Authors: Peter J Dudley
Copyright © 2013 Peter Dudley
All rights reserved.
For Ethan and Sam, artistry and passion.
I have time and again relied on the unfailing support and encouragement of a small army of friends, as well as the patient tolerance of my family. I also owe a huge amount of gratitude to of all you who read Semper and shared your thoughts with me. Your enthusiasm and kind words helped inspire the effort it took to create Forsada. Thank you.
Cover Credit: Wendy Russ
“Stupid horse! I’m going to call you Dane from now on because you’re so stupid and slow. Move it!”
Best horse in Southshaw, my ass
. I wanted the dapple. It looked like a pinecone, strong and healthy.
“You’ll see, Lupay,” Dane said.
I could have been home in Tawtrukk by now, raising the alarm. But no, he insisted I take this skinny, white thing, and all he wants to do is eat grass.
“I could have walked to Tawtrukk by now!”
In the dark on the lakeside road, my voice hisses out dry. It’s a warm night, more humid than it should be, but my lips crack and splinter. I spent too long in Southshaw. I should have left the morning after we took back the town, but Dane insisted I be paraded around to all Gregory’s friends. I only did it because Freda convinced me.
“If you were a fast horse,” I whisper, leaning low to the lazy ass’ ear, “that extra night wouldn’t matter. Darius and his army would be far behind us, and Tawtrukk—”
Not far ahead, a deep splash, a big rock thrown in the lake maybe. A man’s cry barks across the water and into the trees, a sputtering throaty yell, followed by a handful of other men laughing.
“Shhh,” I whisper into the horse’s ear, trying to calm both him and me. He stamps once, too loud on the churned mud of the road. Silently I slip off, uphill away from the lake, still holding his rein. His shoulder twitches, and his dark eyes flash wide like circular pits in his ghostly face. I lead him quickly into the trees uphill, and hope his white bulk won’t be noticed. I drop his rein, leaving him. Too dangerous to ride from now on anyway.
Crouching, I creep forward in the shadows of the trees. I reach up and loose my black hair, letting it fall around my face against what little moonlight might fall my way.
As I dodge among the redwoods and pines, hopping ferns and skirting boulders, I keep my eyes focused in the direction of the noise. There. On the lake’s shore stand a half dozen men, their backs to me, looking out over the water. Their shadowy shapes flicker like black candle flames as they bend and weave and slap each other’s backs in drunken guffaws. Beyond, emerging from the water like a startled bear, is another giant of a man, gurgling watery curses as he slips and splashes about.
These are not Tawtrukkers. They are part of Darius’ army. I want to sneak up and kill them, but against seven… that would be suicide. Instead, I push farther along, keeping a watch on their drunken argument while looking for—
There, yes, the remains of their campfire.
I tiptoe among their sleeping pads rolled out around the cooling embers. I poke about among their things, but there’s almost nothing. No tents, no big packs full of clothing or food. All the heavy stuff must be on the wagons ahead that left deep, narrow scars in the muddy road.
A rear guard, then, and expecting no trouble from behind. And they’re right. No one from Southshaw would attack. Only women and old men left there, really, and besides, Darius doesn’t know we killed Baddock, doesn’t know Dane returned from exile. Doesn’t know I’m alive. He thinks he can invade and take over Tawtrukk by surprise. And he’s right, unless I get there first.
I pass through the little camp and push into the night, now farther uphill away from the lake in a shallow arc around where I expect the army’s main camp to be. If I can get above it, I might get a good view.
A quarter mile from where I left that useless nag and the drunk idiots, I come to a gigantic boulder, tall as the mill on the river. I scamper to the top, then up a young but sturdy white pine. Its branches are brittle but strong, and with a few steps and swings I’m forty feet in the air, hidden in a cloud of dark needles and a little breathless.
But what I see takes my breath entirely away. Below, stretching half a mile, is a sleeping army. It’s a writhing shadow dotted with glowing red eyes. Here and there a silhouette stands or stumbles among the sleepers. The stench rises on their body heat, sweat and mud and horse piss and old leather and rotting fish.
My eyes water. I want to blame the foul odor, but I know better and won’t lie to myself. Tears. I knew this was out there somewhere, but seeing it makes it real.
In the distance, the peaks of Tawtrukk loom gray against the black sky—Sikwaa, Star, Inkline. At the foot of those mountains, along the lake, my friends and neighbors sleep unaware of the menace about to sweep over them with nothing but hate and rage and death.
I’ve seen the Southshawan hatred, felt their viciousness. My ankle throbs at the memory of being dragged along the lake road by Baddock’s thugs. Dane told me how Darius riled them into such a mindless rage that they will not stop until every Tawtrukker is dead. A cleansing, he called it. In the name of God.
My tears flow freely now, running down my cheeks and dripping from my chin onto the branches below. The blur the night, blot out the stars. But they don’t help me feel any better.
Don’t cry, you little girl,
I whisper to myself
Crying never solved anything. Crying is for babies, and for the girls who cradle them in weak hands and nurse them from doughy breasts. Tears?
I bite my teeth together and squeeze my eyes tight, pressing fists into them until all I see is splotchy orange and red. Even before my vision clears I’m hustling down the tree, feeling my way to the boulder.
This is my land, southern Tawtrukk, where my father and I have wandered ever since I was born. I can go around the army, in the trails higher up, and make it to Lodgeholm before sunrise. In time to warn them.
That stupid horse is on his own. He can wander in the dark forever, for all I care. Good riddance.
When my feet hit the ground, I’m already jogging. Uphill, away from the lake. Away from
. Into the chilly air flowing down from the mountain peaks. When I’m far enough away that they can’t hear me, I run, my loose hair flying behind me, my tears left behind with the horse. But the memory of
chases me through the night.
Cutting north through the woods, I follow deer tracks when I can, dodging trees and leaping brambles. Twigs catch my hair and snag my loose shirt. Fire fills my lungs.
Ten minutes, fifteen, twenty. I keep the pace until my stomach turns so much I stumble and gag up the nothing I’ve eaten in the past day. I lean against a tree, bent over and gasping, clutching the cramps in my side. I’m less than a mile from Lodgeholm now, still hours before dawn.
No rest, not yet. I heave myself forward and stumble through the dark, grabbing at branches for support. I pick my way along the hillsides, descending as I move north, until the tall, naked shape of a Lift Pole appears amid the trees. God, how it makes me happy to see that. It might as well be my own father standing, watching for my return. I’m almost home.
I head straight for it, glide my fingers across its pitted, rusted metal. Until now, these were just an eerie remnant from centuries ago. I’ve seen dozens of them, of course, but only crazy old men say it’s good luck to listen to their song. Still, I can use as much luck as I can get.
Knocking gently, I listen for the hum that vibrates through the ancient steel. Shack listened to one in Sikwaa once and never knocked again. He said it sounded like ghosts calling to him from before the war. Now I see what he means. It’s creepy.
But I need good luck. Come on, ghosts. Help me out.
I press my ear against the cold metal and rap harder. A deep
echoes inside, and I listen, trying to hope it means more than I think it does.
I step back and look up the pole, peering at its black shape against the night sky. Only a few Lift Poles still stand straight like this one. Garrett and I know them all—their height, their shape, what birds nest among the wheels in their metal arms way up high. This one is very close to Lodgeholm.
I lean my back against the downhill side of the pole and stare east into the lightening gray of pre-dawn. I’m so tired I almost don’t know what I’m trying to see until I see it, but there it is: the next Lift Pole. It’s like an old friend waving to me through the woods, bent over at the middle with its twisted steel arms beckoning me homeward.
I push off the pole and stagger down the hill. I’ve been gone so long. Over a week. And I’ve gone so far, probably the only Tawtrukker ever to go all the way into Southshaw. Or through the caves of Subterra for that matter.
Papi will be working himself to exhaustion at the forge, pounding away his worry. Mami will kneel in the garden pretending to pull weeds, while really keeping one eye on the southern road. Looking for me. But that’s at home, in Lower. This is only Lodgeholm. And they won’t be here.
Downhill is easier, and it’s not long before the lighted windows of Lodgeholm pop from the grayness among the trees. I leave the woods and step onto the soft back lawn behind the long, low building. It sprawls fifty yards wide, bigger than even the giant meeting hall in Lower Tawtrukk. But it’s only one story, and the sky above is lightening in the pre-dawn. The memory of that foul army fights its way back into my head.
Too slow, Lupay. Go faster. You need to get them all out.
I jog across the lawn, the familiar smells of new rope and freshly sawed pine pulling me toward the sprawling, wooden porch. The fishermen must be preparing for their early morning row, finishing up breakfast and readying their hooks and nets.
As I reach the steps and place my foot on the first step, the door above me flings open and blinds me with its brightness.
“Oh!” A heavy voice exclaims, and his lantern swings and sways in his hand. “Woh! What… who are… Lupay?”
I’m frozen in place, not sure who stands above me. As his lantern rises over his head, blinding me further, it occurs to me that I must look like a wild animal. I must look half starved, covered in mud and blood and twigs and leaves, wearing a Southshaw boy’s pants and shirt, my hair snarled and matted and glued to my face. I’ve been gone a week. Maybe they thought I was dead. I bet they sure didn’t expect this kind of return.
“Ai ai ai, child. What has happened to you?”
The voice, quiet and filled with amazement, belongs to Harper. I don’t know if that’s his first name or his last name, just what he’s called. He’s kind, but I don’t know him much. He’s mostly out on the water or here at Lodgeholm in the winter, working on his boats and his nets.
I stare up at his light, frozen in mid-step. The tone of his words suddenly makes me feel like a caught thief. I feel guilty and ashamed, but I know I have nothing to be ashamed about, nothing to be guilty for. All the bad things in the past week happened
“Are you all right?”
His simple question is filled with the knowledge that I am not, that I scare him. He has no children. Has no wife. He had a dog once, but it got the Rabies and he had to kill it.
Maybe he thinks I have the Rabies now. He takes one small step backwards. His one hand holds the lantern; the other has never let go of the door.
I nod, quick and frantic, but I don’t feel all right. I feel terrible. I feel hungry, and tired, and sick, and—
My sharp voice cracks into the night like a whip, a bark that, with the thought that sparked it, sends a flood of pain through my head. I need to tell him Darius is coming. I need to tell him about the foul, evil army that sleeps just beyond the point. The army that will be here too soon. The army that will kill him and everyone who lives here.
Harper steps back like I punched him. The lantern sways wildly as he retreats into the lodge and starts to shut the door.
“Oh frick,” I repeat as I lunge up the steps.
Close in now, I see his terror and confusion. My arm shoots forward into the closing doorway, and it pins tight on my shoulder. “No,” I growl, my only thought to keep him from locking me out. “Let me in.”