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Working Title: Kingdom of the Tiger

The opening chapter for my second Work in Progress (WIP).

Galen Sinclair heaved, his mouth bubbling with the salty, metallic taste of blood.

He felt a rush a of fear, knew that he hadn’t been breathing.

His eyes fluttered, closed again. Nothing. The night was like pitch, with only the soft chirping of a few cold crickets breaking the stillness.

His senses reached out, but found nothing but misery. He could feel pain radiating from his face, could feel the dried blood that covered his lips and chin cracking as he tried to move. He shivered uncontrollably. It was foggy and damp, and every inch of his body felt clammy. But he wasn't ready for the fresh wave of pain that engulfed him as he tried to roll over. It took his breath away. Ribs. He had broken a couple of ribs at least, which explained why breathing was so bloody awful. He knew the feeling well, having broken ribs on two separate occasions over the last three years. He wondered if he had been in a car accident, if he and his dad...

No, wait... Of course not.

Galen tried to gather himself. He was battered and bloody, that much was clear. He was lying face down against something hard, smeared with his blood. Wood. Painted wood. A glimmer of memory flared, then died. He listened, and there, underneath the quiet song of the crickets, he heard the whisper of a river.

And there... Rocking! It was almost imperceptible, but now Galen could feel the gentle cadence of water, light but unmistakable.

A boat. Galen was on a small boat.

Slowly, the memory formed, nothing more than flotsam at first, but as pieces quickly accumulated, he remembered.

Mr. McNeil's boat. He had borrowed Old Man McNeil's boat so he could get away from the bullshit. The relentless, unending bullshit. He had rowed with wild abandon until his arms and shoulders burned with fatigue, and he was drifting away from his new home in Galashiels, Scotland.

And then, gasping, Galen had tried to purge his anguish. He remembered doing as he always did on this boat. He stood and, perching his feet confidently on the rocking wooden frame, assumed a deep kiba-dachi—a horse stance—so he could practice the three Tekki katas from Shotokan karate as the boat floated down river.

Today, a swollen River Tweed challenged his balance; most would have ended up in the drink. But Galen was confident in his abilities, and it was as if his bare feet had been glued to the narrow frame, just three inches wide. His arms flew through the kata movements—blocks, strikes, combination attacks. All precise, fast, devastating. As soon as Tekki Shodan was finished, he moved to Tekki Nidan, and then Tekki Sandan. Only after a half hour or so, his shirt pasted to his back, his legs shaking with effort, did Galen step down.

He remembered beginning to cap his sadness. Remembered drinking heavily from a water bottle, and welcoming the slow drip of peacefulness. He was a survivor and he knew it. He was even stronger now than he had been before, and he would survive again.

When he was ready, Galen had again assumed the kiba-dachi position, and again practiced the Tekki katas to exhaustion.

None of that explained why he now found himself crusted with dried blood, but that wasn't a mystery he could fathom with his face pressed up against an old boat. He managed to roll over on the third try, the stab of pain so intense that nausea swamped him. Steeling himself, he sat up slowly, and realized that the back of his head was aching. He felt it, and discovered that his hair was matted with more blood clumped around a lump the size of a golf ball.

The night was deep and the stars were thick. He must be many kilometers away from town. He could see the spine of the Milky Way stretching off into the distance to where tall trees blocked his sight, and a wave of dizziness brought his eyes back down to the boat.

Galen tried to climb onto the riverbank, but that brought vertigo and a wave of retching that doubled him, aggravating the pain in his ribs. But after a minute, he felt slightly more like himself. Through force of will, he managed to step out of the boat, which had become wedged against two rocks, and into knee-deep water that felt bracingly cold.

He found the rope, freed the boat from the rocks, and struggled downstream to find a place to secure it. He lost his footing a couple of times although the current wasn’t strong here, and he threw up twice from agony and effort. He somehow kept hold of the line, but the battle took what little reserve he possessed. He eventually found a strong young trunk close to the water, and made the boat fast. Then, his lower half numb, and his upper half throbbing, he dragged himself up the bank into a dense thicket, collapsed, and let his mind float.

He hadn't a clue where he was, but realized he could have meandered down the Tweed for hours. After all, it had been mid-afternoon when he had grabbed the boat, but now the darkness was complete, with faint light shining down from the sky. The stars seemed impossibly bright, but that was probably just a concussion, Galen decided, for his thought processes were slow. He felt odd, different.

Gram would be frantic, but... Wait, no. She might not have even realized he was gone yet.

He lay very still, wondering how to proceed. He needed help, but where could he find it, in this strange place, in the middle of the night? Maybe the wisest course of action was to just let sleep take him and wait for morning.

He was so tired, and wanted to close his eyes, just for a few minutes. The sweetness of slumber — or was it oblivion — felt like a delicious kiss.

But faint sounds drifted through the woods. Far ahead, he could hear... what? Music? That wasn't quite it. Singing? Yes, it was clear now—voices on the breeze—but then it ebbed to a low hum again. Was he hallucinating? Galen shook his head to clear it, and instantly regretted his stupidity as his brain pinged around in his skull. Whatever the sound was, it beckoned to him. So he began crawling, like a moth to the flame, without making a decision to do so. He struggled to his feet and lurched onward through the trees.

Galen struggled for breath and stumbled, three times in all, which somehow seemed significant. He threw up twice. He spotted a light winking through the trees, not more than 300 yards away, but each step was so hard won. The voices pulled him forward. How long? Fifteen minutes? It seemed much longer. An age.

Vaguely, Galen was aware of smoke from a fire, and it seemed a fragrance more beautiful than anything he had ever inhaled.

He came to a clearing, with a cottage maybe a hundred feet from the trees' edge. It was a large one, but rustic, with uneven logs visible even in the deep night. He could hear few chickens clucking, and stumbled through horse shit in his bare feet, but hardly noticed. What he didn’t see was a car, nor any lines that would suggest a telephone. Galen swore. He knew some rural Scottish farmers saw no need for electricity, or other modern conveniences.

Through a rough cottage window, he could see the remnants of a fire glowing in the hearth. Dogs suddenly began thunderous barking inside. Galen struggled onward, his energy fading fast, darkness threatening to overtake him. Just a few more steps. He could just manage two firm knocks on the door, though whoever was inside must know he was there... But, God, he couldn't wait the eternity for an answer, so he fumbled the latch, and stumbled forward.

He stepped into a low-ceilinged entry, barely ducking in time to avoid smacking his poor head on the beam. He noticed a rustic bench and a number of sturdy walking sticks by the door. The room was dimly lit by a light flickering in from another room, but Galen’s attention was arrested by the commanding presence of the farmer himself.

This scarecrow of a man sent his head spinning again. He seemed old, but somehow vital, and his long ruddy white hair seemed suited to his dark grey robe, tied at the waist. He was spry and at the ready, with a stout stick to strike Galen if necessary. The dogs snarled, crouching as if to spring, but stayed behind the man. Without thinking, Galen instantly assumed a defensive stance, moving instinctively in spite of his pain.

"Who the hell are you?" the old man said plainly, his voice strong and resonating. "Ah, I see you’ve hurt yourself. I'm afraid that's not very convenient."

None of it made sense. From his stance, Galen felt the darkness circling, but managed to croak— "Gandalf. You're Gandalf!"

Then his legs failed again, and he started to fall. But the old man was quicker than that, catching Galen under his arms. He staggered slightly, but not from the teenager's weight. He felt a physical shock, an intense jolt that made him gasp, and pulled the air from his lungs.

But first things first. The old man quickly half-carried Galen into an adjoining room—the now-silent dogs at his heels—and laid him on a compact bed. Then he fetched a lantern and blankets.

He cut off the boy’s odd, blood-stained shirt, and covered him with warm wool blankets, and probed his broken ribs, feeling his organs for punctures. His nose was obviously broken, and the dried blood had even soaked into his strange-looking trousers, but his pulse was strong. With rest, he would be fine. With a skill and economy that suggested long years of practice, the old man administered a sleeping draught that Galen choked down without waking. Then he cleaned away the blood with a cloth that he rinsed in a stone bowl, and realigned the nose with a grinding crunch, which again made Galen stir, but not wake.

With his guest now safe and sound, he left the room. The old man was shaking. He looked down at his hands, and willed them to be still.

Could this be his moment? He had been alone for so long that even one so faithful nursed doubts that he dare not speak aloud. He focused on breathing, on stilling his heart, of creating the conditions for success this time.

If nothing else, these long years had taught him patience. He seized the taper from his writing desk, then moved to the far corner of the room. He threw aside a threadbare rug, revealing a trap door. The hinges creaked when pulled and the old man lifted his billowing robe so he could safely navigate the treacherous spiral staircase. Each step left a footprint in the dust, and cobwebs grabbed at his hair. One dog cautiously followed him down, the other remained on guard in the room above.

The old basement was cold, and finished in rough, heavy stones on all four walls. It ran the length of the cabin, with several broad beams supporting the rooms above. One small corner was given to supplies stored in large barrels. The old man walked confidently to the basement’s only other distinguishing feature, a ceremonial dais opposite the staircase. The old man hadn't been here in more than 30 years, since his last aborted attempt. The stones surrounded—and presented—a thick white candle printed with elaborate dusky blue runes. Just to one side was a carved staff, perhaps seven feet in length, that was beautiful in its wooden simplicity. It, too, was covered in dust.

The old man reached forward, hand closing tightly on the staff and, as he brought it near, he seemed to grow in stature, as if remembering a former strength. "Let's see, how does this go?" he murmured. But he knew the words, as clearly as if he recited them each morning before breakfast.

He focused all his energy on the words, summoning the power forth, feeling the energies ebb and flow. It was exhausting, and his luxuriant eyebrows knitted in deep concentration. Sweat beaded down his face, but he did not take note, nor waiver in his recitation. And then he felt the dam burst, found the answer he had sought, and he sank to one knee, utterly spent, bowed deep with something that was both wondrously uplifting—and unbearably heavy. He was frightened and hopeful.

He opened his eyes. It was as he had known it would be, so he stood tall, and spoke again.

"As the last of my kind, I call upon the elemental forces," he said. The taper held by the old man had been extinguished, though the ancient cellar stones shimmered with a eerie glow. The taper on the dais burned a deep royal blue. "I have brought forth this light to show the way through the darkness, and I will stand with this sacred light until my last breath."

The flame flared with the oath, and the old man smiled, a crooked smile tinged with regret.

Then he turned to the dog reproachfully. “Gandalf. Wasn’t that the name of your grandfather, Lilly? Have you been telling secrets?"

Lilly yipped.

With his staff as support, the man wearily climbed back up the stairs, and closed the trap door, Lilly bringing up the rear. They left the flame glowing behind them. He paused before entering Galen's room, but the boy had not moved an inch, though he moaned for his mother through the haze of the sleeping draught.

So young, so young!

This was totally unexpected. The old man took a seat beside the bed, and placed his hand against the Galen's forehead. Yes, it was there, even stronger than before.

“I am Erasmus,” he said, wondering if the boy could hear.

He smiled, a kind, sad smile, as Galen settled on to his side with a groan.

"We shall talk in the morning."

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