Friday, July 17, 2009

FFF - "High Gate" Chapter 1

Here's the first of hopefully many. Remember, there is next to no editing for this. You've been warned.

Chapter 1

"So, Davind, tell me what happened."

"Well, sir, I was in the practice yard. I had just finished putting my sparring equipment away when I noticed Master Horvinnt's dog digging up some of Madame Orrison's flowers. I tried to stop him, but you know what Kumai's like. He growled at me and refused to leave. So I picked up a few clods of dirt and tossed them his direction. That's when Jonner here showed up and pulled his sword on me. I tried to explain what I was doing, but he wouldn't listen. He just attacked me."

Jonathun couldn't keep quiet any longer. "That's not true, sir!"

Master Gendall held up a callused hand. "You will wait your turn, cadet." He motioned for Davind to continue.

"Well, sir, I wasn't just going to let him skewer me. I dove for the weapon rack and swept up a sword. Just in time, too. I told him to stop, but he wouldn't listen. If you hadn't come along, one of us would have been hurt for sure."

"Sir! That's not what happened..."

Master Gendall turned his formidable gaze on Jonathun, stopping him mid-sentence. "Did you or did you not pull your weapon on Cadet Davind?"

"I did, sir, but..."

"And did you or did you not proceed to attack Cadet Davind?"

"I wouldn't call it attacking, sir..."

"And did I or did I not find you and Cadet Davind crossing swords when I arrived in the practice yard?"

"Yes, sir, but..."

"Then I have no choice but to acknowledge Cadet Davind's complaint."

"But, sir, that's not how it happened!"

Master Gendall's eyes bored into Jonathun. He wanted to continue, but he dared not. He felt like one of the insects pinned to the display boards in Master Hovinnt's office.

"The penalty for fighting with weapons is usually the lash, but in this case, I feel a more poignant lesson will apply. You are sentenced to five days of penance labor and banned from attending the Returning."

Jonathun felt his stomach lurch. Banned from the Returning? Somehow he found his tongue.

"But...but Master Gendall. This is the first Returning in almost twenty years. My brother is one of those in the party!"

Jonathun glanced aside at Davind. The other cadet stood at strict attention, but the smirk on his face was unmistakable. The slodding jerk had set him up. He just knew it.

"I'll do anything, Master. I'll take double the lashes. Please, just let me go to the Returning."

"I'm sorry, Jonathun, my decision is final." Master Gendall rose to his feet. "Tomorrow morning the two of you will report to the Sanctum. As Master Hovinnt will be leaving for the Returning with the rest of the school this afternoon, Master Lyden will be in charge of your labor assignments."

The five days of penance labor were nothing. Missing the Returning, however...Jonathun thought he would die. What would his father think? Despair threatened to overwhelm him and for the first time in years, Jonathun was on the edge of tears.

"Uh, Master? Both of us?"

Davind's voice pulled Jonathun back. It took a moment for him to understand what had been said.

"The penalty for fighting applies to both participants, Cadet Davind. You are in no way exempt."

"But it was his fault!"

"Both participants, Cadet Davind. If you disagree with my choice of punishment for you, I can add the lashes."

Davind swallowed audibly. "No, sir."

"Good. Now get out of my office, both of you, before either one of you says something else you might regret."

Jonathun slammed the door to his room so fiercely his roommate drew his sword.

"What the shards are you thinking?" Gregory protested. "I might have run you through." The shock fled from his face as he noticed Jonathun's expression.

"What happened?"

"Davind was tormenting Kumai and I drew on him. We crossed swords."

Gregory whistled. "That's not good. Did Grendall find out?"

"He caught us before we'd done more than a few passes. He banned me from the Returning."

"That's harsh."

Jonathun sat on his bunk. "I haven't seen my brother in five years, Greg. Five years. That's a long time to be out on Search. Mother had given up any hope of seeing him again."

"But he's back now, right? Those who have a successful returning are done with their service. Your brother's a hero now. Sure, you'll miss the party, but it's not like you won't ever see him again. Graduation is in two months. I'm sure he'll come for that."

"You're probably right."

Gregor put a hand on Jonathun's shoulder and grinned. "Aren't I always?"

As Gregor went back to packing his satchel, Jonathun frowned. The sour spot in his stomach took a turn for the worse. Gregor may be right most of the time, but not in this case. In this case, he was dead wrong.

Jonathun watched from the shade of the portcullis as the masters and his fellow students mounted up for the trip to West Gate. They were quite a sight; Masters Grendall, Horvinnt and Callisfield in their green Seekers uniforms and the students in the yellow overtunics of the High Gate Academy.

The entire staff of the school was heading to the Returning. Cooks, stablemen, smiths, groundskeepers, everyone was gathered together for the trip. All available carts, wagons and mounts had been conscripted into service. The procession was so large, the journey which would take a mounted man two days was scheduled for a full five. It was a grand adventure.

And he would be left behind.

The feelings of despair Jonathun had felt earlier had evaporated, burned away by the heat of his anger. His brother was part of the Returning and he was being left behind.

He hammered his fist into the gate, hardly noticing the pain of the impact. Shards take Davind and his constant scheming!

Jonathun spotted his rival across the marshaling yard, standing in the doorway of the main building. Davind wore a scowl the size of a spring melon. It was obvious that he was as angry as Jonathun over being left behind. Served the jerk right for setting him up. If Jonathun had to stay behind, at least he had the satisfaction of knowing that Davind was as miserable as he was.

Jonathun corrected himself. "Not quite as miserable," he muttered. "He doesn't have a brother that's part of the Returning."

The sun chose that moment to emerge from behind the last remaining cloud in the sky, bathing the marshaling yard in glorious brightness. Armor and buckles sparkled as the restless horses stomped and shook their heads. The scene contrasted so greatly with Jonathun's mood he had to retreat farther into the shadows to keep from swearing out loud.

Master Grendall's voice rose above the general cacophony. "Cadet Leader, form up your squads."

Gregor, the black baldric sporting his Leader bars proudly displayed over his overtunic, swung his horse out of position and dressed the line.

"Form up, you bogguns," he called out. "Everyone in his place."

The murmurs that generally accompanied such an order were absent today. The other cadets, eager for the adventure that awaited, complied with the command with a sharpness and discipline which would make even Master Horvinnt proud.

Gregor guided his horse back into position behind the Masters. "Everyone accounted for and ready, Master Grendall."

"Excellent, Cadet Leader," Master Grendall replied. "Let's be off, then. Frederick."

The cadet seated next to Gregor put a horn to his lips and blew a short cadence. As one, the troop of Masters and students trotted from the marshaling yard to take their place at the head of the caravan waiting beyond the walls of the academy.

Jonathun couldn't bear to watch their departure. He was back inside before the masters even passed the gate.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

"The Game - Chapter 2"

If you haven't read Chapter 1, I would start there first.

Valinor had very little problem backtracking the path that Mort and his attacker had followed earlier that day. Mort had made no effort to conceal his trail and the signs were even evident to Teserk, who had little knowledge of woodcraft. After about an hour the forest opened onto a large ravine, a miniscule stream no more than two feet wide meandering along the bottom. The south side of the ravine, the direction from which they approached, sloped smoothly down to the bottom. The north side, however, was very steep and rocky. Navigating the north side would be very treacherous. Teserk could see that the trail they followed led down to the bottom of the ravine, right to the body of what looked like a dead horse.

Valinor lead the group down to the horse. The body was fresh. Flies were busy sucking at a gash across the animal's neck. The ranger bent down to examine the corpse.

"Ah, poor Betsie!" lamented Mort. "She was a good horse. Got her when she was a colt. She served me well for nearly 15 years. I'm so sorry, lass."

"What happened?" Teserk asked.

"We were moving very fast through the woods. I kept looking over my shoulder instead of where we were headed. The top of the ravine there is very well hidden and I didn't see it until the last minute. Betsie tried to stop, but we skidded over the edge. I managed to throw myself off just in time. I watched her slide to the bottom. I slid down after her - but there was nothing I could do. Poor lass had broken her front leg. I couldn't bear to watch her suffer, so I put her down. Near broke my heart."

Teserk could see the broken leg. It was twisted at an unnatural angle and the jagged edges of bone poked through the torn flesh of the foreleg.

"You were quite proficient at putting her down," Valinor said, standing. "The cut you made was very precise and the instrument very sharp."

"I'm a mink farmer," Mort replied somewhat defensively, "I slaughter animals for a living."

He pulled a wicked looking tool from a leather case at his belt. There was a distinct curve to the blade. Teserk had never seen anything like it before.

"I designed it myself," Mort continued. "Slides easily between a minks fur and muscle and the curved edge makes the skinning go faster."

"It's remarkably clean," Valinor noticed.

"Washed it in that there stream when I was finished. This little knife represents my livelihood. Couldn't have it getting rusty on me."

Valinor withheld further comment and turned to the north side of the ravine, looking for a way up the embankment. The way was quite steep, devoid of any sturdy vegetation for handholds and littered about with fist-sized rocks that skittered away down the hill at the least provocation.

"You're lucky you didn't take the same fall as your horse," Theadina commented as she watched Valinor struggle to find a way up the slope. "It surely would have been fatal to you."

"Thank the spirits for that," Mort agreed.

"Did th' bandits attack ye on foot, or on horseback?" Colin asked suddenly.

"On foot, mostly. A couple of them had horses."

"Was yer pursuer one o' those?"

"I think so. Why do you ask?"

"I'm wondering where HIS horse be."

Mort blinked. "I don't know. That's a good question. He certainly followed me on foot past this point."

The question was answered as Valinor called down from above.

"There's a black mare tied to a tree up here."

"Well, then, there you go," Mort said. "He must have seen my fall and proceeded more cautiously."

"Of course," Theadina reasoned, "Chances were that you were seriously injured, if not outright killed, in the fall. He figured he had time to find a safe way down."

Their musings were interrupted by a shout from Valinor.

"There's no real safe way up here at this location," he said. "The tracks here show that the assassin headed east to find a better way down. Rather than waste more time, I'm going to lower a rope so you can climb up."

Mort said goodbye to Betsie as Valinor knotted some rope to a sturdy tree and tossed it down to the group. Theadina climbed up first, followed by Mort, Colin and finally Teserk.

When he reached the top, Teserk took a moment to study the terrain. He could see how Mort would have missed the drop off. The trees here were fairly thick and the edge of the ravine was lined with brush. The assassin's horse was tied to a medium-sized elm right next to the place where Betsie had gone over the edge. Several bushes had been ripped out in the struggle, leaving a hole in the brush line. The ravine at that point was especially steep.

Teserk thought of something. "You said you followed your horse down the incline?"

"The man was after me." Mort looked over the edge and swallowed hard. "I wasn't really thinking clearly at the time."

Theadina said what they were all thinking. "You are lucky to be alive."

Mort could only nod.

"The trail continues back this way."

Valinor set off down the trail. Colin untied the black mare and led her after, Theadina and Mort following. Teserk hung back a bit. He looked one last time down the slope. Something was not right here. He couldn't put his finger on it, but he was missing something important, something that tickled his brain, but refused to show itself.

Teserk sighed. He wasn't the thinker of the group - he left that to Theadina or Valinor. He would just have to trust that whatever was lurking in the back of his skull would show itself before too much longer.

With that thought in mind he headed out after his companions.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"The Broken Door"

The apartment building I lived in while growing up had the most remarkable door. It had four doors, really - a set of double doors, with a single door to either side - but it was the door on the left that had the special qualities. Those qualities came to life one summer when management hired Joe Potts as the resident doorman.

Mr. Potts, or Doorman Joe as us kids affectionately called him, had been afflicted with spinal tuberculosis as a youth. The infection had caused his spine to deform, giving him a humpbacked appearance. His mobility was severely limited as a result, but he could stand well enough, and though his movements weren't crisp and snappy as with the doormen of the fancy hotels downtown, Doorman Joe had a talent for opening doors.

Joe's talent wasn't obvious to most of those who lived there. He was an unassuming man, very polite, but quiet. Most of the residents had only a passing relationship with him, exchanging nods and pleasantries while studiously avoiding any stray glance at his physical deformity. Certainly none of them ever asked him about it; it would have been too socially "gauche." As children, we had no such reservations.

Doorman Joe had been more than happy to tell us about his condition. He had a special fondness for us children, perhaps because once we understood his deformity was only physical, we never thought about it again.

Joe was a great listener. While other adults only pretended to listen when we spoke, Joe paid rapt attention. We shared our joys, our fears, our hopes and expectations. Joe never judged us. He gave advice from time to time, but never in a way that felt like we were being lectured. We loved him, and we knew that he loved us.

Because we were so comfortable around him, much of our play took place near the front of the apartment building. The lease strictly prohibited loitering in that area, but Joe was never one to enforce that particular rule when it came to us. In fact, Joe encouraged it.

I said he had a talent for opening doors. This was particularly true with The Broken Door. The Broken Door was the leftmost door of the four when you stood outside the building. It featured a large sign that read "Out of Order - Use Other Doors." At some point in the past the building's foundation had shifted just enough to wedge the door shut. The Door was never locked. It had no need to be. I watched person after person try to open that door - those who were either too stupid or too stubborn to pay attention to the sign. No one ever could - except Doorman Joe. Somehow he managed to position himself just right, and the Door would open. All us kids watched him do it over and over again. Joe took great pleasure from opening the Door, letting it self-close, and then watching the group of us try to open it again, all to no avail.

We asked Joe how he did it. He simply shrugged.

"It's a magic door," he said. "When opened properly, it can take you anywhere you want to go."

Of course we didn't believe him, at first. We needed a demonstration. Joe smiled.

"Where do you want to go?" he asked. There were shouts of Florida and the Zoo. "Surely you can do better than that," he said.

I had just read a story about King Arthur and Excalibur. "Camelot!" I exclaimed.

"Now that is a place worth going," Doorman Joe said. He opened the door, and we flew through it. We spent the afternoon in Camelot, joined with the Knights of the Round Table in fighting for liberty and equality. Queen Gwenevere played with Arthur and Lancelot, though no kissing took place. (We were too young to go that far, even when in Camelot.)

Joe opened the Door for us each day after that. We visited a multitude of fantastic places, from pirate coves to fairy castles, the depths of the ocean to the alien vistas of Mars. There was nowhere The Broken Door couldn't take us, and no matter how far we went we were always in reach of our mothers' calls for supper. It was childhood bliss.

An incident just a few weeks before summer's end changed all that.

We were playing out front as was our habit. Keith Fletcher had joined us that day, an occurance that was unusual all by itself. Keith had a tendency to be clumsy. He was constantly falling down the stairs and running into things. Most of us wore the bumps and bruises from such events as badges of honor; Keith tried to hide his beneath long sleeves and sunglasses. His parents kept him inside most of the time. It was a rare treat when Keith got to join us.

On this particular day, Keith's father came home from work early. Keith's expression spoke volumes. He wasn't supposed to be outside, and he had been caught. Mr. Fletcher seized Keith by the arm and jerked him onto his toes. Keith cried out.

"What are you doing out here?" Mr. Fletcher demanded. "You're supposed to be inside!"

I didn't like the look on Mr. Fletcher's face. Neither did Doorman Joe.

"Take your hand off the boy." Joe's voice was quiet, but it contained a note of anger I had never heard from him before.

"Mind your own business, cripple," Mr. Fletcher said. "He's my son and I'll do with him as I please."

"Release him now, or I'll call the authorities."

Mr. Fletcher threw Keith to the ground. He landed hard, skinning the palms of his hands.

"Get inside, son. We'll have a lot to discuss when I'm through with this."

Keith picked himself up, tears streaming down his face. He made a beeline for the Door. He didn't look up as Joe let him in.

Mr. Fletcher squared himself. He was a big man, much bigger than Doorman Joe.

"Are we going to have a problem here?" Mr. Fletcher asked, rubbing his fist into his palm.

Joe remained silent. Mr. Fletcher smirked. "Then we're done here.

He moved for the center doors. Doorman Joe stepped in front of him.

"Get out of my way, cripple."

"That door is broken today," Joe said. "We're using this one instead."

Joe opened The Broken Door. Mr. Fletcher stepped through the doorway. Joe followed him through, and closed it behind.

No one saw either Mr. Fletcher or Doorman Joe again after that. The police came and questioned everyone in the building, but could garner no clues. We tried to explain to them about The Broken Door, but as no one could open it, our accounts were quickly dismissed. After a week the police gave up. Mr. Fletcher and Joe were gone; it couldn't be explained.

A new doorman was hired soon after. Doorman Scott didn't like kids. He strictly enforced building policy, and we were forced to find other places to play. It didn't matter. We had learned what we needed from Doorman Joe.

I visited the old neighborhood today. I was surprised to discover they had demolished the apartment complex to build modern condominiums. It made me sad briefly. I had spent such a happy summer there once. It had changed my life.

As I drove away, I realized that it didn't really matter about the apartments. The building was gone, but the memories, they live on. As does the secret of the Door.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"The Game - Chapter 1"

This story features a band of adventurers called The Brotherhood of the Brave. Thee characters are based on characters from a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) campaign I was involved in back in high school.

Back in 2001, I was part of a group that decided to make role playing products for the new open gaming license (d20 system) put out for D&D. I designed an adventure module called The Game. This story was an attempt to put the module in a story format, showing one way a party of adventurers could run it. The intent was to include it in the module as bonus content. The module never got published - and the story never got finished. As outlined, the story has a good 12 Chapters. I had written eight. I figure now is as good a time as ever to finish it.

These first chapters aren't my best writing ever, and I've improved a lot since I wrote them. Still, I hope you might enjoy it. So, here's Chapter 1 of "The Game."

"Help! By the spirits, he's trying to kill me!"

From the woods ahead of the party came a man of medium stature. His shoulder length brown hair was wet and stringy with sweat and his face wore the haunted, frightened look of a deer pursued by wolves. His once fine clothes were stained and torn, a cloak hanging in tatters about stooped shoulders. His eyes darted about as he stumbled and almost fell, then latched onto the four friends who stood dumbstruck at the man's sudden appearance.

" me!"

As if to add weight to the reality of the man's peril, a crossbow bolt slammed into his left thigh, spinning him full circle and dropping him to the earth with a cry of pain.

The four flew into immediate action. The woman rushed to the man's aid, gentle hands ripping open the cloth of his trousers to examine the seriousness of the wound. The three men took up a defensive posture around the two, drawing weapons with practiced ease. Their skills were soon tested as the man's pursuer burst from the shadows of the forest.

The short, burly one stepped forward to intercept the attacker. The assassin responded by tossing a handful of white powder into the powerful fighter's face. Blinded, and suddenly without breath, the defender fell to his knees, dropping his mace. The assassin's killing stroke was parried by the quick interposition of a bastard sword that caught the rapier's blade just above the hilt and threw it out wide. Foiled in his attempt, the assailant launched a series of lightning fast attacks, confident that his speed and lighter weapon would make short work of his opponent. Amazingly, the lithe defender met and countered each new strike with an ease that unnerved the assassin. He leapt backwards and reached behind him. A dagger flashed from his hand, flying with unerring accuracy at the defender, only to be deflected by a minute flick of the man's blade.

Seeing that he was outmatched, the assassin fled back to the safety of the forest. The third man in the group quickly drove his twin short swords into the earth and nocked an arrow in the bow that seemly appeared in his hands from out of the air. The arrow was loosed as the assassin made the final jump into the safety of the trees. The shaft caught the man in the left calf and he hit the ground with his face. He raised up on his elbows for a brief moment and then dropped, his limbs convulsing violently before his body was still.

Valinor Trollslayer shouldered his bow, drew his blades from the ground and moved to where the downed assassin lay. He was sure of what he would find, but moved with a deliberate caution, ready for the unexpected. He knelt next to the still form and checked for the nonexistent pulse. A bubbly froth gave evidence to what had occurred and the mild scent of almonds confirmed it: poison, probably cyanide.

Meanwhile, Teserk Deseau sheathed his bastard sword at his back and bent to help his comrade. The big half-dwarf, Colin of Trenchmar, was rubbing furiously at red and tearing eyes, but otherwise seemed unharmed.

"Salt peter," Teserk said helpfully. "It'll pass. No serious harm done."

"Iff'n ye donnae want t' feel me boot in yer backside, ye'll be keepin' yer comments t' yerself!" Colin retorted with a snort. "Goin' help the lass."

Teserk hid a smile and turned to face his friend Theadina Tyderon as she tended the assassin's victim.

"Put this in his mouth and hold his head still," she said, handing Teserk a length of clean linen cloth. He twisted the cloth and the man accepted it between his teeth, his eyes showing he knew what was coming. The injured man groaned as Theadina pulled the crossbow bolt from his thigh with a sharp jerk. Blood welled up from the leg and the man went white. The Knight of Calinde thrust two fingers into the wound and closed her eyes, visualizing the damaged tissue. Teserk watched as the blood flow from the wound slowed to a trickle and then stopped altogether. As Theadina slowly removed her fingers, the flesh knit itself together as if under the hands of a skillful surgeon. When she finally removed her fingers there was nothing left of the injury save a red puckering scar.

"I'm afraid that's the best I can do for you," she said in a tired voice. "The rest will have to heal on it's own. Let me get my satchel and I'll pack it for you."

Teserk removed the gag from the man's mouth as the color returned to his face. He reached for the still tender spot and shook his head in amazement.

"I can't hardly believe it. You have my thanks."

Valinor and Colin joined them as Theadina began to apply a sticky salve to the damaged area.

"Your attacker is dead," the ranger told the wounded man, "though not by our hands. He poisoned himself rather than be captured."

He tossed a ring to Teserk. Teserk could see how the signet area was hinged, giving access to a small cavity inside the ring.

"I am in your debt, good people. I fear I can never repay you for this kindness."

"Telling us who you are and why you were attacked is a good start," Teserk said. His remarked earned him a reproving glance from Theadina, but the man didn't seem to notice.

"Please, pardon my rudeness. My name is Mortimous de Vous, but friends call me Mort. I am, or was, a rather well known mink farmer from down near Caddington. I don't suppose you've heard of me?"

The party's quickly shared glances told him they hadn't.

"Well, no matter," Mort said, "Those days are over. And they won't be coming back." His face suddenly fell and despair filled his eyes.

Theadina finished bandaging the leg and she helped Mort to his feet. He tested the leg and smiled slightly.

"You're good, Lady Knight. Hardly any pain. Thank you."

"You are most welcome."

Theadina could tell that Teserk was becoming impatient. "What changed things?" she prompted the farmer.

"Not what. Who. Nefarious brought me to this end."

"Who be Nefarious?" Colin asked. He could tell there was a tale to be told and he was anxious for the telling of it.

"You aren't from around these parts, are you? If you were, you'd have heard of Nefarious. A black-hearted Wizard he is, demented and evil, wont to cause ill and wreak havoc with?innocent lives."

Mort's voice grew quiet, filled with unmistakable pain as he told the party his story. Mort's life had been a fairly full one. He lived with his only daughter, Lucinde, and managed a successful mink farm several miles to the southwest of Caddington. His wife had died unexpectedly from a fever not long after their daughter's birth and Mort had raised the girl himself. They had no other family. As the demand for mink fur grew, Mort had done rather well for himself -- the value of the farm had risen considerably. Such intrinsic value did much to raise his standing in the community, but provided little in the way of real physical comforts. Mort was rich, but his assets were tied up in the farm. He and his daughter managed to live comfortably. Several nobles had approached him about buying the property, but he refused to sell, knowing the need for a large dowry if he ever hoped to marry his daughter to someone of higher station. Life had been simple, but grand. Until Nefarious.

"I came back from the pens last week and found the door to the house standing open. I couldn't smell any dinner, and that was odd, since Lucinde always has supper on the table when I come in for the day. I knew something was wrong, so I drew my knife and hurried into the parlor."

Mort's eyes misted over at this point and he had to swallow several times before he could get enough voice to continue.

"My baby was lying on the floor, stripped down to her shift. Her hands were lashed behind her back and her mouth was gagged. She looked at me with wild eyes. I could tell she was in pain. The monster was sitting in my chair, grinning like a madman.

"I had to do something! So I rushed him, or at least I tried to. He waved his hand and I couldn't move. He told me he was Nefarious and he was taking my daughter with him. His terms were simple: pay him a 20,000 gold crown ransom and I could have her back, unharmed. Fail, and I would never see her again. I told him I didn't have that kind of money. He told me to sell the farm and gave me five days to do it. Then he grabbed Lucinde by the hair and they disappeared. I found a map on the chair with instructions as to where I should bring the money."

"Did you go to the authorities?" Valinor asked.

Mort snorted. "Baron Lieber is the closest Lord, but he was the one pushing me the hardest to sell the farm. How do you think he reacted? He was more than willing to help. His solution was to buy the farm."

"For a fraction of its value, I'll wager," Teserk noted.

Mort nodded. "I saw the lust in Nefarious' eyes as he looked at Lucinde. What choice did I have? I took Lieber's offer and followed the map. I'm not a very good map reader and I got lost once I entered the Wildwoods. I thought I had found my salvation in a lone traveler who stopped to join me for a meal. His name was Finch. He knew the area and told me he would guide me in return for a thousand crowns. I agreed."

Mort noticed the look of disapproval in Colin's eyes.

"Well what was I supposed to do?" he growled. "By that point I had only two days left to meet the wizard's demands and I was out of options. It was take this man's help or lose my daughter!"

Valinor pointed to the dead man lying on the roadside. "That's Finch?"

"No. Not long after we set out we were ambushed by a band of robbers. Finch was killed almost immediately as he tried to resist them. I used the confusion to make for the woods. The band let me go. After all, they had my wagon and its supplies. All of them but that man there. He's followed me for several hours now. If you hadn't come along?."

There was an awkward pause. Mort tested his leg, again. He limped a bit, but if there was any pain he hid it well.

"Well, I thank you again for your kindness," Mort said, "I expect you'll be on your way. Best wishes."

Theadina and Valinor exchanged a look that spoke volumes to Teserk.

"We're going after them, aren't we." His tone made a statement of the question.

Valinor smiled briefly and then headed into the woods in the direction from which Mort had arrived.

Mort shook his head vehemently. "I cannot ask your aid! The last man who tried to help me perished. I won't have your deaths on my conscience."

"Your daughter is still in danger," Theadina said simply. "We are duty bound to assist you."

Mort made to object, but was waved to silence by Colin.

"Donnae even try t' change their minds. Like it or not, ye've got our help."

"Praise the spirits, then, there's still hope!" Mort cried and clapped the half-dwarf on the shoulder.

Teserk just shook his head. What they were proposing was nearly impossible. Find a robber band and recover the lost gold, then deliver it intact to a hostile wizard all in a day and a half. And Teserk wasn't so naïve as to think that this Nefarious would turn the girl over to them when the ransom was finally met. They would all most likely die in this endeavor. Sighing heartily he followed his companions into the woods. At least it should be interesting.

Monday, July 13, 2009

"Washed Up"

The increasingly rough sea made it difficult, but after the fourth try David managed to snag the floating object with the gaff. He hauled it in, and then retreated to the shelter of the cabin before examining it. He was surprised to discover a book, protected from the fury of the ocean by a zip-top plastic bag. It was the air in the bag that had allowed the book to float.

"How curious," he said. No one was with him on the boat, but David had long ago established the habit of talking to himself when he was out fishing. Unlike his wife, the fish never disagreed.

He took a moment to verify his position on the GPS, and then overlaid the map with a live Doppler radar feed. A small storm was coming. David considered returning to port, but the storm didn't look too severe. Better to wait it out here than waste half a day of fishing due to a little rain. Besides, the delay would give him an opportunity to check out his discovery.

Satisfied with his decision, David took a seat at the small table in the cabin and pulled the book from its plastic protection. He folded the bag neatly and placed it in his pocket.

"Never know when that might come in handy," he said. He turned his attention to the book. It was small, no larger than a three by five index card.

"Perfect for sliding into a breast pocket." The leather cover was tattered, any title long since worn away. How old was this book? He gently opened the cover.

"It's a journal!" The pages inside were in good condition. The entries were made in a jerky hand, the writing close to illegible. David snickered. "His handwriting's almost as bad as mine."

The rain chose that minute to start falling. The wind pushed it against the cabin window. David took a moment to make sure everything was in place for the storm. When he was done, he settled down and began to read.


*Day One*
I'm writing this on Day Three, but I should start from the beginning. I don't know who I am. In fact, I don't remember much of anything before waking on the beach. Just flashes, really: a twenty-foot wave, the tipping of a boat, an explosion. I had hurt my head, the pounding in my skull made that painfully clear. When I could get to my feet, I realized that I was on an island. The sun was just setting. Where was I? Who was I? Some fifty feet up the sand the beach ended at the edge of a tropical forest. It looked ominous in the fading sunlight. A crack of lightning warned a storm was coming. I knew instinctively I would need shelter. That's when I saw the light, coming from somewhere back in the trees. I decided to check it out.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered a cabin not far into the trees. The light came from a lantern, hung from the porch. I called a greeting, but no one answered. When the rain started I chose to enter. The cabin was deserted. I found a couple of cans of beans and this journal. I waited for the cabin's owner to return, but hunger got the best of me. I ate a can of beans and fell asleep.

*Day Two*
I woke up stiff from sleeping at the table. Still hungry, I ate the second can of beans. The sun was shining, so I decided to explore. The island is tiny. I estimate maybe two, three square acres. The owner of the cabin is nowhere to be found. Perhaps he attempted to take whatever boat he had and tried to outrun the storm. I cannot fathom why he left the lantern burning. It has since gone out, but there is plenty of fuel in the cabin. However, there is no more food and no source of fresh water. The water is likely not an issue; I can always collect rain water - I found a ziptop bag in my pocket that will serve adequately as a water catcher. The lack of food concerns me. I wish I had not eaten the two cans of beans so quickly. I searched for fishing gear and found none. Perhaps I can make some?

*Day Three*
I can't recall the last time I went 24 hours without eating. I don't like it. Since I'm not sure when the owner is coming back, I have to assume I am on my own. I tried fishing, but have discovered that I am not much of a fisherman without modern gear. I have little faith my meager attempts at trapping will catch anything. I don't recognize any of the plants and am afraid to try to eat any. I started writing in this journal to pass the time, but I'm now that I'm caught up I find I have very little to say.

*Day Four*
Very hungry. Found some bugs today, but couldn't bring myself to eat them. Decided my only chance is to make a raft and leave the island. Spent the day finding materials.

*Day Five*
Built the raft today. Took longer than expected. So hungry. Ate a bug today, but it tasted so bad I threw it up. Don't know how I'm going to survive.

*Day Six*
This is my last entry. I'm leaving on the raft. In true message in a bottle tradition, I have decided to set this journal adrift in the sea. Hopefully one or the other of us will reach more civilized shores. Should you find this, please look for me. If you don't find me, remember me to God.


The journal ended there. David was fascinated. What could have happened to the man? Did he survive? How long ago had this been written? David wished the man had dated the pages. Should he be looking for a man on a raft?

David looked out the window. He had been so caught up in reading the journal had hadn't been paying attention. The weather had turned dramatically worse. The wind had grown fierce. The boat began to toss drastically from side to side. David moved quickly to the con. He had to get the boat righted before the waves got too high.

He was too late. A huge swell grabbed the boat, and he began to rise. He tried desperately to turn into the wave....

Lightning flashed. Something on the boat exploded. David went tumbling backward. He struck his head on the table - and everything went black.


He awoke on a sandy beach. He couldn't remember anything, just flashes, really: a twenty-foot wave, the tipping of a boat, an explosion. He had hurt his head, the pounding in his skull made that painfully clear. When he got to his feet, he realized he was on an island. The sun was just setting.

Where was he? *Who* was he?

Some fifty feet up the sand the beach ended at the edge of a tropical forest. It looked ominous in the fading sunlight. A crack of lightning warned a storm was coming. He knew instinctively he would need shelter. That's when he saw the light, coming from somewhere back in the trees.