Take Care, Caretaker–Excerpt from Bone Weary, Book 4 of Ascendant Realms

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Here is an excerpt from my current work-in-progress Bone Weary, the fourth book in my Ascendant Realms fantasy series.

In this sequence, Roth is coming out of the far north on his way to Midhalm to meet up with his allies. He has also been tasked by his mysterious order called Caretakers to deliver to the leaders of each of the four nations of the known world copies of a book that will show how to reverse the poisoning effects of bithumin (a substance used by nearly all nations in nearly everything).

 

Take Care, Caretaker

The boy lingered in the ditch off the road looking out over the fields. He took in the dark brown view pocked with patches of grey yield leftover from the season before and verdant tufts littering the ground with blossoms of wild weeds. The snow was well gone. It shouldn’t have been, but it was. The ground was sodden as though the low sun couldn’t quite dry it out no matter how long it hung in the sky. He could feel his boots sink into the mud. Shifting his weight, the pucker and tug of the mud pulled at him. The boy stepped to one side denying the ground’s suction and back into the road. Air escaped from where his foot had been making gasping noise, almost as though the mire of banks had resigned itself to losing yet another traveler to the firmness of the road.

The boy started back on his way dragging behind him a tree branch he had been using as a walking stick. He scratched his chest through his rough spun flax tunic, then his shoulder, then neck, until finally he rubbed his palm hard over his face. The boy was getting impatient. He stopped again gazing out over the fields. In the distance were woods like precious islands in the sea of farmland. They were grey, a firm ugly grey, and reached out into the blue of the sky like needles. He wanted to go explore those woods so badly; he wanted to go play. But the fields were all a mess, and he’d end up covered to knees or above with mud if he attempted to trek out through them.

Then he saw it. At first, he thought he had just seen a tree fall out of the wood, but no, this grey figure was moving. Moving like a man. He slowed his pace down even more, squinting in an attempted to see the figure with more definition. It was a man. It was a man striding over the open fields moving as though the soil were as solid as in midsummer. Hooded, he had a satchel slung across half his body and a bow across the other. The figure moved at a steady, deliberate pace coming towards the road, coming towards the boy.

The figure was close enough now the boy could see the man wasn’t native. There was a moment of panic in his heart, a warm rush of blood pulsed through him. His mind raced as he took an inventory of his possessions: his pack loaded with soya seeds and bleak eddo meant for home, the new crooked knife he’d just traded for, and a handful of deniers (maybe enough for a bowl of thin soup and stale bread once he reached Aker’s Inn). The boy had nothing of value. Yet, he thought, that didn’t stop the thieves from cutting Marne and taking her bushel of root veg last month. But, he reasoned, a robber or highwayman wouldn’t have just emerged from the wood like that. This man was walking with purpose but it was as though he was looking beyond the boy and the road. Just a traveler, maybe? But why would a traveler not keep to the road in the first place? A bow, a quiver, and a satchel meant he was no tinker or a trader and the boy had never seen any hunter carry himself like this.

The boy had stopped walking and just stood in the middle of the road staring at the man as he approached. He wore thick looking grey leathers and high boots, boots well above his knees. The boy had never seen this before, though Bram had told him stories about sailors with high boots. A sailor? In Novosy? The boy winced at his stupidity. Still, though, he thought, meeting a corsair would be epic. Bram would be jealous for months.

The stranger raised a hand. The boy stood still dumbly staring. He was maybe thirty feet away from the man. The boy could see the stranger had weapons—throwing knives lined his belt and scabbard hung at his hip.

“Youngling.” The stranger called nodding at the boy.

The boy didn’t respond and the stranger didn’t look as though he cared one way or the other. It was as though he had simply spoke out of obligation. When he reached the road, the man stomp the mud off his boots. The boy was tentative but not fearful; this man was queer yet familiar.

The stranger arched his back then twisted side to side. He looked down the road and then up it. He didn’t look at the boy but spoke, “Like a long brown worm this path.”

The boy let a weak smile crawl across his face. The stranger pointed the direction the boy had come, “That’s off to Eirena’s Post, correct?”

The boy said nothing looking where the man pointed. The stranger swept his arm in the opposite direction, “And this leads to Parsonage, then on to Midhalm.”

The stranger looked at the boy, directly into his eyes waiting for a response. The boy was unsettled but didn’t want to betray it. Silence passed between them, and finally the boy replied, “If you know, why ya askin’?”

The stranger grinned, “Sometimes people like to have their knowledge confirmed.”

The boy shrugged readjusting the sack on his back. He turned beginning to shuffle back on his way, “Well, it goes right into town…”

The stranger began walking just behind the boy, “Parsonage.”

The boy nodded over his shoulder, “But it takes a bit before it finds Midhalm. The city is at least a day’s walk. More likely two.”

The stranger was walking beside the boy now, “Town have an inn?”

The boy was still wary. He kept walking not looking at the man, but his body was tense. He felt like he’d have to bolt at any moment. “Yeah, I think there might be a room or two above the brewers’.”

“Good beer there?”

The boy shrugged, “I don’t drink.”

The stranger blinked in mock astonishment, “Yer havin’ me on. What are you, fifteen seasons? I was drinking when I was fifteen.”

The boy blushed shaking his head, “I’m not old enough.”

“How old are you? Twelve?” The stranger ventured in a skeptical voice.

“I’m ten.”

“Damn, boy, you’re a tall one.” The stranger laughed and smiled. The boy couldn’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment.

“I’m taller than Bram, but he still beats me wrestling.”

“You’re getting better though aren’t ya.” The stranger replied.

“Every time. It’s getting harder and harder for him to get me off my feet.”

The stranger wagged his finger at the boy, “Tha’s the trick. Keep your center, pivot, stay on your feet and you’ll win nearly every time.”

The boy smiled, “Why are you going to Midhalm?”

The stranger adjusted his satchel, “I have friends to meet and folks to talk to.”

“I was worried when I saw you.”

“Oh, yeah?” The stranger raised an eyebrow.

The boy nodded sheepishly, “I thought you coming out of the woods…thought you were a robber.”

“Lots of robbers come at you from two hundred yards off in the open, do they?” The stranger chuckled.

The boy shrugged, “Things have been dodgy of late.”

“Oh, yeah?”

The boy nodded, “Marne was robbed and roughed up just four days ago. Kelly had his wagon raided and up-ended last week.”

“That’s a fair bit of crime for these parts. What’s the sheriff doing about it?” Looking down the boy mumbled. “Eh? What’s that?” the stranger asked.

“We donna ‘ave a constable. Well, I guess, maybe Bram’s da would be one.”

“No law?”

“Plenty of rules.” The boy kicked a stone in the road to the ditch.

“Always are at your age.” The stranger sympathized. “But I suppose you and this Bram manage to get in a bit of trouble when you’re not doing your chores.”

The boy blushed, “It’s just fun.”

“It always is.” The stranger agreed. “Was Marne okay? Did they hurt her bad?” He asked sounding as though he knew her.

Shaking his head, the boy brushed off the question, “She’s been walking this road since before my da was born. She’s the toughest crone for three counties.”

The stranger laughed and then gave a faux scowl, “Respect yer elders, son.”

The boy smiled, “I’m Jarron.”

The stranger reached a hand out, “You can call me Roth.”

Jarron shook Roth’s hand smiling. “You’re not a trader or hunter.”

“Well, not now, but I’ve done those things. I’ve done a great many things.”

“Why are you coming through here then?” Jarron asked skeptical.

“Why ya wondering, Jarron?”

“You might not be a robber. At least, you would’ve taken from me already if ya were.”

“Taken your sack of seed and whatever dirty pennies you have?” Roth said incredulous.

“They took Marne’s bushel of turnips.” Jarron said assertively but felt his face blush suddenly feeling embarrassed by his justification.

“Well,” Roth conceded, “that’s ridiculous. What’s a thief to do with turnips?”

“Eat ‘em, course.”

“No proper highwayman would ever eat a turnip.”

“They’re good. We eat them all the time…”

Roth waved him off, “My point is, stealing from an old woman a bunch of veg isn’t the action of a serious robber. It’s what a desperate man would do.” Roth looked around at the thin strand of trees that began to line the road, “Or a hateful one.”

“She said they looked like true soldiers. Clean leathers, shimmering blades. Not like our flaxspun and pig iron.”

“Don’t covet shiny things, Jarron.”

Jarron blushed, “Marne said they sounded like southerners.”

“What kind of southerners?”

“Not like you.”

Roth laughed, “I’m from the north.”

Jarron winced, “You don’t look or sound like it.”

“There’s always a farther north, Jarron.” Roth winked then dug into a small chest pocket of his tunic pulling out a gummy piece wrapped in thin cloth. He held it out to Jarron.

“Wha’s tha?”

“It’s a sweet chew. Take some, chew it, but don’t swallow until all the flavor is gone.” Jarron took half the piece and Roth the remainder. “So not like me?”

Jarron was surprised by the texture and taste of the chew. It was firmer than he had suspected, not sweet like candy but like well cook squash. He liked it, but it was an odd taste. As he chewed, he stared at Roth who was just looking down the road seemingly unconcerned.

“No, not like you. You sound like you’re trying to sound like me.”

“Clever.”

“Marne said those men sounded like folk from the coast.”

Roth nodded, “Plenty of bad types down there.”

“You’ve been there.” Jarron announced.

“Think so?”

“Your boots. Those’re corsair boots.”

Roth looked down at himself, “Ya think?” He shook his head, “Sorry to disappoint.”

Jarron scowled, annoyed with himself. “So you’ve not been?”

“Oh, I didn’t say that.” The boy looked annoyed and confused. “I’ve been to the coast plenty. I’ve traveled the sea as well.”

“Really?”

“Both above and below.”

“What?”

“Nevermind.” Roth said as Jarron shrugged it off.

The two walked in silence. The road meandered between fields cutting through small groves that threw just enough shade to cool travelers for a moment before opening back up to wide flatlands.

“What do you have in your pack?” Jarron asked.

“Something for elder eyes.” Roth muttered.

“Why do you have so many weapons?”

“Southerners.” Roth said matter of fact then smiled. “Why are you on the road alone?”

“I had to do the errands. Da’s been hold up with a fever last week or so.”

“Nothing serious, I hope.”

Jarron shook his head, “He was working in the pasture. Sleeting it was, washed away the last of the snow.”

“So he pushed himself too far then discovered himself sweating but chill throughout the night.”

“Yeah, Da said it’d just be a day but it’s gone on longer. He keeps feeling a bit better then working…”

“Then falling right back to being sick.” Roth finished the boy’s sentence as he dug through a chest pocket. He removed a couple of small, withered looking twigs and held them out for Jarron.

“Wha’s tha?” Jarron took the twigs. He thought they’d feel hard but they were soft, like a dried mushroom.

“That’s salix. Grind the roots up as fine as you possibly can, divide it into two portions, and make a tea for your father. It should help him kick his chill.”

Jarron held the roots in his fist then stuffed them into his satchel. “How do you know that’ll cure him?”

Roth shook his head, “It won’t cure him. It’ll just help him along. Nothing is a cure.”

“You always sound bleak when you talk.”

Roth couldn’t stifle his laugh letting out a sloppy chortle, “Well, I’ll try to do better. Is that an inn?” He pointed towards a long house by the side of the road. Beyond it were thin grey lines of smoke and the outlines of some cottages.

“Yeah,” Jarron nodded, “Aker’s Inn, tha’s the place I tol’ ya.”

“Well, then, youngling, I must part company. Take care of your da and keep working on beating Bram.” Roth gave a tussle to the boy’s hair strode toward the inn. Jarron just stood in the road watching him disappear into the dark, smoky interior.

Aker’s Inn wasn’t bleak, yet it was no hidden gem. Smoke from the hearth hung in the rafters because the chimney was poorly cleaned. There were no windows so each of the five long tables were covered with low-burnt candles, wax seemingly melted into the wood. Benches lined the tables, each held down by two or three locals. No one was talking or eating, but rather drinking in hard silence. Roth’s entry perked up no ears nor prompted any heads to turn.

The innkeeper stood stalwartly behind the bar opposite the door. He had been staring at the entrance and was now staring at Roth. Drawing back his hood, Roth surveyed the room with a low glance and moved casually towards the bar.

“Room?” He asked the innkeeper, who nodded and turned around to dig through a cabinet. He set down a stein and an iron key in front of Roth.

“For a night, five obols, and you get all the ale you can drink.” He motioned to the stein. “But every night after that is ten. I don’t serve food but ya can bring in whatever ya want ta eat.”

“So I drink until I pass out and then you make me pay for the hangover?” Roth smirked.

“It’s a livin’.”

Roth glanced around the inn again, “No argument from me.” He pulled a pouch from his belt, set it down, and easily pushed it towards the innkeeper. “There’s twenty. Yours whether I use it or not.”

The innkeeper pulled open the pouch and let the coins fall into his hand. He felt their weight, seemed satisfied, and flicked the pouch back to Roth. “Down the hall. Last door on left. Closet at the end has wood for ya.”

Roth scooped up the key tucking it away in his belt. He sat on one of the stools next to him, opened the stein lid, and waited. The innkeeper watched him for a moment, let a smirk crawl across his thickly bearded face, then took the stein, turned around again to fill it from one of the kegs, and presented it back to Roth frothing at the top.

Without hesitating, Roth drank deep. He set the stein down with a satisfying thud, wiped his lips with his thumb, and nodded without looking up.

“That’s not ale.”

The innkeeper nodded, “Barley wine.”

“Good ons, then.” Roth pulled out another coin pouch and emptied it of the roughly twenty obols. The innkeeper nodded pleased and swept up the coins.

“I’m Aker.”

“Roth.” Roth replied as he took another long drink.

“I’ve got some traveler’s bread and some cheese if you want it.”

“Thought you had no food.”

“Thought you were going to be a shit.”

“Fair enough.”

“It’s goat.”

Roth shrugged, “What else would it be?”

The innkeeper let another smile creep to the corners of his mouth as he turned away disappearing into the back presumably to get the bread and cheese. When he returned, he had a tin plate of thick sliced bread stuffed with fruit and nuts, a crumbled wedge of cheese, and some thin slices of ham.

“Yer kinder than ya let on.” Roth said. He reached out tentatively grabbing a piece of ham. He held it for a moment giving it more consideration than anyone around had ever given a piece of meat. Finally, he shrugged and used it break off a piece of cheese. He brought it to his mouth and slowly pushed it into his cheek. He let it sit for a moment and then began to chew.

“Don’t let it git round.”

“No worries there.” Roth said through chewing. “I do need to ask something though.”

“Oh, yeah?” Aker sounded uninterested.

“I need to speak to the lairds.” Roth spoke into his stein.

Aker’s raised an eyebrow. “Now what makes you think they wanna hear from you?”

“Lairds never want to hear from anybody.”

Aker chuckled, “Aye, true. But you ain’t from ‘round ‘ere.”

“Shows does it?” Roth broke off a piece of bread.

“Not as much as it does for others.”

“Think that’ll gain me an audience?”

Aker shook his head, “Anyone can go. No one here grants an audience. We ain’t lordlings.”

“Sure, sure,” Roth nodded swallowing, “guess I’ve run into more strict castes of late.”

“Well, that’s what makes us better than the Spires or the Cathedral. Though neither would ever admit it.”

“Folk are the same, just the high castes.”

“Yeah, true tha.” Aker conceded.

“So, ya think?”

“I can send word to ours. But you’ll have to go on to Midhalm, there’s where the hall is.”

“His name?”

She’s Marne Crow.”

“I heard about her, crone robbed of her turnips.”

Aker shook his head, “Don’t let her hear you call her a crone. She’ll cut your eye out. But yeah. They overturned her cart, but she managed nick one’s ear off and stab another through the hand.”

“So she didn’t lose her turnips.”

Akers shook his head, “They didn’t take ‘em but veg covered with mud and blood don’t sell too well at market.”

“Wouldn’t imagine.”

“How’d you hear ‘bout her?”

Roth gestured his thumb over his shoulder, “Youngling named Jarron walked with me on the road for a bit.”

“Ah, that’s Lyron’s boy. Man’s been battling a chill for weeks now.”

“Yeah, heard. Gave the boy something for that.”

“You a healer?”

Roth shook his head pausing for a moment before he spoke as though he were debating his next words, “Caretaker.”

What good humor that was in Aker’s face disappeared. The heads at the table nearest them turned around, and the men looked like they were about to rise.

“There ain’t no Caretakers anymore.” Aker said assertively. “So that means either you’re a liar or a charlatan.”

“And we don’t quarter either.” A voice came from the table behind Roth to a chorus of assent. He could hear their bodies moving, rising to face him.

He pushed the stein and plate from him but didn’t look up. “I lie like the next man so make of that what you want.” Roth moved slowly as though he were stretching pulling back his cloak to make clear to everyone in the room his assortment of blades. He took a deep breath, “I’ve come from Kaldapesh wanting nothing. I simply have something to give,” Roth looked up locking eyes with Aker, but not menacing, “to the lairds.”

Aker raised a hand to the men behind Roth who were now on their feet inching closer to him. They stopped. Aker didn’t blink or break his gaze with Roth.

“You’ll stay here.” He motioned for the men to sit. “And Marne will figure out if you’re worth the effort before you go spewing nonsense at the lairds.”

Roth pulled the plate back towards him nodding as he looked away from Aker. “What you think is best, is best. I’ll be here.” He stood and moved down the bar to a small corner table where he could see the entire room and have the wall to his back.

 

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