Done before I knew it

So, here’s Chapter 4. It was done like a week ago, though I didn’t know it at the time. I knew what I wanted to cover, but it just kept growing and expanding, the next thing I knew I was passing 8k words…and that’s a bit long for a chapter. So I found a breaking point and split it. The downside is that it doesn’t end quite as cleanly as I’d like it to; each chapter needs to have its own point, a beginning and end, regardless of the degree of resolution, and this one doesn’t have that yet…something I can fix on the next pass through.

The upside is that, in a week or two, when I finish Chapter 6 and post it here, you’ll get a completed Chapter 7 like a day later. So that’s a good thing.

Was going to rush to get Chapter 5 started this weekend, but I want to work on the rewrites for the story from last week instead…and it could do to marinate in my head for a bit longer. Henry is a bit quiet and hard to get a handle on. I need to make sure he’s not just being moved through things, even though, at the beginning, that’s exactly what’s happening.

So, anyway, yeah, Chapter 4 is done. Woo. I could have been celebrating for a week, but oh well.


Chapter 4

Joseph raised his left arm, fist clenched, and then pointed over to the shoulder of the road. He down-shifted, slowing his bike, and came to a careful stop, knowing without looking that his guard was pulling in behind him, still in formation. He swung the kickstand down, killed the engine, and pushed his riding goggles up to his forehead. He pulled his gloves off, set them on the handlebars, and sat there, waiting.

He heard the engines behind him cut out, quiet staggering towards him, and then footsteps, and Matthias’s voice behind him, approaching.

“Everything alright?”

“Let’s break here for lunch. I know it’s early,” he said, heading off his Captain’s next question, “but let’s keep it looking natural.”

Matthias started to look off into the distance before them, suddenly on alert based on his Prince’s words and tone of voice, then the meaning set in, and he managed to turn it into a casual stretching of his neck and shoulders.

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know yet,” Joseph answered, “But I don’t want to take any chances while I’m figuring it out.”

He could tell that Matthias had more questions to ask, but he was a good soldier, and held his tongue, trusting that Joseph would explain when he could, and went back tot he men to get them breaking down for an early lunch. There weren’t any complaints; the sun was still well short of its zenith, but they’d been on the move since before dawn, and an early break suited them just fine.

Something definitely was wrong–Joseph just didn’t know what yet. This far along in the cycle, this close to his next Fit, Joseph’s Sight was as strong as it would ever get, and as they traveled along the road he’d extended it out as far as it would reach, keeping a broad but non-specific track of everything within a mile radius around them. He couldn’t see details, but he could note anything worth noting, and then zero in his attention on it should anything crop up. Only, for the last few miles, he’d felt the edges of his Sight growing fuzzy, the range shrinking further and further in, until the last few minutes, when all he could pick up was his guard riding in formation behind him, and even that was a fogged blur. It wasn’t his Fit–that would have his Sight exploding, even the tiniest details overwhelming him–this was the exact opposite of what he’d been expecting, and he’d never felt anything like it. That was enough to have made him pull over and figure out what was going on.

He stood up, swinging his leg over the bike, and walked back to join his men for the early luncheon. He settled in between Matthias and Canaan, where he normally would be, and began picking at the bread that had been passed around the group.

“So, what is it?” Matthias asked.

“I don’t know,” Joseph answered. He looked to his left at Canaan beside him; the priest looked more sober than usual. They were in the final home stretch, just 2 more days of hard riding before getting home, and the usual nightly revelry had been severely curtailed the last few nights, everyone wanting to get to sleep early, and thus up and travelling as early as possible. Since Canaan didn’t actually own or carry any of the wine he indulged in–priests were technically supposed to be ascetics, forgoing drink and women and everything else good and fun about life–he wasn’t carrying any drink of his own, and while he wasn’t opposed to ignoring those mandates–early and often–in the spirit of camaraderie with the men he was travelling with, he hadn’t been able to quite bring himself to steal from their drink rations after they were asleep. So, today, he looked unhappy, unshaven, red lines crisscrossing his eyes and spilling out over the bottom to tattoo his nose and cheeks, he was also alert and present.

“Canaan,” Joseph asked, “I…something’s wrong.”

“What is it?” Canaan’s hand moved unconsciously towards the pouch at his hip, where he kept the Hiaku leaves close and ready. “Are you okay? Do we need to find a place to shelter for the next week?” The priest turned to Matthias. “How close is the nearest town? Or anything?”

Matthias thought for a second and began to answer when Joseph cut him off.

“No, it’s not that. Quite the opposite, in fact, which is what’s worrying me. I can’t feel…well, barely anything. Even you and the men are just dull hotspots, and you’re right here with me.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“I mean… I should be able to reach out and feel everything for almost a mile around. That’s been the extent of it in the past; remember when we tested it, what, four years ago?” The last question was to Matthias, who nodded in response. “And up until an hour ago, that’s where it was. But since then…since we’ve been approaching these hills…” Joseph trailed off, his mind finally connecting a possible one and one into two.

Their road had been taking them due north with minimal diversions; to their left were fields, most already harvested, but many just coming into full ripeness. To their right were the bluffs, sheer cliffs that fell away to the crashing surf below. But if they’d continued travelling without a break here, in ten minutes the road would have curved inland, the fields ending, the land beginning to rise and fall, more and more dramatically. There were no mountains ahead, but there were plenty of valleys, the walls rising steep and perilous above them for long, winding stretches.

It would be a perfect place for an ambush…not that there should be any possible chance of that happening, not here, not now…but he had used this specific stretch of terrain once, years ago, during some exercises his father had organized, for just that reason, which is why it came easily to his mind now. And there was no possible logical reason that an unexplained dimming of his Sight should somehow be tied to an unprecedented attack upon the Crown Prince far from any border…but once the idea settled into his head, it was impossible to get rid of it.

“I think we’re about to be attacked, up ahead, probably down in that second valley. Yeah, if I were going to do it, that’s where I would have set up.”

He’d spoken just loud enough for Matthias and Canaan to hear him–the rest of his men were still enjoying their food and early break–and the two of them began laughing, but uneasily, and the laughs ended quickly as they realized that he wasn’t joking, that this bit of nonsense he’d just spoken was the evolving reason he’d called them to a halt. They exchanged a quick, worried glance, and then Matthias took the lead.

“Attacked? By whom? I agree, if it’s the spot I’m thinking of, the one you used with us a couple years ago, then yes, it’d be a perfect place for an ambush. But who the hell would be ambushing us?” He placed specific emphasis on the last word: the Prince’s guard was comprised of the twelve finest soldiers in the entire kingdom. There were no special favors that could win someone a spot, your birth or family was forgotten–and, indeed, abandoned forever once you joined–and there was both a lower and upper age limit: only the best of the best, in their prime, could ride in the Prince’s formation. Not to mention, they were the only soldiers besides the King’s guard allowed to carry firearms and live ammunition…it was conceivable (and the unspoken measure that all Captain’s of the guard compared themselves against) that the Prince’s guard could easily defeat a force ten times their size, and would only start to break a sweat and worry if they were outnumbered twenty to one or worse. It was absurd to think that anyone would challenge them, especially here in the heart of the kingdom, far from any settlement…it would be stupid, and the last bad decision any commander would make.

“Not to mention, if anyone was crazy enough to try it…I know you haven’t been perfectly beloved by every single person we’ve met on this trip, but there’s been no sign at all that they’re that unhappy with you.”

It all made perfect sense to Joseph. The droughts were over, and people had more food and health than they’d seen in years. There was some concern over all of the men who’d worked on the highway, and were now trying to find homes and work since that job had finished, but that was mostly in theory; the worst anyone had seen was an increase in bar fights and petty theft in some of the bigger cities. Nothing organized at all. And there were always the bandit gangs and their gray-market cabal trying to run the undeclared mines, but those were all far to the north, a week’s ride at best on their bikes, more like two on horseback, and so far away by foot that the thought of one of those bands striking somewhere this far south–nevermind the target–was laughable.

Still, having spoken the words out loud, no amount of reasoning was making them go away. This was another part of the Sight, one he’d only experienced twice before, and something he’d never found mentioned any any of the histories…and he’d looked, quite extensively. At its peak, the Sight had been able to show the world beyond him, not just in space, but in time.

When he was sixteen, he’d been out riding with his friends in the northern foothills near the capital–horses, at that point, not on his bike; he’d still been in the process of hand-machining the parts for his bike, as every crown prince was expected to do before coming of age–and had become sure, out of nowhere, just before crossing a bridge over a small creek, that he and his friends were in terrible danger. He’d turned them back, manufacturing a nonsense excuse he couldn’t now remember, and a few moments later had watched the bridge they’d been about to cross washed away in a sudden, late-spring flood, the result of a snow-pack higher up in the mountains finally shrinking to the giving-way point.

And five years ago, he’d been walking near his father’s forges in the capital when that same feeling of impending disaster had come over him, this time no more than a vague but incredibly-urgent sense that he needed to get clear of something, and now, and he’d run through the forge like a madman, evacuating the building, the last man making it out through the door just as one of the supports holding up the vat of molten iron had let go, spilling the red and orange liquid metal across the entire floor; every man inside would have died or been grievously injured if they’d still been inside.

He’d never told anyone–even Canaan–about these incidents, at least not why his seeming good luck had been more than luck. He knew Canaan had some suspiscions, especially after the incident in the forge (it was hard to keep dozens of men from talking about the Crown Prince running about and shouting, leading them to safety, just moments before an accident that would have killed them all), but his priest hadn’t said anything, waiting for Joseph to bring the subject up. Instead, he’d poured over all of the writings that other men afflicted with Sight had left behind over the years, and found nothing mentioning it.

And that same feeling–like a physical weight hanging over his mind, darkening every thought with its shadow–was creeping over him now. There was no possible reasoning behind it, but he was as sure of it as he was his own breath: something very bad was about to happen to him and his men, and it was waiting for them somewhere in the valleys just ahead.

“Agreed, to all of it. But let’s humor me for a bit. Worst case, it’s a good way to keep the men on their toes for the stretch ahead, and they’re all getting a bit sloppy so close to home.

“Can you fetch…ah, Dorian’s from around these parts, isn’t he? I remember what’s up ahead from the last time we were out here, but only the general layout, not the specifics.”

“Yeah,” Matthias answered, “He grew up in that fishing town we just passed through an hour ago. Didn’t ask to stop, but his family moved closer to the capital a couple years ago. No one could afford a luxury like fish when the droughts were at their worst, so…yeah.”

He caught Dorian’s eye and waved him over. Dorian walked slowly to where the three of them were sitting, washing down the last of his food with a sip from his water skin, and crouched down next to them, averting his eyes from Joseph (as most of the younger men in his guard tended to do), speaking directly to his Captain.

“Yessir?”

“You’re from these parts, aren’t you?” Matthias asked.

“Yessir, back in Azant, back a bit behind us.”

“Tell us about these valleys we’re about to pass through.”

“How do you mean, sir?” Dorian began to reach for his map, kept in the pouch in his belt as part of the guard’s standard equipment, but Matthias–still backing up his prince’s clear unease–caught his hand.

“No maps, just…ah…” He used his boot a flat area in the dirt before them. “Here.”

There was a hint of a question on his face, but he was too young and well-behaved to actually speak it to his captain. “Well, sir, after we pass this next rise here…” He reached out with his finger and began to trace was he was describing with his finger in the loose, dry dirt. “We’ll wind down into The Well. That’s the worst of the stretch, right up front. The road is real tight, with the walls pressing in right up about twenty, twenty-five feet. No drop-off, just walled in on either side.

“After that, we’ll come back up for a bit, then down into Carey’s Bowl–no idea why they call it that, sir, just always have–and that’s the easiest bit, sloping up nice and easy to the east, and a small drop to the west, maybe five feet down. The brush in there is thick, but gets burned out every couple of years, so no telling what it’s like right now.

“Then we’ll climb up a bit, head west for a mile or so…that’s where the bluffs reach pretty far in from the coast, the beach there is nice and wide, soft sand, best place to take…um, well, yeah, um, we have to go west there to get around it, and then there’s not much to speak of the rest of the way, more like little dips and such. Then we’re back on flatland, and if I remember right, we should meet up with the Highway a couple miles from there. Straight shot to Innias from there, and then [the capital] a few days on from there.”

The four of them stared for a few moments at the rough map Dorian had drawn in the dirt. Joseph looked up at Matthias and nodded.

“Thanks Dor,” Matthias said. “Do me a favor, would you? Get the men back up and ready to go. And let’s load up: live ammunition, swords at travel-ready.”

Dorian started at this, but recovered quickly; he was a good soldier, and though it was clear his mind was spinning at these orders, there was no question that he’d follow through, exactly as he’d been told.

“Yessir.”

As the guardsman walked back to the other men, passing the word, Joseph reached out and pointed to the valley Dorian had named Carey’s Bowl.

“Here. This is where they’ll hit us.” And, before Canaan or Matthias could ask the obvious question, he continued, “Whoever they are.”

“Why?” Matthias asked.

“Well, he mentioned the fires. If they were going to burn, it would have been during the drought. With no rainfall, they’d have dried out quick. But after the rains this Spring, they’ll have sucked it all up and grown like there was no tomorrow.

“Yeah…if I were planning an ambush, it’d be in there. Visibility off the road will be a nightmare, and it’s a long enough stretch where you can place your men in a dozen different places.”

“Alright. I’ll make sure the men are ready. You planning to buy the beer when we reach Innias and nothing’s happened?”

“I always buy, dumb ass. Everything you drink belongs to the crown; we just let you pay now and again for fun.”

Matthias laughed, and went back to the men, making sure they were getting ready. Joseph headed back towards his own bike, when Canaan stopped him with a hand on his arm.

“Are you alright?” the priest asked.

Joseph started to answer, ready to brush him off, then decided that his priest deserved a better answer.

“Something’s going to happen. I don’t know what it is. I’ll promise you this: when we’re in Innias tonight, laughing, I’ll explain everything.”

Canaan stared at his face for a moment, searching for an opening, a bit of unsureness where he could pry his way in and find out what was bothering his charge. But he didn’t find one; Joesph was already preparing himself for whatever was about to come, and had carefully shelved thoughts of Why and How in favor of What: it didn’t matter how he knew it, they were riding into the first live, unchoreographed combat his guard would face, and he needed to be ready to lead them through it.

“Alright,” Canaan said, and started back to his own bike. Along the way, he stopped to pick up up a half-dozen rocks, none bigger than half his fist, but the size wouldn’t matter too much when they came sailing out of his sling. Priests didn’t carry arms–even the Crown Prince’s personal priest–and didn’t train any martial arts, but Canaan had taught himself to use a sling somewhere back in the distant mists of his childhood, and Joseph had seen him bring it out occasionally when his guard was training: he was by far more accurate with his little leather strap and stones than the best of his men was with their revolvers. He might be hungover (permanently, it sometimes seemed), and officially a pacifist, but if something did happen up ahead, Joseph knew his priest would be right in the thick of it.

He knelt down before his bike, getting his gear ready as his men were. His sword was normally strapped down inside his packs, safely stored for travel, and he took it out now, pausing for a moment to unsheath it and reconnect with it. This was a subtle aspect of the Sight, one mentioned often in the writings and so not all that unusual, although Joseph had never used it in exactly this way before: when you reached out to the world around you, and brought your attention directly onto a specific point, you formed a connection with its essence, whether it was something as complex as another human or as minor as seemingly-simple as a rock. It left behind a faint, web-like trail that faded with time, but right after the connection was established, it–whatever it was–felt like an extension of your own existence. Joseph had tried this before, in training, but that had been with practice swords, in the safe confines of the training fields, and he’d never taken it very seriously, more as an exercise in “can I?” than with a definite purpose in mind. He had a purpose now, and closed his mind, steadied his breath, felt for the quiet fire at the center of him, and then reached out to the sword in his hands.

It wasn’t very long–barely 30 inches, easy enough to wield with one hand–with a simple inverted V hilt protecting his hand, and a heavy pommel at the end of the hilt, giving it near perfect balance. He could feel that balance, feel the edge, honed to deadly sharpness…and could even feel all the folds of the steel, the strength the overlapping layers gave the blade, and the intensely-focused care and attention that had gone into its making. He hadn’t made it–princes weren’t expected to forge their own blades, as they were their bikes and revolvers: those were simple machines, requiring some skill and learning, but the more important part of the process was for the prince to learn first-hand the most important technological secrets that the crown kept, to better appreciate their value. Sword-making was a whole different beast…such a simple shape, but requiring a master artisan to make properly. Joseph felt that he could almost see the artisan’s face, sparse gray whiskers rising and falling with the wrinkled folds around his mouth and eyes…eyebrows singed with the heat of the forge…even the hollow echo of hammer on steel, folding it and shaping it into the instrument he now held in his hands.

He re-sheathed it, and lashed the scabbard onto the side of his bike, on top of the bags, where he could reach the hilt and draw it in a single automatic motion. He could feel it there, still, a cold ember just off-set from his heart, and knew he’d be able to find it and wield it without looking or thinking about it. At least, he hoped he knew it: this was a tough moment to be putting theory and casual practice years-gone to the test.

Next was his revolver; he wore it always in a holster on his hip, both the gun and it’s leather home simple and unadorned. He’d made both himself, and had wanted them to be functional and lasting, rather than pretty. He drew the gun, spun the cylinder out, and loaded it with hand-filled rounds from the other side of his belt. Gunpowder was scarce, the sulfur used to make it found only on Kragnor, the small volcanic island off the western shore of [heroland], and so live ammunition was measured out by the crown one at a time. His guard only trained with it once a year, and even that was limited in scope. He and his men were allowed to carry only a dozen shells, and Joseph realized that he couldn’t remember ever loading his weapon with live shells outside of those annual training exercises, hadn’t even thought it might be necessary until now.

He clicked the cylinder back into place, spun it once to make sure of it, and then placed it back in its holster, folding the covering flap inside of the gun so it wouldn’t be in his way if he reached to draw it.

He stood up again and looked back at his guard; they were finishing the same chores he’d just completed, and were mounting up, pulling their riding goggles back in place. There wasn’t much idle chatter, just one or two comments about how one or the other of them had clearly set themselves wrong and was more likely to shoot off their own foot than anyone they were wanting to aim at…but those weren’t serious, just banter to try to alleviate some of the tension that had fallen over them since Dorian had passed along Matthias’s orders.

Joseph did the same, and just before starting his engine and leading his formation back out onto the road, he reached out with his heart and found his guard, glowing brightly behind him. He set them firm, knowing and feeling each of them, in their place, and silently mouthed a brief vow that he wouldn’t let them go, no matter what happened next.

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