Title: Ground of Insurrection
Series: Wizard Wars, Book One
Author: Mell Eight
Publisher: NineStar Press
Release Date: 09/27/2021
Heat Level: 1 - No Sex
Genre: Paranormal, LGBTQIA+, criminals, farming, gods, magic, magic users, political, revenge, royalty
Life on the prairie isn’t easy, especially since the prairie has a habit of eating people it doesn’t like. Ruse knows the dangers, but there’s so much more to the prairie than death.
The nearby country of Ammet, however, only sees an exploitable resource to be conquered. Caught between the political machinations of Ammet and his love for the prairie, Ruse can only hope he doesn’t wind up killed by one or the other.
Ground of Insurrection
Mell Eight © 2021
All Rights Reserved
When Ruse stepped outside that morning, Dahlia was already in the square, her wooden basin for washing clothes and a full wicker basket of dirty laundry set up next to her. She was pulling water from the large stone well in the center of the square by the time Ruse reached her side. Her strong forearms bulged with muscle as she easily lifted the heavy bucket from deep underground and carried it over to her basin. It took ten buckets to fill the basin, and Dahlia did it every morning without fail.
Ruse wouldn’t be able to do it every day, but Dahlia never complained. Her auburn hair was tied tightly to her head in a series of braids that kept it safely out of the water. It made her look severe and dangerous, too, but that was probably just an extra bonus. No one messed with Dahlia because otherwise they wouldn’t have clean clothes to wear. She did all the washing for the village.
Three feet to Dahlia’s left, a dead body lay on the ground. Poor Stan had been disemboweled sometime during the night, and his body was left where he had eventually fallen. It likely hadn’t been a slow death, judging by the drag marks his legs had dug in the dirt as he’d struggled toward the tavern across the square. The ground was soaked with blood, and his intestines, poking through the wide gash in his abdomen, glistened in the morning sun.
Dahlia was ignoring Stan, as everyone else in the village was also doing. If Stan was weak enough to get caught by a knife in the dark, then he deserved his death.
Someone had alerted Ruse that he had work to do, of course. A body couldn’t be left lying like that for too long, not if the village wanted to avoid pests gathering and the potential for disease. Besides, Ruse knew Dahlia wouldn’t tolerate the body when it began to steam and bloat and mess up her washing schedule. If it got that bad, she would blame Ruse, and then Ruse wouldn’t get his rations that day. He hurried to collect his tools from the storage area, which included his wheelbarrow, a shovel, and a rake.
The air smelled like yeasty baking rolls from the tavern and moldering blood. Though an unpleasant combination, Ruse was used to it. He rolled the wheelbarrow over to Stan.
“If you’re going to sleep with the spit-boy, at least kick him out early enough that you can get to work on time,” Dahlia admonished as she dropped the empty bucket back on its metal hook next to the well. She turned her back on Ruse and leaned over her basin, dipping her fingertips into the water briefly. The water began to steam as her magic took hold, and she stepped back to get a cake of soap and the first of the shirts.
Ruse grumbled under his breath at her words. He had only slept with Ethan once or twice, and it was just to scratch an itch. There was someone else he would much prefer to be sleeping with, of course, but since that wasn’t possible Ruse made do with what was available. Once he and Ethan both got tired of their own hands, they would probably have sex again, but Ruse hadn’t been with Ethan last night.
“I think Lettie’s new concoction at the tavern did me in,” Ruse replied. “There’ll be a lot of people with sore heads this morning.” He bent down and gripped Stan under the armpits. Ruse wasn’t particularly tall or strong, just five foot six and wiry, but there was an art to moving dead bodies around that he had long ago perfected. The body would flop whichever way gravity took it, so all Ruse had to do was lever Stan high enough that he tipped easily into the wheelbarrow.
Dahlia grunted. “That explains Old Dave. He’s still facedown in the street that way.” She pointed along the street toward the tenement house where most of the town’s residents lived. It was along Ruse’s route toward the dump site, so he’d stop and see if he had a second body to collect this morning.
Ruse used his shovel to get all the large pieces of intestine into the wheelbarrow with Stan, then raked at the ground to try to remove as much blood from the soil as possible. Once he had done as much as he could, Ruse gripped the handles of the wheelbarrow and pushed.
Old Dave was still lying in the dirt of the road when Ruse trundled past him. The gray hair from his unkempt beard fluttered over his mouth as he breathed, so Ruse left him alone. Live bodies weren’t his responsibility.
The dump site was a spot of ground just outside the town. No one lived there, of course, but Ruse usually ran into one or two townspeople as they brought their personal trash to the site. A spell in the capital city emptied the city’s trash receptacles once a week, and that spell had been replicated in the dump site for the village. The city wizards took everything away, bodies included. But it was also where the wizards left things for the town. The tailor came to the dump site to collect bolts of cloth while the group of farmers came for the seeds every spring. Ruse came for the bodies, to collect anyone the city wizards sent to their village.
None of the villagers were without fault however. The tailor had been convicted of killing people, dismembering their bodies, and then sewing them back together out of order before leaving them lying out in the middle of a busy street. The farmers were an entire gang of thieves who had chosen to make a homestead with their members instead of joining the rest of the town.
Ruse was just Ruse, but he fulfilled a vital role in their community. Admittedly, he didn’t just cart around bodies; his other role was behind the scenes working with Moe to keep the village running smoothly. The community they lived in only worked because everyone took an active role. Dahlia washed laundry, Lettie cooked meals for the community, and Moe ensured they always had something to drink. Ruse couldn’t hide behind a job that was practically invisible, so he carted around bodies.
When he got to the dump site, Ruse tipped his wheelbarrow and let Stan’s body flop out. It took a couple of shakes to get all the bits and pieces out too. Ruse left the wheelbarrow tipped and headed over to the small well that had been dug by someone with an affinity for water before Ruse had been sent to the town, but it was convenient for him. He pulled up a bucket from deep inside the well and brought it over to his wheelbarrow. It took a couple of buckets to get all the blood off.
Once his wheelbarrow and tools were clean, Ruse headed to the pickup side of the dump site. There was a body waiting for him along with two gigantic pallets of what looked like bricks. The city apparently wanted them to start building with the fancier material now that they had proven their abilities with their wooden houses being sturdy. Damned bastards.
The body was alive, barely, and Ruse’s job also included carting in new arrivals. He brought them to the tavern where Moe, the proprietor, would lay down the law and explain the rules.
Live bodies didn’t handle the same way as dead ones. There was always more resistance in the unconscious bodies. Plus, Ruse had been asked not to bruise or bang up the new arrivals before Moe had his turn. It took a lot more effort to hoist the newcomer into his wheelbarrow than it had to pick up Stan.
It was a man this time, which would disappoint the villagers hoping for a woman. He was tall, at least six feet, but probably even more. Each additional inch in height made it that much more difficult for Ruse to lever his body into the wheelbarrow. Luckily, he was thin and muscular; Ruse had to get help when an obese person arrived. His features were pleasant: eyes evenly spaced, lips full, and his cheekbones well formed. He made the old wheelbarrow look like a fancy chair just because of how pretty he was. Ruse knew someone even prettier, but if he allowed his thoughts to drift in that direction now, he would remain distracted throughout the day.
The wheelbarrow bumped over ruts and ridges in the road as Ruse walked back into town. Old Dave was still breathing as Ruse passed him again, and the square smelled pleasantly like fresh bread and soap, which was a good change. The tavern was the largest building in the square. It served as a meeting place for the entire town and was where Ruse was supposed to bring any news.
Ruse left the wheelbarrow in the square and walked across the long porch outside the tavern and into the building. It was still dark inside. The shutters hadn’t been opened yet, and the fire that had been left to die down overnight still showed faintly glowing embers.
Moe was standing behind the bar, wiping down mugs. He was a large, dark-skinned man and heavily muscled. Moe had the type of frame that at first glance made Ruse think he was obese, but all that hard-packed flesh was actually muscle. With one swing, Moe could crush a man’s skull.
“New arrival for you, Moe,” Ruse said with a jerk of his thumb over his shoulder toward the door. His wheelbarrow with its cargo was waiting outside. “They also sent us bricks.”
“Bricks?” Moe asked. “Well, damn those city wizards to hell and back. What do they expect us to do with bricks?”
“Build,” Ruse sighed.
Moe spat to the side. “Fuck them anyway. I’ll send someone to pick the stuff up. Go have your breakfast, Ruse. I’ll put your wheelbarrow back in your shed when I’m done with the newcomer.” Ruse nodded politely to Moe and headed to the kitchen.
The village couldn’t be found on any maps. It didn’t have a name and people didn’t travel to it to visit or sightsee. There were many different reasons for that, foremost the fact that an idiot tourist from the city was more likely to die violently than have a good time. Although, since almost no one knew the village even existed, dead visitors weren’t really a problem.
The country of Ammet was an ancient one, formed after the Great Wizard Wars two centuries ago that had ruptured the earth and destroyed half of humanity. Out of necessity, the war’s survivors had banded together in one location. It was more defensible and sustainable to work and live together. Their single location soon became a thriving city. The city grew and eventually became powerful enough to claim all the land between the Great Bone Canyon in the east and the Ruptured Mountains in the west. The northern border was the frozen sea where fire and heat wizards melted the ice to ensure the continuation of shipping and trade. The southern border was contested, as it didn’t have a natural landmark to point to on a map. The area was prairieland. Ammet claimed the entirety of the prairie. Oshe, the country immediately to the south of the prairieland, claimed the same.
The two countries were not friendly because of that disagreement, but they had never gone to war to cement their borders. The prairie didn’t welcome invaders. The magic during the Great War had warped the land too, so while the prairie might not have been as physically imposing as the Great Bone Canyon, it was just as deadly. Armies on both sides had marched into the prairie and mysteriously vanished. With no military option available, both countries had instead continued to snub each other for decades with no border solution in sight.
However, in the last twenty years, Ammet had found what they believed to be a solution. The prairie rarely bothered travelers or traders. Groups of fewer than ten people passed through all the time. Ammet couldn’t march against Oshe with so few soldiers, but they could attempt to physically claim the land. If they could prove to the International Wizards’ Council that they had citizens living in the prairie, the IWC might be willing to write the permanent border in favor of Ammet. Oshe would get nothing, which suited Ammet perfectly. Ammet was comprised of damned bastards as far as Ruse was concerned, and he knew they didn’t actually understand the prairie they were trying to co-opt.
The prairie was not to be taken lightly. Even those small trade caravans that braved it were just as likely to vanish as emerge unscathed. Ammet didn’t want to experiment with their own wizards, who might die in the attempt, but the prisons were overfilled, so Ammet chose five criminals and magically transported them far into the prairie with some rations and a pile of wood and nails.
Ruse didn’t doubt that the first group of murderers, thieves, and other ilk sent to the prairie had killed each other instead of building themselves a shelter, but the city wizards kept trying with new groups. At some point, they had gotten the starting group balanced correctly and all five criminals survived the first day and longer. Eventually, the first house was built and the first farm sown. The wizards slowly sent more people, one or two at a time, and also included more materials needed for the village to grow. When the prairie ignored the first village, the wizards sent another five criminals to another location to start a second.
There had to be at least a dozen of the villages throughout the prairie now. Ruse’s village, the sixth village, had finally grown large enough that the city wizards appeared to want sturdier buildings built of brick instead of wood. Many of the criminals living in the village were just happy not to be in jail—the material their houses were built out of was inconsequential—but Ruse and some of the smarter villagers knew better. Ammet was letting them build houses, stores, and taverns, but they were still criminals. Ruse knew that once the village had reached the point where even the least hearty city wizard could live in total comfort, all the criminals would be disposed of so the new, law-abiding and Ammet-supporting tenants could move in. Ammet would proudly fly their flag over the prairie, and there wasn’t anything Oshe could do about it.
The new bricks would be utilized immediately in various places around the village. The new criminal would swim or sink according to his own strengths. Either he would find some way to fit in, or he would end up at the wrong end of someone’s knife. That was how the prairie villages worked.
Lettie was stirring something in a pot over the stove when Ruse walked into the kitchen. She was as old as Old Dave although she wasn’t mean about life like Dave was. Her back was bent and her hands wrinkled, but her grip on the spoon was strong. She had been an alchemist before being sent here when she was caught experimenting on humans. Moe ensured she kept her experiments to culinary pursuits.
Lettie ladled Ruse a bowl of oatmeal from the pot and filled a plate with two freshly steaming rolls. Ruse thanked her and took his meal to the small table in the corner.