The following is an excerpt from Shadows of Shadows, a work in progress by Kami Melton.

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The stench was putrid and thick.

Dairen gagged and leaned his head to the side just in time to lose his last meal onto the roadside, instead of the Master’s shirt. Though he had seen only nine summers, he was anxious to impress the man whose job it was to see him safely to the southernmost shire where the boy was to be fostered.

Dairen spat twice, and then tried breathing through his mouth.
He remembered the day the Master had ridden through the castle gate. Dairen had been ready to leave at that moment and had wished he didn’t have to wait until the next morning. Now he missed his mother and grandfather terribly—especially since they had entered the valley and heard the buzzards barking.

“It’s worse to taste than it is to smell.” The soft warning came too late and the boy heaved again. He leaned weakly against the strong man’s back and hoped he didn’t see what he guessed to be the cause.

They had just entered the village, and nothing could mask the carnage from any of their senses. The smell filled the tiny valley; the surrounding mountains stood high, forming a bowl, so that the airs above could not reach in their fingers to pull it away.

Garret dismounted and handed the reins to the boy when they got to the remains of the second in a string of what had been cottages. No thatch was left and little of the wattle and daub. The remains of the frame were charred and black.

“What happened?” Dairen whispered as he caught site of a pair of small feet lying askew beneath a half-burnt beam. He drew a quick gasp. The feet were no bigger than his, but he suddenly realized that was because they were terribly bloated. Really, they were the size of his younger sister’s. This time his stomach was empty. He turned his head away, but saw nothing better to the left, where the Master was.

The tall man used his well-worn boot to kick aside a pole and door. The corpse beneath split open at its side. Garret brought his sleeve to his nose and shooed away some flies before leaning closer. With his other hand, he picked up a brittle stick and began to poke the unfortunate and move the surrounding debris. The stick broke and he had to move in closer to find what he was looking for: evidence that the village’s Charl was the dead man. Garret had suspected it was the Charl because of the partially-burned sword scabbard beneath his left knee. (With the stick he was also able to retrieve a blue and green cloth about the poor fellow’s neck—the expensive scarf Garret had seen Charl Shad’s wife give him on the occasion of his fifty-eighth birthday.)

Garret nodded, abhorrently satisfied. He stood to full height and took a slow all-over look at the village. The man muttered a thoughtful, “Hhm” through his nose and glanced up at Dairen, realizing what a terrible thing this was for the boy to see. His young charge looked as though he had seen a ghost in his dreams and woken to find a real one standing next to his bed.

Garret grabbed the reins from the nearly-limp hands and re-mounted. He nudged the dappled horse to a walk.

“Close your eyes, my friend, and hold tight.” The boy reached around, clutching the two straps adorning the front of the Master’s suede jerkin. Dairen was all too eager to close his eyes as the mare whinnied and lurched into a gallop.

When he had been in the quiet village before, Garret had enjoyed the friendly visits and the wealth of food laid to table each evening. He had often wished to spend more time there—perhaps settle in and have a family—someday. Now his only thought was of reaching the mountain pass as quickly as possible. After that… Well, after that maybe his head would clear enough to allow him to think. But for the moment, he concentrated on pacing his horse and keeping Dairen from sliding off. Garret mouthed a quick prayer then patted his horse’s neck. “Come on, old girl. Just a bit farther! Haede!”

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