Rise of the Gatebreakers (SAMPLE CHAPTER)
The Gatekeepers Series
Rise of the Gatebreakers by M.L. Katz copyright @2015
All Rights Reserved
This book is a work of fiction. People, places, and events are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual people or historical events is entirely coincidental.
No part of this book may be reproduced, stored, or transmitted without express permission of the author. With that written, small snippets may be used for relevant reviews.
Year I of the Rehan War
The fourteen children of Far Point Village huddled together inside a rocky cave. Though the spring day had started out cool, the heat from their bodies and the damp cave walls soon made the refuge humid and uncomfortably warm.
After the hidden children heard the fight for the village begin, the hoarse shouts of the attackers blended with unspeakable cries from the defenders. Despite the distance and insulating cave walls, the roar of battle soon grew tortuous. The only mercy was that it did not last long.
Rabin Dranath Grandtree, the hybrid boy, sat on the dirt and pebble cave floor beside his younger siblings. He wanted to retch from the stink of sweat and fear.
Jan and Kim Grandtree Dranath, the daughter and son of Rabin’s mother and stepfather, huddled together on a mat with their eyes closed. They all knew they needed to be quiet. Rabin worried that if he opened his mouth to speak, he might start howling. Once in awhile, he reached over to pat Jan’s slim shoulder or run his his fingers through little Kim’s tousled hair. He hoped the gesture gave them comfort.
Through the day and into the night, Rabin had heard both of his younger siblings whimper quietly, doze off, and then wake to begin again. When they woke, Rabin believed he could almost taste their fear. He could certainly taste his own like an unpleasant surge of bile in the back of his throat. Hours passed. The thin stream of moonlight that filtered down into the cave melted away into gloom.
“It’s pitch dark now,” Rabin whispered to the larger boy beside him. Del Gerson, the oldest and biggest of the village children, had mostly stayed quiet. At sixteen, he wasn’t even exactly a child in the way that twelve-year-old Rabin still was. Del was already as tall as most men, and his broad arms and chest were dusted with blonde hair.
In response, the older boy just sighed and said, “Steady, there. My father and your mother told us to wait for help. We’ve got food and water for three days. It hasn’t even been one day. We have to believe that they had planned for something like this.”
After Del spoke, the children heard the muffled pounding of hoofbeats. At first, Rabin’s heart rose. That had to be their rescuers. Rough voices shouted in a language that sounded like wolves growling. Jan started to whimper. Dirt and pebbles sprayed into the cave. Rabin put a gentle hand on her shoulder to quiet her. Another younger child cried out in the darkness. Del slid over to shush him.
The riders passed, and the cave fell silent again. Rabin wondered if this was how the dead felt when they descended to their graves.
In the thin stream of moonlight that made it past the shrubs and rock outcropping that masked the cave entrance, the other children were barely discernable shades against the blackness. Rabin knew he could see in the dark better than the purebred Old Race children and supposed Del must be almost blind. Somehow, Del must have sensed Rabin’s glance.
“What are you looking at?” the older boy whispered.
“When your papa takes us out for training, he always tells us to watch you to learn how to do things right. I’m just trying to watch you to learn how to be brave,” the younger boy said earnestly.
“I should have been down there fighting,” Del hissed. “At sixteen, I’m too big to be given the task of babysitting children. There weren’t enough men, and they should have let me stay.”
“Del, I’m only twelve. Nobody else here is older than eight or nine. I heard your father tell you that you have to be the Gatekeeper,” Rabin had assured him. “The Gatekeeper’s the most important.”
“Ha, and what did your mama tell you, hybrid boy? Did she tell you that you were the mayor since that was she is? Maybe she told you that you are a prince since that’s what your trueborn daddy is.”
“Cut it out, Gerson knucklehead,” Rabin said evenly. Older and sturdy as his Scout of a father, Del weighed over half again as much as the younger boy. Still, the bigger boy had never been a bully. Both he and his father took the honor of their clan very seriously. In Rabin’s mind, the men of the Gerson Clan were the tough guys in the village but not villians.
“Nah, I’m not being mean,” Del Gerson said. “I’m just saying that I don’t really have a plan. You always have a lot of questions, Rab. Normally, I don’t mind. Tonight, I feel like you’re pressing me for answers that I can’t supply.”
The hoofbeats had faded. Rabin mulled over Del’s admission. In his mind, a Gatekeeper should always have a plan for when the Gatebreakers arrived. It took him a moment to appreciate that Del had actually trusted him with a more adult truth. He turned back to Del. “We don’t really know for sure who the gatebreakers are,do we?”
“Aye, there’s that,” Del said. “Well, we heard them growling at each other awhile ago, so it’s a pretty sure thing they’re Rehans. That’s more than we were sure of all day.”
Rabin nodded. “Knowing that, it’s easy to guess they’re Raptors under Prince Ovil and Lord Rehail. After the old king died, they took the king’s daughter, Princess Ovilia, into something they call custody. My mama said that’s more like kidnapping. The old king kept the peace, but his son and nephew are different. Apparently, that’s why the old king favored the princess even though she’s a girl. She’s a little older than Prince Ovil, and the king was working to make sure she’d step up behind him.”
Del shrugged in the darkness. “Maybe you’re right. I never had your patience for remembering which foreign noble was related to which other one. It’s enough for me to just keep up with the Four Clans of The Hills. That gets complicated enough sometimes.”
“The Four Clans are simple,” Rabin disagreed. “You just have to remember the Gersons, Grandtree, Nell, and Dranath. My grandfather is a chief today, but that could change if he gets voted out by the Clan Council. The next chief could be a Grandtree, Nell, Dranath, or Gerson. It could even be your papa. Some day, it could be you.”
“You think like a child,” Del said curtly. “Let’s say you grow up to be the smartest and toughest guy in The Hills. Could you be Chief Grandtree some day?”
“I don’t want to be Chief Grandtree,” Rabin said honestly. “But truly, that would probably never happen. I know what I am.”
“Right, you’re a clever boy but always Morgana Grandtree’s halfborn bastard. You’re a Grandtree because your mama and grandmama bullied your grandpa into declaring it. You’ve got Dranath Clan Rights because your papa, Borin, likes you, loves your mama, and has some influence with the Dranath Guild. I’m not saying this to insult you, Rab. I’m just saying that there are families where such things don’t always happen so neatly.”
“I doesn’t matter,” Rabin said. “I plan to become a metalsmith like Papa anyway. He’s says I’ve got the knack of understanding how things work. I’ve been fixing broken locks and tools since I was seven. He’s beginning to teach me how to create different alloys and forge new tools. He says that he wants to make my apprenticeship official in a couple of years and begin teaching me about the balance of weapons and even how to work gold. He says he can get the guild to accept me.”
“Ha,” Del barked his scorn in the darkness. “Rab, you aren’t ever going to be a metalsmith.”
“I could be,” Rabin said, truly insulted for the first time.
“Sure, and I’m not disagreeing with Borin Dranath’s assessment of your talent. Silll, your mama won’t let you,” Del said. “My papa says she’s made it clear to Chief Grandtree that you’re too good to spend your life in a smithy. She’s already working on your grandfather to get you sent off to some fancy school in Great Falls or maybe even Del Sur City to learn things that nobody can teach you here.”
“Nobody ever never told me anything like this.”
“Yeah, well maybe she’s planning on having Chief Grandtree break the news to your papa,” Del said. “See Rabin, when you take the time to pay attention to things around you, it’s almost like you can predict the future. That’s what my papa says. I don’t have any princely Moquel blood, and I’m a better seer than you are.”
“Right, so are you going to appoint yourself as the Great Seer of The HIlls?” Rabin asked.
“Nah, I’m going to be Chief Gerson some day,” Del said with confidence. “And when that day happens, I’ll make sure that people like you can take your place along with me. See, my papa and a lot of Gersons agree with your mama that we need to start learning from Norcen and Del Sur and even Moquel and Reha. Chief Grandtree has been a competent leader for his time, but he’s too conservative.”
“By your account, it seems like your papa gets along with my mama better than my own papa or grandpapa,” Rabin said, somewhat caustically. “I wonder why they didn’t marry.”
“Well, I was already born when your mama came back from her little adventure in Del Sur City and Moquel,” Del said casually. “No disrespect to my own mama, but I suspect it was just a case of bad timing. Besides, Morgan Grandtree barely accepted a Dranath as a son-in-law after Morgana came back with a bastard. I suspect that he wouldn’t have approved of a Gerson before that.”
This conversation helped kill time but completely discomforted Rabin. “Let’s get back to the topic at hand. My mother and your father sent Donie Gerson to ride for help,” Rabin said. “Somebody has to come for us soon. I’m sure it’ll be like they said. If they can’t come for us, some other Scouts will be up here soon.” He glanced up at the dim outline of the cave entrance. “Do you suppose they took the adults prisoner for ransom or something? That must be why they haven’t come to fetch us.”
Del sighed in the darkness again. “Yeah, Donie’s only two months older than I am and not the brightest star in the Gerson Clan. We can hope the Goddess was kind and didn’t give him hard choices to make. Other than that, I’ve got no answers, Rab,” Del said. “I can’t even imagine why they sent him and not me.”
“When you put it like that, the answer’s obvious,” Rabin said. “I just don’t like the answer.”
“If your papa and my mama were sure riders could get out, they would have sent us all away. Maybe they would have tried to ride out too. The village had plenty of horses. No, they were worried that the village was already surrounded.”
“That is an evil thought,” Del said after the thought about it a moment. He paused again. “I’m not asking this to offend you. Don’t some Moquels have some true kind of sixth sense or third eye or something like that? That seems like a sort of a handy thing.”
“I guess you know as much about that as I do,” Rabin said. It’s just an unreliable whisper in the dark, he thought, not even knowing where that thought arose from. “Anyway, real sages are rare and get years of training. It’s not the kind of thing I learned from my stepfather, a metalsmith, or your dad, a Scout.”
“What about your mama?”
My mother lived in Moquel for a couple of years, as you surely know. She believes it a little, but mostly, she says it’s overstated. In her opinion, it’s a way for the noble Moquels to keep the others cowered. They might know some things but less than they pretend to. At least, that’s what she said.” Rabin shrugged. “Like you explained before, maybe they just figure things out.”
“So, you’ve got no superpowers?” Del asked. “That’s a damn shame right now.”
“I guess the weirdest thing about me is my reddish hair and the fact I’m a bit smaller than average for my age for a twelve-year-old boy up here in The Hills, and that’s not all that weird.”
Even as Rabin spoke, he wondered if he told the truth. But no, even the Old Race had flashes of intuition. Even though he hadn’t liked Del’s assessment of his own possible future, he had to admit it sounded logical. Blending logic and intuition hardly made him a sage. His mother had always said that just made him more like a Grandtree and the grandson of the chief of The Hills.
“Your eyes sort of glow in the dark,” Del pointed out. “That’s kind of weird and creepy. It’s like you’ve got a wolf’s eyes. None of the other kids are sitting there glowing in the little thread of moonlight.”
“I can see in the dark better than purebred Old Race folks,” Rabin admitted. “It came in sort of handy when I had to try to train in the dark and keep up with you.”
Del nodded. “I always wondered what your secret was. I could never move in the dark at your age so well. I knew you were fast for your age, but I have to admit that I felt pretty aggravated when you started to beat me back to the training base. As you said, you’re a little small but deceptively strong and quick.”
“I was just trying to do my best like your father told us to,” Rabain responded seriously.
“Yeah, well that’s nothing to worry about now.” Del paused again. The older boy had kept his voice level and quiet. Stii, in the silence, Rabin believed he could feel Del’s anxiety cut through the dark. “Maybe it wouldn’t hurt for you to carefully poke those glowing eyes out of the cave entrance for a second,” Del said. “You might be able to see down the slope and into the village.”
“I probably couldn’t see past the treeline in the dark,” Rabin said. “It’s not like I can see through a stand of oak and pines any better than you.”
“It’s hard to understand why nobody’s come to fetch us yet. Gatekeeper or not, I can’t just sit here in this cave forever. At least, we could find out if the gatebreakers have left or not. I guess I can trust you to decide if you can scoot down to the treeline to see into the village. Papa always said that you were clever enough.”
Despite the circumstances, learning he had been called clever by the village’s Scout captain gave Rabin a moment of irrepressible pride. “You’re appointing me the Scout Ranger?” Rabin asked. He ached to learn what had happened to his parents and the rest of the adults in the village. Almost as much, he still wanted to impress Del.
“Well, I know that’s a Gerson Clan job. Besides me, the only other Gerson in this cave is my eight-year-old cousin, Jakon. He and Donie were only here visiting because their papa’s out ranging. He’s almost as big as you and should be a natural Ranger. He doesn’t know the ground like you do. There’s no way he’s as fast or canny as you are in the dark. Can you do it?”
“I will do it,” Rabin had responded solemnly. He picked up the light bow and quiver that his stepfather, Borin Dranath, had gifted him just a quarter of the moon before to mark his twelfth birthday. Called a half bow, the weapon was smaller and lighter than the one Del packed. But it was no toy, and the metal tips could stop a buck if launched by a decent bowman.
Not every boy in The Hills earned a bow like this at twelve, and Rabin had been incredibly proud when he learned Captain Gerson, Del’s own father, had approved of the gift before Borin Dranath had stopped by the bowmaker to order it.
“You’re not supposed to shoot anybody,” Del reminded him. “Just scoot down, see if any Rehan Raptors are about. After that, scoot back. Whatever you do, don’t let them see you. Leading them back here would be some bad rangering. I”m counting on you to use your head.”
“Rabin, don’t go,” Jan pleaded. She hadn’t spoken while the two older boys talked, but he knew she was listening and had soaked up every word. Rabin saw the seven-year-old girl as a featureless shade and supposed she must be nearly blind in the dark. He stroked her slim fingers and felt sorry she was frightened.
“I’ll be careful.” Rabin released her hand and patted her arm. She rose up on the mat and cradled little Kim’s head on her lap. Rabin patted Kim’s tousled hair. His fingers came back damp with sweat. “I have to go. The Gatekeeper’s given me an order.” He smiled thinly in the dark. “A Ranger’s got to range.”
“Enough of that,” Del said. “Go, Grandtree. Be back before we miss you. I’ll sit here and babysit your sister and brother for you.”
Without hesitation, Rabin slid silently out of the cave and peeked around the granite outcropping. He paused to sniff the smoky air and gaze up at a golden moon that seemed to swim in a sea of stars. Then he looked down past the outcropping to try and make out the dim outline of the footpath.
Rabin had been up and down this path countless times. He’d even done it in the dark when the villagers had trained the children in different skills they’d need to survive and thrive. In those days, the only pressure had been trying to keep up with Del to try to earn respect from the Gersons and make his mother and stepfather proud of a good report.
As he crouched in the dark, he tried to open up all of his senses the way the men in the village had taught him when they took the children out for training. Rabin caught a glimpse of fires burning from below the belt of trees that surrounded the village at the bottom of the hill. Cabins must be on fire, he thought.
Again, he sniffed the smoke that wafted up the hill. Rabin caught the strong scent of burning wood and perhaps, a faint odor of roasting meat. The smoke had not permeated into the cave, so he already had a bit more of the information that Del sought. On the other side of the village, through the belt of trees, Rabin caught a glimpse of smaller fires that looked more like campfires than burning buildings.
Once in awhile, a shadow passed before those smaller fires, and he was sure those belonged to men. He thought it unlikely that the village adults would set up a camp on the other side of the trees and not come to fetch the children. Of course, it could be some sort of complex ruse that his mother or Captain Gerson had devised. He had no way to know who camped on the other side of the village.
Still, Rabin had learned something and could have scooted back to the relative safety of the hidden cave. He pictured discussing the burning campfires and cabins with Del and knew he’d just provoke more questions than he answered.
He didn’t know what to do. Crouched down behind the outcropping, Rabin closed his eyes and tried to dig down as deep as he could for what he called his secret eye. He didn’t do it often as the effort tended to burn more energy than it seemed worth. Sometimes it brought on migraines. It was as if the secret eye usually resisted Rabin as much as he resisted it. Once in awhile it called to him, but mostly, he kept it buried like a dirty secret in the cellar of his mind.
Yes, he had lied to Del about this one thing. Rabin had slid around the truth about it before to others and usually pretended it didn’t exist to himself.
Mostly, he knew that the purebreds, particularly his mother, didn’t really want to hear about it. Even Mayor Morgana Grantree, who had been the consort of the High Prince of Moquel for two years, wouldn’t want to hear about any secret eyes.
Rabin was the twin she had chosen. She had taken considerable trouble to carry Rabin, then only three, back across the Known Lands to her father’s house in The HIlls. She had taken Rabin, but she had left Rachim.
The older twin, she had explained, had too much of the sight and not enough of what her father would have called horse sense. He wouldn’t have fit in, she said. It would have been cruel, she explained. She took the younger one and left the gifted and older twin for the High Prince. It only seemed fair.
Morgana had told Rabin that they were not identical twins. According to her, Rachim also looked a bit more Moquel. Rabin appeared a shade more Old Race. Still, Rabin imagined a boy who might have looked a lot like himself. He pictured him on a bed with silken covers getting attended to by servants and protected by guards. He grinned at the thought that he was supposed to be chosen by his mother. Some people have all the luck, he thought.
However, Rabin knew what his mother meant. The Hillmen could handle Rabin’s slightly off-color reddish hair and beryl green eyes. They could even get used to the way that his eyes seemed to shine in the dark. Rabin knew that this was a different issue, and he didn’t need anybody to directly tell him so.
The HIllman were a tough but generous people. They could grow used to a boy who looked a little different or even quite a bit different. This was particularly true when that boy made himself useful and seemed to promise to grow up to become what Chief Grandtree, Rabin’s grandfather, would call a sturdy enough Hillman.
However, Rabin knew the thought of a boy in their midst who might know things they don’t know would strain their good will. Even though Rabin had just turned twelve, he already understood, that the knowledge people feared might be secret things about themselves. As Del had explained to him back in the cave, his mother might have kept secrets from her own husband. Maybe there were other secrets.
But tonight, as Rabin still touched the outcropping and tried to shut out his normal senses, he felt a little rebellious. This rusty other eye resisted his explorations. Rabin felt pressure behind his brow. At first, he just felt pinpricks of sensation from behind him. Again, it seemed as if he tasted Del’s terrible anxiety and his sister’s childlike fear. Del had taken great care to stay steady, and Rabin knew he wouldn’t want anybody to know how scared he truly was.
Then, It felt as if the secret eye opened up and Rabin fell through. This had never happened before. The earth seemed to shake and Rabin found himself in a different place. This is different than the whispers in the dark, he thought. He wondered what he did.
Instead of standing a little above a footpath under a black and starry sky, he stood on a bridge under a sky of swirling colors. A small crowd of people slowly marched from one end of the bridge to the other. The boy stood in their midst. As he tried to catch the eyes of a man here or a woman there, the people’s features blurred.
Up in front of the small crowd, Rabin saw a tall woman with golden hair moving away from him. A tall man with a smith’s wide shoulders waited for her on the other bank. “Mother,” he cried out. He tried to push through the bodies to reach her. As he touched one or the other of the people, his hand seemed to pass through them as if they were creatures of smoke. “Morgana Grantree,” Rabin tried to call again. “Mother, it’s Rabin!”
Finally, the woman turned. At first, he could see her wide and pale blue eyes as clearly as he had seen Jan’s identical eyes before the light faded in the cave. His mother’s face looked sad and anxious, and then her expression changed. She appeared to struggle with a great effort to speak. Her lips formed an O, and Rabin was sure she said, “Go.” After that, her features blurred just as had the features of all of the others.
But now a robed man entered the bridge from the other side of what seemed like a grassy river bank. He wore a silk robe and had the bronze skin and copper hair of a purebred Moquel. As Rabin stared at him, the other’s sharp features didn’t blur but looked stern and sad.
He approached Rabin, and the boy asked, “Who are you?”
“The more important question would be about who you are, little halfling,” the man said. Rabin understood the Moquel’s speech, but he had never heard an accent like this before.
“I am Rabin Dranath Grandtree,” Rabin said simply. “Sir, could you please help me get to my mother? I don’t know where we are.”
“You and your mother are not exactly in the same place,” the Moquel said. “However, you are on a bridge too far. As your mother tried to tell you, you have to go.”
“I need help,” Rabin said.
“I know what you need,” the man said. “You won’t find it here. Let these poor souls depart in peace.”
“Who are you?” Rabin asked again.
“Who am I?” the man said sadly. “Maybe I am some shade of your grandfather’s grandfather. Maybe I am you. In words you seem to understand, I could be the Gatekeeper. It’s so hard to get a sense of who we really are here.”
“What does that even mean?”
“It means you should ask better questions. If you want a bit of Moquel prophecy for your pain, you’ll only begin to understand who Rabin Grandtree is when you stand on the ramparts of a keep yet unbuilt and shout it at your mortal enemy. Of course, the world will know when you gain the courage to also shout it at your kin and friends. A brave man might face down his enemies, but it takes a hero to face down his own allies.”
“A keep yet unbuilt?” Rabin shook his head. “What enemy?”
“Ah, prophecies are confusing,” the man said. “However, you did travel far. I will let you ask me one more question.”
By now, Rabin had decided that he must have been dreaming. He had probably fallen asleep in the cave. Surely, Del Gerson had not been so foolish as to send a twelve-year-old boy out ranging. If this was a dream, he could ask what he liked. “Sure,” Rabin asked, “I have always hated the Prophecy of the Winter Rose. Am I really the second son, born to die by pride?”
“Eh, everybody dies,” the Moquel said casually. “You can be as proud or humble as you like.”
“No,” Rabin persisted, “that’s no answer. My twin brother is Rachim. He’s a prince in Moquel. His name means prince’s blessing. I am Rabin, and my name just means the prince’s second. Second might actually mean second, but it could also mean servant. The prophecy says that the first son of the Winter Rose will rise to be a decent prince. The second son is doomed to die by his own pride.”
The man smiled. “And the third son?”
“The third son will serve a prince and queens.” Rabin shrugged. “I have a half brother named Kim. I guess he must be third. I have no idea how he will find a prince and queens to serve, but that sounds better than death by pride.”
The Moquel looked impatient. “High Prince Recipin has two more royal sons and an eldest daughter after you and Rachim. Of course, there are other bastards. Your mother has a daughter and son by your stepfather. There are, apparently, too many sons by the way you are counting. The third son seems like a good boy, though. On the other hand, if you are doomed to die through pride, you should try to do it as well as you can.”
“They are the Prophecies of the Winter Rose, and that flower is the symbol of the Grandtree women. My half siblings by my father don’t count, right?”
“Ah, that is the wrong question and one too many. I am bored with this riddle,” the man said. “You are not counting correctly. I have told you the answer, but the answer is too obvious for you to understand it. The only answer you really need is that there is nothing you can do about it anyway.”
“You’ve told me nothing.” Suddenly, Rabin wondered if this apparition was a fool and not a sage.
As if the man picked up on Rabin’s last thought, he said, “The Goddess is a mystery to fools and sages. It doesn’t matter. Your task tonight is just to make an enemy. If you like prophecy so much, remember that only a prince will kill the prince. That’s what the dark prince and his brother know and hardly expect out here in the wilds. The Goddess loves a touch of irony.”
“One of us is insane,” Rabin told the man in sage’s robes.
The Moquel cocked his head as if listening for something in the distance. Then he smiled, “I have some good news for you. When you tell your enemies and friends who you are, the brown-eyed girl will hear you. When you are down to nothing, she will have something.”
“Every girl I’ve seen in the HIlls has blue eyes. Moquels have green eyes. Also, I’m no kind of prince. Rachim is a prince, and I am a Grandtree.”
“Are you no kind of prince? That’s what many say of the Dark Prince too,” the Moquel said. “Of course, you could avoid making a mortal enemy, but you won’t. You’d better get to it then.” The slim Moquel thrust his hands slightly forward. Rabin did not feel the man’s touch, but he felt pushed.
He was not asleep in the cave at all. He sucked in cool and smoky air and found himself still crouched down by the outcropping with only the regular footpath below him. The bridge, the slowly moving crowd, and the strange Moquel in silk robes were gone. He wondered if he had lost his mind.
The boy checked the starlit sky for familiar constellations and then glanced back down the slope at the path. Nothing seemed to have changed between one breath and the next. The vision had just interceded. Rabin blinked back the image of his mother’s sad face. The only wisdom that the boy had seemed to acquire was that, indeed, prophecies were confusing and best left to sages.
Still, he seemed to have lost any reservations about moving down the steep path towards the village. Rabin stepped out from behind the outcropping and slid down over chunks of gravel to the place where the path began. Only soft leather moccasins covered the soles of the hybrid boy’s narrow feet. Only the moonlit bowl of the black sky above and smoky fires from below lit the night.
Still, he navigated the stony footpath effortlessly and almost silently as he had done dozens of times before. As he moved, the familiar path seemed no more or less real than the bridge under the sky swirled with color. Perhaps the Raptors had already killed him. Mother is still in the Known Lands trying to find me. Rabin tried to concentrate on his breathing to quiet his mind. Did the dead breathe?
He kept descending until he hit the last stand of trees that surrounded the village. Through the ring of pine and oak and the scatter of burning cabins, he could more clearly see what looked like controlled campfires a short distance outside the ring of trees on the other side of the tiny village. Rabin knew that Del had hoped the Raptors would finish their mischief and run off with a few horses and some of Borin Drath’s good steel. They had raided before but not often, and that was how it usually turned out.
Rabin knew that Prince Ovil had grown angry when he heard about Far Point Village. Rabin’s mother, Mayor Morgana Grantree, had received messengers that warned her to pull back to the old borders that had been set half a day’s ride back to the east.
As Morgana had spoken to Captain Gerson, Rabin remembered her calling it the posturing of the powerless. There were no Rehan outposts for a day’s ride to the west from here. The old king would not trifle over this undeveloped land by the Great River, and Princess Ovilia cared for little but Reha City, the mysterious city on the shores of a lake so vast it was said to take a week to ride around on a good horse.
The prince declared that he had planned to build a keep here and claim this as the eastern stretch of Reha. But his mother had scoffed at the notion that he would do more than send some raiders to steal horses as intimidation. Captain Gerson had agreed that this was the perfect time for The HIlls to stake out this land because the political situation in Reha seemed unstable. Besides, he had told Morgana, they’ve got plenty of room in the west and no reason to come this far east.
As Rabin scanned the other edge of the village, he saw a small group of very tall men bearing torches. With loose limbs and wiry muscles, the straight-backed soldiers resembled the old pines they stood beneath. Rabin had seen a few Rehan traders during the days of the old king.
The men of the Rehan race that Rabin had met had all been tall and lanky like these men. His stepfather, Borin, had told them they were very strong and could be quick. However, the very looseness of their joints sometimes made them less than agile.
Two men wore crested helmets that looked fancier than the ones the other soldiers wore. The crests appeared to be shaped like the hooked beaks of birds of prey. Of course, these must be Raptor leaders.
Both men had their visors up as if they had finished the day’s fighting. He had not seen any villagers, but he supposed the Rehans might have herded the prisoners to their campsite to get them away from the burning cabins.
By now, Rabin had surely seen enough to report back to the cave. He remembered that the Moquel on the bridge had told him he was supposed to make an enemy. At this point, Rabin figured that he’d only make an enemy of Del if he delayed too long.
From over the boy’s head, Rabin suddenly heard a storm of shaking branches. Leaves and twigs fell about his head. Rabin looked up and hissed as he caught sight of a human foot that swung close enough to brush his hair. Earlier on the path, Rabin had entertained a passing thought that he might run into a jaguar or pack of wolves. Neither would attack a boy as big as him unless they were very hungry. SInce it was already spring, he figured he was safe.
He had not even considered the possibility that the Northern Savages might be curious about the attack on the village. Like any child in the Hills, Rabin had been taught that he had to be careful alone because the Tree Folk were always watching and waiting to steal a child to barter back for things they did not make or grow themselves. If the rough men of the forest snatched Rabin now, there would be nobody to pay the ransom.
Now, with his back against the tough bark of an oak, Rabin barely considered his options before stepping away from the trees and closer to the village. In the trees, the Northern Savages were surely stronger. But he believed he was much faster on the ground.
The back door of his stepfather’s smithy was just steps away from the trees. Rabin crossed the distance in a breath and without thinking and ducked inside. Finding shelter in his own home seemed as natural as breathing.
The walls smoldered, but Rabin’s own cabin was not aggressively burning. Perhaps the Rehan Raptors had gotten tired or just sloppy as they reached this side of the village. The familiar workplace felt comforting. By the light from the fires outside, Rabin saw the cool forge. It seemed odd to him that the forge should be so cool as the night burned.
The door from the smithy led to the semi-attached kitchen of the cabin Rabin had shared with his family. As the boy moved from the smithy to the kitchen, Rabin hardly knew what he expected to find. The shutters to the big window had been broken. Rabin could clearly see his mother’s figure sprawled across the table by the light of the fires from the next cabin. One wide blue eye seemed to stare right past him. The other was covered by a lock of hair that still shone with golden highlights in the moonlight. The room stank of blood and fear.
He stared at her body. The feeling of Mother was gone. She’s gone to the Goddess, he thought. He made out the odd angle of her head as it hung halfway off the table where his family had shared their meals. He remembered the pained expression of the wraith on the bridge.
As he moved closer, Rabin stared in horror. Before she died, she must have put up a fierce struggle. Her tunic and leggings were ripped. Her thighs were bloody. He struggled to understand. The dagger she had inherited from her own grandmother had been sunk into the table. Without thinking, Rabin pulled the fine weapon out of the planks and stuck it in his belt.
Just then, Rabin had a notion he should find something to cover her. She had to be cold sprawled there like that. Besides, the disrespect of just leaving her there was more than he could bear. He moved past her to the cabin where he could find a blanket.
As he stood between the kitchen and the main room of the cabin, Rabin froze as he heard heavy footsteps from just outside the front window. He heard the gatebreakers speak in their barking language.
All that separated him from these armored intruders was the one front room of the house. There were bedrooms off to the side, but he’d have to duck past the window. The clink of weapons and armor let Rabin know those were not Tree Folk outside. Indecisive, Rabin froze in the small space between the open doorway of the main room and the kitchen.
The shutters on the front window gaped open as if they had almost been ripped from the frame during the battle. As the boy scanned the common room, he spotted his stepfather’s heavy body on the floor. The big metalsmith had fallen on his back. Blood covered his wide chest and open mouth. The smith’s big hands were splayed out. A heavy axe had fallen a few feet away. Rabin wrinkled his nose at the heavy scent of blood.
Rabin took a tentative step forward to try to duck into one of the bedrooms. He would find blankets for both Borin and Morgana. Dazed, it was all he could think to do.
Then, the Raptors passed right by the open window as the boy stood in the rear of the common room. The door had been pulled half off its hinges. A tall figure appeared in the doorway. Rabin swooned and barely kept his feet. His knees seemed to wilt. He didn’t believe the gatebreaker had seen him yet, but they were only steps from each other.
Fear gave in to anger. Without thinking, Rabin unslung the light boy’s bow from his back, fitted it with an arrow, pulled back, sighted the tip, and let it fly.
As if carried by the Goddess, the missile sprouted in the Raptor’s right eye. He sank out of sight. The man’s companion appeared in the doorway and three more Raptors jogged behind him. The first man, in shiny body armor topped with a crested helmet, drew a sword so quickly that Rabin heard it whistle in the still air.
The man behind the first barked something that sounded like, “Lord Rehail!”
Rabin froze and dropped the bow as the three Raptor guards rushed the door behind their leader. If the second leader is Lord Rehail, Rabin thought, his companion could only be Prince Ovil. A prince to kill a prince, he thought. No, I’m no kind of prince at all. Rachim is the prince, and I’m just a bastard boy with my mother’s clan name.
Later, Rabin could never remember how he forced himself to move. Somehow, he managed to pivot and run back into the kitchen and through the smithy door ahead of the Raptors. The full moon slipped behind a cloud, but fires still lit the night.
In the smithy, Rabin managed to tip one of the neat racks of tools against the door. He heard at least one of the men behind him trip on it with a satisfying clank of armor, weapons, and whatever tools Borin had stacked there after work one day.
Besides that, Rabin relied upon his better night vision, naturally agility, and the fact he was not burdened by heavy armor. Still, he knew this was no race he could win for long. Regret seemed to rise from his belly and threatened to choke him. He wondered how he would ever get the courage to take his mother’s knife to kill himself to keep the Raptors from forcing him to tell them about the other children in the cave.
The sage had wanted him to make an enemy but had not warned him he would die of pride so soon. Now he thought that the Moquel on the bridge must have been a demon sent to trick him. Entranced by the vision, Rabin had done exactly what Del had told him not to do, and that was to attract the attention of the gatebreakers.
The boy made it to the line of trees as the guards thundered and stumbled behind him. He looked up the slope but knew he absolutely couldn’t lead his pursuers back to the other children.
As Rabin veered to the left, he sighted a low branch on a forked oak tree. His only chance was to clamber up and hide in the tall canopy of the forest. Agile and experienced in the forest, Rabin knew he was no Tree Man and unsure if he could even make it to the first branch.
As Rabin hesitated, the swiftest of the guards had burst through the treeline and headed right for him. A sword longer than Rabin’s leg flashed in the moonlight. Goddess, don’t let it hurt too bad, he whispered. Suddenly, a hard and unnaturally strong hand grasped Rabin by the back of his tunic, and he felt himself pulled upwards with a sickening lurch.
As rough hands pressed Rabin against the hard bark of a thick branch, more than a dozen of the forest men dropped down upon the lead pursuers and beat the armored bodies with their stone axes and wooden clubs. Surprised as they were by the onslaught and pressed so close, the three Raptor guards had no room to use their long swords. They fell to the ground, either dead or unconscious.
The creature who held Rabin loosened his grip for a moment. Rabin looked down to see that the leader of the Rehans, the one who must be Lord Rehail, had managed to untangle himself and run away from the fray. Rabin’s body lurched again. The Tree Man swung him to another branch as effortlessly as Rabin’s sister swung a doll. Then he was dumped back on the ground. Before he fell, he was caught roughly by two of the ferociously strong Tree Men who waited there.
They prodded Rabin back up the hill with urgent pushes. Had they known about the cave the whole time? As Rabin thought about it, it seemed likely that the Tree Folk had known about that cave far longer than the Hillmen did. Still, he resisted at the entrance. How could be be the one to bring gatebreakers to the children?
The nearest Tree Man had a bone and stone necklace across his broad and rippled chest. Rabin assumed that made him some sort of leader. The other creatures had no adornment on their bodies and only wore loincloths that they stuck their weapons in when they moved through the trees.
Rabin wrinkled his nose at the musky odor as the creature with the necklace turned to him and put a wide and heavy hand on his shoulder. The savage bared his teeth in what might have been a smile or frown. Only about a head taller than Rabin and not as tall as Del, the creature’s arms were thicker than the boy’s legs and seemed abnormally long. Still, Rabin did not pick up on any sense of menace but only urgency.
Despite the creature’s brutal appearance, the war leader surprised Rabin by speaking in rough but understandable Norcen, “We make children safe.”
“You’ll help us?” Rabin managed to croak.
“Yes, the Raptors go too far,” the hairy man said. He nodded grimly. “On my honor.”
“You steal children,” Rabin said.
“Ah, that’s for a bargain,” the leader said. “It’s to get a goat, grain, or a knife. Your own people beat us off when they find us in the crops and clear our trees to make new fields.” He gestured and cooed for a moment in his own speech as if he needed a moment to translate his thoughts. “It is fair war. It is a soft war. Children go home. We run off with grain. These men you call Raptors. They are savages.”
Despite his shock and fear, Rabin almost smiled. His people, the HIllmen, called these little men the Northern Savages. They called the Rehans monsters sometimes but considered their cities, scientists, and armies the product of a civilized culture.
It didn’t matter what Rabin thought. The war leader grabbed Rabin by the arm and pulled him him towards the entrance of the cave. He felt slung inside as if he were only a moderately heavy sack of grain. The Tree Folk streamed in right behind him, upsetting the children who huddled together.
“Come on,” Rabin said to Del. “We’ve got to go. Raptors will be up this hill looking for us soon. I’ll explain later.”
Del rose to his full height. He stood head and shoulders over Rabin and seemed twice as wide. The oak staff he grasped was as thick as Rabin’s arm, and he looked like he wanted to cave in the other boy’s head with it. “I am the Gatekeeper. My father is the Gerson Scout leader here.” Del glared at the Tree Folk leader. “You animals, get out!”
“Del, we’ve got to go with the Tree Folk.”
“Steady there,” Del said, his voice pitched low and menacing.
“Steady?” Rabin asked. “We’ve no time for steady.”
“Did the adults send you?” Del asked. While they spoke, the Tree Folk picked up the smaller children and began to move them out of the cave.
“Del, there are no adults,” Rabin said flatly. “I saw my parents dead, and for sure, your father wouldn’t have run off and left them. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but there’s no time.”
“I am the Gatekeeper,” Del insisted.
“Then keep yourself,” Rabin said. He glanced around. “Haven’t you noticed that the Hill Folk are already taking the younger children?”
“What are they going to do?”
“You’re not going to believe this, but the leader spoke to me in Norcen. He says they hate the Raptors and will hide us. They’re picking up the little children because they know we have to follow,” Rabin said. He watched one of the Tree Folk scoop up Jan and Kim in his muscular arms and turned to keep up with them. “You haven’t failed, Del. You told me you want to keep moving forward. We just have to move the gate.”
That’s the end of the first chapter. If you have any comments, go ahead and find our Facebook and Twitter links or register for the website. Thanks. I really appreciate you! M.L. Katz