PEAK CROSSER (EMPIRE OF THE PEAKS BOOK 1) is an epic fantasy novel, the first in a series. The book is currently being readied for publication for April 2016.
Chapter 1: Strange Encounter
The dark gray mountain hid behind sheets of rain in the diffused twilight. If Zornan had been traveling on the ground, the mud and reduced visibility would be frustrating, not life threatening. But approaching a sheer mountain face on his giant hawk-like mrakaro a thousand feet above the desert floor meant any mistake could send them to a wet, cold death.
He slowed Silver, his mrakaro, as they approached Shisnath, a sprawling city hidden, at this hour and under these clouds, in shadow. Why would its ancient inhabitants build a city on the side of a cliff facing a shade-forsaken desert? It rarely rained in this part of the southern Empire, but when it did, it was as if the skies were trying to make up for a hundred days without.
Zornan guided Silver slowly closer toward the safety of the Peak Crosser keep on the city’s third level. The stone walls provided a respite from the fierce winds, but nothing held back the relentless rain.
Silver landed softly on the damp ground and Zornan dismounted. He tried to wick the water off her feathers, but it was useless; they were both completely soaked, and since the rain continued its deluge, getting her dry would be impossible.
A young lad approached, an apprentice to the keeper, his face mostly invisible under a large-brimmed hat.
“Greeting, Peak Crosser,” the boy said through the rain’s dense noise.
“Welcome greeting, young apprentice.” Zornan slipped the boy a copper and headed for the dry confines of the keep.
Silver screeched as he walked away, her complaint ringing through the yard. The Shisnath keep was small, and provided little shelter for the mrakaros and cosows kept there.
“Sorry, girl,” Zornan yelled through the rain, grimacing at his partner’s unfortunate circumstances. Silver would spend the rest of storm soaked and miserable, but there was nothing Zornan could do about that. Zoran closed his eyes and felt the weather around him. The rain would stop in a few hours, so she’d have a chance to get dry and sleep before they left in the morning.
The keep was empty, which suited Zornan. His fellow Peak Crossers could be as chatty as women on a festival day, and Zornan tired quickly of their constant gossip. He chose a seat at a table next to a roaring fire, hoping the added heat would dry him some before going to his room. He ordered tuber stew and a glass of emperor berry juice, refusing the keeper’s offer of cuije; the local liquor was too strong for his taste. He’d be miserable enough in the morning without a hangover.
As if the peaks had decided to continue cursing him, two other Crossers entered the small common room, mugs of cuije already in hand. To make matters worse, they chose the table next to his.
“What are we celebrating, again?” one of the men asked, his speech slurred to match his glassy eyes. He wore a short beard, speckled with gray.
“Jurg you’re as drunk as you are ugly. We celebrate nothing today.” The second man was more sober, his face curved into a scowl. “The Empire and all its minions can rot below the Infinite Mountains for all I care.”
“Shhhhh!” Jurg, the drunk one, hissed like a snake. “Language like that is treason.”
“But that’s how I feel. How could they do this?”
Curiosity tickled Zornan, but he ignored it. Whatever bothered the man was likely a long tale, and Zornan needed to sleep so he could wake early in the morning and get home.
“The Empire can do what is likes,” Jurg replied. “That’s why they call it an Empire.”
“Shut your mouth, you stupid drunk. You don’t even make sense.” The angry one buried his mouth in his mug.
Zornan’s stew arrived just as a third man entered the common room. The man was tall, his hair long and dark. He was dressed in bland, gray clothing, not the tight-fitting brown of a Peak Crosser. His face was also smooth, and his walk fluid. Definitely not a Peak Crosser.
“This common room is for Peak Crossers.” The angry one glared at the newcomer.
“Technically, the common room is open to all High Tradesmen,” the man replied, his voice deep and formal.
“What trade do you belong to?” Jurg asked before taking another drink.
“A Magistrate,” the man replied.
A Magistrate? Zornan looked back at his stew. No man wanted to mess with a Magistrate, certainly not lowly Peak Crossers. Zornan did not know the law, but he assumed a Magistrate did. Maybe any of the High Trade could come into the common room of a keep, but in his thirteen years traveling the Empire, he’d never seen any but a fellow Crosser.
The stranger walked across the room, standing next to Zornan’s table. “Greeting, Peak Crosser.”
Zornan looked up at the man. He didn’t wear the stately purple robes of his trade, but he wore its grace and formality just fine.
“Welcome greeting, Magistrate.”
“May I sit?”
Zornan nodded. Yes, the mountains frowned on him now; a wind-blasted Magistrate joining him for supper.
“Come on Jurg.” The angry man stood, spitting the words. “It smells too much like the Empire in here.”
The two other Crossers walked out, leaving Zornan alone with the Magistrate.
“What brings you to Shisnath?” the stranger asked.
“I’m a Peak Crosser.” Zornan hoped his curt reply would give the man reason to leave.
The man smiled. “Not a talkative one?”
“Any idea what had your friend there all crossed up?”
“Not my friend,” Zornan said through his stew. “And no.”
“So you haven’t heard?”
Zornan exhaled deeply. There was no way he was getting away from this, at least until he finished his meal and got reasonably dry by the heat of the nearby hearth.
“About Master Lascrill?”
Lascrill, his master at the Peak Crosser Academy. He’d be an old man now.
“Not one for words, heh?”
The man smiled again, but Zornan did not return it.
“Well, Crosser,” the man continued, “I can tell you all about it.”
Zornan exhaled again.
“Lascrill has been accused of treason.”
Zornan set his spoon in his stew and looked at the man. Lascrill? Treason? The man had been master of the Peak Crosser Academy for nearly thirty years. What treason could he possibly accomplish while living among initiates and hatchlings?
“I hadn’t heard that.” Zornan reached back for his spoon.
“That’s what had that man so upset. I’ve spoken with many Crossers over the past week since the news came from Bristrinia. Your kind are angry, think the Investigators of the High Trades framed him.”
Zornan’s initial reaction matched the one the Magistrate described. Zornan spent five years learning from Lascrill. The man preached honor and loyalty to the Empire, mixed with his lessons on navigation, weather and giant flyers. But Zornan had been young then, and he hadn’t known Lascrill well.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Zornan replied, his voice flat.
“You’re not angry?”
Zornan shook his head. “No. I hope the Investigators are wrong, but I know nothing about it. Maybe they’re right.”
“Remarkable.” The stranger looked Zornan up and down, assessing him like the aviary masters would a young hatchling. “You’re just as he described.”
“Just as who described?”
Zornan almost spit out his drink. “What? You know Lascrill?”
“Yes, quite well, actually. We were initiates together long ago.”
Zornan scooped up the last of his tuber stew and took a last drink. He stood to leave. He wanted nothing to do with this conversation, wherever it was headed. A Magistrate with a friend who was traitor was not a storm he fancied flying into.
“Sit down, Zornan.”
Zornan slowly sat. Did he have to obey the command of a Magistrate? He wasn’t sure it was required, but he thought it wise to do so. The man’s tone sounded more like a command than a request.
“I need your help,” the stranger continued. “Lascrill said you could be trusted, that you could be counted on.”
Zornan looked around, but the room was still empty. “An accused traitor recommended me? I’m not sure that’s a great endorsement.”
The stranger laughed, but the sound was forced, like an apprentice laughing at his master’s ill-timed humor. “Maybe not, but it’s all I have. I need you to carry something for me of great value to a place only a Peak Crosser can go.”
Zornan shook his head. “Then make your request of the keeper here, and an assignment will be made. I’m under a contract, and I only carry for my employer.”
“No.” The Magistrate shook his head. “This is not the type of request you make through official channels. I know the law, Zornan. This must be done outside its bounds.”
By the peaks, this was getting worse. “I’m sorry. I cannot help you.”
Zornan stood to leave again, but the man grabbed his arm. His grip was strong. Zornan looked back at the Magistrate; his eyes were eager, and concern creased his forehead.
“Please, Zornan. My fate hangs in the balance. It’s possible that the entire Empire hangs in the balance.”
“You’ll have to find another way.”
The man released his arm. “There is no other way. You are one of the only people in the Empire I can trust.”
“Good parting,” Zornan said, heading for the stairs.
Before climbing the stairs, Zornan looked back to the Magistrate. The man sat there, his hands over his face, slumped against the table, his earlier posture of grace and authority gone.
Zornan turned and climbed the stairs. He wanted no part of that which sunk a Magistrate in so much grief.