The following is an excerpt from my upcoming novel, Trial by Fire, the first book in The New Earth Trilogy. Sign up for my weekly newsletter here to receive updates regarding the story and your chance for a free Kindle copy on December 13th!
Through the woods they went, and into the brush. Four hominids, short in stature, walking upright but with a noticeable stoop to their gait. They moved to a clearing and stood tall, as high as their spines would allow. The group remained alert, each of them taking a position outward and sniffing the air, touching each other to maintain a tight perimeter.
The largest of the four, short cropped hair with a single braid protruding from the back of his head, held his spear high. He was prepared.
He peered into the distance, whipping the long strand of black hair around his neck. Lush green forest stared back. Suddenly, the snapping of a branch was heard and each member of the group crouched low, legs wound and sinewy, ready for action. Muscles rippled through their bare shoulders and down their arms as they lowered their spears into a defensive position.
They waited. The forest was again quiet, save for the soft rustling of the leaves as the wind spoke to the trees. The clique of men listened with interest, speaking the language of the woodlands, their collective gaze unwavering.
Dark green ferns encircled the clearing and large redwoods jutted into the sky, blotting the sun and darkening an otherwise clear morning. Dew dripped from each leaf, and from the tips of the pine, and down to the soft forest floor. The few sun rays that made it through the dense brush heated the ground, causing water to condensate and rise, like mist was ascending from gaps in Terra itself.
The leader of the group unwound his legs and rose to a standing position. His spear was raised, long braid bouncing. His eyes darted left and right, and left again, as he watched the mist unfurl itself into the surrounding atmosphere.
He breathed once more for good measure. The air smelled of rebirth as small mammals died and decayed beneath the pine-laden floor, nurturing the plants, which, in turn, bore fruit and nuts that fed the people of Terra.
A cycle. The cycle. Pleased with the mechanics of his environment and sensing no immediate danger, the leader lowered his spear and fashioned it as a walking stick. He grunted to his companions and nodded forward; they adopted a single-file line and pressed onward. Out from the clearing and into the greens and purples and blues that made up the complexion of the forest, they began to gather the food, thanking the trees and plants.
As the group of four faded into the leaves, becoming one again with the forest, a second group of men—also four in all—watched them leave. Then, one by one, without a sound, the men, one a human and bright with understanding, moved from behind their vantage points and followed.
“Softly,” Salem said, creating a fist with his hand and moving it down toward the ground.
Quin saw the signal and nodded, pointing two fingers upward in response. “I don’t think we need secrecy,” he said, “not after Usifi’s romping in the leaves.” He looked across the way to a rustling tree as a young man dropped low to the ground.
The young man landed in a crouched position and looked up, taking offense to the words. “It was you who suggested we take to the trees, Quin. I still don’t understand why you suggested we do that.”
“We?” Quin said. “You’re supposed to be an observer and nothing else. All I see are three men and a boy.” He looked to the other two members of the party who now congregated around the arguing duo. “And what is there for you to understand, young Usifi? Comprehension is not a requirement on this expedition, only obedience.” He moved closer and leered over the group.
A tall man, Quin often used his stature to incite fear in his foes. And in this case, here in the forest on a long mission with no sleep and little food, his foe was anyone who contradicted him. However, Usifi, son of Salem and heir to the position of Royal Caligriph, did not consider himself someone who backed down to adversity. Especially when that adversity came from someone he knew.
“Yes, we men,” Usifi said with conviction. “Or am I not worthy of this expedition?”
“You’re children, both,” Salem said, looking them up and down. He stepped in between the two, using the underbrush to mask his movements. He glared at Quin.
Quin’s height shrank and he faded into the background, fearing a confrontation with the Caligriph, his eyes sharp like the glass found after an eruption of Mother Sierra, the mountainous backdrop.
Salem turned to his son. “Quin’s right,” he said. “The trees were the correct position to take for observation. A true Mandinan adapts to his environment in order to become more silent than the wind. There’s still much for you to learn.” Salem pivoted around to look at the fourth member of the party, silent up to this point. “We’re losing the trail. What say you, Emmon?”
Emmon, small in stature but wise in years, stroked his flowing white beard and looked off into the distance. “Where are we, exactly?” he asked.
Salem produced a map from his satchel and unfurled it, looking at the document with glowing intensity. Although his beard was shorter than Emmon’s, it had begun to turn white too, and he scratched his cheek while he pondered the parchment. Normally dressed in the flowing garb of a Royal position, Salem wore the expeditionary clothing of the hunt, tight leather garments encircling his lean body, semi-permeable and breathable thanks to the alchemists back at the city of Brekken.
“We’re on the edge of the knowing,” he said, tracing his fingers in a wide arc. “We’ve reached our destination. Any movement from here will take us into the unknown.”
“Well then, I say we make haste before we lose the trail,” Emmon responded. He wrapped his brown robe around himself in a protective fashion, further blending in with the forest.
Salem nodded. “Can I expect us to work together?” he asked, looking at Usifi and then at Quin. “We need to remain vigilant now that we’re stepping outside of the Mandinan boundary.”
Usifi, embarrassed by Quin’s rebuke, nodded. He unsheathed his short-sword and tightened his leather vest, checking that his brown hair remained in a tight bun. The sword caught a ray of sun piercing through the top layer of the forest and glinted with magnificence, diamond fragments wove into thick steel. Another gift from the Mandinan alchemists.
Quin stared back at Salem and opened both his palms, raising them upward toward the sky.
“Good,” Salem said, turning again to consult the map in his hands. It was a dark parchment, and thick, resistant to water, fire, and anything else they might face in the black unknown.
The document was a map embossed with excruciating detail, outlining every hill, mound, river, and stream. Red markings were made at various points on the document, seemingly at random, but with a level of care that proved they were intentional. Each mark represented an explored region, and Salem knew that there was a corresponding document for every exploration back at Brekken, containing everything the Mandinans knew of their world.
Looking up from the map and peering through the thick brush, Salem pointed at Usifi. “Take lead. We can’t be more than a few hundred paces behind. Let the Kiowa show us where to go.”
Usifi swelled with pride. Looking at Quin, he shook his head and refocused on the task at hand. He had to lead the party through the unknown forest and to the home of the Kiowa, following their trail so as to not leave a trace of their own. Looking at the faint light of the sun, barely perceptible through the brush, he used it to guide him north in the same direction that the four Kiowa had gone.
Nodding to each other, a level of quietude befell each member of the group. In an alert but meditative state, they fell into line and moved through the lush green and bright pastels of the undiscovered forest.
It wasn’t long before Usifi found signs of the Kiowa’s movement. A small twig was broken in two, and a soft footprint—five toes and a light heel—was imprinted on the ground. Careful not to leave footprints of his own, Usifi stepped to the side of the apparent trail and onto the pine needles that lay beneath the redwoods. He checked his leather foot coverings to ensure that they remained unmuddied, an affirming sign that they weren’t leaving a trace.
He signaled with his hands and made a slight whistling sound, mimicking the birds that chirped high above their heads. He heard his father whistle a confirmation back, and together as a group, they forged ahead.
Without looking, Usifi knew how the party was functioning. Salem was positioned behind him as the lead spotter, followed by Quin, whose perception was focused to the left and right. Emmon, the Royal Fabulist, brought up the rear and his eyes flickered down to the map and up again, writing notes and drawing pictures for later distillation. Usifi understood that once the unknown was known, they would have to come back in the dead of night and chart the stars.
Walking with a crouch, Usifi saw a blood-red orchid and knew that the Kiowa would have been drawn to it. He stepped around the bright flower and stooped below a fallen log, rewarding himself with a break in the forest. The trees gave way to an expansive valley, giant mountains surrounding the bluff. Usifi gasped at the beauty, amazed at the size of the space.
Roughly a hundred paces below sat the four Kiowa, eating from large packs that had been empty moments earlier. Their backs were turned but Usifi knew that they were alert; he was unfazed by their outward display of primitiveness. In fact, he expected a watchman to be present somewhere in the brush, sending an alert if any danger materialized from the forest.
Usifi and his group had been on the trail for days, and the young man could sense from his father that they were close to the Kiowan home. It made sense that silent sentries would be placed in key positions from here on out, watching the path.
As if on cue, Salem moved to the front and crouched next to his son, putting a hand on his shoulder. “We hold this position for now,” he whispered, patting Usifi on the neck. “Good job.”
Usifi nodded and sheathed his sword, signaling to the others that there wouldn’t be danger as long as they remained where they were.
Salem turned to Emmon and motioned forward. “What say you?”
“A fine discovery. Fine indeed,” Emmon said, nodding. “This will take a while to map. We might as well get started.”
He turned his attention to the expansive oasis. A river flowed from the top of the valley into a waterfall that pummeled the ground beneath, shooting up refreshing mist that quenched their thirsty skin. The valley was walled in on three sides by thick granite, creating a nest of safety and a source of life. Emmon began to sketch, mumbling to himself in the way of the Royal Fabulist.
Usifi relaxed for a moment, sitting on his haunches and producing a skin of water, drinking with pleasure. He pondered the four Kiowa and the lives they lived. Primal in nature, especially compared to his Mandinan culture, they seemed to be on the precipice of true civilization. It was exciting, he knew, because his home was the only advanced species of humans. Other than the city of Brekken, only small tribes of hominids, “lower-forms,” populated the land, ranging from primitive to barbaric. The Kiowa could be the missing link from primal to civilized.
It was the job of the Royal Caligriph, among other things, to watch these primeval humans and observe how culture was born. Their current expedition, the one that took them days from Brekken, attempted to follow the Kiowa to their homeland and note the changes that were taking place. They were the most advanced lower-forms, and Salem, along with the King, was eager to see if they had the makings of a civilization like Brekken.
Usifi finished taking a long swig of water and held the warm liquid in his mouth, rolling it around his tongue and looking outward. He couldn’t get over the shocking beauty of the valley. It was like a giant had taken a knife and carved a safe haven right into the rock, which, if he remembered from his child schooling, was somewhat true. The giant South and North Poles, thick with glaciers, were beginning to recede, and their movements cut huge gashes into the countryside.
Usifi’s father told him lore from ancient times, when ice crept all the way down from the edges of Terra and right to the doorstep of Brekken, his home. Times, however, had changed. Heat from the sun had increased over the years and now basked the world in a temperate and jungle-like climate.
While he enjoyed hunting in the warmth, old-timers back at the city warned their people of the changing weather. There were reports from expeditionary parties that sea levels had begun to rise, forcing some tribal bands of lower-forms to move to higher ground.
“Good thing we know how to make boats,” Usifi bemused to himself.
At that exact moment, the Kiowan leader whipped his head around and looked in the direction of the fallen log that provided the Mandinans with cover. Usifi froze, wondering if his voice had carried and given away their position. No, the leader was looking not at the log but past it, his gaze off somewhere in the thick forest behind them.
Usifi ducked his head for good measure and peered through a small hole in the log, watching the group of Kiowa. “I’ll call you Hawser,” he mouthed, looking at their leader.
He began to practice the skills of the the eventual Royal Caligriph, reducing his breaths to only a few a minute and steadying his chin in the palm of his open hand. He sat and observed observed.
The first thing he noticed was the bright vision of Hawser. There was a level of intelligence behind his eyes, something that shook Usifi to his core. He’d been taught that any human not a Mandinan was lower-form, a caricature of what his people were before the Awakening. However, looking at Hawser and implementing everything he’d learned from his father, he felt there was something more. A level of understanding that he didn’t expect to see.
Usifi thought about mentioning it to the group but saw that the three men were focused on their surroundings, trying to map as much as they could while there was still daylight. Plus, he knew that any talk of intelligent primitives would be squashed by Quin, and his father wouldn’t appreciate the widening rift between the expeditionary party. Instead, he rubbed his leather shin guards and continued to focus on the Kiowa, keeping his head steady.
Hawser continued to scan the lush underbrush behind the Mandinans, keeping alert. Then, abruptly, he jumped up and spun around, reorienting his body to face the forest head-on. The other three Kiowans felt his movement and pivoted, turning into low crouching positions, ready for anything.
“Father…” Usifi began to say, sensing that something was wrong. Before he could finish his sentence, there was a sharp cracking of bark and branch, sounding like a fallen tree. All four Mandinans dove to the dirt floor and produced their weapons, their attention focused on the sound.
“Hold,” Salem said with authority, raising his hand and spreading his five fingers wide.
The echoing crack! was followed by a rustling of the ferns, and with a loud bellow, a giant boar leaped from the dark forest and into the expansive scape. It reared its head and swung its tusks from side to side. The beast was black, the reason that the group hadn’t spotted it earlier, with matted hair surrounding a gash in its side. The animal was injured and in a rage, bounding in a zigzag pattern toward the log where the Mandinans hid.
“Hold,” Salem said again, and Usifi saw Quin cock his katan into a throwing position. Quin was the most skilled fighter in all of Brekken and he’d be able to dispatch the boar without needing a second toss. The giant animal, blind with rage and pain, raced toward the Mandinans. Usifi tensed. As it drew closer, however, it adjusted its course and instead headed straight for the Kiowa.
A cloud of dirt and dust followed its hooves as it ran, but the Kiowa stood strong. With a movement of his hand, Hawser motioned to the group, and one by one they garnished their spears and let them fly. The first grazed the boar and the other two missed completely. Only the leader was left with a weapon. The boar drew closer and closer, rage in its eyes, and Hawser waited for the right time to strike.
The animal closed the distance with speed. Fifty paces, then twenty, then ten. At the last moment, Hawser threw his spear, but it was too late. The animal deflected it with a sweep of its head, and then thrust his tusks to the right, impaling the Kiowan closest to their leader.
The lower-form screamed in pain, clutched his stomach, and crumpled to the ground, sure to die. The boar trampled him as he fell and sped off into the distance before looping around to face the Kiowa again. The animal regrouped for a second pass, baring its tusks and pawing the ground. It charged again.
Usifi had to do something. Standing from his hiding position, he drew his throwing dagger and aimed for the boar’s eyes. The animal was far, almost too far, but Usifi couldn’t help but try to save the doomed Kiowa. It would be his longest kill by twenty paces, but he believed he could do it.
Cocking his arm back and steadying his sight, he breathed like his father taught, ready to hurl the knife at its intended target. He narrowed his eyes and threw, but a strong grip caught his hand and held his arm from moving forward.
It was Salem. “No,” his father said. “We observe. We don’t intervene.”
Usifi was shocked. “But father...” he tried to say.
“No,” Salem reiterated, cutting him off and looking his son right in the eyes, forgetting the boar. “Let the natural world keep itself in order. Any meddling will change the course of things.”
Usifi dropped his knife in disgust but saw that Quin and Emmon were nodding in approval. “You still have much to learn,” Emmon said, echoing Salem’s sentiments.
Shaking his head, Usifi turned back to the fate of the Kiowa in time to see the three lower-forms jump out of the charging boar’s path. The animal, still blind with rage, didn’t seem to notice, continuing its rampage toward the Mandinans.
Adrenaline shot through Usifi’s veins and the entire world began to slow. He glanced to his right and saw that Quin and Emmon were standing tall, watching the interaction between father and son. Salem kept his hand on Usifi and his gaze on his son’s face. No one was keeping watch, a cardinal sin in their world.
Usifi noticed the danger and shook off his father’s hand, crouching low to grab his knife from the ground.
“Son!” Salem hissed, unaware of their impending doom.
Not listening, Usifi picked up the blade, and with no time to adjust his grip, hurled it at the boar. The cutter spun through the air, end-over-end, catching the sun’s rays. Before he could exhale, the knife struck the boar clean between the eyes and buried the blade to the hilt. It took the animal a second to register that it was already dead, and with its four legs still trying to run, it collapsed mere feet from the Mandinans. The beast let out its final breath, a high-pitched squeal.
The three men stared at Usifi and then at the boar, and back at the young man. Usifi stood tall and glared. When no one said a word, he diverted his gaze to the three remaining Kiowa, who also stood and stared at the materialization of the four men.
Hawser, braid in his hand, bare chest arched forward, caught Usifi’s eyes with his own. Giving him a quick nod of approval, he motioned to his two compatriots, and with speed they ran to the edge of the bluff and jumped, catching three pieces of rope as they did so. They were gone.
“Should we follow?” Usifi asked, turning to his party.
Salem laughed and patted his son on the back. “No, I think we’ve had enough excitement for one day. And shame on us for not remaining vigilant.” He turned to Quin. “It looks like this ‘boy’ just saved the lives of three grown men.”
Quin flashed a smile, the first time Usifi had ever seen him do so, and nodded. “It looks like I may have underestimated the boy,” he said, putting emphasis on the word but doing so with humor in his eyes.
Emmon stepped around Quin and stood next to Salem, whispering something in his ear.
“Yes,” Salem replied out loud, “he just might be.” And then, picking up his sack and his katan, he motioned for the others to do the same. “Emmon, mark this spot, please. We’ll have to come back here another time.”
“It would be a shame to leave this meat,” Quin said, pointing at the boar. “What say we set up camp for one night, at least? We can feast on what we can, carry back what we want, and start mapping the stars tonight.”
Salem pondered the request. “What do you think, Usifi?” he asked.
“Me?” Usifi responded with surprise. And then, with resolution, “We came all this way to find the valley. We should stay the night and do what we can. Tomorrow, we head back to Brekken.”
Salem smiled. “Well, you heard the man, let’s get started.”
Quin and Emmon nodded and began preparing for observation, patting Usifi on the neck as they passed. Usifi, swelling with pride once again, moved to help.
I hope you enjoyed the excerpt from my upcoming novel, Trial by Fire, the first book in The New Earth Trilogy. Remember: Sign up for my weekly newsletter here to receive updates regarding the story and your chance for a free Kindle copy on December 13th!