Beyond Birkun: The Third Book in the Promise of the Stones Series

Beyond Birkun: The Third Book in the Promise of the Stones Series

by Michael W. Lowe


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781475945720
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 08/29/2012
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.93(d)

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By Michael W. Lowe

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2012 Michael W. Lowe
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4759-4572-0

Chapter One

Surefoot's sharp snort woke him. He did not move. Wrapped inside his sleeping blanket, he scanned the desert in the direction that Surefoot faced. Then his hand slipped out and closed upon his sword.

Pushing the blanket back, he rose smoothly to his feet. He glanced quickly to his rear and to both sides, but kept his main focus in parallel with Surefoot. His eyes were hard and piercing, and he missed nothing.

Surefoot stamped once and Tostan's eyes riveted upon several quickly moving black blurs. The feral dogs dropped out of sight behind a swell in the sea of sand and rock surrounding the tiny oasis, and Tostan relaxed.

"Good boy, Surefoot. Good boy," he crooned.

He stood and surveyed the other horses—twelve sturdy suffolks. Big horses, bred for their tremendous pulling power and perfect for farmers and tradesmen. Several of them looked at him, oblivious to any danger from the dog pack.

He moved over to Surefoot and stroked his neck. The huge black stallion had been his friend and companion for almost three years. It had carried him through the war with the three kings and the sorcerer Tolrak, over the mountains and into the intrigues of the Delta Kingdom, through the bloody battles with the Mishwa at Rodna Keep, and on to the final victory at Zalgar. Tostan slept well when Surefoot was near. There was no better sentinel.

False dawn lit the sky to the east, and above him the moon shone brightly. Tostan loved this little oasis. It was well off the beaten trail between Fortun and the Corsair Islands. He had discovered a reference to it on an old map he purchased in a shop in Fortun. The main trade route now ran almost half a day's travel to the west. At the Spike, an amazing pointed rock rising up out of the desert sands, the new trade route turned southwest. The old map showed a trail continuing due south from the Spike, through the little oasis and on to the Jumble, a huge pile of gigantic boulders. There the two trails intersected, just a short distance north of his destination, the trading post at the Date Palm Inn.

It had been a bit of a gamble the first time he had left the new trail at the Spike, and Maria had been unhappy when he told her about his detour. But he had found the little oasis with its three stunted date palms and stone-lined well exactly where the map depicted it. He smiled as he remembered how excited he had been with his discovery.

Knowing that he could not return to his bed, Tostan laid down his sword and began clearing his camp. Then he carried several pails of water up from the well and watered the draft horses.

The water was reached by walking down a spiral staircase built into the wall of the well. There was a landing at the bottom where he could stand and dip his collapsible waxed cloth pail into the cool, clear water. Tostan never ceased to marvel at the engineering of the well and its staircase. He often wondered if there were any engineers left in the desert who could recreate such an elegant design.

Tostan pulled himself up into his saddle and urged Surefoot south just as the sun rose over the eastern mountains. Tethered to a metal loop at the rear of his saddle, the suffolks formed up in a long line behind him.

When the Mishwa War ended with Mellette once again a prisoner in Bryunzet, most of the warriors, armorers, suppliers, and craftsmen headed home to their cities, towns, villages, and farms. Others, sensing opportunity in the changes the war had wrought, gambled their fortunes and their lives to start anew. Lucas was one such man.

He took his pay from Duke Durba and traveled to an oasis at the very southern end of the White Desert. There he placed his bet that the old trade route would again see horse traders, spice merchants, and others who would not travel by sea from Farou to Portabelle. Spending all his accumulated pay from ten years of service to the duke, he constructed the Date Palm Inn, brewed up his first batch of Date Palm Ale, and opened his door. He had his investment back within three months.

Tostan slapped the rump of the last suffolk as it trotted past him and into the corral. His friend Certi, like Lucas, had also gambled and won. Certi and Lucas were the two most successful businessmen at the Date Palm Oasis. It helped that they had been the first to arrive and the first to open their doors. Several other liveries had opened since Certi's, and two new taverns had just opened for business, but Certi's was where the old hands kept their horses, and the Date Palm Inn was still the place to drink a good mug of stout ale, bargain, and trade.

Tostan walked up the central lane of the oasis. Not a lane such as one might find in a large city, but rather along narrow rectangular area bordered by Certi's stables, paddocks, and corrals on the north and a string of tents and little wooden buildings on the south. The tents and buildings housed the newer arrivals to the oasis—the brokers and dealers who specialized in the many commodities that were traded at the oasis.

The Corsairs arrived from the southern lands in their cotton shirts, short pants, and boots. The traders of Fortun arrived from the north, dressed in their colorful flowing robes. In the tents and buildings of the south side of the oasis, they bartered and traded with one another. Spices, tobacco, olive oil, and salt were exchanged for silver, gold, and precious stones.

Other services were also sold and arranged in the tents and buildings of the south side. Soothsayers would tell a man's fortune, wine merchants plied their trade, and, for a lonely trader, a companion could be found, if the right tent were approached.

Tostan worked his way through the crowd that filled the lane. He always enjoyed the sights, smells, and sounds of the marketplace. He stopped with many others to watch as four beautiful Corsair women and six very muscular bodyguards passed along the lane. Tostan laughed at the rough comments of the traders. The women tried their best to act as if they did not notice the appreciative stares of the traders who surrounded them or hear their shouted comments.

Tostan was not dressed like most of the others. Despite living in Fortun with Maria, he had never taken to the long flowing robes common among the traders who traveled the hot desert trails. Nor did he wear the brightly colored cotton shirts of the Corsairs. Instead he remained true to the clothing of his home region, modified to reflect the climate of his new desert home. He wore half leggings of soft silk lined leather that just reached to the top of his boots, together with a loose white silk tunic. The sleeves of his tunic ended at the elbows and his forearms were nut brown from the sun. His head was covered with a cap Maria had designed. It had a brim that shielded his face, and a long tail of silk that fell softly to his shoulders from the sides and rear of the cap, thereby protecting his neck and ears from the sun. His boots were deerskin, made by a friend in his hometown of Amur.

His unique attire set him apart and identified him immediately to all who knew him or had heard of him. The old hands, those who had first arrived to trade after the war, nodded at Tostan as they passed, and Tostan returned their greetings. They, too, often dressed in their own distinctive style.

On this day, as on most of Tostan's recent trips, the new traders were in the majority. The old trade route had been proven safe and the oasis was now widely known as a place for a smart man to make money. Tostan could not help but notice the profusion of gold chains, expensive silk robes, and finely tooled boots that garbed many of those in the lane. The place was changing, and probably for both the better and the worse.

Passing a wooden building with a sign bearing only one word—'Silver'—Tostan was greeted by the owner, a man named Petters. The richly clothed trader who was entering Petters' shop took one look at Tostan and immediately lost interest. He inspected his fingernails and tapped his foot while Petters and Tostan exchanged pleasantries. Tostan did not mind being unknown, but Petters was visibly exasperated by the man's rude attitude. Tostan knew he would make the trader pay for his obvious and ill-considered impatience. New traders learned quickly that the original traders still wielded great power at the oasis, especially in horses, silver, and gold.

At the top of the lane sat the Date Palm Inn. It was built of stone and wood and covered in white mud stucco, with a huge porch that ran the length of the front of the structure. The porch was a feature Lucas had insisted upon. From the deck of the porch, in the cool shade of the overhanging roof, one could look down upon the lane and the action of the marketplace. That made it a very important meeting place, and that meant business for Lucas.

Tostan climbed the three steps to the porch. At the top he was met by Rabbin, Lucas' enforcer.

"Hello, friend!" shouted Rabbin. "Lucas will be glad to see you!"

"Hello, friend," said Tostan, smiling broadly.

The two men clasped right arms tightly in a warrior's greeting. Rabbin's face was lined from his right forehead to his left chin with a bright red scar. His bare chest and shoulders showed many more signs of his long service for Duke Durba. He and Lucas had been comrades in arms. But while Lucas had saved his money, Rabbin had spent his on women and wine. Not that he regretted doing so.

"What did you bring this time?"

"Twelve suffolks."

"Very good! Thornal is waiting for you inside. He will be pleased."

"Yes, but will he pay like he's pleased?"

The two men laughed easily together, a fact noted by the traders seated on the porch.

"I'll see you later, after my business is done."

"Good," said Rabbin. "We'll get drunk!"

Tostan pushed the door open and stepped into the cool darkness of the tavern's main room.

"Well, well, look who's here," said a low rumbling voice.

"Lucas, don't you have any oil for your lamps? It's dark in here."

"Not afraid, are you?"

"Ha! Not likely. Hello, friend."

Lucas grinned at him from behind the bar and then greeted him warmly in return.

Four new traders standing at the bar looked him over from top to bottom. One commented quietly to the others and they all smirked and chuckled. Tostan did not acknowledge the slight in any way. Such actions by new traders were meaningless.

"Thornal's over there in the corner." Lucas pointed.

Tostan followed the gesture and spotted Thornal looking his way. He raised his hand, then raised one finger. Thornal smiled and nodded.

"Business good, Lucas?"

"Pretty good. Got a lot of new folks around these past few days. Quite a few looking for horses. If Thornal doesn't want them, there's others who might."

"Horse trader, eh?" stated the closest of the four new traders. He elbowed one of his friends and said loudly, "I guess that explains the clothes."

His friends laughed, two of them stepping back from the bar to get a clear view.

Tostan looked at Lucas and shook his head. Then he stepped away from the new men and started across the room. Thornal watched him approach. Tostan smiled as he heard Lucas suggest to the four that they make their way straight out the door.

"Hello, friend," said Tostan as he sat down.

"Hello, friend. Picking fights with new traders? Doesn't seem quite like you, Tostan."

"It's not. Sign of the times, I guess. Where do they get their attitudes?"

"They think that's what trading at a frontier post is all about. They come here looking for a thrill."

Somewhat startled by Thornal's earnest answer, Tostan looked over his shoulder at the four as they headed out the door. The last two were looking at him as they left. Tostan sighed.

"I'm beginning to wonder if this might be my last trip."

"Oh, now there's a novel opening for our negotiations."

"No, I'm serious, Thornal. And so were you with your comment. The place is crowded and filling with people I don't particularly care for. I like you and Lucas and the other old hands, but new traders like those four are ruining the trip for me. I don't have to do this, you know. I do it because I like to do it."

"Right, Tostan. And what would you do if you weren't a trader?"

"Might travel."

"And leave Maria? Doubt that."

"Might go back to Amur."

"And be a farmer or a woodsman. Doubt that."

Tostan crossed his arms and frowned at Thornal, who leaned over the table to speak quietly to him.

"You're a warrior, Tostan. That's what you do best. Trading's just a way of making do till you're needed again. I know you don't want to admit it, but you know it's true."

Tostan smiled ruefully. "I'd be a lot like those new traders if I was wishing for a war."

"There's men in the islands would pay to have you in their service. A good swordsman who's also good with a bow is tough to find. A hero of the Mishwa War, complete with magical weapons, is nearly impossible to find."

"Shhhhhh," shushed Tostan.

"Why don't you want anyone to know who you are? We all know. Lucas, Certi, Rabbin, Petters, all the old hands."

"And that's fine. You aren't going to challenge me in the streets."

"If you're worried about challenges, you ought to lose the funny clothes!" Thornal laughed loudly.

"All right, all right," said Tostan. "Want to buy my horses and keep this poor warrior fed until the next battle?"

"How many you got?"


"Twelve what?"

"Suffolks. Big, strong, young ones. Harness and saddle broken."

"Do I need to go look at them?"


"Then they're ordinary."

"Ordinary compared to what I usually bring you, which is extraordinary compared to what you get from others. And besides, you saw them when I came in the main gate. I saw you standing there in the shade."

Thornal grinned. "Damn your warrior's eye."

"Forty-eight pieces of silver, full size."

Thornal laughed. "Damn pirate's eye, I meant. Thirty-six."

"Lucas says there are others if you won't trade."

Thornal looked over Tostan's shoulder in the direction of the innkeeper. "What does he know? Forty. Nothing more. I have my pride."

Tostan stood. "And I have my horses."

Thornal waved his hands at the seat. "Sit down, sit down. Must we follow this charade every time?"

Tostan sat. "I should ask you the same thing."

Thornal tapped his finger on the table. "Forty-two."


"Hah, got you! I would have gone to forty-five."


They both laughed.

Thornal reached into his tunic and pulled forth a small leather bag. He opened the cinch at the top and shook out three full silver coins. Then he handed the bag to Tostan and smiled. Tostan just shook his head and chuckled.

"I'll let Certi know they're yours."

"Thanks. When do you think you'll be back?"

Tostan waved at the serving girl. "Two ales, please!" She nodded and headed for the bar. Tostan turned back to his friend.

"I really don't know. I do know it won't be for a while. I need to step back and catch my breath. Figure out what I really want to do with my life. Marking time as a trader is growing old."

"What does Maria say?"

"She thinks I'm happy. I don't let her know otherwise."

"You sure?"

"What do you mean?"

The girl set their mugs upon the table and Tostan paid her with a copper coin.

"Women have a way of telling the truth, that's all I mean."

Tostan took a long pull at the mug of beer. It was cool, slightly bitter, and very refreshing.

"If you're unhappy, I'll bet she knows."

"Not unhappy, Thornal. Just a little confused. I find myself wondering if this is my life."

"Trading's not so bad."

"True. But is this what I'll be doing the rest of my life? Trading horses?"

"I'm sure Maria has other ideas."

Tostan snorted. "Of course she does."

"So what's so bad about that? Settle in, have some children, trade horses, make money, live long, prosper, and die old."

Tostan finished off the beer in the mug and set it down slowly on the table. He said nothing for a few beats. Then he met his friend's eyes.

"I miss the camaraderie of men at arms."

Thornal in turn stared back at him.

"So do we all, Tostan. So do we all," he finally whispered.

"Well!" said Tostan, suddenly. He put both hands on the table and pushed himself upright. He thrust out his hand to Thornal. "Thanks, as always."

Thornal took the offered hand and held it tightly in the warrior's grip. "You take care, Tostan."

"I will."

He turned and crossed the room to the bar. Lucas saw him coming and cleared a place at the end.

"Grab one of those stools, Tostan. Sit here at the end. I'll even join you for one."

"I'm honored," said Tostan, and meant it.


Excerpted from BEYOND BIRKUN by Michael W. Lowe Copyright © 2012 by Michael W. Lowe. 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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