Authors: Clive Ousley
Book One: The Fragile
my wife Margaret
This is a work of
fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the
author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual
persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely
COPYRIGHT © 2011 by
This book is sold
subject to the condition that no part of it may be reproduced or utilized in
any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying,
microfilm, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, or
used in another book, without written permission from the author.
Cover design and
artwork by Clive Ousley
AD 2014 – The first
genetically modified quarter-man illegally created
2019 – First secret
colony of quarter-men is formed
2021 – The New York
Times exposes the creation of unregulated
2032 – First quarter-man
colonies lawfully permitted
2039 – The first quarter-man
2046 – The human
race fights for survival
3142 – Malkrin
Owlear is tried for crimes against the Seconchane
rom three arrow shots away Malkrin Owlear
heard and saw each rain drop hit his fellow hunter Guy Beartooth. They hit
Beartooth’s matted hair, beard and bear-fur cape with a roar and streamed from
him like a waterfall as he ran. For a moment Malkrin stopped running and continued
filtering the individual patters from the downpour merely for the pleasure of
exercising one of his unique talents.
That’s where we’re different
Beartooth, he thought, and expanded his gift to encompass the sounds of his
other hunters. He knew precisely where they were. How fast they were running,
whether they were about to whistle a bird-call warning or even whether one
scratched the lice in his hair as he ran.
Malkrin scanned the scrub and tree shrouded
valley and again glanced at Beartooth and stopped himself from muttering aloud,
this I can do – and you can’t. I have our tribe’s rarest talent, and I have the
wife that you desire.
A twig cracked like an arrow striking
a tree. Malkrin mentally tore to the culprit; it was Halle Fisheye six arrow
flights away. Malkrin forgave him; it was rare for his friend to make any noise
whilst tracking prey. He smiled as rain dripped from his chin, you can’t do
what I can Halle – I have the gift.
Malkrin relished his position in his tribe;
The Seconchane. He was head of the hunt and champion of the people because he
possessed this rare talent. He could
detect the sound of prey far beyond human
earshot, monitor people’s intentions, and secretly devise temporary talents to
serve his requirements.
Called a highsense gift, the priests of the Seconchane had announced his prized
but rare ability ten summers ago. Malkrin’s status had instantly risen and had
yet to diminish.
But he possessed a disturbing secret,
one that could see him outcast from his people. He knew that his gifts were becoming
unreliable. And to the rulers of the Seconchane this was a crime.
The Brenna, he spat the name in his
head, they were the rulers of his people.
Losing a highsense talent was decreed a
crime far worse than murder by the Brenna. They ruled the people with a sharp
bronze fist from the comfort of their stone and timber framed fortresses higher
up the mountain pass.
How could the village-folk, the priests and the Brenna be fed if he lost his
highsense abilities and they had to rely merely on normal hunting skills? Responsibility
suddenly hung heavily on him as he compared the game tallies of the other
hunting parties to his own. They had no highsense talents and it showed. That
was why he had been allowed to partner his beautiful Cabryce. It was also why he
had been given a warm cottage with proper windows, ample luxuries and the
approval of the Brenna.
He even had a forged iron sword presented
to him. It was too cumbersome to take on a hunt; he’d named it Palerin and kept
it carefully wrapped in cloth on a shelf at home. Normally the Brenna kept all the
ancients’ most useful artefacts to themselves. The sharp steel knives, the sparking
tinder boxes, super hard grindstones and brass telescopes. Palerin was a great
gift and a sign of increased privilege but a reminder of his responsibilities.
If his highsense failed him, the
ordinary folk of Edentown would have to exist on fruit and cornbread whilst the
Brenna would ensure they took the bulk of the meat and the priesthood would
take the rest. This high in the great mountain lands of Cyprusnia the fruit was
small and sharp tasting and the corn and maize grass in the pastures often grew
stunted and sparse in the short summer. All this the Brenna knew, and many
lifetimes ago had developed a strict penalty of banishment for lost highsense –
a punishment designed to bully the holder of the gift to practise keeping it
and hopefully to increase its power.
Malkrin’s highsense suddenly detected
a wild pig, and then a leaping white tailed deer frantically trying to evade
both the pig and the hunt. His musing faded with the sudden rush of
He froze and owl-called the sign for stealth.
His men instantly blended with the dripping undergrowth, fanned out and crept
slowly ahead. Malkrin’s highsense followed the approaching pig, noticing its
pale almost hairless hide marked with faint black stripes. He owl-called for
the men to his left to take the deer; he focused on the charging pig. The beast
blundered on as Malkrin anticipated its death.
Like the fizzle of a drowned campfire
his highsense died, leaving him as blind as an ordinary hunter.
Through many anxious nights Malkrin
had rehearsed what he would do should he be afflicted at the worst possible
moment. And now this nightmare was upon him and he became icy calm. His arrow
fast reflexes brought up his spear and he ran to where he knew the pig would be
in five breaths. He ignored the imposed silence of the hunt and crunched the
odd stick and scrub branch. He pictured the wild pig’s course in his mind, and
tensed his arm.
He flung the spear.
Through the waterfall splatter of rain
Malkrin faintly heard a wounded squeal and followed the anguished sound. Then
even this blended with the roar of rain smashing into the larch and sycamore
trees and he blundered ahead hoping to separate the sounds of the cloudburst
from the agonised thrashing of the pig.
Like the light of a re-lit candle his
ability returned. He sucked in a moisture laden breath and thanked the Goddess
Jadde. He knew again precisely where the prey was. He ran into a small clearing
where the wounded beast was flattening the long grass as it tried in its pain
to remove the embedded spear. With an unsteady hand he finished the pig by
slitting its throat with his dagger, at the same time he was aware of Halle and
Beartooth as they killed the deer eight spear throws to his left.
He owl-called for action. Many arrow
flights ahead a roebuck deer was shepherding his females toward lush grass.
The sun set in an orange glow beyond
the great mountains as his hunting party made its way back along dirt paths to their
sprawling Edentown. Soon the imposing structure of the Priests Keep rose above
the trees. Malkrin eyed it suspiciously; it was old and mysterious. The only
solid stone structure in Edentown had been built long ago by the great ancients,
the buildings slate tiled roof shone in the diminishing rain. Soon the rambling
community came into sight with its jumble of reed thatched roofs and mud-brick
walls. Malkrin sensed all the meat traders and ordinary folk gathering behind a
ring of Brenna guards to trade foodstuffs and merchandise for fresh meat.
The hunting party left the woodland
with the pig lashed to a thick sapling and a collection of seven deer, six
rabbits, three turkeys and a plump bobcat. Malkrin sensed movement from the
woodland with his inner ear and three arrow flights away to his right another
hunting party emerged. He counted their tally: two deer, three rabbits, one
hare and one turkey. Again he had easily outdone them. He suppressed a grin and
raised his spear in salute. They returned the gesture, adding a traditional
call to the raising of a spear.
‘Praise to the Goddess.’
‘Jadde has provided,’ Malkrin chanted
back, with his free arm lifted.
Life was good, but just thinking about
his satisfaction made his thoughts turn to his highsense lapse. A tingle of
fear rose through his spine as he feared retribution from the great goddess
She was the single deity who had saved
the Seconchane from oblivion. It was she who had decreed that any highsense
talent would be honoured with special privileges. And it was she who had
ordained that each high status person would be given a badge that would show
them to be above all but the Brenna rulers. She had caused the emblem
signifying great highsense talent to be created. It was shaped like a sun with
five projecting rays and made from an unknown metal coated with gold by the
ancient metal-smiths. Jadde had decreed that a metal clasp be attached to the back
of the highsense sun so that its wearer could proudly display it on his or her
garments. The Brenna held an ornate casket full of these emblems. Two or three
times in a generation a member of the Seconchane was recognised as having
special abilities, he or she was awarded with one or if deemed highly talented,
Malkrin put his hand within his
bear-fur cape and traced the outline of one of the two gold suns pinned to his
leather waistcoat. Apart from Cabryce he was the only living member of the
Seconchane to be honoured. He thought of how his incredible luck had expanded
to include Cabryce, at present the only other highsense sun holder. She wore
her single emblem with great pride; Malkrin had often pretended not to notice
as she carefully polished and positioned it when she shifted it from dress to
cloak. As his hunting party strode toward Edentown he cast his mind back to her
During her seventh spring and summer
she had taught herself to hold the air in her lungs for thirty normal breaths
as she swam under water or as she lay in the cold snow of the higher mountain.
This highsense had been spotted when she was eight summers old. Cabryce had
been swimming in the deep Fethwerth pool under the Shimmerrath falls. She’d
been feared drowned. A crowd had gathered and wails of sorrow built into a
grieving chorus when she’d failed to surface. Some present assumed a monster of
the depths had ensnared her. Other more practical citizens believed her body to
be tangled in bottom weed. Then, when all hope had ceased; from the
diamond-water depths a lithe form had wriggled upwards. Cabryce had surged from
the water clutching a glistening turtle shell scooped from the deep floor. All present
that day had rejoiced. A celebration was thrown in her honour as her highsense
was officially recognised by the Brenna Council of Elders. Bredon the Fox had
personally pinned the single highsense sun on her tunic. Her parents had beamed
for they had no knowledge of her talent. But some said they cried that night
for the time that may come when Cabryce lost the gift.
Later he lay with Cabryce and worried
about his highsense lapse during the hunt. It had happened at a crucial point
and only his quick thinking had enabled him to work out the pig’s position. He
had succeeded by using a skill taught by his father to bring down a deer or
wildcat in full flight. To do this you had to instantly figure where the
speeding prey would be when the spear hit it. He had been lucky today and fell
asleep hoping his luck would hold.
Six days later the inevitable happened.
The good luck gifted to him by the Goddess Jadde was taken away.
His serious failure occurred suddenly
whilst tracking prey in the wood of Dronfor where the trees met the many sheer
cliffs leading up the Great Mountain. Malkrin’s hunt was following a large boar
along the narrow trails. Prized for its strong meat, it would be a good kill.
Malkrin sent Guy Beartooth and two other hunters ahead. They managed to circle
behind the boar and were working back toward the main hunt, beating the
undergrowth to flush out the animal.
‘Where is he Owlear?’ Beartooth hissed
disrespectfully, knowing Malkrin’s highsense would pick up his whisper out of any
He should have addressed his query to
‘High-person’ but Malkrin ignored the insulting omission and concentrated his
inner ear. ‘That way.’ He gestured to the front left.
He was right – and wrong.
The boar stormed from the undergrowth near
where Beartooth was crashing and thrashing his club. Malkrin’s highsense was fully
focused; he had already perceived the creature. Instantly he threw his best
spear into its flank. The boar died squealing and gnashing at the air. Another
crash rose from their left and panic ensued amongst the hunters as a second
boar shot out of the thicket behind them. This hog was even larger than its
mate and had large curved tusks that protruded almost a hand’s length in front
of its snout. It was in a foul temper, having smelt and heard the death of its
Hunters shouted and screamed, crashing away
through the dripping undergrowth – ruining the disciplined silence of the hunt.
One long tusk was thrust into Halle
Fisheye’s thigh. Malkrin turned toward the boar as it ripped its bloodied tusk
from the screaming hunter. He threw his second spear with all his might,
skewering the massive hog through its heart.
Then as they strapped both beast’s
legs to sapling poles Malkrin sensed Beartooth had decided this was an
opportunity that was too good to miss.
‘You should have sensed the boar’s mate
Owlear,’ Beartooth shouted in triumph so all could hear, ‘the council will hear
of this lapse.’
‘Do your worst Beartooth,’ Malkrin hissed
But the damage was done; his highsense had
flickered again like a candle in a draught. The whole hunt had witnessed it.
Beartooth was torn apart with jealousy. He
had no highsense and resented Malkrin for his talent so had recently resorted
to putting him down with sneering comments. Malkrin believed it was all caused
by his boiling longing for Cabryce. Now he, Malkrin, risked losing his esteemed
status and his marriage to Cabryce as well. His heart sank, he had dreaded this
moment. He’d hoped anyone other than Beartooth would discover and then ignore
any flaws in his highsense. But the worst had happened and now he would have to
defend himself before the Brenna elders.