Brian S. Pratt

Shades of the past

Prologue

The common room of the tavern is packed with the noon meal crowd. Tradesmen and travelers make up most of the Squawking Gooses’ clientele. A few farmers are scattered about, those who are in town for one reason or another.

A tirade is in progress over by the bar, a woman is telling her man off in rare form. Apparently she’s the wife of the proprietor, the man being the proprietor himself. He looks as though he’s taking it with a grain of salt, simply letting her run out of steam while he waits patiently.

A man over to one side sitting at a table near a window has been watching the spectacle from the beginning. He’s not sure just what started it but it has at least been a distraction while he awaits the others who are to meet him here. Several hours overdue, his impatience is steadily growing into anger.

No sooner does the woman stop explaining to the man how stupid and ignorant he is, then she turns and stalks through the door leading into the kitchen area. The look on the proprietor’s face is one of relief and the man wonders how he puts up with such behavior from a woman. Shaking his head, the man glances out the window. “Finally!” he breathes under his breath as the two men whom he’s been waiting for ride up the street toward the inn.

Remaining in his seat, he watches as the men approach and then come to a stop where the other horses are secured to the rail outside. Dismounting, they secure their steeds to the rail and make their way into the inn.

One is rather tall, easily half a head taller than any of the other patrons in the common room. Red haired with a trim beard, he looks as though he’s seen his share of conflict if the numerous scars on the exposed portions of his body are any indication. The other man only comes to his shoulders, flaxen hair and carrying himself with confidence. Neither are ones you would want to run into alone in a dark alley.

They pause in the doorway as the tall man takes in the people in the common room. Seeing the one they’re to meet he taps his partner on the shoulder and they make their way across the crowded room. When they reach the table where the man waits they take their seats. The man who has been waiting for them says, “About time you guys got here.”

“Take it easy,” the tall man says. “Took some time to find the numbers you wanted.”

“Not to mention the items you requested,” the flaxen haired man adds. “Those are hard to come by.”

“Did you get them, then?” the man asks.

“Yes,” the tall man replies. “We got everything you requested.”

“And the men?”

“They’re waiting outside of town,” flaxen hair says.

“Good,” he grunts and then glances around to be sure none of the other patrons are paying attention. Lowering his voice he says, “He lives outside of town. I’ve kept an eye on the place for the last three days. It looks like we’ll have little trouble.”

“Thought there was a veritable army there?” tall man asks.

“There was,” he replies. “But most everyone pulled out two days ago. All that’s left there are two men and one only has one leg. There’s also a woman and a child but I doubt if they will cause us any problems.”

“Is the mage still there?” flaxen hair asks.

Nodding, the man replies, “I saw him doing some strange experiments.”

“Are you sure taking on a mage is a good idea,” the tall man asks. Usually afraid of nothing, the thought of crossing one who can wield the power makes him uneasy.

“That’s why you brought what you did,” he says. “Those who I deal with say he has a fortune there in gems. From what they’ve learned, he has a trader sell them in other towns to avoid drawing unwanted attention to himself.”

Grinning, flaxen hair asks, “Didn’t work, did it?”

“No,” replies the man with an evil grin. “This is going to be the biggest score we’ve yet made.”

“When do we go?” tall man asks.

“Tonight,” replies the man. “Once the sun goes down.”

Rising up to the sky, it floats gently upon the breeze. Finally, his vision has seen fruition as the rising object continues to gain altitude. Oh sure, he had help but this has been his project from the beginning. Delia found the material, Ezra sewed it together for him in just the right way and James added a suggestion or two that helped.

He always knew this would work, his first attempt was a month ago. Using a small sack made from the light material he managed to get it to rise a little in the air when held aloft over an open flame. When it actually lifted several feet into the air he almost broke down and cried right there. For too long he had endured the snide remarks from others who thought he was crazy. Some even here at The Ranch looked at him odd at times but James never let anyone say a word of derision to him.

Now, a month later, he’s trying something a bit more ambitious. Using a much larger balloon, he’s hoping to have it rise and stay afloat for a much longer time. The balloon has now floated to the treetops and is becoming dangerously close to being entangled in the upper reaches of a tall pine. “Move…come on,” he says as the balloon comes ever closer to the branches. “Rise damn you!” he practically yells just before the edge snags a branch. The balloon lurches to the side and starts deflating.

“Damn!” he yells.

“Not working?” a voice asks from nearby.

Turning, he finds Fifer there walking toward him. Leaning upon a crutch, he hobbles as best he can. Actually, he can get around pretty good with it and even has begun practicing with his sword, though isn’t nearly as good as he once was. He lost his leg on the journey to Ironhold last Fall.

“The wind keeps taking it into the trees,” he says. “Have to find some way to make it rise faster.”

“I’m sure you’ll make it work,” Fifer says. “Oh, your wife said to tell you dinner is almost ready.”

“Thanks,” Roland replies. “I just need to get it down before I return. Tell her I will be a few minutes.”

“Sure thing,” he assures him. Turning his back on Roland, Fifer begins making his way back across the clearing. He grins to himself when he recalls how this clearing came to be.

It was early last winter, shortly after their return from Ironhold. James had been out here working on some experiment or another and had laid waste to a swathe of the forest. By the time the fires died out, almost forty acres had burned. In the middle of the ashes was a clearing several hundred feet across devoid of anything living.

James had come out of it looking the worse for wear. Most of his hair had been singed and he said if he hadn’t erected a shield in time, he wouldn’t have lived to tell about it. When asked, he didn’t go into very much details on what he was doing or why.

After that and during the rest of the winter, things were in high gear. He wasn’t told the particulars of what was transpiring and had the feeling no one but James, maybe Illan, knew the whole truth. But from what was going on, he knew James no longer was going to be content with waiting for danger to come to him. He was going to take it to them.

During the early winter months, Delia made many trips to and from The Ranch, much more frequently than she ever had before. The items she was dropping off here didn’t make much sense: small, round glass balls with a hole in the top, not to mention the barrels of lantern oil. Didn’t make much sense to Fifer.

Once the snows had set in around December, Delia and the pit fighters she uses as guards rolled into The Ranch and stayed. She began training the recruits in the use of slings. To the chagrin of Jiron, his sister Tersa joined the others in learning the use of the sling. James had a slug belt made for each of them, similar in design to the one he uses.

All through the winter, James, Jiron and Illan worked in the workshop. All others were kept out as they did

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