’?” Scat asked.
Now,” Spade said.
Scat threw aside the tattered piece of burlap she used as a blanket. The straw pallet made little noise as she rolled off of it and stood up. She slipped her feet into her sandals and followed Spade out the door.
Bay and Hawk were waiting near the gate. Bay scowled at Scat. “What’d ye get the youngling for?”
Scat be like us and I won’t leave none behind that would be gettin’ purged, Bay.” Spade shoved the younger man forward. “Get yerself through the gate and don’t ask stupid things.”
Bay slipped through the narrow opening. Hawk followed him. Spade waved Scat through before going through himself. He closed the gate carefully behind them. A faint thunk was all the sound they heard as the gate latch locked behind them.
Where we goin’, old man?” Hawk asked.
To the river first, and then up into the trees. They don’t think we’d go that way so it’s the safest, fer now,” Spade said.
Scat fumbled along behind the men, finding every pothole and rough patch in the road. There was barely enough light to see to put one foot in front of the other. Scat stumbled along as best as she could. Her only consolation was that the others weren’t faring much better.
Shortly before dawn they found the river, gleaming like a silver snake in the predawn light. Spade pulled something off his belt and knelt beside the water. Scat drifted over next to him. The other men were cupping water in their hands and drinking it. Scat imitated them, taking several mouthfuls of the cold, clear water.
Spade looked back over his shoulder. “We don’t got much time. Scat, ye stay behind me and the others. If trouble comes up, ye run fer it and find someplace ye can squirrel yerself away. Like ye do when the Mistress is out to give ye the lash when one of the housemaids does somethin’ wrong.” Scat nodded.
Which way now?” Bay looked back towards the keep.
Hawk pointed towards the west. “Up the hill and into the trees. See the ground there? We won’t be leavin’ tracks if we go slow and careful.”
Spade nodded. He twisted the top of the waterskin he’d filled and tied it to his belt. “Let’s get movin’. We don’t want them to catch us in the open.”
Scat scrambled up the rocky hill. It didn’t take long to get to the top. They made their way through the undergrowth towards the trees. It wasn’t long before they heard horses on the road behind them.
Hide,” Spade hissed. The four of them dove for the closest cover they could find.
Scat curled up as small as she could in the narrow crevice between two large rocks, watching as the mounted soldiers crossed the road. Hawk and Bay clung to the branches of the tree they’d climbed. Spade buried himself under a large thorny bush.
The guards came to rest at the bottom of the hill. One dismounted and walked over to the river. He gestured and pointed towards the road. A second pointed up the hill to where the four slaves were hiding. The third shook his head and pointed towards the road as well. The one who'd dismounted got back on his horse and the men rode slowly along the road.
Spade waited until they were out of sight before motioning for the other three to join him. “Which way now, Spade?” Hawk wiped the sap off his hands.
Further up and in.” Spade pointed to another spot where the underbrush was thick. “We can hide there if we need to find holes to crawl into.”
How far are ye thinkin’ we can go before we run out of places to hide?” Bay asked.
We won’t go too much farther,” Spade said. “I don’t want to lose sight of the river. Just put some space between us and it.” Bay grunted his agreement and they started out again.
Scat stumbled along behind Spade. Her heart hammered in her chest, her breath caught in her throat, and her whole body trembled. She kept sneaking glances over her shoulder, sure that the guards were following them. She lost both of her sandals at some point but didn't say anything to the others.
The three men cleared the path for her but it was still hard going. When they passed from shade to sunlight and back again, Scat’s eyes remained sun dazzled for a few moments. Her feet were soon cut and bleeding. Scat said nothing to the others. She wouldn’t burden one of them with her weight as well as their own, and Spade would insist on her being carried if he knew.
They reached a clearing and Scat dropped to the ground. Her breath caught in her chest. It escaped in tiny, whimpering gasps. Her feet were beyond pain. The constant abuse had numbed them to the point where she couldn’t feel them. “The soldiers are probably down by the river now. Let’s have a rest,” Spade said.
I told ye the child would be a problem.” Bay scowled at Scat as she lay gasping on the ground.
Shut yer mouth, Bay. She don't deserve purgin' any more'n we do.” Hawk put himself between Bay and the weary child.
Don’t care about her.” Bay pointed at Scat. “I care more about how we’re goin’ to make it out without gettin’ caught.”
Hawk slapped Bay upside the head. “Maybe we should leave ye tied and gagged for the soldiers to find. “With ye talkin’ that way about Scat.”
Bay scowled and balled up his fist. “No one is gettin’ left behind,” Spade said, limping in between the two younger men. “That includes Scat, Bay. Now sit down and shut up. Yer goin’ to need yer breath for walkin’ here soon.”
Scat remained curled in a ball, her eyes closed as she struggled to relax. She felt someone nudge her gently. Spade helped her sit up and gave her a bit of the water from the waterskin. It was warm and tasted a little off to Scat but she eagerly sucked down her meager portion. Spade gave the other two men theirs before swallowing his.
Spade nudged Scat. “Time to move on,” he said. Scat groaned and pulled herself to her feet. “Do ye need one of us to carry ye?”
Scat shook her head. “I’m fine, Spade. I can keep up,” she said.
If ye can’t, child, tell me,” Spade said. “Won’t be the first time I carried more’n my fair share of the weight.”
Scat nodded, promising herself that unless she was completely lame she would not speak up again. They pressed on, this time moving to the right instead of heading straight up. Spade kept one eye on the forest and one eye on the ground in front of them. Scat lost all track of time. As the shadows lengthened and the creatures of the forest began to fall quiet, Spade called a halt again.
It’s gettin’ dark, Spade,” Bay said. “Do ye want to stop here fer the night?”
I think so.” Spade looked back at Scat. By this point Scat was so numb to everything that as soon as he nodded, she dropped where she stood. “It’s got enough cover we can hide if we need to and if it rains the trees should be cover enough to keep us mostly dry.”
Hawk and Bay went off in different directions, scavenging what they could for food. They recognized some of the berries and a few wild mushrooms. They brought back their harvest and the meager bounty was shared out equally between the four. They each took what was left of the water from Spade’s waterskin before lying down
Later that night, when the forest quieted down and the moon had risen, Spade woke Scat. “I know yer tired, Scat, but I don’t trust that Bay. He’s been leavin’ some kind of trail fer the guards all day when he thought none was watchin’ him.” He pulled a flat package of food out from under his shirt and handed it to her. “Scat, me and Hawk, we’re too old to get away clean. But I wasn’t goin’ to die on the block either. Yer young and unmarked and have a chance at gettin’ out of the reach of the guards.”
What’re ye talkin’ ‘bout, Spade?” Scat tucked the small package under her smock.
That be enough food to last ye fer three or four solars, Scat. Take it and make fer the river. There be a fork about two solars’ travel goin’ towards the sun as it’s settin’. I want ye to go there. There be a shrine there to the river god. The folks as live there been able to help us in the past with gettin’ purged slaves out. They’ll help ye get south of the mountains or somewhere the Emperor’s word won’t hurt ye.”
Scat shook her head. “I don’t want to be away from ye.”
Ye have no choice, girl,” Spade said. “Ye don’t want to get caught, and I don’t want to see ye die.”
Scat’s eyes burned and she rubbed her nose. She flung herself into Spade’s arms and hugged him. “I don’t know if I can follow the river and not get caught.”
Stay in the bushes, and don’t eat the berries as you know would make ye sick,” Spade said. “Don’t eat too much of what I gave ye and ye should make it fine.”
Ye think everyone be against us with the silver hair?” Scat tugged on her own silver tipped locks.
Some may, so ye don’t want to get too friendly until ye watch them fer a bit.” He gave her a bit of a push. “Now git, girl.”
Scat scampered off into the darkness. Even with the moonlight it was too dark to see properly. Scat crawled under a bush and watched the camp with frightened eyes.
Scat dozed a little but was woken up by the sound of men and horses. She opened her eyes as the guards swarmed the little camp where her friends were sleeping. Spade was kicked awake. Hawk was on his knees with a sword at his throat while Bay stood off to the side. “Where be Scat, Spade?” Bay asked.
Spade spat onto the ground. The guard that kicked him grabbed him by the hair and hauled him up to his knees. “There are only a few landmarks the girl could follow,” the soldier holding Spade said. “The mountains and the river. She won’t find any safety along either route. No place, not even the temples, are safe against the Emperor’s decree.”
What do we do with these three?” the man with his sword at Hawk’s throat asked.
Kill them.”
Ye said I would be spared.” Bay started backing away. The third guard kicked his feet out from under him and twisted his arm up behind his back.
We’ll spare you a death by torture, for that’s what you’d get at the hands of your former master,” the first man said with a bloodthirsty grin. “We’ll give you a merciful passing here.”
Off to the side, hidden beneath the bushes, Scat pressed both hands to her mouth to keep from being sick. She watched as the man holding Spade drew his sword. He raised the blade high and brought it down with considerable strength. Blood spurted wildly out of Spade’s neck as his head bounced and rolled a little to one side. The body fell forward, blood spraying out across the guards’ boots.
Hawk was next. He closed his eyes and waited the blow with the same courage Spade showed. His head hit a rock and bounced a little higher, coming to land only a handspan away from Spade’s lifeless body.
Bay punched and kicked, trying to get away. Spade’s killer lunged forward with a dagger and slit his throat. Bay choked, gasping and clutching at his neck. He tried to stop the blood but it escaped from beneath his fingers. When at last his body was still, they cut his head off as well. All three heads were shoved into a sack. The bodies the guards left where they’d fallen.
Think we should go looking for the child?” Hawk’s executioner asked, wiping off his blade.
As small as she is, she’s not worth the silver or the effort,” Spade’s killer said. “She’s dead no matter what.” He led his horse away from the bodies, and his men followed suit.
Scat stayed as still as possible until she was positive she couldn’t hear them any longer. The entire forest around where she hid was too quiet. The horror of what had just occurred had silenced even the normal nocturnal inhabitants of the area. The stench of blood and death overwhelmed her and she threw up what little was in her stomach.
Scat turned away from the bodies. Spade had said to head to the river but it was still too dark for her to see the path clearly. She would go carefully and make sure she had somewhere to hide just in case someone else was on the road.
She looked around. The large, dark shape off to her right was a patch of the same berry bushes Spade told her to avoid eating. There was just enough room beneath them for her to hide without a chance of being seen. Her left leg buckled beneath her as an old injury stole her strength. With the pain came the clearest memory she had of her childhood. She closed her eyes, clinging to that memory instead of the horror in front of her now.
She was falling. She wasn’t home with her parents, but she was falling. The hill beneath her was rocky and crumbled beneath her even as she fell. Her body impacted the hard packed earth that served as the road near her family’s home. She screamed as her leg snapped. Blood oozed from where her bone tore through flesh. “Mama! Mama!”
Then horses, and men, and more pain. Then, finally, darkness. When she woke again, she was in a place with other children. All of them were chained. Many were crying, but even more were silent. Her left leg was wrapped tight with bandages and held immobilized with wood. Someone commented on her being lame, and how that would lower her price. She was in the slave market and her number was soon to be up on the block.
Scat blinked as tears, long unshed, trickled down her cheeks. She crawled under the berry bush. Scat curled up into a ball and closed her eyes. Shock and fear took their toll and soon Scat fell into a nightmarish dream.
Colwyn kept one hand near his sword as they scouted along the narrow game trail. “Manus, do you see any of those mushrooms?”
Manus shook his head. “We've picked this area clean, Col.”
Kieran held up his hand. “Hold here a moment. I'm seeing footprints in the dirt.”
Colwyn knelt next to his friend. “There's blood in those tracks.” Colwyn stood up and looked around. He saw a flicker of something ahead, just over the small rise. “Ky, Manus, we've got movement.”
Manus put an arrow to the string of his bow. Kieran drew his sword. Colwyn did the same and the three boys crept forward. They kept to the shadows and practically crawled up to the top of the rise.
Ignorant, blind, idiotic fools!” Colwyn jammed his sword into its sheath and scrambled down to three headless bodies.
Col, keep it down. They might still be around.” Kieran didn't sheath his sword. His eyes were focused on the road.
Manus gagged a little but checked over the bodies. “The blood’s clotted. This had to happen yesterday at the earliest, Ky. They're long gone, with their bloody prizes clutched tight in their greedy fists.”
Kieran still watched the road. “We can't be sure that they're not still in the area.”
Colwyn put a hand on Kieran's shoulder. “Manus is right, Ky. If the blood’s clotted this happened some time yesterday or last night.”
Manus looked around. “Col, look. Someone else found the bodies before us.”
Poor soul probably never saw a headless corpse before,” Colwyn sighed.
Kieran turned and regarded the bodies with sadness. “We’ll be seeing a lot more of these, what with the usurper’s edict and all. He’s paying in silver what the Emperor is paying for in gold.”
The temples offer no protection anymore either for those of us touched by the goddess,” Colwyn said. “Even the river god’s shrine has turned a blind eye to the killings. They won’t raise a hand to save anyone fleeing the purge.”
Kieran snorted. “Is this another one of the goddess’ so-called blessings?”
Colwyn shook his head. “It's a madman's way of destroying something he sees as a threat. At least, that's what Mistress Emberlie told me.”
We’d better get back to camp, Col,” Manus said. “We need to report this.”
Someone screamed behind them, tumbling out from under a poisonous berry bush. Colwyn and Kieran drew their swords as they turned. Manus grabbed for his bow.
A child flailed wildly, trying to get one of the most venomous forest spiders off of his hand. Colwyn dropped his sword and lunged after the boy. “Goddess save him. Manus, get the paste. Kieran, help me get that damn thing off his hand.”
Right,” Kieran said. Colwyn caught hold of the terrified child. He pinned the writhing body against his chest as Kieran caught hold of the rapidly swelling hand. He slid his dagger up under the coin sized spider. There was an audible pop as the fangs released. Kieran flung the spider back towards the berry bush.
Manus came up with a small jar of paste, which he smoothed liberally over the wound. The child tore himself free of Colwyn's grip. He shuddered and fell to the ground.
Colwyn, look.” Manus lifted the child's hand. Already flesh was peeling away from the muscles beneath as the hand swelled. “We need to get him back to Master Nial.”
Colwyn picked up his sword and wiped it off before sheathing it. He lifted the child into his arms. “Goddess bless, he's lighter than a small sack of grain.” He looked over at the other two. “Ky, you've got point. Manus, you're rear guard. Let's go.”
The three boys made their way back along the now familiar game trail to the camp. The three boys made a beeline for the infirmary tent. Manus ran straight for the man who was in charge of all the healers. “Master Nial. We need you now.”
What's going on?” Nial asked, coming over to where the boys were gathered around what should have been an empty cot. “Goddess bless, where did you find him?”
The forest. We have to go report to Mistress Emberlie and Commander Cathal. But he was bitten by the grey forest spider,” Manus said, lifting the child's hand up. “I put the salve on but he needs more help.”
Yes he does. You boys go report in and I'll take care of him.” Nial grabbed another pot of salve and smeared it liberally on the child's hand.
Colwyn led his two friends to Emberlie's tent. Commander Cathal was sitting with her and they were going over the lists of provisions. “Sir, Mistress Emberlie.” Colwyn saluted.
What is it boy?” Cathal asked.
Did you find any more of the mushrooms?” Emberlie asked.
No, ma'am. We didn't. We found three headless bodies and a silver haired child at the edge of our patrol area.” Colwyn was certain that would get their attention.
Three headless corpses?” Cathal's attention was focused directly on the three young boys.
Three men, not sure of their age because there weren't any heads,” Colwyn said. “The blood was clotted so we feel the attack probably happened yesterday or last night at some point. There was a silver haired child hiding under a berry bush. He was bitten by a forest spider. That was how we found him, when he came out from under the bush with the spider attached to the back of his hand.”
How old is the child?” Emberlie asked.
Older than Ethan but younger than us, we're guessing,” Colwyn said. “He passed out before we could get any information from him.”
I take it he's with Nial right now,” Cathal asked. Colwyn nodded. “Did you see anything else?”
The footprints that may have belonged to the murdered men and the child,” Kieran said. “The bodies and the child are all wearing slave smocks so our best guess is they escaped an ongoing purge.”
What direction were they going?” Cathal asked.
West, towards the river god's shrine,” Colwyn said. “At least, that's our guess. They were up above the river.”
Well, they'd have found the same fate there that they found in the forest,” Cathal said. “No place is safe anymore.” He looked at Emberlie, who nodded. “You boys are dismissed.”
Sir.” All three boys saluted and left the tent.
I'm going to check on Dermot.” Manus veered off towards the infirmary tent. “You two coming with me?”
Kieran grinned. “Of course. We haven't picked on him in a few solars and he's probably feeling neglected.”
The boys laughed as they made their way to the infirmary tent again. Inside, several people were rushing around. Nial was sitting next to the child they'd brought in, supporting his weight on one arm. His free hand was working on forcing a potion down the child's throat. Fergus was over using his magic to help.
Colwyn and the others joined Dermot at his cot. “How're you feeling?” Manus asked.
Better, now that my leg isn't trying to tear itself apart,” Dermot said. “You guys are the ones who brought the girl in, right?”
Colwyn looked over at the girl again. “She's a girl? We thought she was a boy.”
I've been listening to Nial bark orders at everyone.” Dermot rubbed his leg with one hand. “He's worried. You got the paste on her hand but the poison was already in her system and he's concerned that it isn't going to be enough.”
It might not be. She was terrified when we caught her.” Manus looked at his cousin. “Stop rubbing your leg. You'll open the wounds again.”
Dermot pulled his hand back. “Yeah, that's what Master Fergus and Master Nial keep telling me. It itches really bad though.”
Manus smacked him lightly on the head. “That's because it's healing. Leave it alone or you'll be stuck in here longer.”
I'd rather not. I like Master Nial and Master Fergus but I'd rather be out on patrol with you.” Dermot shifted his position so his hands were in front of him.
We found bodies earlier today.” Colwyn looked ill. “Three headless men that Kieran thought might be slaves.”
I didn't think they were slaves. I know they were escaped slaves and I'll bet the girl is an escaped slave as well.” Kieran touched his right shoulder. “I saw the brands on their shoulders.”
Why would slaves try to run? It's an instant death sentence,” Dermot said.
The purges. Remember what Mistress Emberlie told us all to watch out for?” Manus asked. “The Emperor ordered a purging of the slaves with silver hair.”
Dying on a chopping block or dying while making a bid for freedom.” Kieran rubbed the back of his neck. “I don't know about those slaves but I'd be looking for a way to run. There's always a chance that they might get away from the purge.”
Not with the temples getting in on it.” Colwyn looked grim. “I heard Commander Cathal telling Mistress Emberlie about that. It's getting harder and harder to find a safe haven if you've got silver hair.”
That's why Lord Mikhael is collecting as many of us as he can.” Kieran put a hand on Colwyn's shoulder. “Just like we were found.”
Colwyn nodded, but his eyes were distant. He looked over at the girl that Nial and his apprentices were trying to save. “This is a war and we have to remember that we'll lose people. But I don't want to see any more children die. Children shouldn't have to pay the price for an adult's cruelty.”
Unfortunately, it's the children who are most likely to pay,” Kieran said.
You should go. If you just came in from patrol you're going to need to get something to eat.” Dermot shoved gently at his cousin and their friends. Colwyn collected his little patrol and led the other two boys out of the infirmary. He looked one last time at the cluster of healers attempting to save a little girl's life.
Colwyn's thoughts were troubled as he and the other two got their dinner from the cook. “Col, you okay?” Kieran asked, shoveling food into his mouth as quickly as he could.
Colwyn shook his head. “It's just seeing what we did and then having to bring that little girl in today. I'll bet she's the one who threw up after seeing her friends beheaded. I wonder if she's going to be all right.”
She's like the rest of us, Col.” Manus regarded his friend solemnly. “Are any of us all right?”
Some are taking this better than others.” Colwyn sighed and set his bowl aside. “I hate this. I hate the fact that one man has the power to kill so many people and no one's willing to stop him.”
He's the Emperor. You can't exactly walk up to the Emperor of all Lytharia and say 'Hey, your idea is stupid. Let's just let these people alone'.” Kieran gave him a look that spoke volumes.
The High Lords are supposed to have that kind of power. But you notice none of them are doing anything about this either,” Colwyn said.
High Lord Berach's had how many seasons to make people hate Lord Mikhael and the rest of us?” Manus asked. “Think about that, Col. Berach and who knows how many others have been scared of us for the last five seasons. Maybe even longer.”
We need to do more to help those like us, but how can we when we don't even know where they all are?” Colwyn picked up his dishes. “I'm going to go practice for a while before bed.”
Hold up. I'll come with you.” Kieran stood up.
Manus handed his dishes to Kieran. “Could you take those for me? I'm going back to the infirmary to see if Master Nial needs any more help.”
All right.” Kieran took the dishes. Colwyn and Kieran headed towards the kitchen area while Manus retraced his steps to the infirmary tent.

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