I’ve been remiss in getting you some good Thorium website content! As we all adjust to the new normal I’ve been focused on finishing my U.S. Naval Academy tour well, preparing for what’s next for the Chapman’s, and managing our situation. I haven’t gotten my work-at-home disciplines all back in place (I worked from home fulltime from late 2015 through 2017), and writing has taken a backseat unfortunately.
I shared some early draft material of this story with a superfan, and I want to get it out to the wide world! If you are looking for a break from the news cycle, your cat staring at you incessantly, or just need a break, then I encourage you to read along. In my next post (Saturday) I’ve also got a YouTube video that was the inspiration for the Circus of Souls, the main characters of this story. Stay safe out there!
The steady rumble of rolling wains cut through the stillness of the plain. The golden ocean shifted as the afternoon wind teased across its surface. The tapestry shifted, undulated, like so many waves. Through the crests of grain a deeply gouged trail led from the outpost toward either horizon. In one direction, a crisp purple sky hearkening the twilight hour. In the other, looming mountains covered in a veil of dingy snow.
Two men stood beside the stone outpost. Its square shape showed a utilitarian genesis. A platform of weathered wood rose from the roof to provide a crow’s perch. No one needed to stand watch atop it, for the scene was never changing. Day after day, cart after cart, sometimes in dozens, sometimes in pairs, sometimes a single wagon or handwain. Breck Longmane and Filian Carrsman fingered spears as the caravan approached. Mostly from boredom.
“How many is this today? Eight? Nine?” Breck leaned against the smooth stone behind him as he mined for silver. His left nostril could always be counted on to bear a load, what with the dry air and dust in the wind. He only ever used his right forefinger, a habit conditioned since young. No better way to kill time than minor annoyances like itchy noses.
Filian stared at Breck’s mining ambitions in awe. How could one man pick his nose so much? He’d spent hours, days, Tryon’s eyes, months with the man as he unearthed little treasures, admired, then discarded them. You spend so much time with someone, you’d think you knew them.
Filian snorted. “Must be. I stop counting after four.”
“How do you keep up the ledger then? You know the Lord Ranger wants to know. For taxes and such.”
Filian turned his head as the first pair of wains emerged from the curve in the path. “I make it up. Who cares if it’s four or fourteen or four hundred? Rangers’ going to collect whatever taxes they want, and you know it.”
“Of course I know it. How do you think we get paid? Largess? Donations?” Breck found a particularly special find and rolled it between dirty fingers before flicking the little ball into the dirt.
The train rolled along over the rise and approached at a glacial pace. The high wheeled wains stirred up dust along the worn track. Animals lowed as drovers prodded them along. The large bow oxen common among settler trains pulled their burdens with the expected bovine complaints. A flock of sheep and goats paced themselves while seeking green shots below the golden grains. Young boys and girls kept watchful eyes on their charges. Breck could hear the sound of crying children amidst the party, just one more animal to the bestiary heading their direction.
“Ho! Where’s the master?” cried Filian. Weary faces stared back at him as the wagons rolled to a stop before the house. Spears in hand, he and Breck circled the dozen or so families that populated the train. Dogs and children barked in harmony at the intrusion. Like a basket of apples overturned, the various parts settled to a stop across the area before the watch tower.
A tall man stepped forward, hand raised in salute to Breck and Filian. “I’m Theil. I lead these folk.”
Breck sized Theil up and found himself a little defensive. Breck was a big man to many, with shoulder thicker than average and only a minor gut from drinking ale among the guard. Theil stood a full head taller and was just as corded with muscles. He was likely a little leaner too, given how often these caravans ran short on food. His eyes were hawkish but did not feel angry at the pause.
Theil stared down at Breck doing his own sizing up. He wore dark grey trousers over brown leather boots. Both were dusty from the trail. Beneath a leather vest his plum shirt had sleeves rolled up and the collar unlaced, revealing a crop of curly chest hair. His matching black mane was pulled back into a queue and tied with a plum-toned leather thong. A silver chain hung about his left wrist, another around his neck with the steel sun pendant of Tryonists. The suns had clearly done their work at weathering his skin, but there was a remnant of youthful anticipation in his look. The look of adventures had and yet to be had.
“G’day Master Theil. I’m Sergeant Breck and this is Corporal Filian. We’re charged with keeping watch over the road in these parts. Where you from, where you go’in, and what’s your business? Also, how many tattooed men?”
Theil shook his head. “We have no smiths with us, at least, none of the true smiths. Only enough skills to shoe horses and repair tools.”
Breck nodded. Worth asking. You never knew what you’d find in these caravans.
Theil reached into his vest and pulled out a small wallet of tooled ox hide. The burned scroll pattern indicated the work of Gilead. A royal charter. He handed it to Breck for inspection as Filian walked among the remaining travelers. Theil watched through the corner of his eye, but said nothing.
Breck opened the wallet and inspected the contents. Thick vellum held a bold stroked message containing the warrant and commission for Theil to lead this band of settlers across the Pledge. It offered both permission and penalty, though the high seat in Gilead was along way from Sergeant Breck and the Pledge’s rough justice. A very long way.
“We’re bound for New Saelem. Our charter gives us a grant farther into the Pledge than most, but that’s to our liking. There were several groups of like-minded pilgrims that are bound in covenant with one another. I believe we’re likely the fifth you’ve seen, if my counting is correct. We’ve overtaken two groups already and haven’t been overtaken by any others in our party. We’ve a mind to build a new town in the hills to the south, below a place called Chaebol Golan. Maybe we’ll build on the bones of what’s left. Tryon’s Eyes, we’ve seen enough so far.”
Breck nodded as he stared at the paper. He understood enough of the words written here to understand the gist of the matter. “Still doesn’t answer all of my questions. Who else have you come across since entering the Pledge? You must have come through Peak? Have you met the Rangers yet, friend?”
“Is there a problem, Sergeant?” Theil smiled down at Breck like so many did. Theil saw Breck for what he was, a weasel. A weasel with teeth, but a weasel nonetheless. Breck didn’t like that at all.
“No problem. Just want to make sure you understand the ways things are here. I know you have maps. You wouldn’t have traveled this far without them. You’ve heard of Pol Kalel and Chaebol Golan, so you must have them. Those maps, see, they help you understand where everything is in relation to something else. You got a bearing to follow, right, and you know about how far one thing is from another?” Breck’s easy smile showed a missing tooth and little friendliness.
Theil rolled his eyes. Breck knew the look all too well. Too many caravans to teach, too many freedom seekers to initiate into the reality of the world.
“What other maps might a wary traveler need in these parts, brother?” Theil asked. He smiled through his frustration. Good on him Breck thought.
“Not another map, per se, but just an understanding. Those maps don’t show you how the Pledge is administered. Sure, King Rowe says you can come out here and make a new life for yourself. That there charter says so, don’t you believe it? Who am I, a mere sergeant, to question that? But the King’s justice is far away from here. Filian and I have been here, what, four years already?’ Filian happened to be standing near enough to overhear and issue a nod of assent before Breck continued, “I’d say at least four years, and I think we’ve seen a Pledge Warden maybe twice in all that time. Ain’t never seen one of the companies pulling duty in the full. Only a few men-at-arms, maybe a small wain to carry their taxes, and little else. Who do you think protects those who travel through this region?”
Theil nodded toward Filian. “I suspect it’s men like yourself.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Breck said as his bowed his head solemnly. “Ain’t it Tryon’s truth my friend. We’re just doing a job here, all in the name of the Rangers and them in the name of the King. Doing our part to keep everyone safe in these perilous times.”
Weights and measures tumbled through Theil’s mind, though his only outward sign was a slow closing and opening of his eyes. Though Breck and Filian were just two louts assigned to this particular way point, Theil knew what crossing them would do. At worst, it would end in a fight, them dead, some of his own injured and maybe dead, and two bodies to deal with and the likelihood of someone on their back trail. He knew more than enough about the Rangers and knew they wouldn’t brook that kind of disrespect.
The Rangers. Just another of the vigilante bands who roamed the Pledge in the name of justice. Justice that Theil knew was a very long ways away. In gaining a charter from Gilead he as much as agreed to forego anything resembling authority and safety in exchange for his people’s freedom. Freedom to do as they pleased and to worship Tryon as they desired. None of the state politics and authoritarian regime that Gilead had become. None of the over population and crowded cities. Yet, that freedom came at a price, and the price was graft.
“How much would the Rangers require to ensure our safety were assured?”
Breck nodded and looked toward the wains and livestock, not revealing any gleam in his eyes. This one was well practiced in his role of tax collector. Theil simply hoped the taxes were reasonable and maybe, just maybe, would actually amount to something.
A young child was crying now. The children were uneasy with the delay and games had begun. A solid lines of boys and girls were busy linking arms for a run of Iron Jaen’s Gauntlet. A burly boy took off at a sprint to break through the double line of defenders, scaring some of the flock who were nosing through tall grasses. Parent’s admonished the young but did little to stop them.
Filian looked rather nervous. Was it getting on too long? Did he doubt the situation remained in hand, or that the train of settlers would pay their due? He approached Breck while waving at a seated couple a few wains back, “Get those children under manners! I mean it.”
Theil stood steady at his approach. Filian rounded on Breck, who remained quiet as he assessed the train. Finally Filian’s hand grabbed the sergeant’s shoulder and shook him. Breck didn’t look pleased.
“What do you want? Don’t you see I’m counting. Just go and watch them.”
“Something don’t feel right.”
“What do you mean? It’s just another bunch of dreamers. No different than any other.” Breck stared hard at the man. His nose twitched in anticipation of the mining yet left to do. Not long now.
Filian looked about. His furtive gaze lingered on the horizon surrounding the watch station. He took in every detail as best he could. “I’m not sure, but something isn’t right.”
Breck snorted, dislodging a particularly fine specimen that he observed jettison itself like a ballista bolt. Another treasure gone. “Not sure what’s the matter, but we’ll be free in a few moments. I’m sure I know what’s about right here.”
“Master Theil, you are in good luck today. Tryon bless you. We’ve had a number of groups come through the last few days, so our pens are already pretty full. Yet, the Rangers should have a few troupes returning and we’ll want to satisfy their hunger when they arrive. I feel that four sheep would make a generous offering toward the safety these men are providing you right this moment.”
Theil’s eyes grew slightly, but he maintained composure. Four sheep? The last two way stations had only demanded two a piece. What could these men possibly do with four sheep?
Turning to the setting suns he made a decision. He’d normally haggled much lower, but he knew they needed to be on their way and settled in before much longer. He’d wanted to make it further along that they’d made it today, and the prospect of camping beside these men didn’t sit well with him. “I believe we can spare three sheep, though one must be a lamb. But as you say, you are welcome to them with Tryon’s blessing.”
Breck stuck out his arm to seal the arrangement when a horn sounded from the watch tower.
The sergeant and corporal both looked up at their companion and then to the west.
Theil turned his gaze as well. He noticed the entire caravan turning their attention to the setting suns. Limbed against the twilight sky were dozens of black banners. At least, they appeared so. Those banner hung from lances with jagged cross bars, and those lances were held by soldiers.
Soliders like none Breck had ever seen. The sergeant counted two campaigns fighting the Chebori before joining the Rangers, a company of free soldiers determined to make their own fortune in these uncertain lands. He’s fought with Gilead, fought alongside the Ophirans of the northern deserts, the black-skined Batu Sorati of the lowlands, and the pale-faced men who peopled Sevelin and the southern holdfasts of Mamre. Yet he’d never believed what he saw before him could be anything but nightmare.
The vanguard of soldiers had crested the hill west of the way station. Every man was mounted, most atop large black horses. A string of remounts, many of them fierce war horses, followed in their wake. Lines of footmen followed behind and in a single file to the side. These were neatly arranged between halbardiers with hooked pikes and archers with bows longer than Theil was tall. Each man had a small fountain of color erupting behind him in the form of his arrows, cached together in leather quivers yet stick up two heads taller than any of them.
Yet it wasn’t the weapons that caught Breck’s attention. It was the armor.
It was as if a hundred beetles had stood upright and faced them.
Each man wore an intricate set of plates, neatly overlapping one another to form a dark carapace. Even their gloves were covered in scales of the same material. Most frightening were the helms. Each was a beautiful collection of curves that mimicked an insect, including four sets of painted eyes to augment the pair of openings for true sight. The plates were satin hued in an exotic blend of black, blue, and gold trimmings. A tall mane of blue-dyed horse hair framed various symbols in black iron that topped each one.
Filian lost his meal as the scene grew worse. Two riders followed the vanguard riding insect-like creatures larger than the watch station itself. Each must weight as much as a dozen horses or more, and the riders, mounted high up on an extended carapace, could see eye to eye with the tower’s watchman. Four pairs of flexing claws clicked in sickening symphony. The noise filled the air and almost drowned out the screams.
Theil was terror-struck and unyielding, yet had sufficient will to turn toward Breck. “Sergeant, what are those things?”
The air filled with the tinge of urine. Breck’s pants grew dark as he, too, stood transfixed while his body reacted.
“I have no idea. But I believe this is hell.”