Free fiction! Here’s the next chapter for book one of THE GREAT WAY. If you missed the earlier installments:
Here’s today’s chapter:
The weight of the creature astonished him. It slammed against the side to the cart with a sound Tejohn was sure signaled the death of them all, but the wood held.
Tejohn’s shoulder, however, did not. Great Way, the whole city must have heard it pop. The creature’s momentum dragged him down until the rail gouged deep into his dislocated armpit and the whole cart dipped like a rowboat about to capsize.
The driver must have anticipated that because the cart didn’t turn over. Tejohn felt the others fall heavily onto his back, pinning him to the rail for a moment, until the cart rocked back the other way and they fell away from him. The pain was intense. Manageable, but intense.
The beast had hold of his bracer with its right hand, then reached for a higher grip with its left, hooking its claws into his flesh below the elbow. It was climbing his arm toward the prince, its jaws gaping.
Tejohn didn’t think, didn’t pretend he had time to strategize, didn’t waste his time on regret or resentment. He did his duty. He straightened his legs, sliding his torso over the rail. It wouldn’t take much. They were already over-balanced and the monster’s terrible weight would easily pull him over the edge. Fire and Fury, but his arm felt like it might tear right off. At least hitting the paving stones would be a quick death.
Tejohn would never see his children again.
There was a dizzying moment when he felt the full weight of both bodies drag him over the edge. His injured arm jerked, nearly shaking the beast free, but that didn’t matter because it was already too late, he was going over–
Hands clasped onto him, pinning him to the wooden rail. Lar planted his feet against the rim of the cart, taking hold of Tejohn’s other hand. The Freewell boy slid down onto his legs.
“No!” Tejohn cried out. “No, don’t–”
But other hands were grabbing him, and someone–probably the Freewell girl–cried out “Col!” as though the boy was about to fall, too. The side of the cart dipped again; the driver cried out from the strain of avoiding a capsize.
The Freewell boy leaned over the rail with one of the scholar’s spikes in his hand. The creature pulled itself up again, its gaping fangs about to bite off Tejohn’s fingers, but the boy stabbed the point of the dart into the bottom joint of the monster’s thumb.
It lost its grip. With its other hand it caught hold of a spoke as it fell. The wheel spun and the wood snapped. The creature plummeted away from the cart with an agonized roar.
The driver finally managed to tilt the cart back to fully horizontal, and they all flopped onto the floor and benches, one atop the other. Tejohn tried to keep his feet, but the prince still had hold of his good hand and they went down together. “Is everyone still here?” Lar shouted. “Did anyone fall out?”
“Pagesh isn’t here,” Timush said sulkily. Jagia threw her arms around Timush’s neck.
Tejohn gritted his teeth, determined not to cry out as the others bumped and jostled him. His forearm may have been bloody but it was his dislocated shoulder that was truly painful. What had seemed manageable in the face of imminent death now seemed to triple in power. He rolled away from the others, laying his face against rough wood. At least his shoulder was off the floor, and no one would bump him as they tried to crawl out from under him.
“Doctor!” Lar called. “Look to Tyr Treygar.”
Doctor Warpoole urged Ciriam out of the way, then she knelt beside Tejohn. She had the same flat, chilly expression she always wore. “I’m not much of a healer. The First Gift is the most complex, and unless your injuries are life-threatening, it would be safer to find a true medical scholar or a sleepstone.”
“You don’t need magic to yank my shoulder into the socket,” Tejohn said.
Doctor Warpoole looked nonplussed, but Lar came up behind Tejohn and took hold of his shoulders. “Col, take his wrist.” Lar’s voice was very close behind Tejohn’s ear, and it made him uncomfortable. “Don’t fret, my tyr. I may not have learned healing magic, but I’ve certainly done this before.”
The Freewell boy took hold of Tejohn’s bracer. The old soldier nearly snapped at him to let go, but the prince was so close and the tyr was nearly helpless with pain. “Don’t worry, my tyr,” Freewell said. “This will feel like a kiss from a beautiful girl.” He pulled.
Tejohn’s shoulder slid back into the socket; a wild rush of pain ran through him, then subsided. Tejohn cried out but he managed not to curse or swear, so it wasn’t too embarrassing. His shoulder joint felt as though it no longer fit together, but that was to be expected. With his good hand, he grabbed the Freewell boy’s wrist. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Now let’s get Lar away from here.”
“Yes,” Tejohn grabbed the rail and pulled himself into a sitting position. “Driver, set a course to the northeast. We need to reach Fort Samsit before dark.”
“No,” the Freewell girl said flatly. She looked at Tejohn strangely, as though he’d just sprouted horns. “We have to rescue the princess.”
Song only knew what the girl was talking about; Lar didn’t have a sister. What princess?
“Fire and Fury,” Lar said. “She’s right.”
“She’s a hostage,” the girl continued, “and she’s the only thing keeping the Alliance from crossing the Straim in force.”
The Straim. She was talking about the prince’s betrothed, the little Indregai girl. She’s a terror.
If the Indregai Alliance marched on the empire in force, the first place they would strike would be East Ford, where Tejohn had sent his wife and children. The thought of Teberr, his youngest, being devoured by one of the Indregai serpents made his skin crawl.
But the next words he said were: “We can’t risk it. We have to get the prince to safety.”
Lar leaned over the edge of the cart, looking down at the city streets. Tejohn did the same. Everything was blurry to him, but he could see moving colors that had to be fleeing commoners, and the bounding, purple-furred monsters chasing them from building to building. The beasts crashed through windows and doors, falling onto young and old alike. The city was full of terrified screams.
“Lar,” the Freewell girl said, “Not even Peradaini spears can fight enemies on the inside and outside at once.
“Caz is right,” Lar said. “Driver, change course toward Eastgate. She’s in a high-peaked house on the eastern square with two chimneys in front.”
Tejohn suddenly felt terribly weary. The cart was already overfull, and they had to get free of Peradain now or lose the chance forever. “My prince, you must withdraw. The princess has her own people; let them be responsible for her.”
“She is betrothed to me,” Lar said as the driver angled the cart eastward. “I am one of her people, and she is one of mine.”
Back toward the palace Tejohn could see several dark smudges against the sky that looked like columns of smoke. There were no scholars to suppress the fires; they had more pressing things to do.
The cart flew low and close enough to the city wall that Tejohn could just make out the soldiers stationed along the top. None carried spears or bows—had the clerk in the Scholar’s Tower failed to get her message out? The beasts hadn’t made it this far yet, but the streets were in a tumult. Citizens milled about, some fleeing with sacks full of possessions, others loading ox carts with clothes and other minor treasures, others pleading for news. A crowd of thirty men and women marched toward the palace with hammers, bill hooks, hatchets, and other makeshift weapons. They didn’t know what was happening, but they were going to confront the threat.
Of course, the gates had been closed for the Festival. Only foot traffic was allowed through the Little Gate, and that, too, would soon be shut.
Tejohn’s throat became tight. What were they doing? He wanted to shout at them to drop everything, grab their children, and run.
He shut his eyes and fought back a rising wave of rage and fury. Tejohn had not wanted to parade his wife and children in front of Co and the other Evening People as though his life was just another mime for them to enjoy, so he’d sent them east. But if he had not?
They would have been down in the courtyard with the rest when the portal opened. Fire and Fury, he would have lost another family, and this time he would have seen it happen. It was simple luck that had saved their lives.
“There it is!” Lar shouted, pointing to a building on the other side of the cart.
Tejohn struggled to his feet. The pain of moving was intense and getting worse. He needed a sling.
“Are you sure this is correct?” Doctor Warpoole asked. “Everything looks so different from up here.”
“I can’t land on that,” the driver said. Then he added, as a nervous afterthought: “My prince.”
Tejohn craned his neck to look at the house. It had been constructed in the high mountain style of the southern Indregai people so the princess would feel at home, but the driver was correct. There was no flat place to set down, even if the clay tiles could support their weight. “We can’t set down in the street,” Tejohn said. “The people would mob us.”
“No matter,” Lar said. He gestured for the tether rope at the front of the cart, and the clerk uncoiled it for him automatically, as though he’d given her a command. “Just get us low enough.”
The last Italga prince, dangling on a line high above the city? No. Absolutely no.
“I’ll go first,” the Freewell boy said.
“Then me,” the Bendertuk put in.
Bittler Witt, crouching quietly in the corner, began to reluctantly stand but Lar waved him back. That boy couldn’t climb down a rope, let along climb up again. “I will go first,” the prince said. “She’s my betrothed. Col and Tim can come with me, but Bitt and the scholars will stay with the cart.”
He dropped the rope over the side. Tejohn didn’t like this at all. “My prince, you mustn’t–”
“I hope you aren’t offering to go in my place,” Lar said with a glance at Tejohn’s shoulder. The prince’s tone was sharp.
“Of course not, my prince,” Tejohn said, changing tactics quickly. “But we don’t need to lower anyone down, just the rope. Let her grasp it and we will pull her up.”
The Freewell girl leaned over the rail and shouted: “Get a ladder and send the princess up to the roof! Quickly!” The woman she was shouting at, a guard in a snow-white Alliance uniform, looked startled, then ran into the high-peaked building.
The prince nodded at Tejohn. “You make sense, my tyr. I’m just worried that they will send their entire entourage.”
The white-clad woman ran back out of the house, this time with several other guards. They tilted their heads up to stare at the cart, but there was no ladder in sight.
“The roof!” the Freewell girl shouted. “Get the princess on the roof!”
Several others began to shout the same thing. The Indregai guards milled around and looked confused. People poked their heads out of the windows, looking up at the cart as it floated down toward the building. Tejohn recognized their body language and expressions: They looked like villagers gossiping about the local madmen.
One of the monsters charged into view, racing around the side of the building with the speed of a grass lion on the attack. Everyone in the cart cried out in fear and despair. In the street, there were new screams of terror. They crowds surged toward the Little Gate as the Alliance guards threw themselves against the monster.
It was no good; the creature knocked them aside like empty cups, then ran among them, biting each of them one after another.
A second monster charged out of another alley toward the Little Gate, and a third burst into the gate house.
“We’re too late!” the driver said, his eyes wild with fear. “We’re too late!” He started to raise the cart into the air.
Lar threw his leg over the rail. “Lower us to the roof! Now!”
The Freewell girl snatched four spikes out of Doctor Warpoole’s quiver and handed one to Tejohn. “I don’t think I have what it takes to bully him,” she said.
Bullying? Clearly, the girl didn’t understand what it meant to command. Tejohn took the dart in his good hand and held the point a few handwidths from the driver’s belly. “What is your name?”
The calm in Tejohn’s voice seemed to capture his attention. “Wimnel Farrabell, my tyr.”
Both men watched the prince move below the cart and out of sight, his quiver full of darts jangling. The Freewell boy climbed on after him. Tejohn’s guts were bound as tightly as a criminal bound for the gibbet but he kept his voice calm. “Farrabell, eh? The Farrabells were sixth festival as I recall. Tyrs in the west?”
“It was the west then, my tyr, but it’s all Waterlands now. My people were nobles, chieftains, and generals until the Battle of the Fish Pens. Stripped of our rank, my tyr, but always loyal.”
Tejohn knew the story. “Loyal but not brave,” Tejohn said. The Bendertuk boy went over the rail onto the rope. “With a good name to secure a safe, cushy job for you.”
The driver took a deep, shaky breath. “I will do my duty, my tyr. I will.”
“Then teach this girl how to operate these levers,” Tejohn said, “I want someone to know how to fly the prince to safety if I have to ram this spike into your heart.”
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