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Exiled: Winter's Plight
by Rosalie Skinner
Publisher: Book Surge Publishing
Price: $ 19.99
ISBN: 1-4196-1789-3
Dimensions: 5 x 8
Type: paperback
Pages: 494
Estimated Delivery: Posted within 24hrs

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'Exiled by Spite,

A man finds his Destiny,

Scored in dragon's blood.'

A star traveller stranded on a world where Magic happens and science is an alien concept, is driven to avenge his abduction. With one chance to escape, Caleath takes desperate measures to survive and realise his plans.

Winter's Plight/ Summer's Peril follow Caleath as he realizes that even the best-made plans are prone to fall apart. We travel with him as he learns to adapt when things go wrong, accepts the responsibility of friendship and finally discovers there is strength in compassion.

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CHAPTER ONE
by Rosalie Skinner

“Balls of a hairy goat!” The expletive came with a surge of elation. To know salvation lay beyond the breakers renewed his determination. With sudden energy, he struggled against remnants of the storm’s fury.

Plans were coming to fruition. He was raised on a world where artificial air filled sky domes and the chaotic arrival of moon shuttles threatened to gridlock local spaceports. In an imperfect world, he had escaped from an overload of technology through virtual reality. Then, total immersion in a fantasy world became an obsession.

Here, sorcerers warped reality. Here the sun's rays burned, seawater left a crust of salt on your skin rather than a toxic slime. There was no ‘END GAME’, when things became unbearable. Survival on this planet was a nightmare. Neither genetic nor microchip enhancements helped when pitted against sorcery and hardship.

Now though, he had a chance to escape his exile. What, he dared to ask, could possibly go wrong?

As he gulped air before facing the next wave, the ocean tore a waterlogged barrel from his grasp and the weight of a body dragged him underwater.

Panic drove adrenaline through pumping veins and gave strength to drag his burden to the surface. Despite salt water filling his lungs, he struggled until the maelstrom deposited him onto solid ground.

Deposited on a beach in driving rain, sand coated every surface and crevasse of skin. He wasted breath on a curse while waiting for each successive wave to help lift his companion’s body higher onto the beach. Coarse sand dissolved beneath him when a greedy undertow tried to suck his burden into the foam. Despite fighting exhaustion, he held ground against nature’s fickle temper. Dragging air into tortured lungs, he ground his teeth and waited for the next incoming surge.

Thankful to have survived the shipwreck he hoped saving the life of his companion would provide redemption for the dark morass of his past.

Beside a tumble of rocks that protected him from the wind, he examined his comatose shipmate. Wiping sand from a calloused finger, he searched for a pulse and the warmth of living flesh. With a sigh of satisfaction, he relaxed.

Eyes clogged with sand closed. He fought against the fatigue that plagued every cell of his body. To succumb to dreams before dawn would mean facing the ghosts who haunted his nights. Instead, he mulled over the task ahead, concentrating on how he would escape this accursed planet. Only then could he focus on revenge.

With a curse, he vowed to punish the man who abducted him and left him stranded on a world where sorcerers and slavery existed.

Anger warmed his blood as he considered how Ephraim would die.

***

Despite his determination, sleep overwhelmed him but offered no peace of mind. Scrutinized by the sightless eyes of drowned men, panic plagued his dreams. Hungry for vengeance and corrupted by the stench of watery decay, angry spirits sought to destroy his sanity.

In his vision strands of hair washed like seaweed across the disintegrating flesh of dead sailors. Tides of marine scavengers reduced humanity to bare bone and memory. Their accusations spread on the current to drown him in guilt. Fleshless fingers reached through the depths to draw him into Death’s grasp. Parasitic wraiths gnawed at his soul while his lungs filled with the fetor of a carnivore’s breath.

Awareness returned as the nightmare shattered. Terror dissolved before a snarl when his eyes snapped open. Light drove barbs into his eyes, forcing him to blink before he could focus on the muzzle of a salivating wolf.

Bared fangs gleamed inches from his face while amber eyes regarded him without blinking.

Hunger, thirst and need to survive overcame any fear a wolf might evoke as he lifted an arm to fend off the creature’s curious approach. Watching the wolf’s hesitant withdrawal, he knew a single wolf wouldn’t prevent him from leaving this planet.

Two things though struck him as unfortunate. The arm he tried to lift remained bound to his companion’s unconscious body. Sodden rope limited movement and brought the present situation into focus, rousing memories of a shipwreck and days spent adrift in a storm-ridden ocean.

In a heartbeat, he became aware of a second problem. Heavy enough to draw blood with it’s hilt strangled by white knuckled hands the pressure of a sword blade against neck alarmed him.

“Riante tol?” The voice of a young man trembled but pressure applied to the blade emphasized each word. The survivor closed weary eyes. Appearing to drift off for a few seconds, he maneuvered his other hand to ensure nothing hampered its movement.

With the wolf standing close enough to share warmth, the survivor extracted the youth’s language from implanted data discs. He accessed souvenirs of another galaxy he collected as part of a previous career.

“You can call me …Caleath.” The stranger cast aside his former identity without a qualm, as he had done on previous occasions. His new persona tried to swallow but his throat was parched and his lips blistered and bleeding from days in salt and sun. His words drew a snarl from the wolf.

“Call off your dog. I will not hurt you.”

The youth hesitated while the skin around his strange green eyes puckered.

Before the youth made a decision, Caleath moved.

The wolf yowled as he punched one fist under its jaw. With a yelp, the creature recoiled. While the young man’s attention faltered, Caleath twisted his arm around the flat of the blade resting across his neck. His hand grasped the haft of the sword, while Caleath used his bodyweight to lever the weapon free of the youth’s hand. Before he slammed the blade into the sand, out of harm’s way Caleath used the sword to free himself from the rough hemp rope.

“You won’t need that. You're likely to get hurt.” He brushed sand from his hands. “This man needs help.”

Recovering its dignity the wolf growled but now remained out of reach. The youth’s eyes widened and sweat beaded on his brow. His eyes dropped to his empty hands as he wiped them on his leggings.

“What is your name?” Caleath prompted conversation while he struggled to lift his companion. With a grunt, he managed to hoist the old man onto his shoulder, while he took stock of the youth’s homespun garments and ingeniously tailored skins.

From bare feet to his head of sandy hair the boy exuded health and vitality. His expression seemed honest and unused to the shadow of fear that haunted his brow.

Green eyes glinted in the dawn light as the youth watched Caleath.

“Gwilt. My name is Gwilt.”

Glancing at the boy’s bare feet Caleath nodded.

“You live near here. Help me get this man to shelter and you can have any of the bounty we can salvage.”

“When all this is mine if you should die.”

Caleath perused the storm torn headland where he crawled ashore. Wooden chests, barrels and mounds of driftwood littered the beach.

With a smile, he hoisted his burden higher. The boy might have been right, only now, Caleath harbored no intention of dying nor would he allow his companion to come to harm.

“You might find my death a little hard to arrange. You missed the opportunity, Gwilt,” Caleath took a tentative step. “I take your point though. I rely on your generosity.” As he shifted his weight, Caleath doubled over in pain and dropped the older man. He cursed under his breath when the wolf leapt forward.

Before the creature could attack, Gwilt grabbed its thick fur. Caleath took a moment to recover from collapse. He lifted himself, trying to make light of any weakness by throwing a curse at the debris snagging his feet.

He could feel Gwilt watching every movement. When Gwilt released the wolf, he cast his gaze over Caleath’s clothing. Feeling naked before such appraisal, Caleath brushed accumulated sand from his attire. He swallowed and cleared his throat. If the boy shared the wolf’s distrust… The idea didn’t bear thinking about.. On a good day, he knew his appearance was unkempt and he’d heard how the intensity of his gaze could be frightening.

Bare feet protruded from his tattered leggings. Days in the water reduced the coarse hemp shirt he wore to little more than rags and his coat had seen better days. His clothes were salt encrusted, stained and too large for his slight frame.

Matted blond hair fell across eyes once described as the color of an ocean on a sultry day. Exposed flesh on ankles and wrists showed recent injury. Caleath could see the youth’s expression narrow. Tight creases tugged at the corners of his eyes. Full lips pursed and Gwilt’s clear brow furrowed. Caleath tried to appear unconcerned. He could not afford Gwilt reneging on his offer of aid. A sudden impatient energy spurred Caleath to action.

“Come on, Chesney.” Caleath identified his companion, belaying the need for introductions. Again, he struggled to lift the other man

Chesney, in contrast to Caleath’s ragged garb appeared well dressed. A much larger man, older and with a rotund gut his clothes bore days in the ocean without serious damage.

Wearing a linen shirt, embroidered waistcoat and leather leggings, his clothes boasted brass buttons, a tooled belt with an ornate silver buckle. Gwilt’s soft intake of breath seemed to appreciate the quality of Chesney’s garments. Caleath knew the other man’s boots alone would fetch, with a little restoration, more than a full-grown boar.

“Here, I'll help you. It’s a fair way. Will you make it?”

“Needs must,” Caleath accepted the boy’s help with unspoken relief. “Adder’s spit,” he cursed, while he fought to keep his feet. “I need food.” His spoke as a mantra to himself rather than for Gwilt’s benefit.

“We have plenty of food,” Gwilt wrinkled his nose. “Hot and filling.”

Caleath looked at the boy with measure. Hunger it seemed did not create problems for the strapping youth. Nor Caleath noted did malnutrition ever give Chesney much grief, judging from his weight when they lifted him.

The wolf circled the strange trio when they started onto the beach. Although he found walking a task, Caleath managed to take his share of Chesney’s weight. He dragged his companion in silence. Only an occasional intake of breath gave an indication of how much effort he expended. When blood from opened wounds spread inside his shirt Caleath tried to keep his dismay to himself. Bare feet squelched through damp sand as they avoided kelp strewn across the beach and struggled to negotiate rocks and soft sand.

Chesney groaned once and Caleath paused to adjust the man’s weight. He took a moment to survey the beach and grimaced. Two bodies lay wasted on the sand. A third floated like a bloated tick in the eddy of each wave.

At the end of the beach, a faint track wound around a rugged headland. Caleath met Gwilt’s unspoken question with a resigned shrug. With no other choice, he faced the cliff. The climb took longer and seemed more dangerous than it appeared from the beach. Throughout the ordeal, Caleath struggled to keep on his feet. The wolf followed close, the constant menace annoyed him but he owned no energy to expend on cursing the creature.

With a final effort, he reached the summit. While Gwilt lowered Chesney to the ground, Caleath sank to his knees. With a cold wind pummeling the headland, Chesney’s lips turned a shade of blue and his hands felt as cold as death. Caleath removed his coat, knowing as soon as he did, Gwilt would see he needed to recover from a beating. If the young man still accepted his presence without feeling threatened, the future boded well. He wrapped the tattered fabric of his jacket around Chesney and shivered when the gale tried to tear the shirt from his back. He could see good sense in Gwilt’s already dry skins. The boy appeared impervious to the cold.

“How far now?” he asked through chattering teeth. Gwilt scrambled to his feet, grabbed Chesney and lifted him with ease. He gestured with his chin to a hut snuggled into the lee of the cliff.

“You go on ahead, I can manage your friend.” Gwilt started forward. “You obviously need your strength.”

With a nod, Caleath accepted the youth’s help.

***

Caleath decided the old stone hut had seen better days but he was thankful that it provided instant shelter from the wind. While Gwilt maneuvered Chesney inside, Caleath leaned against the doorway. Relief from constant cold gave him a moment to evaluate his surroundings. Gwilt’s cottage nestled into the side of a hill sloping away from the cliff face where open ground spread to the edge of a eucalyptus forest.

A path meandered around small patches of garden where a milking goat browsed. The beast was untroubled by the wind sweeping across the last of the summer crops and the start of winter planting. A lean-to seemed to support the end of the hut, where occupants undertook repairs too often without skill. One door opened into the hut and a single window offered a view of anyone approaching. The simple design seemed to indicate the boy had no serious need to defend his home. Nor, from the number of sleeping pallets Caleath counted, did he share the space with a large family. Able to relax a little, Caleath entered the cluttered room.

Chesney lay on a straw pallet near the fireplace beneath a musty bearskin. Gwilt stoked glowing coals while he hunted chickens away from a pot of stew simmering above the embers. Caleath’s eyes rested on the table where another hen explored the remains of a loaf of bread.

Sudden hunger overwhelmed him. Caleath crossed the room, brushed the chicken aside and snatched at the bread. He gnawed on a chunk of crust, found a plate of porridge and started to shovel gruel into his mouth.

Preoccupied with filling his gut, when Gwilt spoke Caleath snarled. His reaction was instinctive, protecting his right to food. Starvation left no room for self-consciousness.

Caleath hesitated, embarrassed by his need. He felt no need to explain his condition to the youth. How could he? An explanation would involve dredging through memories of his home planet.

Now he survived in exile, marooned on a planet where his enemy placed assassins to hunt him. Could he explain how the implant beneath the skin of his forearm was able to alert him to the proximity of those hunters? Who from this world would understand his ability to heal using nanobots and their demand for a constant energy source? Alternatively, how could he explain when food was not forthcoming the same creatures began to consume tissue and left his flesh scarred?

“How long since you ate?” Gwilt offered Caleath a spoon. “There is stew here. It’s still warm.”

“I’m sorry.” Licking his fingers when Gwilt heaped food into a wooden bowl, Caleath scoffed the warm gruel. Before he drew breath, he accepted and proceeded to devour a second helping.

“Is there enough for the old man and you?” Caleath enquired as he wiped the bowl clean with the remains of the bread and quaffed water from a pottery flask.

“There is plenty. Gai will bring supplies. Do you want more?” Gwilt stirred the pot.

“Gai?”

“My sister and her betrothed have been to the village for supplies. Eat what you need.”

Intense green eyes seemed to hunt for a clue to his behavior. Caleath found the lad showed enough good sense not to ask questions too painful to answer. After wiping his mouth, he licked grease from his fingers. There would be a price to pay for his appetite. He could feel spasms begin as his body reacted to an influx of food. With hunger quelled, the nanobots would extract a price for their healing. The need to keep moving drove him to his feet. There were dead to bury and things he needed to do.

“Keep an eye on the old man. He should look more alive once he warms up.” After checking the older man’s breathing and the condition of sunburned extremities, Caleath removed the coat from around Chesney’s shoulders. Satisfied, he shrugged on the coat and left the hut. Pacing himself, Caleath walked towards the cliff path.

***

Gwilt spent his morning fighting impatience. He either watched while Chesney slept or stood on his favorite niche at the cliff face and watched the stranger while he labored to bury dead and drag leather-bound chests and wooden barrels high onto the beach. He noticed Caleath paused to rest and watch the sea’s irascible mood. Nothing about his actions indicated he would appreciate company.

Frustrated, Gwilt gnawed the back of his thumb. He rested against the wolf’s warm coat while the wind spiraled around him with decreased intensity.

***

Where am I?” Chesney’s outcry caused Gwilt to recoil. Throwing back the bearskin Chesney struggled upright. Dark eyes glanced around the small hut. His brow lowered over shadowed eyes and Gwilt watched a disgruntled frown settle into place. “Where are the others?” His coarse demand disturbed the wolf. Using the wall for support the older man struggled to his feet. Cyd started to growl and placed himself between Gwilt and the stranger.

Without understanding the speech, Gwilt grabbed a bowl of stew.

“Relax. You are safe now. Here. There is plenty of food,” Gwilt offered the bowl. He spoke with calm he didn’t feel. Chesney rubbed sunburned hands over stubble on his weathered face and lifted hooded eyes to meet Gwilt’s gaze. Raising his eyebrows, the older man accepted the bowl and spoon.

“Thank you,” Chesney spoke in Gwilt’s dialect. “Where are we? Who governs here?” The old man seemed less than enthusiastic about the food. Nothing suggested he suffered from starvation. “Water would be good,” Chesney prompted, handing Gwilt the untouched stew.

“Water?” Gwilt moved to comply. He hid any confusion he felt. “How do you know our language? You are not from around here. We are north of Riversend. In Allorn the Council of Mages governs if that’s what you call their method of keeping order.”

“Allorn?” One eyebrow rose higher. Taut flesh around aged eyes relaxed as the man took a greater interest in his surroundings. “Allorn? I’ve never heard of such a place.” After a thoughtful grunt, Chesney chuckled. “By the Blade, perhaps he was telling the truth after all.” He smiled but his expression of delight didn’t impress Gwilt. Sunburned skin stretched tight when his smile expanded into a broad grin. “I tell you boy, for once in my life I took a risk and I think my actions have paid off!” When he looked up his eyes reflected the morning light. “Where are the others? Adder’s spit! I am glad I speak your language, my boy. I have traveled a great deal in my life. Strangely, your speech is not so different from my native tongue. I am alive and that is a miracle. I need my story told. What happened to the Albatross must not pass from memory!”

“The others?” Gwilt hesitated. “One other survived. There are three dead on the rocks.”

“What!” Chesney’s gasped. “Truly, boy?”

Gwilt watched the older man’s color drain as his expression flickered from despair to calm.

“Fools,” Chesney sipped his water and licked his lips. “I could have been one of them.” He straightened, as if worried by inner turmoil. “What if he was right? How? How did he know?”

“Please tell me.” Gwilt found curiosity overwhelm restraint. He yearned to know everything about the strangers. The idea of having access to knowledge beyond the tales swapped over winter thrilled him to the core.

“Huh?” Chesney gave the water a thoughtful swirl. “Do you have anything else to drink, lad? Some ale or wine to help restore my memory?”

Gwilt hesitated. There was a barrel of wine laid down for winter. Gai would not approve of him opening the casket but with goods salvaged from the wreck, they would have coin enough to replace their whole store tenfold. With a grin, he moved to fetch the wine.

“You say one other survived?” Chesney settled his bulk against the wall. “Where is he?”

Gwilt looked around, comparing the other man’s strange behavior. Chesney seemed like any of the locals from the village.

“Burying the dead.” Gwilt shrugged. “He didn’t ask for help.”

“Ahh, I should perhaps offer my aid but I need to recuperate. The dead will wait. I can see you’d enjoy a good yarn.” He eyed the small barrel. “Aye and true, that as well,” he added getting comfortable. Gwilt worked a chiseled bung free and watched as full bodied wine poured like an invitation into a large chipped mug.

“Where I come from, lad,” the older man began. “We all serve Karadorian masters.” Chesney took a sip of the wine and smacked his lips in appreciation. The gleam in his eye and the sigh as he slopped the rich fluid around his palate showed pleasant surprise. Stretching sunburned muscles, he made himself comfortable and continued. “I’ve been a blacksmith so I am useful and that helps when you have to survive under Karador’s rule.”

Gwilt grabbed a stool and leaned forward on the table, where he could listen and refill the smith’s mug. He prepared for a good tale.

“For three summers now, seems like three lifetimes, we have served under Governor Elensor on campaign. We were in Sandor when the emperor recalled Elensor. Not the sort of news we wanted to hear. Still, no one asked us our likes or dislikes. We set sail on the Albatross over a month ago. Wrath sailed with us.”

“Wrath?” Gwilt prompted when Chesney, with an unexpected sigh, subsided into deep thought.

“Governor Elensor’s prize-fighting gladiator who people say is immortal. Nasty business but very profitable and the rogue was supposed to be kept well under control. At least that’s what we thought,” Chesney sighed and ran salt encrusted fingers through his coarse stubble.

Gwilt remained transfixed, while the other man’s mind appeared to wander.

“You don’t gamble do you? You wouldn’t understand how much this one man meant to the governor’s wealth and ours. We made a lot of money from watching him fight, win or lose. He fought for our entertainment and that meant money. So it was, that Wrath traveled with us on the Albatross.” Chesney wiped his mouth and indicated for Gwilt to refill his glass.

“Go on,” Gwilt urged. Chesney nodded, settling back.

“Wrath needed to be controlled. Two dread lords watched him. Powerful wizards. Always. They were never far from him. They considered Wrath too valuable and too unpredictable. Terrible temper, understandable the way Elensor treated him. There was talk of dark sorceries involving the warrior. Elensor won too many of his battles before blood began to flow.

“A darkness surrounds those mages and no doubt some of their malevolence effected Wrath. However, the mages became almost useless once we put to sea. Rumor says salt water lessens the power of their magic.

“Elensor and his few men fought seasickness and boredom by drinking and whoring. The governor permitted Wrath to walk free among the crew and the mercenaries who faced the prospect of leaving on campaign again. The mood I guess was right for his subterfuge.”

“Subterfuge?” Gwilt pouted, drawing his legs under him and getting comfortable while the wolf leaned against him.

“Anyhow, for three weeks things were fine.” Chesney ignored the youth’s comment as he continued. “We sailed southwest toward The Islands of Irthalarnd and then we turned south. Wrath took to remaining on deck. Our navigator found the slave skilled and willing to share his workload. Wrath worked hard, he didn’t tire and was always on hand. It was only later we discovered why.” Chesney paused.

Gwilt leaned forward. Despite not understanding references to people or places, he listened in rapt awe, silently urging the man to continue. The boy realized the garrulous smith enjoyed the luxury of a captive audience and the excess of fine wine.

“The wind favored us and all seemed well. Unknowingly we sailed toward the edge of the world. Meanwhile on the deck, Wrath captivated us with talk of freedom. He described a land where we could live beyond Karador’s reach. Even though no one believed him, he was already planning his escape.

“I don’t know how long it was before the navigator and captain found the instruments for navigation sabotaged and the charts damaged. We sailed toward our doom.”

Gwilt frowned. His limited nautical skills came from watching the ocean in all her moods.

“Elensor was furious. The soldiers and the crew were afraid. They accused Wrath of sabotage and gave him no opportunity to deny his guilt. Elensor had him beaten. We watched while he sustained injuries enough to kill any other man. The superstitious crew wanted to throw him to the sea gods but to Elensor he remained valuable. Wrath said we would find land.” Chesney paused. “We have but we never thought we would. They threw Wrath into the hold and controlled him again by iron shackles and spells of the dread lords.

‘”The captain and crew tacked all day, turning the Albatross time and again. On the second day, things got worse. The wind stopped. Becalmed, men started to panic. They said it boded ill being so close to the Edge and all. We tried rowing, praying, the wizards tried who knows what. Nevertheless, the boat drifted south, caught by the current.

“Tempers reached screaming pitch and Elensor was forced to consider all options, the storm broke. Morale was non-existent. We knew we sailed to our doom. Wrath’s treachery would kill us all.” Chesney met Gwilt’s intense gaze. Gwilt nodded, spellbound. His rapt expression seemed to encourage the smith. The older man lowered his focus into the red wine swirling in the bottom of his cup.

“Five days and nights, we fought to hold the ship together every moment fearing the final fall from the edge.”

Gwilt knew the ferocity of the ocean well. He tried to imagine being at her mercy.

“The ship began to break up. We jettisoned the last of the cargo. We tried to plug leaks but the water came in too fast…” He caught his breath as he relived his dismay. “I was last out of the hold. I stopped to block the hatch in a futile attempt to keep the sea out.

“I heard a scream. Blood curdling. Primal, like nothing you can imagine. My heart stopped. For seconds I froze and then the cry came again. It was Wrath. They left the poor wretch to drown with the ship. I don’t know if I thought things through but I knew I couldn’t leave without trying to give him some chance of surviving.

“His terror sounded greater than mine ...and I knew why. They said he was immortal. He thought he couldn’t drown. I broke open the hatch to the aft hold. Water already filled the place. Wrath fought the wizard’s chains like a fox in a trap. I couldn’t leave without trying to help him.

“The ship rolled on her side as she began to sink. I am a smith; I know how to pick any lock and enough about how wizards work their bindings to free him. Although the water rose over Wrath’s head, I worked to release him. My own survival no longer concerned me. Death seemed inevitable. Nor am I big on doing good deeds. Don’t get me wrong. However, something in his desperation touched me. I freed him. It probably did him no good but I couldn’t live with the idea of him being trapped alive.”

***

At that moment, Caleath stepped into the room. Gwilt watched his deliberate actions. He moved as though his bones were made of glass although he no longer looked disheveled. Dressed in garments taken from salvaged wreckage he wore colors of deepest green. A sword and brace of daggers hung with familiar ease beneath a heavy cloak. A swathe of bandages covered both wrists and marred the perfect fit of laced cuffs. Polished boots finished an outfit fashioned to grace any nobleman or warrior.

Wrath!” Chesney upset his stool and dropped his empty wine cup. He grabbed the bearskin as it fell from around his shoulders and used the rug to shield himself. “You’re not dead!”

If you thought I could die,” Caleath’s expression narrowed. His words were in a strange tongue but Gwilt understood his meaning when Caleath’s brow lowered into a frown. “You would have left me to drown, don’t look so surprised. My name is Caleath. ‘Wrath’ was Elensor’s creature.” Gwilt felt his color drain as he recognized several of Caleath’s words. His eyes widened and his jaw dropped. He saw Caleath’s mood darken as the younger man threw the smith an accusatory scowl.

“What happened to the others?” Chesney ventured making an effort to speak in local dialect. “How many died for you to gain your freedom?”

Gwilt watched Caleath wince as if the old soldier touched a nerve. There was no hiding the guilt the young man carried.

“Three. Gods know where the others lie but I buried three,” Caleath placed a salvaged chest on the floor beside the fire. Showing a disinclination to prolong the discussion, he took a stool and placed it against the wall opposite the open door. With a sigh, he sat and leant against the wood. “May they lie in peace.”

Gwilt placed the stranger in Chesney’s tale. Uncharacteristic behavior now made sense. The expression on Caleath’s face surprised him. The stranger showed no relief at the other man’s recovery. His demeanor seemed wrought by exhaustion and Gwilt sensed Chesney’s reaction governed Caleath’s reaction. Gwilt felt that a word from the smith could appease the young man’s guilt. If the responsibility for so many deaths rested on his shoulders, it was no wonder the stranger appeared ill at ease.

The wolf sensed rising tension in the room and allowed a low growl to rumble free from his throat.

“You are responsible for the livelihood of over two hundred men,” Chesney turned his head, watching without flinching when Caleath recoiled.

Gwilt knew then, the smith offered no clemency and he watched the burden of guilt settle on weary shoulders as Caleath accepted the smith’s judgment.

I tried to offer them freedom and life. But they chose to panic and they made their choice clear, smith.”

“Where are we then?” Chesney looked through the open window.

“We are on the southern continent of Sharyac. We didn’t fall off the edge of the world,” Caleath grimaced and kneaded the inside of his left arm where Gwilt had noticed a strange tattoo. When he caught Gwilt watching him, Caleath made a show of taking Chesney’s discarded stew and devouring the food.

“I feel lucky to be alive,” Chesney said. “How is it that you knew so much? Are you sure no one else survived? That is unthinkable.”

Caleath continued to eat while the smith grabbed a stool, retrieved his dropped cup and refilled it. As if an afterthought, he poured a second mug, sat at the table opposite Caleath and offered him the drink.

“The storm may have washed them further along the coast. They may have been killed, Chesney. I had nothing to do with it,” Caleath whispered. “It took all my resources keeping you alive but don’t thank me,” he swallowed. “I have ensured your survival and you have your freedom so any debt you think I owe you is paid.”

“Ahh Caleath, I have lost everything.” Chesney’s hands closed around his cup. “I should have returned to Karador a wealthy man able to buy my freedom.” He leant forward and ran his finger over the black chain mail shirt Caleath now wore. Gwilt estimated the garment would cost more than a year’s wages. “Now I am shipwrecked on a strange shore it is for me to decide if you remain in my debt.”

Recoiling Caleath broke contact with the smith.

“There is more than enough in what has washed ashore for you to recover your losses, smith. In truth Gwilt has salvage rights,” He turned and met Gwilt’s gaze. “I have taken only what I will need.” With a scowl, he glared back at the mercenary though he addressed his words to Gwilt. “All I have is yours when I am dead, Gwilt. You have no need of it yet.”

Gwilt shrugged. He cared little for the tone of conversation and wanted nothing in return for his hospitality.

“You are welcome to whatever. I didn’t mean you to take what I said before seriously.”

Caleath appeared to ignore the boy’s generosity. His attention remained riveted on Chesney.

“I will take my freedom, Chesney.” The words sounded like threat. He reached across and grabbed the front of Chesney’s shirt, brought the old soldier’s face to within inches of his own. “Accept your life as a gift and be grateful. Don’t make me regret the effort I spent keeping you alive.” His voice was an even whisper but the hair at the base of Gwilt’s neck rose. He sensed Caleath’s calm formed a brittle facade. “Do not squander the bounty belonging to these peasants.”

“There is no need is there? We can make a fortune with your skill. No one around here will know of your reputation. I think you and I will make a fine team. You wanted to be here, wherever ‘here’ is. You gave me little choice. My life is a bonus but my retirement, my wealth and freedom can you put a price on them. I intend becoming wealthy with your help.”

Gwilt watched tension in the white knuckled fist cramping the fabric of Chesney’s shirt. Muscles corded at the side of Caleath’s neck and the fingers of his free hand curled around the handle of a lethal dagger. Despite Caleath’s outward calm Gwilt sensed a wave of rage rise to engulf the cottage.

Afraid for the first time since discovering the strangers, Gwilt extended his mind to touch the anger battering his senses. In a single heartbeat of contact, he knew Caleath was unaware of the maelstrom of emotion he exuded.

Chesney’s gaze locked with Caleath’s, his lips curled and his eyes creased in a smile as if he savored a dream of future successes. The smith appeared unaware of the passion he aroused.

More from instinct than from design, Gwilt endeavored to calm Caleath’s outrage before the cobweb of his control disappeared. Gwilt’s ability to read and at times affect the emotional state of another being came as a natural talent. He had no training or mentor to hone his skill.

“Stop this!” Gwilt tried to shout but his voice caught in his throat. Moving forward, he threw his arms around Cyd before the wolf could lunge forward.

Caleath spun without releasing his hold on the smith. Gwilt glanced from where he held Cyd to see Caleath brace as if expecting a blow to land. The stark blue of his eyes seemed to pierce Gwilt’s skull, the intensity of his gaze demanded answers to unspoken questions. Unable to meet the revelation of guilt and self-loathing in those orbs Gwilt lowered his head. Between one heartbeat and the next, glacial calm blanketed the atmosphere in the hut.

As Gwilt watched, Caleath turned to meet Chesney’s hopeful grin. Tension evaporated, the hand supporting the smith no longer curled into a fist.

“Count me out of your plans. I will no longer fight for another’s pleasure, smith.” Caleath rolled his shoulders, loosening strained muscles in his neck and back. “I give you the opportunity to live free of Karador’s rule. Take your chance or leave, it means nothing to me. Don’t include me in your schemes or...”

“Or what?” Chesney placed his hands flat on the table and faced Caleath. “Is that some sort of threat? Is that how you repay a debt?”

Caleath recoiled and took a deep breath. Gwilt could feel the tension ease while Caleath lowered his shoulders and forced himself to remain relaxed. Releasing Chesney’s shirt he brushed away an imagined speck of grime. Even the innocent action bespoke threat. Veins that corded across the back of Caleath’s wrist were the only indication of the anger banished beneath this outward calm.

From his moment of shared perception, Gwilt understood the effort it took Caleath to overcome hostility. He empathized with Caleath’s struggle to subdue the persona of Wrath, Elensor’s warrior slave.

For a heartbeat, the silent battle raged. Chesney appeared unaware of how close he came to facing Wrath’s unleashed anger. Gwilt realized any hope of redemption for saving the smith’s life, dissipated.

Appearing to relax, Caleath dropped his gaze and released a deep sigh as though he accepted that he was in no position to dictate codes of behavior to the smith.

“Me? Threaten you?” Caleath sighed. “No,” his voice held no rancor. “I rely on your sense of decency. On my life, I know you possess more compassion than most.” He stood with little effort. “Accept my apology.” Without even a sideways glance toward Gwilt, he walked to the door where he paused but didn’t turn. “Don’t fill the boy’s head with nonsense, Chesney. There is a lot he doesn’t need to know.”

Without another word, he hawked, spat and strode toward the forest.

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