The Third Secret
The Shining Continent
“A gem from a talented voice in fantasy literature… a breath-taking thrill ride steeped in adventure.” ~ James M. Wright, author of “Rhizome” and “The Kraken Imaginary”
A secret kept for a dozen years, a Darkness that brought the world to its knees, and the only one who can stop it from rising again is a clumsy baker!
Umbo has given up friends, love, and happiness to fulfill his vow to keep safe a young girl found in the depths of a tyrannical sorceress’s workshop, a girl who may hold the secret to the sorceress’s dark magic.
When an unknown power comes searching for the girl after more than a decade of peace, Umbo must learn to trust his intuition, abandon his quiet life, and take up the sword once more to protect her and, possibly, the entire Shining Continent.
What begins as a frantic escape becomes a wild journey through a world where magic has evolved bears, badgers, foxes, and apes into people, and different schools of magic compete for dominance under the jealous eye of guardian dragons.
The Third Secret is the first installment in the 3-part epic fantasy saga of The Shining Continent. If you love complex magic systems and world building in the spirit of Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss, buy The Third Secret and enter a world of strange magic today!
PRAISE FOR THE THIRD SECRET
READ AN EXCERPT
“Strange to find a fine Orsino like yourself in these parts,” said the Anthrian.
The smell of cured leather and the sweat of long hours on the road tickled Umboridas’s nostrils, reminding him of the Anthrian plainsmen in Craisus’s company, though the Anthrian’s furless skin was a shade or two lighter than those Umboridas had known in the war. He might even be an islander from the archipelago. You rarely saw Anthrians from that far out in this part of the Midlands. This man was a long way from home.
“And a baker, no less.”
The Anthrian clasped his hands behind his back in an oddly formal gesture for one so ragged and road-weary and peered over the trays of buns and pies and loaves of bread on display in Umboridas’s stall. It was still early, and only a handful of regulars had been by to stock up, so his barrow was piled high with fare, the product of a week’s hard labor in the hut in the back of his small plot of land at the edge of town.
“I thought you Orsino were all poets and didn’t like to get your hands dirty.”
Umboridas’s sister was a poet, the finest of her generation. Umboridas, on the other hand, could barely inscribe a simple stanza to get his oven to heat up.
“We are a people of many talents,” he said, with a tinge of pride at his baking prowess. His parents back in Orsin would never believe him capable of baking or anything else.
“How may I help you on this beautiful spring day?”
“What are these?”
The Anthrian pointed at a stack of sweet rolls beneath a wire stand bearing a sign that clearly said “sweet rolls” written in Umboridas’s ugly approximation of common script.
“Those are sweet rolls.”
Perhaps the Anthrian couldn’t read. Umboridas had heard that plainsmen from the outer reaches could be shockingly backward.
The plainsman wrinkled his nose.
“Will I like them?”
Umboridas smiled the smile every stallholder around him used when they suspected a customer was looking for a free sample. He’d sell out well before the market closed. He didn’t need to be giving anything away.
“They’re extremely tasty. They’re sweetened with honey and have a hint of cardamom. It’s a recipe from my homeland that’s become very popular at the market.”
The Anthrian grimaced, unconvinced.
“Are you local?”
The plainsman pretended to be interested in a stack of oatmeal cookies, but Umboridas could tell from his eyes the question was more than casual. The fur on the back of Umboridas’s neck bristled as instincts born of war and survival awakened despite a dozen years of neglect. After the fall of the Third Darkness, even a dry twig snapping underfoot had made him reach for a knife. He had learned to ignore his instincts. Odd they would be triggered now.
“Yes, I am. Everything you see here is made with the finest local ingredients.”
Umboridas smiled his most appealing rustic smile, bright-eyed and with the right amount of pride in his wares to be enticing, but devoid of salesman’s guile.
“You must get a lot of travelers coming through here,” said the Anthrian.
“Yes, indeed. All sorts.”
There were already day trippers from the first of the morning’s big, powered riverboats from Dawn’s Meadow filtering into the market.
“Lots of river folk, too.”
Was the man a bigot? The Anthrians around Barkhaven were more concerned with getting on with their lives than indulging old prejudices. The caravans of river folk that passed through were viewed as not worth thinking about, except for when they brought with them interesting things to trade.
“Yes, all sorts.”
“What about those?”
The Anthrian nodded toward a family of river folk who had set up a makeshift stall by the well at the center of the market square. A small crowd of locals and other stallholders had gathered around them to examine their wares.
Umboridas didn’t recognize their colors. In his years of keeping track of Gilli as she grew into a young woman, he had come to recognize the variations in dress between the different caravans of river folk. Each had their own taste in colors and fabrics influenced by the sometimes-long distances they traveled along the network of rivers that threaded through the Midlands and into the Four Nations beyond. Judging from the browns and burnt oranges, the colors of a rich late fall, this caravan had come a long way, likely from deep within Merovar. They didn’t get many from that way around Barkhaven, but all manner of river folk from all over the Shining Continent had been showing up in the past fortnight. All except for travelers from Vulpesh, where all the caravans had been murdered during the Darkness. Few cared to venture along those rivers these days, even though the Vulpestrian forces had long been broken.
“What about them?”
The fur on Umboridas’s face tickled his eyelashes as his smile gripped into a rictus of worry, a sign he should loosen up lest this stranger think him crazed.
“Have you seen them around before?”
“We get many caravans coming through here.”
This was the reason Umboridas had settled in Barkhaven. It had been the perfect place to find a family to take Gilli in, and it was the perfect place to keep tabs on her progress. Thanks to his network of informants, he always knew where her caravan was.
“But this one,” insisted the Anthrian. “Do they come through a lot?”
Now, that was an unusual question. Once again, the fur on the back of Umboridas’s neck stood at attention and his heart raced in his chest. Was this the day Craisus had warned him about, the day someone would finally come for Gilli?
“I can’t say that they have. May I interest you in a loaf? I have a delicious and hearty rosemary peasant loaf. Or if you want something more refined, I can recommend the semolina.”
“Seems like a big family.”
The Anthrian dropped all his feigned interest in Umboridas’s baked goods. “How old would you say the children are? I can never tell with their kind.” The plainsman’s upper lip curled with disgust. “They all look the same to me.”
It wasn’t such a big family by river folk standards. The matriarch and her husband were older, judging by the white fur on their faces, the flecks of gray in their visible pelts, and the stoop in their long and lean bodies. Their offspring, two sons and a daughter, were joined by their spouses with different coloring and markings, likely from a different caravan, though one not all that distant.
A handful of children sat on the back of the tarp the family had spread out across the cobblestones playing dice and jacks, bored by the talk of trade surrounding them. The youngest of the men was about Gilli’s age, perhaps a year or two older. River folk tended to pair up young and remain paired until their children had grown. From what Umboridas could tell, Gilli had yet to find a mate.
“I don’t know,” said Umboridas. “Five or six.”
The Anthrian turned and looked Umboridas in the eye, a fearsome coldness spreading across the bald nut-colored skin of the plainsman’s face.
“When did you get to these parts? Was it after the war? You look about old enough to have fought.”
Umboridas shook his head.
“Not me.” A lie he had been telling every market day since the end of the war, it slid easily off his tongue. “I was one of the lucky ones. Been here in the Midlands all my life. My parents left Orsin and came here long before the Darkness.”
The Anthrian looked him up and down, sneered with disgust, and walked away to approach the river folk.
A villager stepped up to the stall as he departed and began to ask questions about the bread, but Umboridas still had an unobstructed view of the river folk as he put together the customer’s order. They were too far away for him to overhear.
The Anthrian’s body language shifted as he approached, softening, becoming more friendly. He surveyed their wares, picked over some bolts of fabric, inspected some hand-crafted adornments, turned over some simple Merovian tools in his hands as he struck up a conversation with one of the husbands. Skilled at lying with his body, the unsuspecting river folk were taken in by him and joined in with his chatter. Hands began to gesture, marking out the course of where they’d traveled and where they were going. They wintered in the south, as Umboridas had expected, but had come from the north, likely passing through the eastern slopes of Anthris, which made sense from the fabric of their clothes, the reds and rusts more common among Anthrian settlers close to the border with the Midlands. And where were they going? This seemed to be of paramount interest to the Anthrian, but push as he might, the river folk resorted to their genial smiles and noncommittal bobbing heads, gestures Umboridas recognized well. The river folk would never tell you ‘no.’ They had learned the hard way what standing up for themselves would do for them, so they developed ways of allowing whoever pressed them for something they weren’t willing to give to think they were getting what they wanted, though this defensive behavior also gave them a reputation across the Four Nations as being miserly at best, and liars at worst.
Though they dissembled however much he pressed them, and his air of friendliness dissipated as his frustration grew. The Anthrian eventually got enough information out of them to be satisfied and move on. To the river folk, this was merely another difficult interaction with bank-dwellers, but Umboridas saw it for what it was.
The Anthrian might only be a brigand, planning on raiding the caravan when they moved beyond Barkhaven, but why had he been curious about the age of the children? And why had he wanted to know if Umboridas had fought against the Darkness? When Umboridas had fled into hiding with Gilli, he made sure he wasn’t followed. Not even Craisus saw him leave. As far as his former master knew, Umboridas might have fled to the coast and the unknown lands across the sea. Coming to this part of the Midlands where there were so few Orsino had been a risk, but after the fall of the Third Darkness and the prosperity that followed there was migration from all quarters. And Umboridas had been careful that the only people to see the strange pairing of an Orsino with a young girl of the river folk were the river folk themselves.
It must be that the Anthrian had plans to rob the caravan. He was only being paranoid.
And yet he couldn’t take the risk.
“Magrat?” He waved at the old woman who ran the vegetable stand next to him.
“Would you keep an eye out for me?”
Even after a decade, Umboridas didn’t have many friends in Barkhaven. He couldn’t afford friends, but there was a bond between all the marketers that he knew he could rely on.
Magrat, a wrinkled and stooped Anthrian woman whose family, according to her stories, had settled in the Midlands after the First Darkness, had the sharpest eye for bargaining of anyone in the market. She nodded and waved back at him without breaking the stride of her negotiation with a customer in the middle of making a big order. Umboridas took a basket from his cart and filled it up with the sorts of goods he knew any caravanner would love. They all seemed to have a sweet tooth and a taste for food with varied textures. Nothing better than treats rich with nuts and fruits, of which he had many varieties.
He arrived at the caravanners’ stall during a lull. All the stallholders and early arrivers to the market had sated their desires for the colorful and exotic wares of the caravan and gone back to their regular business.
“Morning,” said Umboridas to the matriarch who sat at the back of the enclosure, ignoring the rest of her family. She was the one he had to charm to get the information he wanted. “I have some extra stock here. May I interest you in a bite to eat? I have some things I’m sure the children would like.”
He pulled out from the back of the basket a handful of oatmeal and raisin cookies laced with nuts. The children all looked up from their games and stared greedily, one eye on their grandmother. The matriarch made a show of wiping her palms on her skirt, approaching him with clean hands as a sign of respect.
“That’s a fine and tasty basket you have there,” she said in the characteristic lilt of the river folk. “What would you be wanting in trade?”
“Oh, nothing. It’s pleasure enough to simply talk to good people like you who have traveled so far.”
Information was as much a commodity to the river folk as the bolts of fabric and other stuffs they had spread out on their tarp, but the rules for this kind of exchange were much more social. The river folk loved good food and good conversation and, for a people so universally reviled in the Four Nations, they were never anything other than friendly and courteous. Their problem, so the great minds of the Shining Continent proclaimed, was they had no source font to guide them, to shape them and power their culture. It was thought that, unlike the Nations, the river folk were a bastard emanation, the result of intermingling of the four source magicks. Whereas the Orsino had been raised to humanity in the distant forgotten past from the many bears surrounding the Eastern Font, as had the Anthrian plainsmen from apes, the Vulpesh from foxes, and the Merovar from badgers by their own respective fonts of source magick, the river folk had no center, no culture, no magick arts, formally schooled or otherwise, and their ancestry was unknown. Even before the atrocities of the Third Darkness, they were considered by all to be frivolous dirt that marred the hem of the robes of the Shining Continent.
The matriarch smiled, her fur wrinkling under her eyes as her upturned stub of a nose wiggled with pleasure at the smell of the buns and cookies he had brought them.
“Then come and join us. We will happily regale you with tales of our travels.”
She stepped to one side, inviting him onto her tarp, a true mark of respect between all marketers. Customers were never allowed behind the counter.
Umboridas had spent many a pleasant evening among the caravans, sharing food and wine and beer and learning about the complex web of social connections between the different families spread out across the continent. He would have loved to spend time with these newcomers, but time he didn’t have. Instead, he used his knowledge of their customs to establish as quickly as he could that he could be trusted, that he understood what was important to them, that he respected them for their ways and wasn’t out to manipulate them, or rob them, or worse. This family and their caravan had been to parts west that Umboridas had never seen, not even in his travels along the border between Anthris and Vulpesh on scouting trips with Craisus’s company. He would have loved to hear everything they were prepared to tell him. Perhaps he would have that chance in the future, but not today.
The surprising number of caravans passing through was for some kind of mass meeting, though the matriarch wouldn’t be pinned down as to what it was, or where exactly they were going. Umboridas had encountered this unique brand of dissembling before. The river folk had secrets they wouldn’t give up to anyone: certain gatherings and festivals that they reserved for themselves alone, and the truth of how the surviving caravans had been able to avoid the predation of the Vulpestrian Domina and her Darkness.
But he did learn about Gilli’s caravan. These people had encountered it on their way here. This particular family had been elected to come to the market at Barkhaven to unload some of the caravan’s stock and acquire whatever they could that was unique to the area to take with them on their travels. They were excited to be done and get back on their path, especially the children, but their time at the market was an important responsibility. At midday, they would pack up and rejoin their caravan before the others progressed too far along the Larayal and on to wherever they were headed. Gilli’s caravan must be half a day ahead of them already.
So many caravans in one place at one time. The Anthrian might be one of those zealots who blamed the Darkness on its most helpless victims and sought to wipe them all out. Or, as Umboridas had first suspected, he planned on robbing them. But if there were even the slightest chance he somehow knew about Gilli…
Umboridas bid the family farewell, wished them good travels, and walked out to the middle of the market. The Anthrian plainsman was still working his way around the square chatting amiably to the various stallholders, no doubt pumping them for information. Upon stepping away from Old Man Groge’s leather goods, he struck off toward Cobbler’s Lane. Umboridas glanced back at his own stall. Magrat stood between hers and his, deftly serving two customers looking over his pies and a third at her own stall without missing a beat. He dropped his basket behind a horse’s drinking trough and went after the Anthrian.
Though Barkhaven was a small town, its population swelled on market days, even this early in the morning. The growing crowds in the streets were both a boon and a hindrance to Umboridas. Tall and covered with a thin pelt of mostly black fur, he would have no way to avoid being spotted on an empty street. No matter how much his best friend in Craisus’ company, Tenerash, had tried to teach him how to move stealthily, Umboridas was far too big and clumsy. Though the crowd, mostly Anthrian and furless but for the hair on their heads and the beards on the men’s faces, slowed him down, it was dense enough to give him cover when the plainsman occasionally turned to look back.
He followed the plainsman to the edge of town and the district where travelers could stable their horses. The rough, earth-covered square was filled with visitors, most of them dismounting and unpacking their carts, but one group in the northern corner was preparing to depart. If the plainsman looked road-weary, his companions, eight others, looked as if the road had risen up to beat them down and batter them with dirt and gravel. All from the plains of Anthris, all male, all of similar coloring, their leathers were all of the same style, their bare arms tied with strips of cloth in the same three colors: blue, brown, and cream. Umboridas didn’t know what clan it symbolized, but a band of male plainsmen displaying their colors was always a bad thing. If they weren’t a war party, they were surely up to something deplorable.
After a dozen years, Umboridas was well familiar with the streets of Barkhaven. He doubled back and cut across Bisset Alley to come around Carter’s Way and reemerge in the square behind a large, barrel-filled cart but three feet away from the band of plainsmen, all before the Anthrian could reach them.
“They’re traveling southwest,” he heard the Anthrian say. “Down to the Cut and somewhere up the Perrens.”
“So many of them,” said another. “Any idea why?”
“No. They’re cagey, treacherous creatures. They don’t give up their secrets easily.”
“We could beat it out of them,” said a third. “When they come off the river, they’re low-hanging fruit. We could work our way along the road and take our pick of them.”
“We certainly could,” said their leader. “Our patron asked us to be discreet, but if we have to resort to a little bloodshed, it’s only river scum. No one will care.”
“What does he want with river folk girls, anyway? That’s a kink I’ve never heard of,” said the second voice.
“Who are you to judge a man’s tastes?” said a fourth voice with a chuckle. “I’ve seen woodland creatures turn pale at your approach.”
The rest of the group laughed.
“Not girls,” said the Anthrian. “One particular girl.”
The bottom fell out of Umboridas’s stomach. Ice formed around his chest and heart. He struggled to breathe.
“Do we know a name? Or what she looks like?”
“No. Just that she’s no longer a child and not yet a woman.”
“Lightning’s jagged kiss, Gadreth. We’re never letting you take jobs for us again. How will we know who she is?”
“Our patron says he’ll know her when he sees her.”
“So now we have to herd the disgusting creatures? I left the plains to make my fortune, not become a bloody scum-herder.”
Gilli. There was no doubt in Umboridas’s mind. Someone had found out about her existence. Someone had learned what went on in the Domina’s workshop and wanted that power for themselves. But how could they have known? He and Craisus were the only ones to enter the workshop before the Guardian Dragons rained down fire and destroyed it.
The Anthrian hadn’t seemed to know who Umboridas was and made no mention of him to his clansmen. Perhaps this patron of theirs was simply following up on a rumor.
It didn’t matter. Umboridas couldn’t take the risk.