Author Terry Persun, a talented and successful writer, gave me lots of good advice. One bit was to pen a fantasy story that might fit among some of his own popular works. It’s been a long time since I’ve worked in that genre – and this is a rough draft – but here’s the first half of the story.
The Song of Jemma
A snap of chill preceded an arrival and Jemma looked up from her sewing work. The cyclops had come with a thick bundle.
“By mid-morning,” he said, tossing the bundle atop the work pile in Jemma’s trailing basket.
The man wasn’t really a cyclops. She called him that in her mind because he one eye left and she’d never cared to know his name—not in three weeks of employ. The man seemed evil. He’d probably lost his eye in this trade, the animal business.
Jemma bowed servilely from her seated position and made to put aside her current garment’s work. The man sneered and left. She didn’t like the way his eye had lingered on her simple blouse—it wasn’t the first time. She didn’t know what he’d want with an old woman like her—not when he had that fiery young redhead as company, if that was the case.
Jemma had made it a point to know only what she’d needed to in this place. Yesterday, it was how deep to dig a hole to bury a mare. Today, with aching shoulders, it was how closely to sew the stitches for the large men’s pants. And now this purple-and-blue newcomer.
An elephant’s trumpet sounded. The afternoon water break was over.
The Seer had ordered her to go to Dyson’s Lair on her fiftieth birthday. Was this the price for her being a spinster, for being barren (and jealous of other mothers and their happiness)? To venture into that hell-like valley before the granite towers? Her penalty?
At least four times, she had lie awake amid the snoozing of other women, listening to the wind against tent flap and tree branch, considering flight. Fear pushed her to, and fear stopped her cold. She had but a small sack of coin wages (the first ten days’ worth taken as a tax for signing on) and a small dagger she’d never learned how to use. The thing probably wouldn’t get through the hide of an ogre. What good were the weapon and money against the thieves and creatures of the night world? So every night for three weeks she’d fallen asleep huddled in a blanket and silently cursing the Seer—and herself for obeying. At her age, in this unfortunate place in her life, all she had was hope propped up on hope.
The task complete, Jemma carefully hefted the heavy bundle—a tent top—onto her shoulders. She’d taken three tries at rolling it properly, so she could keep it safe from the dirt and forest litter below. Easing her way forward, she wondered what age child would equal the bundle’s weight, had that been a concern half-a-lifetime ago. In her pocket was a carrot for her trailer mule Bessie. She pitied poor Bessie, whose life consisted entirely of going and stopping as the others did. She wondered if the animal wouldn’t just keel over and die of despair. Jemma would have to feed her the orange treat on her return. She didn’t want to risk taking one hand off her load, now. She had to be able to take pride in something.
The circus train didn’t move very fast, so she was able to catch the large third wagon before long. She smelled the dew on the grass carried by a breeze—a pleasant interruption from the ever-present animal smell. Gaining on the regal wagon, she found the tall redhead adjusting her clothes as she rode the chestnut horse. They made a pair, pleasing to the eye, admirable and innocent, even. Long ago, she is the kind of woman Jemma would’ve been most jealous of. Fiery red versus mousy brown, for one.
“Seamstress,” the woman asked, turning suddenly as if catching Jemma with eyes in the back of her head. “You have something?”
But Jemma was also distracted, for they’d come around a boulder and before them was the valley.
It didn’t look deadly, she thought. Green and trees, a snaking river beneath the imposing grey towers. In fact, it looked peaceful.
“Yes, Madam,” Jemma answered, bringing the bundle. Her eyes held to the cluster of colors surrounded by wooden spires. Wisps of smoke curled from them.
“I have no need of that,” the redhead scoffed.
Jemma nodded meekly. “Yes, of course. I…”
“Put it on the next wagon up, wench,” growled a voice from beside her.
She tried not to jump, looking at the curtain which concealed the speaker. It was Cyclops. When she continued to carry her load forward, she felt eyes on her. Perhaps one of them suspected her of ill intentions—though she had no idea what danger she could possibly pose. Dyson’s Lair was, among other things, a place from which many men did not return.
Jemma had delivered her charge and was walking past the redhead again when a rattling roar pierced the air. She paused and looked up. Dragons—four of them. Passing calmly towards the mountains. They were far above, but there was no mistaking the shape and size.
“Four…in formation,” the redhead mused. “Unnatural. Could they be doublesight?”
“Aye,” the Cyclops said, emerging from the wagon’s cover. At his side was a four-foot sword. Both of them watched the dragons.
Jemma stood perplexed, caught on the word ‘doublesight’ and on the man’s betrayal of concern.
Despite having to take the winding road around a swamp, they’d pushed through rather than stopping for a morning break. Thus, it was mid-afternoon when Jemma’s eyes fell on the wooden spires which, she supposed, would be lit as beacons in a few hours. Entering a world of bright colors and loud noises, she felt lost when a regular worker took Bessie off to the stock pens. Not even a word of comfort. “Blue Exes,” the man said, sounding quite tired, and pointed vaguely. Jemma watched her old companion being led away and felt instantly even more lost than before. As others milled about, her hand when to within reach of both her dagger and money bag. These precious belongings now felt like all she had in the world.
She jumped when a howling scream sounded from somewhere entirely too close. Nobody else milling about had noticed—they were used to such things. This made her more afraid. The stories about Dyson’s Lair must be true. Steeling herself, Jemma waited until an enormous creature was led across her path. With no home, now, she ventured off in the direction indicated.
Several brown tents were marked with different symbols. The fourth had blue exes about the entry flaps. With a deep breath, she stepped inside and saw something that gave her a smidge of comfort. Several older women and small children occupied hammocks and bedrolls. She saw mirrors for makeup, crystal balls and aprons for food or other service.
“That one’s open,” an older woman said, jerking a thumb to a vacant bedroll. “Passed on, she did.”
“Thank you,” Jemma said with a deep breath. The woman didn’t seem to notice. Jemma went to the bedroll, set down her simple pack and laid down on the bed. For two or three hours, as the day waned, people came and went like the questions in her head. Finally, a piercing curiosity overrode the prevailing sense of fear, and she ventured out.
Night brought the true carnival atmosphere to Dyson’s Lair. She sensed that she was supposed to avoid seeing the shows in the big tents—those were for paying customers—and stuck to torch-lit walkways busy with people. At a small alcove walled off by wooden crates, she found a knife thrower practicing against a target. He wore a mask and a ridiculous, curling mustache. The various knives in his basket all dwarfed her own silly weapon, which was tucked in her waistband. The performer grabbed a large orange fruit from another basket. With a couple practice tosses, he launched it into the air and hurled a knife. Jemma felt herself staring when the fruit appeared pinned to the target board by the knife. The man muttered to himself in another language, going for the fruit, and she hurried on.
Trying not to imagine what that knife would feel like stabbing her own soft bosom, she turned a corner to find a pair of jugglers tossing rings back and forth. They were all bounces and smiles, a man and woman in baggy clothes. Hanging from nearby hooks were fancy, colorful outfits. A wild animal call spurred her on. She didn’t want to know what made the sound.
After passing the back of another tent, a hand on her dagger’s hilt, Jemma came to a cage enclosure and paused. Inside, a tall woman with long black hair stood holding a whip. Leaping from pillar to pillar around her was a black panther. She’d never seen one in real life, of course. This was a creature from folktale and storybook, a crafty beast which attacked from the shadows of the jungle. She fixated on the whiskers, the glossy sheen of its coat, the whipping tail, the greenish eyes. It was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen, really.
“Come on. Faster,” the trainer urged. But she did not raise her whip.
The great cat hopped from spot to spot without any hint of threat. In fact, it seemed at ease with the trainer. Jemma found that odd. The woman noticed her, but didn’t say anything.
Jemma eventually moved on. As she left, the trainer said something else to the panther. The cat responded, not with a growl, but with a…
“You, sewing lady,” a man growled, catching her by the shoulder.
She looked up and found the cyclops glaring at her.
“Supplies tent. The tumblers were rough. Get to it!”
Jemma nodded and bowed. “Don’t waste your time with this lot,” the man added.
Upon finding the right tent, she found another seamstress busy before a mound of ripped clothes. The events of the evening played over and over as she nodded hello and set to work.
The moon was sinking low when Jemma, ignoring the drunken singing and music in the background, stumbled back to her tent. She sat down on her hammock and found the panther trainer in the next hammock.
“Oh, hello,” Jemma said.
“Evening,” she returned.
Jemma searched for words. “You must be brave and talented, working with that black cat like that.”
“Thank you,” the woman said, guarded. “That’s Nala. She performs well. Otherwise, they would put her in the contests. That would be a shame,” the trainer added, looking solemn.
Jemma wanted to ask more, but got the clue when the trainer turned away from her in the darkness.
The next night, when Jemma teetered back to her hammock, the trainer was just walking in.
“Hello, Seamstress. You don’t look as well tonight.”
Jemma dropped into her hammock, her face feeling cold and hollow.
“Jemma, if you will. I saw two men die tonight. I didn’t want to watch…the screaming was hard to ignore.”
“The contests,” the woman said. “Dyson has his sense of humor.”
“One of the men didn’t look…like a slave. Why do they do it?”
“The contestants? Money. A prize to win.”
Jemma’s mouth fell open. “At the cost of your life?”
“Men. Men will do anything for silver.”
“And what about you?” Jemma asked, before she could stop herself.
“Nala and I…are not here by choice,” the woman said. “We are a thousand miles from home. Bought, if you will, from someone with more cruelty than Dyson. He is a showman by comparison.”
Jemma let the words sink in and took a deep breath. “I think I understand, now.”
“Weela,” the trainer said. “You may call me Weela. Nala and I have more in common than you might imagine.”
The day had been cruel. In the afternoon, Jemma had witnessed security guards catching a thief who’d robbed one of the other tents like hers. After depriving him of the stolen moneybags and items, the guards dragged him to the forgery near Jemma’s workstation.
“One hand, two hands or life,” one guard asked another.
The second guard checked the protesting thief’s collar. “He’s been branded before. Head and hands are messy.”
“Agreed,” the first guard said. Without another word, he brought a thick metal mace down on the thief’s head as if ending an argument.
Jemma pierced her thumb when she heard the crushed-fruit sound of the young man’s head caving in.
“I’ll return these,” the first guard said. “Would you mind taking that to the river?” He gathered the stolen items in a net at his side and left.
The second guard glanced about, found Jemma watching and easing the sewing needle out of her thumb. “You, Seamstress. Kindly give me a hand with this body?”
Together, though it made her ill, they hoisted the man’s messy, lifeless form onto a cart. The guard threw a scratch piece of cloth over the body’s head—so others couldn’t see, Jemma presumed. If not, she would’ve gotten sick right away.
They pushed the cart down alleyways until, behind a forest-bound tent, they reached a bridge above a swift waterfall. To the left of the railing was a spot with a quick drop. The guard motioned and gave her straps to hold. She did so, holding fast while he tipped the cart down. The body disappeared into froth fifty feet below.
“The bird and beavers will claim him, now. Thanks for your assistance.”
The form surfaced briefly, tumbling away. Jemma did not know how to feel it all.
“You think what we did was cruel?” the guard asked quietly.
Jemma shook her head and looked up at him. This man had none of the brutish threat of the cyclops. He looked like an ordinary, strongly-built man who needed a shave.
“The world has no place for treachery,” the man said. “A thief who does not learn his lesson will only hurt people like you and I.”
“I-I suppose you’re right,” Jemma admitted.
The guard nodded. “Take this cart back to the smithy, please. And tell others what you’ve seen here today. Lord Dyson wishes it so.”
*to be continued