Ralin is an outsider among outsiders. The dominant Users, who can manipulate their souls to create unique and powerful abilities, shun him for his lack of inborn talent. And even among his fellow exiles, he must hide his past. On the very day that he finds a lasting purpose for his life, everything is turned completely upside down.  Wanted by the government, pursued by monsters and mercenaries, and plagued by strange nightmares, the young man must travel beyond everything he has ever known to discover what is so important about him to cause such powerful people want him as an ally, or want him dead. To survive, Ralin and his allies will be pushed to the limit as they battle rock monsters, traitors, the undead, and even Ralin himself.

Ralin is an outsider among outsiders. The dominant Users, who can manipulate their souls to create unique and powerful abilities, shun him for his lack of inborn talent. And even among his fellow exiles, he must hide his past. On the very day that he finds a lasting purpose for his life, everything is turned completely upside down. 
Wanted by the government, pursued by monsters and mercenaries, and plagued by strange nightmares, the young man must travel beyond everything he has ever known to discover what is so important about him to cause such powerful people want him as an ally, or want him dead. To survive, Ralin and his allies will be pushed to the limit as they battle rock monsters, traitors, the undead, and even Ralin himself.

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Hunt of the Fallen

Chapter 1

He walked down a dreary village street, his heart trying to beat its way out of his chest. He didn’t know what he was nervous about, until the bloody and rotting limbs appeared, clawing at any part of him they could reach. He could see no faces, but the hands grabbed and punched him, often leaving flesh behind as he tore himself away only to fall to another’s grasp. Bile started to sting his throat from the smell of rot. Each resistant tug and pull burned more and more with the prolonged struggle, and his attackers only seemed to grow stronger. Tearing into his flesh, he felt bones break and joints stretch. All strength would drain soon, and death would come.

***

The dead hands had disappeared, and he found himself sneaking through a forest, darker than any forest he’d ever seen. Surrounded by trees and plants he didn’t know existed he focused on what he did know. He knew he had to reach whatever lay beyond the forest. And that is when the pain started.

He stopped to examine his arm to see three deep, parallel gashes. More pain and he saw his pants getting wet with his blood just above the calf. He saw the next one coming, though there was nothing he could do to stop it. Just a hazy flash of black, and blood dripped down his forehead. Faster and faster they came, so he ran. Maybe escaping the forest would free him from the flurry of slashes, but the head injury began pouring into his eyes and the forest became a black and red blur.

He hit the tree harder than any blow from his attackers and as he rolled to the ground, he fought off unconsciousness as long as possible. He landed on his back and blinked away as much of the blood as he could, but the darkness was closing in on the small view of the stars he had through the leafy canopy. He held it back with his force of will, until the stars elongated into jagged fangs and curved claws, and the pain chased him into nothingness.

***

The chaos behind him faded to a murmur of clashing blades, roaring creatures and death. To his front, the cave stretched into murky depth that frightened him more than the evisceration he would face if he turned around. But his need for the same thing that frightened him drove him deeper and deeper into the dark. The truth. The truth of why he was here. The truth everything he had faced to come here. The truth that could make sense of it all while turning his world inside out.

Lost in his own fearful thoughts, he didn’t realize how long he had been walking when he reached a doorway. Swirling abstract patterns covered the surface of the large double-doors. But he focused on the glowing red pulse that emanated from the cracks around the frame. Each pulse brought with it, a sound. He couldn’t tell what the sound was, but he believed it to be a human voice.

He placed his fingers on the handle and hesitated. He could feel the power coming from the other side of the door, and wondered if he even wanted to face it. No he didn’t. But want had nothing to do with him right now.

He turned the handle.

The sound itself seemed to press on the door as is gently swung open; growing as if it realized that it now had a listener. The red light nearly blinded him at first, and continued to brighten as the noise grew to what he recognized as a laugh. Not a funny laugh, amused chuckle or even crazy cackle. This laugh oozed with triumph, superiority, and more than anything hatred. Wisps of red reached out to him, tugging and beckoning for him to enter, to accept and laugh along. He stepped back, but they tugged harder. He had to get away from that laugh or it would consume him. A lance of red light shot from the doorway and pierced through his belly. His eyes dropped to the arm-width spear and saw green ooze seep around the wound. His mind drifted into numb darkness, grateful for the peace that would come with death.

***

Ralin’s eyes snapped open as his hands moved to cover the hole in his middle. He had to stop the bleeding. But his fingers just met his solid body under his shirt and no dripping blood. Taking a few deep breaths, Ralin focused on getting his heart back in a normal rhythm. That was just about the most disturbing series of dreams he had ever had. He looked forward to the time when he no longer remembered them.

Standing up against the tree he had been leaning against, Ralin noticed the sun had moved during his nap. He clenched his jaw. That was much longer that the quick bit of shut-eye he had planned on. He didn’t want to come back too soon, but staying away this long was pushing it.

He checked the angle of the shadows. He could still catch up with his target and be back before dark. He’d have to hurry though. If he didn’t get this done quickly and carefully, he might not get another chance. Who knew when he would next have the opportunity for this much fun again? All he had to do was bring back his target, dead.

Ralin spotted some prints a damp patch of earth and knelt to examine them. His prey was a fool to leave such a clear sign of its passing. Half a day, at most. If he was fortunate, the target would be waiting for him over the next hill.

Move. He slipped into the shadows of the largest trees in the forest. If he was close, best not to be noticed quite yet. Ralin’s dark brown trousers and tan shirt helped him blend in with the forest around. Ralin darted from cover to cover, avoiding the plethora of dry sticks and leaves that littered the soil.

Practicing this had given him the type of body needed for forestry. Sinuous muscle held firm to his bones, giving him enough strength to hold his own with other, though it didn’t look bulgy on his height, which was a bit taller than average. Quicker than most judged him to be when they first met him, both physically and mentally, everyone who knew, thought he was a perfect fit for his job. While most men who were in this line of work seemed grizzled and rough, at first look Ralin came off as quite the innocent. His face was clean-shaven and had a boyish look to it, but piercing grey eyes betrayed that look. If you gazed into them, you would see a hardness and intensity unusual in a youth of only twenty years.

After about an hour of following the direction of the signs, Ralin caught sight of a ravine. Before cresting the lip, he dove to his belly and inched his way to the edge. The bubbling sound of a stream rushing over rocks reached his ears well before he saw it. As his sight reached deeper and deeper into the ravine, his heart beat faster and faster. Somehow Ralin already knew that his target waited at the bottom.

When the bed finally came into view, so did his prey. He sat there, comfortably drinking to quench the thirst of hot day in an unusually dry summer, completely oblivious or the death that Ralin carried in his quiver. He had to stifle a chuckle that bulged in his throat. So much fun. He felt lucky that he had found a group that appreciated the practical use of his skills.

Now came one of the difficult parts; getting in a good firing position without being noticed. Ralin glanced to his left and right. No trees offered cover anywhere near, and in the time it would take to reach one, his target could easily wander off. If he rose to his knees here, he would be plainly visible over the crest of the ravine.

An idea popped into his head. Never tried this before. He grinned at how everyone would react if he told them about it. He wouldn’t though.

Ralin quietly unslung his bow and took his quiver off his shoulders. Slipping an arrow from its slot, he brought it to his chest with the bow before rolling onto his back. He took a moment to listen. No sounds of flight or panic. Just the rushing stream. Then, bit by careful bit, he twisted himself so his body was parallel to the ravine. He brushed the strands of black hair from his face to get a clear view of his target. He kept it longer in the front to shield his eyes when needed, but now he wanted an unobstructed view.

His heart began to race with the adrenaline of the coming kill. The arrow seemed to notch itself and he drew the fletching to his cheek, angling the point down the ravine and his prey. Now a choice came to him. To wound and run down for some more fun? Or to go for the instant kill and get back?

Ralin aimed at the belly. I could use a good run.

A shrill chirp shot through the air, spooking all the birds and wildlife in the area, including Ralin’s target. It only brought its horned head up for a second before bounding up the ravine and into the deeper trees leading to the mountains. He’d be able to follow the hoof prints again if he needed, but he doubted he would see that particular animal again.

The man on the sholot trotted through the trees on the other side of the ravine. Ralin sighed and stood back up, looking off to where the nejat had fled. Zertolom pulled on the reins and brought the tall, two-legged lizard to a halt. The older man’s wide eyes went from Ralin, to where Ralin looked and then back, one hand gripping his long knife.

“Everything all right, Little Butcher?” Zertolom’s voice shook, as if he had just had a scare.

“Nejat.” Ralin pointed his chin to the bushes where the animal had disappeared. He hated that nickname. The other hunters had given it to him on account of how much game he brought in, but it just seemed a bit too violent in his ears.

“Oh.” Zertolom released his grip on the knife and relaxed, readjusting the wide-brimmed straw hat on his head. “Did I?”

“Don’t worry about it.” Ralin waved off the foreseen apology and put his gear back in place. “Is everything fine with you?”

Zertolom heeled his mount down the ravine and back up to join Ralin. “There is a small lake not too far from the band, where we are going to make camp for a few days. Hopefully get in some good hunting.”

Ralin glanced longingly back at the trees before falling in step with his friend back toward the train of wagons that made up the band. “And you came out to gather all the wanderers?”

“Yup. Though I think you are the last on my list.” He patted the blanket roll on the back of his saddle. “Want a ride back?”

After considering that he didn’t have a great estimate of how far from the path he had come, Ralin accepted, patting the scaly hide of the sholot before clambering into position behind Zertolom.

They didn’t talk too much as they rode. The other hunters knew how Ralin liked to get lost in his thoughts and long silences were no longer awkward like they had been when he first joined the band. After some time, they emerged from the Brown Trunk Forest onto the Plains of Lampader. Rolling waves of long grass spread as far as he could see beyond the road that had been set about fifty paces from the tree line.

The train of wagons in the band stretched for about a quarter of a league, and moved at a despairingly slow pace. The two of them rode up beside it. Ralin didn’t belong near any one wagon so he didn’t have anyone waiting for him. However, as they came up on the front of the second of the three teams, his eyes began searching. Each team basically stuck together wherever they stopped for a night or more. This band was a relatively small one compared to some of the others which had up to seven or eight teams. Those were the ones you wanted to find if you wanted to make good trades.

Each band had its own experts in various skills. If a band didn’t have a person skilled in a particular talent they needed, they would trade with other bands or cities, but the cities usually tried to take advantage of them. Thus, they preferred to come across other fellow wanderers. The band Ralin lived with had most of its basic needs taken care of by its own people. They had people who could fix wagons. They had some pretty skilled seamstresses. There were four people who knew just about everything there was to know about pack animals, and another four who acted as peacekeepers. There were two old women who worked together as healers. They were also training some apprentices on how to use herbs and medicines. Some people roamed the area around the train to gather fruits, roots, and other edible plants. But the band’s specialty was carried out by a very skilled group of hunters who provided the whole band with meat, plus extra to trade.

Youths began learning a specific trade at the age of seventeen. Before that, they experimented with the various responsibilities to see which they preferred. Ralin had recently been accepted fully as one of the hunters. The others were surprised at how skilled he was in such a short time of practicing. He often surprised himself at times. Even he didn’t understand how he managed to get some of his more difficult kills.

It wasn’t long before he spotted what he had been looking for. “I think I’ll get off here, Zert.” Ralin patted the other hunter’s shoulder.

“Oh, right.” He slowed the sholot down to make it easier. He looked at where they were and then back down to Ralin. “Good luck, Little Butcher” he said with a wink and knowing grin.

Ralin chuckled dryly at the nickname and patted the sholot to get it going again and then strolled up to the plain family wagon he’d spotted. The paint was chipping and a dunrak that seemed almost too old lugged it along at its slow pace. Ralin always felt sorry for these hairy, lumbering creatures in the summer. The dunrak’s long brown fur covered its entire body save for its eyes, nose, and mouth. The animal’s breathing was heavy and strained. Ralin reached up to pat its head while he looked for the family that owned it. The father, who was driving the wagon, noticed him looking around. “She’s back with the seamstresses’s wagon, Ralin. It isn’t too far back. You could reach her well before we get to the lake.”

 “That’s okay, Jorad. I’ll just stay here,” responded Ralin as he hopped up on the wagon, seating himself next to the large carpenter. Jorad Kelit gripped the reins with the strong and rough hands of a dedicated woodworker. His short grey hair and lines in his smiling face showed him to be well past his prime, but his shining eyes showed an inner youth that would never go away, and neither would his fatherly kind heartedness. He wore the simple clothes of a laborer, nothing too fancy for a carpenter.

Ralin liked spending a quiet moment or two with Jorad. He was easy to talk to and had always accepted Ralin from the day he’d arrived at the band. However, Jorad’s third daughter, Ledema, was another matter completely. The few times he’d tried to talk to her without some normal purpose for the conversation, his lips seemed to trip over each other and make up words that just left her confused before he turned around and walked away.

The two of them sat there a moment not saying anything. Then Jorad broke the silence.

“Everyone knows that you like her,” he said quite calmly. He had a little quirk of a smile on his lips, but his eyes sparkled as if he had just told a hilarious joke. “You might as well admit it to yourself, and to her.” Ralin stared at the older man with an unbelieving face and Jorad grinned right back. There was a fatherly quality in those eyes, but also concerned. “You can’t fool me with that face. I can tell how you feel. I was a boy once too, you know. The hardest emotion to hide is love.”

“Love? HA!” barked Ralin as he peered off into the distance. “I like you Jorad, you are

a good friend, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Really? I know a little more than you might think,” Jorad said lightly, but his voice got

serious. “I can understand why you feel that way, knowing how you came to be with us.”

Ralin turned on the man. Surprise, fear, and anger all welled up in his chest. Jorad jumped and held his hands up in a defensive gesture as if Ralin would attack him. “Whoa there. Don't get all heated. I don’t know everything, but I know the basics, and anyone in your situation could close up like that.”

“Let’s not talk about this anymore, please,” mumbled Ralin as he turned back toward the horizon. The sun crept closer and closer to setting and the minutes passed in silence.

So his secret was still safe with the Loremaster. All anyone in the train knew, those who cared to ask, was that Ralin’s parents had abandoned him. This was only partly true, but it was better for everyone that they didn’t know where he really came from. It was possible that they wouldn’t accept him if they knew, and he didn’t want to take that chance.

From behind them came the chirp of a sholot approaching. Ralin turned to see the animal bearing down on them. Its scales had an orange, almost golden tint that practically glittered in the light of the sun. A muscular and well-defined creature, it was the finest sholot Ralin had ever seen. He had become a good judge of the animals since coming to this band. They were tall creatures, almost twice the height of an average man. They kept their balance surprisingly well with only two legs and a tail, which were their only appendages. Their long necks and tails were each the same length as the distance from the ground to the ridge of the animal’s back. They had long snouts, full of teeth made for ripping and grinding the plants they ate. With their scale-covered bodies, they looked like very large reptiles, but they were quite harmless in their nature. Sholots weren’t the most intelligent creatures, but they were faithful to their masters. Ralin loved the beasts and wished he had one of his own, but his situation would not allow it.

Ralin’s attention, however, wasn’t on the mount, which he had seen many times, but on its rider. Nellan Forsath was the owner of the impressive animal, so it was no surprise to see him pull back on the reins to trot next to the wagon. The presence of this young man was already enough to put Ralin on edge, but when he saw Ledema Kelit sitting right behind, her arms wrapped around Nellan’s waist for support, Ralin’s insides started to feel as hot as it was outside.

 “Finally got tired of walking?” jabbed Nellan with a haughty smile. Ralin turned forward to watch the back of the dunrak pulling the wagon. Nellan just made him angry, and he didn’t want to be angry when Ledema was around.

Nellan had features that every girl would want in a man. He stood only a bit taller than Ralin, but was quite a bit larger. His muscles bulged, especially in his arms, but they were not as defined as Ralin’s. And his face was one that many would call pretty, mainly because of his bright blue eyes. Ralin would call it constantly smug. Nellan’s short, light-gold hair was styled into small spikes by the weak sap of a tree that some of the gatherers sold. Because of this, his hair resembled the spiked head of a mace. Ralin wondered if it would get stuck if Nellan ran into a tree. Nellan’s thin, bright red coat decorated with gold was casually open because of the heat, but he still held himself as if he thought himself a king. His confidence and smile were the jewel on the Capital Crown that made girls swoon for him.

Feeling their eyes on him, Ralin looked back at the two riders and asked, “What do you want?”

Ralin wanted to snuff out the anger that was building inside him by looking away again, but Ledema wouldn’t let him. She glanced from Nellan to Ralin with worry in her eyes. Before Nellan provoked Ralin into a confrontation, she intervened. Looking hopeful, she said, “A few of us are going to ride ahead to the lake and swim a bit before we have to help the wagons set up.”

It seemed to Ralin that her silky black hair shimmered in the afternoon sunlight. Her deep brown eyes held his like magnets. A long blue riding dress flattered her figure quite nicely. She had the most beautifully-shaped body, and other women in the band envied her. Her mere presence attracted the gaze of nearly every unmarried man she came across, and even some of the married ones.

“Do you want to come along?”

From that longing look for Ledema, Ralin felt his features twist into contempt when he saw Nellan’s smug grin. Nellan knew him well enough to believe he wouldn’t come, which is what he wanted. To avoid feeling too much pain and anger, Ralin looked away and answered, “Maybe some other time. I’m not feeling up to it right now.”

Nellan couldn’t hide his smile of triumph. “Well I guess we’ll see you when you get there,” Ledema mumbled as she looked at Ralin in disappointment. They rode off without another word, and Ralin’s heart burned within his chest.

“That was a stupid thing to do.” Ralin had almost forgotten that Jorad was on the wagon with him. “It’s all too obvious what you want, and you go and let her run off with that beefed-up bone-head.”

“What was I supposed to do?” blurted Ralin as his anger started to change into despair. “Fighting him would only cause trouble.”

Jorad gave him the stern look Ralin’s father used to give him when his son didn’t see what was right in front of his nose. With the same tone of voice, Jorad lectured, “You don’t fight him with fists, but with wit. All you have to do is prove to Ledema that you would make her happier than he ever could. However, you can't do that when you let him spend all the time he wants with her, alone. I honestly don’t want him as a son-in-law, and besides you, there aren’t any others of proper age to marry my daughter. You have to do something.” He ended with a deep sigh and they both gazed at the horizon again.

After a minute, Ralin stood up to leave. “I appreciate your insight. You’ve given me something to think about, at the very least. But I still think you’re crazy.” He hopped off the carpenter’s wagon and began to slowly walk the rest of the way in silence with his thoughts.

***

The sun burned behind the tree-lined horizon of the Brown Trunk Forest, and Ralin wandered through the wagon-train’s animals next to the lake. Besides hunting, this was his other duty within the band. He was responsible for the care of the sholots and dunraks whenever they settled down for a bit, or were ready to leave a camp. He tied them all to posts that had been driven into the ground on their arrival. Since the animals had been put close to the lake, Ralin didn’t have to worry about getting them water. While checking for injuries or cuts that he needed to take care of, he walked among the animals lost in thought. As he neared the edge of the herd, he noticed the golden-orange of Nellan’s sholot. He knew that it didn’t have any injuries, but he approached to admire the animal. She was named Firewalker because when she ran, her feet moved so fast you would think she was running on hot coals. The two of them knew each other well enough because of the time Ralin spent taking care of the animals, so Firewalker didn’t complain when he began to affectionately rub her neck. He couldn’t help thinking how much he wanted a creature of this quality. Nellan took good enough care of the animal, but heaven knows he didn’t deserve such a fine sholot.

As if in response to his thoughts, Ralin heard a voice from behind him. “I bet you want to just run away with the wind in your hair as Firewalker carried you to the horizon.”

Ralin didn’t turn. He knew that Nellan was standing there with his near-permanent look of smugness on his too-perfect face.

“I don’t want to run away,” Ralin replied. “Why would you think that?”

“Maybe because you realize you have no true hope of a real life. Well, at least not here.”

Ralin still didn’t turn to face him. That would be a sign that Nellan was worth noticing, a sign Ralin was unwilling to give. To occupy his attention, he checked over Firewalker’s legs again. He didn’t need to, but he did need something to occupy him so he wouldn’t give in to Nellan’s taunts. However, Nellan seemed determined to get a reaction out of him. Ralin heard him take a few steps closer. “I mean, honestly, what do you hope to do with your life?”

“Hunt,” Ralin replied curtly.

“Hunt? And what else? That isn’t much of a life,” Nellan barked with a laugh. His voice suddenly got quieter. “No fame. No fortune.” His head came so close that Ralin could feel the hot breeze of the boy’s breath as it whispered, “No family.”

So this was where Nellan wanted the conversation to go. Ralin decided to play along for a bit. “I have just as much chance at having a family as you do.” He didn’t believe it himself, but he could imagine the outrage in the other burning face when he put them on the same level. “Besides, what makes you think I won’t have a family?” Finally he turned his face to see that Nellan was still damp from swimming in the lake. He felt a stab of jealousy that he quickly covered with the idea of Nellan being dragged to the depths of the lake by some strange creature and devoured for supper. That image brought a smile to his face easily enough.

Nellan controlled the anger Ralin had brought up and answered right back with a smile of his own. “Who would you marry? Sure, lots of the girls in the band like you, but they are way too young to marry. Even if you waited until they were of age, you would be too old to be accepted.” Nellan stated this as if it was a known fact.

Ralin turned to face him squarely, abandoning his attempt to keep distracted with Firewalker. This was about to turn into a serious conversation. “What about Ledema? She’s of the proper age.”

“Oh yes. Ledema. What about her?”

“I could marry her.”

“Not if she’s already married to someone else,” he said, with the most mischievous grin Ralin had ever seen him use.

Ralin’s blood began to boil. He didn’t respond. Anger seethed too fiercely for him to think of any kind of reply. Nellan continued as he started to rub Firewalker’s neck, “I was going to ask her to marry me sometime this week.”

Ralin couldn’t move. If he tried, it would only end with one of them unconscious. He kept listening to Nellan’s rambling. “I know how you feel about her, and I know that it’s hard for you to approach her. And I’ll admit, she does get distracted whenever you are around. I’m a nice guy, so I’ll make you a deal.”

“What kind of deal,” Ralin growled through gritted teeth.

“Simple. We have a race and if you win, I will give you a week to try to win Ledema’s heart. I won’t interfere in any way. In fact, I’ll take a trip and meet the band down the road a ways. Does that sound good?”

Ralin was confused. Nellan was never this nice. Turning a suspicious scowl toward him, Ralin asked, “What’s in it for you?”

“Nothing, if you win. On the other hand, if I win,”—Nellan turned from rubbing Firewalker to face Ralin squarely—“I’ll need at least the same courtesy. You go on a hunting trip for at least a week. Longer if you’ll agree to it. But I need her undivided attention to finally win her over.” He began to pat Firewalker’s neck, not completely meeting Ralin’s eyes. “Of course, once that deal is sealed, I don’t know why you would want to stay. You could even stay gone if you want. It might get,” he paused, obviously for effect, “uncomfortable for you after that.”

Ralin couldn’t tell if that was a threat or just pointing out the obvious that he would not like seeing the two of them starting a life together. The idea presented shocked him to the core. Leave? This band had become his home. How could he leave? He didn’t have to, of course. However, how could he stay if he wasn’t with Ledema? If he didn’t have the chance to be alone with her, like Nellan offered, his hopes of marrying her were next to nothing. He stood no chance with Nellan’s constant efforts to charm her. Eventually, this greasy ball of pomp would win her over. This might be his only opportunity to get everything he wanted out of life in this band. But how would he win a race? The chances of that happening were about the same as having the obnoxious young man in front of him burst into flames as they spoke. Firewalker was Nellan’s sholot and the fastest Ralin had ever seen. It had never lost a race once it was fully grown.

The moment seemed to last forever as Ralin weighed his options. This was his only chance to be with Ledema. And besides, how much could this guy change in a week of his absence? The was no guarantee that losing the race lost the girl.

Ralin stuck out his hand. “Deal.”

Nellan smiled and clasped Ralin’s hand with both of his and almost shouted, “Great, we’ll do it in the morning.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Yes.”

“But the sun is almost down and we need time to set up a track.”

Nellan put his arm around Ralin’s shoulders and led him away from the animals while he explained, “Nonsense, we already have a track. We just go around the lake. All we need to do is have people move the animals, mark the finish, and see who crosses it first. I’ll tell you what; I’m going to go find some people to do that tomorrow. You can go choose a sholot and make sure it is fine with the owner. Good?”

“All right,” said Ralin, a quizzical look on his face. It all made sense, but his stomach started to feel like lead. Something was about to happen. Whether good or bad, change made him nervous.

“Nice. I’ll see you by the lake first thing in the morning.” Nellan trotted off toward the camp. He was acting too pleasant. Of course, why shouldn’t he? He is almost sure to win the race. The only way Ralin could win would be to out-think Nellan during the race. There was no way he could simply outrun him. Nellan and Firewalker were the fastest racers he’d ever seen, maybe in the whole world. He kept his hopes up, but decided not to put too much heart into it.

***

The sun had just escaped from the horizon when Ralin brought his chosen sholot to the men waiting by the lake at the point they had chosen for the race to start. Firewalker waited there, shining like she was really burning in the morning light. On the other hand, his sholot had dark brown skin that resembled the bark of a tree. The texture of its scales only enhanced the tree-like appearance of Twigsnapper.

Ralin had not only chosen Twigsnapper because he was one of the fastest sholots in the band, but also because he was good at navigating wild terrain quickly. This would be an advantage, since most of the race would be through the woods that came right up to the lake’s edge most of the way around. This sholot was owned by one of the hunters, Khet. He had trained Twigsnapper specifically so that the rider wouldn’t have to pay attention to the ground at all. The hunter on the animal’s back would be free to look for prey, while the sholot found its way through the woods. Twigsnapper’s name was almost an insult because if he wanted to, he wouldn’t make a single noise while he walked. He was truly a hunter’s animal that could easily blend in with the surrounding trees, and Ralin would need every trick he could conjure up from the animal to win this race.

The youth approached the group of a dozen or more men standing on the edge of the lake casually. He didn’t know if Nellan had told them what was at stake for Ralin in this race, but he truly hoped that they didn’t know. When they noticed him, they gave him smiles and some confused faces. But nobody looked concerned.

Thanks for not telling them, thought Ralin sincerely. Then he caught the eyes of one who did look concerned. Jorad pushed through the group of men to get to Ralin. A little forcefully, he grabbed the reigns of the animals and handed them to a man standing nearby.

Taking Ralin by the shoulders, he led the young man out of earshot. “What are you doing?” he asked, in a quiet but panicky voice.

 “I’m going to race Nellan.”

“Why?” Jorad led Ralin a little farther from the group and turned back to him. “Is this about Ledema? What did he say to you?”

Looking at the older man for a moment, Ralin became distracted. Telling his friend could either put him in a panic or get him excited at the prospect of Ralin having a chance to court his daughter. He put his hand on the older man’s shoulder and smiled as sincerely as he could, “Don’t worry, it will all work out.” Best not risk an outburst.

Jorad still looked concerned as Ralin walked past him toward the rest of the men. He could feel a little bit of guilt start to well up in his chest and tried to ignore it, while Nellan approached from another part of the lakeside. They reached the men and sholots at about the same time. The man holding the reins gave them their mounts and another man walked up to them and said, “Does this seem like a good place to start for both of you?”

Ralin recognized him as the leader of the team that Nellan’s family rode with. His voice was happy and carefree. Ralin was annoyed that he didn’t appreciate the seriousness of the situation, but still glad that he was oblivious to it.

Nellan answered as Ralin assumed he would. “Perfect. I think we can just go around the lake once, clockwise. Is that all right, Ralin?”

 “Fine.”

Most of the sandy beach area was to their left, as was a small stream that came from the lake and disappeared into the meadows and fields. They would be on open ground for the first part of the race before they entered the woods. After the wood ended, which was off to their right, they would only have three hundred paces or so before they completed one lap, and finished the race. They wouldn’t have time to memorize anything if they only went around once, so they would have to rely on instinct and reflexes.

Nellan gracefully swung himself up to straddle Firewalker, and Ralin followed suit.

From this vantage point, Ralin could see Jorad on a small hill that separated the camp from the lake. It seemed as if he couldn’t decide whether to stay and watch or leave. After a few moments however, his silhouette disappeared over the hill. Bringing his concentration back to the task at hand, Ralin noticed that the men were clearing a path for the contenders to begin the race.

Nellan turned to Ralin with one of his smiles that won almost everyone over the moment they saw it. “Are you ready yet?” he asked in an almost singing voice. Ralin had seen him act like this before almost every race. He was so confident that it made any nervous wreck racing with him sick to the stomach.

Ralin just gave a small, but mischievous-looking grin. “Of course.” He wouldn’t let any emotions affect the race. Even if he didn’t win, he would give Nellan the race of his life. Ralin faced forward. With the lake and his opponent on his right, the hill and the camp to his left, men encircling them from behind, and his destiny ahead, he closed his eyes to calm himself and be one with the upcoming challenge.

Any kind of race was started without warning. In sholot races, a horn had to be heard before anyone start running. The horn was always behind the racers so they couldn’t time their take off with seeing the horn-blower take a breath. The men riding the sholots had to rely on quick reflexes to get a good start.

The silence was terrible. Waiting for the horn in this particular race tortured Ralin’s mind worse than if birds were pecking at his eyes. A million things flashed through his mind. His past, his present, and all his possible futures penetrated the wall he was trying to hold between him and his feelings. He couldn’t calm down. His mind started racing. He lost his concentration. On the edge of panic, he almost yelled out that he couldn’t do this. Then, like the slow rising of the sun, out of the chaos in his mind he heard the low bellow of the horn. Like lightning, determination coursed through Ralin’s veins. His eyes popped open and his hand shot to the sensitive spot on the sholot’s lower neck. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Nellan’s hands move just after his. With a light but firm press on the sholots’ necks, they were off.