Ten years in the making, ten years of toil and tears. Here I present a snippet of Book 1 of The Last Song of Man series. It is set in a world doomed to perish unless the wrongs of the past are set right. In the world where two races of man vie for survival and dominion, a Sprite Catcher is born.
Hide your Sprite or run away
He will come another day.
Foe or friend, he will wear
Mask of darkness you must bear.
Heed the Catcher’s late approach,
‘Ere you know his murderous touch.
I should have walked around that nameless village, spared its gentle people the sight of me, but its lights beckoned through the wintry dusk. Not the warm lights of its humble homes, or the soothing motions of the villagers as they readied for the night, but the beacon of man’s Ela, those wispy threads of life. So long had I walked alone, I had become a shadow. Would that I knew how to become a man again.
The Sprite Catcher. I roll the ancient name inside my mind. In my long life, I had listened to the songs of his darkness, and heard many tales of the shadowy figure, often believed to be a Fade. I had seen children chant away the fear and loathing that followed the name through the seven kingdoms and the Four Ages of Man:
Friend comes knocking
Foe comes in
Hide the sprite
Away from him
My favourite chant was once the Catcher’s Twist. In a flash of uncanny insight, a Luvidi child now threw it at me as I passed through her village.
Fear and darkness spin us round
Light will twist and all unbound
Catch a sprite and take a turn
Lest the soul eternal burn.
The skinny girl showed foolhardy bravery as she skipped around me chanting the three verses of the Twist, until a woman snatched her from my path, threw me a fearful glance, apologetic at the edges, and scurried the child away. Men kept their distance. They watched my passage from inside the boundaries of their homes. When a stranger, looking as I did, wandered through their sanctuary, the invisible shroud of safety dissipated in his wake like a dawn fog.
I wrapped the black woollen cloak tighter around my shoulders against the cold gust of winter wind and nodded a stiff acknowledgement from beneath its hood at the man with a vigilant look of the village elder. Sometimes it was enough to set their trembling hearts at ease. He neither replied nor approached. He only wished me gone.
In spite of my weariness, I would not stop in this village. There was no welcome in their faces, no offer of hospitality. Not anymore. My eyes warded them off. My stature humbled them. My presence cowed them. There was not a man in the empire who did not recognise me from a single glance. But they did not know me as the Sprite Catcher. Those who once knew me thus were now long dead. No, these people feared me for the shadow I had become. To them, I was known by another dark name.
I walked past the warm glow from the windows of the travellers’ inn, pushing aside a longing for a hearty meal and sweet ale, a hot bath and a soft bed. The honeyed voice of a minstrel drifted through the walls, like a lonely phantom. The song was about me… and Tandora. I flinched with an old ache. I had lived that song, and life was far less beautiful than the minstrel’s gentle voice.
As I crossed the stone totem gate of the village boundary, an easing reached my othersense, a sigh of relief from the folk behind me. Even so, they would not sleep well tonight, knowing that I was near. The wall-less totem gate intercepted the road at either end of the village. It was fashioned of inelegant rough stone pillars with an intersecting flat stone above. A familiar rune roughly chiselled into each pillar was too crude and inaccurate to be anything more than a rain-worn decoration. To superstitious folk, it offered some token of protection.
Few travellers ventured past this northern gate, mostly only the villagers themselves. The mud road I followed north cut an ever-narrowing path through the trees. Eventually, after a few days of hard walking, it would fade into an animal track, which ended abruptly on the edge of Blackfire Forest.
When I was no longer in sight of the villagers, I sat down with my back against a fallen tree, letting my shoulders sink into the mossy bark.
Once again, the Sprite Catcher must fade into fear and legend.
Finality was its own burden. A man on such a daunting walk looks back more oft than forward. I was no different in that regard. Men fear the visage of their end, and so they look away. I faced it with relief. In looking back, regret creeps into one’s reflection. Doubt is a close follower. One dwells upon the man he once was, and is no longer, upon lost friends and lovers, upon mistakes all men must make. And so, on this last journey of the Sprite Catcher, I must reflect and leave behind my tale to the next man to walk this path. Let him be its judge and let him learn from my folly. But this is not the end of the Sprite Catcher. I did not start his song, and I cannot end it. The final verse belongs to another.
In my cloak, the last sprite I will ever catch fights against the walls of her prison. If I allow myself, I can feel her despair. I ignore it. Instead, I gaze at the dark road flowing through the dimming forest like a lonely river. Sadness and longing tighten my chest. I rarely allow such indulgence of feeling. In a few moments, I will shake it off and rise as a man whom thousands would be proud to follow to their deaths. That time would soon be upon me. My army awaits.
Beside me rests my leather travel sack, my only companion who might yet outlive me. Inside it, a few healing tonics and potent potions of my own making, some of the rarer ingredients for crafting more — spark stones, honing leather, sweet seed bread, dried meat, and a lock of Tandora’s bright red hair, the only piece of her left to me. Always it pulls me from the ever-beckoning darkness where a man forever loses his true self. She betrayed you, I tell myself again, though the thought yields no comfort. I take out a leather-bound bundle of fresh-smelling silkreed pages, unworn, unwritten. I hold the delicately carved scribe bone in my rough hand, dip its sharp tip into the lustrous green ink, extracted from a malachite scale of the war-drake I once slew. Wordlessly, the scribe bone hovers over the parchment as I search for the true beginning of my story…