The Portals Of Hell – Snippet 01

This novel is being published by Ring of Fire Press on August 20. It’s the first book of a trilogy.

THE PORTALS OF HELL

By Nathan Dodge

Chapter 1: Bitter Return

Pushing open the back door, Davin Blackthorn edged into the kitchen, hanging his coat on one of the massive brass hooks along the wall. Hoping to be ignored, at least for a while, in the midst of the organized confusion of breakfast preparations, he edged to his right toward the small breakfast table for kitchen help, adjacent to the dining room door.

The kitchen was more broad than deep. Great black ovens to the left warmed the kitchen and baked biscuits. In the center were heavy oak preparation tables and chopping blocks, with sinks and racks of pots and pans to the right. Aliceia, mistress of the house, presided over the maelstrom, her tall, angular body in a black Meeting dress, the front covered with a white linen apron. Long black hair piled atop her head like a crown, she was a commanding presence who choreographed the movements of her half-dozen kitchen staff who prepared breakfast not only for the occupants of the main house, but also the fifty and more ranche hands in the bunkhouse.

Davin watched as Riala, her daughter, equally dark-haired but considerably more curved, whisked steaming biscuits swathed in linen into a wicker basket. She pirouetted past white-clad Pe and Reia, who had commandeered the stove-tops and skillets for all Davin’s lifetime, to disappear through the swinging door panel into the dining room. At the chopping block, a young woman named Quala sliced apples and pears for a bright fruit salad. With the brevity of last summer and the poor harvest, Deos only knew how there was any fruit left. The last of it, in all probability, no doubt Blessed to have been preserved this long. Two of the great brown-and-black ranche hounds, Tico and Teco, were discreetly ensconced to the left of the ovens, waiting patiently for an occasional scrap from the cooks.

Aliceia finally caught sight of him, giving him a regarding look and shaking her head slightly. Davin’s heart sank. Not only was she not surprised to see him, she knew. He almost turned and ran out the back door, since if she knew, so did the General, which meant he would be waiting with fire in his eye. The General could be bad enough when he was remonstrating gently, if there was such a behavior in his repertoire, but his tantrums were to be avoided at all cost.

Aliceia must have seen his jaw drop, as she quickly crossed to him, wrapping her arms around him, saying nothing. Suddenly she drew back, face troubled. “Child, your heart is pounding! Are you so concerned about your father’s reaction?”

He held her at arm’s length, searching her dark eyes. “No, no. I just saw . . . something. That is, I . . .” He shook his head. She couldn’t possibly believe him. How do you tell someone that you just saw a light that no one else can see?

He changed the subject. “How did you know I was asked to resign?”

“The priests were here last evening before you came in.” She smiled at his surprise. “I heard you sneak into the kitchen for a snack when you arrived, so I knew you had decided to sleep in the bunkhouse to avoid any unpleasant encounters. The priests weren’t here about you; it was chapel business. There was wood to be Blessed, and I think they wanted more money for the fund for the needy. At least that was their story.” She frowned toward the dining room. “Sometimes I think they just want to assure that their own bellies are full for the winter.”

After a moment, she went on, “Don’t mind me. I got up on the wrong side of the bed today. Anyway, one of the priests had heard something. Deos only knows how that network of theirs operates, but they seem to get word of whatever goes on in San Luis or anywhere else as soon as it happens.

“The Gen . . .” Her face flushed. Everyone called Davin’s father, Kel Blackthorn, “the General” behind his back, but Davin knew that Aliceia generally tried not to do so when she addressed Davin or his sister Meara. “Your father is already in the dining room, but he is with a guest. He knows you’re home, but he probably won’t ask about you for a while. Are you hungry? You can eat in here.”

Davin swallowed, mouth dry. “I’m not very hungry. Maybe coffee and some bacon.”

She smiled, kissed his cheek. “I’ll have Riala bring you coffee.” With a quick turn, she rejoined the kitchen dance, moving back and forth, sampling, in turn, the egg casserole and a tray of biscuits steaming from the oven, in what Davin knew was her own version of breakfast.

Edging into the small alcove, he took a seat at the white wooden table, rubbing the remnants of sleep from his eyes. When he looked back up, Riala was bringing a steaming cup and a plate of bacon. Shorter than her mother and darker-haired, she was slender with skin a lighter, creamy olive, her face a pleasant combination of button nose, dark eyes, and soft, wide mouth. She was ready for Meeting in a bright yellow dress.

Taking the cup, Davin breathed in the aroma of what the Sudos called caff√©. The General was one of the few men — even wealthy men — that had coffee regularly.

Riala smiled. “You’re home early, school-boy. Is Academy already out?”

He cast a grateful glance at Aliceia’s back — she had not told Riala. “Sit. I know you are busy, but sit. Just a minute.”

With a glance at her mother’s back, she sat. The quizzical look became a frown. “What?”

He hesitated, hating to admit failure once again, to have to tell the truth to Riala, his lifelong friend. “I have been expelled. I am no longer a cadet. Of course, they call it a ‘voluntary withdrawal.'”

Her face was stricken. “How? You were the best student in second school! You had the highest grade in every class!”

He couldn’t meet her eyes. He methodically began eating the bacon, finishing most of it in silence. Finally, he said, “I’m fine with mathematics and science, but in other areas, not so good. My eyesight is bad, and I’m clumsy. You have to act — and look like — a leader. I’m not a leader.”

As he raised his eyes, she regarded at him fiercely. “You could be! I know you could!”

“That’s because you’re my friend. Right now, it feels like you’re my last friend.”

“Don’t talk that way — it’s just self-pity, and that’s not like you at all. You have lots of friends here in the plains, and I’m sure you made them at Academy.”

“Not so many at the Academy, but some. The friends I did have there will forget me. You’re too busy to take time remembering those that leave — and a lot leave. Anyway, so what? Friends couldn’t keep me in the Academy, and they can’t protect me from the General, either.”

Riala’s scowl deepened. “You’re the General’s son. You don’t need protection.”

“Don’t be so sure. With my bad eyes, I can’t even volunteer for the local militia, so as far as he’s concerned, I’m a failure. Again. I had to have a dispensation to get into the Academy. Eventually, my sight would have had to have another Blessing. You know what that would cost. And eyesight is tricky. The General paid more than a thousand gold dosas for that Healing three years ago, and the result was only partially successful. Another try might have cost half our family fortune for nothing.”

“He’d have paid it.”

“Maybe so. Would it have been a wise investment? I doubt it — no guarantee that I would make it through to graduation anyway. I probably saved the General a fortune by failing.”

“You did not fail. Even if they asked you to leave, it would never be over scholarship.”

He shook his head but made no reply, simply returning his stare to the empty cup. After a long pause, she put her hand around his and squeezed. “What will you do now?”

“I’ll have to think about it. Maybe the Guild of Engineers.”

“Your father will never approve of that.”

“Not without some persuading. But since I am a verified failure at military training, perhaps he’ll consider the guild.” Riala frowned again. He knew she was thinking of the General’s opinion of engineers in general.

The kitchen workers were beginning to migrate to the alcove to eat, cooking duties over. Davin squeezed out as Pe, the chief cook, approached. She was from the montas, the western mountains, the home of the Chanches. They were reputedly fierce fighters who were said to constantly contest among their clans for the sparse living space and farmlands in the higher elevations. Pe never spoke of her homeland, however. Passing Davin, she smiled and patted his shoulder, but didn’t speak.

As Aliceia approached the table, Davin glanced down ruefully at his soiled and wrinkled trousers and stained shirt. “I have the dirt of the road on me, ‘Ceia. I slept in the bunkhouse in my clothes, too tired to even think about cleaning up. Is there hot water for a bath?”

She smiled. “Yes, but hurry. Departure at first eight.”

He paused to give Riala a hug. She wiggled her nose (“None too soon for that bath — and shave, too!”), hugged him back, and made for the great sink on the east wall of the kitchen with his plate. He detoured near the ovens to feed his bacon scraps to the hounds and give them a scratch behind the ears, then hurried out the kitchen door and upstairs to the bathing room.

Belo was already pouring alternating buckets of cold and steaming water into the largest of three tubs, so Aliceia had anticipated his request. Belo grinned and winked, saying nothing as usual. He had served the General, first as corpsman and later as manservant, for nearly fifty years. The tub was soon full, and in a moment Davin sank into the water with a groan of pleasure.

He did not luxuriate long. Retrieving soap from the table by the tub, he vigorously washed his thin, wiry body and hair. There was also a razor on the table, and he shaved off nearly two weeks’ stubble, feeling better than at any time since that terrible morning when he had been summoned to the Commandant’s office.

By the time he finished and crossed the hall to his bedroom, Paco, Belo’s assistant, had delivered clothing and shoes. He finished drying and quickly dressed in Meeting Day best — white linens, dark trousers, a gray wool shirt, and black socks. A rich wool coat, freshly-polished boots, and a fur-lined leather overcoat completed his dress.

Hat in hand, arrayed like the rich man’s son that he was, he heard the departure gong at the front door. He glanced around his room longingly, having spent little time there in well over a year. On his desk lay a telescope, brass-bound body transported a thousand kilometers from the north for his twelfth birthday, Blessed by the priests so that it would properly focus the light. There was also the brass steam piston given him by his favorite teacher, plus books and scientific papers. Scholarship awards decorated the wall above the desk.

Leaving his room, he found himself face-to-face with a tall, blond man with steel-gray eyes and a rugged, square-jawed face. It displayed the demeanor of one accustomed to command, the man’s height and broad shoulders reinforcing the picture of strength and authority.

“You must be our visitor,” Davin said. “I remember you, you’re Bayn Grenoble. You lectured at Academy last year. I’ve read your papers in the Academy library.”

In the background, he heard the harsh sound of the second gong on the front porch. The final gathering bell was announcing that departure was imminent and stragglers should hurry to the front porch. “You are coming with us to Meeting?”

“With your father’s kind invitation. I retired here for a final wash.”