Author’s Note: This is Part 1 of the prequel blog serial entitled “What is Needed”. This series is a companion to The Bow of Destiny (Part 1 of The Bow of Hart Saga) as expanded writing samples for the current Indiegogo campaign for the novel. The events of the blog series pre-date those of The Bow of Destiny by several hundred years but include several long-lived characters who appear in the forthcoming novel. This material is copyrighted and not intended for reproduction except at the author’s consent.
What is Needed (Part 1)
by P. H. Solomon
Withling’s Watch squatted in shadow as the dregs of sunlight dwindled behind the Gray Spires. Hastra’s head bobbed with the motion of her mare’s hoof-dragging gait. It’s good to come home. She yawned. She longed to see Zelma. Hastra’s stomach rumbled. But first some food.
The expansive stone building loomed out of the dusk as the horse climbed the cobblestoned incline to the walled keep. Lights flickered in windows and smoke puffed from chimneys.
Cold wind gusted from the eastern flanks of the Gray Spires and flung Hastra’s fur-lined cloak in wild contortions. She tugged the garment under control, held it one-handed against another blast and gripped the reins in her other hand. She chuckled between her chattering teeth. That woke her. They were a house of mystics and miracles but even they suffered from cold and hunger. The Withling’s stomach growled again.
Horseshoes rang on the road as she approached the gates. Lamps in the gatehouse cast a pool of light in the gloom. Hastra pulled her cloak tighter and lifted her head. Snow threatened all day and night arrived fast below those peaks.
Her gaze followed stray snowflakes onto her horse’s head. She gasped at the gatehouse. The lights were out and the keep was dark. Her eyes narrowed. The wrought-iron gates stood ajar and listed like a ship in a gale. She pulled reins and the mare halted with a snort.
The wind howled and exploded past the squealing gateway. Shadow slammed into Hastra and she tumbled off the mare. Screams of terror and snarls of violence echoed from the courtyard. Fire belched from the darkness and roared past her. The mingled voices fell silent while gusts moaned like ghosts around the desolate square.
Boots clattered on the stone pavement.
Hastra recoiled as a figure distilled from the gloom. Her hand fumbled for her belt-knife. “Who’s there?” The Withling blinked and the spectral gloom faded.
“Hastra? It’s me, Kregen.” The Rokan Withling trotted to Hastra’s aide with light streaming behind him. He extended his arms. “You fell off your horse. Are you ill or just tired? Are you injured?”
Hastra stammered for words. He looked like a vulture stooping over a corpse with that bald head and hooked nose. “I’ve had a…” She stifled her tongue in sudden wariness. Best not speak of a vision too soon. “I must’ve nodded off a moment. I’ve pushed hard to return before the snow.”
“Can you stand? Here, let me help you.” Kregen clasped hands with Hastra as she climbed to her feet.
“Just bruised, I think.” She rubbed her hip.
Kregen released Hastra. “You’re young, that’ll heal soon enough unless Eloch instructs someone to heal you.”
“Yes, perhaps.” Hastra cocked her head and arched an eyebrow at her surroundings. Light glimmered from the gatehouse and the gates stood open and whole. Lanterns gleamed in the courtyard while lamps or candles glistened from the keep’s windows. She turned and found nothing behind her except the mare and the gathering night. That was a vision but of what?
Kregen gathered the mare’s reins. “Come warm up in the gatehouse. I’ll have your horse taken to the stable.”
Hastra limped beside the Rokan who held her arm and led her mare. That vision came with neither instruction nor other impressions. She grimaced at her hip and stepped into the gatehouse as snow fluttered thicker on the night wind.
“Noe, please see that mare over to the stable. It should be curried and fed.” Kregen motioned to the door and the young student scurried out the door on the assigned errand. “Is anything wrong, Hastra?”
Hastra stood at the door. The gates leaned on the hinges in that vision. She rubbed her chin.
Kregen touched her shoulder. “Hastra?”
“Hmm? Oh, I’m fine. Just a bump.” Hastra released her frown and smiled. Those gates, the dilapidated keep in darkness. It was abandoned after the screams and fire. She shivered but not from the night chill. “I’ll go up to dinner. Can the boy bring my baggage?”
“As you wish, there should be food on the table even now. I’ll send him around later with your bag.”
Hastra nodded and hobbled into the courtyard as her brows furrowed. She’s speak with Zelma, maybe pray and write it in the book for others to inspect. She winced as she climbed the steps to the door. Hastra turned at the top and found the courtyard dappled in light and dark. Kregen’s head drew back into the gatehouse. He was watching me. By those narrowed eyes he guessed more happened than she had let on. Hastra frowned again and entered the main door of the stone keep. Wind snuffed lit candles by the door.
“Who’s that?” The doorkeeper stepped out of the shadows and held a covered lamp aloft. “Hastra! Welcome back to Withling’s Watch. I’m sorry to discomfort you with candles at the door but I’m still lighting lamps.”
“No bother, I just fell outside is all, Zeld.”
The familial hooked nose of Kregen’s brother cast an odd shadow on his face as he lit a lamp by the door.
Hastra tugged her gloves off her hands and held them folded in one hand.
“Do you need help? You look pained by the fall.”
“No, I just want food.” Hastra removed her cloak and draped it over her forearm.
Zeld motioned across the cavernous entry-hall. “Well there are plenty of our fellow Withlings still sitting at the table. I should like to hear of your journey when you have the time.”
Hastra flashed a brief smile and nodded. “We can speak on the morrow. Good night.” Zeld bowed as she limped away across the marble floor. The vaulted ceiling left the place too cold. It was too proud for their humble order. She grunted at her halting stride. All safe until the end of the journey.
Candle flames fluttered as she entered the passage leading to the dining hall. Muffled murmurs transformed to tangled conversations as Hastra entered the dining hall.
She stood in the doorway as the wave of voices washed away her silent journey. The Withling shuffled among her fellow mystics. Scents of roasted meats and spiced vegetables tickled her nose and her stomach grumbled. If only she could find Zelma. She should hear of this vision. There’s frizzy, red hair down that row of tables. Hastra waved. “Zelma!”
The din of the clattering crockery and chattering mystics drowned Hastra’s call. She hobbled along the aisle and met a familiar face. “Howart, greetings!”
“Hastra? Have you returned on the wings of a night-bird?” The Grendonese switched the pitcher he carried to his left hand and offered his right in greeting. “What is needed…”
“Is given. Yes, but my owl walked the whole way.” Hastra rubbed her sore haunch as Howart laughed. This bruise was given for a reason so don’t linger. “I must speak to Zelma if you will excuse me.”
The gaunt Withling nodded as she stepped away among the trestle-tables.
Hastra picked Zelma’s voice from the mingled voices. “Zelma!” Hastra waved her gloves over her head as she approached.
The freckled face with receding chin and prominent nose turned toward Hastra. A moment of arched eyebrows and thin lips parted changed into wide eyes and grinning.
“Hastra!” The young woman scrambled over the bench and jostled her companions with apologies. “Sister, you’ve come with the night.” Zelma hugged Hastra, drew back and touched her cheeks. “You’re half-frozen. Come warm yourself and I’ll fetch you a plate of food.”
“But I need to speak with you.”
“You can tell me all about the negotiations after you’re warm and full.”
Zelma found space for the two of them on the bench and hurried a plate to Hastra piled with steaming food and warm bread. The others eating around them welcomed Hastra.
“Has the snow started?” Sila, the Shildran, handed Hastra a cup of water.
“Flakes fell as I entered the gate.” Hastra drank. She was thirstier than she knew. She smacked her lips as the dryness washed away.
“Is Last Landing at peace now?”
“Oh, you know it is. Hastra sent word with the bird weeks ago.” Zelma shouldered her way onto the bench next to Hastra with a grin and an expectant glance at her sister’s food.
“What is needed is given.” The others around them mumbled the saying with Hastra.
Her voice sounded smoother after the water. She shifted near her younger sister and lowered her voice. “I really need to speak with you, Zelma.”
“Eat first.” Zelma offered Hastra bread.
“I can take the plate with me but I must tell you fresh news.”
Zelma’s pale green eyes shifted between the food and Hastra’s furrowed brow. The young woman’s head tilted and her smile faded. “As new as when?”
Hastra leaned close again. “Now, at the gate.”
“Well, fine. We can go to our room I suppose.”
The sisters rose and excused themselves from those sitting near them. Hastra took her plate and followed Zelma among the tables with a wince. The hip’s so tight in those few moments. She needed someone’s prayers if offered. They exited into a narrow side-hall where fewer lamps shined against the darkness.
Zelma turned back and gasped. “You’re limping!”
“Now you notice.”
The younger woman’s gaze lowered to the floor. “Don’t scold me, you’ve just returned.”
“You’re right, dear, of course. I’m tired, hurting and hungry.” She patted her sister’s clasped hands.
“You could have eaten in the hall. What’s so urgent?”
They resumed walking and turned down another passage with fewer lights than the last. Zelma’s mass of wild hair flamed red even in the gloom.
“I fell off my horse when…”
The candles faded. A snake-faced hobgoblin stepped out of a darkened door by Hastra.
The troll drew a curved sword.
She uttered a wordless shout and dropped her plate. Hastra thrust her hands at the creature. She stumbled on her sore leg as shadow descended.
The hobgoblin’s dark eyes glittered malevolence. A merciless grin spread wide and revealed discolored fangs.
“No.” Hastra’s senses failed as the sword whistled at her. Darkness snuffed her awareness.
End of Part 1 (Part 2 will be re-posted next week)
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Thanks for reading.
P. H. Solomon
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