There is one who stands between the mad god and his merciless nature. Satarin, the Chosen, a mage whose body is used by the god to take Mikon. Bound by oaths and devotion to his deity, Satarin strives to protect his people and Mikon, until his god demands full surrender.
Both Satarin and Mikon are trapped, both long for freedom and in each other, they find love and desire. If the god discovers their bond, they stand to pay the ultimate price.
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An Excerpt From: THE CHOSEN
Copyright © J.C. OWENS, 2012
All Rights Reserved, Ellora's Cave Publishing, Inc.
The marketplace teemed with people, all of them jostling for space as they attempted to reach their destinations, the sound of haggling rising in the heat of midday. The tide of humanity flowed past the two men, ignoring their obvious argument.
Mikon glared at his brother, fingering the hilt of his dagger. “I swear, if this turns out like the last job…”
Jakob smiled, spreading his hands wide. “This is through Cerdan. You know he is trustworthy.”
Mikon grunted. “Cerdan, I trust. You, I do not.”
Jakob tried wheedling, mixed with a hurt look. “And me, your little brother, having done nothing but look up to you, follow you—”
“Get me in nothing but trouble.” Mikon was not moved. He knew Jakob all too well and conflict followed his little brother like a bad smell. He folded his arms over his chest and frowned, wondering why he was even considering this nonsense.
Because he was broke. That was why. His frown deepened.
Jakob piped up again. “They had heard of you, knew you were a good caravan master. I hardly had to persuade them.” His brother looked up at him pleadingly, hazel eyes wide. Mikon sighed. Jakob grinned and rubbed his hands.
“Right then. We meet up with the caravan at the town of Relpan and it is a month’s journey across the Deadlands until we reach the city of Tarnaq in Sespay. Easy.”
Mikon rolled his eyes. “It might have been, until you said that. Now every god within earshot is going to be acting against us. Keep your damn mouth closed.”
Jakob pouted. “I found us a job.”
Mikon caved, laying a hand on his brother’s shoulder. The kid had far too much confidence already, but Mikon always found himself trying to give him even more. Fool. “I thank you for that. But I still think you are not telling me something.”
Jakob cleared his throat. “There will be prisoners.”
Mikon scowled for a moment, cautious. “Prisoners? Of what sort?”
Jakob shrugged. “Criminals, from what I was told. Masaari.”
Mikon’s brows rose. “How the hells did they capture Masaari? They are the most dangerous bastards I have ever heard of. Never even seen one, but I saw the results of one of their raids on the army once.” He swallowed hard, even his hardened senses cringing at the remembrance of what he had seen that day. “By the gods, Jakob, guarding a caravan that includes Masaari? Do you have a death wish?”
Jakob looked at him with the assurance of the very young—and the very inexperienced. “They are in chains.” He grinned. “I will protect you, brother, from the big bad Masaari.”
Mikon cuffed him, though he could not prevent a faint smile from forming at the kid’s cheekiness. And what was he worried about? Jakob was right. The Masaarian prisoners would be in chains. They just had to guard them across the Deadlands, get them to Tarnaq and receive their pay. They would earn better money, since a prisoner caravan always needed an experienced caravan master and paid their worth.
Enough to keep them going for a while—as long as they stayed away from their father. The man bled them dry every chance he got with sob stories of lost fortunes and evil women who had fleeced him from his vast savings.
Mikon had heard it all, but his nature was to protect those around him and both Jakob and his father had that needy demeanor that seemed to get right past Mikon’s defenses every time.
He was twenty-five now, time for a family and steady work, yet he always seemed to get caught up in Jakob’s schemes for wealth rather than see to his own life. He scowled. After this job, he was going to have to put his foot down. It was time to grow up.
If only that did not seem so grindingly mundane…
* * * * *
They traveled to Relpan by boat, digging into their meager funds to pay for the trip. Mikon passed over his last silver to the boatman with a grimace, praying that this job actually existed and that Jakob had not steered him wrong yet again. Sometimes he wished that his little brother would take just a bit of the weight from Mikon’s shoulders, just a little more responsibility, rather than expect that his older brother would see to everything and anything.
Sometimes Mikon was a little tired of it all, his life in general and his family in particular. Sometimes he just wished for something…more…though he could not have said what that might be.
Shouldering his pack of possessions, Mikon turned to join Jakob and they wended their way from the bustling quayside into the equally busy town of Relpan. Mikon’s height and broad shoulders moved aside the people as though he were the prow of a large ship, and Jakob cruised in his wake, safe from jostling. A fitting analogy of their life together, thought Mikon with a sigh. He was familiar with Relpan from past caravans he had led, so he steadily made his way through the hubbub to reach the quarter of town that housed the various caravan merchants. He glanced down at the scrap of paper he held with a scribble in Cerdan’s spidery writing. The emblem of the company was not one Mikon had encountered before, and that in itself led to suspicion.
Mikon was not a trusting soul at the best of times.
Usually caravans were organized at the very least two weeks ahead of time. That this one was cobbled together with such haste as to leave immediately seemed worrisome at best.
He found the building that displayed the company emblem over its doors and pushed through the crowd to enter, determined to get some information before he even accepted the position. To the hells with the money if this was some skullduggery. Mikon had kept them alive this long with his instincts and he was not going to fail now simply for the lure of coin. There would be other jobs they could hold for a week or two, simply to get enough money to return home.
Of all his vices, Mikon did not count greed as one of them. Greed got you killed, and then what use was the damn money?
The company’s building was dimly lit after the bright sunlight outside, and Mikon had to stand for a moment, letting his eyes adjust, hand resting lightly on the pommel of his uncle’s sword, the one thing he had received from his family to call his own.
Once he could see clearly, he stepped forward to the worn counter, where several people were doing business with the company agents.
He waited with clear impatience, and several people looked at him a little nervously, no doubt intimidated by his manner and size.
At last he faced a worn and tired-looking young man, who looked him up and down with a hint of interest that lightened his dulled eyes.
“Well, hello, sir. How may I help you?” If there seemed some degree of innuendo in those simple words, Mikon ignored them.
“I was told you needed a caravan master by Cerdan of Imlis. I need to talk to someone about it before I accept.” His tone held no room for argument.
The young man blinked. “Ooh, dominant. I love that. I hope you accept, for all our sakes.” His smile faded somewhat at Mikon’s silent glare. “I will get my master.”
Mikon nodded, arms folded over his chest as he viewed the other people with narrowed eyes. They looked away, returning to their own business with commendable swiftness.
“I’ll take the clerk if you don’t want to accept the offer.” Jakob grinned as he leaned on the counter edge. “If you stopped being such a storm cloud, you would get laid more often.”
Mikon scowled at him. “There’s more to life than that, shrimp. Try being a little more choosy, it might be good for you, instead of screwing everything that moves.”
Jakob shrugged. “I’m always smiling. You’re always grumpy. I would say that alone proves that my way is best.”
Mikon rolled his eyes and turned a shoulder on his brother, unwilling to continue a well-worn argument in this place of strangers.
The young man returned, a harassed-looking portly man in his wake. The newcomer had the look of a retired soldier, all his muscle gone to fat over the years, but his eyes were shrewd and his face looked honest enough.
He held out his hand, viewing Mikon up and down with assessing eyes that held a far different purpose than his young assistant. This was measuring man to man, as to whether he was capable of doing the job.
Mikon liked him already.
“I am Narasis. And you must be Mikon. I have heard good things of you. You got the Anner caravan through the Deadlands last year, late in the season.”
Mikon shook the hand, nodding. “It was stupidity, done so late, but they promised me more than fair wages and I thought I had a chance.”
Narasis grinned, obviously liking Mikon’s brevity and lack of boasting. “Anner caravans cannot say enough good things about you, though they mentioned you are not usually available to be caravan master.”
Mikon grimaced. “I keep trying to find something a little safer, a little closer to home, but…”
Narasis folded his arms over his thick chest. “At least you were not stupid enough to join the army.” His lips seemed to quirk over his own memories. “You do well to be so cautious of what you choose.”
Mikon cast a glance at Jakob. “I have a brother to look after. It makes you think a little before plunging in.”
Jakob snorted and turned away, leaning over the counter to smirk at the young assistant.
Narasis took Mikon’s arm and led him a short ways away, giving them at least a modicum of privacy. “My assistant said you needed some information before taking on the job. You are a prudent man indeed. What can I tell you?”
“What groups are involved and what is this about Masaarian prisoners?”
Narasis raked a hand through his thinning hair. “I had the caravan all set up; three wine merchants traveling together, a silk merchant, a metalworker and apprentices. Then the army shows up on my doorstep and tells me I have to wait, that they want a prisoner convoy to be part of the lineup. And you know when they give you orders, it is not the best policy to disagree.” His lips drew tight with annoyance at the memory.
Mikon nodded. The army ruled in their country of Tacarta. It was common knowledge that the government was only a front, that General Radokin was the real power. Still, if one kept one’s nose out of military affairs, it seemed an uneasy peace lay between the populace and the general. You didn’t poke at him, he did not poke at you. It seemed to work, at least for now.
“The captain in charge told me that the prisoners were to be a gift to Jaataran, Emperor of Sespay.”
Mikon frowned, not even trying to fight the shiver that name brought.
Narasis seemed to agree. “I got the impression that Jaataran wants them for some avarice of his. He is always seeking new magical sources. I would almost feel sorry for the poor bastards if they weren’t Masaari.”
Jaataran had a reputation for dabbling in the dark arts and rumors of his cruelty and bloodthirsty rites abounded. It was said that he and General Radokin were two of a kind, though the general was circumspect with his own perversions. Rumor, but no fact, could be found of his own actions.
It seemed prudent that the general keep relations warm between the two countries, so that should Jaataran seek lands and wealth, he would look elsewhere rather than jeopardize a useful and fulfilling alliance. The general, if not merciful, was at least intelligent.
“Have you ever even seen a Masaari?” questioned Mikon with a faint grimace.
“Never, but we saw their victims often enough when I was in the military. I was stationed on the desert border, and gods above, but they are brutal. Often there was not enough to even identify the soldiers they killed.” Narasis wiped away a bead of sweat on his brow. “It was, and is, pure stupidity to send soldiers in against them. The country is not worth anything, it is desert, for the gods’ sake, and the Masaari count it as theirs. Leave them alone, they leave us alone. But the general wants something out there in the wastes, something he never tells us poor grunts. So he sends men to their deaths and all it does is earn the enmity of the Masaari.”
Mikon arched an eyebrow. He would have expected a military man to be supportive of whatever his superiors were doing, but obviously what he had observed on the desert border had nullified any such loyalty.
“So, they went on a raid and this time, somehow, surprised a family group of the bastards. A woman having a child or something, so the rest were gathered ’round helping. Anyway, they captured them, held them and lured in some of the warriors. Caught an important one from what the captain said, though they do not precisely know who, just that his tattoos seem to indicate he is someone of high caste.”
“And there was no further retaliation?” Mikon felt uneasy at this information.
“Not a thing. No one tried to get them back,” Narasis grunted. “I know, I thought that was strange too, not like all I had been told of them. Still, their magic depends on the sands and these ones are helpless away from it. Not to mention they are bound with iron to nullify magic. It should be safe enough.” His own tone said that he was not so sure.
“A true warrior is never helpless,” Mikon mused, rolling his shoulders to ease the tightness that discussing this brought to him. “I doubt that magic is their only military tactic.”
Narasis shrugged, but did not argue the point.
That Narasis was open about his concerns eased Mikon’s fears.
Mikon had led many a caravan, two across the Deadlands themselves, and it was in the middle of the best season, without weather worries. The prisoners were of concern, yes, but they would have their own guards, military men well used to controlling captives. Mikon would have control over those guards temporarily, as caravan master, but he did not really want to tangle with the army at all. They made bad enemies.
Mikon wanted no part of the prisoners, though he had to admit to curiosity. To see a Masaari in the flesh—that would be a tale for the tavern.
“When will they arrive?”
Narasis sighed. “Tonight, the captain said. Told me they would be ready to go again at first light.”
“That does not seem much rest for a prisoner convoy,” Mikon commented, puzzled.
Narasis gave a grim smile. “I think they intend to run the Masaari to the bone to keep them under control, and get them there swiftly. Although the captain told me there would be supplies strictly for the prisoners, to keep them healthy enough to hand over to Jaataran in one piece.”
“So what happened to the women they captured?”
Narasis looked him in the eye. “They are part of the prisoner convoy.”
Mikon frowned, uneasy.
“Don’t fool yourself. Masaarian women can be just as dangerous as the men. The children themselves can kill you in a heartbeat. One of my comrades was slain by a child of seven years. They are all as dangerous and barbaric as each other, so don’t let a pretty face or extreme youth fool you.”
Mikon stared at him for a moment, then let his gaze fall.
“So what would the pay be?”
* * * * *
Mikon heaved his gear up into the wagon that he and Jakob would share, a perk of being caravan master. The other guards would sleep where they could or pitch tents if they wished. To have a wagon was a luxury few could afford. Mikon always enjoyed this part, if nothing else.
They had also been loaned two horses for their personal use, and a driver for the wagon, so they did not have the mind-numbing task of driving the oxen. Mikon loved horses, completely and totally, and one day he hoped that he would have the wealth to own one, a fine one of good breeding, maybe even with Telkan blood, the horses of the Masaari. They were said to be creatures of fire and intelligence, legends about them almost as common as about the Masaari themselves.
So Mikon was happy as could be with having a horse for the month-long trek to the border of Sespay. He grinned at Jakob as they began to ride down beside the wagons that were slowly forming into a manageable line. The wine merchants were seasoned veterans and their formation needed no assistance, the silk merchant only needed a word or two to straighten his group, but the metalworker…
After twenty minutes of rearranging and haranguing, Mikon was ready to leave the man behind. He seemed as thick and heavy as his own metal workings and it was pure misery getting procedure through his head. Fortunately, the apprentices seemed a little more intelligent and a few of Mikon’s glares and scathing retorts had them racing to form into a sloppy fifth-place position, just in front of the prisoner convoy.
Mikon took the time to talk to the captain in charge of the prisoners and he could not say he liked the man. There was something slimy in his manner, cruel in his small eyes. His arrogant way of speaking to Mikon made no friends there and it was evident that, sooner or later, Mikon would have to make it clear that he was in charge. There could not be two leaders in a caravan.
He did not bother to view the prisoners. It was enough right now to get this entire group on the road. He did not need further concerns that might prod his conscience; he was still unsure about the fact there were women and children involved, no matter Narasis’ comments. What he did not see could not influence him.
But for now, it was a beautiful day, and Mikon felt his tension slowly fade into a normal calm as they finally got into motion. The first week was always the hardest, and after that, things would settle as people got used to the rhythm and cadence of time spent on the move.
They passed through the great western gates of Relpan and onto the well-traveled stone-paved road. They would have two days travel before they turned south into the Deadlands, and this easy route would give the caravan time to pull together and settle into cohesion. The sound of the wheels was loud upon the stone and people on the road pulled to one side, letting the caravan pass with the nonchalance of familiarity. Relpan was the base for a great many caravans, a hub of trade for both land and sea. Mikon’s small group was miniscule in comparison to some of the great caravans that moved through Tacarta both westward and eastward. Those could be up to a hundred wagons and had to have multiple caravan masters.
Mikon had never wished to deal with such ponderous movement as that. It was enough getting a small group to move, much less deal with the conflict that could arise with the concerns of that many merchants. It was a nightmare in the making as far as he was concerned, although the sheer size was often a deterrent to any bandits thinking to make a quick raid.
No, Mikon would stick with the smaller groups, and so far he had made a bit of a name for himself, enough that he would always be assured of a job in this business if he wanted it.
He just wished he did not need it. Surely he was capable of doing something else closer to home, but every time he tried, something seemed to sabotage it, so that he ended up back in this situation. He often wondered if the gods were playing some game with him, although he could not imagine being important enough for them to bother with. He had nothing to offer them.
Mikon pushed the self-pitying thoughts aside with impatience. There was only the here and now and the duties he was expected to perform. He rode up and down the column, ensuring that the company guards were in position and knew that he was watching them. There would be no sloppiness while he was in charge.
He averted his eyes from the prisoners as he rode by, though he could see vague images from the corner of his eyes. Dark robes and the clank of chain, the shuffle of feet upon the stone and the harsh tones of the army guards.
Mikon put heels to his horse and rode up toward the front again, wishing his mind did not linger on what the prisoners were going through.
It was none of his business beyond keeping the caravan itself safe and moving.
None at all.