Searing Soul

Book One of the Triathlon Trilogy

Chapter One

We didn't expect this much rain and we certainly were not prepared for it. It came down in thick torrents with such a vengeance that it rumbled against the battered ground like a stampede of horses. Flooding and mudslides were reported in countless cases. People crowded into the town in the aftermath after having homes and possessions swept away. Some were just waiting for the water to drain from the lowlands to see if there was a home to even return to.

Sobbing women and persistent men flocked the returning search parties in hope that their lost family members had been found. Sometimes they were, sometimes they weren't, but every party came back bearing bodies.

I watch from my place where I stand holding both Fea and Snow's reins. The horses are irritated with all the noise and I constantly feel them nudging their noses into my shoulders, silently pleading for our departure. I shush them, but I too feel the strain in the air. It pulls on my very being, it's weight heavy and unyielding. But I ignore it best I can, knowing that I cannot leave my post.

I stay close to the building known as the Ranger's Stead. My back it pressed to the hard wall and one leg his drawn up, my boot resting in a crevasse in the wood. My cloak is wrapped tightly about my form, in combat to the cool weather that the rain has left behind. I'm shivering a bit, but I try to focus my mind on a refugees from the lowlands, thinking of how worse off they are.

A young woman cradles a whimpering child to her chest, her clothing is town and soaked in mud. She has the same weary, shocked eyes as the rest of the crowd, obviously wondering how things could go so wrong so fast.

I want to help her, I want to give her my cloak and tell her everything will be alright. I wish I could halt the baby's hungered cries and fill it's small belly until it could never remember feeling the pains of malnutrition. But I know my place. She would not accept my help anyway. I am an outcast, a freak amongst this race. I do not belong. Why do I even worry for her when I know she will be well cared for? She is like them after all, human.

Anger springs across my chest and crawls up to my eyes. Now I see her in the light I should. She is my enemy, just as the rest of her kind. My sympathy is gone. I have suffered greater pains then she could ever imagine, inflicted kindly by her own fellow humans.

And now I hate her, curses, just as her kind hate me.

I hear the door of the Stead open with creaking moans. I flicker my green eyes up onto the platform and see two men conversing farewells. One is a ranger, the other Gethran, my master.

I snap out of my relaxed stance at the sight of the latter, breaking my contact with the wall. I cast my eyes to the ground and tighten my grip on both animals' reins nervously. I listen as Gethran bides the man a good day and begins to descend the stairs. His eyes are on me, for I can feel them burning into my head like to red-hot poles of lead.

"Mount up." He commands me shortly, his voice clipped and heated. "We're leaving."

He takes Snow's reins from my cold hands and I hasten to obey. I swing myself into Fea's worn saddle and shift into a comfortable position. Fea is a bony old brown horse who has seen younger days of better strength. She had been in Gethran's possession for nearly fifteen years. She has long since served her purpose of carting barrels of apples to town from the orchard my Master owns. Now he keeps her about so that I may not drag behind him on journeys he wishes me along.

Now as we leave the town she is tired and I can feel her labored breaths beneath my knees. I slow my pace behind the Master and Snow, hoping to ease her pain a bit. But Gethran's sharp voice calls for me to keep up, so I am forced to override any mercy I felt for the beast.

The ride is only an hour long. Gethran's property rests on the highland part of the Handra province. The Groth river runs down the slope by the house, lined with stone walls to prevent flooding. Walls that I built myself many years ago under eyes of Samuel, Gethran's father. A man I neither grieved or rejoiced for after his death.

The apple orchard is spread all about the property in firm lines, planted long ago by Gethran's ancestors. I know this landscape like the back of my work-calloused hands. My jobs vary and send me from one corner of the land to the other. I know every tree, rock and patch of grass in this place and I how I wish I didn't!

The Master's house is grand. Built of stone and brick with white shutters, doors and balcony. I painted those too. It took me about three days to complete the entire task while making sure that my other jobs get done.

Mistress Jadis, Gethran's wife, is sitting on the porch in her mother's old rocking chair sipping tea. She watches us with her piercing blue eyes as we dismount from our beasts. She has a particular dislike for me. Why? I cannot say. But even now I can feel her glare boring into my head as I take the reins from my Master's hands.

"Hay and oats, you know the drill boy." Gethran barks a me, heading in long strides for the house.

I nod my head quickly, pulling the animals towards the large barn that stands off to the right of the main structure. There are about six stalls within. Only three are truly habitable at the time. I place Snow in his stall before moving down to Fea's. She's panting and her legs are quivering with each step. It's cruel how Gethran makes me push her past her limit each time we ride. So she knows I'm grateful, I give her more oats then usual as a reward for her hard work.

Once she is good and settled, I move back to Snow. He whinnies impatiently as I carry his meal into him, shaking his head from side to side in frustration. I can't help but smile at the spectacle. His white mane flaps about madly on the air and gives him the look of a lion as it moves. He nudges me with his nose as I pour the water into his private trough. I push his head away with a chuckle, telling him to be patient.

When both horses are munching happily on their oats and are well-brushed, I head off to my own stall at the end of the barn. Pushing aside the gate, I step onto the hay-covered floor with my worn down boots. There's not much to call my own here, besides the few contents of the small chest in the corner. A straw-filled mattress and thin blanket that serve as a bed sit pushed in the corner. It's not a whole lot, but it's what I'm forced to call home so I don't mind.

Unclasping my cloak from underneath my chin, I take it off and hang it by a small hook in the wall to dry. It's the only one I have and I want to keep it as long as possible. Gethran won't be pleased if I have to tell him that it grew mold and had to be thrown away. Knowing his temper, I'll probably be whipped for such a thing.

I don't have a lot of time until the Master will be calling me, so I quickly begin to unlace my boot's ties. All day long I forced myself to endure a small pebble that had found it's way to make my life even more miserable. I hold my shoe upside down and watch as the stone falls into my thin, outstretched palm. I glare at it for a moment before throwing it away and retying my laces.

Standing, I try to make myself as presentable as possible, know that it's required of me. Once I scrape as much mud from my shirt and leggings that I can, I straighten. Closing my tired eyes, I run a hand through my blazing red hair and heave a sigh. The day still has enough lightened hours for me to work. If Gethran has his way, I certainly will be at it for a while. And seeing how he always does, I shall be late to bed this night.

Bidding the horses farewell, I leave the barn. A slight drizzle has started, the last mark of the vicious storm now past. I suddenly wish I had not left my cloak in my stall to dry, for the air is still chilled and strikes to the marrow.

I cross the yard, knowing exactly where I'm heading. The Master and Mistress have both gone inside and are no doubt awaiting me to bring them wood. I feel anger build once again in the core of my being. Mistress Jadis will be sure to berate me for now being fast enough to her liking. She'll complain about the cold, the moistness in the air and heaven knows what else. I have no source of warmth, not even my soaked cloak to protect me from the elements, yet she whines daily of such things! She would not last a day in my position.

I begin to collect wood blocks from the small fuel shelter connected to the house. I am weary but force my shivering hands to pick up piece after piece of splintery firewood. Soon I have a respectable pile in my tired arms, but I decide to grab a last block for my own sake. Last time Jadis had deemed my stack far too small and had preceded to throwing my fortunate extra pair of shoes into the fire. She said that if I would not do as I was told, only I would be the one to suffer for it. And suffer I did. Those shoes had fit fairly well and had been a relief when my boots where soaked, muddy or dirty.

The last piece of wood slices my hand deeply in the palm and I curse, dropping my pile. Blood blooms over the stinging wound, clashing with my pale skin. I stick the cut in my mouth as a pitiful attempt to bring relief to the burning that now consumes my hand. My eyes fall back to the scattered stack of wood blocks now spread about my feet.

A groan escapes my lips.

Then I hear an angered shout calling my name. Perfect, just perfect. I regather the blocks in my arms as quickly as I can, ignoring the throbbing in my hand. The voice growls impatiently for me again and this time it sets me into a desperate mode. I'm scrambling for the porch now, moving my feet as fast as they would carry me and my burden. I can't help it. Years of conditioning taught me to discern the tones in my Master's voice and altogether hate it. I'll be lucky to be dismissed without a throttle.

Gethran is standing unhappily on he balcony, his eyes glaring at me as I shuffle towards the steps.

"What took you so long?" He snaps at me, narrowing his gaze.

I swallow down my growing hate and bow my head dutifully, my green orbs fixed on the ground.

"The wood slipped, Master." I say, shifting a little in apprehension. "And I sliced my hand."

I watch warily through my curtain-like hair as he raises an eyebrow at me. His look stirs up more fear within me and I look away, loathing myself for weakness.

"And is that your excuse for keeping the Mistress to suffer the cold?" He demands, making me shrink a little. "Speed is said to be a quality of elves, yet you seem not to live up that reputation."

I bit my lip, trying both to crush my boiling anger and also hide the anticipation of what he may do in retaliation. Lashing out never helped one so low as me, this I knew. A beating or thrashing could easily be arranged though.

"I am sorry to displease you, Master." I say with as much respect as I can muster. "I did not mean to keep my Lady waiting."

He grabs me by the collar of my shirt and the breath of Gethran sweeps nastily into my face.

"Yet you did." He growled, giving my body a light shake that caused some wood to fall from my arms. "Slaves do not keep their betters waiting. You shall refrain from doing so in the future or suffer, understand?"

My breathing hitches slightly as his face draws close to mine. I nod, the only action that I can do in this situation. I know what the repercussions are for making this particular human angry and they don't appeal to me in the least.

A snarl appears on Gethran's face and too late I realize that he wanted a verbal response. A beefy fist slams into my cheek and I go down with a startled cry, dropping all of the wood. I hit the ground hard, twisting my right wrist as I feebly try to break the momentum of my fall. Searing pain rides up my arm and I pull my hand to my chest from where I sit on the muddy ground.

A boot comes into my downcast vision and I hesitantly look up into the Master's placid face. He turns away in blatant disgust.

"Make yourself presentable and get this fuel into the house. Jadis is impatient."

Then he walks away, leaving me with a split lip and bruised cheek in the mud. He just wanted to remind me that I belong to him and that he is the master and I the slave. I know a show of dominance when I see one. Humans seem to need a constant reassurance that they are still in control when they hold the slightest amount of power.

Wincing as I jerk my wrist to push up, I stagger to my feet slowly. It takes me three minutes to collect the wood blocks once again into my arms due to my freshly hurt hand. No matter, I'll wrap it firmly once I retire for the night.

I make my way up the wooden stairs and into the house. As the warmth of the place hits me I wonder why these humans even complain of the cold. Out in my stall it is freezing, within this home, with or without a fire, it is warm.

Cautiously, I make my way through the halls to the sitting room where Jadis is undoubtedly sitting. I enter quietly and hear her stone voice talking with Gethran's. I swallow, not raising my eyes to see if they even take notice of me as I kneel by the fireplace and start placing the wood within.

Happily, the don't even turn my way.

"They're asking for more from my orchards." I hear the Master's voice growl. "But they want to lower my prices! The ranger at the post says that we're one of the few to not have our crops affected by the rain because of our hill's slope. He says most people won't be able to afford my prices."

Well, that makes sence to me. Most people have lost everything in this storm, from family to homes. But of course I won't speak this openly. I know how Gethran looks at his profits and he won't take any less then he wants, not even if it means everyone starves while fruit decays in his stocks.

"If they won't accept your terms then offer your goods elsewhere." Mistress Jadis responds, her voice as cold as ice. "There are plenty of other towns to choose from, Geth. Ones so desperate that they'll double your prices. You're a salesman not a measly dog who answers to the majorities pleas. Don't let them fool you into anything."

"I am no fool, Jadis." The man's voice cuts the air in a steely tone. "Never refer to me as such again. I know that there are more towns that will easily accept my prices or more. That is not my concern. I worry of the products keeping fresh before arriving at the destinations set for them."

I cringe as Jadis laughs in response, a cruel, bitter sound. Shaking my head slightly I ingor the sudden tremble that had come to my fingers as I strike with the flint. Her voice makes me fear and I find that disgusting. I am no child, quite older then her actually, so why do I shiver?

"Why ever do you care about what state your wares will be in upon arrival?" The woman questions boldly. "That will be the buyer's concern, not yours."

I sit back on my heels, watching the newborn flames lick themselves to the air. I do not lift my head, though I can hear the Master's teeth clicking as is his habit when thinking deeply.

"My reputation, Jadis. Surely that is obvious to you. Who would want to buy from a man who sells rotten products that do not last?"

"So what are you to do?" The Mistress states, I hear her heels snap lightly on the floor as she nears her husband. "You are not giving in to those townspeople are you? I won't allow that."

A sigh and grunt.

"That is not up to know, woman. The air is too filled with moister and will be for some time. This is not good for the fruits and vegetables while traveling. If I take advantage of my costumers now they will not return again."

I can feel the tension starting in the air and decide it's time for me to leave. I have learned not to be in the room after the Mistress and Master dispute over anything. I have too many times proved to be the outlet of anger for the pair after such an encounter.

Swiftly I rise figuring that the sooner I leave and do my chores assigned to me, the sooner I shall have my leave. However, just as I turn to exit the room a harsh hand grips my arm and quickly spins me around.

"The extra wood should not stay shewn about the floor, elf." Gethran snarls in my face and I resist the urge to hiss back. A sharp cuff on the head changes my mind though. "Pick them up. I shall not have my house cluttered because of your laziness."

Then he turns away trusting in my knowledge of his anger to assure that the deed is done. And I do pick them up with speed, hoping to leave the room as their voices become heated. Luckily I make it out of the room before the battle starts.

Outside I can hear them shouting now like a pair of battling cats over territory. Both are willful creatures and it makes me wonder why they ever married. Their one son is just as demanding, though he is of nineteen years and is now within the Ranger Corps. Still, I must say that I prefer the boy over his parents any day.