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The lost country, p.1
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       The Lost Country, p.1

           Brian Bakos
 
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The Lost Country
THE LOST COUNTRY

  by Brian Bakos

  cover art: Becky Parish

  Copyright 2013 Brian Bakos / revised 08 - 2016

  Table of Contents

  Part One: Kingdom of Make Believe

  Part Two: The World Unravels

  Part Three: The Eastlands

  Part Four: Siege

  Part Five: Victory or Death

  Brian’s Other Books

  Part One: Kingdom of Make Believe

  1: The Pit-Eyed Thing

  The Pit-Eyed Thing is laughing at me! I can see it hovering in the distance beyond the mountains. Chill pulses through my veins, despite the blazing heat. I draw my cloak around myself and fight a powerful urge to flee homewards.

  You don’t exist, I tell myself, you’re only in my mind!

  My horse, steadier than I, awaits my command.

  A wall of mountains lies before us in the bright sun, twelve miles and a whole universe away. Among the peaks dips the pass which is my objective – and behind it, my enemy. I pull my hat down over my eyes so that I can no longer see its dread visage.

  “Let’s go!”

  I dig my heals into Gypsy’s flanks. We move down the East Road at a trot.

  All is normal for a time while our familiar countryside slides past – golden fields and bright woodlands, the thatched roofs of villages. Wagons loaded with produce rumble past me on their way to the capital city. I maneuver through a herd of swine bound for the slaughter, hoping that they are not bringers of ill omen.

  ***

  I’ve just passed the eighth milestone when the world begins to change.

  The atmosphere blurs and thickens, as if it is made of something more substantial than just air. I seem to be looking out from a murky pond bottom. I pause and splash some canteen water on my face. This does not improve my vision much, however.

  Try as I might, I cannot stop the reins from trembling in my hands. I twist around in the saddle. Behind me is nothing but empty road shining with heat mirage; the route ahead appears the same. I dare not raise my hat brim so as to view the mountains.

  Then the sun becomes impossibly large, seeming to drop from the sky to block my way. A sudden gust blows off my hat, and I can now see the frozen summits ahead. They stand dangerously close now, like fearsome beasts aching to devour me. The air wavers, and the Pit-Eyed Thing takes shape before me – a phantom with deep cave eye sockets and a grin formed by the mountain pass.

  “Y-you’re not real,” I say aloud this time. “You’re only in my mind.”

  But there it is hovering over the road, almost invisible against the sun glare. I jab a finger at it.

  “Be gone!”

  The wraith only smirks. My mind boils. How dare that apparition defy me! I am Crown Prince Rupert of Sopronia. I lower my head and grit my teeth. I force myself onward ...

  ***

  When I look up again, I am back home.

  2: Banner Madness

  Humiliation still gnaws at me days later. I’d say that I feel unmanned by my failure, were I a man yet and not a lad in my 14th year. But the anguish is intense, just the same. Since my defeat on the East Road, I’ve not been out riding again. I’ve scarcely left my chambers, except to take meals and to evade Gaspar.

  A festival celebrating the 20th anniversary of Father’s reign will be held in a few days and there is much redecorating in progress. I dread the whole thing, as I have to ride in the parade and give a speech to our people. Besides, other matters are tormenting me – like that cursed Pit-Eyed Thing. The wraith has started haunting my dreams now.

  What am I to do?

  I need a target for my outrage, and I find one in the castle main corridor – an ape of a work crew boss. He stands arrogantly, hands on hips, barking orders at his cringing men as they prepare to replace a musty old tapestry with a large, billowy Sopronian flag.

  The man is a bully; I hate bullies. The knowledge that I myself, at times, am also a bully only makes matters worse.

  Our royal crest shows amidst the flag’s red, white, and green stripes. Our crest consists of a crown flanked by a bear and a large water creature, a bird hovers above all. Pride surges in my heart at the sight, but my ill temper soon returns.

  The flying dust makes me cough, and the crew leader turns an annoyed face my direction. When he sees who I am, he jerks to attention, as if somebody has poked his rear end with a dagger point.

  “Good morning, Your Lordship,” he says with a deep bow.

  Everyone else pays respect as well. I acknowledge them with a nod.

  “Carry on,” I say.

  The crew boss turns back toward his workers.

  “Quit idling!” he barks.

  Yes ... this gentleman sorely needs a comeuppance. I approach one of the ladders where a worker is just about to climb up.

  “Step aside, please,” I say.

  The workman looks astonished, but complies soon enough.

  “Yes, my lord.”

  He moves away. The crew leader steps toward me, a worried frown creasing his face.

  “Please stand back, Your Lordship,” he says. “This is a hazardous area.”

  “Really?”

  I shove past him and scramble up the ladder until I am towering twenty feet above the floor.

  “Be careful!” the crew leader wails.

  He grasps the ladder as if his life depends on it. He looks like a complete fool. I’m really enjoying this! The view of the long drop tempers my pleasure somewhat, however. I’m not overly fond of heights.

  “Lift that banner up here,” I say.

  The workers look toward their boss, who shakes his head frantically.

  “Nooo!” he cries.

  “Obey me!” I command.

  Workmen reluctantly hoist up the flag on poles. I, and a man on another ladder opposite me, grasp it and mount it on the wall hooks. My arm isn’t quite long enough, so I have to lean far over. Just for fun, I pretend to be losing my balance.

  “Ohhhhhh!” the crew boss howls.

  Then I’m not pretending any longer. One foot slips off the rung, and my empty hand flails the air.

  “Ahhhhh!” everyone cries.

  I can barely keep from screaming along with them. People rush forward, their arms outstretched to catch me. I steady myself at last.

  My knees tremble, but my heart is soaring. The crew boss’s face is ashen.

  “Please come down,” he croaks, “the King will have my head if you fall.”

  Excellent! I’m having the time of my life. Then a maid servant appears with depressing news.

  “Gaspar approaches,” she says.

  Of course. The old chief steward always shows up just as the fun is starting. I slide down the ladder and retreat to a doorway recess. Moments later, Gaspar clomps into view – his tall, bony figure stooping slightly. Sun rays from the high windows ricochet off his bald head.

  Gaspar isn’t a bad sort, really – nothing like Duke Wiltone, for sure. But he’s very gruff and bossy; his word is law for the entire castle. Even I have to obey him.

  “What’s all the racket?” he demands.

  “Uh, w-we had some difficulty hanging the banner, Chief Steward ... sir,” the crew boss says.

  Gaspar cocks an eyebrow. “So it would seem.”

  The crew leader shrinks under Gaspar’s scowl, and I bite my lip to keep from laughing. Well, maybe he’s learned not to act so puffed up. And if he hasn’t, maybe I’ll teach him another lesson some day.

  “Has anyone seen the Crown Prince?” Gaspar asks.

  I slither back against the cool stone. The workmen look at their feet, some glance toward me. I place a finger to my lips. The maid servant steps forward, all sweet and innocent.

  “I
saw His Lordship heading for the Great Hall,” she says.

  Gaspar’s mouth twists. “Very well.”

  He walks right past my hiding place, muttering: “Where is that boy? Playing some foolish game, I suppose. How un-Sopronian!”

  If he’d only looked over, he would have seen me. He’s got good eyes for an old fellow. Doubtless he has some tiresome task for me to perform; therefore, I must escape.

  Here is something to relieve my boredom!

  I emerge from my hiding place and blow a kiss to the blushing girl. I shall do her a good turn when I can. Such loyalty should be rewarded. Besides, she is quite pretty.

  There are so few young people around. My days just blend one into another. I sometimes feel like I’ve been ‘Poofed!’ into existence like a magician’s trick – with no history and nowhere to go into the future.

  Gripping an imaginary dagger inside my tunic, I creep along the walls like an assassin stalking an enemy. Thus equipped, I move into the castle’s remote regions.

  3: The Dark Lad

  My plan is to climb the back tower and escape to the ramparts, but I lose my way somehow in the disused corridors. Dusty light jabs through a high window. Dust lies heavy on the floor, dank air licks my skin.

  Lost in my own home? Absurd!

  But I can’t get my bearings. The light shaft dims, as if something is blocking the window. A presence seems to lurk in the gloom behind me, though I dare not look back. Panic starts to nip at me.

  Be strong, Rupert! I tell myself.

  I wish I’d been stronger the other day when the Pit-Eyed Thing foiled me on the East Road. The Pit-Eyed Thing has no mercy, and it mocks our weakness.

  We Sopronians can scarcely imagine any reality beyond our frontiers. We never venture abroad, and no outsiders visit. Mountains constrain us on all sides – just look at the map. My failed effort to scale the mountain pass speaks to our isolation.

  Everyone says that Sopronia is a perfect land that no one in their right mind would ever care to leave. But for me it’s a hothouse in which I can scarcely breathe. I can scarcely breathe now.

  “One ... two ... three ...” I count my paces.

  By step fifty I’ve turned a corner. Beyond it is a tiny back exit. I dash through it into bright early morning. I breathe in the fresh air and raise grateful arms toward the sky.

  Forget the ramparts, this is a day for riding!

  ***

  The Royal stables are immaculate, but they still bear the unmistakable odor of horse, the scent of freedom. Before me stretches a long row of stalls, each with an excellent mount looking proudly over the low door.

  I scoop up some carrots from a hamper and feed one to the nearest horse. His rubbery lips tickle my palm. Jonathan, the head stableman, approaches.

  “Good morning,” he says. “Your Lordship will be riding today?”

  I nod.

  He waddles off with surprising speed for such a large man. I stroll behind, offering carrots to various horses until my supply is gone. By the time I reach Gypsy, Jonathan has nearly finished putting on her saddle. My beautiful white filly whinnies with joy. She’s been stuck here for several days now, ever since my failed attempt to reach our eastern border.

  I pat her neck. “Hello, girl.”

  I watch Jonathan apply the finishing touches. Then something peculiar catches my eye.

  It’s just a boy, about my age, cleaning a nearby stall ... but he seems extraordinary, somehow. Unease grips my heart.

  “You there,” I say, “what’s your name?”

  The boy shrinks back. He is broad-shouldered but unnaturally thin, as if he’s been starved. People going hungry in Sopronia? Father would have a fit if he knew!

  This is not the most startling thing, however. The lad is dark. His face has a dusky hue, as if someone has rubbed a little charcoal dust into it. His complexion is quite different from that of our ruddy people, and especially myself with a skin so pale that I can scarcely endure the sunshine upon it.

  “He don’t talk, Your Lordship,” Jonathan says. “Must be simple-minded, I reckon.”

  “When did he come here?”

  “Two days ago,” Jonathan says. “I’m thinking he wandered away from home and couldn’t take care of himself. I’ve been trying to fatten him up.”

  The boy moves off, but I block his way.

  “Look at me when I am addressing you,” I say.

  A head covered in dark, curly hair swivels up from between hunched shoulders. He has a broad face with a rather hard look to it. Intelligence shows in the eyes. This is no simple-minded person.

  I motion him toward the door.

  “Stop playing dumb,” I say once we are outside. “Who are you?”

  He still does not reply. I feel my face getting hot.

  “Answer or I’ll have you flogged!”

  Actually, I have no authority to do that, but I like the sound of it. The lad doesn’t seem frightened like I want, though.

  “Do you know who I am?” I say.

  The lad nods, but still refuses to speak. The insolent dog! I cock a fist, and he braces himself for the punch.

  Then I pause. What would the King say if he found out? I recall the time he caught me shoving around a servant boy who had displeased me. Father cuffed me alongside the head saying:

  “Use kindness, Rupert. A future king should love his people.”

  The blow hadn’t hurt much, but the shame of disappointing Father was almost unbearable. My anger drains away; I lower my fist.

  “Tell me who you are and where you’re from, lad,” I say. “I promise you’ll not be harmed.”

  Suddenly, I realize that our whole world hangs on the boy’s reply. I feel an urgent desire to snatch back my questions, but it is too late for that.

  “My name’s Clyde,” the lad says. “I’m from the Eastlands, beyond the mountains.”

  My chest recoils as if a horse has kicked me. My mouth turns dry, and I reach for the wall to steady myself. The stones feel mushy under my hand.

  “My name’s Clyde,” he repeats, as if thinking that I haven’t understood. “I came over Demon’s Maw pass three days ago.”

  He speaks with a barbarous, sing-song accent, but I understand him well enough. Before I can gather my wits, reckless words come out of my mouth:

  “Take me there.”

  Alarm shoots across the lad’s broad face.

  “No, Your Lordship, it’s too dangerous!”

  His distress emboldens me, and I push myself off the wall. I stand firmly now, ashamed that I had let myself be seen in a moment of weakness.

  “Why do you say that, boy?”

  “Bandits, my lord. Don’t venture there without your army goes with you.”

  Yes, our parade ground ‘soldiers’ would be a great help, wouldn’t they?

  “These ‘bandits,’” I say, “are there such persons atop the mountain pass?”

  “No, my lord, nobody ventures Demon’s Maw.”

  My voice comes out fast, outrunning my common sense.

  “Then that is as far as we shall go,” I say.

  “But ...”

  I shove Clyde through the door.

  “A horse for this lad, Jonathan. I desire an attendant for my ride.”

  My blood is up, and I dare not let it go down again. This will be the great day of discovery, come what may. And a plague on the Pit-Eyed Thing!

  As Jonathan saddles a robust chestnut mare for Clyde, I pace the stables like a caged bear, smacking the top of my boot with my riding crop. Fear paces along with me, though, blowing cold breath on my neck.

  Worse, I am having trouble concentrating.

  I am going for a ride, I know, but can scarcely remember where. The destination flickers in and out of my mind like a candle flame in a breeze. I scrawl a reminder on the back of my riding glove with Jonathan’s quill pen: ATOP THE PASS

  4: Ride into Oblivion

  We ride out onto the cobbled streets, past
towering stone buildings with pointy roofs and arched windows. People jam the byways – trading at the market, running errands, eating at food stands. Delicious aromas waft about, reminding me that I have skipped breakfast.

  Clyde follows a proper distance behind me. When I glance back, I can see that he wears a calm, unreadable expression – taking nothing from the fine day and adding nothing to it.

  Everyone seems to be out – girls with braided yellow locks and boys with hair cut short. Nobody recognizes me in my plain attire with my hat pulled low, but my name is on people’s lips since my image graces their silver coins.

  “How much for this item?” Someone asks a merchant.

  “One gold sovereign and three Ruperts,” the merchant replies.

  We pass through the East Gate. Outside the city confines, the sun beats down hard. My whole body aches from the brightness. A farmer clatters past with a wagon load of melons. Sun bouncing off the yellow skins nearly blinds me. Clyde moves up alongside.

  “You seem to ride adequately,” I say. “Have you much experience?”

  “Some, my lord.” He pats his horse’s neck. “I can handle her.”

  “See that you do.”

  I look toward the Eastern Mountains. In their midst sulks the low dip of “Demon’s Maw” pass. It grins with malice. Above it, brutal sun rays stab at me. Fear almost holds me in place, but it will not triumph today.

  “Lead on,” I say.

  “Yes, my lord.”

  Clyde urges his horse into a trot. I follow, keeping my eyes fixed on the lad’s back so as to avoid seeing any horrors that might try to stop me.

  And then a blank, as of a peculiar half sleep, descends upon me. Gypsy’s gait lolls me like a babe in a cradle. The miles pass ...

  ***

  The next thing I know, the lad has stopped his horse and I’ve bumped into him. I jolt back to full awareness.

  “Why did you stop?” I demand.

  “We must turn off the main road here, Your Lordship.”

  I take my feet out of the stirrups and flex stiff ankles. The road curves northward here while a narrow, rising lane continues east into a wooded area. Beyond hulks the great mountains, terrible in their silence.

  I try to keep my voice steady. “Turn off the main road, whatever for?”

  “But I thought – ”

  “What you think is unimportant,” I snap. “Please remain silent.”

  I am frightened and trying to mask it with harsh words. This makes me even angrier. Me, heir to the throne, acting no better than that petty tyrant of a work crew leader!

 
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