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! If you haven't read chapter one, check it out here.
The trek back to Brekken came without incident. The party of four traversed through the thick forest, using their original path to find their way to Mandinan land. Dense underbrush and a thick top canopy soon gave way to sparsely populated trees and rolling green hills. Cows and other livestock grazed the land, and Usifi knew that they were close to home.
“Looks like we’ll have another good year,” Emmon stated, nodding to the grazing farm animals and the flourishing agriculture, patting the head of a goat as he passed. The expeditionary party, feeling safe in their homeland, loosened their warriors’ garb and assumed disarming postures. They continued to walk as they rose up the side of one hill and down the next, moving due west.
They began to pass Mandinan sentries and gave the hand signal of “friend” out of tradition. Each sentry, recognizing the older three men by sight, saluted and called out shouts of welcoming approval.
“Ho! They return,” one sentry said.
“How was the exploration?” another asked.
“Good!” Salem replied, placing a hand on his son’s neck. “Usifi saved the entire expedition.”
“Like father, like son,” the sentry said with a smile and a vigorous nod. “Not much farther to go, I’m sure Brekken will be a sight for sore eyes.”
“Indeed it will,” Quin said, rubbing the back of his neck and massaging his aching muscles.
Rolling green hills flattened into a road laden with stones that were so tightly packed, so well engineered, that a strand of human hair couldn’t fit between the cracks. Each slab of basalt had been painted gold, flecks of precious stones and metals shimmering with the sun, giving the men a feeling that they were walking on water. The stone path took a sharp bend around a granite outcropping, and Usifi knew that they were at the doorstep of their city. Rounding the corner, he adjusted his eyes in the noon light and rewarded himself with his first sight of Brekken in over two weeks.
The city, still off in the distance, rose from the grass floor like a giant monolith. Stone walls, twenty-paces tall and engineered in the same way as the road they walked on, wound in a large circle, using the land as a natural foundation. Tall buildings stood behind the wall, their tops peeking out above the enclosure, standing watch over the continent of Mandina. Usifi could hear the recognizable noise of a thriving city but wasn’t close enough to distinguish individual sounds.
Brekken was built on a flat-topped mesa with a gradual decline in grade all around it, giving it a vantage point that protected it from potential harm. The group of four reached the edge of the plateau and began to walk with increasing speed, their tired bodies forgotten as they drew closer to their home.
When they were no more than 200 paces away, Usifi could make out the pattern of the city walls, made by the perfect fit of heavy, multi-sided boulders of granite and basalt. It looked like a giant jigsaw puzzle, each piece of rock lying on top of the other in a deliberate fashion. He marveled at the feet of engineering, appreciating for the first time the complexity of the wall and the structures it protected.
The barrier was twenty paces thick, as wide as it was tall. Watchmen stationed themselves on top every twenty-five paces, but what they watched out for even Usifi didn’t know. Brekken hadn’t been attacked for ages. The only threat to the Mandinan city were small bands of looting and marauding lower-forms, and they’d never be able to break through the outer wall, let alone the smaller, inner wall built as a fail-safe.
The city loomed large as they approached, and before long, Usifi heard a familiar voice.
“About time you came back. I was beginning to think they left you.” It was Bantu, Usifi’s closest friend, jogging up to the party from somewhere off in the distance.
“If only you knew, Ban, if only you knew,” he replied, alluding to his feat with the boar.
Bantu met the group with open arms and embraced his friend, slapping him on the back. He wore flowing robes, cut short around the knees, the standard garb of Brekken. His hair was cropped short with a tight bun on top, much like Usifi’s. His entire body radiated with joy as he smiled, and Usifi welcomed his friend’s light-hearted demeanor.
“Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes,” Usifi said, releasing his friend from their embrace.
Bantu turned to the other three men and bowed, showing his elders the respect they deserved. “Good to see you, too, Salem, Quin, Emmon.”
The men returned his salutations. Salem looked at his son and smiled. “Ok, you’ve had enough of us, I’m sure. Go on; I know you’ve been waiting to get back to your friends.”
Usifi almost leaped with joy as he thanked his father, spinning to look at Bantu. “Race you to the Keep?”
Without a word, Bantu started running. “Ok, go!” he shouted over his shoulder as he ran.
Usifi, ready for the antics, was already positioned in a runner’s stance and raced off after his friend. The wind swept over his head and caressed his face as he picked up speed, using his long legs to catch up with Bantu. Before long they were neck and neck, their visions of Brekken bounding up and down as they drew closer to the city’s outer gate. The large wooden entrance was open wide, allowing the merchants and farmers to enter the city and conduct their daily business, and neither of the two stopped to check in with the sentry at the entrance.
“Slow down!” the sentry yelled as the two young men weaved in and out of the flowing traffic, racing through the wall and into the hearth.
“Sorry, Chanti!” Usifi called as they passed.
As they made it through the outer gate, they saw that the inner gate was backed up with people. Seeing as neither of them wanted to lose, they both took to a set of stairs carved into the side of the second barrier, spiraling upward.
Usifi made it to the bottom of the steps first, and trying to slow his friend, dumped over a bucket of large grains in an attempt to impede his path. Bantu, sensing this, jumped up on a barrel of wheat and bounded over the grain, landing on the same stair as Usifi, pushing him into the wall.
“Watch out!” Bantu yelled as a woman, carrying a pot of water on her head, raced up the stairs to get away from the dueling friends.
Bantu reached the top first, Usifi hot on his heels, and dove past a farmer carrying bushels of hay, making it to the stairs on the other side. Usifi, knowing that the Keep was close, figured he wouldn’t win if he continued to follow his friend. Pausing, he looked out over the wall and onto the city.
Brekken bustled with the life of a thriving culture. The main road—the same one that he’d used a few minutes earlier—cut straight through the middle of the city to the other side. Modest homes of dried mud and stone lined the thoroughfare on either side, splaying outward and following the line of the inner wall, providing yet another protective barrier. Usifi knew that these were the dwellings of the Mandinan warriors, placed at the edge of the city in case of war, something he hadn’t seen in his lifetime.
As the road moved to the center of the city, the dwelling grew in size and opulence, built with the expertise and perfection of interconnected precious stones and metals. Off in the distance, he could see the Keep looming large, a rectangular spire in the center of the city. It was the tallest building the Mandinans had ever built. It was here that all commerce, all learning, and all human culture took place. It was a beacon of hope in a world that otherwise lacked civility.
To his left, Usifi saw the distant ocean and the string of fisherman bringing in their daily catch. “Ah! The shipyard,” Usifi said to himself.
Mandinans were expert craftsmen and sailors, and their ships resembled long, high-walled canoes, similar in shape to the bananas that the merchants imported from distant lands. Large bowed posts were placed on the front and back of each boat to help with waves and rolling seas.
While Brekken was miles from shore, the timber used to build the ships came from the forestland to the east, and the vessels were therefore constructed in the city and wheeled to the Jetty out by the ocean. The carrying of wood and the transporting of the boats was grueling work, a task that a younger male like Usifi was required to carry out. However, in this case, it was going to help him beat his friend.
He looked to his right and saw a half-made ship being hoisted up with cables and pulleys, well within jumping distance of the inner wall. Watching Bantu disappear on the other side of the barrier, racing down the steps and out of sight, Usifi ran straight ahead instead.
“Look out below!” he yelled at a craftsman as he leaped off the wall with full conviction. He fell ten paces and landed on the boat in a crouched position, frightening the working men. Without a word, he jumped the remaining few paces to the ground, neck in neck with Bantu.
“Where’d you learn to do that?” Bantu panted as he tried to regain the lead.
The two friends raced down the main road, soft-soled foot covering plodding on the hard surface. The thoroughfare was alive with buzz as the people of Brekken carried out their daily activities. Carts, animals, and pedestrians scurried about as Usifi and Bantu weaved through the traffic, pushing past disgruntled citizens.
The thick of people grew dense as they approached the Keep, the center of Brekken’s commerce and culture. Lore said that the Keep was built eons ago by ancestral humans as a place of learning and worship, even before the inner and outer walls were constructed. It was a beacon of light and hope and signified the rich history of Mandina and the bright future that lay ahead.
The Keep drew closer, and Usifi used his length to sprint ahead of Bantu. He could feel victory in his grasp and bragging rights as his trophy. All he had to do was touch the red door. He could taste it.
And then, like an angel through the mist, he heard a familiar voice in front of him. Even before he saw her standing there, gold-black hair covering her body in a radiant light, he knew who it was.
“Hi Usifi,” she said.
It was Nacine. Without a moment’s thought, Usifi stopped dead in his tracks, a mere twenty paces from the door of the Keep. He smiled at Nacine, wiping sweat from his brow and trying not to pant.
“Hi, Naz, how are you?” he asked, watching as his friend touched the red door, claiming victory and the bragging rights he’d coveted until moments ago.
“Good,” she said, her white and blue robes hanging loose to let in the cool afternoon breeze. The clothing flowed and moved with the wind, revealing her undergarments and making Usifi blush. “How was the expedition? I hear it was the longest trek you’ve been on.”
“By far,” he said, nodding. “But also the most rewarding. We almost made it to the homeland of the Kiowa, the closest we’ve ever been and the farthest we’ve ever gone. You should’ve seen it Naz; it was beautiful. We found a natural valley that rivals anything I’ve ever seen. I almost wish Brekken had been built there rather than here.” He pointed in a wide circle.
“I wish I would have been able to see it,” she replied, downtrodden, knowing full well that the place for Mandinan women was at home.
“I’ll take you some time, promise,” Usifi said, understanding that it could very well be a lie and that she might never see it.
Naz smiled. “I’ll hold you to that.”
Usifi’s stomach did a somersault and his heart fluttered, causing him to lose his train of thought and his ability to speak. He stood and stared into the green eyes that accentuated her olive skin and dark hair. “Yeah, well, I might be leading the expeditions before long…” he started to say, caught between a very real possibility and his desire to impress her.
“What happened?” Bantu interrupted as he walked up to the chatting couple. He’d taken a moment to catch his breath at the Keep and had been watching the interaction from afar. “You had me beat.”
“Hi, Ban,” Nacine said.
“Hi, Naz,” Bantu said, comprehension rolling across his face. He smiled at Usifi. “Ah, looks like you had other priorities.”
Usifi’s tan skin flushed red with embarrassment. “Yeah, well, Naz was asking me about the expedition, I didn’t want to be rude.”
“Of course, forgive me. How rude it would be to finish what you started first and then answer a simple question.”
Usifi smiled at Bantu, knowing that he was right. His friend always had a stark honesty with words. With both their child schooling at an end, Bantu was set to become the apprentice to Emmon, the Royal Fabulist, a charge that would lead him to become the keeper of stories and history. It would be his job to hold court and orate so that the Mandinan people remembered their culture and heritage. Bantu was fit for the charge.
“Oh shut it, Ban,” Nacine said, jabbing him back. “You’re only the na-Fabulist. Spare us while we still have a choice to ignore your words.”
Bantu smiled, enjoying a good verbal sparring. “And what should I say to you? Go and mend Usifi’s garments? You need all the practice you can get before you become the most sought-after seamstress in all the land.” He bowed to emphasize his barb.
“C’mon, Ban. Leave us if all you’re going to do is cause trouble,” Usifi said, coming to the aid of Nacine.
He knew that she was one of the brightest people in the city and certainly one of the kindest. But, due to Brekken’s class system, she was relegated to work in the sewing shops, charged with the duty of mending the men’s warriors’ garb. It was an imprisonment of sorts, and Usifi could see behind her eyes that Bantu’s words hurt her. She wanted nothing more than to join in the adventure, but instead, was forced to sit in the same chair each day, repeating the same task. For a person with wanderlust like Naz, it was occupational hell.
Bantu could sense the seriousness in Usifi’s voice and obliged. “I’m sorry, Naz. You know me, I don’t mean anything by it.” He bowed again, this time out of respect.
“It’s ok,” Nacine replied. “You’re right. I shouldn’t poke fun at your apprenticeship, not when mine is that of a laundry maid.” Her bright demeanor dimmed and her shoulders slumped in social defeat.
“No,” Usifi said with authority, grabbing Nacine by the wrist and moving her to the side of the path, away from the passersby. Bantu followed and stopped under the shade of an overhanging dwelling. “You can do anything you want. If there’s something inside you waiting to come out, let it out. Life is short. It’s about time we focused on our own happiness.”
Both Bantu and Naz were surprised by his words. Coming from the son of the Royal Caligriph, the eventual right-hand aid of the King, speaking against the structure of Mandinan society was as close to heretics as one could get. The city of Brekken was built on a fragile understanding of hierarchy. It’s what—according to the Royal Crown—separated them from the primitive humans that lived their way across the continents, following the bison and the berries.
“I’d be careful,” Bantu warned, whispering.
Even Naz seemed to be uncomfortable. “Sure, that would be great,” she said, “but it’s not a possibility. One can’t just change their stars. I was destined to be a seamstress from birth, and a seamstress I’ll become.”
Usifi was unwilling to agree. “But why? Even if you believe that it’s your duty to support Brekken, wouldn’t you be better served doing something greater than washing garb?”
“Mandinans still need their clothes,” Naz growled, not appreciating the way in which Usifi discounted her work.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that,” Usifi responded, backpedaling. “What I meant was, well…”
“It looks like Usifi had his eyes opened on the expedition,” Bantu joked. “What, you think you now understand life just because you survived a two-week trek into the unknown?”
“Let’s just say I now understand how short life can be.”
“And be glad for it!” Bantu exclaimed. “Death is only a passing to the land of the Celestial. We should all be so lucky.” He paraphrased the words that each of them knew from birth.
“Then what are you still doing here?” Usifi said with a level of disgust he’d never felt before, something that surprised him.
“Everyone knows that you give your life to Brekken so you can give your afterlife to the Celestial. It would do no good to speed up the process. The natural order of things will unfold in due time.”
Nacine, however, was unconvinced. “Why are you saying this, Usifi? What did you see on the expedition?”
Usifi took a deep breath and organized his thoughts. The level of intelligence displayed by the leader of the Kiowa had left an impression on him. He’d been repeatedly told that the Mandinans were the people chosen by the Celestial, and that other humans were nothing more than primitive lower-forms. After seeing the light behind Hawser’s eyes, however, he was beginning to rethink his rigid system of beliefs.
Yet he couldn’t quite figure out what it all meant. As the eventual Caligriph, it was his duty to think on things, explore, discover, and find new ways. It was also his duty to advise the King on matters that affected the people of Mandina. What would these thoughts serve, though, other than to cause unrest in an otherwise balanced society? Could it be his duty to keep it to himself?
He would give up on it for now, he decided. Something to ponder another day. Instead, he recounted his experience with the wild boar, the death of the Kiowa, and the killing of the animal by his blade.
Nacine and Bantu listened with increasing interest as he described the charging of the boar, the goring, the lack of attention by his father, and the final throw that saved the entire party.
“Wow, that’s incredible,” Nacine said, adulation in her eyes. Usifi swelled with confidence, something he rarely felt around her.
Even Bantu seemed impressed. “Maybe you’re cut out to be our next Caligriph, after all,” he said, patting his friend on the back of his neck. “Just think, Usifi: You and I, together, teaching the tales of the past and exploring new discoveries to turn into story and song. We’ll be unstoppable, bringing a gilded age of advancement for all of Mandina!”
As much as he wanted to disagree, to further ruminate on the gnawing thought in his mind, the idea of leading the Mandinan people was intoxicating. It was all a person could ask for, in this world or the next.
For the first time ever, Usifi felt that he was cut out for the position of Royal Caligriph. He looked right at Nacine and smiled, confidence exuding from his body. “Yes, that is something to look forward to, isn’t it?”
“It is!” Bantu said, “so get these malicious thoughts out of your mind. Things are unfolding exactly as we’ve always talked about.” He gave his friend a warm embrace and then looked at the sun beginning to dip below the western wall. “Well, I’m off. I have my first lesson with Emmon. He wants to discuss the expedition’s findings and doesn’t want to waste a second.” He bowed and entered the throng of people rushing back and forth on the main road.
Usifi turned to Nacine, smiling with his body and his eyes. He took a step closer to her, breathing her aroma. “Naz,” he started, only to be cut off by an authoritative voice behind him. It was Quin.
“Usifi,” he said, “your presence is required in the Royal dwelling.”
Usifi’s heart skipped a beat. Had someone heard him and his heretical thoughts? No, he decided, the city was too loud and his voice too quiet to be picked up by anyone other than Nacine and Bantu. Still, he turned to face Quin and looked left and right, wondering what the summons was about.
“Run along, Naz,” Quin said, “I’m sure you have some garments to thread.” He emphasized his words with a shoo-ing of his hand. Without a word, Nacine left, and Usifi couldn’t help but miss her presence.
“Come,” Quin continued, “we have much to discuss.”
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!