Chapter 1

 

IN HIS twenty-five years, Adam never thought of how he would die. Oh, he’d “died” often on the field of battle reenactments, but those had been foam weapons, carefully choreographed dramatic finishes, and a lot of rehearsal beforehand. This was different. He’d seen real battle death since arriving in this twisted hellhole of a lost world—quick, brutal, and messy—and somehow he’d managed to survive, whether through fighting or fleeing. Not this time.

Staring up the dirt track, past the veritable sea of four-armed, leathery-skinned barbarians, he saw his fate as clearly as the officious-looking elders standing on the platform of stone and logs. It might as well have been etched into the heavy obsidian blade clutched loosely in two of the burly executioner’s hands—Warning: Trespassers will be Eaten. Of course, that would only work if the kanak gave warnings.

Every step was agony. The sharp stabbing pain shooting from his wrenched ankle was almost worse than the prodding from the stone-tipped spears that urged along his limping progress. His head throbbed from where he had fallen to the ground, and his left eye was swollen shut. Back in high school, Adam had read about executions and how broken prisoners would shuffle slowly toward their fate. He’d always thought they were too tired to move faster or their movements were impeded by manacles. Now he knew better. Even as much as he yearned for the pain to stop, each ragged breath that rasped into his lungs was sweet punishment. Every second he took walking up the street between the jeering kanak was a second longer to feel his heart straining in his rib cage. The oblivion of death hovered before him, more horrifically real now than any time since he’d arrived here. This had to be a windup. Part of him felt like he was sitting on his couch staring at the TV, wondering if his favorite character was about to be killed off midseason. The rest of him worried that this was really the end. And so he struggled second to second, hoping for something—anything—to happen.

One second longer for his luck to change.

Only it didn’t.

The track made its way between the two largest dwellings to the center of the village. The din of the watching crowd swelled until it sounded almost like a football grand final. At least it would have if said footy crowd was clad in wraps of cured animal hide or woven vegetation and chanted along to a beat kept by the stamping of their feet while accompanied by the droning of clashing trumpet sounds—it was just like a footy crowd at a grand final.

Entering the central square, Adam passed a fire pit piled high with deadwood awaiting the touch of flame to send it roaring up into the perpetual dusk of the jungle sky. On the dais behind it was a rude throne of wood and jutting bone, and seated upon that was the kanak chieftain, easily a head taller than the rest of his clan. Although he still had the dark brown skin and ebony hair, his clothing was where his appearance differed—and significantly so. Unlike the warriors, who wore nothing bar a leather loincloth or penis-gourd and their tattoos of black and red, the chief’s clothing was of finely woven reeds in red, black, and brown. Around his neck he wore a gorget of polished bone and turquoise—and infuriatingly, Adam’s battered watch, glinting from a leather thong. Standing to his right was an older kanak female leaning on a gnarled staff, the goat skull and beads of bone and turquoise indicating her rank as a shaman or medicine woman of some sort. She wore a red silk wrap over her shoulders and around her waist, and an ornate grass skirt that almost reached her feet. Her expression was proud and serene as she watched Adam’s approach.

All this passed through Adam’s brain in the blink of an eye as his focus moved sharply to the low table—or rather two table halves—that sat on the dais between the throne and the fire pit. They were made of wood and clearly fitted together, one lip overlapping the other to create a seamless surface, barring a circular hole in the middle. It looked like the table would then be held together with thick wooden pegs, two of which lay conveniently on one of the table halves. As his stomach attempted to heave up the last dregs of bile, Adam dug his heels in, momentarily halting his guards in their attempts to drag him forward, and wrenching his ankle so hard his vision threatened to black out entirely. The chanting of the crowd was feverish, barraging his ears with a thrumming cacophony of noise. It no longer mattered that he didn’t understand the language; he knew all the words.

Do not get locked into that thing, his brain screamed at him as his eyes tracked around the area, looking for a gap through which he might bolt, but found none. Then clawed hands gripped his arms, and two of the warriors half marched, half dragged him forward as he struggled to free his hands, still bound behind his back with a length of twisted creeper.

 

“What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?” Rusty asked, snuggled up behind Adam in the postcoital glow of their lovemaking.

“Raw snail. Dare in year ten,” Adam said, pulling their combined sleeping bags around his neck to ward off the desert chill that threatened to seep through the walls of their canvas tent. “You?”

“Witchety grub. Tonight.”

“Oh come on, you don’t have any stories?”

“Not personally, no,” Rusty said. “My dad was fed monkey brains, though.”

“What?”

“Monkey brains. From the monkey, apparently.”

“Explain, please?”

“He was in… I think it was Egypt? Or somewhere in Africa, anyway, and they served him monkey. He said they had a table with a hole in the middle—they put the monkey’s head through the hole and use a knife and….”

 

Forced to his knees, Adam found the raw wood dug into his neck as a cheer went up from the surrounding crowd. From his new vantage point, he could see old bloodstains and knife marks on the table’s surface, and the last wooden peg was dropped into the table with the finality of the last nail being hammered into his coffin.

 

 

Two months earlier.

 

TRAINING WAS always an issue. The Society for Creative Anachronism often attracted members who felt a romantic connection to the chivalry and courtly mannerisms esteemed in the Middle Ages, and those people were not always physically suited to the art of combat. It took a fair amount of strength to wield a sword or axe with lethal force. It took skill to make it look like you were wielding a sword or axe with lethal force without the force actually becoming lethal. Most times, practice was more along the lines of a carefully choreographed dance, with people working on timing their blows to strike shields or other foam blades, rather than the soft, fleshy parts of their fellow enthusiasts. Only a few were willing—and able—to wield real weapons, and even then, such duels were carefully monitored. When Adam joined the society in the first year of his Bachelor of Science at the University of Melbourne, he had little going for him bar his height and the natural breadth of his shoulders. Still, he knew he wanted to buckle his swash with the best of them, and in time he was able to broad his sword, quarter his staff, and battle his axe as well.

Two years, hundreds of blisters, and an ongoing stint in the Army Reserves later, Adam was now one of the SCA mentors and weapons specialists, showing eager new enthusiasts the right way to hold a staff, and trying to curb their enthusiasm for hitting each other with their foam weapons. The fiberglass core could hurt even with the exterior padding. Even so, despite his flourishes and dazzling displays of skill, his fights still tended to be as carefully choreographed as the larger battle scenes.

Today had been a good day, as he and June, one of his fellow mentors, engaged in a mock fight with their training swords. The duel resulted in several wrenched muscles, not a few bruises, and a great deal of banging on their sturdy shields. He’d also spent a bit of time showing off some of his fancier metal blades, as that always impressed the newer members. After packing away the weaponry, he said goodbye to his fellow enthusiasts and hit the showers at the university gym for the last time—end of the semester in November meant the end of their official meetings until March. Adam, who had already completed his practical assessments, now faced the prospect of a summer of casual work and sleeping in, with occasional training sessions mixed in where possible. Right at the moment, however, he faced the equally wonderful prospect of a hot, steaming shower to wash the remaining grime from his skin and the ache from his limbs.

The university showers were separated into cubicles by the same dark gray dividers they used to partition their toilets, ensuring near complete privacy. Adam selected one at the far end, hung his towel on the peg provided, turned on the water, and stood outside the cool spray until the water made it from the water heater to his showerhead. Despite the drought more or less breaking, he still felt guilty taking long showers at home. Somehow, here at the gym, it was less of an indulgence and more of an acceptable treat. Still, his shower was relatively short, taking only as long as he needed to shampoo his hair and wash himself down with whatever bodywash he had found on special in Priceline and jammed into the bottom of his gym bag—OGX or something. June would probably have admonished him for not using conditioner, but the tight soldier’s crop he maintained didn’t need much in the way of care—there just wasn’t enough there to matter. His chest was covered with a sprinkling of browny blond hairs, although the treasure trail leading to his crotch was slightly more noticeable. Or would have been if he showed it off more.

He felt the stares on him as he strode out of his stall, towel slung low across his hips after a brief rubdown. Still, Adam wasn’t really in the mood to follow up on any of the subtle offers that came his way in the locker room. Nearly a year after the “Dear Adam” email from Rusty breaking things off, he wasn’t quite ready to date again. And as much as he wanted someone to come along and sweep him off his feet, he wasn’t holding out hope of that actually happening.

Adam dried himself, then opened his locker and pulled a fresh pair of cargo pants from his duffel. Cargos were one of the habits from the Army that had infiltrated his civilian life—exactly how people got through the day without the extra pockets was beyond him. The lightweight variety he favored were casual enough to pass as relatively trendy, quick to dry when wet, and as a bonus, hugged his ass in a very flattering manner. After stepping into a pair of clean black trunks, he pulled the khaki material up his legs and secured it around his hips with a plain black belt. Then on went the battered “once black but washed to the point of gray” T-shirt and the cotton shirt that had become another habit, sleeves rolled up to leave his muscular forearms bare. White socks and brown walking boots were stepped into and tied with military precision. His friends often teased him about looking like a soldier, but there was a certain blessing in knowing what you were wearing each morning, along with the fact that if he added dog tags to the outfit, he instantly became a bit of a man magnet, which he had to admit was quite nice. In fact, the only decoration Adam habitually wore was his watch, a chunky heavy-duty steel model that looked perfectly normal at first glance, but with a face of pearly white polished stone that was a handcrafted, bespoke piece he’d bought on impulse at a craft fair at the Abbotsford Convent one weekend.

It happened just as he was exiting the underpass that led from the sports oval to Tin Alley—the site of numerous muggings and at least one death, despite the bright lights that illuminated it all night, every night. Adam’s common sense told him it was simply too easy to block off both front and back exits and gang up on whatever poor sod was stuck in the middle. Ever since the last mugging, Adam had taken to keeping his hand on the hilt of whatever weapon he was carrying at the time, and in this case, he was fortunate he did.

There was no noise. Only a light breeze that swirled around him, tugged at his clothing and would have ruffled his hair if he had much to speak of. Sparkling motes of gold lit up his face as they rained to the ground from a glowing reddish hole in the middle of the sky. Shielding his eyes against the dust, he squinted at the greenish blue treetops that appeared beyond the hole above him. It looked like a window into a sky that was… somewhere else. Suddenly he was rushing toward it, with a strange feeling of being stretched before his feet left the ground.