I’m still finishing up the last edits and tweaks of my new novel, but I wanted to give everyone a chance to see the beginning. There are a few spoilers from the last book in this part of the story so if you’re planning on reading Middlemen: Born of Earth you have been warned.
Torl is held up as a hero by many and a villain by just as many, but I simply thought of him as a friend and a brother.
The last of the winter snow still clung to the deep shadows of the valley and made the moonless night feel both cold and lonely. In the distance a wolf howled.
Torl moved through the dark valley as easily as in bright daylight. He knew Middleman Valley better than anyone in the world. He had spent countless hours alone hiding behind every stump and rock in the valley or walking downstream to one of the quiet spots where no one went except him.
Hiding was part of the game between him and the rest of the children of Middleman Village. A game Torl had entered into unwillingly. He would avoid them by hiding in the valley with book or simply watching the stars and they would search him out for torment. When he was younger and they found him they would call him names, or thrown snow and rotten fruit but in the last years they had graduated to small rocks. Nothing that really hurt, but he was still forced to flee or fight back.
Today those hiding spots became more important than avoiding humiliation. Thanks to those games Torl slipped unseen through the darkness towards Mylon’s home. Mylon was the only one of Xeon’s children Torl truly liked. Everyone liked Mylon. And why wouldn’t they? With his quick grin and easy kindness he was like Xeon in almost every way except far less intimidating.
It was in part because he liked Mylon that Torl was in his current situation. Xeon had approached him three days ago and asked Torl to do something without questions. An odd request, but Torl agreed easily. He couldn’t imagine anything Xeon would ask that he wouldn’t do.
Xeon asked Torl to escort Mylon to the Midway Inn. Torl’s first reaction had been to ask questions, but he had made a promise. Instead he waited and Xeon told him the only thing Torl knew about this trip. There was good reason to believe if Torl wasn’t the one to take Mylon to the Midway Inn Mylon wouldn’t survive.
That led to even more questions Torl couldn’t ask. He wasn’t a good hunter, or tracker. He didn’t even know the woods as well as Elwist’s sons once they got a couple of miles away from the village and Lornwist could see as well in the dark as the brightest day, making him an even better escort than his brothers. The only thing that made Torl remarkable was that he had no father, and no one except his mother would miss him if he disappeared.
That wouldn’t matter because everyone would notice Mylon was gone. Filar would make certain that no one could miss her favorite son or fail to recognize how things were worse because he was gone.
Torl disregarded his questions. They were pointless. He couldn’t make himself a better protector or stop people from noticing they were gone. He had agreed to get Mylon out of the village safely and he would focus on that. He would be busy enough avoiding The General and the Lowmen raiding parties that he feared would be hunting them in the thick woods.
Torl stopped just behind Mylon’s home for a moment standing in the deepest shadows between the apple tree and the wall of Mylon’s hut. He listened to the village for a moment. He heard the wind blowing through trees and the river running through its heart but that was all. Even the wolf had gone silent. There were guards of course, but they were watching the forest not the village.
He wasn’t certain why he cared if anyone saw them leaving. Xeon hadn’t said the trip needed to be a secret, but Torl felt it was important so he waited until he was certain no one would see him then circled to the front of the one room home and entered without knocking.
Torl disliked entering without being invited no matter the reason and Torl didn’t know if Mylon had been told to expect him so there was a small chance he was interrupting his friend’s sleep.
It wasn’t much of a chance though. Mylon never slept more than three or four hours a night. It was one of the reasons Torl and Mylon had become friends. They had often lay on the thick grass under the stars and talked while everyone else slept. Torl then generally went home and slept a couple more hours while Mylon went to work. Another reason Mylon was more popular than Torl.
The far wall had three baskets with some fruit and vegetables in them. The baskets were most likely made by Lanya who Torl had seen with Mylon more often than any of the other girls. She was two years younger than Mylon, and clearly liked him, though Mylon had always avoided her.
“Wake up,” Torl said.
Mylon jumped to his feet as he woke. “Who’s there?” he asked, his eyes scanning the hut for danger. That was the first time Torl had heard Mylon ask a question without knowing the answer.
“Be quiet,” Torl said.
It took only a half a second for Mylon’s eyes to focus on Torl and now seemingly completely awake Mylon asked, “What is the plan?”
“Slip out of town while it’s dark and travel through the night. At sunrise we find a dark thick grove of trees, preferably something Chart has grown then hide until dark. We’ll get to the Midway Inn in a couple of days.”
The main obstacle to getting out of the village unseen was Rasputant’s bridge. It was the only easy way across the river and there was no cover around it. That was why Elwist and Rasputant had chosen that spot.
Getting across that had stalled Torl for a full day as he tried to come up with a solution, and then he came up with something he should have seen immediately. They wouldn’t cross the river. They would climb the cliff next to the waterfall and go into the thickest part of the woods.
Climbing the cliff took more time than Torl would like, but the noise of the waterfall and the shadows from the cliff hid them well.
Without the path that led to Midway Inn the two had to follow deer paths twisting around tall hills and thick groves. After a couple of hours Torl only knew which direction they were going by the moss on the trees and by morning he suspected they weren’t much closer to the inn than they had been when they left the village but at least the Lowmen would have more trouble following them, though twice he had thought he had seen someone following them.
Before the sun was fully up Mylon found a small recess in one of the steep hills. It was less than ten feet deep with a fallen tree covering most of the entrance and a bolder blocking the site from the other direction.
Inside the cave someone had made a circle of stones which held ash and a couple half burned sticks. It seemed likely either Elwist or Chart had stayed here. It was cold enough a fire would have been nice, but it seemed dangerous and not starting a fire gave them a bit of extra room. Better to be safe and cold.
Mylon must have felt the same fear of being found as Torl because he took a handful of ash from the fire pit and rubbed it into furs from his pack. He then covered himself with those furs and curled up in the deepest shadows against the wall. Even from across the cave knowing that he was there Mylon looked almost like a shadow. Torl did the same and curled up against the opposite wall trying not to move.
It should have been easy to fall asleep after walking all night, but all Torl could do was think about Xeon. Having just returned from the Highman capital Torl assumed that The Prophet had told him Torl was the only one who would be able to bring Mylon safely out of the village.
What made that scary was that The Prophet didn’t see the lives of individuals. His vision was far too broad for that. He saw races and countries. Worse Xeon had given no promised Torl would succeed or either would survive only the assurance Mylon wouldn’t if Torl didn’t help. So that made it seem as if what they were doing might be of great importance and that they could fail.
Neither talked for a long time until after several hours of silence Mylon asked quietly, “Have you ever been to the Highman city?”
“Twice. Once when I was eleven and again a year and a half ago,” Torl said.
“What is it like?” Mylon asked. Torl felt touched Mylon asked him. Mylon was the strongest of their generation and rarely showed weakness to anyone, but he was willing to let Torl know he was afraid.
“The first time was with Rasputant. We spent most of the time in the merchant’s square. It was a harvest festival and everyone brought their best goods to town. I spent my time carrying things for Rasputant and sleeping at Chor’s house. Everyone else spent their time avoiding Rasputant and exchanging things that were difficult to find in the other cities,” Torl said.
“Did you see The Prophet?” As usual Mylon cut to the heart of the issue with simple questions. Had The Prophet always known about this trip?
“Both times. The first time he approached me in the merchant square. His eyes are green, like yours, though I suspect most Highmen don’t know that. They won’t look him in the eyes. It’s hard to blame them. It’s like he’s looking through you. He said ‘Your father will be proud.’”
“The Prophet knew Ebon?”
“I’m not sure they met, but he’s the Prophet and more connected to Ahr Ain than anyone in the world. I like to think my father is even more connected so perhaps he knows.”
There were a few more moments of silence and then Mylon said “My father visits his grave every day.”
The two had always avoided talking about Torl’s father. Everyone avoided the conversation most of the time. He had died protecting Xeon and that was about all anyone wanted to say.
“I used to go with him. He’s like a father to me. I think it’s why he trusts me with his favorite son,” Torl said.
“If he’s your father what does that make me?” Mylon asked.
“A friend. You’ve never called my mother names or dumped your garbage in front of her home.”
“Ignore Realot. He thinks he better than everyone, not just you. Mother encourages him even though she knows he’s helping me gain influence. You’re her favorite target because you’re the oldest and she believes you could take power away from our family. My brothers follow Realot because he’s the oldest and they aren’t as smart as he is. I didn’t go along because I never really saw the point in grabbing power, especially if you have to hurt people to do it.”
“Perhaps that’s why you’re destined to have power,” Torl said. He had been warned not tell Mylon anything he didn’t know. If they were right then knowledge could actually physically hurt him.
“I know I’m a wizard. That mean’s I’ll never marry or lead our people,” Mylon said.
“You’re not a wizard. Most of the parents think you have the ability to be one. Except no one knows what that means. Our people might not live long enough to become wizards. It takes a Highman a hundred years to become an apprentice. More importantly, if you want to put on a ring like your father, marry Lanya and have a bunch of children no one is going to blame you. They didn’t blame Xeon and he was created by Air Ain with magic rather than being born with it. You’re mother will probably be happy and your kids will might be wizards too. We might be better off in the long run to have a lot of children who can learn magic because the truth is there still aren’t very many of us,” The others might not know Mylon well enough to see it, but Mylon did. He hadn’t been cold to Lanya because he disliked her, but because he did like her. Keeping her at a distance was the kindest thing he could do if he knew he could never be with her.
“I already know one of the words.”
“You remember a word of power. Your father remembers three. But neither of you know one because that would take much more training and give you far more power.”
“How do you know?”
“My father died because of magic and I have some talent myself. Since you’re going to be spending time with them you should know the Highmen will tell you almost anything if you ask directly. They don’t lie or hide things like our people,” Torl said. Their people had been created to be between the Highmen and the Lowmen and while few of them really knew what that meant they did know it meant they could do things like lie far better than the Highmen.
There were several more minutes of silence then Mylon asked, “Why don’t you become a wizard? You’re as smart as I am and you can learn magic.”
“You have brothers and sisters, but my father died before he had any other children. If I die my line dies out and my father and mother were created for a reason just like everyone else,” Torl said.
“Which word do you know?”
“The first word your father learned. And I am forbidden to speak it to you. Your father says the word still echoes in his mind and is afraid it will harm you. He had no idea I would be able to remember it when he told me,” Torl said. Speaking the word also tended to give Torl headaches for a week and he feared he might have to put on a ring to bind his power like the one Xeon wore
“My father says if I refuse the wizard’s council they’ll put a ring on my finger to hobble me. He hates that ring.”
“You may not be given a choice. The Highmen don’t trust the Middlemen and the wizards trust us even less. Many won’t want a Middleman wizard. The only three I’m certain are on our side are Chart, Chor and The Prophet,” Torl said.
“I’ve seen father use magic.”
“You’ve seen him use the dagger connected to his ring. If he doesn’t the power held by the ring would kill him as fast as the word itself,” Torl said.
As Torl was explaining Mylon was jumped to his feet. Torl wondered if he had been wrong to tell him about the ring. Xeon had kept anything magical a secret from Mylon for his own protection, but he was going to be learning in a few days anyway and Torl would rather be the one to explain it. He might give Mylon a piece of information that would help keep him protect himself from the influence of the Highmen.
Mylon grabbed the short wooden spear from the side of his pack and pointed it towards the cave entrance while Torl scrambled to his feet and pulled the bone dagger from his belt ready to fight.
“Someone’s outside,” Mylon said.