Purveyors and Acquirers (The Phosfire Journeys Book 1), страница 1
Book 1, The Phosfire Journeys
JAMES D. MACON
Copyright 2016 JAMES D. MACON
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Cover Design by Liza Brown, Modern Art Media
Edited by Kathryn F. Galán, Wynnpix Productions
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to similarly named places or to persons living or deceased is unintentional.
PRINT ISBN 978-1-5373-7297-6
For my Family
SHE AWAKENED, having fallen asleep in the cushioned wicker chair, still too tired to react to the soft sound that had disturbed her slumber. The strong aroma of unwashed body assaulted her senses. She started to turn her head to look for the source. When the knife slashed, she was caught unaware.
Twice he struck her in the back. The sharp pain she felt stole her breath away and she was unable to cry out. The man wielding the knife pushed her to the ground, not bothering to finish his work. While she watched, he quickly searched the room, ignoring the babe in the cradle across from her. The infant’s eyes opened. He startled when he caught sight of the stranger. She wondered what the man could be looking for.
He stopped then turned to study her. Blood frothed from between her pale lips as he reached for the lantern on the nearby table.
Her green eyes opened wide in shock. All she was able to do was stare at the assailant, who stood between her and the infant. She could only think of her babe and slowly reached her trembling hand toward him.
“I wasn’t told about the child.” The man smiled as he opened the lantern and casually emptied the oil around the room. He then removed a tindertwig from the pouch on his belt, flicked the twig with his nail to light it, and set the oil aflame.
She could not turn her head far enough to keep track of her attacker when he stepped behind her and walked quietly out the rear door of the one-room cottage. The man slammed the door behind him. The woman, with agonizing slowness, dragged herself toward her babe. The low cradle rocked when the child reached out toward his mother and smiled.
A cloaked, hooded figure stood in a Door Way that wasn’t present in her cottage before the attack. The silent observer made no attempt to come to her aid, as she used the cradle to pull herself up onto her knees. Gently, she lifted the babe out of its sleeper, her blood washing over him as she held him close, her last breath given to him as a blessing before her struggle for life ended. Her body relaxed, allowing the infant to roll out of her limp arms onto the floor next to her. The flames rose around them, consuming the cottage’s walls. Smoke thickened as it swirled around the room.
The cloaked, hooded figure strode to the pair. The blaze, spread by the burning oil, danced away from him, never touching, but springing back into place with his passing. With a caress, he closed the mother’s eyes then took the babe into his arms. He rose and walked back through the Door Way, which disappeared from the wall, as though it had never existed. The flames claimed the small home and the young mother.
As the fire consumed her, a fiery female form rose up from her body, stood, and stretched. The blazing woman smiled before shrinking to a mote the size of a fingertip. Glowing brightly, the ember, all that remained of the woman, rose skyward on heated currents of air through the remains of the thatched roof.
Slag sat at his desk, recording tithes. There was a knock on the door, and he looked up and frowned. He hated the paperwork associated with being the head of the Trade in Arlanda and had informed the two guards outside his office door that he didn’t want to be disturbed; it was hard enough doing bookkeeping without interruptions. “What is it now?”
The younger of the two guardsmen on duty opened the door and stuck his head into the room. He kept his eyes directed to the floor, not meeting Slag’s gaze. “Sorry to bother you, sir, but this one said it was important, and he has all the right codes.”
Slag watched as a figure walked in, dressed in a dark cloak, the hood of which covered the visitor’s face in shadow and hid his features. He sat in the chair in front of his desk without invitation, holding his left arm under the cloak. The cloth moved, pushed from underneath.
“Who are you and what do you want?” Slag asked as he set his quill down next to the ink block and placed his hand on the pommel of a knife sheathed on his thigh.
The voice that answered him was soft-spoken. “It doesn’t matter who I am. I have a babe who needs attention.” The hooded figure moved his cloak aside and showed the child to Slag.
Slag assessed the babe, who sat quietly in the crook of the visitor’s arm. The infant stared at him in return. A sense of foreboding gripped him and he turned his eyes away from the child. “Does it look like I run an orphanage to you? Get out of here. You are wasting my time. I don’t trade people, let alone children.”
He watched closely as his visitor slowly reached into the cloak then showed what he held. Slag caught the small pouch that was tossed to him, opened it, and spilled its contents onto his desk. Freed from the purse were a dozen high-quality, oval-cut red crystals worth a goodly sum, by his appraisal.
His guest pointed at the crystals. “The boy will need a trade. This is his apprentice fee. I want you to be his sponsor. Teach him well what he needs to know. Be strict with him but also fair. He will be a little zealous in learning. He will question everything. Try to turn the trait into a strength for him. Instruct him in the value others have and can offer to him.”
Slag inspected each crystal before returning them to the pouch. “I still don’t run an orphanage.”
Slag’s caller shrugged. “I will leave him with the Ladies of Life. He will be there until you are ready to start his training.”
Slag placed the pouch in a small chest on his desk. “And why should I do this for you?”
“Because you stood and fought for something you once held dear. Then you were cast aside, forced into hiding, left to remake yourself into someone else. Helping this babe will allow you to recapture a small piece of what you have lost.”
Slag quickly mastered the emotion, long suppressed, that this stranger’s statement released. “You know not of what you speak.”
Slag’s visitor continued. “You will receive future payments to cover his instructional costs and essentials. He will be monitored. I will be aware of any abuse, and the cause will be eliminated. In your hands, I know he will receive proper care. After ten seasons, a man and a woman will come for him.”
Intrigued, Slag nodded. This time he spoke in the language of his Trade. “Te ink qwe ka doke…. I think we can do business. What is the runt’s name?”
The man stood, covered the babe with the cloak, and walked to the door. As he opened it, he answered Slag in the same rapidly clipped tongue. “Zeal. You can call him Zeal.”
For three hundred seasons, the Ladies of Life had taken care of the homeles
The night was moonless. An overcast sky prevented the stars from sharing their comfort with those out and about in the darkness. Fog had begun to mist from the moist earth. The bell at the gate of the Temple rang loudly. Izlan, the matriarch of the Temple of the Ladies of Life, walked up to the postern door set in the main gate. Illumination from the lantern she carried delineated the limits of her world. Unseen in the darkness were the worn cobblestones of the courtyard, the faded Temple walls and aging roof.
She looked out through the door’s small opening and saw on the other side of the door a figure whose face was hidden in the folds of the hood of a cloak. “May I help you?”
The stranger slowly moved the fabric to show what he held. “I have a babe here who has lost his mother and all else. Will you care for him?”
The infant she saw slept peacefully, unaware his fate was being determined. He was clean, well fed and cared for. Izlan lifted the lantern so that more light shone through the view port. She carefully peered to either side and past the stranger, in an attempt to see if there was any other person lurking and waiting for her to open the door. Once she was sure he was alone, she questioned him. “By what right do you give this child away? Are you his father?”
“No, I am not the father, but you may say I am the only kin he has who cares at all about him. Alas, my way of life does not allow me to raise him.”
“I wish to see your face so that I may know your make.” The man pulled back his hood. Izlan trusted her ability to judge a person’s character; and she peered into his eyes to determine if he spoke the truth. She stared long and hard at the dark-haired man in front of her. He gazed back calmly and allowed her to look her fill. A compassionate, determined, self-assured face was offered for her perusal.
Izlan nodded. “I will take him and he will be cared for.” She turned and called out to the others who waited, watched, and listened in the courtyard behind her. “Prepare. I intend to open the door.”
The sound of a sword being drawn from its scabbard was accompanied by movement as a guard approached closer. Izlan opened the portal and carefully cradled the child handed into her arms. She took note of the pouch attached to a cord around the infant’s waist and wondered if the bag’s contents would aid the Temple as well as the youth.
The stranger gently caressed the infant’s cheek before turning to stride away, saying, “Call him Zeal.”
Izlan watched the man leave then closed and locked the door. She turned, saddened by the child’s circumstance. “It looks like we have a new member to add to our family,” she said to the guard as they walked across the court yard and entered the Temple.
“ZEAL, PUT THE CROCK of fire spice down. That does not belong in the pie filling!”
Cook stood, shaking in Zeal’s direction the wooden spoon that served as her rod of office.
He guiltily placed the container of peppery seasoning on the counter. “I just wanted to help.”
“The last time you helped, you ruined the cake batter. I didn’t even realize what you had done until after dessert was served and spat out. What are you doing in my kitchen anyway? I thought I had banished all of you moppets, so that I could get the harvest meal on the tables without having to worry about babes under toe.”
Indignant, Zeal stomped his foot. “I am not a babe. I am five seasons, almost six. You should teach me to make food as good as you, please.” He added the please on the end because he wanted to practice the manners Lady Izlan said he should have. It might have helped, because Cook did smile briefly.
She reached into her apron pocket and removed a candied twist. “Take this, you rapscallion, and help someone somewhere else. Better still, go play. Another time I will teach you.”
Zeal took the treat from Cook and gave her a bow. “Thank you. I promise I’ll be the best in the kitchen ever.”
Zeal bounded out the back door of Cook’s domain and hopped down the steps to the rear grounds of the Temple. No sooner had he stopped to contemplate his treat than he heard a voice behind him.
“What you got?”
He turned to see Torin, one of the older boys, and two of his pack. Slowly, he took several steps back, to put space between him and them. “Cook gave it to me. It’s a twist.”
Torin reached out his hand. “Well now, you should give it to us.”
“But it is mine. Go get one of your own.” As Zeal continued to move back, his foot caught on a stone. His balance lost, he fell back onto his seat.
Torin, joined by his two comrades, howled in laughter and stopped moving forward. “Look at the little babe, sitting in the dirt. I bet he is going to wet himself.”
Zeal took advantage of the moment of distraction the hilarity provided. He jumped up, gained his feet, and began to run. I have to get away, he thought. Although smaller in size, fear lent him speed. He could hear the pursuit that followed.
He crossed the open space where games were played, ran past the tool shed, through Cook’s herb garden, and then into the orchard. He knew better than to look back; doing so would only slow him down. He made for a narrow opening in the hedge which separated the living spaces from the woodland beyond.
Zeal ignored the grasping branches that clawed at his clothing and scraped at his hands and face. He was almost through the opening when a hand briefly snatched the back of his shirt. Inspired by fear, he jerked away.
As he kept running, he took a look over his shoulder and saw Torin forcing his way out of the opening. Zeal took the opportunity to distance himself further from his pursuers. Unable to return to the safety the Temple provided, he bounded forward.
Torin yelled behind him. “We’re going to get you!”
Zeal had been this deep in the wood only once before and not alone, but he was more afraid of capture than he was of the dim, silent, uninviting forest.
Up a small rise, he arrived at the burial grounds of the Temple. A path led through the lichen-covered trees to a large building surrounded by a tall, spike-topped fence. He had been told this was the mausoleum, the place where those who had passed away were laid to rest after spending their lives doing the work of the Temple. Few visited here unless they had business that required them to come. It was believed that the spirits of those who rested there continued to guard the Temple and watch over those who lived.
Zeal stopped and pushed open the gate set in the iron fence. The hinges were well-oiled, and the heavy gate was well-balanced. He hurried through but neglected to close it behind him. Ahead, a light showed through the partially open door of the building. He was reluctant to enter, but if he was scared to go in, then maybe the other boys would be, as well. It was at that moment he heard a babe’s cry escape from inside the building. Maybe if he helped the infant, he might be able to help himself.
Torin’s shout from behind him convinced Zeal to enter. “He came this way! Come on!”
Zeal ran across the small courtyard, up the steps, and though the opening. He turned and closed the door. He looked for a bolt to prevent his pursuers from entering. There was none. He leaned with his forehead against the door, closed his eyes, and waited. He knew he couldn’t keep the three bigger boys from forcing the door open. Voices, muffled by the thick door, called to each other.
“Over here! He came this way!”
“Look, the gate is open. He must have gone inside the mausoleum.”
“He won’t escape now.”
Footsteps approached the door. Zeal heard grunting and the scuff of shoes as the boys on the other side pushed against the door.
Then Zeal heard Torin’s voice. “The door is locked. He must have tried to get in and couldn’t. Keep searching—he has to be near.” The sounds of retreat followed.
Zeal stayed still and waited for their return. The babe cried out behind him and br
Oil lanterns on the walls provided soft light that left many shadows. The tile floor had a sun mosaic at its center. The inhabitants of the Temple could comfortably sit in this chamber, if there were chairs or benches. At the far side of the space was a large dais with a small altar at its left. A statue of unblemished white stone stood on the dais, staring toward him. She held an infant in her arms. A kitten was curled asleep at her feet. Both the child and kitten were made out of the same material as the woman. All three were lifelike, the details exact. The woman was dressed in a cloth that wrapped around her body and tied in place at the right shoulder, leaving the left shoulder bare. She stood with eyes wide open.
There was no one else present. Where was the crying child? Drawn to the sculpture, he walked forward. He had never seen anything so lifelike or pretty. As he drew near the figure, he saw the babe’s face scrunched in distress. Was this the child he’d heard? It was the only one he saw in the chamber. He spoke impulsively.
“Why is your babe so unhappy?”
The statue looked down at him and smiled. “He was disturbed by all the yelling in the wood. He is tired and needs a nap, as all babies do. Sit and tell me why you are upset.”
Zeal shifted his gaze to the woman. Somehow, leaving, even if he could get past Torin and his gang, was not the option he desired. Excited by his discovery, he decided to stay and sat, as instructed. “I was being chased by bullies and hid inside here to escape them. They couldn’t get in. I don’t understand why.”
The lady pointed to the door. “Look, you can see one of the guardians who prevented them from entering.”
Zeal spied a translucent man, dressed in strange-looking armor, who stood leaning against the door. The man smiled and waved.