A Serial Story: A Stranger’s Blood

I spoke of sharing a story with you. I plan to post these sections of story in a reasonably regular manner until the entire novel is posted here on this blog.

This is the first dream I had of Future Earth. Later dreams of Future Earth led to the novel I published as Future Past a few years ago. But this one was the beginning, and though it may read a bit like fantasy at the start, you will find that the threads are science fiction, finally revealing a web of reason that has its own predictions. I hope you  enjoy it.

    A Stranger’s Blood

A door creaked on leather hinges. Such a terrible effort to open my eyes, to turn them towards the bar of new sunlight. A small figure in the opening, my size, unmoving, as if afraid.

“Tizeit?” Familiar girl’s voice calling my name, wavering. Whose? I was too tired, but now thirst woke, thrust me into awareness. Throat hurt, raw.

“Ti?” It was Mell’s voice. I’d seen her yesterday, hadn’t I? No– days, weeks ago? How could I be like this, weighted down as though by stones, dying for water? So tired. Jumbled fever with nightmares mixed.

Our room rose dark and empty around me pierced by that one band of morning, broadening as the hinges protested again.

Mell made a noise like fear. I raised my head, so by squinting aching eyes I could make out a little of her face, her hands. Such big eyes.

“Help’s coming,” she said, her voice choked. She raised a piece of cloth back over her mouth, turned and flickered out. Maybe a dream shape and nothing real, but the harsh light still glared from the door left open. Someone should close it.

“Mama?” I heard my own voice as dry as the dust the opening door had stirred. The room smelled terrible, rotten, of overflowing chamberpots and vomit; no wonder Mell fled. Where was Mama with her cool touch, or my Father– I longed for his impatient kindness. A weak tear moved down my face, though I knew I was too old to cry.

I did not imagine then that my mother and father lay scarce an arm’s length away, dead, struck down by the pox that spared me. I had only the impatience of a cherished child sick, thirsting and uncomforted.

“Mell?” I said.

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Chapter One:  Eight Years Later

I’d never known any master save our King Matthew, of the Wall, yet I gave my first oath of loyalty to a man chance met upon the road. I will bear his scar for all my life.

No one ventures out of our City and its lands to stroll beyond our Wall for pleasure. We should all have suspected our orders, but we were near children still, fools, and freedom felt without care. Walking in our little group of soldiers, in the pale sunlight of winter enjoying the sharp mountain air, I owed better attention.  After all, I knew Heme was of light mind. Always distracted, flirting or giggling. Heme’s name had been picked by lot to serve as our Lead today, thus she strode first, enjoying the distinction.

I remembered seeing Heme hiding a rolled message up her sleeve a little before our troop  exited the Gates. Mell and I had exchanged curious glances, wondering if Heme might have received some news, or even a lover’s note. She said nothing then, and we’d consumed our curiosity in silence. Let her keep her secret messages. She had the duty of Lead and I wasn’t minded to advise her or make up to her. I toadied to no one.

No seasoned soldier led us. We were all un-oathed, young. Yet on its surface, today’s was a simple assignment. Meet a small group of travelers due from the North and escort them on the last risky miles into our City of the Wall. We had done such duties tens of times with our elders during our years of training.

Only two of us carried bows and laden quivers, while the rest had straight swords and cutlasses. We wore the lightest of armor, helm and mail, greaves bound on our calves. I don’t fault our gear though, when I look back on that day, but how we acted. On our own with a Lead who was a friend, like untutored civilians, we relaxed. Walking in the middle of the dusty road delighting in the thin warmth, instead of moving under cover. The early winter had been rainless, the brush and trees crouched dark with last year’s growth, dimmed with dust. Any watcher could have tracked the slight cloud our feet stirred.

I looked back at Mell, saw a sudden frown twist her black-smeared face. We had all blackened our faces according to our custom before pulling on our helms of mail and leaving the city, so hers was hard to read.

“Off the road,” she snapped. “We’re exposed. Visible, Heme. This is wrong.”

I heard a buzz and ducked. The first arrow smacked into Heme’s shoulder, spun her with a spurt of bright blood against sunlight, flinging her down into dust. I noted a small object rolled from her outflung sleeve, but already we were moving, fast. I grasped her under her arms and Mell grabbed her by the belt. We dragged Heme from road to verge, into the overgrowth of a deep ditch.

We’d practiced moves like this, and that saved us now. We’d also practiced with pain, so Heme made no sound at all, and the only expression in her hot blue eyes was anger— for she led us, she had the responsibility, and she was down. Yet her rage was nothing to the contempt I felt at her failure. Not merely soft, but careless. I heard the others scramble for cover.

Dressed in motley, we ten blended into our hedgy surroundings. With all the care we had learned, yet only just remembered, we moved apart under the low forest cover; within eye contact, far enough dispersed to use weapons freely. I cast my attention wide, my senses raw with outrage as I scanned the quiet slopes for our enemies. Stupid. I was as stupid as Heme.

Mell crouched by Heme. I heard the sounds as Mell cut the end of the arrow close to Heme’s shoulder. It’s a hard thing to do well, but Mell has extremely strong hands. She cost Heme as little blood as possible. I glanced back as she whipped Heme’s dark scarf tight over her wound, snugging the tie down on the back, out of Heme’s way. Heme brought her feet under her, and though the whites of her eyes flashed more than usual, sweat standing on her black-greased skin, she showed fit to fight. I looked away, forcing my angry breath to slow, surveying.

I saw the dust our feet had stirred settle back into the open road before anyone came. No bird made noise, no breeze stirred. Our foes hid above on the thicketed hillside, as the direction of that arrow should have warned us. Should have, I thought with bitter disgust. What good was “should”? Now the enemy made scant noise as they came down upon us,  slight movements in the vegetation. Datch signed to me but I ignored her. I didn’t need her help to track them.

I wondered what good our defeat or death could serve. We carried no valuables but weapons, and these bandits were clearly human, not out for blood or flesh. No cannibals had hunted these forests for generations, not since the early days of our City. The travelers we’d been sent to guard would have been better prey than we, but why hadn’t these attackers simply cut ahead of us? The timing made no sense. Their choice of approach made less.

They seemed to know where we lay. They came through the bent trees, dressed in brown and green, all hooded, and to my surprise, they matched us in number. Ten on ten. Odd coincidence. Still, Heme was wounded, and that might give them the advantage. I bit down on my outrage. Heme was still our Lead, we under her command. I watched her through the dark leaves and branches that separated us, anticipating her signal. I saw her glance across the dusty road surface as if she sought something. Then she thrust her chin in the direction of the slope, and we obeyed.

I’d fought before, indeed all of us had been blooded young in protection of the City Behind the Wall, we knew the ways of defending the Wall by heart. Here, fighting out in the world, felt terrible. Naked. Stories told by firesides imply each warrior knows the course of battle over all the field, however many the combatants. Such a pity it isn’t true for a young apprentice. It’s supposed to be true for the Lead, and while I didn’t envy our wounded Heme her need to track all of us, she deserved the problem. Pigeon-fat fool.

My best hope was that body, cutlass and sword would think for me, my arms trained by the practice we did daily in the enclosure at the barracks. I hefted my weapons, trying to feel them as extensions of my limbs. Most of us use a cutlass left-handed with a straight sword for point work in the dominant hand, giving us two modes of attack and defense. A good idea, since no opponent worth calling enemy fights to your plan. I’d done this before, I’d killed before, and well. I would again, today, surely.

I couldn’t bear to wait, but focused on the man nearest. I leapt forward. My cutlass deflected a bright slash. Though a slender man, he hit hard, and I deflected rather than meeting his force full on. We sprang battling onto the open road. I saw Datch duck forward into the underbrush, and Mell catch her enemy’s blade on her own. To the side Eac swung wildly at a large woman bandit, but my own attention could not be spared. I countered as fast as I could force myself, yet my opponent outpaced me — I felt my every block came slow. He was so deft. He avoided my straight sword as if I told him what I intended before each move.

Older than he looked, perfectly balanced on his silent feet. So familiar, despite his face mask. He wielded only one sword, and he outreached me so I couldn’t come close enough to touch him with the cutting edge of my cutlass. I would have done better, perhaps, with a shield. He forced me off-side with his disengage and booted left-footed the cutlass from my hand. I initiated no new blows now; I had no time or wit to spare for anything more than defense. Only a block, a parry. Barely enough, my empty left hand still ringing numb from his kick.

I could see no more than a glitter of eyes under his hood. He nicked my forearm. A wetness of blood tickled down my arm into my grip, hot and slippery. I wanted to tame my breathing, to balance myself, but I couldn’t. I knew this man–the idea distracted me, but I couldn’t think. I shouldn’t think. Through the pounding of my heart I heard a sound of hoof beats. Horses; could our expected travelers be rich enough to ride horses? Would they dare help? I needed help or I was beaten, no, I was dead.

I kept striking, losing focus as I tried to keep his blade off me, and he stopped everything I tried, like a man teaching a lesson. My cutlass gleamed in the dirt. No chance to reclaim it. I tried to feed my thumping heart with anger, but despair answered. No possibility of surrender. My enemy fought with the efficiency of a soldier focused on his kill, intensifying as though settling a personal matter. Direct, efficient. I flung myself away from his singing steel.

A shout broke into our fight. A tall figure thrust himself between us, blocked my view, challenging my attacker away from me. I stumbled down on my knees, gulping raw air into lungs that stung. The slight wounds I bore on my forearms and wrists woke to pain. In the blur of my vision, the newcomer seemed incredibly fast, his black garments whipping with his easy strokes. Only seconds of action, a ringing of blows, before my former opponent sprang back. He stepped aside, vanishing into the brush with a snap of twigs.

I could not rise; it was as if by giving my knees permission to fold, my will folded too. I couldn’t even flog myself to the disappointment I knew I should feel in my failure, I could only try to breathe staring hazily up at my rescuer. He had barely been in time for me. He moved away in the silence towards his black horse. She lifted her nose but didn’t move away. Trained for a companion horse, trained to stand once her reins were thrown.

I turned my heavy head, saw Heme kneeling half in, half out of the bushes, her knuckles white over the hilts of her sword while she gasped for breath. Eac had her legs braced apart, and examined her forearm, as if checking for a wound. Mell stood a little down the road, her sword still at ready and her teeth bared at my rescuer. Datch came crawling out of the brush. I did not know where Cascada and Berann might be, or the other three. Our side, whatever that might mean, had won. We held this ground.

“I owe you,” I said to the man’s black-clad back, voice scraping from my dry throat.

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