Friday, May 14, 2010

Servant of the King Chapter 17

I've had to plug away at this, bit by bit over the last couple of days, in order to get it done, but here's chapter seventeen. Usually I slam out a chapter in one sitting, but time has been short. 

Can I just say I love being a writer? Yes, I want to be successful and make good money to support my family with my passion, but there are wonderful moments where just telling a story and getting to know some neat characters are enough. 

With no further ado (except to say that I think that every reader of this should share it with your friends today): 

Chapter 17
            His pulse pounded in his ears even as he consciously slowed his breathing. Weaving among bare-branched saplings and trees with their deep-green winter gowns borne down heavily by a cloak of snow, Lakhoni lengthened his stride. Snow was icy pinpricks on his ankles and calves, the flakes and chunks he was kicking up as he ran often landing on his legs. A flash of gratitude sparked in his heart for the winter boots Gimno had given him.
            This was it. He had to make it this time, or he wouldn't get away.
            He breathed deeply, questing for his heart in order to make it slow and get back under control even as he sprinted through the snow-laden forest. For a moment, he remembered that day outside the village, allowing the Dance of the Forest to run through him even as he ran desperately to warn the village of what he had seen.
            The men. Painted and terrible. Covered in straps with weapons hanging all over. Hair in spikes and whirls that mimicked predators.
            He had been coming back from the hunt, practicing his stealth.
            He thought they hadn't detected him.
            His head no longer throbbed, but the crown of it seemed to retain a memory of the initial blow.
            Focus. This was his chance.
            There: a break in the snow. So small it might not be detected if he hadn't been looking for it.
            He stopped abruptly, sucking in a long, slow breath and trying to speed his recovery from the all out sprint. He hunched over, examining the divot in the snow. He quested around the area surrounding the track.
            Another. Now that he had it, he could easily make out the pattern.
            Deer track.
            He had found it again, just when he had worried he had lost it.
            He had to bring home a buck today. Had to prove himself for a final time in order to-
            No. The cavern of the Separated was no home.
            Lakhoni stood, taking a brief moment to inhale the forest in its winter slumber. Crisp air filled him, waking every sense.
            Then he was off, slower this time so as not to lose the track. As he ran, he unlimbered the bow from off his back. It was already strung, so all he needed now was to nock an arrow. He felt he was getting closer, so he slowed to a walk. Eyes moving deliberately from the track to the forest ahead.
            No, the cavern was not a home. Not like the village. In his village he had friends and a family who loved him because he was theirs and they were his. He had never doubted he had a place there.
            In the cavern, in Gimno's circle, he had no place. He was borrowing a sleeping mat. He was building a debt to those people with every bite he took of meat and grain. There was no giving and taking with the sense of all is for all that existed in the village.
            In the cavern, there was a sense of everything being measured. A sense that everyone's place was temporary.
            And last night's conversation had confirmed this feeling.
            "Does anyone ever leave?" Lakhoni had asked between bites. Corzon and Anor sat nearby, half facing him. "I mean, leave the Separated?"
            Lakhoni crept through the snow. He was very close now. He paused a moment; he was downwind. Perfect.
            "Leave?" Anor had spat. "And go where?"
            "I don't know. Maybe they just want to live a different life."
            Corzon had smiled around a drumstick. "And be separated from the Separated?"
            Anor snorted. "That's stupid. There's nowhere else to go."
            "Sure there is. I could go and live in my village. It's empty."
            "No, dummy, you couldn't go live in your village." Anor tore a chunk of bread out of the small loaf he held. "Even if it is empty. It's dead."
            Pain and anger flared in Lakhoni's chest.
            "What Anor means," Corzon said, putting out a hand as if to ward Lakhoni off, "is that after you're officially one of the Separated, it's like your previous life is over." He smiled and swallowed. "This is life now."
            "And nobody leaves because nobody can know where we are." Anor said.
            "I don't understand," Lakhoni said.   
            "Pretty simple, dummy," Anor said. "Can't have people finding out where our hideaway is."
            "What Anor means, again, is that Lemal would probably hunt us down," Corzon said. "The stories about the Living Dead are becoming more well-known. If he knew how to find us, he would destroy us."
            "We pose a threat. We're strong. We're mean and we mean to kill him," Anor said, his smile marred by food sticking through his teeth.
            "Really?" Lakhoni thought back to all of the talk of birthright.
            "Of course," Corzon said. "He has no right to rule the People of Promise. Nor do the Usurpers have a right to the northlands. The true leader will come from the land of the Dead—from the land of the Living Dead." He paused for a beat. "That's us."
            "So if Lemal found out where we were, he would send an army to destroy us?" Lakhoni asked.
            "Right," Corzon said.
            "And that's why nobody leaves," Anor said.
            Lakhoni understood. There could be no danger of whoever left sharing the location of the cavern. So nobody was allowed to leave.
            But he had to get away.
            And I will get away, Lakhoni thought as he lowered into a crouch behind some bedraggled, leafless bushes. I'll pass this test and will be fully trusted. Then he could get away.
            He stayed still for long minutes, his joints stiffening in the cold, despite breeches and fur he wore.
            There. A gentle movement, like a mother's touch on her child.
            The buck moved forward, its stride heavy yet somehow graceful. Lakhoni heard its hooves break through the crust at the top of the snow. The magnificent head lowered to the base of a tree. Soft noises as it pushed aside snow to get at winter moss reached Lakhoni's ears. He slowly and smoothly slid an arrow out of the quiver hanging from his belt.
            Cupping the nock in his hands to muffle any sound he might make, Lakhoni set the arrow.
            He fixed his eyes on the buck. Its antlers spread at least six hands wide. Moving entirely by feel, Lakhoni slid his left palm up to the grip on the bow's shaft, gently adjusting his hand until the grip sat comfortably in his palm.
            The buck stepped forward as it dug for more moss. Its head was now partially obscured by the trunk of the tree. If he didn't hurry, the buck would move too far and he wouldn't be able to take the shot he wanted.
            He breathed out, waited two heart beats, then breathed in slowly. Just behind and below the top of the shoulder, before the ribs. Too far back and the arrow would probably shatter on the ribs. Too far forward and the muscle of the shoulder would stop the arrow cold.
            The buck stepped forward again.
            Have to hurry!
            No. Smooth breaths. He smoothly raised the bow, pulling back on the string until it was well behind his right ear. A breath in- he sighted down the point of the arrow, placing the sharpened stone point half a thumb length below the spot he was aiming for. The deer was close; he had to allow for lift in the arrow's flight path.
            A breath out- he steadied himself.
            A breath in- totally still, he focused on the string in his right fingers.
            A breath out- release.
            A puff of wind in his ear, a soft impact on his leather-wrapped left forearm.
            He kept his eyes on the spot behind the deer's front leg. In a moment, the arrow sprouted from the area, a little below where he had been aiming. The buck sprang forward, grunting.
            Lakhoni leapt to his feet, pulling another arrow from his quiver.
            A second later, he replaced the second arrow as the buck fell after two or three steps.
            He had done it.
            Now he had to clean the carcass and haul it back to the cavern.
            Lakhoni looked to the cold, white sky. To the east, a thickening could be detected in the clouds. They seemed lower, the shadows in them more pronounced. Snow was coming.
            Maybe he would escape during the coming storm. He reminded himself to be grateful that he had never let slip to Gimno or any of the other Separated that he believed Alronna was alive. He was certain that if they knew of his belief, they would never stop watching him. But they thought his entire village and family had been destroyed. They had no reason to suspect that he might not be totally devoted to the Living Dead.
            After all, he had passed the Grooming and in so doing had helped Gimno become a Consecrated. Through talking with Gimno in training, Lakhoni had learned only a little about what it meant to be one of the Consecrated of the Living Dead. There was to be a ritual sometime in the near future, during which the Separated would accept Gimno officially as a Consecrated. Until that time, Gimno lived mostly the same life he had before. After the ritual, Gimno had said, a Consecrated spends his days with the Bonaha, serving and helping with rituals and other important labor for the benefit of the Separated.
            Gimno seemed to think of Lakhoni as the son he had not yet fathered with Vena. Lakhoni had been surprised, although he didn't understand why it had never occurred to him, to find that three of the young girls in Gimno's circle were his daughters.
            Lakhoni knelt in the snow, his leather breeches shielding him only briefly from the wet and cold underneath him. Pulling out the steel dagger Gimno had given him a week or two previously, he slid it point first into the snow so that its handle stuck out as if he had murdered a giant snow creature.
            He removed his tunic and, standing momentarily, hung it on a nearby branch. He didn't want to cover his good winter clothes in the blood of his kill.
            As he set to cleaning the buck, Lakhoni ran over the list of supplies he would need if he wanted to escape in the coming snow storm.
            He had already stashed some extra food in a small cavity in the wall of the hut he shared with Corzon and Anor. With the food were several spark stones to light fires with, along with an old but usable shirt that he had crumpled tightly and wedged into the cavity with a rock to disguise the stash.
            These boots should work fine, but I need something to carry everything in and I probably need another shirt—or a cloak of some kind.
            He didn't know how long it would take him to make it to Lemalihah. He knew that it was in the direction of the mountains that ran near the coast to the east. He had been told it was a ten day journey to the ocean, so he guessed that the city of the king would be at least a few days closer than that.
            Need more food.
            Not necessarily.
            He glanced around as the thought came to him. He knew nobody was watching, but the instinct to make sure overrode his reason.
            He didn't have to bring all of this meat back to the cavern. The buck was big enough that he could find a safe place to stash the fresh meat—probably in the snow to keep it fresh—out here and he could pick it up on his way. He was about a half day away from the cavern, so there was little chance that somebody else would find it.
            And as far as he knew, this area did not have a problem with predators or scavengers, especially in the dead of winter.
            Pleased with his idea, he set to his work with greater energy. He would have to work fast so that he could find his way back to the cavern before night fell completely.
            The hide. He could clean the hide, roll the fresh meat in it, and bury it deeply. He could explain the absence of the hide by saying he had been so eager to show his kill to Gimno that he hadn't been careful with the cleaning.
            And maybe he could stretch the hide over hot coals on one of his first nights away and then use it as a cloak.
            There was more work to be done, but the burden did not weigh him down. Lakhoni glanced around at the stark forest of naked trees, their dark brown branches vivid against the backdrop of white on the ground and in the sky. Taking a deep breath, he realized that he felt lighter, farther from anger and frustration, than he had in many weeks.
            Finally doing something, he thought. No more waiting.
            He finished carefully removing the deer hide, forcing himself to focus on the task at hand and his prayers of thanks to the First Fathers.
            As he began to scrape, a wave of giddiness washed through him. With a little more planning and care, this was going to work. He was going to get away. Soon.
            And then I'll find you, Alronna. Nothing will stop me.

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