Since we had another snow day here at Casa Siamese, or Limani HQ, or STEEL EMPIRES central, or whatever I feel like calling my house today, I figured it was time for a treat to break us out of the winter doldrums. Or at least while we take a break from shoveling. (There was a lot of shoveling.) So time for another deleted scene from STEEL VICTORY!
There are more specific details after the jump, but to be on the safe side, only venture further if you have read at least the first half of the novel!
(More deleted scenes can be found here.)
This section, which takes place as Toria is trekking back to Limani after Kane and Asaron are kidnapped by the Romans, was cut for two reasons. First, space. It did nothing for the overall plot of the novel that wasn’t already achieved elsewhere. Second, the political message got a bit heavy-handed. I will definitely admit that the sequence was written at a point when I didn’t really know where the main plot of the novel was going, but I needed to make word count and submit something to my mentor. So cutting it from the final product was not much of a heartbreak. Nevertheless, enjoy!
(Please note that this has not been professionally edited in any way, shape, or form.)
Problem: should Toria take the road, the shorter route back to Limani, or stick by the river? While the river provided a reliable source of water she had no way to carry, the trip would be shorter and easier by road.
Time was of the essence. She took the road.
Looking up at the sky, trying to estimate how long she had been walking, made Toria dizzy. She kept her eyes straight in front of her, but even that didn’t help much. Since when did walking make her head bob up and down so much?
Toria must have been unconscious longer than she first thought. The sky to the east changed from black to darkest blue less than ten minutes after she started walking back up the road. It was Saturday, the biggest farmer’s market day in downtown Limani. People from all over the southern corner of the city-state would soon travel this same road, bringing their families and wares to town. Maybe she could hitch a ride.
So Toria crossed her fingers, held her improvised flashlight high, and kept walking.
For the first hour, she tried to trick herself into feeling that the jaunt was pleasurable, but her headache refused to be denied. The light from the sunrise hit her eyes, and she discovered the true meaning of “light sensitivity.” She was surprised her skin wasn’t burning. If this was what it was like, she now understood her mother’s aversion to the sun.
The first thing to go was the glowing glass bauble once she no longer needed it to light her way. She gasped in relief at the palpable ease in her headache. She had to conserve her power, however minimal a trickle the light took. A three-hour ride by horseback now equaled a trip over twice as long walking home. She needed all the spare energy she could get.
Next she took off the leather vest. It was warm, and protective, but not so much fun when sweat dripped down her back, making her shirt stick to her damp skin. She alternated carrying it at her side with draping it over one shoulder.
Boredom struck while the same monotonous scenery passed, and she sang off and on for about an hour. It didn’t help the headache, but at least the pain didn’t grow worse. First Roman folk songs, then a few modern British show tunes. That got old when her throat became dry and parched. It used energy, but at least it entertained her, which counted for a lot in her book.
“Wow, this sucks.” She transferred her vest from one hand to the other and used the bottom of her already wet shirt to wipe sweat from her forehead. Yesterday was going to be nothing compared to today. It seemed as though today would be the first real day of summer. Just her luck, on top of everything else. “Anyone wanna give me a ride? Anyone?”
No answer came from the silent trees around the deserted road, though the morning birds said plenty on the subject.
Almost on cue, the road bent, and Toria emerged from the woods near the first cultivated field she had seen so far.
“Finally! Civilization!” Mercenary-in-training or not, she was still a city girl through and through.
She ignored the niggling voice of common sense in the back of her mind, somehow managing to be heard above the pounding in her skull. It reminded her she would now be walking in direct sunlight without the shady protection of the trees. Her retaliation, thanks to that same common sense, was to stop for a few moments and pull the black shirt off to tie around her waist. Her father would be scandalized to see her with just a grey sport bra for modesty. Toria couldn’t find it within herself to care.
Farm fields meant a farmhouse. And a farmhouse meant people who might be willing to spare breakfast. Water would do her good. Food would be even better. Any sort of painkiller would make her weep for joy. Her dry throat reminded her she shouldn’t have sung so much an hour ago, but she had been bored.
Time to abandon the road. She headed up a drive marked by a simple painted wooden sign: “Obligation Farm.”
Unusual name, but she wasn’t about to complain. After a long trek up the driveway, luck was with her once again. Children scurried about a farmhouse and surrounding outbuildings while adults loaded up two large wagons. But the house had a small radio antenna, which spoke well for her wish for civilization. The elven communication devices didn’t come cheap.
She must have made quite a sight trudging up the road. Mud from the river spattered the right side of her jeans, left over from where she’d lain all night. Her state of non-dress above the waist might not help much, but it was still hot.
Two of the children spotted her first. They called one of the older men over, and the three watched her in silence until the entire family stopped to observe her.
She didn’t sense any immediate hostility, but she would have to be careful anyway. She couldn’t afford to get held up with trouble. She had to get home and plan a rescue.
Toria waved her arm above her head in greeting once she reached voice range. “Good morning!” The movement revived her dizziness for a moment, and her dry voice cracked around the words. At least she wasn’t armed, though she had lamented that fact earlier. Bandits from the Wasteland still raided the outskirts of Limani land, and the outlying farmers were notorious for their territoriality. This one might be too far south to be much of a tempting target. And before the rumors the council sent them to investigate, the Romans hadn’t bothered Limani for decades.
She reset the mental timer labeled “Roman Empire: Trouble” in her head to less than twenty-four hours.
The first man who had been alerted by the children stepped forward to meet her a few yards from the wagons. He looked like a typical farmer, with the worn clothing a few years out of date marking those who lived outside the city proper. Toria stopped in front of him and tried to stand up straight. It was hard to ignore the sweat dripping down the back of her neck under her damp bandana, but she wanted to make a good impression. She couldn’t do that if she looked like she had a nervous tick.
“Greetings.” Despite the threadbare clothing, the children looked healthy and the house well-maintained. This farm must be doing pretty well. There was hope for hospitality yet.
“Hi,” Toria said. “Are you heading into the city today?”
He glanced towards the wagons still being loaded and nodded, caution in his eyes. “Yep, it’s market day. Are you okay, miss?”
“To be honest, not really.” How was the best way to put this? “I kinda got stranded by the river. Mind if I catch a ride into town with you? Um, my name’s Toria.” She wiped her hand on her jeans and held it out.
“Daniel.” His grip on her hand was firm, but not hostile. One of the women stepped forward to join him. “My wife Lauren.”
“What happened to you, girl?” Lauren said, also exchanging a handshake. “You look terrible.”
“It’s a long story,” Toria said. She couldn’t tell them about the Romans. That would cause a panic she didn’t want to deal with right now. “My horse threw me, and I blacked out when I landed. She was gone when I came to. It was getting pretty late, and I must have been out for hours. I’ve been walking since just before dawn.”
Daniel’s turn to look curious. “From where?”
“By the river.” Don’t ask any more questions. Please. “I also might, um, have a concussion or something. I landed pretty hard, and my head’s been killing me.”
Lauren took pity on her first. “Well, let’s not keep you standing out here. Poor girl. Rhi!” One of the little girls ran from behind a wagon to them. “Bring Miss Toria inside for some breakfast so she can rest while we finish loading up. I put the extra pancakes in the freezer, you can warm those up.”
“Sure, Mom.” She held out her hand to Toria. The girl looked to be about twelve, but the children of the country were always more mature than the city kids Toria grew up with. This child had more responsibility now than Toria did in high school, and it showed in her demeanor.
Giving the welcoming pair another smile of thanks, Toria took Rhi’s hand and allowed the girl to lead the way into the farmhouse. Toria was just happy to be directed toward food and drink. And a place to sit down.
Time to go home. Now.
Toria considered herself a connoisseur of fine foods, a taste acquired from her birth parents since both Victory and Mikelos were hopeless in a kitchen. Lauren’s homemade pancakes, even re-heated in a microwave, tasted fantastic, even better than what Toria could pull off herself. So was the maple syrup served with them.
The cool glass of water Rhi handed her was pure heaven.
A jolt from the wagon bounced through her spine and ended by ricocheting around the inside of her skull. An hour later, she kept fond memories of that breakfast. It helped distract from her aching rear-end every time it connected with the hard wood of the bottom of the wagon in counterpoint to her headache. Even using her leather vest for padding didn’t provide much protection from the ruts in the road.
At Rhi’s plaintive insistence, she had piled into the wagon shared with the girl’s two little brothers and three more cousins. The five little ones sat on top of crates filled with the woven cloth Lauren made along with her sister and mother. Toria took the small floor space left with Rhi.
While the breakfast went a long way toward replenishing the energy she burned during her long walk, now her stomach growled again. She hoped it wasn’t too loud, but figured the creaking wooden wagon covered the noise. She hated to seem unappreciative of the good food, but she did wish she’d asked Rhi for a snack to take along.
And she was thankful she wasn’t still walking. She could feel the blisters forming in her boots. They were harder to ignore than the jolting of her spine, and she could look forward to even more agony tomorrow when the muscles in her legs screamed, “What the hell did you do yesterday?” She needed more endurance training if this marked how her summer would go.
“What do you have in those?” One of the children quelled her musings and silent complaints and brought her back to the present.
Rhi’s brother Jeremy pointed to the pouches decorating Toria’s belt with his stubby toddler finger. Two of the cousins perked up and looked at her in expectation. Curiosity was a shared trait in this family. Well, she wouldn’t be the one to deny them.
Toria leaned in, drawing the children closer in anticipation. Lowering her voice, she said, “They’re secrets.” Kids loved things they could keep from adults. She’d learned that first rule of baby-sitting years ago. “Can I trust you?”
They radiated eagerness with furious nods. Kids were so predictable. Besides, simple magic tricks would get her mind off her current situation. Amusing appreciative kids was a great tension-reliever.
She dug her purple crystal out of its pouch. It was a safe enough trick to show off. Kane was the subtle one of the pair; many of her major effects would be more than enough to spook the horses. And traumatizing children with a runaway wagon seemed contrary to the idea of entertainment.
“Watch this. But you have to be close and pay attention.” The two littlest ones slipped off their crates and crowded around Toria’s knees while the others craned forward. Rhi tried to look above their antics, but Toria noticed her surreptitious scoot closer to the group of eager little ones.
Toria cupped the crystal in her hands and gave it a gentle nudge of power. The pain in her head exploded again, but the kids were too amazed by the trick to notice her body stiffen with a repressed gasp of agony.
The sun ruined the effect for the most part, but the amethyst light could still be seen glowing in the shadow of her cupped fingers. One of Rhi’s brothers squealed in delight, while the others gave the requisite oohs and ahhs of admiration.
“How did you do that?” All pretense of Rhi’s disinterest vanished, and awe filled her eyes.
When they got to town, Toria would pull the girl aside and scan her for traces of mage-sign. She was close to puberty, when the majority of children born with magic began to manifest their talents. Toria showed hers much earlier, but she was an oddity.
Toria looked over her shoulder. Daniel, driving the cart, had now twisted in his seat to see what the children were up to.
“Just a small magic trick, sir.”
“Ah, sleight-of-hand.” His voice held a knowing tone. “My brother learned a bit of that at sea. The kids love him when he visits.”
“Yeah, it’s sort of like that.” Sleight-of-hand was much more difficult than the effects she could pull off. It required a level of dexterity, both mental and physical, that she had never possessed. She would much rather just shield something from human sight with magic than make it invisible on her own.
“No!” The littlest girl wiggled closer to Toria again and grabbed her hand. “Show Uncle! It’s real magic!”
“I’m sorry?” Daniel said. His grin disappeared. “What are you doing with them, Miss Toria?”
“Nothing. It’s just a light.” Despite the groans from the children, Toria brought the crystal closer to Daniel.
When he saw the shine of light coming from between her fingers, Daniel recoiled so fast Toria thought he would fall off the wagon. “Put that out! Now!” He urged the horse to a halt.
“Sure, sorry.” Toria cut off the light with another flick of a mental switch, thankful it didn’t cause another bout of pain, and showed it to Daniel again. “It’s gone. I’ll put it away now.” What was going on? It was just a stupid trick for the kids. She shoved the bauble back in its pouch.
“Everything okay up there?” Lauren directed the rear wagon filled with foodstuffs and the three other adults of the farm. The second horse had stopped when it couldn’t move any farther ahead. Now Lauren stood, trying to get a closer look at the events ahead.
Daniel called back to his wife. “The girl is a magic-user.” He rose to his feet and glared down at Toria.
The amount of venom in his voice stung her. She stood up, if just to put herself on the same level as the two adults. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that was a problem.” It shouldn’t have been a problem. Had Emily Fabbri’s influence spread even outside of the city this fast?
“Get out of the wagon,” Lauren said. If Daniel’s voice was poison, his wife’s was ice.
Her unspoken words said, “Get away from my children.” This whole situation was getting ridiculous, but Toria was in no position to argue. She grabbed her vest, then stepped over a crate to grab the edge of the wagon and swing herself down to the road.
Rhi rose to her knees and glared at Lauren. “That’s not fair! She didn’t do anything!”
“Not now,” Daniel said. “Sit down.”
“Quiet!” Daniel’s look of fury moved from his daughter to Toria, both of whom shrank back. “I can’t believe you would show such filth to my children after we offered you help. You should be ashamed of yourself.” He shushed one of the children who pulled at his pants leg, demanding to know what was going on.
“But it’s not filth.” Toria’s protest fell on deaf ears.
Daniel’s work was done, and he sat back down and urged the horse forward with a snap of the reins.
Toria turned to Lauren, but the woman was just as livid as her husband. “I’m sorry,” Toria said. “I didn’t know, and I didn’t mean anything by it. It was just supposed to be fun for the kids.”
“Next time you should think about what you’re doing before you try shoving your beliefs into impressionable children’s faces,” Lauren said. “They’re going to live their lives through hard work, not by waving their hands and having it all done for them.”
“Magic doesn’t work that way.” But arguing with her would be pointless.
Lauren also urged her horse forward, and Toria stood aside while the wagon passed. One of the other women in the wagon raised the first and last finger of her left hand at Toria, an ancient sign to ward off evil left over from one of the old British religions still flourishing in the colonies north of Limani.
Toria resisted the urge to make a dirty hand gesture right back at her.
She waited for the wagons to leave sight before she resumed walking. At least she’d managed to shave a few miles off her trip. Instead of waiting for the sweat to drench her, she once again pulled off her black shirt to tie around her waist and draped her vest back over her shoulder. Her feet stung with every blister and the tap dancers in her skull performed an encore with force, but she could do nothing about it. She still needed to get back to Limani and figure out how she was going to get to Kane and Asaron before anything worse happened to them.
Lauren’s words rolled around in her mind. Maybe Fabbri hadn’t corrupted this family. But with those anti-magic beliefs already in place, it wouldn’t be very hard for the councilwoman to add them to her cause.
It was market day. If this farm family felt that way, many of the others might, too. Fabbri was sure to be recruiting.
The last sight of her partner and grandfather slipped into her mind, and she bit back involuntary tears. She was stronger than this.
Toria walked faster.
Stay warm out there, everyone!
(If you are somewhere already warm…I dunno, go stick your head in the freezer.)