[For 14 weeks, beginning on March 19th, on Sundays and Wednesdays, I’ll be posting chapters of book one of my Jaben’s Rift trilogy: From a Far Land. I hope you enjoy it. The first part is here. I’d love to hear any feedback.]
In time, their path joined a broader road, which came to a village Jason assumed was their destination.
“This is Drey’s Glenn,” Reyga said. “It is the largest village in this province.”
Jason looked at the buildings around them. They were a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, some made from stone like Reyga’s home, some from wood, and some a combination of both. They ranged from simple cottages to larger buildings with intricately carved wood and stone architecture.
Not much further along, they approached a market area. Vendors hawked their wares at the tops of their voices, women exchanged gossip and compared recipes, and buyers and sellers engaged in spirited bartering sessions. For the most part, the people looked human, although their clothes reminded him of a renaissance festival he’d been to about a year before.
Interspersed among the others, he saw people that didn’t quite fit the mold of what he thought of as typical humans. Nearby, a slender man who looked about eight feet tall walked along a line of stalls. He had pale, greenish skin, and moved with a willowy grace that didn’t seem possible for someone of his proportions. A little further away, haggling with a merchant, was a creature with a stocky build, canine features, and a layer of short brown fur covering its face and body. It reminded him of a werewolf from one of those late-night ‘B’ movies. Try as he might, though, he couldn’t remember ever seeing one where the Wolfman quibbled over the price of beets.
Children ran here and there, playing the typical games of catch and tag. The sound of their happy laughter floated above the clamor of the market. As they entered the central square, he spied a group of children playing catch with a ball about the size of a volleyball. He slowed. Something doesn’t seem right about that game. He squinted to get a better look. Then he realized the children weren’t actually touching the ball. Just as it would get close to one of them, they would hold up their hands as if to catch it, but it would stop a few inches from their hands and reverse course, flying back toward one of the other children.
He stopped, blinked hard a couple of times, and looked again, but what he saw confirmed his initial impression. He stared at the group until the ball bounced off one boy’s head and away between the houses. The children laughed and ran after it. He was still looking after them when a hand grabbed his shoulder.
“Whoa!” he exclaimed as he spun around. He saw Reyga standing with his hand grasping air where Jason’s shoulder had been. “Geez, don’t do that!”
“I apologize for startling you,” Reyga said, “but we need to meet our escort and finish preparing. We still have to introduce you to the village leaders as well.”
“Yeah, okay.” He glanced back toward where the game had been. “Hey, did you see those kids over there?”
“I mean children. Did you see them?”
Reyga looked around. “I see many children. To which ones are you referring?”
“They were over there between those buildings.” He pointed toward where he had seen the group.
Reyga’s gaze followed Jason’s finger. “I see no children there,” he said.
“Well, they’re gone now. But they were playing a game with a ball, only they weren’t touching the ball.”
“What do you mean?”
“They were playing a game of catch, but they didn’t actually catch the ball.”
Reyga looked confused. “You mean they kept dropping it?”
“No. The ball would come to one of them, and then, without them touching it, it would fly back to one of the others.”
“Are you sure?” Reyga asked. He looked back toward the building. “Perhaps there was a string or twine attached to the ball and you just did not notice it.”
Jason shook his head. “I don’t think so,” he replied. “That ball was flying on its own.”
“Well, I do not see the children you are talking about.”
He sighed, defeated. Suddenly he remembered the chair from the previous night. “Hey!” he exclaimed. “That reminds me. How did you—”
“Oh, look,” Reyga said. “There is our escort.” He headed across the square. “Come, Jason. Quickly!” he called back over his shoulder.
Jason looked in the direction Reyga was walking, but didn’t see anything that resembled an escort. He didn’t want to get lost in the crowd, though, so he gave one last glance to where he had seen the odd game and then hurried after Reyga.
After several moments of twisting and turning through the crowd, they made it to the other side of the square. Reyga stopped. “There they are.”
Jason looked, but at first didn’t see what the Loremaster was pointing at. Then he saw them, and, having seen them once, couldn’t understand how he missed them the first time. They stood in front of a small stone building in an island of calm amidst a sea of bustling bodies. Even in the crowded square, there was an open area around them, as if invisible barricades were keeping passers-by at arm’s length. Two appeared from this distance to be human, but the third was definitely not. He stood at least as tall as the pale green man, but was built like a juggernaut.
At first, Jason thought the giant was wearing some sort of brownish armor under a leather shirt. Then he realized the ‘armor’ was actually the man’s skin, which looked as solid as steel plating. The scar-covered arms were as big as Jason’s thigh, and his head appeared to sit directly on his shoulders, without any interference from something as trivial as a neck. Looking at him, Jason was pretty sure he could take on an entire professional football team and come out of the fray needing nothing more than a toothpick and a nap, and he wasn’t entirely sure about the nap.
The goliath didn’t move as they approached, but his deep-set eyes watched them steadily from under the overhang of his forehead. Peeking out over each of his massive shoulders was the handle of a weapon, but Jason couldn’t tell what kind. Underneath the unwavering gaze, he didn’t feel quite bold enough to ask.
As they got closer, he tore his eyes from the mammoth figure and looked at the other two men. One wore soft, russet-colored leather and metal bracers on his wrists. He appeared to be picking rather sharp-looking teeth with a short white blade as he leaned against the front of the building.
When they walked up, he stopped his oral hygiene, stretched, and yawned. It was then Jason realized that the ‘blade’ was actually a claw, which retracted into his fingers along with the others Jason saw. From what Reyga had told him on the way here, Jason decided he must be a Ferrin. The fangs he saw and vertical black slits in the middle of gold-colored eyes seemed to confirm it.
No weapons were evident on him, but Jason was sure that the claws would more than suffice. His amber eyes regarded them with a gaze that was part boredom, and part amusement, as if he had a secret that only he knew.
Jason looked at the third man, who appeared even at close range to be human, although Jason got the impression that he might be the most dangerous of the three.
His ice-blue eyes, which had rested on them briefly when they stopped, constantly swept the crowded surroundings. He had an athletic build and a cruel double scar down the left side of his face. He wore hard leather armor and boots, and looked to be carrying an entire arsenal of blades. Jason could see four short daggers in a bandolier across his chest, a sword strapped to his back jutting over his left shoulder, a shorter sword at his waist on his left side, a long dagger on his right, and another knife strapped to one boot. He also carried an ornate bow, the arrows for which showed over his right shoulder.
Jason wondered how many more weapons he was carrying that he couldn’t see, and perhaps even more perplexing, how he could walk with that much metal strapped to him. I’d love to introduce this guy to an airport metal detector. As he imagined the security guard’s reaction, he couldn’t suppress a giggle that forced its way from his lips.
The man was instantly in front of him, glacial eyes boring into his own. “Something amuses you, boy?” he asked in a voice that promised bloodshed if Jason gave the wrong answer.
For the second time since his arrival, Jason was unable to speak. This time, however, it was because his tongue had a stronger sense of self-preservation than his brain did. It adamantly refused to relay any of the amazingly witty comments his brain was sending. He could only stand there, eyes wide, hoping Reyga would be able to save him from what he was sure was certain death, or at the very least, permanent maiming.
Reyga broke the tense silence. “Peace, Gatlor Bortas. This is Jason Bennett, the one with whom the Circle wishes to speak.” The subtle emphasis he placed on the last phrase implied that to harm Jason would be to incur the wrath of the Circle.
Without removing his gaze from Jason, Gatlor replied, “My apologies, Loremaster Reyga. Please forgive me for my hasty reaction.” Jason didn’t think he sounded very sorry. Probably shouldn’t push it, though. At last, the man looked at Reyga, and he stepped back. He bowed his head briefly to the Loremaster.
“I am commissioned to bring you both to Lore’s Haven. Upon my honor and by my blood and blade, I will see that you arrive safely,” he said. He turned to Jason. “So, you are the one the Circle is so eager to see? The Far Planer?”
Jason shrugged. “I guess so.”
Gatlor studied him. “We have been sworn to bring you safely to Lore’s Haven, and this we will do, but mark my words: if one of us tells you to do something, even if you do not understand why, do it immediately and ask any questions later. Your life may depend upon it. Hopefully, we will have an uneventful journey, but nevertheless, do not forget what I have said.”
A bit uncertainly, Jason nodded his agreement, and Gatlor continued. “Now, allow me to introduce my companions.”
He walked over to the cat-man and said, “This is Seerka. He is Ferrin, in case you are unfamiliar with the different races of Teleria.”
Seerka briefly bowed his head. Jason noticed that the man’s slightly pointed ears sat rather high on both sides of his head, and appeared to be able to swivel.
“It is an honor to meet someone from the Far Planes,” he said in a silky voice, rolling the ‘r’s.
“Nice to meet you,” Jason replied.
Gatlor moved over to the behemoth. “This is Calador. He is a member of the Dokal race.”
Calador gave a slight nod of his head, and intoned in a voice that was deep, but surprisingly smooth for his appearance, “Far Planer.”
Jason nodded back. “Dokal.”
Calador stared at Jason for a moment, then a low rumble started in his chest. Jason was alarmed at first, until he realized the giant was chuckling.
“You have spirit, Far Planer,” Calador said. “That is good, in its place. Spirit is like a blade. It can save your life, or it can turn and cut you. Be careful when you display it that it does the former rather than the latter.”
“I will,” Jason said. Feeling suddenly bold, he added, “And my name is Jason, not ‘Far Planer.’”
Calador chuckled. “Jason, then.”
Something flew over the crowd and landed at Calador’s feet. The warriors tensed, but then relaxed as they saw that it was a child’s doll.
A little girl’s voice rose about the dull roar of the market. “That was mean, Tyrdan! How will I find Lyra now?”
The owner of the voice burst through the edge of the crowd into the middle of the group, blonde curls flying. She stopped as she saw the three warriors.
“Oh!” Her brown eyes grew large as she looked up at the huge Dokal warrior. Then they dropped to the doll resting at the giant’s feet. It was obvious she was torn between a fervent desire to run for the cover of the crowd, and her intense longing for her plaything. She fidgeted under the gaze of the group.
Calador bent down and picked up the doll. In the slab of his hand, it looked even smaller than before.
“Is this yours, little one?” he asked gently.
Unable to speak, the girl nodded, tears welling up in her tormented eyes.
The huge warrior squatted down and held the doll out to her.
“Here, child,” he said. “Do not be afraid. No one will harm you here.”
She shuffled forward. Slowly, she reached out and took the doll from Calador.
“Thank you, sir,” she said, hugging the doll to her chest.
“What is your name, little one?” Seerka asked.
“Liana,” she said, staring at the ground.
“That is a lovely name,” Seerka said.
“And that is a lovely dress,” Calador added.
As she heard the compliments, the girl peeked up at the warriors with a bashful smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
“Thank you,” she said shyly. “My mama made this dress for me.”
“Your mother is clearly skilled,” Seerka said. “It makes you look very pretty.”
At this, the girl giggled.
“Who is Tyrdan?” Calador asked.
Her little brow furrowed. “My meanie big brother,” she said. “He is always being mean to me.”
“Liana! Where are you?” A woman emerged from the crowd, and then stopped as she saw the little girl surrounded by the warriors. A brown-haired boy trailed close behind her.
“Liana,” the woman said, as she saw the girl in the midst of the warriors, “why are you bothering these men?”
“Please,” Reyga said, “do not be angry with her. She merely came to retrieve her doll, which had apparently gained the power of flight.” He cocked his eye at the boy, who edged behind his mother’s skirt. “At least, temporarily,” he finished.
“Tyrdan threw it, Mama!” the girl proclaimed, pointing at the boy, who suddenly looked very guilty.
Calador looked at the boy. “You must be Tyrdan. Come out where we can see you.”
The boy crept out from behind his mother’s skirt. She put a protective hand on his shoulder as the Dokal warrior stood up.
From his full height, Calador fixed the boy with a firm gaze and rumbled, “You should be nicer to your sister.”
The boy’s eyes grew wide as he looked up at the huge warrior staring down at him. “Uh…uh…uh…yes, sir,” he finally managed to stammer out. Then he ducked back behind his mother, missing the conspiratorial wink Calador gave her.
Well, he won’t forget that anytime soon, Jason thought, as he turned away to hide an amused grin.
The mother tried to suppress her own smile as she realized the warrior’s intent.
“Thank you, sirs, for finding my daughter,” she said. “We come here once a month from Brayden Fenn and I would hate to lose her.”
“In truth,” Seerka said, “she found us. We merely found her doll.”
“You have a lovely daughter,” Reyga added. “You should be proud of her.”
“Thank y—” the woman started, just as her ‘lovely’ daughter stuck her tongue out at her brother. She sighed, rolling her eyes at the warriors and drawing chuckles from the escort. “Come along, children,” she said, as the three disappeared into the crowd.
After they had left, Jason looked around. “I thought you said there’d be a Shanthi with us?”
“Lenai will join us after we leave the village,” Calador rumbled.
Seerka added, “The Shanthi do not enter human villages, and rarely socialize with humans at all. Humans do not trust them; therefore, they do not trust humans.”
Gatlor said, “There are a few of the Shanthi that have chosen not to accept what they have been told about humans. While they understand that most humans distrust them, they do not believe it is true of all humans. They are still very cautious,” he continued, “and it is difficult to win their trust. But once you have their trust, they are boon companions. Betray that trust, and they can be lethal enemies. Lenai is such a one.”
“And you’ve earned her trust?” Jason asked.
Gatlor shook his head. “Not I,” he said. “She accepts me because I have sworn a blood oath to serve the Circle. It is Loremaster Reyga that has earned her trust. I do not know how or where. You would have to ask him.”
As Jason looked at Reyga, the Loremaster shook his head. “I am sorry, Jason, but that is one tale I cannot tell you. To do so would be to betray Lenai’s trust in me, and that I will not do.”
Jason thought about it. “Okay,” he said. “That’s cool. I understand about keeping confidences. I can respect that.”
Reyga inclined his head. “Thank you, Jason. I am glad you feel that way. Perhaps you may be able to win her trust as well. Then I will be able to share this tale with you.”
“I would not get your hopes up, young one,” Seerka said. “I know several Shanthi, and they are notoriously distant to those whom they do not know, particularly humans.”
Jason digested the Ferrin’s words for a moment, then said, “Well, we’ll see. Stranger things have happened, I guess.”
Gatlor grunted. “Not many.”
Then, turning to Reyga, Gatlor said, “I have procured pack animals for our journey, and basic food items and supplies. If there is anything else you wish to purchase, you should do it this afternoon. We leave at first light.”
Reyga nodded. “We will be ready. Thank you for your preparations. We will meet you here in the morning.” He inclined his head to Gatlor, with the warrior reciprocating with a nod. “Come, Jason,” Reyga said. “We must secure lodging for the night, purchase some additional supplies, and I still must present you to the village leaders.”
After the young man and old Loremaster left, Gatlor turned to the others. “Well? What do you think?”
“I think this may be one of the more interesting assignments I have received from the Circle,” Seerka said.
“Oh, aye,” Gatlor agreed, with more than a touch of sarcasm, “it will be most interesting.” Then, more seriously, “Of course you know we were being watched?”
“When are we not watched?” the Ferrin replied. He showed his fangs in a feral grin. “We are very popular.”
“Perhaps, but the attention we received today was for the boy, not for us. What about you, Calador? What are your thoughts?”
The giant warrior considered for a moment, and then said, “I believe there is more to the youth than is readily apparent. I find myself liking him. I would not like to see him or the Loremaster harmed on this journey.”
“If he does as told, he should be safe,” Gatlor replied. “But I sense a rebellious spirit in him that could get him into trouble.”
“Yes,” Seerka agreed. “I see a little of the Ferrin in him. Accommodating when it suits them, but following their own choices when it does not.”
“Perhaps,” Calador said, “but knowing that will simply serve to keep us more alert.”
Calador chuckled at the disgusted looks from his companions, then, turning serious again, he asked, “Did you see who was watching us?”
Gatlor scanned the busy square full of people. “No. Whoever, or whatever, observed us was well concealed. I am certain we will be followed.”
“All the better to be alert,” Calador said. As his companions rolled their eyes at him, he began to laugh again.
Jason followed Reyga as the Loremaster purchased supplies for the journey, including, after a rather lengthy search, a couple of pieces of calintha fruit. Even knowing what to expect, the invigorating flavor and aroma still surprised him. He tried to chew slowly, as Reyga had done, in order to draw out the experience as long as possible.
Then they found a small garment shop where they purchased some clothing and soft leather boots that fit a little better than what Reyga had supplied. After brief introductions to the village leaders, they found an inn and got a room for the night.
As they entered their room and Jason saw the beds, all of his strength seemed to drain down through his feet and disappear into the cracks between the floorboards. He flopped down onto the nearest bed with a groan.
“Man, I’m beat,” he said. “I thought I was in better shape than this.”
Reyga smiled. “I am sure you are more fit than you feel right now. Remember, this is only your second day. You are still acclimating to our world. That alone can be very draining for some.”
“For some? So there have been others that have just popped in from other worlds?”
“Oh, yes,” Reyga said. “Centuries ago, it was not at all uncommon. They usually arrived through one of the large rifts, although their journey through the Riftlands was almost always more unsettling than the journey through the rift itself.” He sat down on the other bed. “Over the last century, there have been fewer and fewer. It has been several years since our last one. We thought there might be no more until you showed up. Tell me, how did you get from the Riftlands to my home without learning where you were?”
He rolled onto his side. “I didn’t,” he said. “I walked through that door I told you about, and then I was standing at your place.”
“Do you mean to tell me that you came here through a chaotic rift? I had assumed you arrived in the Riftlands, where most others do.”
“I don’t know. Is that what you call it? A chaotic rift?”
“That is the only way I know of for you to have appeared at my door as you describe.” Reyga’s brow furled in thought. “But the odds of anyone coming safely through a chaotic rift are astronomical. There has been less than a handful in our recorded history. You are very fortunate indeed.”
“So what is a chaotic rift?” he asked, and then opened his mouth in a huge yawn.
“I think perhaps that is a topic for tomorrow,” Reyga said. “You are very tired, and we have quite a journey ahead of us. You need to get some rest.”
He didn’t have the strength to argue. As he closed his eyes, he asked, “How long will it take to get to Lore’s Haven?”
“With good weather, and no delays, it is a five day journey.”
“Okay, sounds good…” he mumbled as he drifted off to sleep.
From the shadows underneath a tree across from the inn, two pairs of eyes watched the light go out in the upstairs room where the old man and youth were staying. They had seen the escort arrive that morning, and had observed the subsequent meeting with the two who now slept across the road. They had known instantly that the young human was a Far Planer. That by itself was enough to warrant further observation. The fact that he traveled overland with a Loremaster and an escort from Lore’s Haven made it even more intriguing.
One of the watchers shadowed them that afternoon as they went about their errands. The other reported what they had seen to the Master, who commanded them to continue watching and reporting. In the darkness, they received new orders from the Master. One scurried off into the dark night, while the other returned its attention to the room above. There was nothing they could do other than watch and wait, at least for now.