The Annals of Karrac Vol. I – an epic fantasy. Chapters 1-3 preview

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Vol I RELEASE DATE: Fall/WINTER 2017

 Genre: Epic non-Earth Fantasy – 166,651words

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The Annals of Karrac

           By Francis G. Truglio

 Chapter 1: Clarisena’s Damn Prophecy

Smoke from the gutted palace drifts inland on a seaborne breeze. In a nearby field amidst other weary troops digging graves, young Captain Frencore sinks his shovel into the blood-spattered ground. Not wanting to chance seeing another familiar face amongst the corpses, he keeps his focus on his shovel. The stench of burnt flesh grows heavy.

“Damn, the wind’s shifted.” Frencore rubs his nose. He glances at a young private close by, “I hate this fucken stench.”
Private Zelep rests his shovel, “It is quite awful, Sir—” Zelep spits. “I can taste it…”
“How old are you, soldier?”
“I’m fifteen, Sir?”

Frencore tilts his head and stares at the young blond soldier whose face has yet to sprout its first whisker. “Say again?”
“Sorry—” Zelep frowns. “I will be in a few moons, Sir.”
If you live. Frencore shakes his head and presses his shovel into the ground.

“Um, may I ask your age, Sir?”
“How old do I look?”
Zelep swallows hard. “Um…forty five?”
“Nay, I am thirty two.”
Zelep cringes.

Moments later, thunder rumbles in the distance.

Private Zelep wipes sweat from his face. “It might rain and quench the fires, Sir.”
“Aye; and beget us mud.”

“Sir, you need not be out here. You should be savoring our victory with General Attogo. Digging graves is not a task for an officer.”

What the fuck? Frencore’s stills his shovel. “Look round at our losses, Soldier. Tell me what to savor?”

Zelep remains quiet.

“I led these men to their deaths. It is indeed my task.” A vision of the Sorceress Clarisena flashes before his eyes. Had it not been for you and your damn prophecy—a frown ages his face. Frencore sinks his shovel into the ground.

A few moments later, a shadow drifts past Private Zelep’s feet and into the grave. Zelep looks up and finds a black gocee gliding inquisitively overhead. The small creature wheels round and with a flutter of its wings, alights on a slain soldier’s chin. Its sharp beak pecks at the man’s face and eyes.

“Get; be gone!” Zelep heaves a shovelful of dirt.
“Go…cee…” The creature shrieks as it shakes dirt from its feathers. With an eye in its beak, it takes flight.

Zelep looks at Frencore. “Sir, I’ve never seen them feed upon flesh or the dead. There’s something terribly wrong here. The gods seem to have forsaken Sukara’s Army and his subjects.”
“They may also forsake us for what the Sorceress had us do to them.”

Private Zelep’s eyes widen. “Did she deceive us, Sir? The behemoths from beyond chartered waters were just a myth? They were never coming to join with Sukara and invade our land?”

Frencore shrugs, “Perhaps not; I suspect, Clarisena just wanted us to believe such.”

Zelep gasps. “Sir, but so many have perished, even women and children.” He looks back at the distant ravaged inner city. “For what?”
“Indeed!” Frencore nods. For naught, but the Sorceress Clarisena’s despicable needs.

From the distant tree line, they hear a limb crash to the ground. Branches sway as indistinct figures leap and climb about the dense foliage. Frencore scoffs, “Damn, looks like there’ll be more scavengers feeding upon the dead tonight. Fucken splendid, we’ll need even more fires.” As Frencore turns away, Zelep continues to stare.

A moment later, Zelep’s jaw drops as he sees three huge dark creatures swoop down from the far off mountains beyond the tree line. The blackish creatures grow larger as they drift and change shape high above the trees. Too frightened to shout, Zelep swallows and says, “Sir, Sir, can behemoths fly; ca, can they—” He gasps as they come together into an enormous elongated monster, that turns itself inside out. “Can they change form like Demons? Um, Sir, maybe we should run now while we still can?
“What are you talking about?” Frencore looks up; his eyes open wide as he stares at the now swirling mass as it moves closer. He sighs, “Damn, that is neither; it’s just a gocee gathering. There must be thousands of them. The stench has no doubt carried far into the forest.” Fuck, they all seek flesh.

The gocee mass descends into the trees as the plodding sound of hooves grows. Frencore turns round and finds his friend, Lieutenant Coop in the saddle, his uniform soiled with soot and blood. Coops brown eyes are dull, their sparkle gone, as is his ever-present smile.

Wary of its powerful long tail and the biped’s strong legs, Frencore grasps the reigns and steadies Coop’s whiptail mount. He strokes its long neck, “Oi there, easy; you know me. I am not going to hurt you.” Frencore pulls a ball of crushed tempora leaves from his pocket. Coop’s mount takes it.”

“You do have a way with beasts, Sir.” Coop sighs. “He has been through much.”
“Aye, as have we. Did you find General Attogo?”
“No, Sir, I did not.” Coop groans as he pulls taut the bloody bandage on his leg. He unties a shovel from his saddle and dismounts carefully. “Sir, you may be the highest ranking officer alive.”
“That matters naught.”

Coop limps toward Frencore, “What are you saying, Sir?”
“I’ve had enough of war.” Frencore looks at Coop’s leg. “You can’t dig. Go find a place to rest.”

“The ground is soft; my arms are fine. I can dig well enough.”
“If you must.”

Coop stares at a corpse and the arrow jutting from its eye socket. He says, “Sir, do you suppose he knew how much I despised him?”
Frencore nods. “Now give me a hand.” They roll the body into the grave.
Coop says, “The knave was a good soldier, but still—” He heaves a shovelful of dirt upon the body.

Moments later, a raindrop splashes on Frencore’s hand, then another. He says, “Fuck, they’ll be no fires tonight to deter the scavengers.”

A blinding flash of lightning splinters one of the gocee-infested trees. Many drop from branches stunned or dead; others take flight.

Zelep gasps. “Oi fuck, that was close.”
Coop says, “Aye, too close.” He looks at Frencore. “Did I ever tell you how much I hate lightning and being wet?”
“Many times, stop complaining; you could be one of them.” Frencore motions toward the corpses.
“I suppose…um, Sir.”
“ Now what?”

Coop sighs. “Will anyone be left to dig—our graves after the Behemoths?”
“If they come, I do not see myself among the dead; nor should either of you.”

With the brief storm gone, gocees fill the sky. Twenty or thirty circle and descend upon the carcass of a huge bellower bull. Frencore stares. Yes, let them all feast. He drops his shovel and turns round. “Coop!”
“ Sir?”
“Gather men and mounts. Have them drag as many of the dead bulls as they can close to the tree line. Do it now, there will be but one moon tonight. Darkness will come quickly.”
“Yes, Sir.”

Frencore helps Coop onto his saddle. “Your leg is bleeding again. Stay in that saddle and give your task to a sergeant. Go now.” Frencore glances at a grave a short distance away and walks towards it. Reaching the grave, he removes a large claw on a leather strip from his pocket. “I will wear it,” tears fill his eyes, he swallows hard, “not for protection, but to keep you forever near.” Frencore wipes his eyes. Fuck, what words can I find to tell your sweet, Verona I failed you?

Captain Frencore places the claw round his neck and turns away. As he weaves between the graves, he recalls a day four long years ago. Before the wars, when he first met the twin sisters, Vessa and Verona and Sergeant Tarmo.
Chapter 2: The Parchment
A twig snaps, then another. Now what? The old Sergeant thinks as he twists onto his side in his bedroll. Corporal Pek’s red hair and pock-scared-face come into focus. Sergeant Tarmo says, “Fuck, Pek, must you? The sun be up soon; just let the damn fire die.”

Holding more kindling, Pek cringes. “Sorry Sergeant, I just thought–”

“Nay you did not.” Lifting his head from his saddle, Sergeant Tarmo squints at Karrac’s moons. Splendid, they’re both full. What misfortunes await us today?

Pek reaches for a tattered parchment on the ground. Holding it near the fire, he tries to read the eloquent quill strokes. “I can’t read much… too faded, but I suspect this is yours and your father’s writing.”

Knarly old fingers find an empty pocket. Tarmo’s head snaps round. “Aye, read no more. Give it to me and be careful with it.”

Pek watches Sergeant Tarmo blow dust from his parchment, “I’ve served with you a long time and, well… never heard you speak much of him. Were you close?”

Tarmo stares blankly. “Close, nay. Knew of him; know you better.” His knurly fingers fold the parchment along well-worn creases. “He was never there for us; even when the plague took…” he sighs, “always off doing whatever it is Wizards do for their Kings.”

“Aye, my father was never there either.” Pek’s recalls the last and unfinished sentence. “He wrote that on his deathbed, huh?”
Tarmo nods.

“Did he leave you much; are you going resign soon?”
“Resign, ha; I wish.” A frown adds wrinkles to his leathery face. “All my father bestowed me was this,” he stares at the parchment,” dreadful burden and damn enigma.” Tarmo slips the folded document into his pocket.

Pek glances at the other soldiers, leans toward Tarmo and whispers, “They sleep, do say more. Perhaps I can help?”
“Nay…” Tarmo rest his head on his saddle. He stares at the moons. “I’ve told you too much already, and you best not repeat a word.”
“I won’t.” Pek glances upward. “Should we have reason to worry come morning?”
“Nay,” Sergeant Tarmo waves a dismissing hand, “only if you let superstition influence your thoughts.” His eyes close.

With the sun on the horizon, Sergeant Tarmo crawls from his bedroll. Well, they’re not going put themselves on. Reaching for his boots, he hears Corporal Pek say, “Mornin, Sergeant.”

Tarmo pulls at his boot and groans.

“Having a problem with those old bones, Sergeant?”
“My bones are fine; damn boots shrunk.” He opens a water flask and splashes some on his face. “Let’s go; everyone up. Stonewood, get your ass up now. Milwer…”
“Yes, Sergeant?”
“Take the mounts into the valley to graze and stay with them. Someone will relieve you later.”
“But, Sergeant, I’ve never been to the contests before.”
“Do I need to repeat myself?”
“No, Sergeant.”

Where the fuck are you? Tarmo looks round. “Where’s Coop?”
Pek points, “Over there, by the steam.”
“Corporal Coop, look at me.”

Filling his flask with water, Coop looks over his shoulder. “Yes, Sergeant, you need something?”
“I need you to stay out of trouble this year.”
“Oi… Sergeant, the fuckers welched and I only broke one of their arms. Damn noblemen. You would have–”
Sergeant Tarmo’s eyes scold as his upheld hand hushes, Coop. He lets his sword drop into his scabbard. “Move out, scoundrels need our attention.”

The Sergeant leads his troops into the valley. Clearing the tree line, the port city of Crepso comes into view. Tents and merchant stands abound. The small city’s harbor is a forest of ship masts.

Pek says, “Damn, all of Karrac must be here. I’ve never seen so many merchants.”
He nudges Coop as he glances towards the Lewd district. “There should be much to choose from, aye Sergeant?”
“I suppose.”

The sound of heavy hooves and a wagon approaching grows as Tarmo says, “I best not catch any of you with a woman. We’re here to maintain order and not –”
A man’s voice interrupts, “Oi there.”
Tarmo turns round and sees the driver of a bellower-drawn wagon. The man says, “Please have your men stand aside, Sergeant.”

“Let him pass.” Sergeant Tarmo watches the wagon and its tarp-covered contents shake and twists along the deeply rutted road. From beneath the tarp, Tarmo hears indistinct sounds. He holds a hand up and shouts at the wagon driver. “Halt.”
The wagon stops. “Why?”
Tarmo says, “What manner of beast do you have caged under that tarp?”
“I do not know. It was covered when it was loaded?”
“ And you did not inquire or look?”
“I was told not to and to not let anyone see.”

Tarmo dismounts and moves closer to the wagon. He pulls the tarp back and finds a large male horrac within. Tarmo says, “For whom are you transporting this horrac?”
“I cannot divulge, Sergeant.”
“But, you shall, else.” Tarmo eyes the vicious, blackish creature that stands half as high as a man. The horrac tilts it hairy head to one side and then the other; large, inquisitive eyes glare at Tarmo. It leaps toward Sergeant Tarmo and growls.
Tarmo jumps back. He hears and sees Corporal Coop say with an arrow drawn, “Shall, I?”
Tarmo says, “Not yet.”

The wagon driver shouts, “I would have him lower his arrow, Sergeant. You do not want to anger the owner of that horrac.”

“Which is who? I will not ask you again.”
Tarmo watches the horrac sway back and forth from the cage top by its two long muscular arms and wickedly clawed fingers.

The man says, “The Sorceress Clarisena and she’ll be angry if I’m late. Shall I proceed?”

Clarisena huh, Tarmo kneads his chin, so you say. He waves him on.

The driver snaps the reigns and cracks his whip at the ponderous beast with cut horns.

With Tarmo back in his saddle, Coop says, “Why would she send that here?”
“Perhaps she did not.” Tarmo shrugs, “I suspect he lied.”
“And yet you let him pass, why?”

“To avert Clarisena’s scorn; he could have spoken the truth.”
“I suppose.” The wagon rounds a bend. “And you don’t want to rouse the Demon in her.”

Moments later and near Crepso’s cobblestone streets, Sergeant Tarmo disperses his men.
Pek smiles. “Do you want me to come with you, Sergeant?”
“No.” He waves him away and proceeds down one of Crepso’s less congested streets.

The air grows heavy with the smell of perfume. Tarmo wrinkles and rubs his nose. A female voice says, “Your indulgence, Sergeant.” A hand tugs at his arm. He turns and finds two old women wearing the threads of nobility staring at him. The one that reeks of perfume says, “I told you it wasn’t him; this man is too young. Sorry to bother you, Sir; my foolish friend thought you to be another, someone long since dead.” She pinches her chin, “Though I can see why.”
Fidgeting with her necklace of black beads the other woman moves closer.
“What be your name?”
“Sergeant Tarmo.”
“She squints, shakes a finger and says, “His eyes, they are… else, he’s Tracery’s son. Was he your father?”
“You think me… the son of a Wizard?” Tarmo rolls his eyes. “I have matters that need my attention, enjoy the games.” He walks away. That has not happened in years; damn moons.
The perfume abuser shouts, “Pretend not, Sergeant, we know.”
With a gasp, her companion tugs too hard, beads fly about, she says, “Tracery has return from the dead.”
“I think not; come now.” The two women walk towards a line of vendor stands.

Meandering down the narrow street, Tarmo flinches at the sight of a beautiful young woman wearing yellow in the distance. And who are you? She disappears into a crowd. Walking faster, he bumps into an old man sitting in front of a Healer’s stand. “Excuse me, Sir.” Where did she go?
“Thank you, Sergeant.”
Damn, I’ve lost her. Tarmo says to the man, “Why do you thank me?”
“It has been many years since someone referred to me as Sir. Besides, with these old eyes of mine, I am usually the clumsy one.”

Tarmo puts a hand on the old man’s shoulder as he studies the healer. “Does he not look quite young to wear purple and black?”
The old man squints “Really… can’t tell age too well these days.”
“You’re not looking to deceive this old soldier are you?”
“Do you know me, Sergeant?”
“No, but I know a corporal’s sash when I see one, even if it is quite faded.” Tarmo leans across the healer’s table. “I asked you a question.”
“De– deceive him. No, Sergeant. I was…I was just showing him my grandfather’s robe, that’s all.” He quickly takes it off.
“You have ruined my morning. I wasn’t looking to lop anyone’s hand off today.”
“What! Take my hand off, for what?”
“Do not pretend ignorance of the law.” Tarmo bites his upper lip, his eyes narrow. “For portraying yourself a Wizard when you are not.” The Sergeant’s hand moves towards his sword.

“Oh my, it’s going to get messy round here.” The old man picks up his few lesser green stones and shoves the pouch of powder he was bartering for back at the healer.
Tarmo nods, “Yes, you may want to move along.”
The young healer’s eyes widen. His lips tremble. “Please Sergeant, don’t.”

Before turning away, the old man reaches for the pouch. “Since you thought me a blind old fool, I’ll just take this powder of yours, though I doubt if it will do me any good.”
“I never thought that of you, Sir. Keep it. Use the powder, it will heal that rash.”
“I hope so.” He smiles. “And if the good Sergeant here does relieve you of a hand. I hope you have a cure for that too.” The old man hobbles away.

“I’ll let you keep your hand this time.” He backs away. “Don’t let me catch you wearing that robe again. My father was a true Wizard, how dare you mock him by wearing those colors without having first earned them.”
The healer stuffs the robe into a sack. “I swear I shall never wear it again.”
Tarmo kneads his chin. No father, it cannot be that fool.
Ahead, Tarmo sees a wood carver’s stand. Hmm…perhaps he will have something for Milwer’s boy. He then feels a body brush against him.
“Excuse me, Sir.”
“No, it was my fault. I wasn’t looking where I was walking.” Tarmo eyes her shapely form, her long yellow hair and savors the scent of her futa perfume.
From behind her veil, he hears a soft voice. “Seeking a little fun today, handsome?”
Handsome, me, ha. He smiles. “Perhaps later.”
“Only perhaps, but I can–”
A breeze lifts her veil, revealing a face marked with the cruel vestiges of the pock plague. She covers her face quickly. “Never mind, Sergeant.” The woman turns to walk away.
“Wait please.”

She stops and looks at him.
“Here, take this for later.” He hands her a lesser green stone.
“Keep your stone. I’m not a beggar.”
“I know that.” The Sergeant frowns. “It’s for another like you.”
She tilts her head. “I don’t understand.”
Tarmo places the stone in her hand, “A woman I cared for very much succumbed to the pock. Please take this in her name.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.” She puts the stone in her pocket.
“If only I could look at you and not recall her and her suffering, I would seek you later.”
She nods, “I understand.” The woman walks a few steps, and turns. “Was she your mother?” Tarmo nods. Tries to say more and cannot. He shakes his head and sighs.

As Tarmo rounds a curve on the winding street, a pebble bounces off his shoulder, then another. He glances up and sees two scruffy-looking boys on the roof to his right, laughing. Sergeant Tarmo shakes his fist, “Best I don’t catch you two later.”
“You, catch us?” Zelep nudges his friend as he says to Tarmo, “That will never happen, old one.”
“Old one, huh?” Tarmo glances at a building to his right. He smiles at Zelep and darts for a ladder lying on the ground.

Zelep chucks another pebble. “Nay, old man, that won’t help.”

Tarmo watches them dart away, jumping from roof to roof and out of sight. Agile little beggars they are, got nerve too. He laughs, and continues on his way. A few paces further, Tarmo stops, turns and glances up at the rooftops. How young is too young, father? If only you had told me more.

Eager to find the woman he had seen earlier, Sergeant Tarmo takes little note of the many stands or the bartering voices. A short while later and to his right, he hears a familiar hissing sound. In less than a heartbeat, he unsheathes his sword and spins about in a defensive crouch. Spying the source of the fearful sound, Tarmo straightens, puts his weapon away and steps closer to the cage. “You again.” Through the bars, he studies the horrac for several minutes as the creature regards him in turn. Its nostrils flare as it snorts at him. The horrac’s long fangs extend down below its lower jaw and drip gobbets of saliva. Tarmo says, “Drool all you want, you’ll not taste my flesh.”

The horrac snaps its teeth together as it glares at a large wickedly curved claw hanging round the sergeant’s neck. Tarmo removes it and holds it close to the cage. “You know what this is, don’t you?” He sways it in front of the horrac. “My father gave me this for my protection.” Tarmo grins, “Took it from one of your kind; perhaps it belonged to a pack leader or kin?”

Red eyes glare at the talon as the creature’s head sways from side to side. It growls loosening a stream of drool.

Tarmo clicks his teeth together twice.
The horrac does likewise.

The creature repeats a few more of Sergeant Tarmo’s clicks precisely. Damn, you’re a smart horrac, too fucken smart. Tarmo kicks the cage. The horrac screeches; a woman and child passing nearby flinch and scream. Tarmo’s hand grabs the child as she stumbles backwards. “My apologies. I did not intend for it to frighten you or your child.”

“What is that awful thing doing here, Sergeant?”
“Indeed.” He glances about and then shouts, “Who be the keeper of this horrac?”

As the woman and child walk away, she stops, turns round, and says, “Should that vile creature escape, it will likely seek a child to kill and devour. I trust you will ensure such will not happen, Sergeant?”
“I shall. Go, enjoy the festivities.”

“Keeper of this horrac come forth now; else I will kill it.” Sergeant Tarmo glances at the horrac, which is now hanging from the top of the cage by its long tail. From behind, Tarmo hears a raspy male voice says, “The horrac is mine, Sir. No need for you to kill it.”

Tarmo turns, “Are you its keeper?”
“Yes, Sergeant.”
“I’ve seen your horrac before; you keep it for Clarisena’s?”
“Indeed not, it is mine.”

Tarmo scratches his chin. That wagon driver has much explaining to do. “Do say, how you manage to capture it alive;” Tarmo looks at the creature and then the man again,
“and yet you remain unscathed?”
“Oh, I didn’t, I traded for it. Others did the catching and they didn’t disclose how they accomplished that feat. Though I’m sure by their scars, it was no easy task.
They are awesome creatures, no?”
Tarmo says, “Dreadful, be more fitting.”

“That too, still, one has to admire their abilities. They can leap like demons from one tree limb to another, run as fast as whiptails and kill most anything. And when in packs, even the largest bellower bull. Why did you think it was Clarisena’s, Sergeant?”
“Whom, besides a sorceress would have a need for such a dreadful creature?”
“I do, it fights for me.”

Tarmo’s brows lower, “Explain.” He stares at a small knife scar on the man’s face and an odd tattoo on his arm. Consort with a horrac, what manner of scoundrel do you be?

“I have a much larger cage in that big tent over there. When the sun is high tomorrow, I will insure five major red stones to any man that either kills the horrac or lasts until these few sands run out.” He holds up and then turns over a small double-sided glass vessel.
“Five major reds, not lesser reds?
“Correct.”

Tarmo’s thinks of his hard army saddle, especially that annoying crack right under his ass. Hmm, a man could acquire a fine saddle with that many reds and still have a stone or two in hand. “I just may be interested in taking that challenge.”
“I almost forgot; you would also take half of the lesser blues I will charge those that wish to watch the spectacle. There is one thing though; the only weapons you will have will be this sword and your wits.”
“That’s not a sword, it’s a dagger!”
“In a large man’s hand perhaps; in small man’s hand, it is indeed a sword.”
“I’ve never seen a man small enough to call that a sword.” Tarmo scoffs, “With that weapon, only a complete fool would get into a cage with him.”

Sink- chirp- The horrac tilts its head mimicking another, more docile creature.
Tarmo sighs. You’re not going to entice me into a cage with you. I don’t need a new saddle that badly.
The man smiles, “Well Sergeant, will you be the first?”
Tarmo picks up the short sword and laughs. “Not with this, I’m no fool.”
“I did not think you would. No matter, Crepso has many fools desperate for stones.”
“Quite true. Tell me your name, keeper of a live horrac.”
“I am Runk. Why?”

Tarmo places the short sword in the man’s hand. “I have saved your face in my memory. Should that horrac of yours get loose and kill someone, I will need a name to hunt you down by.”
“It won’t escape, Sergeant.”
Tarmo wanders away, saying over his shoulder, “It best not.”

On that same narrow street in the lust district, the young drifter Frencore rambles about in faded, tattered clothes of a commoner. Most ignore the young man with the chiseled looking, yet handsome face. Having mucked stalls for a full cycle of the lesser moon, Frencore carries six greenstones in his pocket.

Colorful tunics and men’s tabards flap in the breeze at a vendor’s stand. Frencore glances at a red tabard, and then at the gray faded and stained one he’s wearing. It’s been a long time since I wore a color, but he’ll probably demand a green stone and not give me any lasers greens in return. Frencore removes one green stone from his pocket and walks toward the stand. He feels the red fabric. This should last a good while.

The vendor says, “Your woman would think you quite handsome in that, young man.”
Frencore stares. “There is no woman in my life.”
The man looks at Frencore’s attire. “If you wear such all the time, you will forever be without a woman.” One of the man’s hands gestures sympathetically, “Well, at least none of any consequence.”

Frencore lets the green stone drop back into his pocket. He turns away.

“Wait, I meant no insult, please come back don’t leave. I just wanted to help.”
Without looking back, Frencore says, “I’ve seen men killed for less.” As he continues on his way, his eyes seek a certain female face amongst the throng.

A few merchant-stands and dwellings away from Frencore, the twin sisters and reigning beauties of Crepso’s Lust District, Vessa and Vorona chat with another woman.
There she is. Frencore gasps. He smiles and waves at Vessa. Please remember me.
She returns his smile and ambles toward him with hips swaying.
Vessa twirls. “Do you like what you see?”

Damn, she’s forgotten me. Frencore hides his disappointment and what he is holding behind his back. “Yes, I like what I see very much.”
“Would you like to indulge in my services for a while? I have many pleasures to offer.” She runs a slender finger over his lips.
“Just to look upon you, to hear your voice is a delight. You require four stones, no?”
Vessa pinches her chin and slowly eyes him over. “Have we bartered before?”
We certainly have. Frencore sighs. “Um, perhaps…this will refresh your memory.” He presents her with an exquisite red hijo blossom from behind his back. “I believe you favor these.”
“I most certainly do.” She sniffs it and smiles. “Oi?” Vessa snaps her fingers and nods her head. “You…it was raining,” she rolls her eyes and wrinkles her nose, “you stunk like a mound of whiptail droppings. Um, you had but one green to your name and I was…I was wearing a hijo.”
He smiles. She remembers— Frencore’s smile fades into a frown.
“Why the look?”
“You only remember me because…I smelled badly.”
“Perhaps, to some extent.” Not really, I remember your eyes, your voice. Vessa moves much closer; she sniffs the air. Frencore feels her breath on his face as she says, “Well, you do not offend my nostrils today.” If only he had more stones. She touches his face. Frencore shivers.

Vessa steps back and sighs. “I’m sorry, but your flower, though lovely, and one greenie, well, it will just not suffice. Though I will not have you leave empty handed,” she grins, “with nothing to recall.” Vessa takes his hands in hers and places them on her breast. Frencore’s jaw drops. His hands remain motionless.
“They have no teeth; you can move your fingers. You have felt a woman’s chest before, no?”
“Of cause, but not yours.” He gently massages her firm breast.
“Save your stones and next we meet you can feel…” She smiles, backs away and twirls. “Until then.” Vessa turns to walk away.
“Wait.” Frencore lightly clasps her wrist, as he reaches into his pocket. “Look today, I have more stones.”

Splendid. Vessa fingers his six green gems. “Are you sure you can afford to part with these?”
“I’ve slept in stables, shoveled more beast’s droppings than ten men and not had a drop of tempora; just to be with you. Yes, I am sure.”
I knew there was something special about you. She sighs. “I’m so taken…I–” She runs her fingers through his long, wavy hair. “I shall require only three greens. Yes, I’m yours for only three shiny little green ones.
“Three greens? I was thinking two.” He lies. “Three, is a bit high, considering how few I have.”
She frowns.
He glances about to see if anyone is close. “Um, um…what will you do should I part with three?”
Vessa grins. “Whatever you want,” her grin becomes a frown, “with one exception. You mustn’t hurt me. If you are not satisfied, you can keep your three greens.” Vessa strokes his arm. “Your eyes say give her the stones, do they not?”

He glances at her hand as she continues to stroke his arm, sending chills up his spine. Frencore gasps. “My eyes are not the only part of me saying that; a man would have to be dead, not to want for one as exquisite as you. As for pain, no need for fear; and I would kill any man that even considered for a moment, hurting you.”

Damn, I think you would. She looks closely and squeezes his strong bicep. “I shall sleep easier with that knowledge.”
“As for those three greens, I want you and your look-alike to join us.”
Fuck, he’s just like the rest. “You said before that I was exquisite, yet you want for my sister. I guess I am not really all that exquisite.”
“Oh, but you are.” He steps back to take in the whole of her beauty: the curve of her hips, the suppleness of her lips and her modest, lovely bosom.
“Yet, you want for my sister too?”
“How could I not, when she is another you?”

Her face grows sullen as Vessa stares into Frencore’s eyes. Damn, I did not want to share you. Why care, he’s just another man with stones? She forces herself to look away, to appear indifferent.

“Well…”
“Together, we can be too much for one man.”
“I guess I shall be overwhelmed.”
“Very well, if the two of us is what you want, then you must part with seven lesser greens.”
“Seven? Did I understand you correctly? To have you, I pay three. To have you and your sister I pay seven. Should it not be six?”
“You have it correctly. Nowhere in the realm will you find two whom look like us or please as we can. We are special. Special things cost more. Do they not?”
“But I’m not a nobleman. I am of very limited means. Are you sure you cannot consider six?”
“Six–” Vessa ponders as she gazes into his eyes, “I’ll make a deal with you. You can pay with six. However, if we can make you scream either of our names, then you must leave two more little greens. Do you have eight?”
“I have but eight to my name.” Frencore lips twist. “Hmm, all I have to do is not call out you or your sister’s name and I pay but six greens.”
“Yes.”
“And how long will you two pleasure me?”
“Until you have had enough or a new day awakens us.”
“A new day, you have a deal. Here, take my six greens before I realize how poor I will be.”
“You will not be poor. You’ll leave here a rich man.”
“I will?”
“Of course, you will walk away with a wealth of memories, memories to sustain you on those long and lonely nights to come. Is such not worth a measly seven lesser greens?”
“Tell me, how many Gods are you beholden to?”
“Gods? No Gods or Demons for that matter. Whatever made you ask that?”
“Well, you’re far too beautiful and shrewd to simply be a woman of lust, something else must be afoot here.”
She laughs. “There’s nothing else afoot here.”

As Vessa closes her deal with Frencore, her twin Vorona accepts seven stones from the sergeant. Frencore and Vessa walk towards the sister’s dwelling. Holding Frencore’s arm, Vessa asks, “What pleasures you most? What do you want me to do first?”
“Um, I don’t know.”
“Oh, but I think you do, every man has some favorite…titillation. I have heard them all; you can tell me.”

As Frencore contemplates his answer, above on a roof, Zelep and his black-haired cohort look down at the narrow street. Zelep wipes perspiration from his forehead. “Let’s get down. It’s too damn hot up here.”

Seeking the nerve to answer her question, Frencore bites his upper lip.
Vessa pulls him close to her; she whispers in his ear, “Nothing comes to mind; or are we perhaps too shy, to say?”
“I’m not sh–” Pots, pans, ladles and other cooking utensils on a merchant’s stand fly in every direction, pummeling to the cobblestones with a loud metallic clatter.” Frencore and Vessa turn round. They see two boys hanging by their fingertips from a roof, their feet flailing about hunting for a steady surface. An angry peddler pulls the boys to the ground. When the boys try to flee, the peddler knocks them down.

Vessa tilts her head. “As I was saying–”
“Hold your words please.” Frencore watches the man grab the Zelep by his neck. He begins to curse and shake the boy. Frencore gently removes Vessa’s hand from his arm and walks towards the man. “One moment.”
“Go away; this is none of your concern.” The peddler shakes a clinched fist in front of the Zelep’s face.

Frencore reaches behind his back for his fighting shaft and strikes the man’s hand with it. “I’ll decide what is or is not my concern.”
“Yee…Woo–” Heads turn. Releasing the boy, the peddler grabs his hand.
Zelep looks at Frencore. “We’re beholden to you, Sir.”
Frencore holds his hand up. “You two stay put.” He glances at the peddler’s now-bloody hand.
Still moaning, the man shouts, “Why did you do that? Is that beggar yours?”
“I’ve never seen him before.”
He grabs a rag and wraps it round his hand. “Damn you, I think you broke it.”
“And you did not intend to break the boy’s face?” Frencore hands his fighting shaft to Vessa. “Hold this please.” He glares at the man. “Raise your fist to my face as you did the child. I’ll keep one hand behind me so as not to have an advantage. Well—” Frencore pushes him. “Fight a man, child-beater.”

The peddler backs away. Frencore glares at him. “If you dare to seek out the boy afterwards, I’ll find you.”
“I won’t.”

Frencore looks at the boys and the merchant’s wares scattered about ground. “Pick up that mess and then be gone.”

The boys nod, collect the wares and then disappear into the crowd. Vessa hands Frencore his shaft. She places a hand on his arm. “He’s so despicable; why did you make them put everything back?”
“What he is matters not; it was their doing, it was for them to correct.”
You’re a strange one for a beggar. “You were once an orphan and a beggar too, weren’t you?”
“I was an orphan, but never a beggar.”
Vessa frowns. “I hope he has not dampened your mood for me.”
“Not at all, besides, I have grown accustomed to dealing with the likes of his kind.” Frencore forces himself to place a hand on her ass. “Is that the feel of a shy man?”
She smiles. “I suppose not.”

When Vessa and Frencore reach the sisters’ dwelling, they find Vorona and Tarmo standing near the entrance. Vessa cringes. Fuck, we did it again! Damn, she’s with a sergeant.
Vorona pulls her sister aside. “Get rid of him. I’ve got the Sergeant’s seven greens already.”
“And I have that fellow’s stones. This is going to get ugly. That young man is headstrong and not afraid of a fight.” She glances at Frencore. “He’s not going to step aside for your soldier.”
“Like mine will? You’re the witty one, think of something.”

Tarmo and Frencore stare at each other.

Vessa says, “Obviously a mistake has been made and it is ours. My sister and I will pleasure each of you separately and give you back two stones; as long as you do not fight.”

There has been fighting over the twins before, another incident may bring their expulsion from the city or worse. By the King’s law they could pay with their lives should either man be killed.

“I will do my sister one better.” Vorona says. “We’ll give them all back and you can go on your way. Please don’t fight, we don’t want any trouble, nor do we care to see either one of you dead.”
Tarmo turns toward Frencore. “The only mistake here will be yours young man, if you do not stand aside. As a soldier, I have first right to these women.”
“I am no man’s fool, there is no such law. I have paid for their favors and I shall have them. You Sir shall be the one to step aside!”
“There is such a law.” Sergeant Tarmo draws his sword.

A short distance away, one of Tarmo’s men sees them as people gather round. He dashes off to get Coop.

“I care not to cripple or kill you.” Frencore sways his long sharp fighting shaft in the Sergeant’s face. “Lower your sword, Sir.”
“Nay!” He stares at Frencore. “You think I fear you’re…stick?” He moves his sword close Frencore’s neck.
“Perhaps you—” Feeling the cold blade against his neck, Frencore jumps back, swings at, and knocks Tarmo’s sword aside with his shaft. People scream and scatter.

Sergeant Tarmo responds, his sword striking Frencore’s shaft hard. It leaves a deep notch. Another swing of his blade adds yet another notch and forces Frencore back. Tarmo shouts, “Concede and live, fool.” Another swipe of his sword shreds a nearby canopy and splinters a rack of smoking pipes. They smash to the ground.

Frencore’s shaft topples a shelf of fancy knives and trinkets. Items fall from shelves or fly through the air. Frencore’s knows his stonewood staff cannot fend off Tarmo’s sword much longer, yet he holds his ground.

The twins scream in unison, “Stop, stop this please!”

Frencore drops to the ground onto his side, his staff striking the backs of Tarmo’s knees. The Sargent’s legs buckle, dropping him knees-first onto the cobblestones. Frencore jumps to his feet. He slams a foot down the sergeant’s sword, shoves him onto his back and brings the pointed end of his staff to Sergeant Tarmo’s throat. “Leave, and I shall let you live.”
“Remove your staff before my men kill you.”
Frencore glances up and sees Coop and another soldier approaching. “So you can kill me later?” He glances at the soldiers and says, “If I am to die, then you will die too.”

“No!” Vessa screams as she tugs at Frencore. “There’s another way to settle this.”
Frencore glances at her. “Speak quickly, woman, the Gods await us.”

Coop steps forward, his sword held high. “Remove that shaft from his neck or lose your head.”
“Oh really.” Frencore grins. “Look at the way in which I am leaning over my staff, fool. Cut my head off, and the weight of my falling body will drive my staff into him, or perhaps, I will drive it into him before your sword reaches me. Move not a muscle; else I shall do just that.”

“This is idiotic. No one has to die.” Vessa steps between Coop and Frencore. “I believe I have a solution. Please listen to me.”
“Move, woman.” Coop demands, as another pulls her aside.

Feeling the sharp staff upon his neck, Tarmo stares at Frencore. No one has ever taken me down with a shaft. You’re going to— fuck, he’s not the one, is he, father?

Coop’s sword grows heavy. “Shall I let her speak, Sergeant?”
“Let the whore speak.”

Frencore presses his staff a little harder against the sergeant’s neck. “Her name is Vessa. Do not call her a whore again. Without women of lust, where would your dreams come from? They make your miserable life tolerable. For that reason alone, you should not call her a whore. Go on; speak your mind, Vessa.”
Vessa tries to appear calm as she says, “Your quarrel is for our services and I have a better way to determine who gets to enjoy the both of us. My sister will go with you Sergeant,” Vessa looks at him, “and I shall go with him.” She places her hand on Frencore’s arm. “Whoever is spent first shall lose.” The winner will then have us both and no one need be harmed. If one of you believes he is not man enough to out-last the other…well, then…I guess you can kill each other. Now, unless one of you wants to admit he has no staying power when with a woman, I believe you can let him stand.” She looks at Frencore.

Both men remain silent. The crowd begins to stir. “Two green stones say they both die,” an older woman-of-means says to her escort.
“Nay, one will live, you have a bet.”

Vorona moves closer, and kneels next to Tarmo. “Anyone lucky enough to take down a sergeant as skilled as you should be in service to the King. Surely, you could make a soldier of him. He lacks not for bravery, though he certainly could learn respect. Do you not agree our King could use such a man?”

Tears fill Vessa’s eyes and run down her pretty face. “Agree to it, I beg of you. My sister and I will surely be beheaded if either of you die. Must we die too, to quench your, your stupid pride? We only wanted to please, and for this, you would have us die? You’re, you’re both despicable.”

Frencore frowns. “I do not want to chance your lives. I’ll agree if he does.”

“Corporal Coop,” says Tarmo, “if I am killed, these women are to come to no harm.” Tarmo looks up at Frencore. “You may take his head if he does not remove his staff.” Yield young man; show me you are wise as well as brave. Give me reason to believe you are the chosen one.

“But Sergeant, I cannot insure his body will not fall upon his staff and take your life with it.”
“If it does, it does.”

Vorona grits her teeth. “If you die, they will execute us. Your words will not matter. A sergeant’s death will never go unpunished. You’re a man of intelligence; you must know that. Then again, my sister may have misjudged you. Perhaps you cannot see the foolishness of this, in which case your men do not need you alive. Yes, they would be better off without a fool leading them. Am I looking upon a fool?”
Tarmo glares up at her, “You’re not looking upon a fool woman.”
“I thought not. Then agree and end this now so we can get on with the pleasing.”

“Her words are true,” Coop says. “The city Elders will have them both killed. Do you want to be remembered for that?”
“Fuck, all right. Put your sword away. As for you, do you agree to become a soldier?”
Frencore backs his staff off some. “A swordsman and not a stable dung cleaner?”
“A mounted trooper in my unit and I will oversee your training. You must also swear to protect the life of all soldiers, including mine and agree to obey orders, especially my orders.”
“I have to protect and obey you?”

Frencore pretends to ponder acceptance of the sergeant’s offer. In actuality, he wants to scream yes, yes. Without connections or enough white stones to buy a station, Frencore could only dream of becoming a mounted trooper in the King’s army. With those few moves of his fighting shaft and the twin’s intervention, Frencore’s dream is now near a reality. Though he looks at the sergeant, he does not see him, instead he sees himself in the garb of a mounted trooper, standing next to his mount. Not just any whiptail, he sees a splendid example of the breed standing tall on two perfectly proportioned and powerful legs, its long and menacing tail waving slowly back and forth. Frencore can almost feel the steed tugging on the reins.

“Well?” The sergeant’s voice dispels Frencore’s vision. He is again aware of Tarmo’s face at the end of his shaft.

Vessa says, “You would do well to take his offer. A mounted swordsman in the King’s army is an honorable profession, or would you prefer to muck stalls forever? The choice is yours. You can join the army, die, or if by the intervention of some God, disappear from here, you can return your mounds of beast’s droppings.”
Frencore sighs, “But?”
“But nothing, haven’t you cleaned enough beast droppings? Would you not prefer to ride them?”
“For one so young, you have much wisdom,” Frencore looks at her and then the sergeant. “I agree. You have my word on it; besides, I am not one to take pleasure from killing.”

Frencore removes his weapon and reaches down. “Sergeant.”
Tarmo grasps his hand, pulls himself to his feet. He shows neither rage nor fear, and has cost me much pride, perhaps he is the one?
“Smile,” Vessa places her hand on his arm. “You’re going to be a mounted trooper.”
“If, he can complete his training.” Tarmo laughs.
“Oh, I shall.”
The Sergeant shakes his head. If he’s not the chosen one, then he’s one lucky bastard to have lived this long.

With the sergeant’s pride being what it is, Tarmo’s men are surprised by his offer to Frencore. Coop leans towards Frencore. He whispers, “The Sergeant must have plans for you. Your days may be numbered.”
“And your days are not?”

Tarmo brushes the dust off his hat and tunic. He recalls his wizard father’s last words; ‘Someday you will meet an extraordinary young man. A man destined to lead. When you do, it will be for you to train him, to make an exceptional soldier of him for the sake of the Realm, and perhaps all of Karrac. Be wise in your quest. All could be lost should you choose wrongly. Keep the knowledge of this task from ears that do not need to know.’

With a twin at each man’s side, Tarmo and Frencore move toward the sisters’ dwelling. The sergeant glances at Frencore. “I cannot wait to begin your training.”
“And I cannot wait to prove myself.”
Another soldier warns, “Enjoy the woman’s pleasures. It will be a long time before you enjoy another of any kind. Sergeant Tarmo is the most demanding instructor in the army. On a good day, he is a hard man to please. Seeing how you have taken him off his feet with only your shaft—,” He laughs. “Well, I doubt if you will ever see one of his good days.”
The other soldiers laugh. Coop waves a finger. “And don’t think for a moment you’ll outlast him with a woman. Women beg him to finish so they can rest. The God of endurance resides in his loins.”

Vorona snaps, “We’ll see about that!”
Still standing close to Frencore, Tarmo asks, “What name do you go by?”
“Frencore.”
“Frencore, Frencore; that takes too long to say. We’ll call you Fren.”
“I bear my father’s name and I do not care to dishonor his name by changing it.”
“How interesting.” The sergeant turns to Coop. “He knows who his father was.”

His eyes glaring into the sergeant’s, Frencore silently stews, gritting his teeth and clinching his fist. Vorona watches Frencore’s knuckles turn pale. We must distract them.
Her thoughts the same, Vessa’s hands suddenly fly up, as she pulls at her long hair and begins to stagger about with her eyes closed. She shouts, “No, not another vision. I cannot bear to see another.” She wobbles towards Frencore, then the sergeant. She grabs Tarmo as she drops to the cobblestones.
“Vessa are you all right?” Vorona quickly kneels next to her, “Wake up Vessa, wakeup.”
She takes her sister’s limp body in her arms.

People crowd around. The Sergeant asks for and gets a leather pouch from one of his soldiers. He sprinkles water on her face. “Perhaps this will wake her.”
Vessa stirs some, yet her eyes remain closed.

“Give me that.” Vorona takes the pouch from the sergeant. She pours a more generous amount on Vessa’s face.
Her eyes open, she squints at her sister. “It has happened again. I saw the future.”
“Again?” Frencore asks, “What did you see?”
Vessa covers her eyes with a hand. “Terrible things. I saw very terrible things.”
Vorona holds her sister closer. “What terrible things?”
“It was not like the last time.” She takes her hand from her eyes and glances about. “This time I didn’t see anyone die, though I sensed death everywhere.”
Tarmo looks down at her. “Whom did you see?”
“I saw two men, you Sergeant and that one.” She motions at Frencore. “You were both in some forbidding land far away. Death was seeking everyone.” She reaches for and grabs Sergeant Tarmo’s arm. “You desperately needed his help and he yours. You were like brothers.”

Mesmerized, Frencore asks, “What else did you see?”
“It was too confusing to describe.” She grasps her sister’s hands, “Evil, I saw the face of evil everywhere.” Her lips tremble, “Please, please don’t ask me to recall more.”
Vorona wipes the wetness from her sister’s face with her silken sleeve and wonders what she will contrive next.

Sergeant Tarmo places a hand on Vorona’s shoulder. “Does this sort of thing happen often? Does she have the gift to see the future?”
“Such is no gift,” Vorona snaps. “It is more a curse. She cannot look into the future by choice to profit from it. And she sees only terrible things, things no one would want to see. No, such is not a gift.”
Tarmo nods. “How often has it happened?”
“This is what,” she looks at Vessa, “the third time?”
“The forth.”
“I think she’s all right now.” Vorona takes her hands. “Can you stand?”
“I think so.”

As the crowd moves back, Vorona whispers into her ear, “You’ve never had a vision before, what are you up to?”
“Be quiet and keep playing along; you’re doing fine.”
The Sergeant and Vorona help her up. “My vision has passed. We can go inside and begin the pleasuring.”

They walk the short distance back to the dwelling’s entrance. Before they enter, the sergeant pulls Vessa close to him. He whispers, “I do not for a moment believe you saw anything.” He feels her tremble. “Be calm; I’m not angry, and you need not fear that I will kill him later. If you were you were a man of noble blood, you most certainly would be a general. That was not simply a good act, it was brilliant.”

Vessa bites the side of her hand, taps her chin with a fist and says, “Sergeant, can’t you tell real fear when you see it? We thought two would get us killed.”
He grimaces, “I’ll grant you that, but the vision was, well, there was no vision, was there?”
The hint of a smile appears on Vessa’s face. “But you can only assume such, Sergeant.”
“I thought so.”
“I had you for a while.” He feels her elbow.
“Perhaps, for a moment or two.”

Vessa feels a chill. Her eyes appear devoid of focus as she stares intently at nothing. Sergeant Tarmo says, “What’s wrong?”
She blinks and sighs, “I’ve just realized something, and it frightened me.”
“Really?”
“I swear by all the Gods, I’m not pretending.”
“All right, I believe you. What did you realize?”
“l… I’ve never done anything like that before.” Vessa fidgets with her hair. “I’m not one to make up stories. I’m just not that creative. I’ve never had a vision before, could it have been real?”
Tarmo says, “I don’t think so; but then, I’ve never had a vision before either.”
Vessa whispers, “Just the same, if I were you, I would take care of him.” She glances toward Frencore, “You may need him someday.”
“Perhaps,” Sergeant Tarmo shrugs, he looks at Vorona, “but now, now I need your sister. Both moons will be full tonight and I am at my best when they are. I will see you when she is spent.”
“When she is spent and not you?” She laughs.
Chapter 3: The Nye Ravine
Frencore’s glances up at the dwelling’s entrance and sees an ornate 42 carved into the white stones; below it are the old-tongue words, ‘”Laca Duala Bellerins.”’ The dual beauties. He nods.

Vessa pushes the red doorway curtain aside. “Enter.

The men look at each other for a tense second or two, but much to the sister’s relief, Frencore motions for the Sergeant to enter. They glace at the spacious though somewhat dark room. Large fancy drapes hang from the ceiling dividing the room. Vorona says, “Boots off please.”
“Of cause, Tarmo,” says. He rubs his bare foot into the thick soft rug. My saddle should feel so good. Eyeing the colorful thick rug and its intricate design, he says, “These are worthy of a King. You two have exceptional taste.”

Frencore nods as he stares at three exceptional statues of curvaceous women near a wall. He picks up masterfully cut crystal vases. “This must be worth a few red stones.”
Vessa’s head tilts and her brows rise. “Reds? That is worth five white ones. Please put it down. “She glances back at him. Why do you intrigue me so?
“Damn.” Frencore carefully returns it to its pedestal. He picks up one of the many exquisite pillows spewed about. Hmm, these two no doubt have many wealthy and generous clients. Looking at a vessel on the floor near an oil lamp, he says, “Is that pale wine?”
Vessa says, “No, it’s just water. Have some if you’re thirsty.”
“Thanks.” Frencore drinks and watches Vessa untie her wrap and drops to the floor. She smiles and beckons him with a finger, “Come over here; warm me.”

Much later, Vessa kisses an exhausted and sleeping Frencore on his cheek. I’ve never done that before; where are these feelings coming from? She pulls a small rug over him and joins her sister on the other side of the curtain. After many hours with Sergeant Tarmo, the sisters, who claim to be –“too much for any one man,”- can no longer make that assertion. Half asleep, the sergeant hears the sound of a hissing horrac nearby. Fuck, I left my sword on the other side. Tarmo stares at the room-dividing curtain. He sighs. Damn, it’s just that fool snoring.

An hour later, a cool breeze sways the door curtain. Fingers of sunlight dance into even the far reaches of the dark room. Vessa and Vorona huddle closer to, and half on top of the sergeant’s warm body. The draft assaults their nakedness. Vessa shivers; while Frencore on the other side of the curtain sleeps undisturbed sheltered by the rug she had placed over him.

Tarmo’s heavy eyelids open to a blinding flash of sunlight. He tries to cover them with his right hand, but cannot, being pinned as it is under Vorona. Tarmo gently works his hand and arm from under the sleeping woman. Twisting onto his side, he manages to get from free without, he-thinks, awakening her or her sister. He stands, looks down at the two of them, and whispers, “You are the two most desirable, and intelligent women I have ever met. May the Gods forever smile upon you.”
How sweet of you. Vorona pretends to sleep.

Tarmo gently pulls a furry hide over them. Looking at Vorona, he whispers, “If only I were not so old.” He grimaces, “Like one so fine could ever want for a man such as me. May the Gods find you a strong, young man.” He kneels and gently kisses her forehead. “Take care, woman.” Damn, I just kissed a whore. Why did I do that?

Vorona’s eyes open. “You take care too, and you’re not that old.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to awaken you so early.”

“To be awakened by a kiss and such words,” she smiles, “the time is of little concern.”

Vessa is now also awake, though she doesn’t show it. Hearing the sergeant’s voice, she begins to picture things, things that frighten her. The more the sergeant speaks, the clearer the images become.
Tarmo whispers to Vorona,” It’s time for us to leave. Say goodbye to your sister for me.”

With his hand on the curtain, he hears Vorona say, “Sergeant.”
“Yes?”

“For reasons I cannot explain, I feel a need to be with you, to see you again.” She stares at him. “You will return to me, I can feel it, it will come to be.”

“Oh you say that to all of your clients.”

“No, not really.”

“To be honest, I feel the same about you. Perhaps it is what Gods want?”

Throwing the hide covering them aside, Vessa suddenly sits up. She grabs her sister’s wrist, stares expressionlessly at nothing, and begins to mumble in a strange tone of voice, “Many will die under the One-Moon in a faraway place. Evil is everywhere, the Sergeant and Frencore must not go. They must not…”

Vorona angrily shakes her sister. “Stop it; it’s not funny. You’re going to anger the Gods. Vessa-”

Vorona’s anger quickly turns to concern. She sees tears running down her sister’s face and can feel her trembling. Though naked, Vessa seems oblivious to the now strong, cold draft blowing into the room. With distant eyes, she stares at Tarmo.

“That was really good Vessa. You should go to the Palace and join the traveling assemblage performing there.”

Vorona snaps at Tarmo, “Look at her tears, she’s not pretending. Look at the fear on her face. She must have seen something horrible.”

He steps closer and pulls the hide over her. “I’m sorry, I just thought…”

“Yes, I know.” Vorona shakes her. “Vessa, look at me.” Her stare remains blank.

Tarmo leans towards Vessa, “Are you all right?”

Vorona turns her sister’s face, she shouts, “Vessa, look at me, you are having a bad dream.”

Her eyes slowly focus. “I was not dreaming. I was awake. It was terrible. Men and beast were being slaughtered horribly everywhere. There was fire, and screaming. I can still hear the awful screaming; make it stop. I fear to close my eyes again, for the vision may return.”

Tarmo places his hand on hers. “What else did you see?”

“There will come a time when the four of us are forever as one, bonded even closer than family. That I did not see, somehow, I just know it. Why was I chosen to see those other terrible things?”

“Forget it as you would a bad dream.” He holds her hand tighter.

She sniffles and gathers her thoughts. “I cannot forget what I have seen, not ever.”

Vorona hugs her. “It was just a bad dream and you will forget it.”

Vessa bites her thumb and says, “Bad dreams have no substance. They are, are, just, fleeting thoughts. No, it was not a dream. I cannot simply cast it away. Dreadful events await all, come The One-Moons.”

Tarmo places his hand under her chin. He lifts her face and looks into her tearful eyes, “The moons shall not be seen as one for a long time. By then, well, perhaps you will have had another vision, one free of horrors. I must awaken my new soldier now. We have to leave for the garrison soon.”

Vessa forces a smile, “Go, I will be fine.” She lets go of his hand. “I fear, no, I know, I have put a curse on us all. My pretending to see into the future has offended the Gods. They have taken my words and written them into our future.”

Vorona wipes Vessa’s tears. “The Gods just did it to scare you. It will not come to pass.”
Tarmo says, “She’s probably right. Come the time of the One-Moons, we will all be fine.”
“But, if it does come to be as I have seen, will you keep Frencore alive?”
“It will not come to be, however, if it will make you feel better, I shall protect him with my life. You have my word on it. Just don’t tell him that.”
Vessa tries to thank him, but cannot find the words. She nods, closes her eyes and rolls onto her side.

Vorona watches Tarmo stand and tie his sash. She and whispers, “Are you truly not troubled by all that has transpired, Sergeant?”
Tarmo shrugs, “Nay, no reason for worry.”

Vorona gasps. “He was your foe but hours ago; yet you promise to protect him with your life?” She glances at Vessa.” My dear sister may have set us upon a foreboding path.”
He lies, “I doubt such.”

Verona’s eyes widen. She grits her teeth.
Tarmo says, “Fret naught.” He fakes a smile. “Nay, she is not a sorceress. At most, she has but warned us, which is good.”
Verona sighs. “I suppose…”

Crossing to the other side of the curtain, Tarmo stares at the young man sleeping. I hope it’s the desire of a God and not a Demon compelling me to protect you. He sighs. What have they chosen you for young man; what will it cost me? He steps closer and kicks him gently. “Get your sorry ass up, soldier to-be Fren.”

“Go away. I will get up when I’m good and ready.”

“No, you will get up whenever I tell you to or else!”

“Or else what, old man?” Frencore’s his eyes remain closed.

The Sergeant sees a basin of water near the entrance. With the basin now in hand, he stands next to Frencore. He stirs the water with a finger and feels its coldness. His foot pulls the warm rug off Frencore. In doing so, he sees scars on the young man’s back. The kind one gets from a sword. He has felt the anger of another’s sword and yet prevailed. Frencore’s rolls his naked body over. As his eyes open, he sees the sergeant standing over him with the basin.

“Don’t do it.”

“You know a man should wash after a night of passion, especially there.” Tarmo pours the cold water onto Frencore and lets the basin fall as well.

“Yee… ow…” Frencore yells, as he jumps to his feet frantically “That was not necessary.”

“It should not have been, but then…Put your clothes on now. We’re leaving for the garrison.”

“You crazy old fool, men have been killed for less.”

“No doubt, some have. Did you not give me your word to obey my every order, or are you not a man of his word? I have no need for a mounted swordsman with a twisted tongue.”

Frencore sighs. “I will honor my word.”

“I believe you agreed to join the army because you wanted to become a mounted swordsman and not just to end our fight. If such is true, then you must follow orders. There is no place in my unit for someone who does only what he cares to when he wants to; if you don’t desire the position strongly then”—“Just be on your way.”
“But I do…” Frencore frowns. “I want to a soldier very much.”
“Look son…” Tarmo closes his eyes and shakes his head. I didn’t call him son, did I?
“You were saying…”

“Yes, um– someday your lives may depend on how quickly you rise from sleep; mine for one yours. That was the last explanation you’ll get from me. You just do as told and do it quickly, and respond with, yes Sergeant. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“Good. Now go say your good-byes we must leave.”

Frencore grabs his clothes. He pulls his tunic over his head. “May I at least ask, which garrison are we going to and why we are leaving now?”

“Lacket garrison and another unit relieves us today.”

“Lacket huh.” Frencore pulls his pants up and ties a rope around his slim waist. “I heard there’s some really bleak, harsh country out that way.”

Tarmo laughs. “And you’re going to get to know all of it.”

Frencore crosses the divider curtain. “Vessa.”

“Yes.” Her eyes meet his.

“You can count on seeing me again someday. I’m going to horde whatever the King’s army pays me.”

“Just learn well from the sergeant.”

“I shall do my best.”

Waiting in the doorway for Frencore, Tarmo hears her words and says, “His training will take four moons. If we are not assigned new orders, we shall return then. Unless, I throw him out before that for being unfit. In which case, you will see him sooner.”

“I will not be found unfit.”

Vessa laughs. “Three green ones say he proves to be the best swordsmen you have ever trained.”

“Three huh; you have a bet woman.”

Vorona taps Frencore’s shoulder. “Do tell, how did you knew you were speaking to my sister and not me? We are identical, yet you spoke as though you were certain she was Vessa.”

“You will have to ask the Gods to answer that question; I don’t know. I just know I will always be able to tell you two apart.”

The two men leave the dwelling of the twin sisters and begin walking toward the outskirts of Crepso and the sergeant’s camp. Before reaching his unit, Tarmo tells Frencore of Vessa’s last vision. He does not tell him of his promise to her.

“What do you make of it, Sergeant?”

“I don’t know.”

Frencore sees some men and beasts on a hillside. “Is that your unit?”

“Yes.”

“Sergeant, do you…”

“Do I what?”

“Last night, and yesterday, well it was all so strange. They were just pretty whores and yet–?”

“Whores, what happened to all that respect you had? When I called her a whore–”

Frencore points a finger at him. “You called her a whore to her face; I did not.”

Tarmo shrugs. “No difference

Frencore sees soldiers standing near their mounts in the shade of a large stonewood tree. He recognizes two of them from the day before.

Tarmo says, “Mount up, our holiday duty is over.”

Milwer gasps, he turns toward Coop. “But the games, we haven’t seen a one.”

“I know, but at least you will leave with all of your stones.”
“But I could have many more.” Milwer sighs.
“You? Ha, you never win a bet.” Coop watches Frencore walk past him. “The Sergeant out-lasted you last night, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, so what.”
“Ha, Tarmo won.” Coop extends an upturned hand at Milwer. “Like I said, you never win a bet. Hand over that green stone.”
With a frown, Milwer gives it to him. The troopers coax their mounts into a loose formation, as Frencore waits to be told with whom to ride.

Tarmo motions towards Frencore and says, “Private Coop, have him ride with you. No, forget that. I have a better idea. We’ll see if your legs worthy of a soldier, before you burden a mount.”
“But it’s more than a day’s ride.”
“Quite and you best keep up. Move out—no wait.” He sees riders round a bend ahead. “Let them pass.”

With a bellower-drawn cart between them, six mounted troopers of the Royal Guards approach. Sergeant Tarmo salutes. “Morning, Lieutenant.”
“Mornin, Sergeant. Have many come this year?”
“Most I’ve ever seen, Sir.”
“Splendid… games should be interesting, huh?”
“Aye: enjoy, Sir.”

Unlike the earlier wagon they encountered, these bellowers still own the full length of their menacing triple horns. Frencore moves closer to Coop and his mount. He taps the side of Coop’s boot. “Whose cart do they pull?”
“Don’t know yet, but it’s surely someone of consequence.”

Passing a stand of high brush, the cart and its occupants come into view. Seated amidst resplendent pillows Frencore sees three young adults, and a woman.
He taps Coop’s boot again. “Do you know now?”
Coop holds a finger to his lips and says, “Hush; do you not know the purple robe of the King’s Sorceress?”

Frencore stares, at the sorceress as a breeze lifts her long black hair revealing more of her face. “That’s Clarisena? Damn, I thought her much older perhaps even frightful to look upon. She seems neither.”
“She is older… but with her craft… all is no doubt not as it seems. Stop staring at her so brashly.”

With Clarisena’s cart closer to Frencore, she tries to ignore the young man with the piercing eyes upon her, but cannot. Inaudibly the Sorceress mumbles, “Why do I feel compelled to remember your face?” Astride his mount and to Frencore’s left, she notices Sergeant Tarmo. Clarisena nudges Kaytho, the young woman seated next to her, “That Sergeant over there… his father was the Wizard Tracery.”
“Your mentor?”
“Yes.”
“Does the Sergeant bear a resemblance; does he have any of his father’s powers?”
“Very much and I hope not.”

From his saddle, Private Stonewood stealthy, carefully grasps and pulls back on a thorny tree limb. As one of the cart’s bellowers passes, he releases the limb striking the beast. Long thorns embed themselves into its rump. It stops abruptly, rears up and bellows loudly thrashing its massive head and horns about. Kaytho grabs her mentor’s arm to keep her from falling out of the cart.

“Get back.” Frencore shouts. A flailing horn grazes the back of his neck as he shoves Coop and his mount clear.

Grabbing its reigns, Sergeant Tarmo and two of the Lieutenant’s men steady the beast. Coop says to Frencore, “Did it get you; are you hurt?”
Frencore places a hand on the back of his neck and feeling no blood, says, “Nay…I’m fine.”
“Aye there,” Coop winces, “thanks for the shove.”

Sliding back upon her seat, Clarisena sees Frencore. She pounders aloud, “Was that your doing, young man?”
“Did you say something?”
“No dear.” She places her hand on Kaytho’s, “I am most appreciative of your strong grip. To have fallen would have been…quite undignified.”

At a trot, Stonewood rides towards Coop. “Damn that was close.” He glances down at Frencore, “I thought one of those horns was going kill him for sure.”
“Almost did.” Coop frowns, “Whatever made it do that?”
“Perhaps it got bit by something?” Stonewood shrugs and says too low for Frencore to hear, “Not that such would have been a great lost. He’s just a dumb stall-mucker that belongs elsewhere.”

 

As Clarisena’s cart disappears rounding a turn, Coop shakes his head and says, “What is it with you? First you draw Sergeant Tarmo’s wrath and now…”
“But, I only looked at her.”
“That was scorn in her eyes.” Stonewood laughs. “She thinks you provoked her bellower.” Stonewood’s brows draw down, “Did you?”
“Of cause not.” Frencore rubs the back of his neck.
“Damn, I hope you’re never near the King.” Coop rolls his eyes.

 

 

With Clarisena’s cart and escort far behind, Sergeant Tarmo’s mounted unit plods along at a whiptail’s walk; more than double that of a man’s. With Coop’s mount next to the sergeant’s, he glances back at Frencore. “How far do you think he can go at this pace?”
“I guess it is a bit fast.”
“At this pace, I’ll bet one green that he goes no further than the Black River.”
“Only to the river?” Tarmo tilts his head and then nods. “I think he will reach the Nye Ravine.”
Coop’s eyes widen. “Same pace, no slowing down, so he can reach the Nye for you?”
“Yeah, the same pace.”
“You have a bet.” Sergeant, your stone will be mine for sure.
Stonewood turns around in his saddle. “Hey, I have a lesser green to risk on his endurance.”
Zacket squeals in that high voice of his, “I want in.”
Frencore looks at the young blonde trooper, “What’s all the commotion about?”
Zacket laughs. “We’re betting how far you can run before you drop.”
Frencore frowns.

A wild tota scurrying across a tree limb catches Zacket eye. Hmm, I bet you’d taste good. His eyes return to Frencore. “Oi, nothing personal, we’re just looking to break the boredom, that’s all. The man who guesses where you drop gets one lesser green from each. You see those hills over there. My bet says you don’t get over them.”
“What’s your name soldier?”
“Zacket. Though some call me Lumpy.”
“You’re not fat, why Lumpy?”
“Well, I always tend to have too much stuff in my pockets.”
“How about letting me in on that betting, Lumpy? I have a green stone to wager.”
“Ha, ha, no you can’t bet.” Zacket waves a finger. “You’ll just drop when we reach your guess.”
“Then I’ll guess five road markers past the furthest point guessed by anyone.”
“Make it twenty markers.”
“Twenty, no way, five is plenty far enough.”
“Five it is.” Zacket shouts, “Our runner here bets he can go five markers past the furthest point wagered.”

Stonewood looks over his shoulder at Frencore. “Can you make it to the blue thorns?”
Frencore glances up at him. “There and beyond.”
Stonewood grumbles something and rides to the front of the column.
Frencore turns toward Zacket. “I suppose they call him Red.”
Zacket laughs. “Nay, he’s too moody and too superstitious.”
“I don’t understand.”
“There’s an old saying amongst soldiers, something about, red head, first dead. Most times we just call him Stoney.”

At the front of the column, Tarmo waves for Coop to ride next to him.
“Yes, Sergeant?”
“You seem to have taken an interest in our new recruit.”
“Not really, Sergeant.”
“He’s—” Tarmo glances back at Frencore. “He’s your responsibility. You will get him outfitted and personally oversee to his training. If he does not measure up, it had best be because of his failings and not yours.”
“What have I done to deserve this?”
“You’re my best man and I want him trained by the best.”
“I thought you would want him to fail after what he did to you. Did you forget the feel of cobblestones on your back so soon?”
“I have not forgotten.” Tarmo bites his upper lip. “And you thought wrong.” He leans towards Coop. “And don’t tell him or anyone else of this, or I will have your hide. I want your word it will be so.”
“You think I’m your best trooper, really?”
“Yes, and I want you to make him an even better trooper.”

Coop glances back at Frencore for a moment. “You know that Frencore fellow knows neither fear nor his limits. He came close to losing his head yesterday and now he thinks he has the stamina of a God. How much longer will the Gods let such a fool survive?”
Tarmo’s voice deepens, “For your sake, it had better be a long time.”
“For my sake? That crazy one is not a fool of my making.”
“No.” Tarmo shakes a finger, “But he is your charge just the same.”
“If it’s all right with you, I’m going to the rear and keep an eye on my new charge.”
“I knew I picked the right man for the task.”

Coop guides his mount to the side of the gravel trail and waits in the shade of one of tall trees that have been lining the trail for many markers. As Frencore gets closer, Coop says, “If you fall before you pass the Black River, I shall have my mount trample over your body.”
Zacket hears Coop. “No threatening of the runner. Leave him be and come ride next to me.”
“I was just encouraging him that’s all.”
“Sure you were.”
Coop rides past Frencore. “All right then, no one will ride behind him.”

Some distance later, they see a cluster of large backin trees.
With a conspicuous space between his front teeth, a private smiles at Frencore. He points. “You can fall down when you reach those trees over there.”
“What name be yours?” Frencore says.
“For some reason, they call me Gap.” He smiles broadly.
Frencore nods. That’s understandable.
The others shout, “Don’t listen to him. Ignore him. Keep going.”
Zacket turns in his saddle. “I know you can pass Gap’s trees, even he can run his fat ass that far.”
Coop says, “Make it to the Black River and then quit.”
Frencore reaches the backin trees and soon leaves them behind. Five more wagered predictions remain. With two destinations yet to be reached, and the hot midday sun taking its toll, Zacket reaches down from his mount with a flask of water. Frencore drinks half of it and hands it back. “Thanks soldier, I owe you one.”
“No need for thanks. Just make it to the crossroad for Yancy Village.”
“Sorry, but I plan to make it further.”
Zacket laughs.

Frencore hears the welcome sound of hooves splashing as the lead mounts wade into the Black River. Sergeant Tarmo dismounts. His whiptail begins to drink.

Frencore trudges into the waist-deep river. He lets himself fall backwards into the cool water. Standing next to their mounts, Zacket and Milwer watch Frencore.

Stonewood grabs a few strips of dried meat from a small sack on his saddle. He hands one to Milwer and another to Zacket.
Milwer takes a bite. “This is good, thanks.” He stares at Frencore. “I think he’s going to drink more than my mount.”
Zacket nods. “I would empty the river if I had run from Crepso. Thanks Stony, this meat really is good; too bad we don’t get to Crepso more often.”
Milwer taps Zacket’s arm. “Let me have some more of that and a strip for our runner.”
“You can have some more, but I’m not wasting any on that dung-mucker. I don’t care how far he can run.” He hands Milwer another strip. “Just because he took the sergeant’s feet out from under him, don’t mean he’s good enough to be a mounted trooper. It took me two years and cost my father many red stones for me to get into a mount unit.”

Zacket notices a drawstring sack tied to Milwer’s saddle. “What do you have in that?”
Milwer unties the sack. “Here, have a look.”

Also close by, Coop watches as Zacket opens the sack and takes out three carved figures. Zacket looks over the horrac figure first, then the whiptail, and the bellower. “Toys for your son or you?”
Milwer hits him on the shoulder. “For my son, you idiot.”
Zacket hands the toys to Coop.
“They’re nicely made.” Coop studies the horrac figure closely. “This horrac looks a bit too real. I hope it doesn’t scare your boy.”
“It won’t.”

Their thirst satisfied, the whiptails raise their long necks from the river. Coop glances at Frencore as he moves toward Tarmo. “Are we going to cut through the Nye or go the long way, Sergeant?”
“I haven’t decided yet. Let’s mount up and move out.” Tarmo turns to his right to check on Frencore. “He looks a little stronger now. I suspect you’re going to be out of the running soon.”
Coop sighs. “Yeah, yeah. Hey, Stony, who has the next guess and where is it?”
“Milwer, and it’s ten markers beyond the river.”
Milwer groans. “I’m sure he’ll make it past my guess too.”
Coop turns towards Milwer. “Why did you guess so close to mine?”

Milwer smiles. “I figured if he could make it to the river, what with a little rest and water he could go further. You have to think before you bet.”

Frencore nears the tenth marker and hears Milwer say, “Fall down man, you’ve gone far enough. Your legs must be too heavy to take another step. Stop before you kill yourself. You’ve gone past what any of us could have done.”

Coop stands tall in his stirrups to see them better. “Leave him alone.”

Zacket shouts, “Yeah, knock it off, Milwer.

Milwer slows his mount and waits for Frencore. “Don’t listen to them, the hills are too far. You’re going to die like a whiptail run to its death. You don’t want to die like that do you; with heart beating so hard, it breaks your ribs? Forget about the stones they’re not worth your life.”

Frencore slows to catch his breath. “Thanks, I owe you one.”

“For what?”

“Your concern, you‘re a good man.”
Milwer shakes his head. “You’re a strange one Frencore.”

Zacket points at the nearby hills. “Reach those and I’ll give you three greens one if I win.”

The sergeant snaps his head at Zacket. “No bribing the runner.”

Frencore stares at Zacket. “Why would I want three when I can win them all?”

Zacket waves Frencore words away. “I doubt that, cockiness can only take you so far. Your legs will fail soon.”

Corporal Pek stares ahead. “That’s my dead jacobee tree up there. You can make it there, can’t you?” Pek glances at Coop. “How does he say his name?”

“Fren…core.”

The mount in front of Frencore snorts loudly. With one of its hooves caught in the spokes of a broken and discarded wheel, the whiptail kicks its powerful leg, shaking the wheel free. It strikes Frencore in the chest; he drops like a stone, a jagged spoke leaving a gash in his right side. The column continues unaware.

Coop says without looking back at Frencore, “You’re going to get a break in the Nye. We’ll be moving much slower on that narrow trail. He glances over his shoulder. Damn. “Sergeant, he’s fallen.”

The column stops. Heads turn; they see Frencore on the ground holding his side. Coop rushes to Frencore. “That’s it, you’ve gone a distance none of us could have covered. There’s nothing more to prove.”

“We have yet to fully enter the Nye and reach my prediction. I have not, gone this, this far to fail.”

“Damn, don’t be a fool.” Coop sees blood on the side of Frencore’s faded and now torn brown tunic. “What happened? You’re bleeding.”

Frencore glances at the broken wheel near him. “Your mount kicked that off its hoof.”

“Let me put a wrap on your wound. We don’t need you attracting horracs.”

“I’ve been through the Nye many times and have never seen any horracs.” Frencore places a hand over his bandage and starts walking. Someone up front shouts, “He’s up again. He’s walking.”

Tarmo sighs. Tenacious to a fault.

Stonewood brings his mount near Tarmo. “Shall I tell him to ride with me?”

Tarmo shakes his head. “He won’t.”

Milwer moves his mount close to Coop’s. “When we’re in the Nye, the sergeant is going to get his revenge for yesterday. He’s going to let him fall into the ravine. Too bad, he’s quite an interesting fellow.”

Coop shakes his head, “He’s not trying to kill him, besides that would not be the Sergeant’s way.”

Milwer holds up a green stone. “This stone says he’ll not leave the Nye alive.”

Coop snaps, “I’ll take that bet, and if I were you, I’d be more concerned with getting my own ass out of their alive.”

Milwer glances at Frencore. “Well, I’m not the one with blood on me.”

Along with the shade providing forest, Zacket’s hills are behind them as they enter the flatlands. Thorny brush and scrub trees dot the barren plain. The only predictions that remain are Stonewood’s blue thorns, the sergeant’s Nye Ravine and Frencore’s five markers beyond. Stonewood notices Frencore lagging farther behind. He turns and rides toward him.

“Hey, idiot, have you had enough?”

Frencore says nothing.

“You just had to pass my blue thorns.” He growls. “Damn, I needed to win those stones”

“Then you should have guessed wiser.”

“Wiser, huh.” Stonewood urges his mount forward allowing it to brush Frencore aside and knock him to ground. Frencore struggles to his feet. He rubs the shoulder he landed on as his wound starts to bleed. Frencore watches as Stoney rides to the front of the column. You fucken knave, someday you’re going pay for that.

After trudging a ways, Frencore catches glimpses of the treetops in the Nye Ravine. His legs now ache terribly with every step. I can’t quit now.

The column reaches a fork and Tarmo halts the unit. He glances at the trail to their right, then the one leading into the ravine. “Dismount. Check your saddles, make sure they’re tight.”

I hope his bleeding has stopped. Coop nods to get Tarmo’s attention. “Are you sure you want to cut through the Nye, Sergeant? It’s not that hot now; we could take the long way.”

“It’s too hot for me; be cooler down there.” Tarmo turns and stares at Coop. “Why go the long way; we didn’t see any horracs down there when we were on our way to Crepso?”

“I was just wondering.” Damn, I best check on him.

As men pull at saddle straps and check harnesses, Frencore reaches the column and finds Coop marching towards him. “How’s that wound of yours, has it stopped bleeding?”

His body mostly numb, Frencore says, “I’m fine, it stopped a long ways back.”

“Good, are you ready to give up and ride yet?”

Frencore grimaces. “Ask me again in six markers.”

Coop frowns at him and then sees Tarmo lead the column into the Nye. “Well you just reached the sergeant’s bet, but I doubt if you can go those last five markers.”

Coop stays close to Frencore as they start down the narrow trail along the outer edge of the ravine. Frencore staggers and sways his way down, while Coop places his mount between Frencore and the shear drop on his left. His whiptail is now stepping perilously close to the edge. From his high mount, Coop chances a look down into the Nye. He shivers as a chill runs down his spine. One stumble, one false step, or lose stone and… Coop pats his mount’s neck. “Nice and easy girl.”

The deeper they descend, the steeper the drop off and the narrower the trail. Coop stares at a cluster of fruit trees amidst the many trees below. “Damn, they’re ripe too.”

Frencore says. “What’s ripe?”

“Yellow vangos. The branches below are full of them.”

“ Go–” Frencore moans and grabs his side. “Go get us some.”

Coop licks his lips, as he can almost taste one. “I wish I could.”

A few markers later, Frencore stumbles with increasing frequency. Coop stares at him. “Do you know why they call this place the Nye Ravine?”

Frencore shrugs.

“Long Ago, before the last one-moons, Prince Nye of Crepso fell to his death when a horrac knocked him off his mount. Horracs were here then and they are here now.”

“I suspect,” Frencore says, his breathing now laborious, “that nobleman left a bad taste in that horrac’s mouth.”

“Most likely.”

Frencore stops for a minute, and takes a deep, painful breath. “I’ll bet many a commoner had fallen before that Prince did, but then, they don’t name places for dead commoners, do they?”

“No they don’t. You had to stop just to talk. Are you ready to concede?”

“No, and stop riding so close to me. I don’t want to be responsible for your life. Go ride ahead. I’m not going to fall in.”

“If you want to be part of this unit, you’re going to have to learn that we’re responsible for each other’s lives, like it or not. That’s how it has to be. I would expect you to do the same for me; if you don’t want that burden quit now.”

“I never quit what I start.” Frencore finds the energy to quicken his pace. The trail widens for a stretch as it crosses a ledge. It narrows again just as Frencore stumbles into Coop’s mount. Coop pulls back hard the reins and gets a view of the deep ravine he did not need. “Are you all right back there?”

“Sorry about that,” Frencore says.

“We’re damn lucky that didn’t happen where the trail was narrower.”

Coop’s head turns to his right. “Did you hear that?”

“What?”

“I thought I heard a horrac’s hiss.”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

Ahead Gap says, “We heard it too.”

The hill and ledges on their right are dense with brush as the trail climbs towards the rim. An eerie silence grips the men, broken only by the prodding of hooves and the occasional snorting of a whiptail. Anxious eyes strain to see into the dark depths of the brush. His mouth parched, Frencore stares at a bush full of the moist red seeper fruit he favors.

“If you try to get some, it may be you and not the fruit that gets eaten.”

“You worry too much, Coop.”

“Just don’t.”

Frencore winces as he tries to pull one of the tart, fist-size fruit from a branch. The rustling of leaves startles Coop. He turns quickly and sees Frencore yank one of the red fruit free.” Coop sighs. “I told you not to do that.”

“Sorry.” Frencore takes a bite and savors the juiciness. He holds it up. “You want some?”

“No thanks.” Coop stares back at the still swaying branch. “You got lucky. Don’t do that again.”

Frencore nods as he takes another bite.

While the ravine to their left no longer looks like a bottomless pit, it is still quite deep. The treetops and thick vegetation below obscure the ground from view, appearing both lush and foreboding. Pek stares into the Nye. “There could be a few horracs down there.”

Stonewood glances below. “Or a thousand.”

“Keep those thoughts to yourself, Stony,” Milwer snaps.

“Dread not, Milwer; we’ll be out of here soon. They’ll not eat any of us today.”

Sergeant Tarmo eyes a blind turn ahead; he raises his hand and the column halts. There’s movement in one of the bushes, Tarmo nods at Pek. “Put a few arrows into that bush.”

Pek grabs his bow, nocks an arrow and loses it into the bush, then another. Both arrows find but leaves. “It probably was just a tota, jumping from branch to branch, Sergeant.”

“Perhaps.”

With his sword in hand, Tarmo slowly approaches the dense thicket of bushes. He leans from his saddle and probes the bushes with his sword. With nothing apparently lurking amongst the leaves, Tarmo waves them forward. “Keep your eyes open. This is a perfect spot to be attacked by horracs.”

Swords are drawn. The men stare into the brush as the column creeps forward. Coop looks at Milwer then the bushes on the hillside above them; some of which loom overhead. “This is not a good place to be.”

“No it’s not.” Milwer’s eyes dart about.

When Frencore places a hand on his side to pull his slipping bandage up, he finds it wet with blood. This is not good, not here. A few of the mounts snort, hooves shuffle nervously. Frencore says to Coop, “Damn, I wish I still had my fighting shaft.”

“You haven’t the energy to carry it, much less use it.”

“Um…” Frencore motions with his eyes and pulls his tunic open. “We need to get out here now.”

Coop’s jaw drops. “I thought you said it had stopped bleeding.”

“I thought it had.”

“Stay close to me.”

The trail narrows, forcing Coop to follow behind Frencore. Ahead, Stonewood sees movement in some branches near him. He rides past it without saying anything to Milwer.

Milwer nears the same branches and hears leaves rustling. His mount snorts and stops. It tries to back away. As Milwer kicks its sides to move forward, two screaming horracs explode from the dense foliage. Milwer cannot respond quickly enough. His sword drops to the ground as a horrac’s long talons savagely grip his right arm and shoulder. The other horrac sinks its fangs deep into his mount’s neck. Powerful horrac legs flail wildly; their long, infectious claws slashing deep into Milwer and his whiptail. Milwer and his mount topple into the ravine. The screeching creatures jump off just as Milwer and his beast are about to glance off a boulder. The dreadful creatures scamper down the ravine in pursuit. The men above can but watch helplessly, as Milwer crashes through tree limbs and disappears into the thick growth at the bottom.

Coop shouts, “He’s still alive.” He starts to climb over the edge.

Tarmo grabs him. “You’ll just be killed too.”

“He’s right.” Pek stares grimly below. “He will be dead before you reach him.”

The trees below shake and sway as horracs sweep in from everywhere. Screeching and growling, they slash and snap at each other for a share of the prey. Milwer’s cries cease, though his beast continues its wailing as the horracs tear it apart. It’s face covered with blood, one horrac emerges from below with part of Milwer’s arm in its mouth. The hapless whiptail’s cries now also cease, yet the feeding frenzy remains intense. Pek rushes towards his mount for his bow. His tear-filled eyes strain to find a target. He sees the bloody-faced horrac on a branch, its claws holding onto the arm as it bites Milwer’s fingers off.

Pek nocks an arrow. “Eat this!” Pek’s arrow takes flight, piercing the horracs neck. The vile creature drops from its perch. When it hits the ground, two young horracs pounce on its body; one grabs and runs off with Milwer’s arm.

Pek lets more arrows fly into the trees below before Sergeant Tarmo places his hand on Pek’s bow. “Come. We must leave here before they seek us. Milwer would not want you joining him.”

His heart beating fast, Pek sighs and turns away.

Frencore’s is still looking into the ravine when Coop asks, “Did you get clawed?”

“This is my fault, I got him killed.”

Yes, it was and mine. Coop says, “It was the horracs, not you.”

“I should never have left Crepso. I should have stepped aside and let the sergeant have the twins.” Frencore looks at his bloody side. If it were not for me being here, Milwer would still be alive.

Tarmo grabs his mount’s reigns and settles into his saddle. He looks at his men and their stunned faces. “Mount up. Let us get out of this place.”

Stonewood glances into the ravine, relieved it was Milwer; he says to Coop. “That runner is bad luck, we should leave him here.”

“Nonsense.” Coop frowns. “Get on your mount.”

Stonewood points his finger at Coop. “When others die, you’ll see then. We need to be rid of him.”

“Be quiet and get moving.”

Frencore hears leaves rustling near and sees two horracs jumping from branch to branch towards them. “Coop, behind you.”

Coop’s mount instinctively snaps its powerful tail at the leaping horrac, sending it over the edge into the ravine as Coop turns in time to point his sword and impale the other horrac. With his sword deep into the horrac’s midsection, he tries to shake the thrashing and mortally wounded creature from his weapon.

Frencore grabs the reins. He struggles to keep the horrified beast from throwing Coop off. “Easy, easy.”

Coop drops the horrac from his sword, and Frencore kicks the dying creature aside.

“Get him away from the edge,” Tarmo shouts as he watches Frencore and Coop continue to struggle with the frantic whiptail.

“Get that thing away from his feet,” Coop screams at Frencore.
Frencore wraps Coop’s reins around his wrist as he kicks the still screaming horrac aside. It tumbles over the edge. He looks at Coop, “Are you all right?”

“Yeah. And you?”

Frencore nods.

Now near them and with sword in hand, Tarmo looks down from his mount at Frencore. He sees his bloody tunic. “Did they claw you?”

“I haven’t been clawed.”

“Is that not a horrac wound?” Tarmo’s eyebrows draw down and his eyes narrow.

Frencore sighs. “I got this before we entered the ravine.”

“What!” The Sergeant’s eyes fill with rage. He glares at Coop. “He has been bleeding that badly, and you didn’t tell me. Idiot; what were you thinking?”
“But he wanted to continue. I could not get your crazy fool stay down.”

Tarmo grits his teeth. “You’re the bigger fool. You know they can smell blood from afar. You two cost a good man his life.” He glares at Frencore. “I would not have taken us through here, not with you bleeding. When we reach the garrison, you two can tell Milwer’s woman and child why he is not with us. Mount up, we need to get moving while we still can.”

The sound of branches swaying in the brush nearby spooks Coop’s mount. The beast shrieks, raises its head high and turns quickly. His wrist still wrapped with the mount’s reins, Frencore flies over the edge. He strikes the steep hillside hard enough to stun him. “Pull him up,” Tarmo shouts. Coop quickly dismounts as Pek dashes to help. They pull him to safety and place him on Coop’s mount. When Coop gets behind the groggy Frencore in the saddle, he sees the sack of toy carvings in the dirt. He dismounts and picks up the sack.

Many tense moments later, they exit the Nye ravine with Frencore in much pain and growing weaker.

Tarmo brings his mount close to Coop. “Was that your idea of keeping an eye on him?”

Coop frowns. “I was keeping an eye on him. I think we need to burn his wound and soon.”

Tarmo looks at the bandage. “We’ll stop here.” He holds up his hand. “Stop and dismount.”

The men gather dry brush and wood and soon have a small fire burning. Tarmo places his dagger into the hot embers. He waits for the end of the blade to turn red. “Someone get him something to bite.” Though groggy from blood loss and in pain, Frencore is aware of what they are going to do. Pek holds a small branch near Frencore’s lip as Tarmo cuts his bloody tunic open. The bandage is unwrapped. Tarmo holds the red-hot blade above the wound. “I hope you learned something today, now bite down.” He presses the scalding blade onto the wound and watches Frencore’s skin sizzle and burn. The site and stench of which makes the sergeant wince. Frencore’s teeth bite deeply into the small stick. Tarmo removes the blade and looks at the wound. “The bleeding has stopped.”
Coop pours water on the wound as Frencore’s half-open eyes watch. Coop looks at Tarmo. “Shall I put some backin sap on his wound; you did burn it?”
“Oi, such will not ensure the coming of the green death.”
Coop nods and smears the yellowish sap on Frencore’s wound.

Too weak to ride, the men make a drag for Frencore. Many road markers later, the sergeant drops back to check on Frencore. He stares down at Frencore as Coop’s mount pulls the drag. “If it were not for the horracs, and your wound, I believe you would have made those last three markers. Here, you’ve earned your green stones.”

Frencore weakly waves the sergeant’s hand away. “They cost too much to win. Give them to Milwer’s woman.”

“If you’re going to do that with them, then here, give her these too.” Tarmo drops him the wagered stones and three more. You know of guilt and compassion; such is good.

Hearing Frencore’s words, Coop collects more shiny stones from the others. Frencore looks at the 32 green stones collected as they sparkle in the sunlight. “A good man ought to be worth more than this.” He worried about me and I…

“Indeed.” Coop sighs, “Though many a man has died for much less.” He then looks the drawstring sack tied to his saddle and opens it. Coop removes the horrac figure, snaps its limbs off, and throws onto the ground as he notices a long column of riders. “Where do you suppose they’re going in such a hurry, sergeant?” Coop says.

“Don’t know?”

As the column passes Tarmo’s unit, an officer drops out to speak with the sergeant.

“What’s up, Lieutenant?”

“We’ve been ordered to set up camp in the forest near the Black River, though I don’t know why.”

“Something must be up in Crepso, to station you there. I’ll bet it has to do with Gords.”

“Have you heard something?”

“Two days ago, in addition to their merchant ships, the Gords sailed three large warships into the harbor. Do you want us to follow you, Sir?”

He glances at Frencore on the drag. “Um no, but when you reach the fort tell the captain of it, though he probably knows already. I have to catch up with my unit. What happened to that man?”

“Horracs. We lost another man and his mount.”

“Damn, sorry to hear that. I have to get going, I’ll talk with you when I get back, Sergeant.”

“Tell your Captain to avoid the Nye Ravine, too many horracs in there, Sir.”

Looking back, the lieutenant shouts, “Which man?”

“Milwer, Sir. We lost, Milwer.”

“Damn.”

Upon arrival at fort Lacket, they find Milwer’s wife and child waiting at the gate to greet him. Knowing how many men had left with Milwer for Crepso and not seeing his face, she lets go of her son’s hand and runs towards the drag.

“Who’s this? Where’s Milwer?”

Coop pulls back on the reins and dismounts. With solemn faces, the rest of the unit continues into the compound. Tarmo glances over his shoulder and sees Coop’s hands holding the widow.

Coop says, “I’m sorry, but he’ll not be returning to you.”

She gasps, “What do you mean, not returning?”

“He’s gone, he died this morning.”

She screams, “No, he can’t be gone. This is just some stupid prank, tell me where he is.”
His eyes fill with tears as Coop puts his arms around her. “It’s true. He is dead.”
The woman begins to wail loudly. She awakens Frencore. He looks up and sees the woman in Coop’s arms. “It is my fault that your man is dead. My wound attracted the horracs.”

“Horracs!” She drops to her knees. Now gasping for breath, she looks up at Coop. “You…left him behind for them to eat so you could escape, didn’t you?”
“No, no, that’s not what happened. I would never leave a man behind, much less a friend.”
“Then where is his body?”

“He fell into the Nye Ravine. There was no way to help him, none. The fall killed him and his mount instantly; he felt no pain.”

Frencore sees her child walking towards them. “If ever you want for anything, come to me.”
Milwer’s woman takes Frencore’s hand. “It was not your fault. It was those hateful creatures.”
Turning her hand over, Frencore opens her fingers. “These fell from his pocket. I think he won them wagering on a contest in Crepso.”
“I doubt that, my Milwer never won a bet, nor did he ever seek charity. I don’t want them.”
“However he came by them, they are yours.” Frencore closes her hand over the stones. “Please take them.”
She puts them in her pocket as Coop helps her to her feet. At his mother’s side and sensing something terribly wrong, her three-year-old asks, “Where’s father?” His mother begins to cry uncontrollably.

“Why is she crying? Where’s father?”
Coop picks the child up. “The Gods have taken your brave father on a journey with them.”
“Why?”

Coop swallows hard. “We, we don’t know why.”
“Tell them he can’t go.”
“I, I wish I could.” Coop hugs the child and then puts the boy down. “Your father got you these in Crepso.” He reaches for, and hands the boy the sack of carvings. Coop turns to hide his tears and walks away.

Chapter 2: Clarisena’s Damn Prophecy 

Smoke from the gutted palace drifts inland on a seaborne breeze. In a nearby field amidst other weary troops digging graves, young Captain Frencore sinks his shovel into the blood-spattered ground. Not wanting to chance seeing another familiar face amongst the corpses, he keeps his focus on his shovel. The stench of burnt flesh grows heavy.

“Damn, the wind’s shifted.” Frencore rubs his nose. He glances at a young private nearby, “I hate this fucken stench.”
Private Zelep rests his shovel, “It is quite awful, Sir—” Zelep spits. “I can taste it…”
“How old are you, soldier?”
“I’m fifteen, Sir?”

Frencore tilts his head and stares at the young blond soldier whose face has yet to sprout its first whisker. “Say again?”
“Sorry—” Zelep frowns. “I will be in a few moons, Sir.”
If you live. Frencore shakes his head and presses his shovel into the ground.

“Um, may I ask your age, Sir?”
“How old do I look?”
Zelep swallows hard. “Um…forty five?”
“Nay, I am thirty two.”
Zelep cringes.

Moments later, thunder rumbles in the distance.

Private Zelep wipes sweat from his face. “It might rain and quench the fires, Sir.”
“Aye; and beget us mud.”

“Sir, you need not be out here. You should be savoring our victory with General Attogo. Digging graves is not a task for an officer.”

What the fuck? Frencore’s stills his shovel. “Look round at our losses, Soldier. Tell me what to savor?”

Zelep remains quiet.

“I led these men to their deaths. It is indeed my task.” A vision of the Sorceress Clarisena flashes before his eyes. Had it not been for you and your damn prophecy—a frown ages his face. Frencore sinks his shovel into the ground.

A few moments later, a shadow drifts past Private Zelep’s feet and into the grave. Zelep looks up and finds a black gocee gliding inquisitively overhead. The small creature wheels round and with a flutter of its wings, alights on a slain soldier’s chin. Its sharp beak pecks at the man’s face and eyes.

“Get; be gone!” Zelep heaves a shovelful of dirt.
“Go…cee…” The creature shrieks as it shakes dirt from its feathers. With an eye in its beak, it takes flight.

Zelep looks at Frencore. “Sir, I’ve never seen them feed upon flesh or the dead. There’s something terribly wrong here. The gods seem to have forsaken Sukara’s Army and his subjects.”
“They may also forsake us for what the Sorceress had us do to them.”

Private Zelep’s eyes widen. “Did she deceive us, Sir? The behemoths from beyond chartered waters were just a myth? They were never coming to join with Sukara and invade our land?”

Frencore shrugs, “Perhaps not; I suspect, Clarisena just wanted us to believe such.”

Zelep gasps. “Sir, but so many have perished, even women and children.” He looks back at the distant ravaged inner city. “For what?”
“Indeed!” Frencore nods. For naught, but the Sorceress Clarisena’s despicable needs.

From the distant tree line, they hear a limb crash to the ground. Branches sway as indistinct figures leap and climb about the dense foliage. Frencore scoffs, “Damn, looks like there’ll be more scavengers feeding upon the dead tonight. Fucken splendid, we’ll need even more fires.” As Frencore turns away, Zelep continues to stare.

A moment later, Zelep’s jaw drops as he sees three huge dark creatures swoop down from the far off mountains beyond the tree line. The blackish creatures grow larger as they drift and change shape high above the trees. Too frightened to shout, Zelep swallows and says, “Sir, Sir, can behemoths fly; ca, can they—” He gasps as they come together into an enormous elongated monster, that turns itself inside out. “Can they change form like Demons? Um, Sir, maybe we should run now while we still can?
“What are you talking about?” Frencore looks up; his eyes open wide as he stares at the now swirling mass as it moves closer. He sighs, “Damn, that is neither; it’s just a gocee gathering. There must be thousands of them. The stench has no doubt carried far into the forest.” Fuck, they all seek flesh.

The gocee mass descends into the trees as the plodding sound of hooves grows. Frencore turns round and finds his friend, Lieutenant Coop in the saddle, his uniform soiled with soot and blood. Coops brown eyes are dull, their sparkle gone, as is his ever-present smile.

Wary of its powerful long tail and the biped’s strong legs, Frencore grasps the reigns and steadies Coop’s whiptail mount. He strokes its long neck, “Oi there, easy; you know me. I am not going to hurt you.” Frencore pulls a ball of crushed tempora leaves from his pocket. Coop’s mount takes it.”

“You do have a way with beasts, Sir.” Coop sighs. “He has been through much.”
“Aye, as have we. Did you find General Attogo?”
“No, Sir, I did not.” Coop groans as he pulls taut the bloody bandage on his leg. He unties a shovel from his saddle and dismounts carefully. “Sir, you may be the highest ranking officer alive.”
“That matters naught.”

Coop limps toward Frencore, “What are you saying, Sir?”
“I’ve had enough of war.” Frencore looks at Coop’s leg. “You can’t dig. Go find a place to rest.”

“The ground is soft; my arms are fine. I can dig well enough.”
“If you must.”

Coop stares at a corpse and the arrow jutting from its eye socket. He says, “Sir, do you suppose he knew how much I despised him?”
Frencore nods. “Now give me a hand.” They roll the body into the grave.
Coop says, “The knave was a good soldier, but still—” He heaves a shovelful of dirt upon the body.

Moments later, a raindrop splashes on Frencore’s hand, then another. Frencore says, “Fuck, they’ll be no fires tonight to deter the scavengers.”

A blinding flash of lightning splinters one of the gocee-infested trees. Many drop from branches stunned or dead; others take flight.

Zelep gasps. “Oi fuck, that was close.”
Coop says, “Aye, too close.” He looks at Frencore. “Did I ever tell you how much I hate lightning and being wet?”
“Many times, stop complaining; you could be one of them.” Frencore motions toward the corpses.
“I suppose…um, Sir.”
“ Now what?”

Coop sighs. “Will anyone be left to dig—our graves after the Behemoths?”
“If they come, I do not see myself among the dead; nor should either of you.”

With the brief storm gone, gocees fill the sky. Twenty or thirty circle and descend upon the carcass of a huge bellower bull. Frencore stares. Yes, let them all feast. He drops his shovel and turns round. “Coop!”
“ Sir?”
“Gather men and mounts. Have them drag as many of the dead bulls as they can close to the tree line. Do it now, there will be but one moon tonight. Darkness will come quickly.”
“Yes, Sir.”

Frencore helps Coop onto his saddle. “Your leg is bleeding again. Stay in that saddle and give your task to a sergeant. Go now.” Frencore glances at a grave a short distance away and walks towards it. Reaching the grave, he removes a large claw on a leather strip from his pocket. “I will wear it,” tears fill his eyes, he swallows hard, “not for protection, but to keep you forever near.” Frencore wipes his eyes. Fuck, what words can I find to tell your sweet, Verona I failed you?

Captain Frencore places the claw round his neck and turns away. As he weaves between the graves, he recalls a day four long years ago. Before the wars, when he first met the twin sisters, Vessa and Verona and Sergeant Tarmo.
Chapter 2: The Parchment
A twig snaps, then another. Now what? The old Sergeant thinks as he twists onto his side in his bedroll. Corporal Pek’s red hair and pock-scared-face come into focus. Sergeant Tarmo says, “Fuck, Pek, must you? The sun be up soon; just let the damn fire die.”

Holding more kindling, Pek cringes. “Sorry Sergeant, I just thought–”

“Nay you did not.” Lifting his head from his saddle, Sergeant Tarmo squints at Karrac’s moons. Splendid, they’re both full. What misfortunes await us today?

Pek reaches for a tattered parchment on the ground. Holding it near the fire, he tries to read the eloquent quill strokes. “I can’t read much… too faded, but I suspect this is yours and your father’s writing.”

Knarly old fingers find an empty pocket. Tarmo’s head snaps round. “Aye, read no more. Give it to me and be careful with it.”

Pek watches Sergeant Tarmo blow dust from his parchment, “I’ve served with you a long time and, well… never heard you speak much of him. Were you close?”

Tarmo stares blankly. “Close, nay. Knew of him; know you better.” His knurly fingers fold the parchment along well-worn creases. “He was never there for us; even when the plague took…” he sighs, “always off doing whatever it is Wizards do for their Kings.”

“Aye, my father was never there either.” Pek’s recalls the last and unfinished sentence. “He wrote that on his deathbed, huh?”
Tarmo nods.

“Did he leave you much; are you going resign soon?”
“Resign, ha; I wish.” A frown adds wrinkles to his leathery face. “All my father bestowed me was this,” he stares at the parchment,” dreadful burden and damn enigma.” Tarmo slips the folded document into his pocket.

Pek glances at the other soldiers, leans toward Tarmo and whispers, “They sleep, do say more. Perhaps I can help?”
“Nay…” Tarmo rest his head on his saddle. He stares at the moons. “I’ve told you too much already, and you best not repeat a word.”
“I won’t.” Pek glances upward. “Should we have reason to worry come morning?”
“Nay,” Sergeant Tarmo waves a dismissing hand, “only if you let superstition influence your thoughts.” His eyes close.

With the sun on the horizon, Sergeant Tarmo crawls from his bedroll. Well, they’re not going put themselves on. Reaching for his boots, he hears Corporal Pek say, “Mornin, Sergeant.”

Tarmo pulls at his boot and groans.

“Having a problem with those old bones, Sergeant?”
“My bones are fine; damn boots shrunk.” He opens a water flask and splashes some on his face. “Let’s go; everyone up. Stonewood, get your ass up now. Milwer…”
“Yes, Sergeant?”
“Take the mounts into the valley to graze and stay with them. Someone will relieve you later.”
“But, Sergeant, I’ve never been to the contests before.”
“Do I need to repeat myself?”
“No, Sergeant.”

Where the fuck are you? Tarmo looks round. “Where’s Coop?”
Pek points, “Over there, by the steam.”
“Corporal Coop, look at me.”

Filling his flask with water, Coop looks over his shoulder. “Yes, Sergeant, you need something?”
“I need you to stay out of trouble this year.”
“Oi… Sergeant, the fuckers welched and I only broke one of their arms. Damn noblemen. You would have–”
Sergeant Tarmo’s eyes scold as his upheld hand hushes, Coop. He lets his sword drop into his scabbard. “Move out, scoundrels need our attention.”

The Sergeant leads his troops into the valley. Clearing the tree line, the port city of Crepso comes into view. Tents and merchant stands abound. The small city’s harbor is a forest of ship masts.

Pek says, “Damn, all of Karrac must be here. I’ve never seen so many merchants.”
He nudges Coop as he glances towards the Lewd district. “There should be much to choose from, aye Sergeant?”
“I suppose.”

The sound of heavy hooves and a wagon approaching grows as Tarmo says, “I best not catch any of you with a woman. We’re here to maintain order and not –”
A man’s voice interrupts, “Oi there.”
Tarmo turns round and sees the driver of a bellower-drawn wagon. The man says, “Please have your men stand aside, Sergeant.”

“Let him pass.” Sergeant Tarmo watches the wagon and its tarp-covered contents shake and twists along the deeply rutted road. From beneath the tarp, Tarmo hears indistinct sounds. He holds a hand up and shouts at the wagon driver. “Halt.”
The wagon stops. “Why?”
Tarmo says, “What manner of beast do you have caged under that tarp?”
“I do not know. It was covered when it was loaded?”
“ And you did not inquire or look?”
“I was told not to and to not let anyone see.”

Tarmo dismounts and moves closer to the wagon. He pulls the tarp back and finds a large male horrac within. Tarmo says, “For whom are you transporting this horrac?”
“I cannot divulge, Sergeant.”
“But, you shall, else.” Tarmo eyes the vicious, blackish creature that stands half as high as a man. The horrac tilts it hairy head to one side and then the other; large, inquisitive eyes glare at Tarmo. It leaps toward Sergeant Tarmo and growls.
Tarmo jumps back. He hears and sees Corporal Coop say with an arrow drawn, “Shall, I?”
Tarmo says, “Not yet.”

The wagon driver shouts, “I would have him lower his arrow, Sergeant. You do not want to anger the owner of that horrac.”

“Which is who? I will not ask you again.”
Tarmo watches the horrac sway back and forth from the cage top by its two long muscular arms and wickedly clawed fingers.

The man says, “The Sorceress Clarisena and she’ll be angry if I’m late. Shall I proceed?”

Clarisena huh, Tarmo kneads his chin, so you say. He waves him on.

The driver snaps the reigns and cracks his whip at the ponderous beast with cut horns.

With Tarmo back in his saddle, Coop says, “Why would she send that here?”
“Perhaps she did not.” Tarmo shrugs, “I suspect he lied.”
“And yet you let him pass, why?”

“To avert Clarisena’s scorn; he could have spoken the truth.”
“I suppose.” The wagon rounds a bend. “And you don’t want to rouse the Demon in her.”

Moments later and near Crepso’s cobblestone streets, Sergeant Tarmo disperses his men.
Pek smiles. “Do you want me to come with you, Sergeant?”
“No.” He waves him away and proceeds down one of Crepso’s less congested streets.

The air grows heavy with the smell of perfume. Tarmo wrinkles and rubs his nose. A female voice says, “Your indulgence, Sergeant.” A hand tugs at his arm. He turns and finds two old women wearing the threads of nobility staring at him. The one that reeks of perfume says, “I told you it wasn’t him; this man is too young. Sorry to bother you, Sir; my foolish friend thought you to be another, someone long since dead.” She pinches her chin, “Though I can see why.”
Fidgeting with her necklace of black beads the other woman moves closer.
“What be your name?”
“Sergeant Tarmo.”
“She squints, shakes a finger and says, “His eyes, they are… else, he’s Tracery’s son. Was he your father?”
“You think me… the son of a Wizard?” Tarmo rolls his eyes. “I have matters that need my attention, enjoy the games.” He walks away. That has not happened in years; damn moons.
The perfume abuser shouts, “Pretend not, Sergeant, we know.”
With a gasp, her companion tugs too hard, beads fly about, she says, “Tracery has return from the dead.”
“I think not; come now.” The two women walk towards a line of vendor stands.

Meandering down the narrow street, Tarmo flinches at the sight of a beautiful young woman wearing yellow in the distance. And who are you? She disappears into a crowd. Walking faster, he bumps into an old man sitting in front of a Healer’s stand. “Excuse me, Sir.” Where did she go?
“Thank you, Sergeant.”
Damn, I’ve lost her. Tarmo says to the man, “Why do you thank me?”
“It has been many years since someone referred to me as Sir. Besides, with these old eyes of mine, I am usually the clumsy one.”

Tarmo puts a hand on the old man’s shoulder as he studies the healer. “Does he not look quite young to wear purple and black?”
The old man squints “Really… can’t tell age too well these days.”
“You’re not looking to deceive this old soldier are you?”
“Do you know me, Sergeant?”
“No, but I know a corporal’s sash when I see one, even if it is quite faded.” Tarmo leans across the healer’s table. “I asked you a question.”
“De– deceive him. No, Sergeant. I was…I was just showing him my grandfather’s robe, that’s all.” He quickly takes it off.
“You have ruined my morning. I wasn’t looking to lop anyone’s hand off today.”
“What! Take my hand off, for what?”
“Do not pretend ignorance of the law.” Tarmo bites his upper lip, his eyes narrow. “For portraying yourself a Wizard when you are not.” The Sergeant’s hand moves towards his sword.

“Oh my, it’s going to get messy round here.” The old man picks up his few lesser green stones and shoves the pouch of powder he was bartering for back at the healer.
Tarmo nods, “Yes, you may want to move along.”
The young healer’s eyes widen. His lips tremble. “Please Sergeant, don’t.”

Before turning away, the old man reaches for the pouch. “Since you thought me a blind old fool, I’ll just take this powder of yours, though I doubt if it will do me any good.”
“I never thought that of you, Sir. Keep it. Use the powder, it will heal that rash.”
“I hope so.” He smiles. “And if the good Sergeant here does relieve you of a hand. I hope you have a cure for that too.” The old man hobbles away.

“I’ll let you keep your hand this time.” He backs away. “Don’t let me catch you wearing that robe again. My father was a true Wizard, how dare you mock him by wearing those colors without having first earned them.”
The healer stuffs the robe into a sack. “I swear I shall never wear it again.”
Tarmo kneads his chin. No father, it cannot be that fool.
Ahead, Tarmo sees a wood carver’s stand. Hmm…perhaps he will have something for Milwer’s boy. He then feels a body brush against him.
“Excuse me, Sir.”
“No, it was my fault. I wasn’t looking where I was walking.” Tarmo eyes her shapely form, her long yellow hair and savors the scent of her futa perfume.
From behind her veil, he hears a soft voice. “Seeking a little fun today, handsome?”
Handsome, me, ha. He smiles. “Perhaps later.”
“Only perhaps, but I can–”
A breeze lifts her veil, revealing a face marked with the cruel vestiges of the pock plague. She covers her face quickly. “Never mind, Sergeant.” The woman turns to walk away.
“Wait please.”

She stops and looks at him.
“Here, take this for later.” He hands her a lesser green stone.
“Keep your stone. I’m not a beggar.”
“I know that.” The Sergeant frowns. “It’s for another like you.”
She tilts her head. “I don’t understand.”
Tarmo places the stone in her hand, “A woman I cared for very much succumbed to the pock. Please take this in her name.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.” She puts the stone in her pocket.
“If only I could look at you and not recall her and her suffering, I would seek you later.”
She nods, “I understand.” The woman walks a few steps, and turns. “Was she your mother?” Tarmo nods. Tries to say more and cannot. He shakes his head and sighs.

As Tarmo rounds a curve on the winding street, a pebble bounces off his shoulder, then another. He glances up and sees two scruffy-looking boys on the roof to his right, laughing. Sergeant Tarmo shakes his fist, “Best I don’t catch you two later.”
“You, catch us?” Zelep nudges his friend as he says to Tarmo, “That will never happen, old one.”
“Old one, huh?” Tarmo glances at a building to his right. He smiles at Zelep and darts for a ladder lying on the ground.

Zelep chucks another pebble. “Nay, old man, that won’t help.”

Tarmo watches them dart away, jumping from roof to roof and out of sight. Agile little beggars they are, got nerve too. He laughs, and continues on his way. A few paces further, Tarmo stops, turns and glances up at the rooftops. How young is too young, father? If only you had told me more.

Eager to find the woman he had seen earlier, Sergeant Tarmo takes little note of the many stands or the bartering voices. A short while later and to his right, he hears a familiar hissing sound. In less than a heartbeat, he unsheathes his sword and spins about in a defensive crouch. Spying the source of the fearful sound, Tarmo straightens, puts his weapon away and steps closer to the cage. “You again.” Through the bars, he studies the horrac for several minutes as the creature regards him in turn. Its nostrils flare as it snorts at him. The horrac’s long fangs extend down below its lower jaw and drip gobbets of saliva. Tarmo says, “Drool all you want, you’ll not taste my flesh.”

The horrac snaps its teeth together as it glares at a large wickedly curved claw hanging round the sergeant’s neck. Tarmo removes it and holds it close to the cage. “You know what this is, don’t you?” He sways it in front of the horrac. “My father gave me this for my protection.” Tarmo grins, “Took it from one of your kind; perhaps it belonged to a pack leader or kin?”

Red eyes glare at the talon as the creature’s head sways from side to side. It growls loosening a stream of drool.

Tarmo clicks his teeth together twice.
The horrac does likewise.

The creature repeats a few more of Sergeant Tarmo’s clicks precisely. Damn, you’re a smart horrac, too fucken smart. Tarmo kicks the cage. The horrac screeches; a woman and child passing nearby flinch and scream. Tarmo’s hand grabs the child as she stumbles backwards. “My apologies. I did not intend for it to frighten you or your child.”

“What is that awful thing doing here, Sergeant?”
“Indeed.” He glances about and then shouts, “Who be the keeper of this horrac?”

As the woman and child walk away, she stops, turns round, and says, “Should that vile creature escape, it will likely seek a child to kill and devour. I trust you will ensure such will not happen, Sergeant?”
“I shall. Go, enjoy the festivities.”

“Keeper of this horrac come forth now; else I will kill it.” Sergeant Tarmo glances at the horrac, which is now hanging from the top of the cage by its long tail. From behind, Tarmo hears a raspy male voice says, “The horrac is mine, Sir. No need for you to kill it.”

Tarmo turns, “Are you its keeper?”
“Yes, Sergeant.”
“I’ve seen your horrac before; you keep it for Clarisena’s?”
“Indeed not, it is mine.”

Tarmo scratches his chin. That wagon driver has much explaining to do. “Do say, how you manage to capture it alive;” Tarmo looks at the creature and then the man again,
“and yet you remain unscathed?”
“Oh, I didn’t, I traded for it. Others did the catching and they didn’t disclose how they accomplished that feat. Though I’m sure by their scars, it was no easy task.
They are awesome creatures, no?”
Tarmo says, “Dreadful, be more fitting.”

“That too, still, one has to admire their abilities. They can leap like demons from one tree limb to another, run as fast as whiptails and kill most anything. And when in packs, even the largest bellower bull. Why did you think it was Clarisena’s, Sergeant?”
“Whom, besides a sorceress would have a need for such a dreadful creature?”
“I do, it fights for me.”

Tarmo’s brows lower, “Explain.” He stares at a small knife scar on the man’s face and an odd tattoo on his arm. Consort with a horrac, what manner of scoundrel do you be?

“I have a much larger cage in that big tent over there. When the sun is high tomorrow, I will insure five major red stones to any man that either kills the horrac or lasts until these few sands run out.” He holds up and then turns over a small double-sided glass vessel.
“Five major reds, not lesser reds?
“Correct.”

Tarmo’s thinks of his hard army saddle, especially that annoying crack right under his ass. Hmm, a man could acquire a fine saddle with that many reds and still have a stone or two in hand. “I just may be interested in taking that challenge.”
“I almost forgot; you would also take half of the lesser blues I will charge those that wish to watch the spectacle. There is one thing though; the only weapons you will have will be this sword and your wits.”
“That’s not a sword, it’s a dagger!”
“In a large man’s hand perhaps; in small man’s hand, it is indeed a sword.”
“I’ve never seen a man small enough to call that a sword.” Tarmo scoffs, “With that weapon, only a complete fool would get into a cage with him.”

Sink- chirp- The horrac tilts its head mimicking another, more docile creature.
Tarmo sighs. You’re not going to entice me into a cage with you. I don’t need a new saddle that badly.
The man smiles, “Well Sergeant, will you be the first?”
Tarmo picks up the short sword and laughs. “Not with this, I’m no fool.”
“I did not think you would. No matter, Crepso has many fools desperate for stones.”
“Quite true. Tell me your name, keeper of a live horrac.”
“I am Runk. Why?”

Tarmo places the short sword in the man’s hand. “I have saved your face in my memory. Should that horrac of yours get loose and kill someone, I will need a name to hunt you down by.”
“It won’t escape, Sergeant.”
Tarmo wanders away, saying over his shoulder, “It best not.”

On that same narrow street in the lust district, the young drifter Frencore rambles about in faded, tattered clothes of a commoner. Most ignore the young man with the chiseled looking, yet handsome face. Having mucked stalls for a full cycle of the lesser moon, Frencore carries six greenstones in his pocket.

Colorful tunics and men’s tabards flap in the breeze at a vendor’s stand. Frencore glances at a red tabard, and then at the gray faded and stained one he’s wearing. It’s been a long time since I wore a color, but he’ll probably demand a green stone and not give me any lasers greens in return. Frencore removes one green stone from his pocket and walks toward the stand. He feels the red fabric. This should last a good while.

The vendor says, “Your woman would think you quite handsome in that, young man.”
Frencore stares. “There is no woman in my life.”
The man looks at Frencore’s attire. “If you wear such all the time, you will forever be without a woman.” One of the man’s hands gestures sympathetically, “Well, at least none of any consequence.”

Frencore lets the green stone drop back into his pocket. He turns away.

“Wait, I meant no insult, please come back don’t leave. I just wanted to help.”
Without looking back, Frencore says, “I’ve seen men killed for less.” As he continues on his way, his eyes seek a certain female face amongst the throng.

A few merchant-stands and dwellings away from Frencore, the twin sisters and reigning beauties of Crepso’s Lust District, Vessa and Vorona chat with another woman.
There she is. Frencore gasps. He smiles and waves at Vessa. Please remember me.
She returns his smile and ambles toward him with hips swaying.
Vessa twirls. “Do you like what you see?”

Damn, she’s forgotten me. Frencore hides his disappointment and what he is holding behind his back. “Yes, I like what I see very much.”
“Would you like to indulge in my services for a while? I have many pleasures to offer.” She runs a slender finger over his lips.
“Just to look upon you, to hear your voice is a delight. You require four stones, no?”
Vessa pinches her chin and slowly eyes him over. “Have we bartered before?”
We certainly have. Frencore sighs. “Um, perhaps…this will refresh your memory.” He presents her with an exquisite red hijo blossom from behind his back. “I believe you favor these.”
“I most certainly do.” She sniffs it and smiles. “Oi?” Vessa snaps her fingers and nods her head. “You…it was raining,” she rolls her eyes and wrinkles her nose, “you stunk like a mound of whiptail droppings. Um, you had but one green to your name and I was…I was wearing a hijo.”
He smiles. She remembers— Frencore’s smile fades into a frown.
“Why the look?”
“You only remember me because…I smelled badly.”
“Perhaps, to some extent.” Not really, I remember your eyes, your voice. Vessa moves much closer; she sniffs the air. Frencore feels her breath on his face as she says, “Well, you do not offend my nostrils today.” If only he had more stones. She touches his face. Frencore shivers.

Vessa steps back and sighs. “I’m sorry, but your flower, though lovely, and one greenie, well, it will just not suffice. Though I will not have you leave empty handed,” she grins, “with nothing to recall.” Vessa takes his hands in hers and places them on her breast. Frencore’s jaw drops. His hands remain motionless.
“They have no teeth; you can move your fingers. You have felt a woman’s chest before, no?”
“Of cause, but not yours.” He gently massages her firm breast.
“Save your stones and next we meet you can feel…” She smiles, backs away and twirls. “Until then.” Vessa turns to walk away.
“Wait.” Frencore lightly clasps her wrist, as he reaches into his pocket. “Look today, I have more stones.”

Splendid. Vessa fingers his six green gems. “Are you sure you can afford to part with these?”
“I’ve slept in stables, shoveled more beast’s droppings than ten men and not had a drop of tempora; just to be with you. Yes, I am sure.”
I knew there was something special about you. She sighs. “I’m so taken…I–” She runs her fingers through his long, wavy hair. “I shall require only three greens. Yes, I’m yours for only three shiny little green ones.
“Three greens? I was thinking two.” He lies. “Three, is a bit high, considering how few I have.”
She frowns.
He glances about to see if anyone is close. “Um, um…what will you do should I part with three?”
Vessa grins. “Whatever you want,” her grin becomes a frown, “with one exception. You mustn’t hurt me. If you are not satisfied, you can keep your three greens.” Vessa strokes his arm. “Your eyes say give her the stones, do they not?”

He glances at her hand as she continues to stroke his arm, sending chills up his spine. Frencore gasps. “My eyes are not the only part of me saying that; a man would have to be dead, not to want for one as exquisite as you. As for pain, no need for fear; and I would kill any man that even considered for a moment, hurting you.”

Damn, I think you would. She looks closely and squeezes his strong bicep. “I shall sleep easier with that knowledge.”
“As for those three greens, I want you and your look-alike to join us.”
Fuck, he’s just like the rest. “You said before that I was exquisite, yet you want for my sister. I guess I am not really all that exquisite.”
“Oh, but you are.” He steps back to take in the whole of her beauty: the curve of her hips, the suppleness of her lips and her modest, lovely bosom.
“Yet, you want for my sister too?”
“How could I not, when she is another you?”

Her face grows sullen as Vessa stares into Frencore’s eyes. Damn, I did not want to share you. Why care, he’s just another man with stones? She forces herself to look away, to appear indifferent.

“Well…”
“Together, we can be too much for one man.”
“I guess I shall be overwhelmed.”
“Very well, if the two of us is what you want, then you must part with seven lesser greens.”
“Seven? Did I understand you correctly? To have you, I pay three. To have you and your sister I pay seven. Should it not be six?”
“You have it correctly. Nowhere in the realm will you find two whom look like us or please as we can. We are special. Special things cost more. Do they not?”
“But I’m not a nobleman. I am of very limited means. Are you sure you cannot consider six?”
“Six–” Vessa ponders as she gazes into his eyes, “I’ll make a deal with you. You can pay with six. However, if we can make you scream either of our names, then you must leave two more little greens. Do you have eight?”
“I have but eight to my name.” Frencore lips twist. “Hmm, all I have to do is not call out you or your sister’s name and I pay but six greens.”
“Yes.”
“And how long will you two pleasure me?”
“Until you have had enough or a new day awakens us.”
“A new day, you have a deal. Here, take my six greens before I realize how poor I will be.”
“You will not be poor. You’ll leave here a rich man.”
“I will?”
“Of course, you will walk away with a wealth of memories, memories to sustain you on those long and lonely nights to come. Is such not worth a measly seven lesser greens?”
“Tell me, how many Gods are you beholden to?”
“Gods? No Gods or Demons for that matter. Whatever made you ask that?”
“Well, you’re far too beautiful and shrewd to simply be a woman of lust, something else must be afoot here.”
She laughs. “There’s nothing else afoot here.”

As Vessa closes her deal with Frencore, her twin Vorona accepts seven stones from the sergeant. Frencore and Vessa walk towards the sister’s dwelling. Holding Frencore’s arm, Vessa asks, “What pleasures you most? What do you want me to do first?”
“Um, I don’t know.”
“Oh, but I think you do, every man has some favorite…titillation. I have heard them all; you can tell me.”

As Frencore contemplates his answer, above on a roof, Zelep and his black-haired cohort look down at the narrow street. Zelep wipes perspiration from his forehead. “Let’s get down. It’s too damn hot up here.”

Seeking the nerve to answer her question, Frencore bites his upper lip.
Vessa pulls him close to her; she whispers in his ear, “Nothing comes to mind; or are we perhaps too shy, to say?”
“I’m not sh–” Pots, pans, ladles and other cooking utensils on a merchant’s stand fly in every direction, pummeling to the cobblestones with a loud metallic clatter.” Frencore and Vessa turn round. They see two boys hanging by their fingertips from a roof, their feet flailing about hunting for a steady surface. An angry peddler pulls the boys to the ground. When the boys try to flee, the peddler knocks them down.

Vessa tilts her head. “As I was saying–”
“Hold your words please.” Frencore watches the man grab the Zelep by his neck. He begins to curse and shake the boy. Frencore gently removes Vessa’s hand from his arm and walks towards the man. “One moment.”
“Go away; this is none of your concern.” The peddler shakes a clinched fist in front of the Zelep’s face.

Frencore reaches behind his back for his fighting shaft and strikes the man’s hand with it. “I’ll decide what is or is not my concern.”
“Yee…Woo–” Heads turn. Releasing the boy, the peddler grabs his hand.
Zelep looks at Frencore. “We’re beholden to you, Sir.”
Frencore holds his hand up. “You two stay put.” He glances at the peddler’s now-bloody hand.
Still moaning, the man shouts, “Why did you do that? Is that beggar yours?”
“I’ve never seen him before.”
He grabs a rag and wraps it round his hand. “Damn you, I think you broke it.”
“And you did not intend to break the boy’s face?” Frencore hands his fighting shaft to Vessa. “Hold this please.” He glares at the man. “Raise your fist to my face as you did the child. I’ll keep one hand behind me so as not to have an advantage. Well—” Frencore pushes him. “Fight a man, child-beater.”

The peddler backs away. Frencore glares at him. “If you dare to seek out the boy afterwards, I’ll find you.”
“I won’t.”

Frencore looks at the boys and the merchant’s wares scattered about ground. “Pick up that mess and then be gone.”

The boys nod, collect the wares and then disappear into the crowd. Vessa hands Frencore his shaft. She places a hand on his arm. “He’s so despicable; why did you make them put everything back?”
“What he is matters not; it was their doing, it was for them to correct.”
You’re a strange one for a beggar. “You were once an orphan and a beggar too, weren’t you?”
“I was an orphan, but never a beggar.”
Vessa frowns. “I hope he has not dampened your mood for me.”
“Not at all, besides, I have grown accustomed to dealing with the likes of his kind.” Frencore forces himself to place a hand on her ass. “Is that the feel of a shy man?”
She smiles. “I suppose not.”

When Vessa and Frencore reach the sisters’ dwelling, they find Vorona and Tarmo standing near the entrance. Vessa cringes. Fuck, we did it again! Damn, she’s with a sergeant.
Vorona pulls her sister aside. “Get rid of him. I’ve got the Sergeant’s seven greens already.”
“And I have that fellow’s stones. This is going to get ugly. That young man is headstrong and not afraid of a fight.” She glances at Frencore. “He’s not going to step aside for your soldier.”
“Like mine will? You’re the witty one, think of something.”

Tarmo and Frencore stare at each other.

Vessa says, “Obviously a mistake has been made and it is ours. My sister and I will pleasure each of you separately and give you back two stones; as long as you do not fight.”

There has been fighting over the twins before, another incident may bring their expulsion from the city or worse. By the King’s law they could pay with their lives should either man be killed.

“I will do my sister one better.” Vorona says. “We’ll give them all back and you can go on your way. Please don’t fight, we don’t want any trouble, nor do we care to see either one of you dead.”
Tarmo turns toward Frencore. “The only mistake here will be yours young man, if you do not stand aside. As a soldier, I have first right to these women.”
“I am no man’s fool, there is no such law. I have paid for their favors and I shall have them. You Sir shall be the one to step aside!”
“There is such a law.” Sergeant Tarmo draws his sword.

A short distance away, one of Tarmo’s men sees them as people gather round. He dashes off to get Coop.

“I care not to cripple or kill you.” Frencore sways his long sharp fighting shaft in the Sergeant’s face. “Lower your sword, Sir.”
“Nay!” He stares at Frencore. “You think I fear you’re…stick?” He moves his sword close Frencore’s neck.
“Perhaps you—” Feeling the cold blade against his neck, Frencore jumps back, swings at, and knocks Tarmo’s sword aside with his shaft. People scream and scatter.

Sergeant Tarmo responds, his sword striking Frencore’s shaft hard. It leaves a deep notch. Another swing of his blade adds yet another notch and forces Frencore back. Tarmo shouts, “Concede and live, fool.” Another swipe of his sword shreds a nearby canopy and splinters a rack of smoking pipes. They smash to the ground.

Frencore’s shaft topples a shelf of fancy knives and trinkets. Items fall from shelves or fly through the air. Frencore’s knows his stonewood staff cannot fend off Tarmo’s sword much longer, yet he holds his ground.

The twins scream in unison, “Stop, stop this please!”

Frencore drops to the ground onto his side, his staff striking the backs of Tarmo’s knees. The Sargent’s legs buckle, dropping him knees-first onto the cobblestones. Frencore jumps to his feet. He slams a foot down the sergeant’s sword, shoves him onto his back and brings the pointed end of his staff to Sergeant Tarmo’s throat. “Leave, and I shall let you live.”
“Remove your staff before my men kill you.”
Frencore glances up and sees Coop and another soldier approaching. “So you can kill me later?” He glances at the soldiers and says, “If I am to die, then you will die too.”

“No!” Vessa screams as she tugs at Frencore. “There’s another way to settle this.”
Frencore glances at her. “Speak quickly, woman, the Gods await us.”

Coop steps forward, his sword held high. “Remove that shaft from his neck or lose your head.”
“Oh really.” Frencore grins. “Look at the way in which I am leaning over my staff, fool. Cut my head off, and the weight of my falling body will drive my staff into him, or perhaps, I will drive it into him before your sword reaches me. Move not a muscle; else I shall do just that.”

“This is idiotic. No one has to die.” Vessa steps between Coop and Frencore. “I believe I have a solution. Please listen to me.”
“Move, woman.” Coop demands, as another pulls her aside.

Feeling the sharp staff upon his neck, Tarmo stares at Frencore. No one has ever taken me down with a shaft. You’re going to— fuck, he’s not the one, is he, father?

Coop’s sword grows heavy. “Shall I let her speak, Sergeant?”
“Let the whore speak.”

Frencore presses his staff a little harder against the sergeant’s neck. “Her name is Vessa. Do not call her a whore again. Without women of lust, where would your dreams come from? They make your miserable life tolerable. For that reason alone, you should not call her a whore. Go on; speak your mind, Vessa.”
Vessa tries to appear calm as she says, “Your quarrel is for our services and I have a better way to determine who gets to enjoy the both of us. My sister will go with you Sergeant,” Vessa looks at him, “and I shall go with him.” She places her hand on Frencore’s arm. “Whoever is spent first shall lose.” The winner will then have us both and no one need be harmed. If one of you believes he is not man enough to out-last the other…well, then…I guess you can kill each other. Now, unless one of you wants to admit he has no staying power when with a woman, I believe you can let him stand.” She looks at Frencore.

Both men remain silent. The crowd begins to stir. “Two green stones say they both die,” an older woman-of-means says to her escort.
“Nay, one will live, you have a bet.”

Vorona moves closer, and kneels next to Tarmo. “Anyone lucky enough to take down a sergeant as skilled as you should be in service to the King. Surely, you could make a soldier of him. He lacks not for bravery, though he certainly could learn respect. Do you not agree our King could use such a man?”

Tears fill Vessa’s eyes and run down her pretty face. “Agree to it, I beg of you. My sister and I will surely be beheaded if either of you die. Must we die too, to quench your, your stupid pride? We only wanted to please, and for this, you would have us die? You’re, you’re both despicable.”

Frencore frowns. “I do not want to chance your lives. I’ll agree if he does.”

“Corporal Coop,” says Tarmo, “if I am killed, these women are to come to no harm.” Tarmo looks up at Frencore. “You may take his head if he does not remove his staff.” Yield young man; show me you are wise as well as brave. Give me reason to believe you are the chosen one.

“But Sergeant, I cannot insure his body will not fall upon his staff and take your life with it.”
“If it does, it does.”

Vorona grits her teeth. “If you die, they will execute us. Your words will not matter. A sergeant’s death will never go unpunished. You’re a man of intelligence; you must know that. Then again, my sister may have misjudged you. Perhaps you cannot see the foolishness of this, in which case your men do not need you alive. Yes, they would be better off without a fool leading them. Am I looking upon a fool?”
Tarmo glares up at her, “You’re not looking upon a fool woman.”
“I thought not. Then agree and end this now so we can get on with the pleasing.”

“Her words are true,” Coop says. “The city Elders will have them both killed. Do you want to be remembered for that?”
“Fuck, all right. Put your sword away. As for you, do you agree to become a soldier?”
Frencore backs his staff off some. “A swordsman and not a stable dung cleaner?”
“A mounted trooper in my unit and I will oversee your training. You must also swear to protect the life of all soldiers, including mine and agree to obey orders, especially my orders.”
“I have to protect and obey you?”

Frencore pretends to ponder acceptance of the sergeant’s offer. In actuality, he wants to scream yes, yes. Without connections or enough white stones to buy a station, Frencore could only dream of becoming a mounted trooper in the King’s army. With those few moves of his fighting shaft and the twin’s intervention, Frencore’s dream is now near a reality. Though he looks at the sergeant, he does not see him, instead he sees himself in the garb of a mounted trooper, standing next to his mount. Not just any whiptail, he sees a splendid example of the breed standing tall on two perfectly proportioned and powerful legs, its long and menacing tail waving slowly back and forth. Frencore can almost feel the steed tugging on the reins.

“Well?” The sergeant’s voice dispels Frencore’s vision. He is again aware of Tarmo’s face at the end of his shaft.

Vessa says, “You would do well to take his offer. A mounted swordsman in the King’s army is an honorable profession, or would you prefer to muck stalls forever? The choice is yours. You can join the army, die, or if by the intervention of some God, disappear from here, you can return your mounds of beast’s droppings.”
Frencore sighs, “But?”
“But nothing, haven’t you cleaned enough beast droppings? Would you not prefer to ride them?”
“For one so young, you have much wisdom,” Frencore looks at her and then the sergeant. “I agree. You have my word on it; besides, I am not one to take pleasure from killing.”

Frencore removes his weapon and reaches down. “Sergeant.”
Tarmo grasps his hand, pulls himself to his feet. He shows neither rage nor fear, and has cost me much pride, perhaps he is the one?
“Smile,” Vessa places her hand on his arm. “You’re going to be a mounted trooper.”
“If, he can complete his training.” Tarmo laughs.
“Oh, I shall.”
The Sergeant shakes his head. If he’s not the chosen one, then he’s one lucky bastard to have lived this long.

With the sergeant’s pride being what it is, Tarmo’s men are surprised by his offer to Frencore. Coop leans towards Frencore. He whispers, “The Sergeant must have plans for you. Your days may be numbered.”
“And your days are not?”

Tarmo brushes the dust off his hat and tunic. He recalls his wizard father’s last words; ‘Someday you will meet an extraordinary young man. A man destined to lead. When you do, it will be for you to train him, to make an exceptional soldier of him for the sake of the Realm, and perhaps all of Karrac. Be wise in your quest. All could be lost should you choose wrongly. Keep the knowledge of this task from ears that do not need to know.’

With a twin at each man’s side, Tarmo and Frencore move toward the sisters’ dwelling. The sergeant glances at Frencore. “I cannot wait to begin your training.”
“And I cannot wait to prove myself.”
Another soldier warns, “Enjoy the woman’s pleasures. It will be a long time before you enjoy another of any kind. Sergeant Tarmo is the most demanding instructor in the army. On a good day, he is a hard man to please. Seeing how you have taken him off his feet with only your shaft—,” He laughs. “Well, I doubt if you will ever see one of his good days.”
The other soldiers laugh. Coop waves a finger. “And don’t think for a moment you’ll outlast him with a woman. Women beg him to finish so they can rest. The God of endurance resides in his loins.”

Vorona snaps, “We’ll see about that!”
Still standing close to Frencore, Tarmo asks, “What name do you go by?”
“Frencore.”
“Frencore, Frencore; that takes too long to say. We’ll call you Fren.”
“I bear my father’s name and I do not care to dishonor his name by changing it.”
“How interesting.” The sergeant turns to Coop. “He knows who his father was.”

His eyes glaring into the sergeant’s, Frencore silently stews, gritting his teeth and clinching his fist. Vorona watches Frencore’s knuckles turn pale. We must distract them.
Her thoughts the same, Vessa’s hands suddenly fly up, as she pulls at her long hair and begins to stagger about with her eyes closed. She shouts, “No, not another vision. I cannot bear to see another.” She wobbles towards Frencore, then the sergeant. She grabs Tarmo as she drops to the cobblestones.
“Vessa are you all right?” Vorona quickly kneels next to her, “Wake up Vessa, wakeup.”
She takes her sister’s limp body in her arms.

People crowd around. The Sergeant asks for and gets a leather pouch from one of his soldiers. He sprinkles water on her face. “Perhaps this will wake her.”
Vessa stirs some, yet her eyes remain closed.

“Give me that.” Vorona takes the pouch from the sergeant. She pours a more generous amount on Vessa’s face.
Her eyes open, she squints at her sister. “It has happened again. I saw the future.”
“Again?” Frencore asks, “What did you see?”
Vessa covers her eyes with a hand. “Terrible things. I saw very terrible things.”
Vorona holds her sister closer. “What terrible things?”
“It was not like the last time.” She takes her hand from her eyes and glances about. “This time I didn’t see anyone die, though I sensed death everywhere.”
Tarmo looks down at her. “Whom did you see?”
“I saw two men, you Sergeant and that one.” She motions at Frencore. “You were both in some forbidding land far away. Death was seeking everyone.” She reaches for and grabs Sergeant Tarmo’s arm. “You desperately needed his help and he yours. You were like brothers.”

Mesmerized, Frencore asks, “What else did you see?”
“It was too confusing to describe.” She grasps her sister’s hands, “Evil, I saw the face of evil everywhere.” Her lips tremble, “Please, please don’t ask me to recall more.”
Vorona wipes the wetness from her sister’s face with her silken sleeve and wonders what she will contrive next.

Sergeant Tarmo places a hand on Vorona’s shoulder. “Does this sort of thing happen often? Does she have the gift to see the future?”
“Such is no gift,” Vorona snaps. “It is more a curse. She cannot look into the future by choice to profit from it. And she sees only terrible things, things no one would want to see. No, such is not a gift.”
Tarmo nods. “How often has it happened?”
“This is what,” she looks at Vessa, “the third time?”
“The forth.”
“I think she’s all right now.” Vorona takes her hands. “Can you stand?”
“I think so.”

As the crowd moves back, Vorona whispers into her ear, “You’ve never had a vision before, what are you up to?”
“Be quiet and keep playing along; you’re doing fine.”
The Sergeant and Vorona help her up. “My vision has passed. We can go inside and begin the pleasuring.”

They walk the short distance back to the dwelling’s entrance. Before they enter, the sergeant pulls Vessa close to him. He whispers, “I do not for a moment believe you saw anything.” He feels her tremble. “Be calm; I’m not angry, and you need not fear that I will kill him later. If you were you were a man of noble blood, you most certainly would be a general. That was not simply a good act, it was brilliant.”

Vessa bites the side of her hand, taps her chin with a fist and says, “Sergeant, can’t you tell real fear when you see it? We thought two would get us killed.”
He grimaces, “I’ll grant you that, but the vision was, well, there was no vision, was there?”
The hint of a smile appears on Vessa’s face. “But you can only assume such, Sergeant.”
“I thought so.”
“I had you for a while.” He feels her elbow.
“Perhaps, for a moment or two.”

Vessa feels a chill. Her eyes appear devoid of focus as she stares intently at nothing. Sergeant Tarmo says, “What’s wrong?”
She blinks and sighs, “I’ve just realized something, and it frightened me.”
“Really?”
“I swear by all the Gods, I’m not pretending.”
“All right, I believe you. What did you realize?”
“l… I’ve never done anything like that before.” Vessa fidgets with her hair. “I’m not one to make up stories. I’m just not that creative. I’ve never had a vision before, could it have been real?”
Tarmo says, “I don’t think so; but then, I’ve never had a vision before either.”
Vessa whispers, “Just the same, if I were you, I would take care of him.” She glances toward Frencore, “You may need him someday.”
“Perhaps,” Sergeant Tarmo shrugs, he looks at Vorona, “but now, now I need your sister. Both moons will be full tonight and I am at my best when they are. I will see you when she is spent.”
“When she is spent and not you?” She laughs.

Chapter 3: The Nye Ravine

Frencore’s glances up at the dwelling’s entrance and sees an ornate 42 carved into the white stones; below it are the old-tongue words, ‘”Laca Duala Bellerins.”’ The dual beauties. He nods.

Vessa pushes the red doorway curtain aside. “Enter.

The men look at each other for a tense second or two, but much to the sister’s relief, Frencore motions for the Sergeant to enter. They glace at the spacious though somewhat dark room. Large fancy drapes hang from the ceiling dividing the room. Vorona says, “Boots off please.”
“Of cause, Tarmo,” says. He rubs his bare foot into the thick soft rug. My saddle should feel so good. Eyeing the colorful thick rug and its intricate design, he says, “These are worthy of a King. You two have exceptional taste.”

Frencore nods as he stares at three exceptional statues of curvaceous women near a wall. He picks up masterfully cut crystal vases. “This must be worth a few red stones.”
Vessa’s head tilts and her brows rise. “Reds? That is worth five white ones. Please put it down. “She glances back at him. Why do you intrigue me so?
“Damn.” Frencore carefully returns it to its pedestal. He picks up one of the many exquisite pillows spewed about. Hmm, these two no doubt have many wealthy and generous clients. Looking at a vessel on the floor near an oil lamp, he says, “Is that pale wine?”
Vessa says, “No, it’s just water. Have some if you’re thirsty.”
“Thanks.” Frencore drinks and watches Vessa untie her wrap and drops to the floor. She smiles and beckons him with a finger, “Come over here; warm me.”

Much later, Vessa kisses an exhausted and sleeping Frencore on his cheek. I’ve never done that before; where are these feelings coming from? She pulls a small rug over him and joins her sister on the other side of the curtain. After many hours with Sergeant Tarmo, the sisters, who claim to be –“too much for any one man,”- can no longer make that assertion. Half asleep, the sergeant hears the sound of a hissing horrac nearby. Fuck, I left my sword on the other side. Tarmo stares at the room-dividing curtain. He sighs. Damn, it’s just that fool snoring.

An hour later, a cool breeze sways the door curtain. Fingers of sunlight dance into even the far reaches of the dark room. Vessa and Vorona huddle closer to, and half on top of the sergeant’s warm body. The draft assaults their nakedness. Vessa shivers; while Frencore on the other side of the curtain sleeps undisturbed sheltered by the rug she had placed over him.

Tarmo’s heavy eyelids open to a blinding flash of sunlight. He tries to cover them with his right hand, but cannot, being pinned as it is under Vorona. Tarmo gently works his hand and arm from under the sleeping woman. Twisting onto his side, he manages to get from free without, he-thinks, awakening her or her sister. He stands, looks down at the two of them, and whispers, “You are the two most desirable, and intelligent women I have ever met. May the Gods forever smile upon you.”
How sweet of you. Vorona pretends to sleep.

Tarmo gently pulls a furry hide over them. Looking at Vorona, he whispers, “If only I were not so old.” He grimaces, “Like one so fine could ever want for a man such as me. May the Gods find you a strong, young man.” He kneels and gently kisses her forehead. “Take care, woman.” Damn, I just kissed a whore. Why did I do that?

Vorona’s eyes open. “You take care too, and you’re not that old.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to awaken you so early.”

“To be awakened by a kiss and such words,” she smiles, “the time is of little concern.”

Vessa is now also awake, though she doesn’t show it. Hearing the sergeant’s voice, she begins to picture things, things that frighten her. The more the sergeant speaks, the clearer the images become.
Tarmo whispers to Vorona,” It’s time for us to leave. Say goodbye to your sister for me.”

With his hand on the curtain, he hears Vorona say, “Sergeant.”
“Yes?”

“For reasons I cannot explain, I feel a need to be with you, to see you again.” She stares at him. “You will return to me, I can feel it, it will come to be.”

“Oh you say that to all of your clients.”

“No, not really.”

“To be honest, I feel the same about you. Perhaps it is what Gods want?”

Throwing the hide covering them aside, Vessa suddenly sits up. She grabs her sister’s wrist, stares expressionlessly at nothing, and begins to mumble in a strange tone of voice, “Many will die under the One-Moon in a faraway place. Evil is everywhere, the Sergeant and Frencore must not go. They must not…”

Vorona angrily shakes her sister. “Stop it; it’s not funny. You’re going to anger the Gods. Vessa-”

Vorona’s anger quickly turns to concern. She sees tears running down her sister’s face and can feel her trembling. Though naked, Vessa seems oblivious to the now strong, cold draft blowing into the room. With distant eyes, she stares at Tarmo.

“That was really good Vessa. You should go to the Palace and join the traveling assemblage performing there.”

Vorona snaps at Tarmo, “Look at her tears, she’s not pretending. Look at the fear on her face. She must have seen something horrible.”

He steps closer and pulls the hide over her. “I’m sorry, I just thought…”

“Yes, I know.” Vorona shakes her. “Vessa, look at me.” Her stare remains blank.

Tarmo leans towards Vessa, “Are you all right?”

Vorona turns her sister’s face, she shouts, “Vessa, look at me, you are having a bad dream.”

Her eyes slowly focus. “I was not dreaming. I was awake. It was terrible. Men and beast were being slaughtered horribly everywhere. There was fire, and screaming. I can still hear the awful screaming; make it stop. I fear to close my eyes again, for the vision may return.”

Tarmo places his hand on hers. “What else did you see?”

“There will come a time when the four of us are forever as one, bonded even closer than family. That I did not see, somehow, I just know it. Why was I chosen to see those other terrible things?”

“Forget it as you would a bad dream.” He holds her hand tighter.

She sniffles and gathers her thoughts. “I cannot forget what I have seen, not ever.”

Vorona hugs her. “It was just a bad dream and you will forget it.”

Vessa bites her thumb and says, “Bad dreams have no substance. They are, are, just, fleeting thoughts. No, it was not a dream. I cannot simply cast it away. Dreadful events await all, come The One-Moons.”

Tarmo places his hand under her chin. He lifts her face and looks into her tearful eyes, “The moons shall not be seen as one for a long time. By then, well, perhaps you will have had another vision, one free of horrors. I must awaken my new soldier now. We have to leave for the garrison soon.”

Vessa forces a smile, “Go, I will be fine.” She lets go of his hand. “I fear, no, I know, I have put a curse on us all. My pretending to see into the future has offended the Gods. They have taken my words and written them into our future.”

Vorona wipes Vessa’s tears. “The Gods just did it to scare you. It will not come to pass.”
Tarmo says, “She’s probably right. Come the time of the One-Moons, we will all be fine.”
“But, if it does come to be as I have seen, will you keep Frencore alive?”
“It will not come to be, however, if it will make you feel better, I shall protect him with my life. You have my word on it. Just don’t tell him that.”
Vessa tries to thank him, but cannot find the words. She nods, closes her eyes and rolls onto her side.

Vorona watches Tarmo stand and tie his sash. She and whispers, “Are you truly not troubled by all that has transpired, Sergeant?”
Tarmo shrugs, “Nay, no reason for worry.”

Vorona gasps. “He was your foe but hours ago; yet you promise to protect him with your life?” She glances at Vessa.” My dear sister may have set us upon a foreboding path.”
He lies, “I doubt such.”

Verona’s eyes widen. She grits her teeth.
Tarmo says, “Fret naught.” He fakes a smile. “Nay, she is not a sorceress. At most, she has but warned us, which is good.”
Verona sighs. “I suppose…”

Crossing to the other side of the curtain, Tarmo stares at the young man sleeping. I hope it’s the desire of a God and not a Demon compelling me to protect you. He sighs. What have they chosen you for young man; what will it cost me? He steps closer and kicks him gently. “Get your sorry ass up, soldier to-be Fren.”

“Go away. I will get up when I’m good and ready.”

“No, you will get up whenever I tell you to or else!”

“Or else what, old man?” Frencore’s his eyes remain closed.

The Sergeant sees a basin of water near the entrance. With the basin now in hand, he stands next to Frencore. He stirs the water with a finger and feels its coldness. His foot pulls the warm rug off Frencore. In doing so, he sees scars on the young man’s back. The kind one gets from a sword. He has felt the anger of another’s sword and yet prevailed. Frencore’s rolls his naked body over. As his eyes open, he sees the sergeant standing over him with the basin.

“Don’t do it.”

“You know a man should wash after a night of passion, especially there.” Tarmo pours the cold water onto Frencore and lets the basin fall as well.

“Yee… ow…” Frencore yells, as he jumps to his feet frantically “That was not necessary.”

“It should not have been, but then…Put your clothes on now. We’re leaving for the garrison.”

“You crazy old fool, men have been killed for less.”

“No doubt, some have. Did you not give me your word to obey my every order, or are you not a man of his word? I have no need for a mounted swordsman with a twisted tongue.”

Frencore sighs. “I will honor my word.”

“I believe you agreed to join the army because you wanted to become a mounted swordsman and not just to end our fight. If such is true, then you must follow orders. There is no place in my unit for someone who does only what he cares to when he wants to; if you don’t desire the position strongly then”—“Just be on your way.”
“But I do…” Frencore frowns. “I want to a soldier very much.”
“Look son…” Tarmo closes his eyes and shakes his head. I didn’t call him son, did I?
“You were saying…”

“Yes, um– someday your lives may depend on how quickly you rise from sleep; mine for one yours. That was the last explanation you’ll get from me. You just do as told and do it quickly, and respond with, yes Sergeant. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“Good. Now go say your good-byes we must leave.”

Frencore grabs his clothes. He pulls his tunic over his head. “May I at least ask, which garrison are we going to and why we are leaving now?”

“Lacket garrison and another unit relieves us today.”

“Lacket huh.” Frencore pulls his pants up and ties a rope around his slim waist. “I heard there’s some really bleak, harsh country out that way.”

Tarmo laughs. “And you’re going to get to know all of it.”

Frencore crosses the divider curtain. “Vessa.”

“Yes.” Her eyes meet his.

“You can count on seeing me again someday. I’m going to horde whatever the King’s army pays me.”

“Just learn well from the sergeant.”

“I shall do my best.”

Waiting in the doorway for Frencore, Tarmo hears her words and says, “His training will take four moons. If we are not assigned new orders, we shall return then. Unless, I throw him out before that for being unfit. In which case, you will see him sooner.”

“I will not be found unfit.”

Vessa laughs. “Three green ones say he proves to be the best swordsmen you have ever trained.”

“Three huh; you have a bet woman.”

Vorona taps Frencore’s shoulder. “Do tell, how did you knew you were speaking to my sister and not me? We are identical, yet you spoke as though you were certain she was Vessa.”

“You will have to ask the Gods to answer that question; I don’t know. I just know I will always be able to tell you two apart.”

The two men leave the dwelling of the twin sisters and begin walking toward the outskirts of Crepso and the sergeant’s camp. Before reaching his unit, Tarmo tells Frencore of Vessa’s last vision. He does not tell him of his promise to her.

“What do you make of it, Sergeant?”

“I don’t know.”

Frencore sees some men and beasts on a hillside. “Is that your unit?”

“Yes.”

“Sergeant, do you…”

“Do I what?”

“Last night, and yesterday, well it was all so strange. They were just pretty whores and yet–?”

“Whores, what happened to all that respect you had? When I called her a whore–”

Frencore points a finger at him. “You called her a whore to her face; I did not.”

Tarmo shrugs. “No difference

Frencore sees soldiers standing near their mounts in the shade of a large stonewood tree. He recognizes two of them from the day before.

Tarmo says, “Mount up, our holiday duty is over.”

Milwer gasps, he turns toward Coop. “But the games, we haven’t seen a one.”

“I know, but at least you will leave with all of your stones.”
“But I could have many more.” Milwer sighs.
“You? Ha, you never win a bet.” Coop watches Frencore walk past him. “The Sergeant out-lasted you last night, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, so what.”
“Ha, Tarmo won.” Coop extends an upturned hand at Milwer. “Like I said, you never win a bet. Hand over that green stone.”
With a frown, Milwer gives it to him. The troopers coax their mounts into a loose formation, as Frencore waits to be told with whom to ride.

Tarmo motions towards Frencore and says, “Private Coop, have him ride with you. No, forget that. I have a better idea. We’ll see if your legs worthy of a soldier, before you burden a mount.”
“But it’s more than a day’s ride.”
“Quite and you best keep up. Move out—no wait.” He sees riders round a bend ahead. “Let them pass.”

With a bellower-drawn cart between them, six mounted troopers of the Royal Guards approach. Sergeant Tarmo salutes. “Morning, Lieutenant.”
“Mornin, Sergeant. Have many come this year?”
“Most I’ve ever seen, Sir.”
“Splendid… games should be interesting, huh?”
“Aye: enjoy, Sir.”

Unlike the earlier wagon they encountered, these bellowers still own the full length of their menacing triple horns. Frencore moves closer to Coop and his mount. He taps the side of Coop’s boot. “Whose cart do they pull?”
“Don’t know yet, but it’s surely someone of consequence.”

Passing a stand of high brush, the cart and its occupants come into view. Seated amidst resplendent pillows Frencore sees three young adults, and a woman.
He taps Coop’s boot again. “Do you know now?”
Coop holds a finger to his lips and says, “Hush; do you not know the purple robe of the King’s Sorceress?”

Frencore stares, at the sorceress as a breeze lifts her long black hair revealing more of her face. “That’s Clarisena? Damn, I thought her much older perhaps even frightful to look upon. She seems neither.”
“She is older… but with her craft… all is no doubt not as it seems. Stop staring at her so brashly.”

With Clarisena’s cart closer to Frencore, she tries to ignore the young man with the piercing eyes upon her, but cannot. Inaudibly the Sorceress mumbles, “Why do I feel compelled to remember your face?” Astride his mount and to Frencore’s left, she notices Sergeant Tarmo. Clarisena nudges Kaytho, the young woman seated next to her, “That Sergeant over there… his father was the Wizard Tracery.”
“Your mentor?”
“Yes.”
“Does the Sergeant bear a resemblance; does he have any of his father’s powers?”
“Very much and I hope not.”

From his saddle, Private Stonewood stealthy, carefully grasps and pulls back on a thorny tree limb. As one of the cart’s bellowers passes, he releases the limb striking the beast. Long thorns embed themselves into its rump. It stops abruptly, rears up and bellows loudly thrashing its massive head and horns about. Kaytho grabs her mentor’s arm to keep her from falling out of the cart.

“Get back.” Frencore shouts. A flailing horn grazes the back of his neck as he shoves Coop and his mount clear.

Grabbing its reigns, Sergeant Tarmo and two of the Lieutenant’s men steady the beast. Coop says to Frencore, “Did it get you; are you hurt?”
Frencore places a hand on the back of his neck and feeling no blood, says, “Nay…I’m fine.”
“Aye there,” Coop winces, “thanks for the shove.”

Sliding back upon her seat, Clarisena sees Frencore. She pounders aloud, “Was that your doing, young man?”
“Did you say something?”
“No dear.” She places her hand on Kaytho’s, “I am most appreciative of your strong grip. To have fallen would have been…quite undignified.”

At a trot, Stonewood rides towards Coop. “Damn that was close.” He glances down at Frencore, “I thought one of those horns was going kill him for sure.”
“Almost did.” Coop frowns, “Whatever made it do that?”
“Perhaps it got bit by something?” Stonewood shrugs and says too low for Frencore to hear, “Not that such would have been a great lost. He’s just a dumb stall-mucker that belongs elsewhere.”

As Clarisena’s cart disappears rounding a turn, Coop shakes his head and says, “What is it with you? First you draw Sergeant Tarmo’s wrath and now…”
“But, I only looked at her.”
“That was scorn in her eyes.” Stonewood laughs. “She thinks you provoked her bellower.” Stonewood’s brows draw down, “Did you?”
“Of cause not.” Frencore rubs the back of his neck.
“Damn, I hope you’re never near the King.” Coop rolls his eyes.

With Clarisena’s cart and escort far behind, Sergeant Tarmo’s mounted unit plods along at a whiptail’s walk; more than double that of a man’s. With Coop’s mount next to the sergeant’s, he glances back at Frencore. “How far do you think he can go at this pace?”
“I guess it is a bit fast.”
“At this pace, I’ll bet one green that he goes no further than the Black River.”
“Only to the river?” Tarmo tilts his head and then nods. “I think he will reach the Nye Ravine.”
Coop’s eyes widen. “Same pace, no slowing down, so he can reach the Nye for you?”
“Yeah, the same pace.”
“You have a bet.” Sergeant, your stone will be mine for sure.
Stonewood turns around in his saddle. “Hey, I have a lesser green to risk on his endurance.”
Zacket squeals in that high voice of his, “I want in.”
Frencore looks at the young blonde trooper, “What’s all the commotion about?”
Zacket laughs. “We’re betting how far you can run before you drop.”
Frencore frowns.

A wild tota scurrying across a tree limb catches Zacket eye. Hmm, I bet you’d taste good. His eyes return to Frencore. “Oi, nothing personal, we’re just looking to break the boredom, that’s all. The man who guesses where you drop gets one lesser green from each. You see those hills over there. My bet says you don’t get over them.”
“What’s your name soldier?”
“Zacket. Though some call me Lumpy.”
“You’re not fat, why Lumpy?”
“Well, I always tend to have too much stuff in my pockets.”
“How about letting me in on that betting, Lumpy? I have a green stone to wager.”
“Ha, ha, no you can’t bet.” Zacket waves a finger. “You’ll just drop when we reach your guess.”
“Then I’ll guess five road markers past the furthest point guessed by anyone.”
“Make it twenty markers.”
“Twenty, no way, five is plenty far enough.”
“Five it is.” Zacket shouts, “Our runner here bets he can go five markers past the furthest point wagered.”

Stonewood looks over his shoulder at Frencore. “Can you make it to the blue thorns?”
Frencore glances up at him. “There and beyond.”
Stonewood grumbles something and rides to the front of the column.
Frencore turns toward Zacket. “I suppose they call him Red.”
Zacket laughs. “Nay, he’s too moody and too superstitious.”
“I don’t understand.”
“There’s an old saying amongst soldiers, something about, red head, first dead. Most times we just call him Stoney.”

At the front of the column, Tarmo waves for Coop to ride next to him.
“Yes, Sergeant?”
“You seem to have taken an interest in our new recruit.”
“Not really, Sergeant.”
“He’s—” Tarmo glances back at Frencore. “He’s your responsibility. You will get him outfitted and personally oversee to his training. If he does not measure up, it had best be because of his failings and not yours.”
“What have I done to deserve this?”
“You’re my best man and I want him trained by the best.”
“I thought you would want him to fail after what he did to you. Did you forget the feel of cobblestones on your back so soon?”
“I have not forgotten.” Tarmo bites his upper lip. “And you thought wrong.” He leans towards Coop. “And don’t tell him or anyone else of this, or I will have your hide. I want your word it will be so.”
“You think I’m your best trooper, really?”
“Yes, and I want you to make him an even better trooper.”

Coop glances back at Frencore for a moment. “You know that Frencore fellow knows neither fear nor his limits. He came close to losing his head yesterday and now he thinks he has the stamina of a God. How much longer will the Gods let such a fool survive?”
Tarmo’s voice deepens, “For your sake, it had better be a long time.”
“For my sake? That crazy one is not a fool of my making.”
“No.” Tarmo shakes a finger, “But he is your charge just the same.”
“If it’s all right with you, I’m going to the rear and keep an eye on my new charge.”
“I knew I picked the right man for the task.”

Coop guides his mount to the side of the gravel trail and waits in the shade of one of tall trees that have been lining the trail for many markers. As Frencore gets closer, Coop says, “If you fall before you pass the Black River, I shall have my mount trample over your body.”
Zacket hears Coop. “No threatening of the runner. Leave him be and come ride next to me.”
“I was just encouraging him that’s all.”
“Sure you were.”
Coop rides past Frencore. “All right then, no one will ride behind him.”

Some distance later, they see a cluster of large backin trees.
With a conspicuous space between his front teeth, a private smiles at Frencore. He points. “You can fall down when you reach those trees over there.”
“What name be yours?” Frencore says.
“For some reason, they call me Gap.” He smiles broadly.
Frencore nods. That’s understandable.
The others shout, “Don’t listen to him. Ignore him. Keep going.”
Zacket turns in his saddle. “I know you can pass Gap’s trees, even he can run his fat ass that far.”
Coop says, “Make it to the Black River and then quit.”
Frencore reaches the backin trees and soon leaves them behind. Five more wagered predictions remain. With two destinations yet to be reached, and the hot midday sun taking its toll, Zacket reaches down from his mount with a flask of water. Frencore drinks half of it and hands it back. “Thanks soldier, I owe you one.”
“No need for thanks. Just make it to the crossroad for Yancy Village.”
“Sorry, but I plan to make it further.”
Zacket laughs.

Frencore hears the welcome sound of hooves splashing as the lead mounts wade into the Black River. Sergeant Tarmo dismounts. His whiptail begins to drink.

Frencore trudges into the waist-deep river. He lets himself fall backwards into the cool water. Standing next to their mounts, Zacket and Milwer watch Frencore.

Stonewood grabs a few strips of dried meat from a small sack on his saddle. He hands one to Milwer and another to Zacket.
Milwer takes a bite. “This is good, thanks.” He stares at Frencore. “I think he’s going to drink more than my mount.”
Zacket nods. “I would empty the river if I had run from Crepso. Thanks Stony, this meat really is good; too bad we don’t get to Crepso more often.”
Milwer taps Zacket’s arm. “Let me have some more of that and a strip for our runner.”
“You can have some more, but I’m not wasting any on that dung-mucker. I don’t care how far he can run.” He hands Milwer another strip. “Just because he took the sergeant’s feet out from under him, don’t mean he’s good enough to be a mounted trooper. It took me two years and cost my father many red stones for me to get into a mount unit.”

Zacket notices a drawstring sack tied to Milwer’s saddle. “What do you have in that?”
Milwer unties the sack. “Here, have a look.”

Also close by, Coop watches as Zacket opens the sack and takes out three carved figures. Zacket looks over the horrac figure first, then the whiptail, and the bellower. “Toys for your son or you?”
Milwer hits him on the shoulder. “For my son, you idiot.”
Zacket hands the toys to Coop.
“They’re nicely made.” Coop studies the horrac figure closely. “This horrac looks a bit too real. I hope it doesn’t scare your boy.”
“It won’t.”

Their thirst satisfied, the whiptails raise their long necks from the river. Coop glances at Frencore as he moves toward Tarmo. “Are we going to cut through the Nye or go the long way, Sergeant?”
“I haven’t decided yet. Let’s mount up and move out.” Tarmo turns to his right to check on Frencore. “He looks a little stronger now. I suspect you’re going to be out of the running soon.”
Coop sighs. “Yeah, yeah. Hey, Stony, who has the next guess and where is it?”
“Milwer, and it’s ten markers beyond the river.”
Milwer groans. “I’m sure he’ll make it past my guess too.”
Coop turns towards Milwer. “Why did you guess so close to mine?”

Milwer smiles. “I figured if he could make it to the river, what with a little rest and water he could go further. You have to think before you bet.”

Frencore nears the tenth marker and hears Milwer say, “Fall down man, you’ve gone far enough. Your legs must be too heavy to take another step. Stop before you kill yourself. You’ve gone past what any of us could have done.”

Coop stands tall in his stirrups to see them better. “Leave him alone.”

Zacket shouts, “Yeah, knock it off, Milwer.

Milwer slows his mount and waits for Frencore. “Don’t listen to them, the hills are too far. You’re going to die like a whiptail run to its death. You don’t want to die like that do you; with heart beating so hard, it breaks your ribs? Forget about the stones they’re not worth your life.”

Frencore slows to catch his breath. “Thanks, I owe you one.”

“For what?”

“Your concern, you‘re a good man.”
Milwer shakes his head. “You’re a strange one Frencore.”

Zacket points at the nearby hills. “Reach those and I’ll give you three greens one if I win.”

The sergeant snaps his head at Zacket. “No bribing the runner.”

Frencore stares at Zacket. “Why would I want three when I can win them all?”

Zacket waves Frencore words away. “I doubt that, cockiness can only take you so far. Your legs will fail soon.”

Corporal Pek stares ahead. “That’s my dead jacobee tree up there. You can make it there, can’t you?” Pek glances at Coop. “How does he say his name?”

“Fren…core.”

The mount in front of Frencore snorts loudly. With one of its hooves caught in the spokes of a broken and discarded wheel, the whiptail kicks its powerful leg, shaking the wheel free. It strikes Frencore in the chest; he drops like a stone, a jagged spoke leaving a gash in his right side. The column continues unaware.

Coop says without looking back at Frencore, “You’re going to get a break in the Nye. We’ll be moving much slower on that narrow trail. He glances over his shoulder. Damn. “Sergeant, he’s fallen.”

The column stops. Heads turn; they see Frencore on the ground holding his side. Coop rushes to Frencore. “That’s it, you’ve gone a distance none of us could have covered. There’s nothing more to prove.”

“We have yet to fully enter the Nye and reach my prediction. I have not, gone this, this far to fail.”

“Damn, don’t be a fool.” Coop sees blood on the side of Frencore’s faded and now torn brown tunic. “What happened? You’re bleeding.”

Frencore glances at the broken wheel near him. “Your mount kicked that off its hoof.”

“Let me put a wrap on your wound. We don’t need you attracting horracs.”

“I’ve been through the Nye many times and have never seen any horracs.” Frencore places a hand over his bandage and starts walking. Someone up front shouts, “He’s up again. He’s walking.”

Tarmo sighs. Tenacious to a fault.

Stonewood brings his mount near Tarmo. “Shall I tell him to ride with me?”

Tarmo shakes his head. “He won’t.”

Milwer moves his mount close to Coop’s. “When we’re in the Nye, the sergeant is going to get his revenge for yesterday. He’s going to let him fall into the ravine. Too bad, he’s quite an interesting fellow.”

Coop shakes his head, “He’s not trying to kill him, besides that would not be the Sergeant’s way.”

Milwer holds up a green stone. “This stone says he’ll not leave the Nye alive.”

Coop snaps, “I’ll take that bet, and if I were you, I’d be more concerned with getting my own ass out of their alive.”

Milwer glances at Frencore. “Well, I’m not the one with blood on me.”

Along with the shade providing forest, Zacket’s hills are behind them as they enter the flatlands. Thorny brush and scrub trees dot the barren plain. The only predictions that remain are Stonewood’s blue thorns, the sergeant’s Nye Ravine and Frencore’s five markers beyond. Stonewood notices Frencore lagging farther behind. He turns and rides toward him.

“Hey, idiot, have you had enough?”

Frencore says nothing.

“You just had to pass my blue thorns.” He growls. “Damn, I needed to win those stones”

“Then you should have guessed wiser.”

“Wiser, huh.” Stonewood urges his mount forward allowing it to brush Frencore aside and knock him to ground. Frencore struggles to his feet. He rubs the shoulder he landed on as his wound starts to bleed. Frencore watches as Stoney rides to the front of the column. You fucken knave, someday you’re going pay for that.

After trudging a ways, Frencore catches glimpses of the treetops in the Nye Ravine. His legs now ache terribly with every step. I can’t quit now.

The column reaches a fork and Tarmo halts the unit. He glances at the trail to their right, then the one leading into the ravine. “Dismount. Check your saddles, make sure they’re tight.”

I hope his bleeding has stopped. Coop nods to get Tarmo’s attention. “Are you sure you want to cut through the Nye, Sergeant? It’s not that hot now; we could take the long way.”

“It’s too hot for me; be cooler down there.” Tarmo turns and stares at Coop. “Why go the long way; we didn’t see any horracs down there when we were on our way to Crepso?”

“I was just wondering.” Damn, I best check on him.

As men pull at saddle straps and check harnesses, Frencore reaches the column and finds Coop marching towards him. “How’s that wound of yours, has it stopped bleeding?”

His body mostly numb, Frencore says, “I’m fine, it stopped a long ways back.”

“Good, are you ready to give up and ride yet?”

Frencore grimaces. “Ask me again in six markers.”

Coop frowns at him and then sees Tarmo lead the column into the Nye. “Well you just reached the sergeant’s bet, but I doubt if you can go those last five markers.”

Coop stays close to Frencore as they start down the narrow trail along the outer edge of the ravine. Frencore staggers and sways his way down, while Coop places his mount between Frencore and the shear drop on his left. His whiptail is now stepping perilously close to the edge. From his high mount, Coop chances a look down into the Nye. He shivers as a chill runs down his spine. One stumble, one false step, or lose stone and… Coop pats his mount’s neck. “Nice and easy girl.”

The deeper they descend, the steeper the drop off and the narrower the trail. Coop stares at a cluster of fruit trees amidst the many trees below. “Damn, they’re ripe too.”

Frencore says. “What’s ripe?”

“Yellow vangos. The branches below are full of them.”

“ Go–” Frencore moans and grabs his side. “Go get us some.”

Coop licks his lips, as he can almost taste one. “I wish I could.”

A few markers later, Frencore stumbles with increasing frequency. Coop stares at him. “Do you know why they call this place the Nye Ravine?”

Frencore shrugs.

“Long Ago, before the last one-moons, Prince Nye of Crepso fell to his death when a horrac knocked him off his mount. Horracs were here then and they are here now.”

“I suspect,” Frencore says, his breathing now laborious, “that nobleman left a bad taste in that horrac’s mouth.”

“Most likely.”

Frencore stops for a minute, and takes a deep, painful breath. “I’ll bet many a commoner had fallen before that Prince did, but then, they don’t name places for dead commoners, do they?”

“No they don’t. You had to stop just to talk. Are you ready to concede?”

“No, and stop riding so close to me. I don’t want to be responsible for your life. Go ride ahead. I’m not going to fall in.”

“If you want to be part of this unit, you’re going to have to learn that we’re responsible for each other’s lives, like it or not. That’s how it has to be. I would expect you to do the same for me; if you don’t want that burden quit now.”

“I never quit what I start.” Frencore finds the energy to quicken his pace. The trail widens for a stretch as it crosses a ledge. It narrows again just as Frencore stumbles into Coop’s mount. Coop pulls back hard the reins and gets a view of the deep ravine he did not need. “Are you all right back there?”

“Sorry about that,” Frencore says.

“We’re damn lucky that didn’t happen where the trail was narrower.”

Coop’s head turns to his right. “Did you hear that?”

“What?”

“I thought I heard a horrac’s hiss.”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

Ahead Gap says, “We heard it too.”

The hill and ledges on their right are dense with brush as the trail climbs towards the rim. An eerie silence grips the men, broken only by the prodding of hooves and the occasional snorting of a whiptail. Anxious eyes strain to see into the dark depths of the brush. His mouth parched, Frencore stares at a bush full of the moist red seeper fruit he favors.

“If you try to get some, it may be you and not the fruit that gets eaten.”

“You worry too much, Coop.”

“Just don’t.”

Frencore winces as he tries to pull one of the tart, fist-size fruit from a branch. The rustling of leaves startles Coop. He turns quickly and sees Frencore yank one of the red fruit free.” Coop sighs. “I told you not to do that.”

“Sorry.” Frencore takes a bite and savors the juiciness. He holds it up. “You want some?”

“No thanks.” Coop stares back at the still swaying branch. “You got lucky. Don’t do that again.”

Frencore nods as he takes another bite.

While the ravine to their left no longer looks like a bottomless pit, it is still quite deep. The treetops and thick vegetation below obscure the ground from view, appearing both lush and foreboding. Pek stares into the Nye. “There could be a few horracs down there.”

Stonewood glances below. “Or a thousand.”

“Keep those thoughts to yourself, Stony,” Milwer snaps.

“Dread not, Milwer; we’ll be out of here soon. They’ll not eat any of us today.”

Sergeant Tarmo eyes a blind turn ahead; he raises his hand and the column halts. There’s movement in one of the bushes, Tarmo nods at Pek. “Put a few arrows into that bush.”

Pek grabs his bow, nocks an arrow and loses it into the bush, then another. Both arrows find but leaves. “It probably was just a tota, jumping from branch to branch, Sergeant.”

“Perhaps.”

With his sword in hand, Tarmo slowly approaches the dense thicket of bushes. He leans from his saddle and probes the bushes with his sword. With nothing apparently lurking amongst the leaves, Tarmo waves them forward. “Keep your eyes open. This is a perfect spot to be attacked by horracs.”

Swords are drawn. The men stare into the brush as the column creeps forward. Coop looks at Milwer then the bushes on the hillside above them; some of which loom overhead. “This is not a good place to be.”

“No it’s not.” Milwer’s eyes dart about.

When Frencore places a hand on his side to pull his slipping bandage up, he finds it wet with blood. This is not good, not here. A few of the mounts snort, hooves shuffle nervously. Frencore says to Coop, “Damn, I wish I still had my fighting shaft.”

“You haven’t the energy to carry it, much less use it.”

“Um…” Frencore motions with his eyes and pulls his tunic open. “We need to get out here now.”

Coop’s jaw drops. “I thought you said it had stopped bleeding.”

“I thought it had.”

“Stay close to me.”

The trail narrows, forcing Coop to follow behind Frencore. Ahead, Stonewood sees movement in some branches near him. He rides past it without saying anything to Milwer.

Milwer nears the same branches and hears leaves rustling. His mount snorts and stops. It tries to back away. As Milwer kicks its sides to move forward, two screaming horracs explode from the dense foliage. Milwer cannot respond quickly enough. His sword drops to the ground as a horrac’s long talons savagely grip his right arm and shoulder. The other horrac sinks its fangs deep into his mount’s neck. Powerful horrac legs flail wildly; their long, infectious claws slashing deep into Milwer and his whiptail. Milwer and his mount topple into the ravine. The screeching creatures jump off just as Milwer and his beast are about to glance off a boulder. The dreadful creatures scamper down the ravine in pursuit. The men above can but watch helplessly, as Milwer crashes through tree limbs and disappears into the thick growth at the bottom.

Coop shouts, “He’s still alive.” He starts to climb over the edge.

Tarmo grabs him. “You’ll just be killed too.”

“He’s right.” Pek stares grimly below. “He will be dead before you reach him.”

The trees below shake and sway as horracs sweep in from everywhere. Screeching and growling, they slash and snap at each other for a share of the prey. Milwer’s cries cease, though his beast continues its wailing as the horracs tear it apart. It’s face covered with blood, one horrac emerges from below with part of Milwer’s arm in its mouth. The hapless whiptail’s cries now also cease, yet the feeding frenzy remains intense. Pek rushes towards his mount for his bow. His tear-filled eyes strain to find a target. He sees the bloody-faced horrac on a branch, its claws holding onto the arm as it bites Milwer’s fingers off.

Pek nocks an arrow. “Eat this!” Pek’s arrow takes flight, piercing the horracs neck. The vile creature drops from its perch. When it hits the ground, two young horracs pounce on its body; one grabs and runs off with Milwer’s arm.

Pek lets more arrows fly into the trees below before Sergeant Tarmo places his hand on Pek’s bow. “Come. We must leave here before they seek us. Milwer would not want you joining him.”

His heart beating fast, Pek sighs and turns away.

Frencore’s is still looking into the ravine when Coop asks, “Did you get clawed?”

“This is my fault, I got him killed.”

Yes, it was and mine. Coop says, “It was the horracs, not you.”

“I should never have left Crepso. I should have stepped aside and let the sergeant have the twins.” Frencore looks at his bloody side. If it were not for me being here, Milwer would still be alive.

Tarmo grabs his mount’s reigns and settles into his saddle. He looks at his men and their stunned faces. “Mount up. Let us get out of this place.”

Stonewood glances into the ravine, relieved it was Milwer; he says to Coop. “That runner is bad luck, we should leave him here.”

“Nonsense.” Coop frowns. “Get on your mount.”

Stonewood points his finger at Coop. “When others die, you’ll see then. We need to be rid of him.”

“Be quiet and get moving.”

Frencore hears leaves rustling near and sees two horracs jumping from branch to branch towards them. “Coop, behind you.”

Coop’s mount instinctively snaps its powerful tail at the leaping horrac, sending it over the edge into the ravine as Coop turns in time to point his sword and impale the other horrac. With his sword deep into the horrac’s midsection, he tries to shake the thrashing and mortally wounded creature from his weapon.

Frencore grabs the reins. He struggles to keep the horrified beast from throwing Coop off. “Easy, easy.”

Coop drops the horrac from his sword, and Frencore kicks the dying creature aside.

“Get him away from the edge,” Tarmo shouts as he watches Frencore and Coop continue to struggle with the frantic whiptail.

“Get that thing away from his feet,” Coop screams at Frencore.
Frencore wraps Coop’s reins around his wrist as he kicks the still screaming horrac aside. It tumbles over the edge. He looks at Coop, “Are you all right?”

“Yeah. And you?”

Frencore nods.

Now near them and with sword in hand, Tarmo looks down from his mount at Frencore. He sees his bloody tunic. “Did they claw you?”

“I haven’t been clawed.”

“Is that not a horrac wound?” Tarmo’s eyebrows draw down and his eyes narrow.

Frencore sighs. “I got this before we entered the ravine.”

“What!” The Sergeant’s eyes fill with rage. He glares at Coop. “He has been bleeding that badly, and you didn’t tell me. Idiot; what were you thinking?”
“But he wanted to continue. I could not get your crazy fool stay down.”

Tarmo grits his teeth. “You’re the bigger fool. You know they can smell blood from afar. You two cost a good man his life.” He glares at Frencore. “I would not have taken us through here, not with you bleeding. When we reach the garrison, you two can tell Milwer’s woman and child why he is not with us. Mount up, we need to get moving while we still can.”

The sound of branches swaying in the brush nearby spooks Coop’s mount. The beast shrieks, raises its head high and turns quickly. His wrist still wrapped with the mount’s reins, Frencore flies over the edge. He strikes the steep hillside hard enough to stun him. “Pull him up,” Tarmo shouts. Coop quickly dismounts as Pek dashes to help. They pull him to safety and place him on Coop’s mount. When Coop gets behind the groggy Frencore in the saddle, he sees the sack of toy carvings in the dirt. He dismounts and picks up the sack.

Many tense moments later, they exit the Nye ravine with Frencore in much pain and growing weaker.

Tarmo brings his mount close to Coop. “Was that your idea of keeping an eye on him?”

Coop frowns. “I was keeping an eye on him. I think we need to burn his wound and soon.”

Tarmo looks at the bandage. “We’ll stop here.” He holds up his hand. “Stop and dismount.”

The men gather dry brush and wood and soon have a small fire burning. Tarmo places his dagger into the hot embers. He waits for the end of the blade to turn red. “Someone get him something to bite.” Though groggy from blood loss and in pain, Frencore is aware of what they are going to do. Pek holds a small branch near Frencore’s lip as Tarmo cuts his bloody tunic open. The bandage is unwrapped. Tarmo holds the red-hot blade above the wound. “I hope you learned something today, now bite down.” He presses the scalding blade onto the wound and watches Frencore’s skin sizzle and burn. The site and stench of which makes the sergeant wince. Frencore’s teeth bite deeply into the small stick. Tarmo removes the blade and looks at the wound. “The bleeding has stopped.”
Coop pours water on the wound as Frencore’s half-open eyes watch. Coop looks at Tarmo. “Shall I put some backin sap on his wound; you did burn it?”
“Oi, such will not ensure the coming of the green death.”
Coop nods and smears the yellowish sap on Frencore’s wound.

Too weak to ride, the men make a drag for Frencore. Many road markers later, the sergeant drops back to check on Frencore. He stares down at Frencore as Coop’s mount pulls the drag. “If it were not for the horracs, and your wound, I believe you would have made those last three markers. Here, you’ve earned your green stones.”

Frencore weakly waves the sergeant’s hand away. “They cost too much to win. Give them to Milwer’s woman.”

“If you’re going to do that with them, then here, give her these too.” Tarmo drops him the wagered stones and three more. You know of guilt and compassion; such is good.

Hearing Frencore’s words, Coop collects more shiny stones from the others. Frencore looks at the 32 green stones collected as they sparkle in the sunlight. “A good man ought to be worth more than this.” He worried about me and I…

“Indeed.” Coop sighs, “Though many a man has died for much less.” He then looks the drawstring sack tied to his saddle and opens it. Coop removes the horrac figure, snaps its limbs off, and throws onto the ground as he notices a long column of riders. “Where do you suppose they’re going in such a hurry, sergeant?” Coop says.

“Don’t know?”

As the column passes Tarmo’s unit, an officer drops out to speak with the sergeant.

“What’s up, Lieutenant?”

“We’ve been ordered to set up camp in the forest near the Black River, though I don’t know why.”

“Something must be up in Crepso, to station you there. I’ll bet it has to do with Gords.”

“Have you heard something?”

“Two days ago, in addition to their merchant ships, the Gords sailed three large warships into the harbor. Do you want us to follow you, Sir?”

He glances at Frencore on the drag. “Um no, but when you reach the fort tell the captain of it, though he probably knows already. I have to catch up with my unit. What happened to that man?”

“Horracs. We lost another man and his mount.”

“Damn, sorry to hear that. I have to get going, I’ll talk with you when I get back, Sergeant.”

“Tell your Captain to avoid the Nye Ravine, too many horracs in there, Sir.”

Looking back, the lieutenant shouts, “Which man?”

“Milwer, Sir. We lost, Milwer.”

“Damn.”

Upon arrival at fort Lacket, they find Milwer’s wife and child waiting at the gate to greet him. Knowing how many men had left with Milwer for Crepso and not seeing his face, she lets go of her son’s hand and runs towards the drag.

“Who’s this? Where’s Milwer?”

Coop pulls back on the reins and dismounts. With solemn faces, the rest of the unit continues into the compound. Tarmo glances over his shoulder and sees Coop’s hands holding the widow.

Coop says, “I’m sorry, but he’ll not be returning to you.”

She gasps, “What do you mean, not returning?”

“He’s gone, he died this morning.”

She screams, “No, he can’t be gone. This is just some stupid prank, tell me where he is.”
His eyes fill with tears as Coop puts his arms around her. “It’s true. He is dead.”
The woman begins to wail loudly. She awakens Frencore. He looks up and sees the woman in Coop’s arms. “It is my fault that your man is dead. My wound attracted the horracs.”

“Horracs!” She drops to her knees. Now gasping for breath, she looks up at Coop. “You…left him behind for them to eat so you could escape, didn’t you?”
“No, no, that’s not what happened. I would never leave a man behind, much less a friend.”
“Then where is his body?”

“He fell into the Nye Ravine. There was no way to help him, none. The fall killed him and his mount instantly; he felt no pain.”

Frencore sees her child walking towards them. “If ever you want for anything, come to me.”
Milwer’s woman takes Frencore’s hand. “It was not your fault. It was those hateful creatures.”
Turning her hand over, Frencore opens her fingers. “These fell from his pocket. I think he won them wagering on a contest in Crepso.”
“I doubt that, my Milwer never won a bet, nor did he ever seek charity. I don’t want them.”
“However he came by them, they are yours.” Frencore closes her hand over the stones. “Please take them.”
She puts them in her pocket as Coop helps her to her feet. At his mother’s side and sensing something terribly wrong, her three-year-old asks, “Where’s father?” His mother begins to cry uncontrollably.

“Why is she crying? Where’s father?”
Coop picks the child up. “The Gods have taken your brave father on a journey with them.”
“Why?”

Coop swallows hard. “We, we don’t know why.”
“Tell them he can’t go.”
“I, I wish I could.” Coop hugs the child and then puts the boy down. “Your father got you these in Crepso.” He reaches for, and hands the boy the sack of carvings. Coop turns to hide his tears and walks away.

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