Ranger Buckskin proceeded to give Shadow Leaf a tour of the camp. The four tents in the far corner of camp did, indeed, belong to the new recruits who were in the field training. Shadow Leaf noted one of the tents was shoddily erected and a bit of a mess. The poor lad would likely find all his belongings, including the tent, balled up and pitched out on the plains somewhere.
Beyond the recruit tents were the recruit latrines, one of the few community services the recruits would need to perform. It was important to maintain hygiene so they would have the duty of occasionally relocating the latrines and burning off the waste.
On the opposite end of the camp stood the community well which pumped water from an underground spring. A significant distance beyond the well was a pocket of hot springs, a curious anomaly, but well used and appreciated. A minor grove of trees with a small pond was northwest of the camp, and beyond that a river running from the distant mountains and curving to the sea.
Ultimately, the Fist was a simple camp designed to force people to walk extended distances to reach their conveniences and luxuries. Hunting, fishing, and simply relaxing in a hot spring required a significant amount of time and effort, which was very different from an Elven camp–who lived in the midst of luxury. Perhaps the elves were so grumpy because they weren’t often allowed to enjoy those luxuries?
Shadow Leaf spent the next couple of days eating venison and telling stories. He found himself telling so many stories he considered buying a lute and calling himself a bard. However, singing stories bought friendships and with friendships came favors. The use of one of these favors provided him advance notice of Ranger Lord Shaeren being in sight of camp.
He sat upon Cur, bareback as usual, and waited for her small, distant form to grow ever larger as she neared until, finally, she came within speaking distance. Her expression was stoic, much to Shadow Leaf’s dismay. He always wanted to surprise her, to get some sort of response, but again, no such luck.
“Shadow Leaf, I did not expect you so soon.” She halted before Cur, her eyes not even hinting at any type of reaction: pleasant or otherwise. “How long have you waited?”
He released a quick breath, hidden behind a lopsided smirk. “Greetings and salutations to you as well. It’s wonderful to see you, Shaeren. What has it been three years? Five?”
Shaeren’s cheeks reddened at the friendly admonishment of a failed proper greeting. Though the chiding was courteous, he still remembered her sensitivity to any type of failure. “Four years this fall.”
Shadow Leaf shifted his focus to the young, red-headed recruit who still sat atop her horse. She looked comfortable on horseback, but the taut lines around her face hinted at a deeper truth. Tension raged through her body, as if she tried to present an aura of a ranger rather than just be a ranger. His smirk widened. The lass was posing. She’s trying to be Shaeren!
“So, this must be your first pup?” he asked Shaeren.
“It is.” She only spared the merest of glances toward the lass.
Ouch. “Off the horse, girl. Let’s have a look at you,” Shadow Leaf commanded as he dismounted. He wondered if she would do the same. The girl’s look toward Shaeren did not go unnoticed.
“Do as you are told.” Shaeren’s tone snapped like a whip.
The girl dismounted, struggling to appear as if she had done the deed countless times before. If anything, she presented about as much grace as a board. Anyone could see he made her nervous.
Shadow Leaf circled the girl for a complete turn before halting in front of her to grab up her hands for inspection. “Right handed, good. We won’t have to shove holy wafers in her mouth and cut off her head. That’s always a plus. Experienced with a bow, based on her predominant archer’s callous. That’s a nice break, though you’ll likely have to un-teach her a few things.” He let go of the girl’s now-trembling hands and continued his examination of her forearm and biceps. “Hmmm, not completely useless. Muscles are firm, but still pliable.” He placed the back of his hand to her cheek and face, “warm to the touch,” and grabbed a fistful of carrot-red hair, pulling down firmly enough to jerk her head back enough to gaze skyward. “Hair in tact.” He shot the female Ranger Lord a look. “Really, Shaeren?”
A full beat passed before her response. “Everything has its time and place, Vaga.”
Shadow Leaf stared at her, considering so many possibilities. . . . His gaze softened, as did his grip on the girl’s thick, braided cord of hair. “Not everything, Lea`Nella.” Shaeren’s gaze retreated, and the silence caused a shuffle to the girl’s feet. Shadow Leaf cleared his throat. “Para of House Albers, ward of Lord Henry Albers, was murdered in an attempted Regicide. She was mistaken for Lord Alber’s birth daughter and was cut down before her time. She was buried with love and gratitude in the family plot.”
Shaeren and Para’s heads snapped toward Shadow Leaf, illiciting a simultaneous, “What?”
“You, young pup, are, by far the liveliest dead person I have ever met.”
Para’s green eyes darkened as she shifted a lost expression to Shaeren. “What is he talking about?” Even her voice sounded breathy with confusion.
Shaeren blinked, once, and met Para’s seeking gaze. “Lord Henry has faked your death. You have no home to return to.”
The girl sucked in a breath, holding it as she stared, unblinking, at her mentor. Shadow Leaf felt for the girl, trying so hard to digest the information, and the implication: homeless. Again. His gaze flicked from Para’s ashen features–even her freckles seemed pale–to Shaeren’s matter-of-fact, and a bit cold, expression. “You want me to punch her in the face too, while we’re at it?” A reminder, shaming Shaeren in his own humorous and charming way, that the delivery was too cold. She, of all people, knew better.
Shadow Leaf – Sca’th Duille
After two days of merriment with old friends and some new ones, Shadow Leaf once again found himself on the trail toward Longsight’s Fist. While he initially planned to follow Shaeren’s trail, it was clear she took her sweet time getting there (or anywhere). Rather than catch up, he decided to skirt around and arrive ahead of her. He veered Cur to the right and nudged the beast to a quicker pace. Cur bobbed his head in agreement, giving a responding tug to the reigns.
Shadow Leaf reckoned he could be at the Fist in two days which, at Shaeren’s pace, would be two days ahead. He couldn’t help but smirk at the hoped expression of surprise when Shaeren saw him waiting for her. He leaned forward to whisper into Cur’s ear and gave his mane a tug. Cur lurched into an eager gallop.
Shadow Leaf saw the Fist in the distance long before arriving, one of the benefits of traveling through the plains. The down side being he could also be seen from a great distance.
Like most Fists, the camp was fairly simple and open. It wasn’t a fortress with armed guards by any stretch. This particular Fist sported a large stone building at the center with a few smaller ones surrounding it. Without many trees, stones were the best [and only] available resource for building permanent structures. The mountains weren’t far, nor was the quarry, but far enough to require a great deal of effort. The other buildings of the Fist were of a more temporary nature; oiled canvas on wood frames while, farther from the center, were small, simple tents.
The simplicity of the camp made Shadow Leaf long for the woodlands, where resources were plentiful and easy to move. Then there were the Elven rangers, where he originally trained from recruit to scout–the lap of luxury. Of course, that particular lap of luxury came at the cost of demanding trials. His lips twitched upward at the memories. “You’d think those who live for a thousand years would have more patience and a great sense of humor.” Cur’s grumble of response seemed more than apropos.
Only a few people recognized Shadow Leaf as he entered the Fist, even greeting him by name. Others merely observed his arrival, with the youngest openly gawking. Clearly the latter were the new recruits, the lucky few whose tents were pitched on the outskirts of camp. They stopped their tasks to watch this dirty old guy who their instructors probably informed was a legendary hero. The legendary Shadow Leaf–he was almost tired of hearing the phrase . . . almost.
The recruits, in a sense, had it pretty good considering those being trained for militia work had to spend a month or more working the kitchens and scullery. The rangers only had to worry about ranger training, which entailed learning how to take care of one’s self. Shadow Leaf remembered his first day as an official recruit when he dared mention his hunger to Elven Ranger Lord Thistle. She merely stared at him and told him to eat.
“I have no food,” he complained.
“There is food about,” she replied, her voice bland and without emotion.
“Figure it out, or starve.”
That was the first time he ever wondered if they called her Thistle because of her demeanor.
Shadow Leaf entered the large stone building and glanced around for Ranger Lord Longsight. Obviously absent. It was too early in the day for him to be in the curtained off sleeping quarters on the far right of the room, and the only visible person sat behind a desk, his entire body quivering with the ferocity of his penmanship. Clearly the only action for Shadow Leaf to take was to stand over the gentleman and read.
“Do you mind?” the man snapped over his shoulder.
“No, I sure don’t.” Shadow Leaf continued to hover.
“I’m trying to write an urgent message from Ranger Lord Longsight.”
“And you’re doing a fine job of it too, except when you stop to talk to me.”
“Look–” The man slammed down his writing utensil with an almost audible crack and spun in his chair to meet Shadow Leaf’s amused smirk. “Please take a couple of steps back from the desk. This message is both urgent and private. I will attend to you momentarily.”
“Very well.” Shadow Leaf took the requested two steps back. “No need for hostility.”
“I’m not being hostile!”
“Ah, so this is your amenable side, huh? Wonderful.”
The man at the desk opened his mouth as if to say something, but clicked it shut with an almost physical shake of his head as he shifted back to his message. A couple of sentences later, the note was completed, rolled up and placed into a small case clearly designed for a carrier pigeon. He glared at Shadow Leaf, holding up a single finger in request of an additional moment of silence. He disappeared through a rear door and re-appeared moments later, obviously relaxed and accomplished.
“That was an urgent and a private message from Ranger Lord Longsight, the Fist Lord, to the Legendary Ranger Lord Shadowleaf. I do not appreciate your antics and interruptions.”
“Uh huh. Well, just so you know, Shadow Leaf is not a Ranger Lord.” Shadow Leaf still didn’t understand why everyone chose to believe otherwise.
“You sir, are quite mistaken. I don’t know where you are from, but Shadowleaf is well known to us in this region. He is indeed a Ranger Lord.”
“Is his name one word or two?”
The man scoffed. “It’s a single word, not a first and last name.”
“Well, Nefa’s ass, I hate it when people do that. Anyway, let’s not quibble the point.”
“Thank you, sir. I am ranger Scout Baris and first assistant to Ranger Lord Longsight. How might I help you?”
“Greetings, Scout Baris, I am Legendary Ranger Hunter Shadow Leaf. Two words, not one.” He held up two fingers as he spoke. “I am here at the request of Ranger Lord, er, Fist Lord Longsight.”
The blood drained from Baris’ face as he fell back into the chair. The chair grunted in chorus with the man. “Sweet Mighty– Why didn’t you say something?”
“You never asked.”
“Well, that message I just sent to you basically said Fist Lord Longsight had to depart unexpectedly to see about a Ranger’s involvement in a Regicide. He asks you to stay at the fist because he may require your assistance in the near future. He apologizes for not being able to welcome you personally.”
Shadow Leaf blinked at the man. “Hm. I’m sorry, but I was kidding you. I’m actually Ranger Lord Night Tracker seeking an audience with Ranger Lord Swiftfeet. Is she available?”
“What?!” The man bolted to his feet.
“I said I’m Ranger Lord Night Tracker see…king…”
“I heard that already!” Baris’s entire body trembled. “You said you were…and I told you…”
“Yes, about that.” Shadow Leaf adjusted his position, the shift of his soft-soled shoes silent upon the floor. “You should learn to be more careful with those urgent and private messages so they don’t get to the wrong people. It’s fine though. Think of this critical error as a life lesson. A growth opportunity. A–”
“Shadow Leaf!” A tall brute of a man dressed in deer hide shouted from the entrance.
Shadow Leaf turned. “Buckskin! Buckskin in a buck skin! What in Nefa’s vulgar name brings you to this armpit . . .” he cast a glance to Baris, “I mean lap of luxury?”
“Probably the same as you: do a little training and teach the young ones.”
“Ah, so you’re a homeless lout short on coin preying upon the well to do, are you?”
Buckskin’s laugh echoed like the gong of a great bell. “That too, friend, that too.”
“So, you are Shadowleaf then?” Baris blurted in a panic.
“Of course he is!” Buckskin shouted back as they turned to leave.
“What’s with that guy?” Shadow Leaf jerked a thumb back over his shoulder toward Baris before stepping through the doorway.
Shadow Leaf: Sca`th Duille
A messenger pigeon bearing the mark of a red hand on its breast landed on a branch above Shadow Leaf’s head. He lay there, on the ground, staring at the bird while debating whether or not to take the message attached to its leg. After all, it was a beautiful night, so why ruin it now? However, he recognized the guild’s mark and knew the mages would continue to pester him until he finally relented.
“All right you damn fool bird, bring me the message. Nefa knows I’m not going to come to you for it.”
No sooner did he utter those words when the bird descended from the branch and onto Shadow Leaf’s chest. Long, calloused fingers held the bird firmly while removing the message. Then he tossed the bird into the darkness behind him. The frantic beating of its wings disappeared into the distance as he unrolled the message.
Shadow Leaf shouted “Alight” at a small pile of wood and it immediately burst into flame creating a nice campfire and providing enough light to read the message. He grinned, always appreciative of his little secret, and proceeded to read the note.
“Shadow Leaf, Ranger Lord Swiftfeet has taken on a ward out of Albervalley. She has shown a remarkable talent that follows the path of your unique expertise. We request your presence at the Fist to train this recruit. Standard compensation applies, and this is a joint request. Sincerely, Ranger Lord Longsight.”
Shadow Leaf blinked at the words “joint request”.
“That’s dirty, Longsight. Effective, but dirty.” He tossed the parchment into the fire and packed up his belongings. Flitting memories and images about his early adventures with Ranger Lord Swiftfeet caused his packing to slow. Of course, Ranger Lord Swiftfeet was only a Runner when they first met: Runner Shaeren. He called himself Runner Vaga back then.
Shadow Leaf smirked as he recalled that meeting, a bow and removal of his cap. “Runner Vaga at your service.”
“I’m Runner Shaeren. Shaeren Latrobe, descendant of multi-generations of rangers.” She spoke formally, and he recalled how odd it sounded when directed at him. “And you?”
“Ah, I am Vaga Bond. A fortunate and skilled street urchin and descendant of multi-generations of street urchins.”
Shaeren stared at him momentarily before responding, and he could still almost feel the chill of disdain from that silent glare. “Are you mocking me?”
“Oh no milady, I am in fact a street urchin and very new to this ranger…thing. I am merely trying to adapt to my strange environment.”
“I see.” She replied, still with a hint of skepticism.
Little did he know he would be paired with her for the next five years. Five of the best yet worst years of his life. His stories of life as a thief fascinated her at the same time her stories of life as a child of ranger parents horrified him. She gasped in horror each time he disappeared into the darkness and picked her pockets, while her elegance, regardless of her level of grime, fascinated him. He admired her ability to pick up skills, how far and fast she could run, the color of her eyes, the length of her neck, the fullness of her–
Shadow Leaf snapped himself out of the reminiscence and cursed the campfire into extinction. He threw on his pack and called to his horse. “Come on, Cur. Let’s go to town.”
A dark gray horse strolled from the darkness and settled alongside Shadow Leaf, who stroked his nose before climbing up onto the beast’s bare back.
Shadow Leaf entered Albervalley for the first time in several years only to discover not much had changed, at least nothing worthy of note. The buildings and shops were the same even down to the shop owners, though some of the guards were new. Fortunately, a few of the guards he knew from years past were promoted rather than dead, not too uncommon.
The only other thing of note was the complete and thorough eradication of his old gang’s markings from his youth. Some seemed to have faded over time, but others were deliberately scratched out. Whatever gang battles had ensued after his departure, it was evident his former gang lost–and thoroughly. He would need to look into that…eventually. As for now, he had other missions to attend to, like getting his guard friends nice and drunk so he could get good information.
Today is the first day after my decision to lift the deadline from my publishing projects and take a break from writing, characters, obligations, dates, and everything else. Today is the first day of my creative and spiritual renewal.
Today is also the first time [in a while] I’ve felt my brain begin to scramble for anything to write about. This is a good sign of the end result of my “forced” (voluntary?) hiatus.
Yesterday afternoon I dedicated my brain to the task of not thinking about my characters–hopefully they are understanding of what could be inferred as the “cold shoulder”. Instead, I prayed about them. About their stories. About the direction their lives would take. I also offered the characters and their stories fully over to my Muse, meaning that I handed the reigns over to the Lord.
He has always been the leader in my creative team–my inspiration since I can remember–and He has never let me down. This hiatus will be key in getting that priority hierarchy back to where it needs to be so I can, once again, enjoy the adventurous struggle of writing about these life-like characters who are constantly with me.
What do you do when you need/take a break?
I allowed myself to become trapped within a maze of obligation, expectation, dates, and myriad other horrors instead of staying true to my stories, my characters, and my Muse. I tried to reign over my creativity instead of relishing the freedom and flow of creating.
Now, because of the overwhelming guilt and pressure of deadlines past and looming, I haven’t been able to give myself a break. Nor have I enjoyed what writing accomplished thus far. Always there has been the dreaded due-date which a part of me knew I wouldn’t hit, again. Regret squelches creative juices, let me just say. So does expectation.
I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by. ~Douglas Adams
My expectation was that Releasing Yesterday (book 2) would be as “easy” to write as Searching for Sara (book 1). That belief might be the greatest doom of my entire situation. Built onto that was the fact I put a deadline on myself before the first full draft was completed, something I don’t do to myself (putting dates on things in general). It has made it nearly impossible to relish and reflect on the writing journey as a whole, one of my favorite aspects of the process.
Instead, the book has become a study in detached production rather than warm-hearted discovery. Can I just say: “yuck.”
So this is what I am going to do: lift the deadline.
If I finish the book in May, so be it. If I finish it in August or next December, so be it. Sara, Christopher, and her new-found father deserve a whole-hearted devotion to the discovery and reparation of their relationship, and I can’t do that with the date May 2014 striking me in the face with a mace. To my readers, I apologize and beg your forgiveness. I will do better in the future at not placing expectations which are ludicrous. Instead, I am going to focus on presenting the best possible sequel–no. No, I’m going to focus on listening. To my Muse. My characters. My heart. Everything I normally pour into my stories. After all, you, my faithful reader, are worth the very best of me, and that is what I am determined to give.
Para didn’t mind the “tell me what you see” requirement as they traveled because she knew most–if not everything–about the area. Well, that was what she thought until Ranger Lord Swiftfeet asked a question about a particular mark in the grass next to the road. Para didn’t see the mark until she knelt on all fours and squinted. “You noticed this? Was it because it didn’t quite fit with what is usually here?”
Ranger Lord Swiftfeet’s eyebrow twitched. “That is a good observation.”
But the elation of praise didn’t last. Not when Para was faced with the fact she didn’t know as much as she thought she did, it didn’t matter she had been raised here. So, Para asked questions as they traveled to wherever they were going. If she wanted to take care of herself, if she wanted to learn how to be a hunter, she needed to know what Ranger Lord Swiftfeet knew. The only way to learn that was to ask.
Ranger Lord Swiftfeet asked almost as many questions as Para, but the ranger lord’s were definitely more difficult to answer. When Para didn’t know the answer, she decided she would ask more questions to give her the chance to maybe find out the answer. It didn’t work very often, but she learned some interesting things about the creatures in the area she hadn’t known before.
Such as there were giant ants in the plains more than two feet long!
Para didn’t much care for ants in the first place, all creepy with their antennae and six legs, so the thought of coming upon a giant one gave her the shivers.
“Is every hunter in your Fist as good as you are in the plains?”
Ranger Lord Swiftfeet didn’t even cast her a sidelong glance. “No. Ranger Lord Longsight and I are the only hunters specialized.”
“You need to be specialized to train others?”
“So, what others are there?”
“Terrains? Or specialized hunters?”
“For each Fist, there is a ranger lord specializing in a terrain style. Terrains consist of plains, mountains, desert, and forest–which also includes marsh and swamp.”
“Does that mean Ranger Lord Longsight’s Fist has a ranger lord for each terrain?”
“Yes, as well as a hunter of a lesser title.”
“Oh. There are a lot of different titles?”
“Ten. Ranger Lord being the tenth.”
Para’s eyes widened. “There’s no title higher than yours?”
“Only that of Fist Ranger Lord.”
The whole thing, though confusing, gave her goosebumps. They were like a band of gypsies!
When twilight began to kiss the horizon, Ranger Lord Swiftfeet decreed it time to begin her training on the proper way to set camp. In that respect the lady ranger lord reminded her of Phillip – always believed his way the only right way to do anything. She didn’t have the heart to tell him that it simply wasn’t so. Of course, he was a lot younger than the lady ranger lord, so Para was more inclined to believe her.
Apparently, the details were very important to Ranger Lord Swiftfeet. If Para performed a task even the slightest bit to her own liking rather than the lady ranger lord’s, she was directed to do it over again. Even if it was the simple digging of the fire pit. She had to fill the hole back in, move to a different location, and start again. By the time Para dug and prepared it to Ranger Lord Swiftfeet’s satisfaction, her arms ached and her shoulders screamed at her to sit down and be still.
And she thought her arms and shoulders ached after sword play with Phillip?
The fire was kept low and Ranger Lord Swiftfeet didn’t talk as she prepared a stake of plain lizard. Para didn’t see a second stake, and her growling stomach wasn’t thrilled at the idea. “Trade you trail rations for a bite of lizard?”
Ranger Lord Swiftfeet didn’t respond at first. Nor did her gaze shift from where she looked out into the distance. “What type of lizard?”
“The kind that is delicious?”
Ranger Lord Swiftfeet’s lips twitched upward before she shifted that intense focus to Para— who just barely kept herself from gulping. “You face challenges with humor.”
“Bad habit.” One she probably learned from Phillip.
“No. It is similar to–” She pressed her lips into a thin line of silence. Then she shifted her focus to Para. “It may give you the strength you need to excel.”
“I want to learn, Ranger Lord Swiftfeet. Won’t that be enough?”
“Well, when did you start training to be a hunter?”
“The moment I was born. My parents were hunters.”
Para lowered her eyes to the cap in her fidgeting fingers. “My parents were tradesmen. My dad….”
“Yet you wanted to be outside. Here in the wilderness outside the gates.”
“There’s more to life than gardens and livestock. More than what I’ve seen in Albervalley. If I don’t see what’s out here, how can I know where I want to be?”
Ranger Lord Swiftfeet inclined her head.
“I don’t want anyone to take care of me.” Para smoothed out her cap. “All my life there has been someone to take care of me. Now it should be me. Right?”
Again, Ranger Lord Swiftfeet inclined her head, a slight smile softening the hard beauty of her face. “This I can do.”
Para smiled, and relief overpowered the anxiety.
To be continued. Updates will be on hold until the release of my Victorian Romance ‘Releasing Yesterday’ in May.
For BACK EPISODES, navigate to the “book page” here: The Soul Cycle: Para.
This series is now being serialized on JukePop Serials, a free site. You can follow updates from any browser, or use their free app and receive updates in real-time. Also, each time you continue to the next episode, this story receives a “+vote” and you support me as a JukePop Serial author!
Author’s Note: The Soul Cycle started way back in November 2008 (for my first National Novel Writing Month venture) when I took one of my husband’s adventure module outlines–complete with maps and descriptions–and wrote life into Para and Mun, a pair of adventurers who had been traveling together for more than three years. The title: To Save A Soul.
The following year I wrote the continuation of that adventure, Silver and Iron, although it remains unfinished, and continued to brainstorm further adventures for my beloved Para and Mun. For the 2012 NaNoWriMo adventure, I wrote a prequel explaining Para Sedi and all her idiosyncrasies. I even began outlining Mun’s introductory novel, which would also include how he and Para first met.
The subject of this weekly serial will be Para & Mun’s story from their utter beginning.