Yay for Saturday! Somehow this weekend ended up with two lazy days and yay! is this ever a nice change. Weekends of late have been much too busy.
This past week the days have been busy, but looking back I'm not sure what all happened. Rooms of the house have been getting cleaned up, and my hubby and I have been keeping up on groceries rather than running out of things regularly, and yard clean-up happened (as well as some use of the food dehydrator)... so I guess I actually do know where the hours of the week went lol.
It's been busy, but a good busy. I even had hours to dedicate to the editing and section rewrites for Daion Echoes through Transglass, that sci-fi novella I've been working on. There were a couple changes to smooth out the story – thanks to help from my amazing critique partner – and a few things I wanted to redo due to this year's real world changes (so the escapism of the story stays firmly over in science fiction). The edits and section rewrites are making for an even better story, and now I'm getting close enough to being done that I'm getting excited about sharing it.
4. Leaving Camp
Justin made sure his arm shackles were already on the ground when the ratchets clicked and the locks released. They didn’t clink as he slipped his wrists free and rolled his hands a few times just because he could. He curled a little tighter, as if cold, bringing his ankles closer to his hands without being obvious about it. The lock between his feet was less complex due to its duty of usually being dragged, and the ratchets in it sprang loose within seconds. The shackles on his ankles were caked with dirt and frozen over from the snow.
Justin used body heat to be able to get the pin-bar into the locks. The length of time needed to spring the half-frozen ratchets severely tried his patience as he worked at them. The only bonus was that most of the guards were sleeping by the time he was done so they didn’t notice him shifting to deal with the lock now resting on the center of his chest. This lock held the weighted chains over his shoulders (supposedly to keep him too physically tired to fight) and attached to the short lengths stopping him from extending his arms fully.
He moved slowly when he had to, keeping the clinking of the links to a minimum and only earning a few cursory glances from the two guards who were on watch over the camp. They both avoided looking his way for long, though, because he picked his sleeping place after noting where they were stationed to be certain that they would always have at least one fire in their line of sight when they looked his way. The first rule Justin had learned as a teenager of being competent at night watch was to protect your night vision by avoiding staring at fires.
The heavy lock on his chest ratcheted open. Justin slipped the chain ends off the hasp and gently lowered the lock on the ground. He held the final chains looped over him so they wouldn't slip loudly and then rolled full body to his back. Only his loose ankle shackles made any noise, and that was too quiet to draw more than a flicked glance from the nearest guard on watch – likely so the guard could say he’d been paying attention without lying when his shift ended. Justin pulled his feet clear and carefully freed his shoulder from the last of the chains, fighting to keep his lips closed as he grinned so that his teeth wouldn’t reflect if anyone looked his way.
He watched the sleeping camp with his eyes closed to slits, waiting for the next required glance from each of the guards on watch before rolling up to crouch beside his chains. He left the thin blanket – it didn’t provide any warmth, plus leaving it would give the appearance of him still lying there until daylight broke – and stepped over to the back of the wagon. The woman that the scout had been talking to sat up and stared at him. Unlike her brother, her visible trust level was hovering at a point closer to just killing Justin so that she could sleep better at night knowing he wasn’t in the world anymore, but she had shifted to the very back of the wagon by the cage door.
Justin approved of bringing her already.
Her wrist shackle clicked open after only a moment and she caught it as it fell, before it thumped to the wagon planking. The side of his lips curled in a half grin as she set the shackle onto the blanket of another prisoner so carefully that the links of her chain never made a sound. Justin clicked open the ratchets on the cage door. A hand shot out from a mass of blankets and clamped onto the wrist of the scout’s sister at the same time that her feet swung out to dangle off the end of the wagon.
“Take me with you, Tam,” the hard whisper commanded.
Justin looked at the eyes staring out from inside the blankets. Others in the wagon who were awake were watching the situation unfold, weighing their chances of escaping against what was going to happen to the one holding the woman he was helping. Tam twisted her hand and jerked her wrist out of the grip. Justin heard the deep inhalation that could only end in a scream. He slipped the loop free on the knife handle and snapped the blade locked while he was already moving to strike. He didn’t bother trying to find the throat in all the blankets, he just drove the blade up to the handle into the prisoner’s eye.
The scout’s sister gasped and shied away from him as she jumped off the wagon to land in the road, her feet already running. He caught her before she could take her second step and spun her back to lock her under his arm. He wiped the blade quickly on the blankets – no use having a knife that folded like this if blood got in its ratchets and it froze closed – and scanned to make sure that neither of the watching guards looked their way. He tucked the fabric loop back into place to hold the blade closed before dropping the knife into his pocket, and then closed the cage door and triggered the ratchets locked, grateful the noises were no louder than the usual clanks of everyone sleeping in the wagon as he ignored the plaintive stares of the other prisoners.
He pulled Tam down with him to crouch behind the wagon’s wheel and scanned over the spot where he'd bedded for the night, nodding to himself that nothing he'd left behind was out of place. Staying out of sight behind the wagon, and forcing Tam to do the same, he waited for the guard’s next cursory glance to finish before standing and hurrying down the road in the direction that the scout had gone.
They were six steps away from the wagon and still inside the area illuminated by fires when a scream ripped open the night. Justin glanced over his shoulder and saw the little girl that had screamed everyone awake when Rourke strangled himself was screaming and trying to pull her hand out of the shackle holding her in place. Her legs were kicking at the wagon planking in an attempt to get away from the one-eyed corpse Justin had recently created. Tam tried to twist to look back and Justin pulled her along harder, not slowing at all when she stumbled. The last thing he needed was for her to stare toward the fires and be trippingly useless beside him for the next few minutes. He closed the eye he’d glanced back with and kept moving forward.
The expected yells rose up. Thankfully confusion from the guards who’d been sleeping delayed their ability for organized activity, but Justin wasn’t gearblocked enough to believe these few minutes would give them the needed time to get the day ahead Tor said they should have. The guards shouted about thieves having attacked the camp, and then something about ghosts, and then someone got wise and checked under the thin blanket Justin had left lying in the snow.
Justin ignored all of it and focused on the road’s single set of footprints left in the opposite direction than the wagon had been travelling, pulling Tam beside him. The first moon was a thin silver sliver tonight and, unlike the other times he’d been free to get away, a clear sky. At least tonight he’d know immediately if he was being double crossed and led in the wrong direction.
Well, it finally happened. The townhouse condo property we've been trying to sell for nearly two years? After a maximum-anxiety six weeks, possession and the property keys passed to the buyers this past Wednesday. We are now the very proud owners of only one address, one mortgage, and one mailbox, and are very relieved to no longer be landlords or to ever have plans of maintaining properties for other people to rent ever again.
Not going to lie, the relief had a sad undertone for me. That townhouse was the first home I owned as an adult, and I loved living there when it was my residence. I'm so, so, so happy it's now owned by people who love it, too. (How do I know they love it? The banks are awful about lending money right now and these buyers jumped through six weeks of likely what felt like flaming hoops hung above tanks of starving sharks to be allowed to have their mortgage. That screams "loving a property" to me.)
The decrease in anxiety after the sale finished has been great as it comes with the added bonus of reduced insomnia. Unfortunately for me, it also comes with increased brain fog, a forced recognition of current personal depression levels due to anxiety no longer blocking the view, and a grasping of my brain chemistry at everything which could be an anxiety trigger because why would a drop in my actual anxiety level mean I can relax a bit... I have a stupid brain. Most of my thoughts in the second half of this week have just been moments of clarity within the fog for doing any of my tasks at hand, my anxiety rapid-fire questioning if I need to be terrified of whatever the moments of clarity are about, and the rest of my brain either eye-rolling about the anxiety-interrogations or forcibly side-stepping off the spirals because clarity alone isn't a real reason to be afraid.
Ergo, I'm brain-tired this week as my executive function has been working overtime into mental exhaustion by noon every day. Writing was a write-off. Reading was a lovely reward yesterday when I could focus on a thought for long enough to read again; I finished Game of Stars (book 2 of Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond, by Sayantani Dasgupta) and, yes, for the third week in a row I'm recommending you should read the Kiranmala series. It's awesome so far.
I have plans to buy book 3 during some family-required book shopping... my oldest started reading I Am Malala in school but didn't have time in class to finish it. Looks like we need to pick up at least two excellent books today! I hope you're staying safe and well this weekend :)
Justin abruptly stopped ignoring the one-sided conversation.
“Our aunt took Tam every year since she was five years old. My sister used to help sell the rugs our aunt made. She even started making her own, plus other things. My sister sews really well,” Tor said, and then he sighed. “But our aunt died last year and my grandmother sold the wagon. She’s old and her mind slips, so she forgot about selling the rugs. Then the village’s Administrator took all the rugs for taxes. That’s why they ran out of chips and Tam ended up stealing the bread.”
The scout shifted and Justin felt something press against his hip, opposite the side the sword was on. He glanced down and saw the stolen rations and water flask.
“It’s funny; I steal water and food and get asked if I want anything else. My sister does the same and gets sentenced to labor as a slave in one of the worst gemstone mines in Opat’s mountains,” Tor said. He shrugged and again leaned against Justin’s back with a sigh. “I patrol these mountains to make sure the mine roads are safe. There are a lot of thieves and the like around, each hoping to steal gemstones, so it’s actually somewhat dangerous to be walking around alone out here. None of these guards will follow if you’re too far ahead because they’re already a day late from the other delays you’ve caused. I’ve heard them talking that you’re a sailor. My sister knows the road to the coast. The army I’m supposed to be with is moving this way for its next sweep of the passes to the mines on this side of the range, so the challenge will only be to stay ahead of them and the scouts. We can do it if we leave tonight. I can’t give you directions because I don’t know them, and Tam won’t tell you anything because I’m going to tell her not to. I’m offering to get you safely back to the coast in exchange for you ensuring her safe passage out of Opat. I had ten minutes with those rations. If you trust me, start eating when you lie down and then pretend to sleep. I’ll understand that as there being an agreement between us. If you throw away the rations then I’ll know you didn’t take the offer.”
The scout’s weight lifted off Justin’s back, but he paused before standing.
“I’ve never seen anyone carry a man that far before,” Tor added, then he stood up and his quiet steps took him back to the edge of the wagon. He whispered to his sister and her distrustful glare landed on Justin for a moment. Then they parted and, using the wagon as cover from any of the guards seeing him, the scout started away from the camp and back along the road in the opposite direction they’d been travelling.
Justin watched the young man go. The scout was smart – gearblocked beyond all belief to trust a random stranger in chains – but smart enough to do it so there wasn’t any other choice for Justin but to help him. Justin drew the same wary glances from the guards that he always got whenever he moved enough to rattle the chains, but all he did was lie down with his back to the fire like he did every night. He wasn’t close enough to get any heat from it anyway.
The ration pack had been tampered with but he couldn’t see how, just that the re-wrapping was hasty and loose. His stomach growled loudly. He’d only been allowed to eat once a day since waking up in the wagon. In every ration pack he’d been given so far, the bread was hard, the dried meat overly salty, and the vegetables were shrivelled and sour. At least now he had confirmation that the guards were eating the same terrible food they were giving the prisoners. That explained why they were so miserable.
An edge of the bread was broken, and one of the soft carrots was stiff in the middle.
Justin broke open the loaf first. A small knife handle had been shoved into it, the same black fabric wrapping it as on the scout’s sword hilt, and a stripe of steel running down one side. He set down the handle and worked at the carrot carefully, but that only produced a long, narrow pin-bar. The pin-bar was obviously only meant to be a pick for the simple locks on Justin’s chains. He ate the meat and vegetables first, testing that each thing bent easily before putting it in his mouth. There was a spot in the knife handle for the blade to lock into, and he didn’t want to find the blade by biting it.
He crumbled the bread before eating it. No blade. Unless the scout had given it to his sister… no. There hadn’t been any flash of metal and the rest of the prisoners would have already been fighting over any kind of weapon if it was in the wagon. Half of them had been awake when these conversations had been happening, and they were now watching either the road where the scout had disappeared, or the sister that he’d been talking to, and a few Justin could feel the stares of boring into his spine.
Justin picked the handle back up and looked at it again now that his eyes had adjusted to the darkness better. Still just a black handle with a steel stripe running the length of one side. He turned it around and the steel stripe shifted out a fraction of a fingerside. Justin held on to the fabric and turned the handle so the stripe faced the ground. The blade slid out and dangled from an unseen hinge. Justin tipped the handle to face the steel stripe up and the blade folded away. He tipped it back and the blade fell out. He turned it to study the blade’s pocket and saw a small spring lock that would fall into place once the blade was –
He grinned at the knife. One small tug, not even enough motion to clink the shackles at his wrists, and the blade was set. He tripped the lock’s small switch with his thumb and the blade hung loose again. There was a little loop of fabric that he’d thought was just a loose winding, but it fit snugly around the end of the knife and held the tip so the blade stayed in. Justin held the knife in his left hand and picked up the little pin-bar in his right. No time like right now to get out of here.
It had been a long month.
Justin had been ashore for a regular resupply, only joining the landing party because one of his drills had broken and Opat had decent enough steel until he could get to Leshnat for the best replacement. It was supposed to have been a day in the nearest city and then back out to the Gem to continue down the coast.
Instead, he and three other crewmen had been hit with whatever tranquilizing darts were favored in the area. They’d all woken up tied with ropes and in the steel cage on the wagon Justin had now been trudging behind for the past two weeks. They’d all gotten clear of the ropes and cage easy enough, but hadn’t been able to find a familiar landmark to get back to the coast, and no familiar stars due to the constant cloud cover. Then they’d just gotten lost and been rounded up, hit with darts and beaten, and woken up back in the cage.
Of course they’d gotten out again a few times in the weeks following. Rendan had been killed the final time they’d escaped the cage, when they’d been even more lost, two weeks from the coast and still under continuous clouds. After again being rounded up, hit with darts and beaten, the remaining crew members had been shackled into chains ratcheted to the wagon and pulled behind the cage. Lark had simply died within the first week of walking. He was old and the chains were heavy.
Rourke and Justin had been the last of the crew members and they’d done well, but then Rourke turned a foot early into the morning a few days ago and hadn’t been able to walk with the way it was bent around. Justin had carried his friend since childhood for the rest of the day, Rourke arguing the whole way, but the guards refused treating the injury and threatened to kill Rourke when he couldn’t keep up. Justin refused to lose a friend.
The little girl in the wagon’s cage had woken everyone with her screams the next morning. Rourke had twisted himself up in his chains and managed to hang himself on the back of the wagon as everyone slept.
This scout the woman in the wagon had called Tor, who had just settled against Justin’s back as if the larger man was a chair, had joined the group this afternoon. The rest of his troop was nowhere to be seen, which was something Justin knew wasn’t typical for scouts because the ones he’d seen usually travelled in packs of four. Then again, the ones he’d seen usually wore the gold or green uniforms issued to them for serving on Opat’s prairies and coast, so maybe the mountain scouts with their black uniforms did things differently.
At the time Tor slipped into the ranks of guards, Justin hadn’t bothered to think about it due to the more pressing issue of slogging through the deepening snow and trying to figure out which mine he and the rest of the collected strong backs were heading to. At an iron mine he’d have access to all the tools he needed and likely some kind of rail track to follow for hauling the ore to the coast for transport or smelting, but a gemstone mine or one of the stone quarries and he’d likely labor hard and then die after a few months… or years.
Justin jerked on the chains on purpose and glared at the guards who were staring at him with their hands on their sword hilts. If he kept drawing attention or stood up, they would come over and likely beat him again. If he quieted, he had a chance to get his hands on the sword the scout was not only wearing but had just delivered. The blade on that sword would make short work of fully cracking the chipped chain link in the cheap Korballi-made steel Justin was wearing. Justin jerked the chains one more time and then settled, counting the links as he’d done every night, and the guards eventually turned back toward their fire or out toward the trees, muttering annoyance with him as they did.
“My sister stole bread for our grandmother because they couldn’t afford to buy it anymore,” Tor said, and Justin felt him shrug one shoulder. “It was such a terrible crime that she was sentenced to two years in the Meek River diamond mine, just on the other side of this next pass.”
Justin kept his back rigid, but the hope he’d been holding on to for getting placed in an iron mine died painfully when it extinguished.
“I can’t do nothing and just leave her. I don’t have anyone else,” Tor continued. “I don’t have the chips to buy her freedom from these guards. My relationship with our extended family is… tenuous I guess is the best word. Even if I could buy her freedom right now, I don’t have any way to get her out of Opat and away from the arrest if I don’t pay for that too, which I also obviously can’t afford.”
Justin noticed one of the guards was watching him as he carefully tested his reach to see if he could get his hands around his hip to where the scout’s sword was sitting. He glared at the guard and scratched at his waistband as if he’d had an itch he needed to stretch the limits of the links to reach. He needed a way to silence the chains from clinking whenever he moved or he would keep bringing the guards’ attention to himself… or he just needed to move quickly enough to get the scout’s sword and then it wouldn’t matter if he had the guards’ attention or not. Something about how relaxed the scout leaned on his back told him trying to be faster might not work tonight, though.
“I’ve been following the wagon since she was put in it a week ago,” Tor said. “We both grew up in that last village you walked through. I’ve never been to the coast, but my sister has.”
This has been a very busy week. Just as busy as expected. I think I've used up all my September spoons and it's only the 5th.
No writing time happened this week, and no editing time. Something equally as awesome happened, though, and reading time occurred! If you haven't checked out the series Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond yet, why not?? Sayantani Dasgupta has created such an amazing world in these books. I'm half way through book 2, Game of Stars, and loving it just as much as book 1, The Serpent's Secret. These books may be targeted at middle grade and young adult ages, but the fast-paced story telling, wicked villains, sarcastic heroes and wonderful humor are enjoyable for every age.
As for my own writing, the big manuscript I've been working on for a couple years was a single book idea, which then blew up into a trilogy, and is now ticking all the boxes as a multi-book series. It's a plotter's nightmare, and not only because I'm a pantser. (If you're not familiar, plotters make outlines and write from a plan, pantsers sit in front of a page and just write "by the seat of their pants".) This story isn't coming to me chronologically, and I'm working on the entire thing as a single story arc. I'm writing scenes, then placing them like puzzle pieces into the whole arc timeline. It's... apparently how this manuscript wants to be written? *nervous laughter goes here*
Lucky for me, two things for this manuscript did show up as single stories: the prequels. One prequel is too removed to blog out without at least a few of the novels being released first, some history only makes sense in the context of the current world, but the other is a glimpse into the Nine Oceans universe which can stand on its own. This other one is The Meek Valley Incident, and the story I'd like to start sharing today. Hopefully you like it :)
Stay safe and well this weekend!
Justin looked up the length of the curved sword pointed down at his throat. The younger man holding the hilt looked like he was trying harder than he needed to at appearing threatening, considering the all-black scout’s uniform he was wearing. Almost wearing, Justin corrected when he realized he was looking at the man’s face. The scout was dark haired, slim built, and had the typical Opattan features of rounded, brown eyes, high cheekbones, and skin that had been tanned from outdoor labor for generations. The sword in his hand was shaking badly for a scout – meaning that Justin could see the tremor. There was a chance the sword’s vibration was due to the amount of chains Justin was currently locked into, but more likely the tremor could be attributed to the cold so that wasn’t enough information to get arrogant about. Justin was also sporting more bruises than he usually had after a bad month and he wasn’t in the mood for collecting more because of whatever this latest intimidation game was all about. The guards had done enough gloating during the walk to wherever here was, although that had reduced considerably in the past three days.
“You’re going to help me,” the young scout whispered the command. Justin scoffed a laugh at him. “You will help me or I’ll kill you right now,” the scout threatened quickly.
Justin assessed the uniform, and the young man in it, and then lifted his chin to expose his throat to the tip of the sword. He figured he was likely a few years older than the scout, probably outweighed him by more than half, and was taller than him by more than a head, but Justin was chained and the scout wasn’t, and only one of them had a sword. The scout’s first demand had been a request for help, and Justin wasn’t in a position to care.
A lot of things flashed across the young man’s face as he looked down at the man he was trying to intimidate, the last of which was the expected collapse of whatever it was he was trying to accomplish with threats. The tip of the sword dropped – not far enough to bite into the snow, Justin noted – but enough to no longer be a threat. Justin scoffed at the scout again and went back to counting the links of the chain tying him to the steel wagon that the rest of the prisoners were riding in.
The scout looked like he was going to say something else, but he just sighed and slouched and then slid his sword back into the scabbard. After a moment of standing there, words he never said flashing behind his eyes, he glanced around the sleeping camp. His eyes paused on the watchers who were facing out toward the trees and he shook his head that none of them were looking toward the prisoners as he pulled his mask down from where it had been sitting on top of his head. He stepped away from Justin and sat down, leaning against the wagon wheel nearest to where Justin was chained.
“Stones and mortar, all to dust,” he muttered, knocking himself gently in the forehead with his own fist a few times.
One of the women in the cart – barely so, but still older than the little girl – looked out through the cage as well as she could and down to where the scout was sitting. Justin looked up from counting links and watched the young man twist his neck to look up at her and then shush her. She reached out and he held her hand as well as he could through the bars without standing up, not drawing attention. They spoke together too quietly to overhear. It wasn’t a conversation that needed words to understand, though.
Justin looked at the lone scout in a new light: deserter. That wasn’t going to go over well with the rest of the scouts in his troop, or the army the scout troop belonged to. It did, however, explain why a uniform Justin knew should usually be associated with group activities was wrapped around a man who was here by himself.
The woman in the wagon said something that made the scout laugh and he dropped his head to keep the sound low. The chuckle stopped suddenly when the mask lifted enough to see that Justin was watching them. The young man stood, pressed the backs of her fingers against the smooth part of his mask that covered his forehead before releasing her hand, and then walked back to the fires and the guards.
He stooped and picked out a water flask and a rations packet from one of the guards' packs. The guard sitting beside the pack almost argued before looking, but then saw the scout uniform and politely asked if there was anything else the young man might need or want. The scout never replied. Justin lost sight of him between the trees as he walked out of camp.
Ten minutes later, the same quiet steps approached from the opposite side of Justin to the camp and stopped a sword blade’s distance away. Again.
Expecting the same metallic view he’d had of the scout earlier, Justin wasn’t sure if he should be amused or surprised when he turned and the young man was just looking at him. With a sigh that left him slouching, the scout took a step into striking radius, and then another step into easy arm’s reach, and then sat down back to back with Justin. A couple of the guards looked over when Justin jerked out of surprise and his chains rattled loudly.
“They can’t see me back here. You’re big enough to make a good wall,” the scout stated, his voice too low to carry words beyond Justin’s shoulder. “All I’m asking is that you at least hear me out.”
A weekly blog updating on Fridays with quick personal blurbs about me, as in what's going on during my life as an Author and mom, and that doles out my short stories and novellas in bite-sized parts for everyone to read for free!