The Sherangivan: Opening Pages

The Attack

Caleb woke with a start as something dripped onto his forehead. He lay still, blinking as the world slowly came into focus. The trickle of a small creek. Green leaves. Rough bark against his back and pine needles sticking through his clothes. Long shadows cast by the trees behind him. What was he doing sleeping in the forest … in the late afternoon?

Another drip splashed onto his forehead, and he swiped away the wetness as he struggled up to a sitting position. And it was a struggle; his head felt heavy, and a dull nausea lurked in his midriff, as if he was dehydrated. Maybe I fainted. It was hot this morning….

As he raised a hand to his slightly throbbing temples, he froze. Red. His fingers were red from brushing the moisture off his forehead. Suddenly anxious, he wiped his face again and stared in horror at the ugly smear of half-congealed blood across his palm. His sluggish thoughts could barely do more than register incomprehension at the presence of blood on his face and hands, but instinct made him look up.

A couple cubits above his head he found a pair of boots, and as his gaze traveled up the tree he was lying against, the shadowed mass overhead resolved into a man wearing dark clothes. A man impaled below the ribs on a jagged, blood-wet branch, his bearded, thick-mustached face frozen in a silent scream.

Seized by panicked horror, Caleb scrabbled away from the tree on all fours as if the corpse might pull free and pursue him. He almost fell as his head spun and the nausea increased tenfold. Sitting down heavily a short distance from the tree, he stared around the glade wildly, hugging his knees to his chest and gulping air.

Two other dead men, also dressed in black, bulky trousers and short tunics, adorned the area. One was draped over a half-buried boulder to the left behind the tree, his lolling head pillowed on an outstretched arm; the other was slumped upside-down, as if he had tried to do a fast somersault and fetched up short against the tree. The first had had his face caved in, and the second’s skull had probably been crushed.

But who killed them? And where did they go? As he stared at the grisly scene, Caleb realized the dead men were armed. The one hanging from the tree branch had dropped a spear, and the other two had drawn heavy, inward-curving swords. Falcatas, he registered distantly as his mind fumbled for something it could grasp. No blood stained the blades; the men hadn’t fought back. All three were at least as big as Caleb and looked very fit. Didn’t do any of us any good. They were swarthy with reddish-brown hair the color of ground nutmeg; the hair, long mustaches, and black tunics were all strange to Caleb’s eye. Travelers from abroad, then.

Caleb got to his feet slowly. His head spun again, but not as badly as before, and he lurched away toward the trail. After a few steps he sank to his knees again, still dizzy and shivering. What was wrong with him? Revulsion, confusion, fear, shock, maybe dehydration. Plus three murdered men. Of course I’m shivering. While he crouched in the shelter of a stand of bays outside the gore-strewn clearing, he took stock of his situation.

He knew where he was: just off the “Greenway,” a trail connecting the harbor town of Oray to Keirish and other villages in the Cowl Woods. There was a proper road leading from Keirish to the capital city of Esseduin, but only foot trails in every other direction. It had been hot this morning when he turned off the dirt road onto the trail, and then the sound of trickling water had reminded him of this spot…. Yes, of course. He’d been visiting his brother, and now he was on his way home. Though Nate was only fifteen, he had found an apprenticeship with a master carpenter in Keirish, learning how to plane and fit and polish wood. That was not for Caleb, though; he would become a soldier like his father.

To return to Keirish or continue home? It was getting late, but the days were growing longer, and the journey to Oray was only an hour’s hike—if he could walk at all for more than a dozen steps. He was trembling so much that he wasn’t sure. He took a deep, steadying breath and ran his hands through his short, blond hair, abruptly remembering that his palms and face were still crusted with blood. Shuddering violently, he scuffed his hands in the grass to clean them and rubbed his face vigorously, drying blood coming off in flakes and smears. His face probably looked like a child’s hand-painting. Just be glad the blood’s not mine, he reminded himself as he felt his head and hair again.
He got to his feet again and took a few cautious steps. Though his head still ached and he was a little dizzy, his legs felt stronger. A short walk through the grass and wildflowers brought him back to the path, and he hurried along it, eager to escape from the nightmarish scene behind him before the unknown killers came back.

They probably wouldn’t come back, Caleb reasoned. He must have lain unconscious for several hours, completely vulnerable but with nothing worth stealing. Then why attack me? He was unarmed, hardly a threat despite his size. Maybe it had something to do with those other men. He had no idea who they were or why he had been with them. Perhaps he’d been passing them on the trail at the exact, unfortunate moment the highwaymen descended. He had never heard of highwaymen lurking along the Greenway before, but he supposed they could be anywhere. Have to get home and tell father so he can alert the garrison.

The trail he had traveled countless times and the forest he had played in as a child seemed eerily still. He knew he would feel like he was being followed until he got home and closed the door behind him. Glancing continually over his shoulder, Caleb just couldn’t keep to a walk, even though he was still shaky; he jogged down the trail, leaping down slopes and stumbling over tree roots, his legs wobbling at the impact. But the woods remained quiet, and the birdsong slowly died away as the sun approached the horizon. He finally emerged from the forest in a shambling lope, panting raggedly with exertion and desperate impatience.

Here the trail widened into a beaten track broad enough for four men abreast, though not many were out at this hour. Farms dotted the open land from the tree line to the low walls of Oray, and workers were shouldering tools and leading oxen in from the fields. Nobody was close enough to pay Caleb any mind as he lumbered the last mile to Oray.

The town’s wall was only six cubits high but solidly constructed from blocks of black basalt washed with reddish oxidization; it even had a low, crenellated parapet. When the guards above the gate waved, Caleb kept his bloodied face down and raised a hand to them without stopping. He could tell these men what had happened, and they would relay the information to their superiors and so on up the chain of command. Or he could just tell their captain.

Passing through the gates brought him to the newest part of Oray, though the entire place was less than two decades old. It was full of new construction: shops, homes, inns, taverns, manufactories, forges—all the things a growing city needed. Scaffolds, lumber, and sawdust were everywhere, the builders gathering up their tools and preparing to head home for the day.

As Caleb trotted through town, its character changed several times. Here was a block of neat, brightly colored shops built by some Douveillians after their native custom, there a series of sprawling, single-story dwellings favored by the Gaverish. Crossing a high-arched bridge over the wide, slow river that ran through the middle of it all, Caleb turned toward the coast. The district closest to the docks at the estuary was the oldest and the most ramshackle; most of it had been built when the Esseduiners first arrived, before they had decided to settle here permanently. Before they had been Esseduiners. Caleb and his parents lived on the edge of this district in a house they had built themselves. Its familiarity and normalcy were comforting—the neat brick walkway his mother had laid, the clay pots with herbs peeking out of the soil, the crooked gutter his father was forever adjusting.

Caleb staggered through the door, sweaty and breathless. The main room was a simple square with a large hearth directly across from the door, together with a low table and four stuffed chairs close enough to soak up the heat; around the walls were small shelves with books and knickknacks. The kitchen and dining table were through a door to Caleb’s left, the bedrooms at the back of the house, on the other side of the wall with the hearth.

His father, supervised by his flop-eared dog, Tag, was laying a fire to ward off the late spring chill that settled in at night even this far south. Miles Tholstan was unremarkable in appearance, of average height and build with drab brown hair. The sight of him doing something so routine as stacking kindling took the edge off Caleb’s trepidation. He could hear his mother humming in the kitchen.

Miles glanced up at his noisy entrance, and Tag’s ears twitched. “Son, I expected you home sooner,” Miles began, dusting off his hands and knees as he rose. His tone changed when he saw Caleb’s face. “Peace of Lavelline, is that blood? What happened?”

The reminder of the blood on his face and hands made Caleb itch to wash himself off. “I was attacked,” he mumbled, fumbling for a chair; his legs had gone all shaky again, as if just realizing he’d spent the last hour running. Almost as soon as he uttered the word “attacked,” his mother appeared and pushed him gently into a chair. Practical as ever, Sharlea fetched a basin of cool water and a cloth and began wiping his face. Caleb let the tension leave his limbs.

Miles was definitely not relaxed, his feet planted and arms folded as if he were surveying a bunch of slouching recruits on the parade ground. “Attacked? On the Greenway? By who?”

“I dunno.” Caleb told them about waking in the midst of carnage, his head throbbing and spinning. “I must have been hit on the head,” he concluded. “I can’t remember anything about it.” He described the dead men in as much detail as he could bear; to his shame, his voice squeaked when he told how they had died. “Up in the tree, above my head! His blood was dripping on my face!” The memory brought a wave of nausea, but he swallowed and went on. The silence of the glade, deserted except for himself and three slain men. Their weapons, useless in self-defense. His fear of being watched or followed, his weakness, dizziness, vulnerability. Sharlea dropped the reddened rag into the basin and began delicately probing his skull for injuries. Tag laid his furry head on his lap, gazing up at him with soulful eyes.

“I can’t find anything wrong,” she said with relief. “Can you remember where you were struck?”

“No.” He put a hand to his head. “It all hurt the same, and it isn’t so bad now.”

“Well, let me get you some water,” she said, patting his shoulder reassuringly, “in case you are dehydrated.”

Miles was frowning in thought as he stared through his wife and son. “Brigands on the Greenway, of all places. If they’re there, they’ll be on other trails, and possibly even the roads.”

“Are you going to rouse the garrison?” Caleb asked between gulps of water. His mother brought him another cup and stood behind him, massaging his shoulders and neck. More tension melted away.

“Indeed I am,” Miles replied. “And I think you’d better come with me. The brigadier will need to get his men on this, but he should hear what happened from you.”

Caleb perked up a little. Though he was reluctant to go over the afternoon’s experience again, a chance to visit the garrison was rare, even for a captain’s son.

“I’ll send a messenger up to Esseduin,” Miles went on. “We’ll get the troops on high alert and nab these fellows before they hurt anyone else. I’ll get men to clear away those bodies. Don’t worry about it, son; after you talk to the brigadier tomorrow, your part will be done.”

[Spoiler: no, it won't]