Today, I bring you 3 more chapters from the original draft. I would remind you again (as always, I’m sure it gets old, lol, but it bears repeating) that these are unedited, so will certainly contain typos and other mistakes that will not be present in the final version of the book. Enjoy!
Chapter 10, Taliesimon
Chapter 10 Taliesimon 4
The raft was ten spans from the tower when the boys struggling to get up the legs started to notice Taliesimon and the others. Dark looks, narrowed eyes, and grimaces greeted her on every face.
“Any ideas?” she asked. as she pushed the stake, turning the raft to angle around to the other side of the tower.
“Perhaps the raft will give us the reach to jump above the grease, assuming the legs are, in fact, greased.”
“Perhaps,” Okara said, sounding dubious.
“It’s worth a try,” Taliesimon said.
As the raft drifted by, a tall, hairless boy reached up to grab the raft as though he meant to climb up.
“No,” Taliesimon shouted and Jonah dropped to his knees, smashing them into the boy’s hand as he bashed his fist into the boy’s face. The boy fell back, limp. Jonah stood, releasing the boy’s hand. The inert form floated in the mud behind the raft.
Taliesimon blinked. “I hope he doesn’t drown.”
“Taliesimon,” Jonah said harshly. “Do you realize he would have killed us? For someone who seems to understand better than the rest of us what we were getting into, you’re awfully naive about what these others will do to you in the name of placing in the Gauntlet.”
She flushed, her cheeks and neck growing hot. “I understand the Gauntlet. I understand using violence to secure your spot. I understand being willing to do almost anything for a chance at becoming a dragoon. But killing each other seems extreme.” She plunged the stake into the mud to stop them under a strut between two tower legs. “Other humans are not the enemy. The torthugra are the enemy. Why would they kill to become dragoons?”
Jonah looked up, eying the strut critically. “Tally, you have a good heart. I admire that, I really do. But these others here don’t see this the way you do. They don’t care about anyone else here. Especially not the three of us. They’ll do anything to the three of us to get ahead. You need to accept that.”
Okara nodded as though agreeing and Taliesimon clenched her jaw, forcing down the angry retort. She sucked in a deep breath and blew it out, pushing her anger out with it. He was right, of course. She didn’t want to admit it. She wanted to believe in the inherent goodness of humanity. But He was right. She was being naive and expecting those other boys to be as idealistic as she, when they had already proved several times that the only place that goodness existed was insider her own head.
“Do it,” Okara said, eyes on Jonah.
With a nod, he wiped his hands on his breeches and bent his knees. He dropped into a crouch and rose back up. He repeated the motion several times, then wiped his hand again and leaped straight up.
Just reaching the strut, Jonah’s hands grasped the strut and hung on. Okara and Taliesimon grinned at each other, argument forgotten.
Jonah slipped and fell back to the raft, rocking it to one side. The edge dipped into the mud and Taliesimon scrambled to hold on. She slipped down toward the edge.
Before she reached the middle of the raft, it tipped back the other way and leveled out.
She sighed in relief. “Everyone okay?”
The others grunted.
Okara pointed upward. “Look.” The wood of the tower glistened wetly, but only to a height of about four spans. Above that, the wood was dull and dry.
Taliesimon nodded. “Jonah, do you think the top of the strut is greased?”
He glanced at his palms, glistening with the sheen of oil, but the ends of his fingers were dry from the last knuckle to the tips. “I don’t think so.”
She nodded and glanced between her companions. Each nodded with a smile. They semeed to know what she was thinking and agreed.
Jonah beckoned to her with his hands. Nodding again, Taliesimon used his interlocked fingers to climb up onto his shoulders. With a foot on each shoulder, she almost fell, but reached up and grabbed the greasy strut above her head. “Okay, your turn, Okara.”
The small girl hopped up onto Jonah, as though her hands stuck to him without effort.
How does she do that?
Almost as though she were a spider climbing a sheer wall, Okara climbed up to share Taliesimon’s place on Jonah’s shoulders, then climbed up her back.
Jonah trembled with strain below them, but made no sound of complaint.
A moment later, Okara hopped up on the the strut. She wrapped one arm around the leg and reached the other down to Taliesimon and helped her up.
“How do we get Jonah up?”
Without a word, Okara wrapped her legs around the tower leg and lay down on the strut. She reached her arms down and took Jonah by the hands.
Taliesimon looked on dubiously. “Oh, no,” she said as she noticed a few of the boys had seen what they were doing and were moving around the tower legs to the raft.
Jonah glanced toward the boys, then nodded up to Okara.
Wrapping her left arm around the strut, the small girl gripped Jonah’s hand. He clasped both his hands around her small arm and hopped up as she pulled.
Taliesimon struggled not to laugh.
Inexplicably, the girl held on. She swung him toward the tower leg at her feet, then the other way. She repeated the motion three times, reaching greater height each them. Then on the fourth, as a tall boy climbed up on the raft while it drafted past the tower leg, she swung Jonah up to hand on the strut. He immediately wrapped his arms and legs around the strut.
From behind him, Taliesimon helped him to roll over and pulled him up to his feet. She turned to face Okara, who was back on her feet. “How did you do that?”
“Stronger than I look,” Okara said off-handedly.
Taliesimon shook her head in disbelief. There had to be more to it than that, but this was neither the time nor the place to press the younger girl for details. They had more important worries just now.
“Let’s move,” Jonah said, seeming unfazed. Taliesimon and Okara both nodded. The dry part of the legs were still two spans up, too far for any of them to get to and be able to hang onto.
Well, perhaps not, she amended. If Okara can swing Jonah up like that, then she could probably jump up and climb it.
“Turn around,” Jonah said. Confused, she obeyed and found herself rising up from a pressure between her legs. Startled, she glanced down and found Jonah’s head, his shoulders beneath her thighs.
How are these kids this strong? she wondered. To say nothing of their stamina.
Having been raised on a farm, she was no stranger to hard work. She was used to spending nearly all of the eighteen turns of daylight out on the farm working the land with Papa. And she was exhausted.
Perhaps she just wasn’t as tough as she thought she was?
With help from Jonah’s interlaced fingers, she got to her feet on his shoulders and reached up to grasp the dry wood of the leg as high as she could.
Oh, she thought as her fingers touched the wood. It was textured with roughly finger-shaped nubs. That’s handy.
She climbed up a few spans, then stopped to see how he would get up.
Okara pulled off her sandals and thrust them into the waist of her breeches, then climbed up on Jonah’s shoulders and climbed onto the tower leg. Gods, the girl made it look so easy!
Incredibly, once the bald girl got her feet just above the greased section of the leg, she stopped. As before, she wrapped her legs around the tower leg and seemed to lock her long toes into the finger nubs.
After a moment of securing herself, Okara fell backward and Taliesimon almost screamed. But the girl stopped. Her legs and toes were still secure on the leg and she stretched her arms down, lacing her fingers together for Jonah to use a a step to climb up.
“Come on,” Okara said, impatient.
Glancing down, Taliesimon found the other boys at the bottom were following their example and using the raft and each other to begin climbing the tower legs. They were running out of time.
From the tension in Jonah’s back, she could well imagine the expression on his face. He hesitated only a moment, however, before he stepped a foot into her laced hands and used the folds of her breeches as he climbed up Okara’s body. As soon as she was above Okara’s legs, he reached down and took her hand to help her up.
There were f few awkward moments as the two were in the same space on the tower leg, then Okara climbed up above Jonah and leg the charge upward.
It took only a few minutes for all three of them to get up the legs and climb up onto the platform at the top. Taliesimon fell on her back, breathing heavily.
“So,” Jonah panted. “There’s no. Way to. Get up. Here. Without. Working with. At least. One. Partner. right?”
“That’s right,” Okara said from where she stood. She didn’t even sound winded!
How is that possible?
Taliesimon finally caught her breath and stood. Okara was waiting at the open edge of the platform where vine ropes were secured.
“Ready?” Okara asked.
Taliesimon nodded and glanced at Jonah.
“Let’s do it.”
They each grasped vine. Okara offered an encouraging smile and Taliesimon pulled the vine tight, wrapped her arms and legs around it, and jumped from the tower at almost the same time as her companions.
The boiling black mud passed by below her and time seemed to slow again. The wind on her face was wonderfully cool, but brought with it a rotten, rancid smell unlike anything she’d ever experienced.
Time resumed its normal speed and the drop leveled out, then she started swinging upward. After a moment, she passed over the sharpened stakes at the end of the pit, but kept rising and flying across the path.
Is there a way off this vine without dropping the thirty spans to the path below? she wondered with trepidation.
Chapter 11, Dargon
Dargon opened his eyes and jerked bolt upright. Looking around, he found he was on a wool-wrapped couch in a small, dimly lit chamber. A granite table with two oak chairs sat against the opposite wall near a closed door.
Where am I? he wondered. What happened?
He swung his legs off the couch and stood, his legs wobbled for a moment, but he maintained his feet. Glancing about again, he noted the smallness of the room. The stone walls were bare and it was just wide enough to house the couch and leave three paces of walking space between the couch and chair. There were no windows and no decorations.
The table was empty and the chairs unmarked and unadorned.
Dargon sighed and started toward the door.
His fingers were less than a handspan from the knob when the door swung inward. He yanked his hand back and stepped backward, away from the door.
A hooded figure stood in the doorway and seemed to be watching him.
“Who are you?” he asked.
The figure chuckled. “You gave us quite a scare, your highness. How are you feeling?” The voice sounded familiar, but he couldn’t place it.
The figure reached up and pushed its hood back. Dargon knew somewhere in the back of his mind that he shouldn’t be able to to see. There was no light source in the room and no light came in through the open door. There were no windows. Therefore, there was no light whatsoever. There couldn’t be. Yet he saw the man’s features clearly.
“Trevan! Where am I? How did I get here?”
The Trevan smiled. “Your highness, by chance I was on my way to the library to find a recipe for burn relief, as there was a fire in the town this morning, and I found you passed out in the library doorway. I brought you straight here. I didn’t expect you would want your father to see you like this. What were you doing down there, my lord?”
“I,” he paused. Did he dare reveal this to the Trevan? The man’s true loyalty was to the king, after all. “I frequently go down there to… to read.”
“Ahhh,” the Trevan said, as though it explained everything. “Do you remember what happened down there? What were you doing in the doorway?”
“I don’t remember,” Dargon said. “Gah!” he shrieked, clasping his hands around his head as excruciating pain pierced his skull.
Through hazy vision, Dargon saw the Trevan pull a dripping wash cloth from just outside the room. He placed it on Dargon’s head and gently pushed him back to the couch and down to lie with his head on the arm of the couch.
“What’s happening to me?” Dargon whispered. His vision flared pure white, obscuring everything in the room. He sensed the Trevan still there, but couldn’t see him.
“It’s all part of the process,” the Trevan whispered, cryptic as ever.
“Part of the… what are you talking about?”
“You’ll understand when it passes.”
“When what passes?” Dargon growled.
“Dargon,” the Trevan said gently. “I know you have questions. But please, just trust me. The headaches will pass. Soon your body will ache as with influenza. You’ll be nauseated. It will all pass. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do to speed the process nor avoid it. I will do my best to help you feel more comfortable while it runs its course. When it is done, we’ll talk about all this and I will do what I can for you.”
“But-” Dargon gasped, making his head hurt even worse.
“Shhh,” the Trevan whispered. “Just hush. We’ll talk when you feel better.”
Dargon tried to nod, but his head didn’t seem to move.
A strip of something colder than ice covered Dargon’s forehead and, amazingly, the pain in his head seemed to abate just a bit.
He said this would get worse! he though with trepidation.
He closed his eyes, hoping to sleep it off, but then the pain reflared and magnified to an ache in his shoulders came as well.
“Don’t try to sleep,” the Trevan whispered.
Chapter 12, Taliesimon
Her time clinging to the vine rope felt like an eternity of flying through a maze of trees, yet somehow she hadn’t struck a single one. At last, she had come to the end of the rope. The vine had snapped tight and though she hung on with all her might, the rope slip through her palms, burning them until she could no longer hold on.
The fall ended so abruptly, she didn’t even have time to scream. She clenched her teeth against the impact, but it never came. Her back struck something soft and water splashed around her. She sunk below the surface and only just stopped herself breathing in the blue water.
Angling her body around, she kicked toward the surface. The crimson light of Kaustere above turned the world above her a bright, beautiful purple.
Within moments, her head broke the surface and she sucked in a delicious breath of air. The rushing river dragged her along, white foam obscuring her vision and and threatening to push her back below the surface of the water.
Where are the others? she wondered, but keeping herself above the surface consumed so much of her focus that she couldn’t even try to seek out the others.
With each kick of her feet and paddle of her arms, she pushed toward the bank to her right. With her flagging strength, she knew it wouldn’t be long before she could no longer remain afloat. She had to get out of the river before that happened or she’d drown here.
Her muscles burned with every kick, ached with every stroke. Her lungs felt as though they were full of steam. From nowhere, a boulder appeared in front of her. She tried to push past it but it was too close. After a left stroke, her shoulder struck the rock and followed by the side of her head. Pain exploded above her ear and her vision was obliterated by a blast of bright white and she felt herself slip below the surface.
A moment later, she flew out of the water and breathed in. She seemed to be suspended in midair. What’s going on? she thought, and clenched her eyes shut.
When she opened them again, she found a roiling pool rising up to meet the wall of water cascading around her and a rough, rocky wall behind it.
Then she belly-flopped into the pool. A flurry of air bubbles surrounded her, obscuring her vision. She prayed the pool was deep enough to not be deadly.
Her feet struck the rocky bottom, jarring her knees painfully.
With what she hopes wasn’t the last of her strength, she pushed off the bottom and kicked toward the surface.
Within moments, she once again broke the surface. But this time, she found cool, calm water around her. With a sigh of relief, she looked around and found herself alone. She took a deep, burning breath, and swam toward the left bank as it was nearer than the others.
Finally, her feet touched the muddy bottom and she stood. After only a few steps, she stumbled and fell down to hands and knees. She crawled the rest of the way out of the later. Once her body fully cleared the water, she fell to her belly and rolled over. Asmodere partially covered Kaustere in the sky above. She cringed a moment before she relaxed her expression and closed her eyes. She took a deep breath and released it slowly. Before her next breath, she was asleep.
Through a wonderful dream of being a regional commander of the dragoons, Taliesimon heard the brunch of boots on wet sand and knew instantly it didn’t belong. The dream vanished and her awareness returned to her battered, exhausted body. She still lay on her back. Her clothes were dry now, warmed by the burning cousins in the sky. She made an effort to keep her breathing slow and even. Whoever was there, she’d be better off if they thought her still asleep.
“Do you think she’s okay?” a familiar voice whispered.
“I’m sure she’s fine. Just exhausted. Her road here was rather more difficult than ours, I’d wager.”
“Do we wake her?”
“Unless you want to carry her or leave her. We have to move. There are still a lot of potentials ahead of us. It’s hard to say for certain, but I think it’s still too many for us to make it without overtaking more of them.”
He sighed. “Okay.” She heard someone kneel in the sand next to her. She counted out the seconds, then flashed her eyes open and shot her hand up to hatch his before he touched her shoulder.
With a grin, she caught his hand in hers. The startled, wide-eyes expression on his face brought a laugh of genuine mirth to her lips.
Jonah grinned at her and laughed as well.
“Yet another very touching moment,” Okara said scathingly. “But can we get moving, please? Our time is running out and we’re still behind.”
Sobering, Taliesimon nodded.
Jonah extended a hand, which she took, allowing him to help her to her feet. The two followed after Okara, who had already moved toward a trail leading away from the pool.
“How did you find me?” Taliesimon asked.
“Everyone passes this place,” Okara said.
Jonah flashed a mischievous half-smile. “You missed something. There was a new rope to rump to near the end point of the first. That one dropped us up there.” He pointed to a platform suspended between four trees next to the waterfall.
Taliesimon nodded. “Of course.”
Jonah raised his brows.
She sighed. “I always manage to take the more difficult path, somehow. So missing the easier route is in perfect keeping with my usual luck. Or lack thereof, to be more accurate.”
Jonah chuckled lightly and grinned. “At least we’re still together.”
Taliesimon offered a half-hearted smile.
“Right,” Taliesimon said, not even trying to disguise her sarcasm.
Jonah reached out and grabbed Okara by the arm. She tried to pull free, but he held her fast as he grabbed Taliesimon’s arm with his other hand. He turned her and Okara to face each other, his face set in a grim line.
He glared at them. “Now you two listen to me! Whatever this thing is between you two, you need to settle it. Do either of you think you could have gotten up the tower without the other?”
“Yes!” Taliesimon said, and was surprised to hear the younger girl say it with her.
“Excuse me?” she said, and again the words were reflected back at her. She glared into Okara’s glowering eyes.
“Really?” Jonah said, annoyed. “Tell me, Okara, would you have taken off your breeches to tie up the raft? Would you have even thought of using our clothes?”
“And Taliesimon. Without Okara’s idea with the stakes, I doubt I ever would have even thought of putting together a raft. And Okara was the one who thought of climbing on each other’s shoulders to get onto the strut and above the oil. Would you have come up with that without her?”
“And finally, if either of you think we could have gotten up onto the strut without all three of us, then you weren’t paying attention. Look, girls, my whole point here is it’s the three of us, all three of us, that has allowed us to make it this far, against all odds, against all that anyone else wants to see happen. It’s the three of us. Together. That is our strength. Unity. Teamwork. Any one of us alone would have failed already.”
“So I say again, whatever this is, settle it. We need to be a team to get through this.”
Taliesimon wanted to fight. She wanted to argue. She wanted to refute his words. To tell him he’d been sniffing too much mud. But she couldn’t. Jonah made too much sense. He was right, damn him. They had to at least put this… whatever it was, on hold until after the testing was finished. Right now, like it or not, they needed each other.
While she reached that conclusion, she watched a similar battle take place on Okara’s small face. The girl glared, then her face blanked, her eyes rolling upward. By the time Jonah finished speaking, her expression had turned thoughtful and she looked at Taliesimon with something resembling acceptance.
Taliesimon guessed her expression was much the same.
She nodded at the very moment Okara did, but while she smiled, the younger girl grimaced.
Is that what my forced smile looks like too? she wondered.
“Until the testing is done, then,” she said, and Okara nodded again.
“I suppose it’ll have to do,” Jonah said angrily.
Taliesimon shrugged and followed, letting the boy lead them for once.
For a time, Taliesimon limited her movement to a fast walk while she got her body used to the exertion again. Blood flowing through her warmed her hands and feet and slowly the aches and stiffness worked their way out of her muscles.
Judging herself ready, she picked up her feet in a measured jog and her companions did likewise.
Within minutes her thighs were burning again, but she ignored it and maintained her pace. The also ignored the pain beginning in her lungs.
Turning the fourth bend since leaving the pool, she saw the backsides of several boys jogging down the path ahead of them. Taliesimon glanced to her companions, who moved back even with her. With a nod to them, she took a deep, painful breath and pushed her body harder to increase her pace. She ran with all her strength.
Within moments, sweat broke out on her forehead, her pulse thundered in her ears, and the painful burning in her thighs increased and spread down into her feet and up into her sides and shoulders.
In spite of the pain, she smiled. They were gaining ground on the boys ahead of them, and quickly.
The pain in her thighs was approaching unbearability, but she did her best to push the sensation to the back of her awareness. Now was not a time for such weakness, they needed to push themselves forward. They needed to overtake these boys and keep moving. It wasn’t too late! They still had time to improve their standing enough to move forward past the Gauntlet, she was sure of it.
Now is not the time for sympathy, she thought. If I don’t take these boys out of the competition then Okara will.
And she’ll continue to think me weak.
So would Jonah. He hadn’t expressed such things before, but she felt it had to be true. Her already hot face flushed with more blood and heat at that thought. I will not be thought weak by some… boy! she insisted.
The boys were put a handful of paces ahead of her when she finalized her decision. She committed herself. She had to act.
A few more seconds passed and she leaped, her foot flying out ahead of her. It connected, all of her weight bearing down on the side of the boy’s knee. She felt the crunch beneath her foot before she heard it. The snap was a grotesque sound, much like the snap of a chicken leg at supper.
The boy shrieked in agony and crumpled. He tumbled through the dirt, raising a huge cloud of dust. Another snap came, but she didn’t look back to see what it was. A second voice joined the wails behind her.
At her right, another boy fell with a snap and a scream. Okara treated her with a genuine smile and, inexplicably, her spirits soared.
Within minutes, the trio turned another bend and found themselves alone once more. Taliesimon couldn’t help feeling optimistic for the first time since the Gauntlet began. It seemed she actually had a real chance now.
She let herself slow to a jog again as she turned another bend and found nothing more than another short straightaway, which led to another bend in the path.
She rounded the bend and skidded to a stop, dust rising around her.Jonah slammed into her from behind, nearly knocking her over.
Ahead was a wide patch of gravel, the tiny rocks glittering in the crimson light of Kaustere. At the edge of the rocky patch was a dropoff to a frothy stretch of whitewater river. At the far bank of the rapids, a long series of vine ropes were tied into loose hand and foot holds that stretched across the path from one broad tree to the other. The vines rose out of the water and reached as far up the trees as she could see.
“It looks like that goes all the way up over the tops of the trees,” Taliesimon whispered.
There were at least three dozen aspiring dragoons at various points of the vine netting ahead. Most were quite low, however.
A strange choking sound behind her made Taliesimon turn around. Jonah was down in a crouch with his head between his legs, dry heaving.
Okara slapped him on the back with decidedly more force that was necessary to offer support.
Jonah coughed and spat, then stood back up. He looked queasy still, but he set his lips in a thin, grim line. Taliesimon gave a single nod.
“You ready for this?” she asked, her eyes on Okara.
The smaller girl gave a slow nod, though her eyes looked uncertain.
Taliesimon held out her arms. “Until we are on that net, we hold to one another. As I see it, our only chance of getting through these rapids is together.”
Taliesimon looked to Jonah first. He gave a shaky nod.
Then she looked to Okara, who gave a curt nod.
She held out her hands, and each of her companions grasped one. She started toward the gravel field. Her first steps were shaky, her body seemed to be trying to argue with her determination to proceed through these obstacles.
We can do this, she thought.
We will do this.
We can do this.
We will do this.
She continued thinking the words over and over and over, as a mantra to convince herself that not only could she make it through this, but that she would. Not only would they make it, not only would they survive, but they would come through this unscathed and none the worse for wear.
By the time she reached the gravel, she almost believed it.
At her second stop onto the gravel, her feet began to grow warm and she almost lost her nerve. Those stones were not gravel, she realized. What were they?
With a swift downward glance she found the answer.
Beneath her feet, rather than gravel she found dully glowing, red-hot coals which distorted the air with waves of intense heat.
“Oh, torthugra guts,” Okara swore with something approaching despair.