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The Book of SignsThe Books of the Dead Trilogy Book One
By Steven L. Toma
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Steven L. Toma
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCARPANT 4-9-90-136
The dogs should have caught him by now.
He'd run harder and faster than he had ever had to run before, but now total fatigue had taken over from the blind panic that had started him running.
The dogs should have easily caught him by now.
His thighs ached, his calves were cramped, and his feet throbbed with every step. His breath came in shallow, ragged gasps, and his chest was squeezed so tight the breath seemed to stop in his throat. He didn't think you could call it running anymore. Staggering in an almost straight line was more like it.
He swiped at his sweat-filled eyes with the sleeve of his thin nightshirt, and then pawed at the scraggly hair that constantly flopped over his face. He'd long since given up swinging his arms at the bugs and birds that swarmed him, and rarely did he jump anymore at the small animals that dogged his trail.
The leather sole of his right boot had come unstitched and caught on every stick and stone, twice pitching him face first into the dirt. After his last fall he lay on the soft earth and felt like crying, more out of frustration than anything else. If they'd caught him then he would have gladly fallen on one of their swords; he couldn't possibly feel any worse for it. However, he forced himself up and kept running, he had to ... they must be close behind.
In reality, he had been running for about half the morning, deep into the huge, unfriendly Carpan Forest. The forest was a place the thoughts of which, during his sixteen-years, had mostly terrified him.
So far, the only good thing about all of this was that he had managed to elude his unknown pursuers, which was puzzling, both as to who they were and as to how he'd eluded them.
They were on horseback, and he wasn't. They had several large dogs and he didn't have the ability, or the time to hide his tracks, so anyone should have been able to follow his trail. They had bows and arrows and, from the burning sensation in his right arm, they were reasonable shots. They had to have more knowledge of the forest than he did—because he didn't have any—and he assumed they had food and water. He needed water badly and unless he found a stream soon he thought he would pass out.
Why hadn't the dogs caught up with him?
He may not have known exactly who was chasing him, but he did know why they were after him. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and had heard and seen too much. Even if that place was his own bed at the break of day and everything he'd seen and heard was through a knothole. It mattered little now, and he was paying for it dearly.
He'd awoke early this morning, day 136, annoyed by voices out the back of the Black Stallion. His room was inky black and the saloon was quiet, so he knew it was early. He'd quietly stretched beneath his tattered blankets, rubbed his tired eyes clean, and yawned. The rear storage room of the saloon was his meager home, a cluttered, dark room without windows. His 'bed' was an upper shelf, an ale barrel rack, against the back wall and draped with a thin, straw-filled mattress.
He was a light sleeper, so every drunken brawl, every sailor getting sick, and every patron too cheap to pay for a girl and a room disturbed his sleep. Although they'd awakened him, the unusually quiet tones of this conversation piqued his curiosity, so he pulled the rag out of the knothole to see and hear what was going on. He kept the hole plugged to keep out the bugs and the dawn sun, which was just beginning to rise on the back of the tavern.
"You have the money?" rasped a voice.
"Of course I do, you idiot," came the quiet reply. "And keep your voice down. I value my head even if you don't yours."
"You best watch your mouth, Artis; I don't take kindly to insults." The menace in the voice was evident even through the raspy whisper.
"Never mind your threats. You're clear on the timing? It is very important," whispered Artis. His voice quivered slightly. His back was toward the knothole blocking the raspy speaker from view.
"On day 170 we get to and kill the Queen during the wedding. We get the rest of our money on day 174. We leave the Queen's body, with the Styrian evidence, on 175. What could be easier?" replied the gruff voice.
"Don't be a fool—this is not going to be easy. The Queen is well guarded and is very aware of what is going on around her. Do not take her lightly." He nervously shifted his feet, which made tiny scratching noises in the debris of the alley.
"Watch your mouth. We will handle her." The gruff-voiced speaker moved in closer causing Artis to shift and affording the boy a better look. The speaker paused and studied Artis, as if looking for some hidden intrigue. "Why are we meeting today, this early, and here of all places? Why the change in plans? What trickery are you trying to conjure? I'll slit your scrawny throat like a ripe melon if you cross me."
The boy watched as the speaker pushed his face toward Artis in a belligerent pose as if trying to smell the fear that even the boy could see was evident. Artis leaned away then he reached a small, delicate hand into an inner pocket. "Here's your money; you get the bonus we spoke of when the Styrians are blamed." He passed over a weighty sack that jingled softly and the heavy sealing ring on his finger reflected the early morning sun.
The boy watched intently, and as the sun rose, his view of the two became clearer. He'd been looking at the back of the head of the one called Artis, a short, frail man, based on the head's relationship to the knothole and the pinched look of his shoulders. Artis' long, black hair hung partially over the collar of his green, woolen cape. A thin sheen of hair oil around the rigid collar of the cape glinted in the morning light.
Artis dragged his hand over his face and jerked his head nervously to the left, which afforded a better look at the much more imposing, gruff-voiced speaker, standing balanced on the balls of feet. He saw a wide man, of medium height, clean-shaven, with a moon-shaped face, lumpy nose, and hard, wary eyes that never stopped shifting around the alley. His shaved head was his most discerning feature, with a long, heavily oiled, and braided topknot that hung to the front on his left shoulder. Several brass rings encircled the braid, and an iron ball hung from the bottom.
He was dressed in a black shirt with a fine-linked mail vest over the top. A short sword rested in a scabbard attached to a thick leather belt, and a heavy handled fighting knife hung loosely under his left arm in a well-worn scabbard. No military insignias were evident, so the boy figured him to be a mercenary. Low-heeled boots sprouted with knives, and clean, double-kneed pants made the overall appearance menacing, but the Black Stallion was the largest and most respected tavern in all of Carpant, so a heavily-armed mercenary was more common than not.
However, this warrior was no longer looking at Artis. He was looking over Artis' right shoulder at the knothole, now well illuminated by the morning sun. A knife flew to his hand and he lunged, piercing the knothole cleanly. It was unclear who screamed the loudest: Artis, as he saw the blur of the knife coming at him before the mercenary forced him aside, or Kaul, the boy, who'd started to move from the knothole the moment he met the mercenary's eye.
"By all that is holy, what are you doing?" squeaked Artis, from the pile of refuse the mercenary had pushed him into.
"A spy," hissed the warrior's retort. He wrenched his knife from the knothole, turned, and started to run across the back of the Black Stallion through its array of garbage, and rounded the corner of the saloon. A moment later, he was at the beamed, front entryway of the tavern, sword in hand.
A group of four equally heavily-armed horsemen lolled out front, not looking at all pleased at being awake at such an early hour. Their horses, tied to rails across the front of the Black Stallion, blew small, visible puffs of breath from moist nostrils. Dogs, mostly crossbred hounds, sat with ears pricked staring at the panting warrior and awaiting his command.
He shouted at the group. "You fools keep your wits about you and don't let anybody out this door. Anybody!" He paused to catch his breath. "Valat! Come with me," he said, to his tall, cadaverous second in command. The two men mounted the foot-worn, oaken steps, burst through the entryway, and surveyed the saloon's sparsely peopled main room. The room was huge and could easily accommodate hundreds of revelers. A long bar traversed the back wall and a wide staircase moved up the right to an open balcony and hall. Scattered about were tables and chairs, in no discernible pattern, and the usually dense smoke had dissipated and now hung only in the upper rafters.
None of the early morning patrons appeared to be the slightest bit agitated. Actually, they were either asleep, or passed out from the previous night's carousing. The one remaining bar girl lifted her head with her hair in complete disarray, and face smeared and creased from sleeping on crossed arms. She quickly averted her eyes and dropped her head back down back ignoring the glare of the swordsmen.
"You!" Barus, the warrior, bellowed at the barkeep. "Where is your back room, and who's back there?" Barus and Valat moved in a direct line to the bar, tossing chairs and tables from their path with their sword points.
The barkeep, a stained apron wrapped around his rotund frame, resumed wiping a much-polished spot on the bar. "Why do you want the boy?" he said. "He's a good lad and hasn't been out of the bar all night." Sweat instantly beaded on his upper lip and he backed-stepped half a pace from the bar.
Valat slapped the flat of his sword on the bar, "Answer the man and keep your questions to yourself!"
"Maybe I should get Mister Hanes, the owner," he stuttered, but quickly added, as Valat moved his sword closer, "We have two rooms, one at either end of the main bar, as for who is back there, no one other than Kaul, the boy who cleans up. He sleeps on a shelf in that room," he said, pointing to a doorway on his right.
Barus looked to the barkeep's right then turned his back, pulled Valat in close, and whispered in his ear, "We have to find him and kill him, quickly. Make sure no one else is back there. If there is, kill them too." Valat quickly strode around the end of the bar and kicked the door open. Barus froze the barkeep with a hard look, and then followed Valat into the room.
After a brief look in the semi-darkness of the back room, the men returned to confront the confused barkeep. "You son of a bitch," grunted Barus. "There was no one there." He glared at the barkeep and hunched his shoulders in frustration.
"Well, he was there, I'm sure of it," said the nervous barkeep. "He always sleeps there. He must have gone up the rear stairs to check on the girls. Sometimes they pay him to bring them breakfast, although it is a little early for that, they don't usually get up until mid-morning. What has the boy done? I can guarantee he has been sleeping back there all night. He's a good worker and stays out of trouble."
"Shut up," Barus said, and then looked at Valat.
"Rear stairs," Valat said, quietly. "I'll go up the rear and you go up the main stairs." Barus nodded and he let his sword point touch the keep's soiled apron and asked, "Is there another doorway to the street, or any way he can get out of the building from upstairs?"
"When he was younger, he used to go out the window from the back bedroom and play on the roofs of the adjoining buildings." The barkeep pointed up and over the top of the main stairway.
Barus ran quickly to the main entry and shouted at the horsemen in a dark, ugly tone. "Watch the roof on your right; if you see anyone up there take him down with your bow. I'll have your asses if he gets away."
* * *
After he screamed, Kaul fell backwards off his shelf and landed back down across a beer keg, which knocked the wind out of him and left him painfully stunned. The storage room held small bar and kitchen supplies, and the kegs that the cooper needed to repair. Had he stacked the keg as he was supposed to, he would have landed on a pile of rags. A lesson learned. He rolled onto his hands and knees in a tangle of dirty bed sheets, vainly trying to suck air into his vacant lungs. He knew he had to move. The mailed warrior did not look like someone he could reason with.
He untangled himself and spent precious moments groping for his leggings and boots in the darkness, then staggered toward his means of escape; an inside back stairway tucked away and partially hidden in a dark corner. He could hear a deep voice yelling as he started to climb, all the while trying to draw a breath. As he reached the top of the stairs, he heard them kick in his door and from the pounding noises he envisioned his meager belongings being hacked into pieces. He darted into the upper hall running as fast as his lungs allowed, and in full view of the great room below, and then he turned left into the secondary hall that led to the rear of the tavern.
It had been a few years, and Kaul was now several pounds heavier than the last time he'd played on the roof. His memory, however, was still sharp and he bore the scars on his right leg from the razor-like tiles after he had broken through into the seamstress' front parlor.
He burst into the empty bedroom and momentarily struggled to get dressed, hopping on each foot to pull on his boots then he stood and drew his first deep breath. He pushed open the casement, and gingerly stepped onto the roof. He heard heavy footsteps pounding along the hall. His feet hit the dewy, moss-covered tiles and his arms swung wildly searching for balance. His escape route was more treacherous than he remembered, but he had no choice; it was either the roof or turn to confront his pursuers.
He picked his way up the gentle slope toward the peak using both his hands and feet to maintain his balance. Several clay tiles broke away under him and skittered to the ground, which caused considerable shouting from below. At the peak, he turned to look at the street and saw a group of horsemen stringing bows, and a pack of dogs milling excitedly beside them. He shuddered when they pointed at him. He turned his glance to his only avenue of freedom, which lay three buildings down at the livery stable. It had an outside rear stairway, one that he could easily jump to from the roof. He hunched over and ran along the peak with his fingertips lightly touching the tiles for balance and his mouth dry with fear.
He had just stepped up onto the next roof when an arrow clipped him on the outside of the left arm. He yelped and slipped on the tiles, nearly falling as he clutched at a crumbling rock chimney. He lay on his stomach on the backside of the roof, panting heavily, as the second and third arrows hit the chimney with dull thuds. He took in two deep gasps then sat up behind the chimney, wiping at the greasy sweat that dripped from the end of his nose and stung his eyes. He winced when he turned his arm and saw that the arrow had sliced his shirt and arm cleanly, leaving his shirt blood-soaked to the elbow. He could hear men yelling, dogs frantically barking, and hoped it would alert the City Guard. He needed to catch his breath for the final dash across the peak, but that changed when he heard several tiles break away and slide down the roof to his left. He jerked his head around and saw the warrior climb through the window, and start towards him.
"Come here, you little bastard! I promise you I'll make it quick," Barus roared, he slipped and fell chest down onto the roof with a loud grunt. His sword dropped from his hand and clattered down the tiles.
Fear spurred Kaul. He leapt up, took a quick look at the bowman then darted across the peak needing all of his youthful balance and coordination to keep his feet under him. A barrage of arrows, screams, curses, and the frenzied barking of dogs followed his progress. What seemed like eons later he reached the livery and slid down the rear of its roof and, with hardly a moment's pause to regain his balance, or breath, he made the jump to the stairs, and then raced down and out into the alley.
"He's on the ground. Get the horses." Kaul heard the mercenary yell. Thankfully, there was no direct alley entrance to the back of the livery so the horsemen would have to backtrack and go down the side of the Black Stallion, gaining Kaul some precious time.
Excerpted from The Book of Signs by Steven L. Toma Copyright © 2011 by Steven L. Toma. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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