A Chance Beginning, page 1part #1 of Shadow's Fire Trilogy Series
A Chance Beginning
Book I of the Shadow’s Fire Trilogy
A Chance Beginning
Copyright © 2018 Christopher Patterson. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or retransmitted in any form or by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
Rabbit Hole Publishing
Tucson, Arizona 85710 USA
ISBN: 978-0-9984070-0-5 (paperback)
ISBN: 978-0-692-13109-1 (ebook)
To my wife for always encouraging me, my grandmother who always believed in me, and my parents who always supported my dreams.
A Chance Beginning
I WAS THERE. I FOUGHT at the Battle of Bethuliam so many years ago. I heard the call of the Golden City even in the west, past the cursed forests of Ul’Erel, in the desert wastelands where those exiled fled to so long ago. We took up sword and shield, donned armor, beat drums, and blew horns for the call, for the cause, for righteousness, for the world, and for the Creator. I fought and killed. I felt bone under my steel. I heard the wailing of my victims. I saw brother fight brother, father fight son, whole families—peoples—extinguished from time. I swam in a river of blood, tasted flesh, inhaled burning skin, vomited curses, and, in the end, bled victory; bled freedom. I fought alongside Justus before the world knew him as King Agempi, the Keeper of the Golden Gates. And I watched Justus Guerus sign a treaty with Rimrûk Aztûk, General of Golgolithul and new Lord High Chancellor.
Standing here, staring at nothing but rolling hills and grasslands, I still wonder if the Creator left it all to chance or if he had his hand in it all. Did the Creator will Gol-Durathna and The Alliance to win the battle that ended the age known as The Darkening? Was either side really better than the other? I suppose that is an unanswerable question. In fact, I mean not to answer it, glad I don’t have to answer it. I can stand here, in the grasslands and rolling hills of the west, at peace. After a lifetime of battle and bloodshed, loss and taking life, by the grace of the Creator, I can finally settle and rest, build something with these hands rather than destroy.
My brother—the one of four that survived with me—chose to move on, go back to the wilds beyond Ul’Erel, go back to our people and continue to rebuild there. I think this is where I will stay. No more rebuilding for me; just building, creating, loving, growing. I think it has been too long since anyone from my race has lived this side of the Great Forest. It was my people, after all, that turned the tide for The Alliance. I will teach my sons, their sons, and their sons a life of peace, a life in reverence to the Creator, a life of harmony. But, if ever the call came again, the call for a people to save the world once again, my people would be here, close at hand, ready to fight for good in the name of the Creator. Yes, this is where I stake a claim to last generations.
I look back at my people. My heart sinks. A dozen women. A handful of men. All waiting for my move.
“My brothers and sisters,” I tell them, “this is where we stay. This is where we will make a new life, a better life, a peaceful life.”
They nod in approval. War is hard on them as well. Living in the wilds of the west is even harder.
“How?” one man asks.
“We will use the land,” I answer. “We will farm and grow orchards and raise cattle and sheep and pigs as our ancestors did, and we will pray for the Creator’s will to favor us.”
I look back at this rolling grassland, but what I see, what I see is so much more. I smell the sweet, musky smell of early morning dew. I hear the mourning dove coo just as the sun peeks from the east, a simple line of light along the horizon like candlelight shining underneath a door. I see fields of corn and bean and wheat. I see rows of apple and pear and peach orchards. I hear people singing. I see them dancing at harvest festivals and singing songs of the past, songs they love and yet, know not from where they come. I see a people forgetting about a past filled with violence and war and creating a future of peace.
“Yes, this is where I, Eleodum, will stay.” A smile stretches across my face. Then my mood seems to darken, even after my people walk past me, plot where they will build their homes, pick a plot of land where they will plant their first crop. I feel the air thicken. I see a shadow peeking over my shoulder. “But, if there is ever a need again, a need for a fighter, a leader, a champion, I will be here; my blood will be here.”
RIKARD ELEODUM STOOD BEHIND HIS plow, a low moan coming from his oxen as they stamped their feet. He ignored them and the fly that buzzed by his nose. He ignored the heat of the early spring sun and the dusty taste in his mouth. He took no notice of a skinny-tailed rabbit poking its head over a mound of freshly churned dirt. He simply stared, off into the distance to the south, lost in his thoughts.
“Where are you?”
A small tear escaped the corner of his eye, diverted by a week’s worth of stubble. He licked the salty tear away when it reached the corner of his mouth and shook his head.
“Erik. Befel. Fool boys. Where are you?”
Rikard Eleodum couldn’t ignore the beating of hooves, iron-shod shoes slamming hard against the earth like rolling thunder. The rumbling and billowing dust came closer, and the ground shook beneath his feet as the sound of loud neighs and crac
Finally, they appeared, maybe two dozen men, spreading out to line up in front of his barn and house, and those of the four men and families that worked Rikard’s farm.
“Less intimidating than I expected.”
Rikard let go of his plow and walked toward the entourage, all finely arrayed in polished mail shirts, well-oiled brigandines, and conical helmets that reflected the late morning sun.
Karita Eleodum stormed from the farmhouse’s front door, down the stone walkway, and through the fence gate with a speed Rikard had never seen from his wife. Her auburn hair looked aflame, while the ruddiness in her cheeks deepened, and her blue eyes blazed ice cold.
“What is the meaning of this?” she demanded, pointing a finger at a helmetless younger man sitting atop a large horse. “You owe me an explanation!”
The man leisurely pulled off his leather gloves, one finger at a time, and rested them across the horn of his saddle. He wiped a bit of his brown hair away from his forehead and scratched his chin through a close-cropped beard before he yawned.
“Oh, boy, you have no idea what you have just done,” Rikard said to himself with a smile on his face. “You have just unleashed a demon that will give you a tongue lashing making you wish she had taken a switch to your behind.”
“Now see here!” Karita yelled, closing her fists in white-knuckled rage and stamping her foot like a petulant child denied a favorite treat. But no matter how Karita berated this man, he ignored her, barely offering her a sidelong glance.
“Acwel,” the man said lazily.
At his command, another fellow wearing an iron cuirass rode next to him and dismounted. He put his hand up to Karita, and when she pushed it aside and continued her protests, he grabbed her around the torso, pinned both her arms to her body, and walked her toward the gate of her house.
Rikard immediately sprinted to his wife, his smile gone.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Rikard shouted. Reaching his wife, he pushed the man away from her, “You maggot infested dung heap!”
Within the flicker of a sheep’s tail, ten horses surrounded Rikard and Karita. Lances gleamed in the sun, poised at head level. Instinctively, Rikard moved in front of his wife.
“Burn you to flames and fire, you motherless sons of goats!”
“Rikard,” Karita scolded, “your language is so foul.”
He couldn’t help but smile. Even with steel in her face, she worried herself about her husband’s language.
The brown-haired man put a hand up and the lances lifted.
“What is this about?” Rikard spat.
The man leaned forward in his saddle.
“Do you not see the standard on the flags? The symbol on my palfrey’s barding?”
He pointed to one of the flags that flickered from the end of a lance. It was blue with a red, four-pointed star in the middle.
“I don’t owe you an explanation,” he added as he sat back in his saddle and picked at a fingernail.
“I’ve no idea what that symbol means,” Rikard Eleodum said. “And I don’t care.”
“Well, you should since I, Count Alger, will soon be your lord, and you will farm this land for me. Hence, you have your explanation.”
“What?” Karita gasped.
“Don’t think so,” Rikard argued, shaking his head. “This has been my land—my family’s land—for over two hundred years. We’ve farmed it as free men, just like everyone else that lives in these parts. And, as for lord, I’ve got but one lord, and you aren’t it.”
“My dear Farmer Eleodum.” The man spoke with a softened, eloquent voice. “Please, do not make this harder than it already is.”
“I’m not trying to make it hard,” Rikard replied, trying hard to keep his temper and his voice even. “In fact, it’s quite easy. This is my land. You leave.”
“I leave,” Count Alger said with a wry smile, “or what?”
Rikard Eleodum looked around. Him versus all those men with their lances ready.
“Just get off my land,” Rikard finally said.
“As I thought,” Count Alger snorted and leaned forward in his saddle again. “This is no longer your land. You will work this land for me. You will do as you are told. You will be a good subject. Or I can find another use for you and your wife.”
“Fool of a farmer.”
Alger gave his seneschal a sidelong glance as he watched Rikard Eleodum’s body swing from the wide bough of an oak tree that stood behind the farmhouse. Or what was left of it. Flames shot high into the noon sky, and black smoke stained the clouds overhead, creating a feigned night over the farm. Acwel flinched and jerked back in his saddle when the main beam of the house broke and imploded, red-glaring ash bursting from it before floating calmly to the ground.
“The livestock, my lord?” Acwel asked.
“Slaughter the old ones for the men and dogs,” the count replied. “The meat will be too tough to my liking. Give the strong ones to Jovek. Perhaps that might help persuade him to make a choice different than his neighbor.”
“As you wish.” Acwel bowed. “And the farmer’s daughters?”
“Take them to my keep,” Alger replied.
“My lord . . .” Acwel said. It was a question, and Alger knew it was. His seneschal wore that stupid, questioning look on his face.
“Do relax, Acwel,” Alger said with a smile. “They are too young for the pleasure houses . . . for now. Take Eleodum’s servants to my keep as well.”
“They are free men, my lord,” Acwel replied.
Count Alger looked at his servant hard.
“Not any longer.” His words were as succinct as they were cold.
Alger rode over to the bodies of Rikard Eleodum and his wife. Despite the distortion of a broken neck, Karita almost looked serene.
“You could have been a pretty woman,” Alger said flatly, pushing her body so that it swung back and forth, “with a bit of paint on your face perhaps. Shame.”
He pulled on the reins of his palfrey, turned the horse around and slowly trotted toward the train of soldiers walking south toward his encampment.
ERIK ELEODUM OPENED HIS EYES with a sudden, quick breath. He hated that dream, even though he seemed to have it every night. His nostrils immediately curled as the smell of rotten food, dung, dirt, and stale water hit his nose. He rubbed his face hard and sat up, leaning against the alleyway wall of The Red Lady. Befel and Bryon slept, curled up under tattered blankets, bent arms used as pillows. The stars sparkled overhead, at least what he could see of them past the three and four storied buildings. He wanted to poke them as if they were bubbles floating in a gently churning stream. He smiled. What a childish thing to think?
A hacking, phlegm-filled cough from farther down the alley echoed off the walls. He hated the others that slept in this alley. They drank and whored all their money away, and they always stared, looking to take what wasn’t theirs. When on his own, Erik had chased away more than a few vagrants, em
Erik felt something on his foot. The scratching sound against his boot and the tiny squeak told him it was a western rat—white rats his father called them—and he kicked out. The tiny squeak gave pretense to the rodent’s size, as the cat-sized creature flew into a wooden cart across the alleyway. They seemed indestructible, and this one, not as big as they could get, regained its feet quickly and hissed at Erik. He wanted to kick it again, stab it with his knife, but knew better. A bite from a western rat often carried disease—deadly disease. It finally scurried away.
“I prefer the lumberyard to this,” Erik said, leaning his head back against the wall. “By heaven, I prefer the pigsties of Venton to this. Pig slop was better eating.”
He rubbed his stomach as it grumbled.
“How much longer?” he quietly asked himself.
His brother, Befel, groaned. “Go to sleep, Erik.”
Erik lay back down, resting his head against a sack of old rags a cook from The Red Lady had thrown away.
“Will they never stop?” Erik muttered as he washed yet another dirty dish in the rear kitchen of The Wicked Beard tavern.
“What?” Befel asked.
“The dishes. The glasses. The platters and cutting boards and knives,” Erik replied, his irritation clear. “Will they never stop?”
“Not as long as people eat and drink and cook,” Bryon, Erik’s cousin, replied.
Erik looked at a stack of dishes that seemed shoulder high, a myriad of food caked to each plate. He shook his head.
“This can’t be any better than farming,”
“Which would you prefer?” Befel asked. “An endless supply of dirty dishes that we know we won’t have to wash one day, or an endless supply of weeds that we would have to pull for the rest of our lives?”
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