Virago – Chapter One

[Author’s Note – Hi there! This is chapter one of my second self-published high-fantasy novel, Virago. I’ve included it to give you a taste of the tone and nature of my fiction writing, as it’s more formal than the ramblings on my blog. I hope you enjoy it! Please feel free to leave comments or constructive criticism below!]

Chapter One

An elderly fen wagon creaked along, drawn by two brown-coated mules.

Once the wagon had been painted in jolly colors, but long years faded its loud reds, blues, greens, and yellows into grayish mutterings. It crept through a forest bright with late-summer greens and hot, white sunlight. Patches of blue peeked through the canopy overhead.

Two people rode in the wagon’s front; one was a dark-haired man, head nodded forward, arms crossed and long legs propped up on the mud guard.

The other rider was best described as a mess with good posture. Layers of old ragged clothing and dirt hid a teenaged girl. Black hair plaited down her back coiled on the seat behind her. She sat bolt upright, fingers gripping the reins and her gray eyes bright.

The mules labored. Their hooves fell in steady thuds as they followed the route with little guidance. They knew this road and had traveled it many times.

A breeze lifted branches, and the nostrils of girl and mules flared in unison.

She hauled back on the reins.

The man snorted and looked around, bleary. “What? We stopping?”

She nodded, stepping down from the seat. “I smell somebody. He’s dead.”

 

Adelaide tilted her head at the corpse.

Poor fellow, dead less than a day. I smell death, the forest, branches, leaves, Neville, the wagon, the muless… no signs of anyone else.

A dozen huge black buzzards perched in the trees, wings spread, eyeing her and hissing. They haven’t been at him long; he still has a nose and ears, and I can see where his throat was slit. But there’s no blood down here…

The late-morning heat under the green canopy was stifling. The man lay in leafy shadows at the foot of a slope.

“See anything useful?” Neville called down.

She glanced up the slope and spotted broken branches and furrows in the leaves. Killed up there, and dumped down here. Poor fellow. She sighed. “No, nothing. Whoever killed him even took his shoes.”

“You sure? Could he have a back pocket or something?”

She blew a strand of hair from her face. “You’re welcome to come down and look.” She started back up, holding on to bushes and rocks. The bulk of the fen wagon was just visible at the top, through a screen of leaves and branches, and Neville a dark outline beside it.

“I’m not that curious.”

She gained the top and Neville held out a flagon of water for her. She armed sweat off her forehead and thanked him, drinking deeply.

“I wish people died with full pockets in the woods,” Neville said, heading back to the wagon. “Or a stash of food or whiskey.”

“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” she said, grinning as she repeated one of his favorite sayings.

“And we’d all be sick of horsemeat.” Chuckling, he climbed into the wagon and took up the reins. Merry and Pockets shook their heads and snorted. They pawed the ground, eager to be away.

Neville glanced at the road ahead. “Would you mind doing some scouting? Whoever did for that poor bastard might still be around.”

She nodded and handed him back the water. “Maybe I can scare up some game, too.”

“Aye. It’s another day until we hit the Collings. We might make the jerky and nuts last, but I’m sick to death of them.”

He snapped the reins, and the wagon lurched forward.

After it had gone a few feet, a white hand reached around the corner at the front and set down the rags of her clothing, carefully folded, before disappearing again.

Neville started whistling a tune. The wagon creaked and groaned, and the mules’ hooves thudded on hard-packed clay. Insects buzzed in the undergrowth, and something let out a fierce caw.

A monstrous black form raced past. It disappeared into the trees with a whisper of leaves.

The mules, long-used to the beast by now, barely flicked an ear.

What’s it been, five months now? Funny how people can get used to each other’s funny little ways. She doesn’t complain about my snoring, my cooking, or my drinking myself to sleep, and I don’t complain about her table manners, her blanket-stealing, or her turning into a giant wolf.

He chuckled.

Gods know she’s saved our skins more times than I can count. There was the mountain lion, the bear, and that group of toughs–She scared their horses out from under them and they had to run after to catch them. I don’t think I’d have made it back alone.

 

Adelaide crept through the forest, alert for signs of prey or enemies.

It was a challenge in the hotter, younger forests of the south. She was used to the tangled old-growth of the north with its huge, sky-spanning trees and thick ferns. Here the trees were smaller, the ground clustered with bushes, vines, and low-hanging branches to push through.

The city. The city is only a few days away.

The thought beat in her mind as steadily as the footfalls of the mules.

We saw Yew, and it didn’t seem that frightening; but that was from afar. Perhaps I would think otherwise if we had actually gone into the city instead of camping outside it.

She found a trickling stream and tested it. Experience taught her to take a few laps and wait in case the water was bad. Even water that smelled fine might contain something rotten or foul.

Not much game this close to the road, there’s too much smell of human about. But that could mean hunters: old bears, wolves, or mountain lions that find humans easy prey.

A breeze rose through the undergrowth. It carried scents of interest: upcoming rain, deer, rabbits…

…and men and horses.

Good horses, hale, heavy-bodied, their coats brushed often, not left out in the rain or covered with mud; oiled steel and sword grips gone salty with old sweat and hard use; leather; soap, bodies that smell of sweat and work but not months of caked-on filth.

They were a mile away, from the strength of the breeze.

She hurried back to the wagon, keeping to the trees.

<Men, on horseback. Good horses, swords, armor. They’ll be along soon,> she reported.

Neville started and swatted at his face, as at a fly. He peered into the bushes. “Where are you?”

Greenery shifted and her great black head poked out.

“All right. Well, stay hidden, just in case. It’s probably Rangers, but we can’t be sure what they’ll do if they find us out here alone.”

She stayed in the forest, twenty feet off the road and keeping pace with the wagon.

Steel. Armor. Horses.

A pit of dread formed in her stomach.

The thunder of their hooves was audible now. A curve of the road hid whatever was coming their way.

Her breathing sped up as she crouched, ears forward and nose questing.

I don’t know what good I’d be against them, if they decide to take the wagon.

Seven horses rounded the bend, their hooves thudding on packed clay. The riders were large and rangy, with serious faces peering out of dark helmets. They wore boiled leather armor and carried short swords on their hips. Their armor and clothing was all dark greens and browns. They looked as though they might melt into the forest at a moment’s notice.

At odds with the rest of their camouflaged appearance were bright, round steel shields that hung from their saddles. Each shield gleamed and threw darts of light as the men rode through patches of sunlight.

Their horses were huge and well-formed, six bay with white socks and blazes on their faces. The leader rode a yellow stallion with a white mane.

The lead rider spotted the wagon and raised a fist in the air.

Adelaide leaned forward, fascinated. That’s a woman.

The woman slowed her mount to a stop, indicating that Neville do the same. The men behind her followed suit, moving their horses expertly to avoid colliding with each other.

Neville halted Merry and Pockets, keeping his head down and looking at the lead rider from under his matted hair.

“Good afternoon,” she called out. “Captain Mica Tilders, of the Glendale Rangers. Traveling alone?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Run into any problems?”

He shook his head. “Not so far.”

The horses stamped and blew. Sweat trickled down their sides.

Glad I’m downwind.

“We’ve had reports of bandits in the area. If I were you, I’d find some company to travel with,” she warned. “Do you need an escort to the Collings?”

“No ma’am. I get by just fine.” He kept his face down.

She watched him for a moment more, her eyes flicking toward the wagon.

“Shall we search it., Captain?” the man behind her asked.

She responded with a shake of her head. “Nah. I want to get down to the river by dark.” She looked back at Neville. “They’ve been stringing ropes across the road. We cleared a tree a few days ago, too. If you see anything requiring you to stop, do your best not to.”

She spurred her horse into a trot. The line passed the wagon, throwing up mud and leaves in their wake.

Neville remained with his head down until the last Ranger passed out of sight.

The massive black form emerged from the trees and padded to the back of the wagon. Within a few seconds, a dirty white hand reached for her clothes.

“Who were they?” she asked, once again dressed and sitting alongside him.

“Rangers. The Watch out here. They patrol the roads… although I’ve never seen them this far from town.” He scratched his head and snapped the reins. The wagon lurched forward.

“Shouldn’t you have told them about the dead man?”

“Why? So they can blame us? Hell, they might have been the ones who put him there,” he grunted. “Don’t talk to the Watch unless you absolutely have to, that’s my motto.”

“Why?”

He let out a sigh.

I know that sound–he’s tired of me asking questions.

“Because you never know what they’ll do. Some of them are all right, but unless you know for sure you can get yourself in trouble, fast. Just… just don’t talk to them unless you have to, all right?”

She nodded.

“Here, take the reins. I’m going to walk a bit.”

He moved ahead and absently took hold of Merry’s bridle. Pockets nickered impatiently, hoping Neville had a treat. Unfortunately, they were running low on supplies and all he had was dried figs. Of all the edible things in the world, the mules drew the line at dried figs.

“Do you think there’ll be others like me in Glendale?”

He ran a hand over his damp neck. “I don’t see why not. There’s people from all over the world there, why not the High Country?”

“That’s not what I meant.”

Birds sang and the forest rustled and creaked around them.

“I wouldn’t know about that.”

She stifled a sigh. “How much longer?”

“Well, we’re coming to the Collings, first. It’s a trader town, about five hundred people or so. Then it’s another day to Glendale, if the weather’s good.”

She nodded. “Five hundred people,” she said, under her breath.

I wonder if they’ll be like the travelers Neville escorted to Yew. I miss them already–well, most of them. They were kind and welcoming and loved music and good cheer.

The travelers were also the only people besides Neville to see her change.

He was right; they didn’t care about that, all they cared about was that I saved their lives. They even grew to like me. Samuel cried when he left and told me to come and visit him in Yew, if I could.

Before Samuel left, he handed her a wax-sealed scroll. He told her to deliver it to the Academy in Glendale, the greatest center of learning on the continent. Even now, the scroll was stowed in the little pack Mary gave her, along with her few worldly possessions: a wooden comb Neville made for her, and a small knife.

“Five hundred people,” she whispered again.

 

Of all the aspects of Winston Innborne’s job as a Watch officer, filling out paperwork was his least favorite. For two hours, his blond head was bent over piles of parchment and a scratching quill.

Gods, will it never end? When I was first-lieutenant all I had to do was mark an ‘X’ under the type of arrest. That was so easy. And now I have to actually figure out what happened, and write it down and who’s right and… ugh. I like being acting Captain. I like walking the rounds and talking to shopkeepers and neighbors and doing inspections. I even like chasing thieves when they run. I like being Captain of Eastcoast… I just wish I hadn’t inherited the position.

At last, he was done with the pile of pages. Arrests for the past week included six muggings, a break-in, illegal carry of a blade over eighteen inches, and two acts of unlicensed prostitution. But for the muggings, a quiet week in Eastcoast.

There. Done. Everything that’s happened since the accident is up to date.

Winston leaned back in the chair, to stretch his arms. A crack from beneath froze him; at six-foot-seven and over three hundred pounds, most furniture was not made with him in mind.

Sergeant Luthus Miraz idled nearby. Leaning comfortably back in a chair, the Hwaathi glanced over at the sound. His handsome, dusky freckled face broke into a grin. “Why don’t you do your reports upstairs?”

Winston leaned forward. When the chair didn’t collapse into kindling, he stood up. “Because the promotion isn’t official, yet. And I don’t like going in Figueroa’s office if I don’t have to.”

Luthus nodded. He went back to flipping his Watch-issue club and catching it by the handle. “It doesn’t seem right, him going that way. All those years chasing murderers into shadows and running into burning buildings, and he…” He shook his head.

…fell off a cliff. Winston rubbed the back of his neck.  We all know we can go at anytime —who was that one that died last year? Fell down the stairs in Dockside and bashed his head in? Pitt?— but we don’t really believe it.

When Luthus and the rest of the squad returned with the canvas-wrapped body, everyone had thought it a peculiar joke. Only when the canvas was removed and the terrible damage revealed did anyone believe it.

And to think, he’s only been gone a week.

Winston stretched his arms out to the side and tilted his head, his neck cracking like a handful of walnuts. The badge on his chest–an insignia of a small house on a large rock, indicating Eastcoast– threw a spark of light onto the far wall. “Well, the reports are ready. Come on, Esteban’s probably done training. We can go bother him.”

Luthus shot him a knowing glance. “And maybe find out any upcoming news?”

Winston chuckled. “Perhaps.”

They headed outside.

 

Winston and his brother had been born in their parents’ public house in Dockside. By the time Winston was five, he was washing dishes and sweeping the floor. By thirteen, he was serving tables, taking payments, and helping his father run troublesome drunks out. At fourteen, he was approached by a local gang in need of strong boys with strong wills. They offered him a silver ducat to tell him when a particular fellow was going to be drinking in the inn, alone. He turned them down without a second thought. At fifteen, he caught his mother’s hand before it made contact with the side of his father’s head. They argued and strong words were passed, but everything said amounted to the same thing: You won’t do that ever again.  She left two months later.

Young people without other options were encouraged to join the City Apprentices, where they were put to work as cleaners, builders, and generally made use of. Since Winston didn’t want to be a publican, he learned how to write his name and signed up.

He was assigned to the smithy of the Copperbells Watch House because as a tall, strong boy, it was assumed he would make a good smith. When it was clear he was as adept at the smithy as bricks were at floating, he was put to work in the kitchens. He hauled barrels, sacks, huge iron pots and anything else that needed to be moved from one place to the other. He peeled potatoes by the bushel, washed dishes and vegetables, and spent hours churning butter.

Because of his even temper, he was tasked with breaking up fights between the other apprentices. It was during one of these occasions, when he lifted two smaller boys and held them away from each other like enraged kittens that he caught the attention of Lord Gerold Thaxton, Commander of the City Watch.

“Son, have you thought about what you’ll do after your apprenticeship’s up?” the balding black man asked. Thaxton was in his early forties and tall, but still had to look up into the boy’s face.

“I was hoping to get permanent work in the Copperbells kitchens, my lord.”

Thaxton smiled. “Oh, I think we can do better than that.”

 

Twenty years later, the acting captain of Eastcoast and his sergeant stepped into the backyard of the Watch House.

The Leder Street Watch House complex was horseshoe-shaped and stood in the shadow of a city aqueduct. Fresh water was available year-round and an alcove served as an outdoor shower stall, which offered privacy behind an ancient, green-tinged curtain. The shower was used frequently, although half the time it was to sober up drunks.

A wall ran around the training yard, giving privacy and enclosing the small barracks house. The barracks had six cots, the armory, an equipment storage room, and the freestanding kitchen where meals could be cooked on a hearth. A stable housed the fire-wagon, some equipment, and Bunny, the donkey who drew the wagon.

Esteban, the Glendale weapons master, was in the yard for his weekly training session. He stood talking with two new recruits in the center. All three ran with sweat.

“Doesn’t look too good,” Winston observed.

The boys were hanging their heads and staring at the ground. Esteban clapped them each on the shoulder, then glanced back at the sounds of the men approaching.

“Officers in the yard,” the elderly man pointed out, bowing. The dusky skin of his face was dusted with freckles, like Luthus’s and anyone else Hwaathi-descended.  He was broad as a barrel and short. An iron-gray braid ran down his back.

Winston released the trio from attention and grinned at the boys. “Good morning, Micah, Elia. Enjoying yourselves yet?”

The boys mumbled despondent replies ending with “sir.”

“They’re learning fast! Boys, on your way, go get ready for the feast tonight. For Thursday, practice your guarding.”

Despondent as they were, the boys snapped smart salutes before they hurried away.

Esteban waited until they were out of range, and then sighed. “Gods protect us, because they won’t. The little one moves like a cat on a stove, he’ll do all right if he can remember his training. The big one…” He shook his head. “If he’s holding a club, then give him a bridge and some children to frighten. Gnomo– troll, through and through.”

“Well, the Watch needs all sorts. We’ll find a use for him.” Winston tried not to show his disappointment; the big boy, Elia, was from a family he had known for years.

“As long as the use is standing very still and not picking his feet up for hours, he’ll do well,” Esteban went on. He went to the fountain and splashed water on his neck and back. He noticed he had an audience and grinned. “I have a pair of big, ugly shadows. Watching an old man bathe? Is this a good time here in Eastcoast?”

Luthus grinned. “You should see us on the donkey’s bath day.” He cocked his head. “Come on, out with it.”

“I’ve heard the moon will rise over the Kedge, and the tide will go out. I’ve heard the Three Sisters will ring out over the city, everyone who isn’t on duty tonight will get drunk, and everyone who is on duty will get drunk tomorrow.” Esteban pretended to study his fingernails. “…And that a pair of undeserving fools who used to drop their clubs and fall over each other at the sight of pretty girls might be raised to lieutenant and captain, gods help us.”

Winston’s face split into a broad grin. “I had hoped, but…”

Luthus clapped Esteban on the shoulder. “You old scalawag, you had us going with your mad rambling.”

Esteban waved him off. “Oh, don’t pretend Thaxton didn’t tell you. And you’ve been practically running Eastcoast the last few months anyway, before Figueroa…” He stopped himself, then gestured to Luthus. “Besides, who else would they have named as captain? This one?”

Luthus nodded. “It’s true. I’m a disaster waiting to happen.”

“See? Even he knows. Remember when he put fire ants in the training yard? My beautiful training yard?”

“It got the recruits moving,” Luthus said, grinning. “You’re always yelling at them to move their feet.”

Winston rubbed his chin. “I remember the fire ants…”

Luthus held up his hands. “It got results! You can’t argue with results.”

Esteban glared. “It took me months to get rid of them. You’re lucky I never told anyone. In fact…” A devilish grin wrinkled the old face. “… pay me to forget it or I’ll tell your father. I know he wouldn’t think it was funny.”

“Now you’re just being cruel. I’ll pay you respects, not coin. What’s a firm handshake worth?”

Esteban arched an eyebrow. “Depends on what you’re shaking.”

For the first time since Figueroa died, Winston threw back his head and laughed.

 

The bells of the Duchess’s castle rang out midday. Known as the Sisters, Judith, Sheilah, and Constance tolled from Spearspire, the tallest tower and the highest point of the city. They rang out every hour of the day from dawn to dusk, and once at midnight.

Alerted by the bells, Chamberlain Mayne Gordon glanced at the window. The movers should have been here by now.

He sat in a spare, nearly empty chamber on the fourth floor of the Duchess’s castle. It was spare because the movers who were bringing his possessions were tardy, and it was nearly empty because it only contained Gordon, a rickety and cushionless chair that was just short of agonizing, and a rambling servant girl.

“…didn’t go anywhere new, and he didn’t have no visitors–”

Gordon shifted in his chair, trying to relieve the ache in his cheeks.

The servant girl paused. “Sir?”

He held up a hand. “Please continue.” He encouraged her with a kind smile.

The servant’s enormous eyes blinked. “Aye, sir. Sorry. As I was saying, Lord Pleivik didn’t see any new visitors this week, and he didn’t go anywhere other than what he does normal. Regular as prunes, he is.”

Gordon nodded, a genteel smile on his face.

Regular as prunes, indeed. Lord Arotzny Pleivik is indeed regular as prunes, as turning down my attempts at bribes is as regular to him as the sun crossing the sky. That’s fine… I can wait. And when the Master of Brick’s scruples run out, I’ll let him know that I know. I’ll buy him for less than the original asking price, and threaten to expose him. Nothing cheapens an honest man like guilt. And in the meantime, I’ll bribe servants, just like everyone else.

“Indeed, prunes, yes. Any deliveries?”

“Somebody sent him a box of tools, my lord. But he sent it back.”

Now that’s interesting. He sat up. “He sent it back?”

“Yes, sir. Told the footman to box ‘em all back up and put ‘em on the wagon back to Dockside.”

Dockside. Gordon licked his thin lips. “Did he say a name? Did he say who sent the tools?”

The girl shook her head. “Not that I heard, sir.”

“Was there a packing slip? Anything written down?”

She shrugged. “I don’t read, sir.”

“Oh, how silly of me.” He leaned back and slid his hand into his pocket. Coins clinked as he counted them out. With his other hand, he gestured her forward.

“Erm…sir…?”

Here it comes. She’s going to ask for more money, try to seduce me, or some other such nonsense.

He arranged his face into a warm, avuncular smile. “Yes?”

“It’s just that… I have a cousin, sir.”

“Do you? How lovely.”

“No, sir. I mean to say, she works for Lady Orswell, as a scullery maid. Maybe she might be of some use to you?”

Not if she’s dusting dishes in a closet. And I have two people in Orswell’s employ already, her lady’s maid and a groom. I know who’s visiting her stable, and who’s visiting her bedchamber. Still, you never know.

“Have her talk to my man Vosby. Thank you for your help, young lady. And as always, you were never here.” The coins changed hands. Vosby appeared and led her out.

Gordon was just standing and stretching when Vosby returned, his long silhouette pouring into the room.

“My lord, a Mr. Vantraf is here.”

Gordon winced. “Ah, I had forgotten. Yes, send him in.” He sat back down in the punishing chair with a sigh.

Vantraf… Oh bother, I can never remember his first name. Did I ever know it? Does it matter?

Vantraf was a paper merchant who had a shop in Westmonte. He had an exclusive contract with the Lady’s Table to provide all their parchment for edicts and other legal paperwork.

“Ah, Mr. Vantraf,” Gordon said, smiling.

Vantraf made a little bow. “Good afternoon, sir. Thank you for seeing me.” The man looked around the empty room.

“And what can I do for you, sir?”

Vantraf, a small, pasty man, looked worried. “Well sir… it’s… um. It’s the seventeenth.”

Gordon smiled. “Indeed. It is.”

And you’re wondering where your payment that was due on the fifteenth is.

Vantraf swallowed and wrung his hands. “Aye sir. Ahem… yes. The seventeenth.”

Gordon leaned forward, folding his hands. “Perhaps you were expecting a delivery of some kind? That did not arrive? And you’ve come to ask about it?”

Vantraf looked hopeful. “Eh… Yes?”

Gordon sat back, smiling. “Ah yes. The payment. For your wonderful paper.”

The paper merchant smiled. “Yes, sir!”

Gordon nodded. “I stopped it.”

“Sir?”

“Here’s the funny thing, Mr. Vantraf. You see, just the other day I needed to check the wording on an edict that was released last year–I forget the wording or the matter, but you see it was because I was so shocked by the state of the year-old paper.”

“Sir?”

“It crumbled, Mr. Vantraf. Crumbled away in my hands like last week’s biscuits. I daresay it was the most upsetting thing I have ever seen in a lifetime of civil service, and I have seen riots.”

“I…I can’t imagine what–”

“Mr. Vantraf.” Gordon did not shout, but the words rang in the empty room.

Vantraf stood quietly, his face drained.

“I will not tell you your business; as a paper merchant, I’m sure you realize the importance of paper that lasts. Civilization is built on such things. Oh, people may get excited about fire or the wheel or the domestication of farmyard animals, but I, personally, do not. What I consider civilized is the ability to go into a records room and find out what people were paying for wheat or olive oil or sides of beef fifty years ago. Other people may roll their eyes at the idea, and I agree that it does sound less than thrilling. Do you know what is thrilling? Riots. Riots are thrilling, and I would happily pay money to avoid being caught in one of those. What I will not pay for is cheap paper made with too much acid that crumbles away like a dried dog turd. Do you understand me?”

Vantraf nodded.

Air slid through Gordon’s aquiline nostrils. “Don’t think I do not appreciate our little arrangement. But unless you put your house in order I will have no choice but to make this little misstep known–and believe me, it’ll be you who is ruined, not me. I expect a few shipments of improved product free, of course. Send them to the archives, addressed to me.” Gordon snapped his fingers. “Vosby, please show Mr. Vantraf out.”

“Of course, sir.” Vosby, elegant and tall with his silver hair and cold handsome face, herded the paper merchant out. Within a moment, the servant was back.

Gordon leaned forward in the chair, rubbing his temples. “Any sign of the movers?”

“No, sir. I’ll send a runner to check on them directly, sir. And your lunch is ready: a lightly-seasoned lamb chop, celery soup, a bit of bread and the lavender cheese that sir is so fond of.”

“Excellent.”

Vosby turned to go.

“And Vosby?”

The valet turned like a well-oiled hinge. “Yes, sir?”

“Get in touch with the old man who runs the archives and tell him to see me. Then find someone literate to recopy all those records. Someone who’ll work fast, good, and cheap.”

Vosby pursed his lips.

“Yes?”

“I might be able to manage two of the three…”

“Well… fast and cheap, then.”

[Thanks for reading! If you’d like to continue, the book is available in print and on Kindle from Amazon, or you can ask me for a free copy.]

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