Friday, January 4, 2008

Excerpt: Old Man's Temple

This is an excerpt from the novel I started in NaNoWriMo and finished just before Christmas. The novel's working title is Drumheart.

The sun's rays were nearly level, splashing the Blackwall with orange light. My house was silent and already dusty. I walked quickly through familiar rooms, averting my eyes from objects I had once treasured. I was under no illusions; even if I could clear my father and myself and Paltabas of involvement in Skadhrim's death and the Mother cult, even if I could find Nitsur and learn something important enough to impress Dithaktas, we would never own this house again.

Weapons. Armor. Clothes. Paltabas' riding gear, and some dresses in case she chose not to leave the city. It felt wrong to be in my sister's upstairs rooms alone, handling her clothes. I hadn't the heart to go into either of my parents' rooms. Sunset was fading from the walls as I left the house.

As I shut the door behind me, the giant gong rang out from the temple of the Boy.

I stood frozen for just a moment. Disaster. War. The Locust People!

I ran. All around me, shutters were swinging, doors banging open and shut. Men poured out into the street, some trying to struggle into armor while carrying weapons. I was surrounded by faces I knew, but stopped for none of them.

At Kaspell's house, Talikent and Paltabas were clinging together in the porch. Brentanas stood beside them, axe in hand. I dumped my packs on the floor and gasped, "Where's Kaspell?"

"At the temple," said Brentanas.

I dragged my riding armor out of the pack. "I have to go there too." Leather jacket sown with iron disks, short iron-studded chaps around the outsides of my thighs. Bow. Arrows. I was wearing my sword; I left the lances. Paltabas came and helped me. Her hands trembled, but her mouth was set firm. I snatched a kiss from her cheek and ran for the temple.

The plaza was full of groups of Boy soldiers standing about, talking loudly-- arguing loudly. No-one was moving. What was wrong here? "What are you doing?" I shouted. "Why aren't you on the walls? Where are the Old Men?"

Faces turned toward me, sheened with fear. "It's too late," someone said. "They're inside the gates. They were let in."

Over my heavy breathing, I could hear noise from the lower city. Screams. The pounding of hooves. I turned around; in the gathering darkness, flames were springing up near the west wall.

My head filled with light. "Kaspell!"

He came pushing through the crowd, sweat running down his face. "Akshedhen. I'm here."

"I'm going to get my parents," I told him.

Kaspell nodded and followed me up the steps of the Old Man's temple. The guard at the door was the same who had let me speak to my father earlier-- was it only earlier today? He looked at me and stepped back without a word, pushing the door open.

The entrance hall was dark. I drew my sword and walked forward. Kaspell moved out to my left, arrow on string. Beyond the hall, I could see wavering torchlight from the courtyard. There was some confused noise from out there: I thought I heard sobbing, some indistinct words... then the thunk of an axe biting into flesh and bone.

I broke into a run.

There was a crowd of Old Men in the courtyard. In the middle of it knelt a huddle of women, their hands bound behind their backs. Dithaktas was standing over a great block of wood, with an axe. The axe was dripping blood. His hands were dripping blood. Blood spattered his clothes. Thick streams of blood crawled this way and that over the stones of the courtyard. At Dithaktas' feet, women's faces stared sightlessly from a huge mound of black hair all sopping with blood. The stench of it choked me.

"Akshedhen Half-Old-Man! Is it your mother you've come to find?" Dithaktas laughed, a high keening sound, and kicked at the pile of heads, sending them tumbling. "Come and get her, boy. Come and get her!"

"Where is my father?" I shouted.

Dithaktas hissed and started toward me, axe raised. I went to meet him, but my feet dragged through the horrible mess on the pavement. It was like wading in mud. I was heavy. Dithaktas' will pressed down, slowing me to a crawl.

I heard the twang of a bowstring and Dithaktas stopped in his tracks, staring down at the fletching that had suddenly grown from his chest.

"Who wants to die next?" snarled Kaspell, nocking another arrow.

Dithaktas crumpled soundlessly. "Where is my father?" I shouted.

The crowd of Old Men shifted and I saw my father seated in a chair. No, tied to it. No-- His head rolled towards me, eyeless sockets above red-streaked cheekbones. "Akshedhen? Akshedhen?"

A knife flashed in the torchlight. Kaspell loosed again, just an instant too late; blood spurted from my father's throat even as the Old Man who killed him staggered, clutching at the arrow in his heart. I howled and ran forward. The Old Men bolted in all directions, but I was among them, laying about furiously. One went down under my sword, another, another. I heard shouting, the twang of Kaspell's bowstring, the clash of other swords against axes.

Then all the Old Men were gone, cut down or fled. A handful of Boy soldiers had joined me in the courtyard. I turned to them and said: "Ahon ken Taridh has fallen. Save your families if you can."

"Lord," pleaded a voice. "Lord, help us, please."

I'd forgotten the women. They were still bound and kneeling. Ajalē was among them; she came knee-walking across the bloody pavement towards me. "My lord, please! Please don't leave us for the Locusts!"

Kaspell had drawn his knife. I nodded. He passed among the women, cutting them free. I said to Ajalē: "Keep up if you can."

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