Princes of Purt
Book 9 of the Novels of Shannon
Chapter one. Routes Altered
Dropping into the battered old chair, Jeddah tried to shake the day’s tension. The chair groaned and threatened to collapse under him. He scratched at the back of his neck where bugs had bitten and burrowed into his skin for months. He hoped his skin would heal, but it wasn’t very likely. This year had been the worst he had ever seen it. There had been a particularly unpleasant parasitic wasp that had been trying to lay eggs in his skin for the last month. It wasn’t often he came across an insect he did not know, but this one he had never seen.
He kicked his pack under the table as a nervous lanky teenage boy came over to the table. The stained drawstring shorts the young half-Purtan man wore said very well all the things he had to offer. Jeddah felt sick for him. So many children had been sold into slavery here that more were in the trades than not. Many had become the toys of the perverse and violent.
He looked up at the young man, too young to even grow hair on his face yet, but old enough for his face to have erupted in skin conditions. In this city it was a blessing to be less attractive in many ways. However, if his income dropped for it, he would likely be punished. Jeddah did not understand why more simply did not flee into the west lands and forests. The few that Jeddah had found over the years, he had helped to flee north and get into a new life, but he could number those on his hands.
“What can I do for you?” the youth asked in a still young voice.
“A meal; beer if you have it and a bath would be good.”
“No beer, ships haven’t been on schedule, but we got wine and whiskey. Baths here aren’t great, but they are free if all you want is water.”
“Wine,” Jeddah said with a sigh. “Where you from, boy? Your accent isn’t local.”
“Hmm. Things any better there?”
“Some. Less demons and less mud, but that’s about it.”
Jeddah smiled a little. “Aye, right now any place with less mud would be nice. How you end up here?”
“I was supposed to train on a merchant ship, but…” he shrugged. “Times are tough you know. Even merchants are suffering and they always are up for extra coin.”
“Sorry, lad,” Jeddah said honestly. “If I could help you I would. Keep your head clear, you’ll grow out of this. I did. Learn what you can and pocket what you can hide without being caught; that’s my advice.”
The boy nodded a little. “Aye,” he bowed and moved from the table with a slightly better step to his manner. Jeddah had seen so many fall into this sort of life and become part of the crowd that kept it going. Not many escaped it once they were drawn in. Few boys with that one’s bone structure lived through to adulthood. If the abuse didn’t kill them, often they did it to themselves. One thing about true Purtans: if they don’t have a purpose or an ally, they die and often at their own hands. Humans were adaptable and had so much better chance of survival. Jeddah hoped the boy’s human half gave him that small hope. He sighed and sent a little prayer to whatever angels remained to help the young man.
The food came with a tall mug of cheap wine and a key to the bathhouse in the back yard. “Two bits,” the young man said. Jeddah already had them in hand and gave over the three bits he had pulled out.
Times were so bad in the empire Whole coins didn’t even get used this far from the capital. Coins had been chopped up into six bits its and that was the currency. The boy looked at the three and nodded.
“Thank you.” He bowed and carefully slipped one of them into the knot of the draw string at his waist. He went back to deliver the coins to the tavern keeper while Jeddah ate the slop they called stew and tried not to think what might be in it. Once he had finished, Jeddah heaved himself up to go to the bathhouse.
It wasn’t so much a bathhouse as a small wooden box with a water tank on top that was heated by the sun and could be poured down on the body to drain away out the cracks in the floor. There was no soap, no towel, or so much as a comb, but Jeddah had his own. He scrubbed away the mud, the sweat, and the bug bites as best he could before he took his bar of soap to his clothes as well. His clothes were battered. They had been torn, patched, and sewn so many times they were barely holding together. He most certainly needed to get another set.
Dressed, he shouldered his pack and left with one last glance back at the young man who stood in the door watching him leave, as if all hope was going with Jeddah as well. There was nothing Jeddah could really hope to do and braced himself for what he was going to have to face in the city.
He had no use for the small village and no reason to linger. Picking up his pace, he strode out. The heat was terrible this time of year, but even more so than normal. One advantage of the odd weather was that the bogs were down some and his clothes dried quickly.
Most people used the waterways, but Jeddah trusted few and walked if at all possible. He most certainly stuck to his own when his pack was full. He left the main road from the village for a small track that was barely visible, but he could feel it. Often such tracks vanished in the mud, were lost under the tangle of the vegetation, or hidden on purpose, but he could feel them like one feels a coolness under bare feet or feels the heat of rage. He could track creature, man, or demon in the mud of the swamps and go where others didn’t dare to. That was how he made his living. He had stopped questioning or doubting himself about it long ago. He trusted the swamp to tell him what he needed to know. In the life he led in the swamp, he had learned to trust the wild things more than men.
Over the years, he had healed and aided many animals, torn down many traps, and even shown some animals how to see and destroy those traps. It was one thing to hunt for food, another to hunt for hides or scales. If you hunted to eat and then sold the hide, that was different. Many creatures that lived in the swamps were too intelligent to be made into purses for the wealthy of the world. Worse, the traps were often set for runaway slaves; the creatures who died in them were left to rot.
Jeddah was about to cut from the track and cross the country in the wilds when he paused. He was being paralleled. He looked over, but while he could feel the creature he didn’t know it and he wasn’t sure of its motives. Anything that hid that well from him was nothing to be messed with unnecessarily. He stayed to the track and moved on again picking up his pace, hoping to make it reveal himself.
The creature faded, but hours later returned. Whatever it was, its return set Jeddah’s nerves on edge. He picked a large tree and scrambled up it into the high crook of the arm. He trailed his finger along an unbroken line about himself as a barrier to keep the crawling bugs off. Once comfortable, he tucked himself in and offered his thanks to the tree, offered to share his energy, then settled in to sleep. He trusted the tree would alert him if danger came close.
Many of the things he did, he just did. Some had been taught, others had not, but they worked for him. He had been in places they said no man could live long and never alone. He slept safely as one with the trees, he healed wild creatures, and waded in infested waters, but he was never eaten.
He liked to think that the things he knew, but had not learned from his grandfather, he had been taught by the trees themselves. He was his own creature and that he was certain of. Maybe he had been warped by the long time spent in the wilds; maybe he was never normal to begin with. He fell asleep to the sleepy twitter of night birds and the chorus of frogs. Whatever had been ghosting around seemed to have retreated again.
Night jarred him awake. That was rare. He lay still, trying to figure out what had woken him. His dreams had been flashes of memory, recalling the brutal death of his grandfather; his last teacher. Not even as they had slashed him apart on the altar had the old man screamed. Jeddah had stayed hidden in the tree as ordered… he had stayed there so long the camp they had once had was lost to the growth of the forest and the shifting of mud.
The night now was quiet. The normal hum of life and energy that he always felt was stilled. It was as if the trees themselves were holding their breath until whatever was there passed.
He wanted to move to look down, but the tree seemed to hold him in place, to want him to be still. He had felt that only once before and he had learned later something had gone through and killed an entire village down to the last kitten for blood magic. Whatever it had been was evil and likely more than he could have handled on his own.
He made himself relax back into the tree, trusting its awareness of what was out there. He was about to let his mind drift away when he heard a howl that brought him fully alert. It chilled his blood and left him frozen with fear. He knew what was stalking him now. It was the thing that had caught his grandfather.
It was not a creature native to the world. Everything in the swamp went still. That thing had once haunted Jeddah and his grandfather. For all Jeddah knew, it was the very same one. The old man had hidden Jeddah in a tree and gotten only a few yards away when it shot out of the darkness and took him down. The forest had screamed that night, but the old man never had. Jeddah had been barely as tall as the old man’s waist then. That night the swamp had become his home.
Chill crept into Jeddah as he tried to hide deeper in the tree. He became aware of the forest, as happened when he tied his energy to a tree. He could see all about him, in all directions lit in the blue light of the moon, even though the clouds were thick and low.
Out of the darkness came the thing. It crept forward moving somewhat like a slinking goblin and a crippled old man at the same time. Its tattered robes almost seemed to smoke and steam. It lifted a face that was more scar and slash marks than recognizable features. It sniffed the air and moved a step closer.
It was about to take another step when it stopped, frozen in place, shrank down, then was gone in a sudden flash of movement. The forest stayed still. Jeddah didn’t move; his heart pounded in his chest. The memory of what was done to grandfather was brought back up, like a bad taste in his mouth.
He stayed in the tree until the sun rose. Jumping down, he shifted his pack into place and stepped into a ground-devouring run. He didn’t know what had scared the thing away, but he wanted to be far from here if it returned. His avoidance of the waterways was replaced with a need for speed. He cast out a scan for the nearest boat. It wasn’t far.
The boat was tied to a tree, but there was no ferryman. Jeddah came in slowly, the hair rising on the back of his neck. Whatever had been in the woods had been here. He had no doubt the ferryman had died at its hands. Blood in the mud near the boat confirmed it.
Wasting no time, he untied the rope, grabbed the pole, and shoved off. Just as he cleared the banks and brush for the deeper water, he looked back to see a black panther watching him from the bank. It got up and vanished, not walked away, but simply vanished.
He swallowed his unease and moved to pole harder and get away from the area.
Cyrill was the busiest trade city in Et. It sat at the mouth of the Lenvelle River, which poured into the Pusan Sea. The slow-moving river, fed by a thousand swamps, dumped a dark stain into salty sea. Where the salt met the fertile dark waters of the Lenvelle, the fishing was enough to feed the city as well as trade out across the empire.
Ships with ancient sails shaped like great fins, dyed red and blue, or green and black, still worked the water. The masts of the ancient boats, painted in oranges, yellows, and browns, contrasted with their sails, which always reminded Jeddah of the large carnivorous butterflies that hunted little silver fish in the deeper swamps. Larger versions of the boats harvested the great Pusan kelp and salt from the southern shore. The crest-sailed ships moved between Cyrill and Hoosh in Et, Vos and Daryl in Fossa, and Brench and Covernty in Tiff. The trade went overland from there. Cyrill, being on the trade route that ran from Wageinhem in Amador, had more trade than might be expected in this unpleasant climate. Despite all that seemed to happen around it, the city remained a hub of travel, trade, and economic power.
It was here that Jeddah brought his year’s wares. He was never comfortable around so many people, but this year he was especially uneasy. He had felt hunted since he had seen the thing in the woods. To make it worse, it had felt as if the swamp was trying to hide him and rush him along. Never in his life had he wanted to be away from the swamp he called home until now. It was as if the very land had been whispering at him to run away and shake the sniffling howler that tracked him.
He paused at the city border to dig out a small purse of stones that he had gathered and he moved to the first jewel merchant he could find on the streets and began the difficult task or bartering with the rare black crystals. They were demonic crystals; remains of Shattered demons; demons he had shattered. Normally he would take several weeks and work his way through the markets and trade a few at each market, but this year he felt rushed and anxious.
His pack was full of not only the black crystals, but little bundles of treasures, everything from rare feathers to shark teeth, all meant to be traded off, but he felt he had to keep moving. He paused at a stone merchant.
The merchant had a collection of gems under glass, a few bits of jewelry, and some bone bits, but nothing grand. Normally a stone or two might be peddled off for various other gems and maybe a ring or two, but Jeddah moved on. He made his way down to the shop of a jeweler he had been going to for years. The man made and sold all sorts of small weapons and jewelry, and he often peddled in outlawed magics. He had been happy to buy the black diamonds and often anything else Jeddah had. Jeddah hoped he could dump everything all at once there. He opened the door to the shop and nearly backed out. It felt as if he had entered the lair of a poisonous snake.
A few men seemed to be looking at a collection of rings to one side; another sat at the workbench that was across the back wall. He stayed close as if he was watching the merchant work, but Jeddah doubted that was the reality. The man Jeddah sought was helping a sailor, bartering salt for a ring.
He glanced up and Jeddah saw a hint of fear cross the man’s face, well-hidden, but it was there just for a moment. Jeddah shifted his pack and moved to look at the copper jewelry. He let the salt trader be served and waited his turn.
“Can I help you?” Galen asked him as if he didn’t know Jeddah at all.
Jeddah nodded. “I was looken’ for a pretty sum’in’ fer me girl,” he said using as thick and stupid sounding a dialect as he could. Galen smiled at once, knowing Jeddah knew this was not a good time to be there.
“You got anything to trade?” Galen asked carefully.
Jeddah dropped his pack and dug in a small side-pocket and pulled out an old broken goblin tooth. He held it up proudly.
“I dug it up,” he said, as if that was true honest work.
“Ah, very nice,” Galen played along, looking at the tooth. It was not worth much, but to the sort of man he was pretending to be, it might be a fortune. “I’ll tell you what, my friend, you pick anything you like off that shelf for your girl and I’ll give it to you for this right fine trophy.”
Jeddah wanted to leave right then, but he knew the role demanded he stay and take his time. The men there stayed and watched, bored, but clearly not there to shop. They were watching for something – or someone. After he couldn’t make up his mind, he finally bartered it up to three things. It was still a good deal for Galen. He happily stashed his new trinkets of copper and glass; these he would trade off next. He wanted nothing the men in the shop might have seen him with. Something was very wrong and he seemed to be in the middle of it.
“Hey,” the man at the counter nodded to him. “Where you from, friend?”
“That’a way,” Jeddah nodded off to the north, “bout three days.”
“You go out in the swamp much?”
“Aye,” he said proudly and boastfully, “ya need a guide?”
“Nah, we’re just looking for black stones. You know of any?”
“Black stones?” he asked as if thinking, then lit up. “Aye! Aye! Down by the sea they say there is sheets of black stone – big as a house.”
The smiled tolerantly. “Rumor is that there is a man who brings in black stones here, comes from the swamp and then goes back again. You ever hear about such a man?”
Jeddah had the very bad feeling that he was under some sort of spell that if he lied, the men would know. He scratched his head thinking. He wished at times he knew more about magic, but experience had taught him well enough to know what he needed to. At his age, he had seen enough to have seen just about everything.
“Well, it’s possible…I suppose the swamp is old and full of things. Like that there tooth I found. They say there were big fights with magic and stuff out there once and the land got wild. Once a big ol’ city was out there they say, but now its just bugs and beasts, ya know.”
“You see any travelers headed this way on the way here?”
“No,” he said seriously. Then to gauge their reaction, he thought of something else. “When I was comin’ here, though, jus’ the other day I hearded something far off to the west. It were a howl like I never hear before. Made the hair right crawl.”
The man he spoke to cast a glance at the other men. He shifted uneasily, but tried to shake it and forced a smile. “To the west you say? How far?”
“Swamp don’t let you know that. Fog and water, you know… it weren’t nothing like I ever hearded before. I needs me a drink…” he said and left them without waiting for any more questions. They might not be the ones who had sent that thing, but he was very certain it had been after him and so were they. He needed to escape and fast. He had a pack full of black stones and someone wanted them.
He moved through the crowd in the street with his head down. He made sure he was out of sight before he picked up his pace and ducked away at a jog. He paused only to pull out his cloak and put it on. The trinkets he had got from Galen he wanted gone. He looked around, almost frantic to be rid of them. He spotted a man standing on the corner looking tired and bored. Jeddah made his way over to him with one goal in mind.
He had played pocket games with his grandfather. They made a game of stealing a small blue stone from each other. That skill had saved his life more than once. He had not used the skill in decades at least, but such skills were slow to slip when you relied on your hands for your life.
The man wore a long worn-out coat, but it had deep front pockets, so old the flaps had worn and were permanently half open. He brushed by, allowing another man to make him step aside and brush in close enough to slip the items into the man’s coat pocket. He was sorry to make the man look like a pick-pocket, but he might well be anyway. If those men did have truth spells, any claim that the man didn’t know how the things got there would be true, still… Jeddah was sorry. He changed direction. He cut up an ally and though a building. As a second thought, he ducked into a tavern and traded his cloak with one he took off the pegs on the wall.
It was too hot and dry to be wearing his hood, but some men did to keep the sun off their faces and heads. Jeddah rarely wore a hood, but it was better that than to show his head. As much as he hated to, he knew that they would be looking for him and his hair was what they would look for – his wild, twisted hair.
He cut up another street and moved for the slightly more expensive end of the market. He needed to find a bathhouse. There were going to be any number of them, but he wanted one busy enough he would not stand out too much. He followed a group of other men headed for the bath, looking like they were sailors fresh off the water. The big man at the door looked him over with a grunt.
“Six bits,” he said with almost a challenge, daring Jeddah to beg out lack of coin. Jeddah instead handed him the six small bits of a coin and moved past him into the great common pool area. Not wasting time, he stripped off everything, piled it on the side of the pool and slipped in.
The steam from the water and the fact that the only light came from high up the walls from small port windows made everything a foggy swirling whiteness. It would help hide what he was about to do and make it difficult for anyone trying to identify him.
Out of his bag, he dug his comb out from a side pouch. He used it at times, but mostly just to get his hair out of his face and bind it back. The bindings he rarely took out. His hair was a knot that was twisted and bound up at the nape of his neck. Once he had kept it tight, but time and years in the wilds had traded his concern for other things. Once he had learned to keep the bugs out, he had little concern for anything else about it.
He knew a trick to undo it, but he didn’t have the right oily herb for it. Instead, he had to use water and patience to unknot and pick the hair out. Every strand that broke or came out, he tried to gather up and stuffed in a pocket of his pack, both the hair from his head and hair that he cut off his beard. A neat tight trim would be a safer hide than a clean shave that would show the tan lines.
Part of his mind told him he was over-reacting, but part of him whispered at him to hurry. He stepped out of the pool when he felt he could get no cleaner. Picking up his pack, he kicked his clothes into the pool.
Taking a seat on the bench, he calmly began to put on clothes from various piles on the bench. The only thing he kept was his own boots. He left a gold ring in the boot of one of the men whose clothes he had stolen. Another man got a cluster of semi- precious stones worth far more than the missing shirt; another was given a set of goblin fangs, not old or broken. They might have a small issue getting home, but they were all well paid for their items.
Jeddah left the bath house, his pack slung over his arm and draped under a cloak. He wore a light cotton blouse and a fine dark pants, a blue so dark they were almost black. The lighter clothes felt nice in the heat of the day, as did the cut to his beard. It felt good to have his hair free and blowing in the wind. He could feel it tug at his scalp in a way that it just didn’t when heavy and bound.
With a solid stride and a straight back he made his way thought the city down to the port. He was not a fan of boats and certainly not of traveling on them, but he needed to get away and quickly. He found the harbor master and strode up faking irritation.
“I need the first ship I can to get the hell out of this city,” he said.
“At this point? I don’t care! I just want out of here. I came all the way down here to make her happy and there she is …” he snarled as one might if he had found his woman with another. “Happy alright, I’ll leave her happy ass here! See how she likes that.”
“There is a ship bound for Ors that is leaving shortly. Called the White Star, its down on the far east of the harbor. Best hurry if you want to catch it.”
He gave the man a nod and strode for it. He had to ask a few times to get directions quickly to the ship. It was at the east end, ready to go and was far larger than he had expected. All the better that he could blend in well.
“I need passage,” he said to a sailor who was unwinding a massive rope from dock poles.
The sailor looked at him and nodded. “Best run up and talk to the captain bout fare. If you don’t have none, you will find yourself workin’ passage off.”
Jeddah ran up the plank to the deck and stood aside for the ship to get underway. The captain was busy. Now was not the time to bother him. Jeddah chose a place on the rail of the ship as out of the way as he could find, and waited to be free of the harbor.
The crew rushed about with ropes and rigging until the ship was well clear of the land and into the deep salty Pusan sea. The farther they went, the better he began to feel until he went to the captain. The man turned and looked at him with fierce black eyes and a wicked scar on his cheek. Jeddah felt his heart sink a little at the expression the man wore.
The captain seemed to look right through him and to know who and what he was. It was as if the man knew all at once that Jeddah hunted demons and that he was on the run from powers unknown. The man shook his head. “You are not here. Do not talk to me and stay away from my crew. Sleep on the deck and leave nothing! If we are stopped, you are nothing to me.”
“I can pay…” Jeddah started to say.
The captain shook his head. “No. I want nothing from you. I cannot hide you or shelter you. You’re on your own, Druid. Leave me out of your war.” He turned and went back to his crew. Jeddah stood at the rail of the deck, not sure what to make of that. Druid, yes, that was what his grandfather had been called, but he had never been called that.
Jeddah turned his back to the crew and the ship. He looked out over the grey water and felt oddly alone. There were no trees, no animals, no life about him. The sea here was too salty for even the ocean fish. Only a rare type swam these waters and just enough insects and plants survived for the fish to live off of. The water here held secrets, locked away in the salty brine. He leaned his weight on the rail and let the spray mist his face and the wind whip through his hair. He hoped to be left alone, to be over- looked and ignored.
His mind drifted away to dreams of birds and he imagined himself among them, skimming the water that was deep blue and full of life. He thrilled in the rush of the air through his feathers and over his stream-lined body. He imagined himself an air-breathing fish diving and racing along the side of the ship, and then even as the sun set and his dreams faded into ghosts, he could almost see, almost hear that once such life had been here and yet the waters were flat, thick, and full of salt. Why? Why would the magics of old make such a dead place? He sighed and turned to look back at the ship.
He knew why; to purge magic, to clean it away. What magic he didn’t know. He just knew the power of the crystal that men called salt. It had to do with the shape of the crystal itself and the fact it melted into water. It was one of the oldest of the living elements and was here long before carbon based life lifted itself out of the raw planet.
The ship was quiet; the lamps lit the red sails and reflected off the water. Jeddah sat with his back to the rail and watched the stars above as the ship cut its way eastward. He drifted into dreams of magic wars and demons flickering just out of his ability to grasp. Sleep was restless and uneasy. He woke to shouting to find that the crew was desperately trying to get speed. He got up to see they were being chased; three ships were coming at them. They were after him. All the people here would die because he had slipped onto their ship. They would only die if he was here, though. The captain had known it and yet…
He grabbed up his pack and ripped it open. He grabbed out every pouch and bundle that held the black diamonds in them. One of them broke open and spilled the stones over the deck, but he snatched them up before anyone else could see. He began to hurl each pouch over the rail of the ship. He threw away more wealth than all these men combined would ever have in their lifetimes, but Demons were as numerous as rats in Et. He already had more wealth than most men ever imagined. He didn’t need more. It was just what he did. Much magic could be made and used with such stones. He brought them forth for the great wizards of Purt to use.
He cast another over the rail of the ship. The captain joined him and caught his wrist a moment meeting his eyes. The man knew what sort of wealth was being discarded away for the sake of the ship and relented. He grabbed up several of the last bundles and dumped them over the rail even as Jeddah cast out the last of them.
“Get below deck,” he said “and change your clothes into anything you can grab. Hurry.”
Jeddah dashed for the door to the hull and dropped down into the dark of the hull. He staggered though the rows of hammocks, piles of ropes, and stacks of crates looking for anything to change into. He found a line of clothes that had been washed and were drying. He tore off his clothes, not real sure why, but pulled on the new ones. His old clothes he took to the privy shoot. He shoved them out the hole into the water that rushed past just feet below the opening.
Dropping to a knee, he dug out only what he truly needed from his pack and shoved the rest of it out the hole as well. Above he could hear the shouting and sudden silence. He scrambled back to try and hide in the hull someplace. He crawled back behind a stacks of crates to where a young boy was hiding as well.
The child was terrified and it showed. Jeddah pushed into the space and put a finger to his lips for silence. The child recognized a fellow hider and tried to make room for him. It wasn’t long before the sounds of men came down the stairs and began to tear through everything.
“Come out!” one roared. “We know you’re down here! Come out now or we set the ship on fire!”
Even as he knew the ways of the swamp, Jeddah knew the men were being very truthful. He also knew at a glance at the child that under the baggy clothes was a terrified young woman, who, if caught, would be very brutalized, and that her soul was well worth saving. He crawled out holding his hands up.
“Okay, Okay,” he said. “I’m out.” He moved forward to allow them to grab him without getting any closer to the hiding place. The girl needed to stay hidden and he knew it. He wasn’t sure exactly why, but it was better he was drug out to the deck than her. He tripped several times on the way up the stairs. They pulled him out to the deck where everyone else was lined up. He was shoved into place hard. He tripped and fell to the deck. He played weak and old at once.
The men who had taken them were pirates of a sort that Jeddah had never even heard of. They wore face tattoos and arm brands. They had belts about their waists that were strung with finger bones that dangled off them. These were not nice men at all.
“Is this everyone?” one of the man demanded of the captain.
“Yes,” the man lied, but did so with such a straight face that Jeddah wondered if the girl was a stowaway. He got to his feet finally. As he did, he saw a boy not more than ten. He was a stunning young thing with dark skin and eyes so blue they could only be Purtan. He wore long tight braids and while his clothes were plain, the young creature wore a bracelet of braided hair that whispered of power to Jeddah. It was not likely that on one ship there was two young children with no guards and that both of them cried to him for protection. He had hidden the girl and knew her fate would be better for it, but this boy was in a very bad place.
Jeddah got in line next to the boy who looked oddly stoic and yet hid fear in his clenched fists.
“There is a rumor that the Pusan sea belongs to the laws of Purt… that is a myth,” the pirate captain said with a snort. “Those who are long-time sailors here, you know that. We have, however, come to the employment of many of Purt, and we are looking for outlaws.” He held up and waved several sheets of paper before them. The image that was held on front of them all was a face he knew well enough for the knotted hair and the manner of clothes – it was him. “So you have a choice: pay us for the trouble of keeping the water safe or we take slaves to pay for the trouble. It is your choice.” He saw the boy and looked at him a long moment. “You boy, who is your master?”
The boy clenched his teeth and stared away, not saying anything.
“The boy doesn’t speak the words,” the ship’s captain said. “He is just a ship boy, come to learn the trade. His father is a friend of mine.”
“A shame for you,” he grabbed the boy by the shoulder and jerked him forward and shoved him at his men. “We take this one.”
The captain clearly wasn’t happy, but he held his peace, not about to argue with the pirates.
“Anyone here seen these people?” he held out the pages and showed several wanted faces. “One of them is a rouge wizard on the run. He was tracked to Hashan marsh. If you know anything, now would be the time to say something. It may well earn you favor with us.”
“We do not treat with that sort,” the captain said and spat on the deck in disgust. “If I knew such a one, I’d gladly turn him over.”
The pirate captain half sneered. “We will take your hold then or three more of your lot.”
The captain was torn. “The hold worth is not mine; it is a debt I cannot repay. Is there nothing else?” he pleaded.
“I saw the wizard,” Jeddah stepped forward knowing that the pirates were about to take everyone and the ship as well. “Let them go and I will tell you what I know.”
“You will tell me what you know and then I might let them go,”
“No,” Jeddah said firmly. “I know where the rouge wizard is; I also know my skill is better than your torture. You might kill them all and even kill me, but if you do so, you lose the information you desire. Your choice. Let them go and I will go with you and tell you what I know of the one called Druid.”
The pirate captain shifted and considered. “Take them,” he said and spun back to his ship. The boy was grabbed and Jeddah shoved forward. He let them drag him from the small trader’s ship to the dark-wooded monster of a ship the pirates had come on. Once they were on the pirate’s ship the captain called for the lines to be released.
The smaller ship was let go and they moved at once to escape. Jeddah closed his eyes and hoped the sea would come to the aid of the man who had lied for his sake. Maybe a storm would come up and rush the little ship on to safety and make the pirates lose them, or maybe a swift short wind to rush them away or anything that nature might produce to save them. He had no doubt that the pirates would seek to get the information, then race the ship down and take it anyway.
The boy was pulled away and Jeddah was stood on the deck before the pirate captain.
“Well, then, tell me what you know. I let them go, you talk.”
Jeddah smiled faintly. “Come sundown when they are out of your reach, yes, I will tell you what I know.”
The captain stepped up and punched Jeddah in the gut. Jeddah let him, playing to be weak and unaware of fighting. He dropped to the deck, over-reacting. He coughed and let the man have to decide what was worth more. The man swore and left Jeddah on the deck to suffer as the sun slowly sank toward the far horizon.
“The Druid was chanced on by a creature that howls and stalks its victims like a goblin in the dark. He was taken by a master of darkness and on an altar of stone in the depth of the marsh he was tortured and killed. You will find his bones there yet.”
The pirate captain stared at Jeddah in shock and horror. Jeddah felt the air chill and a man stepped from behind the captain. He stood a moment looking at Jeddah. The man smiled as his eyes went black; Jeddah could feel the demon who possessed the man. Inside the shell, the demon looked out at Jeddah, knowing very well whom he faced.
“He tells the truth. The one known as the Druid was captured and died on the altar in the swamp.”
The captain roared in rage and back-handed Jeddah so hard he honestly fell to the deck that time. The captain whirled about in fury until his eyes fell on the boy he had taken. The boy was held by a large guard who looked to have been poking at him with a knife to torment and tease him. He had all his clothes stripped off and stood in nothing but his skin.
The captain was brought up short and looked at the boy like he was a mystical creature. He took a step for the boy. Jeddah saw the demon’s attention shift as well, as he looked to the boy and in that moment there was a flash; something inside the demon wanted that boy to suffer and rushed with vile pleasure at what was about to happen.
If a demon wanted that boy’s pain, it was reason enough to deny him. No demon felt any such excitement over the pain of normal men: this boy mattered. Jeddah had planned to escape alone, but there was no way he could leave the child to the fate he would face here. He bolted from where he was, grabbed the boy as he ran, tore him free from the guard who held him, and leapt off the deck of the ship. There was one short fall before they hit the salt water of the Pusan Sea. Once below the surface, no magic could track them and here he was free to use magic of any sort he wished, and he did. Not even a demon could see though salt water this thick.
He cast a bubble of air about himself and the boy; it would not last long, not even for himself alone, but for two it would be even less. Still, it would be enough to swim away from the ship and escape. The boy kept a grip on him and closed his eyes, trying to breathe slowly.
“Good boy,” Jeddah said and pushed away from the ship, even as arrows shot down through the water. Deeper and away was all he was thinking about, beyond the reach of arrows and away from the ship so they might surface.
Air was needed. Jeddah’s lungs burned and the boy was about to slip away altogether. He had taken it as far as he dared. With a final kick upward, he broke the surface, dropped the bubble about their heads, and sucked in air. Rolling on his back, he held the boy up on his chest. Jeddah just needed to float and breathe a bit.
Jeddah’s body and his brain ached from holding the bubble for so long. He had feared that he would surface and find the ship close enough for the demon to spot him, but the ship was nowhere to be seen beyond the low waves of the sea. Above was nothing but stars and sky. It was stunning. He knew north would be the closer shore, but he had no idea how far north or if he could hope to swim that far.
The bubble had drained him. It was all he could do to hold it as he had. It was a trick his grandfather had taught him as a child. It had been a game to hide under water. No one thinks to look for you under the water. It also made hunting for treasure in the mud much easier: diving under the water and being able to see and to breathe just fine.
He relaxed back; he needed to let the headache fade before he made any decisions. He was not sure what fate they were headed for, but it was better to drown than be the victim of an eager demon. The boy stirred and for a moment almost fell into a panic, then calmed down. He lay back, relaxing in the water as best he could, as well.
“Aren’t we quite the pair,” Jeddah chuckled. “Hope a boat comes soon.”
“Me, too,” the boy said.
Jeddah had never expected to see the shoreline to the south. When it appeared, he thought for sure his eyes were seeing things, but each roll of the water brought the line back until even the boy could see it. When there was no doubt left, Jeddah had the boy hold his shoulders and turned his attention to the swim. He reached for the shore, hoping his strength would be enough to get them there. When his toes hit the shallows and he was able to stand up, catching his balance against the tide, he did his best to help the boy keep hold of his shoulders as he struggled forward.
Having his feet touch the terra made him feel better on every level. The salt level was so high here, though, he could feel no living thing, but a least he could feel the planet under him. It was more than a mile though the chest-deep water, fighting against the sluggish, but heavy tide.
Every step was a battle, but he stumbled from the water and beyond the tide to the hard-packed salt of the southern coastline. Once free, he dropped to his knees, exhaustion screaming at him in a way it never had before. Always he had the swamp, the trees, the living creatures around him to help him, to guide his path and to share their strength, but here… here there was nothing but salt.
The boy began to cry, even though he was trying not to. If not for that, Jeddah might have laid down, then and there, and slept. He turned to the boy. His skin was raw and seeping specks of blood; the salt water had all but peeled his skin off. Jeddah gathered the boy up in his arms and forced himself to get to his feet. They needed to find shade and fresh water.
He did not think he was as badly off as the child, but he was going to start to feel the pain as soon as he dried off.
“If you have any gods on your side, now might be a good time to get us some help,” Jeddah said, scanning the coast line. There was nothing along the shore, not a rock, not a weed, nothing but salt flats. Father south he could see what looked like ridges, but with the whiteness of the salt and the warp of the heat, it was impossible to say how far away those ridges were… they could be fifty miles… a hundred. He did not think he could walk that far on his own, let alone carrying a child. They both needed water to drink and food, or they would lay preserved in the salt for a thousand years or more before the wind picked their bones clean.
Jeddah drew a deep breath and headed due south, carrying the boy. There was no other choice.
It felt as if Jeddah’s skin was about to peel off in dry scabs. His joints had cracked and were seeping fluids. He needed every drop and much was being wasted. The poor boy was even worse off. For now, Jeddah tried not to worry about how they had stayed afloat or gotten so very far south. There had to have been some current he was not aware of. Behind him, the Pusan Sea was a flat slick of grey that reached to the horizon, but at least he could now see the land was already rising and they had gained altitude. Maybe by the grace of the heavens, a fog would lift in the morning and they would at least have that. Night was coming and it was going to get cold; this was turning out to be a very long and miserable day.
He sank down and set the boy on the ground. Here at least there were little black bits of shale mixed with the salt. Maybe some sort of plant would grow in this harsh land and he would be able to find them something to chew on.
The boy was exhausted and in pain, but he sat trying not to cry. The child was brave, if nothing else. He held his hands in his lap with his head bowed. His olive skin was pale, peeling and seeping. The amount of pain he was in had to be incredible. Jeddah turned from looking at him to the ridgeline to the south. It seemed closer, but it might just be his mind playing tricks. He didn’t understand how they had gotten to the south side of the sea, but here they were. It bothered him, like a buzzing fly in his ear. They should not be here. They should not be outside of Purt’s borders at all.
They had more immediate issues, though. He peeled off his shirt and walked back to the child, who looked up, trying to look brave.
“Here,” he offered his shirt to the boy. “It’s not much, but…”
The boy got to his feet and took it. The shirt was a cheap linen tunic that had simple seams and no detail to it at all. Still it was plenty long to be a short robe for the child.
“Thank you,” he said. He pulled it on and seemed relieved to have it down to his knees. He looked back towards the water and shook his head. “I need to get back into Purt,” he said with a worried tone to his voice.
Jeddah nodded. “We should not be here. I don’t understand why we are. The winds blow to the north. We should have floated to Von or about.”
“Greater powers are at work than just wind I think,” the boy muttered in Dacan. Jeddah pretended not to understand, but couldn’t help but look at the child. Clearly he was not a simple Purtan ship boy. Jeddah couldn’t help but be very worried the thing that had stalked him in the swamps would soon be here as well. At least he had a sea of salt between himself and it. He would be hard to find out here.
“Well,” he said trying to cheer the boy up. “At least we have company. Being alone in such a wasteland might be very depressing.”
The boy tried to smile, but he didn’t do a very good job. For one so young, he was controlled and clearly strong-willed. Jeddah wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. They didn’t rest long. Already the sun was going down and the air was rapidly cooling.
“Come on, I’ll carry you on my back. There is no way your bare feet can walk on this.”
“I can do it…” the boy took a step and winced at the sharpness under his feet.
“Come on, lad, I am accustomed to having a pack much heavier than you. I have boots; it will be better.”
The boy went to him and accepted the offer to ride on his back. It was a little odd to carry a nearly naked child on his back, but he set his mind to the task of covering ground. The last thing he needed to worry about was the social or personal discomfort he or the boy might be in. The child needed help and that was all that mattered. His own grandfather had packed him often enough when they had to keep moving and he had been too tired to go on. It was time to return the favor.
Under the moons and the with the salt to reflect the light, Jeddah hiked all night. At one point, it became nothing but one foot in front of the other. His mind was shutting down and he had no other thought but forward. He might have walked that way until he dropped dead, but he staggered on an uneven lift of the ground.
Blinking, he saw before him a wall of stone. The earth seemed to have heaved up here, or maybe, he thought, the land behind him had dropped down under the weight of the sea. The stone was cracked with deep cracks that disappeared into the dark of the predawn. He chose a crack in the stone face and headed for it.
The tight was fit but inside the deep cut, it was warmer and the air tasted less of salt. He wasn’t sure if the relief allowed his eyes to see better or if it was the rising sun. Winding his way back, like a wounded animal seeking a haven, he went until he stepped into cool water.
It was a shock to his system. Life and light seemed to explode into his mind. He caught his breath as he sank down to the sandstone, realizing he had been following the song of frogs. He let the boy slide over his shoulder and set him on the ground, waking him. Jeddah tried to tell him to drink, but his throat was too dry, his mouth too cracked. He sank forward and drank. Slowly he caught his breath, life seeping back into him. Then he pushed himself forward, slipping into the water. Cool fresh water welcomed his salt stripped body. He rubbed the salt out of his hair, off his skin, out of his clothes before he went back to the boy who had lain over and did not move.
Jeddah pulled the boy to the water and washed him, getting the salt off. Above, a strip of blue sky appeared, but it remained twilight here. Swallows launched from the cliff faces to dart and whistle after insects. Jeddah cupped water in his hand to dribble into the boys mouth, even while keeping him in the cool fresh water. The water would heal him. It would give him new life and energy.
The child woke with a jerk. He calmed when he saw Jeddaha’s face, then realized they had found water. He got his feet under him, the water knee-deep or chest-deep or whatever deep, and drank where he stood. Only when he had gotten his fill did he stagger out. He fell to his knees sobbing. Jeddah pulled himself out and not sure what else to do, he gathered the boy up in his lap. He leaned back against the wall, wrapping his arms around the child.
“We’ll be okay,” Jeddah told him. “It will be alright.”
Jeddah woke when the boy crawled away from him. The sudden chill was a bit shocking and made his body ache. The boy began to crawl about looking for small rocks, which he gathered into a pile near Jeddah. Jeddah rubbed at his aching shoulders and watched, curious what sort of game the child had invented to relieve the stress.
The dark skinned boy knelt before his little pile and cupped his hands over the stones. He whispered to them for awhile, then cradling them carefully in his hands, he began to blow on them softly as if they were tender.
Jeddah felt his skin prickle and his ears ring softly as if a small bell had been struck inside his skull. It was then that the stones began to glow like coals brought back to life. The boy kept up his gentle blowing, pausing to whisper now and then, but he was relentless until fire finally danced up off them. Flames flickered warmly as if they were dry sticks gathered together and set alight with tinder and flint.
“How did you do that?” Jeddah asked amazed and fascinated. He had never heard of such magic. He could not even fathom how useful that could be.
The boy looked up at him. “Fire elementals,” he said softly. “Don’t you use them? I thought you did. You used water elementals.” The boy sat back and watched the fire a moment, then looked back to the man. “I asked them to come, gave them permission to burn the stone, defined the rules of it, and used my breath to fuel their passage to the realm. One must be careful with Fires; they get so excited and often get out of hand. They mean no harm, but they do not understand death or pain.”
Jeddah nodded. “Such is the nature of fire,” he said, smiling. “So now that we are comrades you and I, what is your name?”
“I am called Zou by my mother, but my name is Elim Hassan Hamrah.”
Jeddah held his hands to the fire welcoming the heat. “What does it mean?”
The boy shrugged a little. “Something like Child for the South Wind, but in that context the south wind is something fine and fair that cannot be kept nor held nor owned. In the great deserts, the south wind means spring and the chance of rain. Few know my name. Mostly it is me and my … guard.” He looked up from the fire again. “I must get back to Purt. My guard is bound to travel north to the King of Norwood. She cannot aid me here. I am not safe outside Purt.”
“Nor am I,” Jeddah said in his own lost language. He wasn’t, he knew it. His grandfather had made certain he knew that. Purt was safe. He must stay in Purt. He rubbed at his still slightly damp pants. “Trust me, Purt is where I need to be as well.”
“You may call me Zou. It means… one who is made a companion by the will of divine powers. Not by chance, but by fate…sort of.”
“Well, Zou, I am honored to meet you. I welcome your company; I am called Jeddah.”
“Jeddah? It means Little Child in Dacan. I do not think I can call you that. It is not fitting.” He giggled .
“I suppose it might; my grandfather called me that. I never thought about it, but I was a child then. I spent most my time alone.”
“What did men call him then?”
“Druid,” Jeddah replied.
Zou smiled. “I will call you Druid, then, in honor of him. Druid,” he said very formally, “I am honored to have your company and pray that we do not make each other’s fates worse, but better.”
Jeddah smiled. “How old are you to know so much, Zou?”
“I am almost 11,” he said, then made a face as he scowled at the fire. “My guard is a great teacher. She demands much of me, so if we were ever to be separated, I would not perish easily but would have a fighting chance to get back to her.”
“Wise guard. I shall be glad to meet her one day. I think with your fire trick and the tricks I have, we might just even make it back to Purt.”
“Quickly would be good.”
“One step at a time, Zou; we shall make it.”
At the side of the pond was moss that Jeddah knew was edible, as well the sparrows, and the small fish and frogs that were in the water. He took his time to watch and listen to know just how much he could take and not damage the delicate ecosystem. Zou slept and drank and slept again while Jeddah watched. It was nearing dusk when Jeddah rose to his feet and lifted his hand. Breathing out, he called with his heart and breath for the chick-less to come to him. Three birds came at once, darting about his hands. They were three old males.
Without words, he whispered to them of his need, of the life that he and the boy would lose without their aid. Then he opened his palm. They came and settled there, at peace, of their own will. He thanked them, flooded them with his appreciation and slowed their tiny hearts until the souls within lifted free and darted about him before vanishing.
Jeddah hated to have to kill, but at least in his hands the souls knew love and gratitude before they passed on to another realm. Kneeling down, he used his fingernails to tear the skin so that he could peel skin and feathers off as one. The tiny birds were not difficult to gut and their innards were tossed into the water for the small fish to eat.
He laid the birds by the burning rocks to cook. Only when they were done enough did he wake Zou. Zou took the bird he was given and tried to restrain himself with dignity, but couldn’t help himself. It had been days since he had eaten.
“Gently,” Jeddah said. “If you eat to much, you will hurt yourself.”
“How did you catch them?”
“I didn’t. I simply asked them for help.”
Zou stopped and looked at him with a confused look. “Are you a necromancer?”
“No, certainly not. I am a woodsman. I have learned many of the words and ways of creatures. Little things like birds are usually happy to help me when I ask.”
“Then we might really be okay. If you can ask the creatures of this land to help us… but do they know you are going to eat them?”
“Yes. Most always I tell them. When you consume another creature, you take part of it into you. Part of it becomes you. If you share part of yourself with them first, they can see that and often desire it.”
“That is what demons do with the souls of men.”
“I suppose,” Jeddah said slowly, “but demons do it in a twisted perverse way and hold the soul in a different manner. You eat that bird and its energy becomes part of you, even if you are aware of it or not. A farmer eats his corn; its all the same. All I do is offer to show them what that means and to share with them my gratitude and honor at being given such a gift as a piece of them. Its like getting a kiss from a pretty girl. You give her a flower to show her how pretty she is and how fragile trust and friendship can be, and she might or might not give you a kiss in return.
“A demon would give her gold, beautiful gems, and run his fingers over her skin to make her body shiver and yearn, even if her heart did not. Such is a sin, such is a crime against all that is good.”
“My guard tells me it is best to kill without pain, quickly.”
“Yes. Few can do what I do. Thus to end life without pain so that a soul can simply pass is best for animals. It is never good for men. We get confused, lost, and stranded. Then we need a priest or some other blessed soul to send us again on our path. That is why the swamps of Et are so haunted. Many millions of men died all of a sudden and were suddenly without direction – like waking up from a dream and not knowing where you are.”
“I thought the swamps were full of demons.”
“Oh, they are. Demons prey on lost souls. They feed on them like parasites. Only by shattering a demon do those souls find release. Their energy, their personality are drained often to the point of being reborn as something as simple as a bird, but all souls are reborn in one way or another.”
“What about gods?”
“Yes, even gods. Some were men, some were stars, some were other such powers, but even the gods will die one day and be reborn, maybe as a person, maybe as a planet, maybe as a star, maybe as a tick, depending on the god and his manner of death.”
“They say Raz is dead, but my guard says Raz is asleep; I think Razz is awake now and that she hates Purt.”
“Yes, Raz hates. She may choose to hate Purt, she may choose to hate the world, or the other gods, or whatever it is she sets her eyes on, but hate is a thing that eats at you. Once you have hate in you, it becomes a toxin, like a cancer that will eat your soul away. Her hatred gave her great power once, but now it destroys her. One day she will be bested and when she returns, it will not be as a god.”
“I hope that is soon,” Zou said with a troubled look. “What are we going to do? We need to get back to Purt.”
“We can circle the sea, head east, and hope to come upon the salt miners. If we follow the ridgeline, we should b able to find pools and enough to keep up alive until then. I still do not know exactly where we are. I do know that unless there is a very strong and unlikely current, we should not be here. We were only hours from the northern shoreline and to be this far south should have taken a ship weeks.”
Zou hugged his elbows and pulled his knees up. “I was so close to getting into Purt…”
“I am going scout around, try and find anything else we can use and maybe something to haul water in. Tomorrow we will slip east. I worry the shoreline will have blood wizards or slavers, so we will have to travel carefully. I doubt we will find such good places as this along the way.”
Zou nodded. “I won’t go anywhere.”
Climbing up was not nearly as difficult as Jeddah expected. The natural chimney of stone gave him footholds, as well as sides to brace against. He pulled himself up to the top, caught his breath and rose to his feet. He stood on a high ridgeline that dropped in a sheer cliff face, then sloped back to the Pusan sea on one side, but to the south the land sloped back in a broken line. He stood looking at the lines of the sharp-topped hills that went out from him. Just on the edge of his vision he could see the land turned to a great sweep of a valley that shimmered oddly.
It took a moment of looking at the lines, his mind trying to understand what he was seeing before he understood what he was looking at. It was as if the Pusan Sea was created by a vast weight slamming down and that the ground had lifted up and away from it, like a man stomping in the mud. The farther ridges were the concentric lines of what ever had happened to create the sea. He turned to look back at the flat, grey, dead sea of Pusa. Why would anyone bring it into being or even do such a magic to allow such a dead place to be.
He had a vision of his grandfather putting an old crystal in a ball of salt wrapped in clay. To rest and purify, the old man had explained. He had rolled the ball in his hand until it became as hard as stone, then he had cast it away.
“In ancient times the humans thought we had created the dwarves; that they had sprung up from such crystal geodes.” He had chucked, picked Jeddah up on his arm, and hiked onward. “Our magics are old as the world and as rare as diamonds, but we created no race other than our own.”
Jeddah scanned for life. To the south there was nothing; to the north there was nothing. Only this narrow strip of ridges and a few points in the others offered any life at all. Beyond a few miles he could sense nothing due to the salt.
They would have to skirt the cliff face and hope to find enough food and water along the way. This was going to try their strength and their fate. If they were both hunted by dark magics and they both had been told they needed to stay inside Purtan borders, this was a very bad place to be.
“Or maybe the very best,” he muttered as he started back down to Zou.
Jeddah spent hours knapping at rocks to make a tool he could use. Here he had some options none of them great, but he achieved a sharp edge by true dark. He would have to make them scarves for their eyes. The blinding sun would burn if they were not careful. The bottom of his pant legs would have to work. There was just nothing else for them right now. Once he had a few more birds, he could make a cowl to cover his shoulders and then Zou’s feet would be the issue.
They slept near the fire. Zou was curled into a ball, shivering, so Jeddah laid down next to the boy and wrapped himself around him, offering his own body heat to help him. He knew too well what it was to be a child and alone, hunted and scared. He would have given anything to have someone with him, to help him in those first few years. Jeddah made a vow to get the boy back to Purt, to do for him what no one had done when Jeddah was this age.
Zou woke for a moment, tense, then broke down in tears. Jeddah tucked his arm around him. “You’re not alone, Zou, I am here.”
Zou turned to hide against Jeddah, as the child he was. Any doubt that Jeddah needed to protect this boy was gone. As surely as he knew anything, Jeddah knew this child was important and was someone very special. What ever magics had pulled them south, be it good or be it evil, he had no doubt that his presence with the boy was a blessed thing and perhaps the best thing for either of them. He did not know what god had put them together, but he was certain one had.
End of part 1 edits