Victoria A. Jeffrey's authorly doings. . .

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Sample Chapters: Cryptic Tongues, Chapter One

I know I've promised sample chapters of Cryptic Tongues, so, here they are! Well, the first one anyway. I'm excited to bring you the second book of my Red World trilogy. JUST REMEMBER: as with all sample chapters posted here, these are not in final edited form. Mistakes are inevitable at this stage. What you are reading here is close to but not the final form of the manuscript. Alright folks, chapter one of Cryptic Tongues. Enjoy and happy reading!

Chapter One

The month of Sin, 1700 A.T. V.
Rapheth's eyes shined with wicked mischief. He put a finger to his lips to silence their furious whisperings. They were trying to decide which way to travel to get to the tavern unseen. He, Ephron and Shukala, his two best friends, were prowling about in the bowels of the upper city, Rhuctium. They were in the unnamed city, which stretched out in a string of ramshackle, loose communities from Jhis to Rhuctium, underground. It was a mysterious underworld that held everything of the fascination and forbidden wonders that young men craved. They went regardless of their parents' fears, regardless of Ilim's and Zigal's dour warnings.
He heard the familiar gurgle of the wide stream below and the whispers of small rivulets of water streaming down filthy stone walls. It stank of rotting garbage but they had learned to ignore this long ago. To them the tavern was a kind of hidden secret from their respectable families and it was worth every unmentionable smell crowding their noses. They were now deep underground, nearing Marashiah-Degar's infamous tavern where they'd shown their faces more than a few times for drink, water-pipes and a bit of bawdy storytelling and harmless trouble. Harech, one of the regular patrons - so regular he was nearly part of the furniture of the place - had challenged Rapheth on a wager that he could not steal his red cap from his head.
"Shukala, come! I need you to do something for me," he whispered. Shukala and Ephron followed behind, ready for mischief.
"Go down beneath the tavern to the center grate. I will bet Harech will be sitting in his same spot right over it."
"Harech. Always predictable." Said Shukala.
"I know it. Get his attention while you are there. Maybe some trick. I know you can think of something. Then Ephron and I will grab his cap!"
"He will owe us a pithos of beer for this!" Said Ephron. Shukala laughed. Rapheth put his finger to his lips once more.
"Quiet now or we will owe him!" Shukala bounded down the path and across the narrow rock ravine, nimbly avoiding the sewage stream below and made his way carefully down the small cave opening that led to the grate in the tavern floor.
The tavern was a two-story building situated in a small cliff-face, made both of the rock surrounding it and of heavy wooden beams and floors. There were grates here and there in the floors to throw out unwanted things like sewage, garbage and visceral matter from the kitchen. Belligerent patrons who had too much to drink and too much fight in them had the misfortune of being thrown out through these grates too, right into the sewers below. The grate in the main floor led to a wide cave beneath where goods, legal and illegal, were stored for the owner's use and was sometimes used as a gateway to other hiding places. The three youths were seasoned troublemakers and good in a fight. The seedy unnamed city did not bother them in the least. All three had daggers at the ready in case but rarely did they need to use them. This night was the Day of Glorious Fires, the celebration of Hec who rose brightest and highest in the sky this week. For many people who observed it, it was a time for visiting family and feasting during the day and revelry at night and people wore masks every night. Rapheth and Ephron pulled over their masks to disguise themselves and entered within the crowds going in the door. Far off a wild whistling call came. A loosely gathered parade was winding its way through the street. Inside they could hear the bawdy singing and playing of a band of Rurrian musicians. Such foreigners would never have been allowed to perform in any official public place or noble house in Jhis. Hybronians thought their culture, next to Egian high culture, was superior to all others. Rhuctium was a more tolerant city.
"A fine night indeed!" Said Marashiah, the tavern owner. She watched over the crowds milling in, sitting on her elaborately carved wooden Fundian throne-stool like a queen of the underworld, The throne-stool, always reserved for South Land royalty, displayed her uncanny ability to acquire precious objects. She was a heavy-set woman with very long, dry gray hair and a few black streaks running through. She wore it in a large double-knot style, pinned to the back with a coral head pin that she wore proudly. And she had a short beard. Upon noticing Rapheth and Ephron, her eyes rarely missed anything, she grinned widely, showing large, strong and very yellowed teeth. She took a deep draw from her water pipe. The tobacco she used was very strong. She blew it to the side in a serpentine stream of smoke, looking supremely satisfied with herself.
"I know the look of two fine and handsome young men if ever I saw it!" She said and winked. Ephron chuckled. Rapheth pointed over to the large central table where Harech sat singing along, off key and loudly, his monkey mask affixed haphazardly on his head. The place was crowded and thick with smoke. So noxious was the scent of smoke fumes, body odor, greasy food and sewage that gentler people would have long fainted, dead away. The young men sauntered over to the table and as soon as they stepped up the man turned around, his mouth wide and his eyes shining in drunken pleasure.
"Why, it's you two foxes! And where is your friend? The black one?" Then he laughed and pointed to his cap. "Think to get my cap, do you?" He laughed, his mouth still wide open. Rapheth took off his sand lion mask and bowed mockingly to the man.
"Dear Harech, we did not come to rob you of your most alluring red cap. Would not dream of it! For it is a most beauteous cap. A most wonderful cap!"
"And a most splendid color of red. Why would we even think of separating a good man from his red cap?" Chimed Ephron, taking off his bull mask and sitting down.
"Eh?" Said Harech, both amused and slightly confused. He scratched his balding head under the cap.
"Harech. We have come to play another round of Hounds and Jackals. We will see who wins this time." Said Rapheth.
"Come to lose again? Are you sure, my little lordlings? Come then, since you both are bottomless pits. And where is your other friend, I say?"
"I am afraid you broke him in the last game, my friend!" Said Rapheth.
"Yes. He had to ask his father to pay his debts and his father refused to advance him any more coin."
"Did he now? I am sorry I cleaned the poor boy out. Now, what are the terms?" Asked Harech. Drunk though he was, Harech was still sharp in a game when ladre was involved. Rapheth pretended to think of what terms to offer when a thick curl of blue smoke streamed in from the grate under the table. Shukala! The smoke enveloped Harech and covered the table with a thin mist. The smoke turned into figures of lithe, dancing women. Some of the crowd turned to look and gawk in delighted surprise.
"Ai! What evil magic is this? Mara! Ah, get it off!" Shouted Harech in a panic.
"Since when do you want to escape naked dancing women?" Asked Ephron. Quick as a fox Rapheth whipped his arm across the table while Harech was busy slapping away dancing smoke figures, and reached for the cap, snatching it off Harech's head.
"Aha! You all see it the cap! I have it! Harech owes everyone beer!" Rapheth jumped onto the table waving the cap wildly while the crowd roared with laughter. Harech protested in dismay.
"See now, Harech! We will have some imported honey beer from Jura and the good Egian barley beer too. Mara, do not water it down. We want the good beer!" Ephron shouted. Mara laughed.
"You lost this time, Harech." She teased.
"Cheaters! Cheaters! They used magic against me!"
"Magic? Are you sure it was not too much strong drink playing tricks on you? Tonight is a night full of magic and mayhem Friendly mayhem. I say we have won the bet. Come now, Harech. Will you go back on your wager?" Teased Rapheth. His eyes danced with a merry fire in them.
"And since when do you not cheat? Come, do as you promised." Chided Mara gently. Harech sat down, his face crumpled in a frown. He nodded and the crowd roared in laughter again. Harech could afford it. For a layabout who drank and gambled all night and slept all day he had amassed quite a fortune for a small undertown man.
A group of men sat watching the spectacle in a far corner. One of them smoking a water pipe. He pulled the pipe from his lips and let out a plume of smoke. The man watched the scene shrewdly, his eyes never leaving Rapheth.
Shukala, looking quite self-satisfied, strode through the crowded tavern and sat beside Rapheth.
"I see we will be kept in good drink for the rest of the night. What is he paying for? The good stuff or the mealy beer in the vat?"
"The best. Nothing less." Said Ephron, giving Harech a pointed look. Shukala, however amused he was and however carefree his friends were, was always half alert to surroundings and to people. The men in the corner on the other side of the room did not escape his notice. It was dark where they sat and all he could make out from their table were columns and rings of smoke buffeted around shadowed figures. He felt suddenly as if their center table laid them naked and bare before all while others sat safely hidden in corners to take in the spectacle, of which Rapheth and Ephron were nearly always at the center. As one of the tavern men made his way to their table with a tray of goblets and a fired-clay amphora of barley beer, Shukala tapped Rapheth's shoulder.
"Eh? Oh, Good trick Shukala! You must show it to me one day. I knew you would not let us down."
"Yes. Of course not. But listen," he lowered his voice, "there are men, there in the corner behind you. You cannot see them but I saw them as I came in. They are watching us. I do not like the looks of them. I think that I have seen them before around here. No! Do not look now." He warned, grabbing his arm as Rapheth turned to look behind him. Rapheth stopped mid-turn and calmly picked up a goblet of beer and took a drink. Ephron leaned in.
"What is it?"
"The men there in the back. I do not trust them." Said Shukala.
"They watch us, Shukala thinks. Do not look or they will know we know they are watching us."
"Huh! I will look if I may. Who will stop me? If they want to stare perhaps we should give them reason to!" Said Ephron defiantly. He swept his gaze brazenly to the back corner. The men averted their gazes quickly. Ephron snorted with disdain.
"What do you think?" He asked them.
"I do not know what to think of them." Said Rapheth, fingering one of his game pieces.
"I think they are Hatchet Men." Countered Shukala quietly.
"Puh! Good-for-nothings." Scoffed Ephron. Rapheth grinned, feeling bold.
"In any case, I will not let them stop me from having a good time, whoever they are. We have had our battles. We hold our own. Do not worry, Shukala. I fear my father far more than those dogs!" Said Rapheth and he finished his beer and went back to his game of hounds and jackals, calling for anyone listening to come and play.
They played for hours until the beer was done, only two vessels of beer in all and three games of H and Js - Harech being a cheapskate and they being forgiving and merely looking for merriment. Rapheth stretched his arms and legs and yawned loudly like a young waking lion.
"I am ready for bed. Let us go." He patted his friends on the back and got up, grabbing his mask. He wrapped his robes about him hoping that Ilim was still out and about. There would be lots of study and reading tomorrow, and scribal duties. He was not supposed to be here. In fact, none of them were. It was dangerous for schismatics within the Aishanna-La to be about in any places but Hevan or Gamina unless they kept their mouths shut, or unless they supported the Golden Temple. Ilim and Zigal certainly did not and neither did anyone in their little community. Yet, sometimes he felt he needed to just have a little enjoyment. His thoughts of late took him to dark places and darker dreams. Dreams of engulfing fire. It was merriment like this with his friends that took his mind off of troubling thoughts. The mysterious pieces of information he gathered from his mother and the prophet Ilim seemed to piece together a picture that frightened him. These things he kept to himself. Not even to his friends did he talk of them.
He swept these small guilty feelings from his mind. It was only a little fun. Nothing wrong with that. Ephron and Shukala followed him out.
"Come back soon! I will have some special ladies to entertain you boys next time. There's a few who are curious about you. Handsome young men! I know your folk are straight on the arrow. Come to Mara next time and she will fix that for you. I know many women who would like to meet you."
"No doubt they would." Said Ephron. And therein lay the danger. Rapheth realized. What sort of women? Who are they? He had been brought up to mistrust people who were not like him. His whole life seemed shrouded in mystery and secrecy. But he did not mention any of this.
"Ah." He laughed weakly at Mara and turned and left. They made their way through the streets moving slowly upward toward the city above. He and his mother had lived here, once. Villages intermittently dispersed like sudden croppings of trees and bushes might populate a wilderness. Much of it looked like a long and complicated system of catacombs and caves where people simply squatted and made their dwellings; the poorest of the poor, people with dark pasts, criminals and others. The rambling underground city was built during the Age of Empires, an age now largely forgotten by the people above ground or below.
It was when they neared the last level before reaching above ground that they were aware that they were being followed. Rapheth gave silent signals to his friends and they quickly rounded a corner and ducked into a small cave, passing by a group of makeshift tents and holed out dwellings, through long columns of hangings and boxes until they did not see their pursuers. They laughed, after losing them and continued on, nearing the opening of an abandoned cistern. Around the corner once they got outside the four Hatchet Men met them. The youths came to a dead stop, backing into fighting stances. The men had tracked them through another way.
"What do you think, Ephron?" Asked Rapheth, not taking his eyes from them.
"I think there are only four and we are three. It will not be easy but we have seen these odds before." He said. Shukala grunted and they pulled out their knives. However the men whipped open their robes and where before they were invisible or seemed so, now there were long scabbards at their sides. These men carried army issued swords. Rapheth swallowed hard. In a flash Ephron took his dagger and hurled it at the face of one of their would-be attackers. The man was nearly pierced in the eye but ducked just in time to be sliced on the temple. He cursed in surprise at the mark. Rapheth and Shukala did the same but this time their daggers were reflected, though one of the daggers landed deep into the arm of one of the men. The youths took off as quickly as they could, their pursuers right behind them. If they separated it would be trouble and they did not know if there were more pursuers on the way. Shukala picked up a large, broken clay vessel and threw it, prompting the other two to do the same but this did not slow the Hatchet Men down. The only thing that saved the boys was their indefatigable speed and nimbleness. The men had a hard time catching up. They turned a corner and found themselves trapped in a dead end with no way to scale the building. The men after them were angry now.
"Take the one there in the middle," one of them said, nodding towards Rapheth, "we'll kill the other two." They moved in swiftly, broad, short iron swords at the ready, when just as swiftly another stranger appeared behind them with a bright, sword flashing like a torch in the late evening. He cut down one of the Hatchet Men before he had a chance to move, running him through. Then he was on to the second one, snatching up his braid from behind and slashing his throat. One of them bore down on him but the stranger moved away quick as a side-winder and grabbed up a large pot near a doorway and hurled it at him, bashing his face with it, breaking the pot to pieces. One escaped down the alley but the apparent leader of the group, the one now with the bleeding face and broken teeth stood his ground. He lunged at his opponent. The stranger moved nimbly and then did a thing that surprised the youths and the other man - he lept over the man, powerful and graceful like a desert ram and landed behind him. However, the Hatchet Man was quick and moved to turn and lunched again nearly taking the man's head. He ducked just in time and with his body, using it like a whip lashing toward the man with ferocious speed and the man was suddenly pinned to the ground, panting with the last moments of life left in him. With the stranger's sword in his belly he stared at his opened gut in shock and then he cried out in agony. The stranger bent over, took a knife from the man's belt, covered his mouth with his hand and cut his throat. He stood up and looked the youths over, then spoke as if to command them before they would try to escape. His face was covered. He lifted his face covering and faced them squarely. They merely stood, gaping.
"Do not move. I was sent to see about you and watch over you. Especially you, boy." He nodded at Rapheth. Rapheth lifted a brow.
"A woman named Zigal sent me." Rapheth drew in a sharp breath.
"Why did she send you?"
"She thought you might meet trouble. Seems worried about you. I can see why. All three of you are reckless and stupid. You do not belong in the unnamed city. You are soft Rhuctiumites." Ephron sniffed and Rapheth frowned.
"I was raised in the unnamed city. What is it to you?"
"I already told you. Your mother sent me. You may have been raised there for a time but not your whole life, otherwise those men would never have been able to find you so easily. You are Aishanna-La. And of those schismatics, that are at odds with the Golden Temple. I can tell." Rapheth detected a slight sneer in the man's voice. "Good boys. Why do you come around these dark places? What fascination does it hold for you? You will be killed. Certain people are seeking your soul, boy and your friends will be killed right along with you. Your mother sent me to look for you. Come with me. Those men are not the only ones looking for you and as you saw, one of them got away."
"I can fight." Said Rapheth, suddenly feeling put out and humiliated.
"Of that I have no doubt otherwise you'd already be dead. It grows late. I know a way that we can avoid being seen by too many people. Where are your weapons?" He asked. The boys carried more than a single dagger and they showed him. He grunted in satisfaction and showed them the way out of the alley and through a small, narrow door just around the corner.
"So. . .who are you?" Asked Rapheth.
"A mercenary."
"Mercenary! Not very honorable." Said Ephron. The man ignored him. Shukala was silent.
"What is your name?" Asked Rapheth. The man looked about quickly and said in a low voice.
"Rhajit. I am from the desert."
"A tribesman then?"
"Yes. As we all are in one way or another."
"You acknowledge this fact?" Rhajit seemed surprised.
"Of course. All peoples come from the tribes. They are our first mothers and fathers." Said Rapheth.
"All things that are pure and righteous come from the desert." Said Ephron. Rhajit grunted in approval.
"Where did you learn how to fight like that? You jump so high in the air! Like an eagle!" Asked Shukala.
"I learned it from my life in the desert, long ago. Desert people are taller, stronger than city people. Out in the desert the air is pure and it fills the lungs with no contamination. The food is pure. Out there boys learn to jump like the ram and to fight like lions. If a man takes a deep enough breath, he may fly."
"I want to learn how to wield a sword like that! Can you teach us?" Asked Rapheth. The man turned and gazed at them, his eyes wide but inscrutable to Rapheth. It seemed that the corners turned upwards in a grin but his face was covered again.
"That I can do, if you so desire. A young man of your age, it is high time you learned how to use a proper weapon. Like a sword. One day you will wield one. Yes, I will teach you and your friends. But come now. It is a wild night and a dangerous one. Among the revelers there are murderous plots in the air and wild dogs prowling about and I do not mean the four-legged kind." He picked up his pace and took them by ways they did not recognize back to Rapheth's home, the little community in the northern quarter of Rhuctium with Rapheth and his two friends hurrying to keep up. Rapheth wondered what omen this was that his life was saved this night. Feeling guilty and foolish about the whole affair he promised himself he would make an offering of repentance at the temple. And he dearly hoped that Ilim would not find out that he had left his studies to go cavorting around with his friends. He would be ashamed if the prophet knew.

But to wield a sword like that! It would certainly punctuate his days with excitement in between the reading of the Holy writings and the Laws.

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