Without giving too much away: The protagonist is Jeren, a son of minor nobility who is not a rule-follower. A vicious, one-sided war and a stranger with mysterious powers disrupt Jeren’s quiet life and force him to the edge of ruin. A strong young woman named Aleas, not disposed to respect Jeren, is compelled by circumstances to join him.Miller’s writing is clear; descriptive without being overcooked. I always say a silent thanksgiving, for example, whenever a writer can describe his characters eating without overreaching for yet another slurp or munch.And here’s a description of Aleas:
“Nevertheless, he fell asleep thinking of her, that flawless skin, the curve of those uncovered shoulders, her bright green eyes — filled with hate for him, yes, but didn’t even the hate in those eyes look lovely?”
–Tim Craire Books
e x c e r p t
Deep Water: Book One
Jeffrey Aaron Miller
Chapter 1: Metal Men
A man in a tattered leather jerkin and pale blue doublet writhed in the shadowy space between the rocks, clawing at his clothes. Jeren spotted him from the cliff’s edge as he braced himself against a skeletal tree. The highway ran a twisting course through a steep ravine, winding its way toward the snow-capped peaks in the west. Tumbled rocks lined the road here and there, piled up in some places to create makeshift walls, safe places to camp when the harsh winds howled down from the mountains. It was in one of these places that the man lay, kicking at the rocks and thrashing.
A touch on Jeren’s shoulder caused him to lurch forward, straining against the frail tree and tipping precariously over the edge. It was a thirty foot drop to the bottom of the ravine, all rocks, jagged and broken edges, and hard-packed dirt. The touch on his shoulder became fingers clamping down, drawing him back, and he let himself be pulled, falling backward and landing with a grunt on the cliff.
“Sorry I almost killed you,” Cen said, standing over him.
He flinched as Jeren rose, anticipating the blow, and Jeren cuffed him lightly on the back of the head.
“What’s the matter with you?” he said. “You almost pushed me over.”
“I asked you a dozen times what you were looking at,” Cen said, “and you wouldn’t respond.”
Cen stood in front of the narrow opening to the cave where they had spent the night. They had slept very little, tossing and turning in the cold and damp to the endless flap of bat wings. Jeren’s brother was short and stocky, dark of hair and eyes, dressed in a loose wool tunic and leggings. He had a dull look in his eyes, and, indeed, he was not a bright boy. But he was loyal and gentle, in his way, and Jeren couldn’t stay mad at him for long.
“There’s a man down there beside the road,” Jeren said. “Looks like he’s in pain.”
“I told you I heard something earlier,” Cen said. “Some kind of voice or animal, I said, and you told me to go back to sleep, but I was right.”
Jeren pretended he hadn’t heard Cen’s comment and eased again toward the edge of the cliff. This time he wrapped both arms around the tree and crouched down.
“He’s right below us,” Jeren said, leaning out over the edge.
Cen dropped to his hands and knees and crawled up beside Jeren. The strange man had worked his way out of the shadows and halfway across the road, grasping at the high collar of his jerkin and ripping it right down the middle. His lips were drawn back, teeth bared, and a low gurgle escaped his throat.
“What’s wrong with him?” Cen asked. “Is he sick?”
“I don’t know,” Jeren replied. “We should go down and help.”
“Look at how he’s dressed. Those clothes—”
“Yes, he’s a lowlander,” Jeren said.
“What’s he doing all the way up here?”
The slashed jerkin over long-sleeved doublet was a lowland fashion. Jeren had seen it a time or two when he was younger, back when brave traders used to venture into the mountains.
“Come on,” Jeren said. “Let’s go down and check on him.”
The cliff was a thin crescent of rock protruding from the side of the ravine, accessible by a set of crude steps at a bend in the road. Jeren led Cen to the top step and started down. The steps were small and smooth, and bits of rock crumbled off each time he set his weight down, so he went slowly. But he was a good climber, wiry and athletic, and he got down to the bottom well before his clumsier brother.
The lowlander was on his stomach now, dragging himself along the road. Jeren came up behind him and knelt down.
The lowlander started, screaming, and rolled onto his back, covering his face with his arms. For a second—less than a second, so brief that Jeren thought he imagined it—some kind of light, bright and unnatural, flashed out of the man’s clothing at neck and hem and the ends of his sleeves. And then the man’s scream became an agonized rasp, and he kicked his feet against the ground, arching his back. Disturbed, Jeren rose and took a step back, his hand sliding down toward his belt, to the leather sheath where he kept his hunting knife. He could see no obvious injuries on the man. He was sun-burned, his lips chapped, his hair sparse and gray, but he had no scabs or scars or oozing blood.
“Enu’s mercy,” Cen swore, coming up beside Jeren. “Is he dying?”
“He sounds like a madman,” Cen said. “Or an animal.”
The lowlander’s pained cry slowly collapsed into a breathless hiss, and he went limp, his arms sliding off his face onto the ground. Bloodshot eyes rolled around for a moment before settling on Jeren.
“Help me,” he said, weakly, one hand reaching for him.
The man had no visible weapons, only a burst wineskin hanging from his belt. Jeren approached him again, but Cen circled around to the other side, maintaining a safe distance. Jeren could smell the lowlander, a kind of musty, unwashed odor mingled with the distinct tang of blood.
“What happened to you?” Jeren asked.
The lowlander’s tongue flicked out, gray as bleached stone, and licked his cracked lips.
“It’s passing,” he said, and grabbed the torn edges of his collar, as if he might put them back together. “It’s passing.”
Jeren traded a look with Cen. Maybe we should leave him here, the look said, and Cen shrugged in return. No, Cen wouldn’t make a decision like that. He left it to Jeren to shoulder such burdens.
“What happened to you?” Jeren asked the lowlander.
The lowlander blinked and struggled to sit up. He did not seem to have heard the question. After a moment, he rubbed his eyes and looked at Jeren.
“A place to hide,” he said. “Is there a place to hide? Somewhere close. Somewhere out of sight of the road.”
“Sure. Right up there,” Jeren replied and pointed over his shoulder at the steps leading up to the cliff. The steps were carved on the inward curve of a bend in the road, making it difficult to spot by passersby coming from the east. The cave entrance was low against the cliff, so that it looked like little more than a bit of shadow from below.
The lowlander sat there, stiff and awkward in the tight-fitting jerkin. He rocked back and forth a few times to get his feet under him. “I have to get up,” he said, struggling to stand. “I have to hide, and you two should hide, as well, but not with me.”
“What are you talking about?” Jeren said, rising with the man and reaching out to steady him.
“Don’t touch him,” Cen said, backing away. He’d clearly had all he could stand of the man’s strange behavior, and, judging by the grimace on his face, he seemed to have had enough of the smell, as well.
The lowlander bent double, his hands on his thighs, and his breathing became ragged and shallow. Then he rose up again and passed a hand over his eyes. “Listen to me,” he said, reaching out and grabbing Jeren’s wrist. “Get off the road. Find a place to hide and stay there. But keep well clear of me. It’s not safe with me.”
“Why?” Jeren asked, working his wrist free.
“Enemies,” the lowlander said. He took a stumbling step toward the side of the road, wobbled on his feet, then took another half dozen steps and fell against the edge of a boulder.
“He doesn’t want our help,” Cen said, anxiously shuffling his feet. “Maybe we should listen to him and go.”
But Jeren couldn’t just leave the man. It wasn’t his way to leave things unsettled, and this was too strange to walk away from. He approached the lowlander and reached out to help him up, but the lowlander shrugged off his hand.
“Listen to your brother,” he said, picking himself up and sliding around the boulder. “Get out of here.”
Jeren glanced back at Cen, who was chewing his fingernails as he paced. Jeren shook his head and turned back to the lowlander, watching the man make his way, slowly, hand over hand, up the steps to the cliff. When the man stretched out his hand, the sleeve of his doublet pulled back from his wrist, and Jeren caught a glimpse of something shiny and red, a bracelet of some kind, perhaps.
The lowlander was ten feet above them when he stopped, bracing himself against the rock wall to keep from falling, and looked down, his face contorted in pain.
“You boys,” he called down. “Where are you from?”
“A village,” Jeren replied. “It’s called Ementus.”
“Where is it?” the lowlander asked.
Jeren pointed down the road to the west, up the ever-steepening slope to the distant snow-capped peaks, jagged fingers of rock that caught wisps of cloud like fishhooks. “Eight miles that way, then south another ten.”
“Is it well guarded?”
Jeren shrugged. “I don’t know. I suppose.”
“Good,” the lowlander said and resumed climbing. “Find a place to hide until the enemies pass, then make your way home. And when you get there, stay.”
“What about you?” Jeren asked.
The lowlander climbed another few feet, then glanced down. “Me?” And he laughed but softly, sadly. “I’m looking for a quiet place to die, boy. Enu grant they do not find my body.”
He resumed climbing and said no more. Jeren watched him pull himself up to the cliff and slip out of sight. He heard fingers scrabbling on loose rocks, a final grunt either of pain or relief, and then he heard no more. He turn to Cen, who was already twenty feet away, inching down the road, his fingers fiddling with the laces of his tunic.
“Can we go now?” Cen said.
“We never even learned his name,” Jeren said.
“I don’t care what his name is,” Cen replied. “He makes me nervous. There’s something wrong with him.”
“He was in pain,” Jeren said. “But he didn’t have any injuries, or none that I could see. Doesn’t that make you curious?”
“No, it makes me want to get away from him. He said we should hide, so let’s hide.”
Jeren sighed and started after his brother. No curiosity. Cen had no curiosity at all. Jeren didn’t understand it. They followed the road west, around a bend and up a steep incline. Jeren glanced back, hoping to catch sight of the lowlander, but the cliff was now partially obscured by the landscape, the cave entrance hidden behind an outcropping of rock.
“So…are we going to hide?” Cen asked, after a moment. “That’s what he told us to do.”
“Why would we hide?”
“He said enemies!”
“As you pointed out, Cen, the man is clearly mad. What enemies do we have up here in the highlands? Maybe he has enemies but not us.”
They walked for a while in silence along the winding path, higher and higher, where the wind gusted, and the ground became cold and dusted with frost. The road followed the twisted course of the ravine, back and forth, wind-blown rock and bent trees here and there, hardy bushes clinging to the sides of the steep walls. A hawk, tawny wings and pale underbelly, sailed by overhead. This was the world that Jeren loved, a landscape he had gazed upon dozens of times on his secret adventures. But the lowlander was a new thing, and it intruded on his thoughts. He kept turning back, hoping to see something, hoping somehow to make sense of it.
They were rounding another bend in the road when Cen came to a stop, his hand going to the knife at his belt.
“Do you hear that?” he said.
Jeren stepped up beside him. “What are you talking about?”
“I hear…I don’t know…something,” he said, turning and scanning the road behind them.
Jeren tilted his head and cupped his ear, but he didn’t hear anything over the wind. Probably Cen’s imagination. Always jumping at shadows. But Jeren saw an opportunity.
“Maybe,” he said. “Let’s go back and investigate. Perhaps the lowlander is following us.”
“No,” Cen snapped. “It’s strange. It’s…what is it?” He looked left and right, as if expecting some terrible thing to leap out of the shadows. “Like thunder or…or…”
And did Jeren catch a hint of it now? He wasn’t sure. Some note almost too low to hear. Thunder, yes, he thought that might be it. It was the season for hard rain, the month when northeastern storms lashed the central plains, battered the foothills and climbed the mountaintops. But the sky was mostly clear today, a few wisps of cloud against a blue expanse.
Suddenly, Cen lunged at him, grabbed hold of his tunic and pulled him close. He had a wild, terrified look in his eyes. “Please, please, let’s hide,” he said, his voice quavering. “I definitely hear something. I don’t want to be standing out here in the open when it approaches. Please!”
And Jeren thought he could feel it now, a faint vibration rising up from the road. A little flutter of fear went through him. Maybe Cen was right this one time. He cast about and spotted a tumble of rocks on the far side of a turn in the road. Some of the rocks had been piled on top of each other to create a crude windbreak. The space behind it wasn’t large, maybe six feet across and three feet high, but if they lay down and pressed flat against the ground, they would not be visible from the road.
“Very well,” Jeren said. “Just in case, we’ll hide.” He pointed to the pile of rocks. “Over there.”
“Can’t we climb?” Cen asked. “I’d rather be up high.”
But the walls of the ravine were steep here, the rock face smooth, and the cliffs stood a good fifty feet above them, unreachable without pick and rope, neither of which they had. Jeren grabbed Cen’s arm and pulled him toward the rocks. At first, his brother dragged his feet, but then he whimpered and relented. Jeren pulled him down behind the rocks, gesturing for him to lie flat. Cen dropped onto his belly and wrapped his arms over his head.
Now the sound was clear, a low rumbling that shook the ground. Jeren crept to the edge of the rock wall and peeked around. Cen was whimpering beside him, but his brother’s voice was soon drowned out by the approaching sound. Jeren had a clear view of forty yards of open road. The walls of the ravine seemed to amplify the sound, creating endless echoes, so in short order, the rumbling sound became deafening, and Jeren ducked his head down between his arms in a vain attempt to block it.
A great cloud of dust went before the approaching men, like some kind of ghostly vanguard. It curled around the ravine wall like fingers, then gushed out onto the road in a great dusky cloud. The crude windbreak in front of Jeren shook, threatening to collapse. He reached out a hand and set it on a corner of the rocks to steady it. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cen shift, curling up on his side, as if to make himself as small as possible. And then the cloud of dust swept over them, and the metal men appeared.
They rode massive steeds, all muscle and sinew, with great hooves that tore up the ground as they went. The riders were encased in polished armor that clanked as they bounced in their saddles, high helmets swept back, eyes hidden in shadow behind slitted visors, each cuirass etched with intricate patterns like many intersecting forks of lightning. Cloaks of midnight blue spilled down their shoulders, heavy cloth defying the wind as they rode and lying limply across saddle and flanks. They rode two abreast, and even so the massive size of the horses meant they scraped the rocks along the edges. But the animals did not stumble or falter.
Jeren had heard of such men, seen drawings of armored knights, but he had never glimpsed them in person. They were terrifying and inhuman, monster shapes with no part of their bodies showing. For all he knew, the suits of armor were empty, steel shells strapped to the backs of horses and set adrift. But as the foremost riders drew near, he saw one chink in the armor. The right hand was covered in a gauntlet, but the left was not. Instead, on the left hand, each rider wore a glove of some shiny fabric, crimson as smeared blood. With their right hand, they held the reins, but the left was kept close to the body, fingers curled tightly. The fabric of the gloves caught the daylight as they approached and sparkled like some kind of gemstone.
Six men passed, and then one appeared, riding alone, who seemed greater than the others. He wore the same sort of armor, polished to a mirror shine, but massive silver wings curled out on either side of his helm above the cheek plates, and he had a double visor, the first raised all the way up, the second lifted halfway, revealing a set of dark eyes beneath a heavy brow. A man and not an empty suit. His long cloak was fringed in gold cloth, and he had drawn it around himself, clutching a fold of it in his gloved left hand.
Behind him, four more pairs of riders appeared, but by then, the first of the horses were drawing near to Jeren and Cen’s hiding place. Jeren ducked down, as the shadow of the lead horses fell over him. He could hear the snorting of the mighty animals even over the thunderous clomp of their hooves and the almost musical clanging of armor plates. He eased back farther into the shadows, bumping up against his brother and pressing his face against the cold dirt.
And then one of the horses—he didn’t see which one—kicked the rock wall with its back hoof, and the wall toppled over. Jeren just had time to toss an arm over his head before broken stones thumped down upon him. He felt sharp pain in his right shoulder, between his shoulder blades, smashing one of his hands, and Cen yelped. Jeren dared not look up, dared not move even to loose the stones from off his back. He shut his eyes and buried his face in the crook of his arm, not knowing how much of the wall had fallen or how much of them had been exposed. And all around him, the endless rumble of the metal men and their massive steeds continued.
He heard one of the men shout, a short and angry command, but he did not make out the words. He could only imagine they had been spotted, and the command was being given at that very moment to ride them down. If possible, he would have clawed his way into the ground, but he could do nothing. It took every bit of willpower to keep still, to ignore the weight of the rock resting between his shoulder blades.