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Authors: Garrett Robinson

Mystic: a book of underrealm

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MYSTIC

Garrett Robinson

Copyright © 2015 by Living Art Books. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, businesses, events or locales is purely coincidental. Reproduction in whole or part of this publication without express written consent is strictly prohibited.

The author greatly appreciates you taking the time to read his work. Please help spread the word by leaving a review wherever you purchased it.

To my wife

Who gave me this idea

To my children

Who just make life better

To Johnny, Sean and Dave

Who told me to write

And to my Rebels

Don’t forget why you left the woods

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one

THE SUN BROKE THE HORIZON east of the King’s road, spilling fallow rays across miles of empty landscape that ran down from the mountains far, far away. Amber light wrapped around the boughs of the forests to the west, painting them a heady mix of yellow and green. A summer sunrise, a golden dawn that promised a warm day with little wind for relief.

Loren greeted the sun with a raised water skin as if in a toast and then placed the skin to her lips to drink.

She had slept little the night before, too wrapped up in thoughts of her dagger and Jordel and, above all, Xain and Annis. The wizard and the merchant’s daughter could be anywhere by now, miles ahead on the King’s road, or lying in wait around the next bend.

Such thoughts spun behind her eyes in endless circles, and in the grey hours before sunrise they had pitched Loren from a restless slumber. After creeping from camp to relieve herself, she had nestled against a carriage wheel to await the dawn.

From the other side of the carriage she heard Gem’s snores, loud and insistent like a rusty-toothed saw. Though thin and wasted, the orphan boy slept, snored, and ate enough for two grown men. Now his grunting invited a smirk to the corner of Loren’s mouth—but it could not last long before her face grew solemn again.

“Deep thoughts are more troubling when wrestled alone.”

Jordel’s voice, smooth and soothing, shook Loren from her reverie. She shifted against the carriage wheel, ill at ease. The Mystic sat beside her, folding his legs and pulling his dark red cloak aside to avoid crushing it on the grass. Once settled, he settled his hands upon his knees and stared with Loren into the east. For long moments, they sat bathed in sunlight and silence.

“Not all thoughts bear mention,” said Loren at last, uncomfortable with the quiet.

“You alone would know. But rest assured that if they burden you too greatly, I bear a ready ear to share them.”

“I am assured of little, and rest comes hard.”

Jordel nodded, and again in silence they sat. Loren did not normally mind the quiet but was used to the forest’s peculiar hush, a stillness filled with the murmur of life. She did not have much experience with another person’s tranquility. Only with Chet were words unnecessary.

Thinking of Chet brought his face into sharp, sudden focus, and Loren felt a hollow ache in her gut. How long had it been since she last saw him? More than a week. More than two, but not yet a month. It felt like five lifetimes. The Loren who lounged now against the wagon wheel bore little resemblance to the one who had fled the Birchwood upon the heels of a wizard, leaner and stronger. 

Thoughts of Xain pulled Loren to the present and to Jordel by her side. His forgotten promise came to mind. “You said you would tell me of the badge you carry. What is a Mystic? Are you a sort of wizard?”

“No, not that, though many wizards fill our ranks. They are prized among our number and so highly sought that many think we accept no others. But if that were the case, I would not wear this cloak of red.”

“It is a . . . Mystic cloak, then?” Loren feigned indifference, as though curiosity did not burn hot within her.

Jordel smiled. “We have nothing so uniform as that. I must confess again my surprise that you know nothing of our order. Though our numbers grow spare when measured to yesteryear, we are not uncommon across the nine lands.”

“You are rare enough in the Birchwood,” said Loren. “Never did I see such a badge of office nor hear of it in any tale.”

“Our work rarely sends us among the simpler folk. Still, there might have been tales.”

“There were not.”

Jordel shrugged as if that were answer enough.

“What, then, is your purpose? What sends you after Xain?”

Jordel licked his lips. “It is . . . difficult to explain, and not all words are mine to speak freely. In the most general of terms, you might say we keep order.”

“Like the constables.”

“Not unlike the constables,” Jordel nodded. “Our dress bears common origin with the red of their leather. Some of us might wear a red tunic, perhaps, or breeches. But rarely do we travel in our full regalia. Not all look upon us kindly. And many of our deeds must be done in secret.”

“They do not sound like honorable deeds.”

Jordel smiled. “So says the would-be thief.”

Loren felt a flush creep into her cheeks. “Tell me of my dagger. What danger must it promise to sour your face as it does?”

“’Tis a rare weapon.” Jordel shifted. “Well made, as you no doubt know. You would find it difficult to dull the edge, and it will not break without great effort. Only a few were made, crafted by gifted and magical smiths when the nine lands were young.”

“And what have they to do with the Mystics?”

“Your blade is . . . of special significance to our order. Any Mystic would recognize it at once. And if some of our highest members were to espy it, your danger would be grave. As would any in your company.”

“I seek no trouble. I wish no one harm and am no fighter besides.”

“I am aware,” said Jordel. “As that is something I admire in you. We all must draw our lines in this world, and the one who will not take a life is stronger than many would say. But you will not find that all agree, nor will everyone treat you the same.”

“Am I in danger from you, then? Do you, too, see more in my dagger than steel and leather?”

Jordel cocked his head. “I am odd among my brothers. I hold certain of our laws less dear, while some I value above all else. I would not kill you for holding the blade, nor would I readily reveal your possession to my brothers.”

“Nor would you take it from me. You could have done so easily while I slept in Cabrus. Why did you refrain, if the blade is as you say?” 

Jordel shrugged. “As I said. Some laws, however revered, must accommodate our time. You bear the Mystics no harm; indeed, you did not even know of us until I told you. And while I hope you will cast the dagger aside for your own sake, that decision is yours to make.”

“I will not abandon it. It is mine, taken as token of payment for a lifetime of wrong.”

“From your parents, you mean.”

Loren looked at the Mystic, surprised.

“You still bear some marks,” said Jordel, pointing to her eye. “And if such has been the lot of one so young for many years, those who raised you must have had a hand.”

Loren touched the skin around her eye. She had seen it reflected in the water; its nasty blue had faded, but a dull brown still kissed her skin. “You make a good guess. And for repayment, I have only this dagger and the arrow I planted in my father’s leg. But I cannot carry that arrow with me nor clutch it at night when I ponder their cruelty.”

Jordel thought upon that. The air rang with Gem’s snores. “Very well,” he said at last. “Though I pray you will see reason to change your mind while you can. I warn you again: Let few see it as you may, and none from my order. If word were to reach them and they learned where you came from, your parents would feel the full brunt of their justice.”

Loren’s stomach clenched as she thought of Damaris. She had feigned ignorance about the dagger, but Loren knew better than to believe a word from the merchant’s mouth. 

For some reason she could not place, it bothered Loren to think of her parents dragged from their ramshackle hut and put to the question, cruel and stupid though they were. 

Still, she said, “Such justice would be well placed.”

“Very well.” Jordel nodded. “Let us break our fast. Leagues beckon ahead.”

“Where shall we go now? We do not know where Xain might be, nor Annis. How will we find them?”

“I have thought on that much of the night, when I did not sleep as deeply as you. I think that if the wizard and the girl did not wait, or were forced to move on, then they would have made for Redbrook—a riverside town well south of here, where the King’s road bends west along the Dorsean border. In their place, I would make for Redbrook and wait for our arrival, for there are precious few other destinations lining the road south from Cabrus.”

They rose and made their way to the fire, where Loren roused Gem with a hard shake. The urchin woke bleary eyed and blinking. He cursed at the sun as it fell into his eyes.

“In the city we never saw the daylight until we were ready,” he groused. “No wonder country folk are half-mad.”

They had a quick breakfast of hardtack and bacon, both supplied by Jordel, along with fresh drink from the river that followed the road. Its water was cool and sweet.

Seth, Jordel’s driver, was a crafty man with a criminal look; he had a sharp smile and a cruel laugh that came too easily. He shaved his head, which bore many scars that crisscrossed from crown to jaw. Loren looked at the man with apprehension, but Jordel seemed easy in his company.

“Ain’t seen aught but birds this morn, sir,” Seth told Jordel in the middle of their meal. “I have had me bow ready just in case.”

“Do you think the constables follow?” said Loren.

“The constables? No.” Jordel shook his head. “But they are not the only ones who seem to bear a grudge against you. The family Yerrin has a long reach, and their fingers never stop grasping.”

“I shall cut those fingers off, they poke around us,” said Seth.

Gem laughed, but Loren only felt her appetite wane.

two

THE ROAD REMAINED CLEAR FOR many days, rolling down before them as the stream plunged close and then far again. Hours passed dull and slow, broken only by the midsummer sun beating down and the occasional rush of a scampering animal startled by the sound of their passing. 

At first, Gem spent much time marveling at the sights, often remarking on how he had never seen such things behind the Cabrus walls. Every so often he would draw a deep breath for no reason, letting it out in a long, slowwhoosh.He walked beside the carriage when they moved slowly, laughing as grass tickled his bare feet. He yelped with delight when they saw a quail and her chicks walking nearby and would chase butterflies whenever they passed a patch of flowers.

His delight did not last. Well into the second day they passed an inn, and Gem brightened considerably. But Jordel bade Seth to pass without stopping. “No one must remember our faces,” he said.

“What if Xain and Annis stopped at the inn?” 

“Look at it,” Jordel answered Loren. “Do you see their carriage? And if I am cautious of letting others see our faces, consider Xain’s fear of recognition.”

Gem grew quiet, sitting and looking at the world, now without comment. Then, early on the third day, he began to complain.

“Loren, I ambored. An intellect such as mine was meant for greater feats than spending his day sitting quiet in a carriage.”

“Scholarly pursuits, you mean?” said Loren, hiding a smile.

“Yes, exactly!” said Gem, missing her jibe. “Soon the grass all looks the same, and the birdsong merely annoys. I may have known every building in Cabrus, but I could at least count on the people to hold interest. Now there is nothing and no one but endless miles of open ground and a sky that stretches forever. And thatsun!”

“If you wish, I have a book you could read,” said Jordel.

Gem brightened. “Ah! Something at last to stimulate the mind!”

Jordel bade Seth stop the carriage and went into his bags, from which he pulled a heavy leather tome. This he tossed into Gem’s lap, causing the boy to grunt and rub his stomach where the corner had poked him. A glance at the title curdled his face like rotting milk. 

“A Treatise on the Great Families of the Nine Lands, Their Origins and Lineage,”Gem read out loud. He shoved the book away with disgust. “I thought you had somethingexciting.”

“The history of the nine lands has seldom been dull,” said Jordel. “There you will find war and death, heroes and villains, and the rise and fall of a great many houses.”

Gem looked at the tome distrustfully and pulled it open. Loren tried to peek over his shoulder, but the squiggles on the page might as well have been chicken scratch in the dirt. She had never learned to read.

After they had rolled forwards for a few minutes more, Gem gave a frustrated growl and shoved the book aside. “Oh, certainly there are great men and women aplenty in here. Described with all the vim and vigor of grave markings.King Learen the Third of Dulmun. He begat three sons and met his end in a hurricane off the coast of Hedgemond.”He snorted and stuck his head out the window to stare at the passing grass.

His complaints continued through the day, occupied most of the next, and then worsened when the forest vanished to the east, leaving only open grassland sprawling towards high mountains far away.

Loren soon wearied of his nagging and did not like the way Seth glowered at the boy, fingering the knife at his belt. She cuffed Gem’s head and threw the book full into his chest. “Be silent!” she snapped. “Read the book Jordel was kind enough to give you, and if we hear another peep of complaint, I will tie you to a wagon wheel.”

Gem read, with much grumbling and dark looks from under hooded lids. But at least he was silent.

At midday meal, Loren thought of something else to keep him entertained. She went to where Gem sat, sullen and staring at the ground.

“I need something of you.”

Gem looked up at Loren, pouting. “What?”

“You were one of Auntie’s best pickpockets, were you not?”

“Certainly.” His eyes flashed. “She always said so.”

“Then teach me.”

A slow smile crept across his lips, and he leapt to his feet. “That is something I can do. I warn you, of course, that you should not expect to become so expert as I without years of practice behind you.”

Loren nodded, careful not to smile. “Of course.”

“And you must call me master while I train you.”

Loren cuffed the back of his head, but gently. “Just teach me.”

After that, Gem became a bearable traveling companion. They could do nothing while they rode, of course, but he whispered his tricks while traveling, as if they were secrets mined from a lifetime of practice. Whenever they stopped, he would have Loren practice. Jordel volunteered to act as a mark, his back turned while Loren tried to remove a purse from his belt or a pocket within his cloak.

Loren learned many things she had never considered. “The art,” as Gem called it, required more than clever handwork. It was often best to find a mark who seemed distracted, or whose valuables lay in easy reach. A merchant might have a fat purse, but it would be well guarded. The merchant’s escort, however, had eyes only for her master and might have a jeweled brooch or bracelet that could be more easily lifted.

Even Seth grew interested in the lessons, and when the man spoke Loren could tell he was no stranger to snatching purses. “Teamwork is best,” he growled. “Girl. Tell our urchin what a big, strong man he is. Flutter your eyelids a bit.”

Loren stared at him, her mouth hanging open while Gem grinned at her. “What?”

“Jes’ do it,” growled Seth. “Do your best. Pretend you are a professional.”

Loren gulped and looked at Gem. The boy smiled back, clearly enjoying her discomfort. “Er . . . I have rarely seen such large . . . muscles . . . on such a small boy.”

Gem scowled. “Is that your idea of a compliment? Calling me small?”

“And there we have it,” said Seth, raising his hands. Within them, Loren saw Gem’s knife, as well as a small purse she never knew the boy carried.

“What?” Gem felt around his belt and the now-empty scabbard. “How did you . . .”

“Distraction.” Seth raised the purse and knife, just out of reach from Gem’s grasping hands. “’Tis better when your partner knows what they are doing, of course, but almost anyone with pretty eyes will do.”

Loren flushed and rubbed her arms. She did not much care for Seth’s compliments, not with such a wicked smile.

A week later, Seth stopped the carriage. Jordel frowned, sticking his head out the window. “What is it?”

“Something you should see, sir,” the driver growled.

“Stay here,” Jordel murmured, and climbed out of the carriage. Loren and Gem traded a glance and slipped out behind him.

Jordel and Seth stood by the lead horse, staring ahead. Loren went to the Mystic’s side, Gem lurking just behind and beside her. 

Many yards ahead of the carriage, the ground lay endlessly trampled as if by countless feet. The trail cut straight across the road, grass squashed as far as she could see in either direction.

“What did that?” Loren said. “Mayhap an army passing.”

“And a sizable one,” agreed Jordel. “Though I told you to stay in the carriage.”

“Moving west, if I am not mistaken,” said Seth.

“You are not. Pull the carriage off the road. I would know what such a force is doing in the south of Selvan.”

In a few minutes, it was done. Seth found a small copse of trees surrounded by low shrubs, drew the carriage within them, and hobbled the horses. Jordel discarded his cloak and the longsword he sometimes wore at his belt, pulling from his luggage a shorter blade and a long dirk. He strapped the short sword to his belt while the dirk went into his boot.

“Stay here and wait for my return,” he said, eyes on his hands as they fastened the weapons. “I will not be long. That I promise.”

“I will not sit here and wait,” said Loren. “I want to come as well.”

Jordel smiled. “I spoke to Seth, not to you. Truth told I hoped you would come.”

Loren started, taken aback. “You did? Why?”

“I have told you many times how our fates seem intertwined, Loren of the family Nelda. You have proved yourself no simple young woman, and useful in situations when most would discount you. Besides, you have confessed that you mean to do great things in the world. I would help you learn something of it first. Mighty deeds are often the stuff of song, but often a small action is better if guided by wisdom.”

Loren flushed and turned to hide behind her hood. “I hope not to disappoint.”

“I am sure you will not.”

“Very well,” said Gem. “If we must be off, let us be off.”

Loren and Jordel turned to him in unison. Gently, he said, “I am sorry, master pickpocket. I did not mean for you to come. Someone must help Seth guard our carriage.”

Gem glared at him. “I am young but no fool. If Loren goes, so will I. Her safety lies in my hands.”

“And in mine,” said Jordel. “And I will take no risk. “I am sorry, but my decision is final. We shall return swiftly.”

He turned away as Gem’s face reddened and soured. Loren sidled up to the boy and put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “I am sure it will be boring.”

“Do not mock me.” Gem’s voice was sullen. “It is the first bit of excitement in many days gone, and he means to exclude me.”

“He does not know what a mighty warrior he has on his hands,” said Loren, nudging his chin with her hand. “Nor what a brilliant scholar.”

“Nor wise advisor,” said Gem, somewhat mollified.

“Give him time.” 

“He has had as much time with me as with you, and yet I am excluded.”

Loren shrugged. She did not understand much better than Gem but thought she might have an inkling of why Jordel requested her presence. The Mystic was most interested in her dagger, and she believed he would be loath to let her out of his sight while it stayed on her belt.

But that explanation required too much time, and they had to be off. The Mystic beckoned, and Loren left Gem with a final ruffle of his hair. They slipped out through the trees towards the tracks and turned to follow them west. Soon, the road vanished behind them as they crept between low hills.

“We must stay silent and hidden,” murmured Jordel. “You seem to have some knack for stealth. Use it now. I am not looking for a fight, only for information.”

“I have never looked for a fight. Though that has not always mattered.”

Jordel nodded and led Loren forward. Soon, they reached the bank of a river. They had to walk south a ways before they could find a place shallow enough to ford. The bank was silty and loose, and Jordel stumbled once or twice as they slid down. Loren felt no small blush of pride at her own certain footing.

Just after they reached the far bank, they heard a splash behind them.

Jordel whirled and drew his sword. Loren’s dagger was in her hand before she thought to draw it. But when her eyes found the disturbance, she rolled them and quickly returned the blade to its sheath.

“Sky above, Gem, what are you doing?”

The urchin sat on his rear in the river’s shallows, managing to look sheepish and proud at once. He raised his chin to the air. “I told you. You go, I follow. Seth stepped away from the carriage, so I came after you.”

“Go back,” said Loren. “We do not know what awaits us.”

“Then you do not know that it is dangerous,” said Gem, finding his feet and wading towards them. He stood much shorter than Loren and seemed barely half Jordel’s height, so the water came nearly to his chest. “I will be invisible, a shadow at your back and more silent than a mouse.”

“A large mouse, to make a splash like you did,” said Loren.

She looked at Jordel, expecting to see him looking angry, or at least annoyed. Instead, she found a small smile tugging at his lips. He felt her gaze and returned it.

“It seems mine is not the only fate you have drawn into your own. And if the boy cannot be kept away, then let him come. But hear this,” the Mystic said, growing solemn again and pointing his sword at Gem. “If you give us away, I will flay you myself. Do you understand?”

“I have been flayed by worse than you,” said Gem, placing a hand on the flat of Jordel’s blade and pushing it away. “Or I am nearly sure as such.” He turned to Loren. “What exactly is flaying?”

“It means he will peel the skin from your body while you watch. I will likely help him hold you down.”

Gem swallowed. “You will find me a slippery mouse to catch if you try.” Most of the bravado had fled his voice.

“As long as we all understand each other,” said Jordel. “Come. Our quarry awaits.”

They did not have to wait long; Loren led the way up the riverbank, over a final hill, and into the sight of an army, stretching many hundreds before them.

three

JORDEL’S HAND SNATCHED LOREN’S SHOULDER. He threw her to the ground, and she heard thethudof Gem’s tiny frame slapping the grass a moment later.

“Hold perfectly still,” said Jordel, falling beside her. “Do not move a muscle.”

Loren did, but already she could tell they had nothing to fear. The nearest tents lay far away, and even the sentries stood too distant for them to be easily seen.

She studied the legion. Loren knew herself to be awful at numbers but had to think there were at least several hundred foot soldiers and a hundred horses or more. The steeds were on the far side of the army—a small comfort, for Loren knew they would be caught in minutes if one were to bray in alarm.

The army did not look like Loren thought an army ought to. When old Bracken had told her stories of great battles gone by, he had spoken of men in King’s colors—blue and white for Selvan, red and yellow for Dorsea, and every other kingdom with its scheme. But now she saw men wearing every color under the sky, or none at all, wrapped in browns and duller greys. She saw many in one place holding bows and many in another part of the camp armed with spears but with none of the order or organization she would have expected.

“What kingdom do they hail from?” Loren murmured.

Grimly, Jordel said, “No kingdom. These are mercenaries.”

“Well, that is good. I feared for a moment that some foe had crossed into Selvan.” Loren did not know much of the machinations between the nine lands, but even children knew that Dorsea often launched raids on the kingdoms that pocked its borders—every one, if you counted the oceans.

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