Tak

     Thomas Gown has become an important part of the Rossem Project and his contribution may be vital to its eventual success, but he has also become a pawn in a desperate struggle between ancient powers who care nothing for the civilisation Thomas has sworn to protect, and he gradually learns that his importance to them has roots reaching back to a peasant boy whose parents scratched out a living on the very edges of civilisation eight thousand years ago...

Extract from Tak.

     Their mood lifted as they got their first glimpse of the market town, however. The yellow sun was just touching the horizon, although the red sun was still high in the sky, and Tak's father was driving the horses to greater speed, not wanting to spend another night out in the open. The town's gates would close the moment night fell, the borderlands being far too dangerous to take the risk of leaving them open, and if they arrived late they would have to wait outside while those inside picked out all the best offers and bargains, leaving them even more out of pocket than they already were. Tak's father watched the sinking sun with a greater and greater feeling of urgency, therefore, but then he shouted, bringing his slumbering children back to full wakefulness with a start. "We're here!" he cried, pointing. "Look!"

     Even the baby was infected by the excitement they all felt when they saw the walled town ahead of them, and he gurgled happily in Laira's arms. The palisade of tall wooden logs was fifteen feet high, with a walkway high up on the inner side along which men in shiny armour patrolled, and behind it they saw the upper storeys of tall buildings of red brick and grey tile. This was a favourite spot for sholog raids, hungry for the riches within, far more than could be found in the cabins of the surrounding homesteads that were scarcely worth the bother, and although there hadn't been any trouble for several years now the guards remained ever vigilant, aware that Jalla was the only human habitation within fifty miles capable of putting up a defence. In the event of a sholog incursion, all the homesteaders in the area would head for the safety of its walls and every able bodied man would aid in its defence until reinforcements could be called from Ammerfast, the nearest border fort. This had last happened when Tak was only a baby, and he had no memory of it.

     The curvature of the walls made Jalla look small to Tak's father, however, who'd journeyed all over the known world from coast from coast in his days of military service and had seen most of the great cities of humanity, including Yinnfarsia the glorious and great Hath-Talor with its three towers of marble, obsidian and gold. He saw the market town for what it was, a few dozen buildings huddled together for mutual protection in a hostile land. The excitement of his children as they were overwhelmed by the size of the market town made him shrink with shame, therefore. They had seen nothing of the world! They deserved better than to spend the rest of their lives in trudgery and toil, coaxing stubborn crops out of the hard, barren land. There were wonders out there, wonders that he would dearly love to share with them. The crystal fountains of Festria, the perfumed gardens of Jug-Ja-Rahla, the harbours of Agromay where tall masted ships set sail to all the cities of the Iron Coast. It broke his heart to think that his children might live their whole lives thinking that the world ended at the dusty horizon. He thought back on his decision to return to farming, the life of his father and grandfather. At the time it had seemed so obvious, so necessary. A chance to rest, an escape from the savagery and bloodshed, the endless warfare of city against city. It was ironic, he'd become a soldier in the first place to escape from the tedium and meaninglessness of peasant life. The army life had seemed so glorious, so exciting... It had taken ten years for him to become sick of it, for the life he'd left behind to seem so appealing, and now he was restless again, keen to venture out into the world once more. What was wrong with him, that he couldn't decide where his destiny lay? What was important was that his children didn't pay for his failings. How he would love to just turn aside from Jalla and keep heading south, into the heartlands of humanity! Without money or property, however, they would last precisely ten minutes in the harsh, unforgiving environment of a city. In all likelihood they would end up begging in a filthy alleyway. If only he had money, more money than a homesteader could ever reasonably expect to acquire...

     Tak had no conception of the life he was missing, however. He knew, from stories told by his father and others, that there existed great cities in the south, but he knew it only in his head, not in his heart. He had no sense that they were real places, places that he could actually visit. The market town was right in front of him, however, real in a sense that no bedtime story could ever be, and he was overwhelmed by the size of it. Such a great wall! And so many buildings crowded inside! As they passed through the heavy log gates, passed the armed and armoured guards who searched them and their wagons for illegal gli grass, it seemed to him that he was entering the greatest city in the world! The tall wooden buildings pressed in close around him like an army of stern giants, with narrow, dark alleyways between them, and the road to the market square itself was so crowded with people that they had to slow to a crawl until they got out of their way. Smells hit them right away, the smells of stale sweat, rotting fruit, urine and excrement lying in the street, ignored, unnoticed even by the townsfolk but exciting to the newcomers, even to Tak's despondent father, telling of opportunities to be had, deals to be made, bargains to be won. And to Tak, toys to be bought in the market! The boy bounced up and down in his seat, almost bursting with excitement.

     The centre of the town was a single open market square, occupying over half the space within the palisade. Empty for most of the year, it was now choked full with wagons and trailers from every homestead within a hundred miles, all come to sell what they had and buy what the others had. Most of the farm produce would go to the rich merchants who'd brought trains of empty wagons from Domandropolis, the city that ruled this part of the world, and who were even now setting out stalls of ironmongery, textiles and goodies which would have filled perhaps one solitary wagon on the way out, but the homesteaders also bought and sold amongst themselves. One farmer would grow mainly wheat or rye, for instance, while another specialised in root crops or fruit, and what one lacked he would purchase from his neighbours. The city merchants would also occasionally bring samples of exotic foods and fruits from far off places, hoping to create a new market for these goods, but they rarely travelled well and would usually be wrinkled and worm ridden by the time they arrived. "You can't beat good Borderlands fare," Tak's mother liked to say. "Everything we need to live on is grown by our neighbours. There's no need to look further abroad for fancy foreign fare that'll only upset your stomach." She came originally from Domandropolis and had met and fallen in love with Tak's father while he was still a serviceman. She'd looked forward to being an officer's wife but had followed him to the borderlands without a qualm when he'd bought himself out to escape the carnage. Her home was wherever he was, and she would follow him without complaint if he should ever decide to move on again.

     They found a place to park their wagons beside a tavern whose brisk trade during the year's three market weeks allowed them to survive the quiet seasons in between. This wasn't the site he'd hoped to get, he'd been hoping to stake out a place closer to the trade building where business would be better, and besides, the area around the tavern was likely to get rather rowdy as the evening progressed. Still, they were lucky to get a site within the walls at all. The late arrivals would probably have to wait outside the town, the unfortunate homesteader having to creep in on his own in an attempt to entice potential customers out to look at his wares. That was a handicap Tak's father was glad to have avoided.

     He then went over to the trade building to haggle with the auction master over the price of his market license, but first he warned his children not to wander off. "Town people are strange," he said. "They're not like us, they're not to be trusted. They'll steal your purse or sell you some worthless piece of junk." Tak nodded soberly, accepting it as gospel truth. His father had said it, so it was not to be doubted.