Read an Excerpt
By Dave Freer
Baen BooksISBN: 0-671-57831-6
Chapter OnePort Tinarana was like an old, decaying tart, her face lined with a myriad of streets and alleys, inexpertly caked with a crude makeup of overhanging buildings. The alleyways seemed to grow narrower and more choked in filth with the passing of each year. Judging by the ankle-deep slush, this dead end hadn't had the garbage cleared in the last three hundred of those years. And in a few minutes his body would become yet another once-human part of it. He shrank back against the cold, oozing stones of the overhanging wall. The night haze of fog and coal smoke streamered in twisted eddies about the ragged boys. They were vague, almost ethereal, except for the silver-pale lines of low held knives, moving in slow arcs as they closed in.
"Gonna cut you, dink."
"Yeah! Gonna spill your guts, cull. You bin workin' our turf."
Keilin knew there was no use in pleading. They weren't going to listen. They were all bigger than he was, used to using those knives. He touched the stone of his pendant, pressing it into his thin chest. It was always cool, but now it seemed almost burning cold against his skin. His pale eyes darted, trying to assess his best chance. Oh God, for some kind of break ... They came closer....
"What've you got there, gutter rats?" The voice was coarse, adult and slightly slurred with alcohol.
The advance of the ragged gang stopped. "Piss off, guardsman, if you want to stay healthy." The rat pack's leader was wary, but defiant.
"Huh! Hear that mates! The rats are worried 'bout my health!"
Another rough voice responded. "Soon have their own to worry about, heh heh!" There was the steely rasp of a sword being drawn.
Keilin knew this was no rescue for him. The city guardsmen protected those who paid their dues. To this brethren of thugs he was as much of a louse on the city's underbelly as his attackers were. The dead end the gang had caught him in had now become their trap, too.
"Wait a minute, Sill. Let's see what they've got first. We might even want it instead of a rat." There was a nasal quality to the voice that failed to overlay the lust. With a sharp metallic click the slide of the dark lantern was pulled back. Light spilled out. It revealed four boys in tattered clothing remnants. They were stunted and malnourished, but visibly between the ages of fifteen and the wispy first traces of beard. Their victim was smaller and younger still.
The light was directed at the victim. "Ooh! Pretty one, isn't he!" The nasal voice thickened. Here, in the deep south, a pale skin, green eyes and red hair were rare, as was the hawksbill nose in the middle of it all. Enough of the light washed back for Keilin to see the holder. His belly crawled. Guard-Captain Kemp. It was widely rumored that Kemp got his kicks from pain ... and that his young victims ended up dead ... much later.
"Go on, rats. Get lost. It's your lucky night." As the ragged figures scampered past the guardsmen, Keilin saw the Guard-Captain set the dark lantern down and start fumbling with the buttons on his pants. "Hold him for me, boys. Looks like this one'll fight back." Something in his voice indicated that this would simply add spice.
Keilin struggled vainly against the big hands that held him. He was wild with fear, into the realms of panic, too far gone to feel pain from the sudden bitter cold of the jewel on his chest.
"Holy shit!" The rough hands loosened their grip on his arms. Keilin writhed free, pulling up his trousers. Whatever this was, he was going to run, and he'd not get far with them around his ankles. He heard the scraping sound of swords being drawn. Looking up, he saw just how futile this act was. In the lantern light the bull was huge, filling most of the alley. Living in the gut of the city, Keilin barely knew what the animal was, but hearing the beast's bellow, seeing those long horns lowering, he was sure it was very, very angry.
The city guardsman nearest the beast knew equally little about the temper of an old swamp aurochs. If he'd been from the wide, wild marshes of Vie'en, five hundred leagues to the southeast, where the vast beast had been grazing peacefully in the pale morning a few moments before, the fat one would never have been so stupid. But the nearest thing to this beast he'd ever met was an elderly milch cow. So he waved his sword ineffectually at it, as one might a hazel switch, and shouted, "Go on! Shoo!"
The sweeping horn caught him, sheer weight and power punching it through his rib cage, like a spear through wet tissue paper. His bubbling scream was cut off as he was tossed and flung with bone-smashing force to crack against the wall. He bounced off it, to fall beneath the angry hooves.
The guardsman called Sill grabbed Keilin's arm, and pulled the boy across his body, holding him as a human shield. Such a shield was, of course, meaningless to the three-ton beast that was pawing the rag-doll remnants of the guardsman's former companion.
Then Keilin heard a high-pitched thin whine. He knew what came next. It had happened three times before. The guardsmen didn't appear to be able to hear it ... or didn't know what it meant. With frantic strength the boy lunged forward and bit his captor's lower bicep with all his might. Sill grunted with pain and jerked the boy away; Keilin desperately threw himself downward. The guard's chest, and a tardy lock of Keilin's hair vaporized. So did half the wall behind them, and the door beyond that.
Keilin didn't wait for them to have a second shot at him. He was off, bolting through the new-made way out of the dead end. His one glance backward showed that the Guard-Captain had made his escape through the same hole. The man seemed to have no intention of following him, though. Kemp was just running in blind panic.
Keilin slipped into a narrow multibranched alley, and waited hidden behind a lip of brickwork. No footsteps followed. After a few minutes of swallowed panting and gradually slowing heartbeat, the boy slipped quietly away in a different direction. Finally, as the sky was beginning to pale, and the first sounds of stirring of the city's dayside began, he dropped over a wall, and then shimmied up a drainpipe. This gave access to a narrow ledge surrounding the building at third-floor level. He edged along the dark line of crumbling bricks, and around the corner to a small window.
It wasn't barred ... most unusual for Port Tinarana. In fact it only appeared to be closed. A fingernail under the edge of the rusty steel and it opened silently, or should have, after the amount of stolen oil that Keilin had lavished on it. Instead, it opened quietly a little way and then ... stuck. Keilin was standing on a four-inch-wide ledge, trying to apply outward leverage. He cursed in a whisper, using language no fourteen-year-old ought to know: not just because it was obscene, but because it was obscene in an extinct language. Perhaps as a response, the obdurate window flew open abruptly, nearly tumbling him down for perhaps the twentieth time. He had fallen once, and the memory of the fear in those stretched-out moments was still with him. He was shaking as he pulled himself into the musty darkness.
His eyes adjusted to the dimness as he closed the window behind him. Relief washed through him as he looked at the familiar cracked washstand from his perch on the toilet cistern. This was one of the port's original buildings, and here, unusually, the plumbing still worked. In most public places the fittings had long since been looted, to become nonfunctioning ornaments in some wealthy merchant's house, or perhaps cut and fitted to the normal bucket and seat arrangement. But here ... this place was largely forgotten. Those who did remember its existence treated it with superstitious awe. This is the fate of libraries in largely illiterate societies.
After a long drink of the slightly rust-flavored water, Keilin slipped out, through the crowded stack-room, and into the little kitchen the librarians used. He knew that he was in trouble, and needed to think of some way out, but for now he let his familiar rituals carry him. Years back Keilin had worked out that the mistake that most thieves made was to try and attack the food chain at too high a level. If you're hungry, don't try to steal meat pies, or gold for meat pies. Those things are well guarded, and thieves are hunted down. The port grain silos however ... well, they were poorly defended against rats and pigeons, and easily accessible to a nimble boy. The porridge he made from the mortar-crushed wheat wasn't nearly as appetizing as a meat pie, but Keilin, unlike most of his peers, wasn't malnourished. Also, the grain made good bait for the pigeons he trapped on the roof. Keilin looked down at the porridge and sighed. If he'd not been tempted into trying for peppers, he wouldn't have been spotted and chased into that alley.
He cleaned up meticulously. Everything was left in its exact place. He'd been using the kitchen for three years now without its legitimate owners being any the wiser. By the time they got in, the little alcohol stove would be cold, and any smells lost in the odor of yesterday's curries. He sometimes stole a little of these too ... but very circumspectly. He went to wash, a ritual he'd taken up when the head librarian had smelt Keilin's far-from-delicate alley bouquet, and had spent the next hour zealously hunting dead rats around his hideout. Keilin had spent the time silently between fear and chagrin. There were no rats in the library, now. But they'd been his main source of food when he'd first taken shelter there.
His mind kept turning back to the previous night. For now, the "Die Hards," the street gang who had caught him first, thought he was dead. But, by tonight, the word would be out. Anyone who denied that the city watch had links with the gangs was just naive. So ... what passed for the law-the gangs and the watch-would be out to kill him. He didn't know what story the Guard-Captain had come up with to explain his men's sudden demise, but he was willing to bet the truth hadn't figured in it. The man wasn't going to rest easy until Keilin was dead. As for the other gangs ... they would go along. To keep the peace, any of them that caught him would hand him over to the Die Hards. But the worst was that the whining killers had found him again. He sat down with the book he was currently reading and tried to lose himself in it. Keilin knew that being able to read was all that set him apart from the other scavenging children of the city ... but this time he couldn't see how it could help him. Gradually the book swallowed him.
He slipped out of his reading-induced trance with a start. Surely it wasn't opening time already? Yes. Those were definitely footsteps on the staircase. Damn. No time for a last visit to the toilet. He'd just have to use the bloody jar again. Moving swiftly but quietly, he went across to the inverted V of an old-fashioned bookstand, which stood against the far wall. In the old days he'd had to lift it, but since then he'd managed to unscrew one of the boards, under the lowest shelf. It had taken him many nights of effort, but it was worth the extra speed it lent to getting into his rat hole. He slipped through the gap with some effort, and pulled the waiting board back into place, just as the two elderly and slightly out of breath librarians reached the top floor. He heard them clatter in the kitchen, as he settled into his nest.
He felt his scraped ribs. He was going to have to do something about that plank. Growing was creating all sorts of problems. Then, as he listened to the librarians discussing the street news, he realized he wasn't going to have to worry about the plank after all.
"... a black magician!"
"There's no such thing, as you well know, Khabo! Only the ignorant lower classes believe in magic."
"Think what you like, Stannel. Gemme's cousin Shanda saw the dead aurochs herself. Killed seven people it did, before they speared it to death."
"Amazing! Shanda got off her back for long enough to see something outside of her own bedroom! I thought she was far too busy for that." Despite the catty comment Stannel was plainly impressed.
"She's thirty years younger than you, old man. If she'd accepted you, she'd have run off with some sailor by now."
"True. Now, instead, the sailors can come to her. So you say they're offering a reward for this so-called magician?"
"Yes! The Patrician himself has put up five hundred ... in gold! The brave Guard-Captain who stopped the magician is leading the house-to-house search in person. The boy's to be killed on sight, before he can use his black powers!"
Forgetting his supposed disbelief in magic, Stannel interjected, "I thought they had to light black candles, draw pentacles and ... you know ... sacrifice babies and things to do their spells."
"Huh! This one did all that years ago! The Guard-Captain said that the magician was raping a baby girl when they caught him!"
"No! Monster! I hope they're going to make him die slowly."
"It's not safe, I tell you! He blasted his way though six buildings and a man to escape. His kind you kill the minute you see them, preferably before he sees you."
"Speak for yourself! If I see him, I'm going to run like hell. What's he look like?"
With a sinking heart Keilin listened to a surprisingly accurate description of himself. Why the hell couldn't Kemp have lied about that too?
"What I don't understand is how come he didn't just blast that Guard-Captain to ash too?"
"Guard-Captain Kemp's a deeply religious man. He believes God protected him against the bolts of the evil and unholy...." The conversation faded off down the stairwell.
Keilin sat there in silence, hands over his face. Holy mother ... the gangs were after him, the townspeople'd kill him on sight, Kemp was hunting house to house for him, and the whiners ... and a reward from the Patrician. That one puzzled him though. The citizens of Port T. knew that that bastard never parted with the gold he extracted with infinite care from all his subjects, even the whores, beggars and thieves. And, by all reports, what happened in the cellars beneath the Patrician's palace would make the librarians' idea of black magic look like a Sunday School outing.
There were a few people out there who knew Keilin, but he'd never trusted anyone enough to reveal his hideout to them. He was safe enough here, but if he ventured out ... well, there were always eyes in the alleys. Sooner or later someone would see him, and then the hunt would be on. He'd never make it back. In the old town alone there were at least a thousand men, and women too, for that matter, who'd slit his throat for a single gold piece, never mind five hundred.
He tried to concentrate on his book again, holding it up to the light coming through the holes he'd made. It was no use.
Excerpted from The Forlorn by Dave Freer Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.