click to see at large size
“You’re lucky,” Leon said with a thin edge of humor in the deep voice. “You might have been halfway to market before I caught up with you.” He paused long enough to swing his leg over the saddle, and dropped to the ground, supple as a big cat. “And you were lucky it was Yussan who caught you, because if it’d been anybody else — and there are scores of the bastards out here! — there’d have been a pail of blood spilled, maybe some of it mine. Bloodletting,” he added darkly, “puts me in a foul temper.”
Martin’s head had begun to spin, and none of this made any sense. He was cold, his knees hurt, and fear prickled through him, making him colder yet. He knew the night was not really chill, since Leon’s broad torso was bare, and he seemed comfortable enough. But fear seemed to make the blood drain right out of the extremities, leaving Martin close to trembling.
The big man was glaring down at him, and his heart was in his mouth as he hunted for his voice. “You were looking for me? I don’t understand.”
The sound of a chuckle surprised him. “I know you don’t,” Leon said shortly. “I’d be shocked if you did.” He cocked his head at Martin and asked oddly, “What are you, boy?”
The question might have sounded strange, but Martin knew the answer without even thinking about it. “I’m an idiot,” he said dutifully, without even taking a breath. “I know I’m an idiot.” He shifted again on knees that had begun to bruise. “You think it didn’t occur to me, when Yussan was talking about taking me someplace? Selling me? Would he have done that?”
For some time Leon studied him mutely, while he, himself, was little more than a dark silhouette against the twilight sky. Stars had begun to twinkle there, and the night air was sharp. Somewhere not far off, a campfire or perhaps the hearth in a trapper’s hut was sending out a veil of woodsmoke that made Martin long for home.
“Oh, Yussan would have sold you,” Leon said at last. “You haven’t heard his name, back in Esketh?”
“I have,” Martin admitted.
“Then you know what he does. He makes a very good living, trading in morons. And there’s never any shortage of halfwits breaking curfew to try their luck in these badlands.” Leon cast a disapproving glance over the ruins, and on, toward the distant city of Arkeshan.
“Halfwits,” Martin echoed, and sighed, for the word was accurate enough.
At last Leon stirred and gestured with the sword. “Get up on your feet, boy. Are you hurt?” The dark eyes were all over Martin as he scrambled up.
He stood, head bowed, grateful for the twilight, which would hide the hot blush on his face. He could have mentioned his knees, which were going to be blue tomorrow, but he held his tongue as Leon said,
“I don’t see a mark on you. Nobody laid a finger on you, then?”
“Nobody touched me,” Martin admitted with a deep shiver, for he knew what could have happened. He chanced a little glance up at Leon, and then bowed his head again. Leon towered over him, bigger, broader, older, with a power Martin envied. “You know there’s a gang of men out there, armed with bows? They could shoot us dead.”
Again, the chuckle. Leon shifted his grip on the sword. “Who told you that?”
“Yussan.” Martin lifted his head now, eyes wide in the near darkness, eager to see Leon’s face. “It’s what he said. A whole gang out there, armed to the teeth.”
“And you believe everything you’re told?” Leon asked teasingly.
“Well, no,” Martin began, “but —”
“I think you do believe everything you’re told,” Leon observed, as if it amused and annoyed him at once.”I think you followed some wild goose chase out here, and you need your brains examined. My gods, you deserve to be groomed for the markets, and then stood up on an auction block!” He paused to look Martin up and down. “Have you any idea, any at all, the kind of lessons Yussan would have taught you?”
The truth was, Martin did, and what he knew mocked him. He trembled a little, and the prickle on his skin had nothing to do with the night wind. “I know, everybody knows, they sell bonded courtesans in Arkeshan. He said I had the looks for it, so … I guess he’d have taught me that. How to be a courtesan.”
“You guess.” Leon’s scorn was evident in the single syllable. “You need a lesson. Perhaps not in the arts and guiles of the courtesan, but a lesson nonetheless … except, it’d be a thousand times too much trouble to take you there and then haul you right back again.”
The pulse drummed in Martin’s head. “You’re going to take me out and sell me, same as Yussan? You just got in his way because you want the purse, because he owes you a half dozen favors. I was listening. I heard every word.”
“Did you, now?” Leon tilted his head, studying Martin critically. “I’ll say one thing for you, moron. You have the kind of luck that makes people think there’s a guardian angel standing right behind you.”
Sullen and rebellious, Martin looked up at him, noticing how tall Leon was, how broad. He was built like a soldier, and carried himself like a professional warrior. “I’m supposed to be lucky, because you’re going to sell, me instead of Yussan?” He heard the querulous, perverse tone of his own voice and groaned.
“Lucky,” Leon said sharply, “that you walked right into Yussan. For a start, even if he’d taken you to some market with a price painted on your butt, he’d have spent two or three weeks grooming you, making you into the most precious toy. There’s no skill you wouldn’t have mastered by the time he was done with you — then he’d have made sure he sold you to somebody who would barely afford the asking price.” He gave Martin a cynical glare. “You know why?”
For the life of him, Martin did not. He was struggling to follow Leon’s reasoning, and just shook his head dumbly. The thrill of fear had begun to subside a little, but he was still dry-mouthed.
“Because,” Leon told him, “people who can barely afford the price of their toys take care not to break them. You’d have been treated well, so long as you did what you were told.”
Night birds had come out to hunt, and something very like an owl swooped by close to Martin’s shoulder on soft, silent wings, making him flinch. A tiny animal squealed once and then was silent in death. Tonight, the death of any creature made Martin shiver.
“Lucky,” he whispered, unable to see luck in any part of what had happened to him.
“You don’t think yourself fortunate?” Leon chuckled, but the sound bore no humor. “You owe somebody an explanation and an apology. And if I ever managed to track you down — which I have! — I’m under oath to put you over my knee, tan your butt till you’re red as a bunch of roses.”
Martin sucked in a breath and took a step back. “You — you what? Who said — who told —?” He had managed to be coherent all the while he faced up to Yussan, but his tongue defied him now.
“Your guardian put me under oath,” Leon informed him. “Who did you think? The Sheriff of Esketh?” He grunted eloquently. “We’ll settle with the sheriff in due course.” He slid away the sword and gave Martin a dark look. “Put your damned clothes on. I made camp up at the old cenotaph. It’s too late, and too wild, to head back to the city tonight, but I’ll get you back where you belong in the morning.”
He was going home? Martin snatched up the wrap and cloak, and dressed clumsily as Leon went on,
“In the meantime, you can tell me what in the gods’ names brought you out here. Convince me you had a reason. Then,” he said acidly, “I’ll decide if you go over my knee, for how long, and how hard I tan you before I hand you back to Roald.”
Martin struggled to tell if Leon were being serious with him, or teasing without mercy. “You wouldn’t tan me — I’m a grown man, you can’t treat me like a kid!”
For a moment Leon just looked at him, and then he spoke softly into the darkness, calling the horse. The big vanner had not wandered far, and came to him at once. “You want to go to the sheriff instead?” he demanded.
“Well, no, but —” Martin began, because he knew what Leon was about to say.
“It’ll be the bastinado for you, if the sheriff gets his hands on you. You’re of age, as you said, but you haven’t done a day of militia service to win the rights of majority. Your guardian is still responsible for you … and the sheriff will trust him to take the matter up with you.”
“I know,” Martin said miserably, swinging the cloak about his shoulders, and he watched as Leon swung back into the saddle.
He settled on the broad leather, shoved his feet into the stirrups, and extended his right arm. “Give me your hand. Ride behind me — let’s get back to my camp. “I’m hungry.”
“I did have a reason for being out here,” Martin muttered as he gave Leon his hand and was hauled up onto the back of the saddle.
The warrior’s hand was warm and soft-hard as cured leather. His back was cool, but still warmer than Martin’s chest as he settled on the saddle and caught the horse’s broad flanks between his knees.
“It’ll need to be a damned good reason to save your butt,” Leon warned. “Feed me nonsense, and I’ll put heat in those cheeks that’ll still be glowing in the morning. Roald,” he added, “is furious enough to spit. And me?” He gathered the long reins with another grunt, more eloquent than the first. “I ought to be in a tavern, drinking ale with my feet up in front of the fire, listening to music, eating good food, and where am I?” He nudged the horse with his heels to move them off. “Still on a saddle, in the middle of the damned badlands — and if it was anybody but Yussan who found you, I’d be blood to the eyeballs!”
Martin was also hungry and cold, and he knew Leon was right. The law was specific. Until a young man had done three years’ service with the militia, his rights and privileges were few. He was ‘of age,’ and was allowed to work and wed, but the law said he would obey the curfew — be inside the city walls by sundown, and not cause others to risk their lives in the wilds, hunting for him. There were consequences to be faced, as Martin had always known. Six hours ago, they had seemed worth the risk.
And Leon was also right about the crass foolishness of believing a legend and following a story out here. Roald had every reason to be furious.
“I had my reasons,” Martin muttered as the gypsy horse swung around and headed into the pall of silver mist which was rolling in over Barran’s Heath, thicker every minute now. “What I thought … well, my reasons were good enough for me.” He hung onto the saddle, and to Leon — tired confused, full of questions. And suspecting that nothing he could say would appease either his guardian or his rescuer. Chastisement was due. The sheriff would be merciless.
“You can tell me the whole sad story when you’re fed and warm,” Leon was saying as the horse picked his way out of the wind-blasted ruins and found the track leading back to the ancient cenotaph. “Tell me, and I’ll decide how much you owe us, Roald and me — and in what coin your debt will be paid.”
Martin swallowed hard, and hung on.
NOTE: The Abraxas Contents List is in the left-side column -- quick links to each chapter
NOTE: The Abraxas Contents List is in the left-side column -- quick links to each chapter
The art for this chapter is about 50% render and 50% painting, and I had loads of fun with it. At this point, I'm still building on, developing, working through, the original graphic novel pages, but I was hunting around through two-year-old folders, and I found (yes!!) the script (movie script style treatment) for up to Chapter Ten, and the notes for up to something around Chapter Fifty. Yes, Fifty. It's quite a complex story, and -- being hones! -- these are short chapters. The reason I'm breaking them up this way is that they're being posted in chunks, and you don't want to be reading more than about 2,000 words at once. That's something like 6-7 paperback pages, and if you're reading on your phone, about 20 "screens" worth of scrolling. In other words, that's quite enough to read in one chunk. But --
When we get up to something like Chapter 15, I can collect the whole segment into one file, give you a download link for an epub and pdf. What really tickles me pink is that I get to do 50 pieces of high-quality, ultra-finished artwork, so, by the time the story is finished you're going to have a huge repository of art as well as a full-length novel.
More of the story soon ... but I also need to think of Something Special, because I have Post 700 coming in in just 4 posts' time! The thinking cap is on. Something extraordinary. Like ...?? I'm a bit blank at the moment, but I'm sure I'll think of something soon!
If you're wondering how much painting is done on top of a finished render to get the results we're starting to see here, check this out:
Similarly, the CG superhero you saw yesterday was painted up like this:
...which has the bizarre look of experimental artwork all of a piece!
Jade, August 31