A stand-alone novel | Excerpt from Chapter One!!! | Just a sneak preview of something coming soon 🙂
“You are my hiding place; You shall preserve me from trouble; You shall surround me with songs of deliverance.” – Psalm 32:7
Chapter One – Deeds in the Dark –
Forging paths in the darkness hardly qualified as a restful way to spend one’s evening. Anrad held the torch before his face as he struggled to make a way through the undergrowth. Heavy rain had swept through the forest only hours earlier and the leaves were still saturated. He didn’t have to worry about accidentally starting a fire with his flaming light. Bending low, the bearded man squinted at the earth beneath his feet. Footprints would be easy to spot in the muddied ground for which he was thankful. Hopefully Borlan would stumble upon him soon.
Scooping out a bit of the mud with his calloused hand, Anrad created a space to hold the torch. After settling it into the divot, he straightened and pulled a machete from his shoulder sheath. It was time to get to work.
He hacked at the tangle of branches before him, allowing thoughts to swirl through his mind. The Wilderland of Willan kept calling his name in dreams. It was too close to Zenadar but he would risk it in a heartbeat. Something about that forsaken stretch of moor spoke to his soul. Wandering was ingrained in his psyche after all these years and he felt perfectly at home not having a home. Freedom thrilled him but with freedom came loneliness. Although Borlan and Gryn filled that void, comrades in arms only went so far. He was getting older and a wife and children grew steadily into a far-fetched fantasy. Settling down seemed an appealing idea but his restlessness seldom allowed him to stay in one place for too long.
Anrad conquered the first mass of undergrowth and moved on to another. He’d have to book passage with the Sea Captains in order to get across the Maturan and onto Willan. Wilteck WaveRyder seemed the most reliable though Anrad hoped his penchant for raiding didn’t steer them too far off course. He laughed to himself. Wilteck was no sea captain; pirate hit nearer the mark but then again, precious few of the Sea Captains were actually as innocent as their name hinted.
He paused as a soft hiss caught his experienced ear. It was Borlan.
“Anrad! Are you there?”
Turning, the dark-haired man faced his friend. “How did you fare on the opposite side?”
Borlan shook rain from his cloak and sat against the trunk of a tree. “The forest is much larger than we anticipated, I’m afraid. Gryn’s decided to spend the night on his end.”
Anrad nodded and returned to his task. Emperor Jarlquin remained dead-set against clearing the tangled forests of Erikasia so Anrad and his companions had taken the matter into their own hands. Far from serving as a chore to pass the time, wading and hacking through the undergrowth helped the men increase their acquaintance with the land itself. Anrad, Borlan, and Gryn were wanderers with no concrete destination waiting at the end of their path. Every day held new adventures and challenges and the men remained content. Exploring Erikasia and learning her nooks and crannies would prove rather useful in the days ahead though none of the men knew it yet.
Listening to the sound of his friend’s machete, Borlan dozed against the tree. Neither Anrad nor Gryn were much for words but Borlan had grown used to his comrades’ reticence. As Gryn liked to say, words are unnecessary when actions can speak. Smiling to himself, Borlan kept his eyes closed. He had become the voice of their little band whenever they came in contact with other humans. At times, he wished he could relinquish his position and spend a day or two in silence himself but he knew his effusive nature would make that an impossible venture. He had learned early on that small talk irritated both Anrad and Gryn. Unfortunately, small talk was Borlan’s forte so having to smother it took a bit of getting used to.
He opened his eyes and watched the motion of Anrad’s arm as he swung the machete through the undergrowth. Though silent, Anrad burned with a smouldering passion. Steady and measured, much like the rise and fall of each machete-stroke, the tall wanderer walked through life with purpose. In all the time Borlan had known him, he failed to remember a moment when Anrad had half-heartedly given himself to a task. Having pledged his life to the CreatorKing of Men long years ago, Anrad carried out whatever came his way in His Name. While Borlan had not pledged his life, the overwhelming respect and love he had for his fellow wanderer erased any notions of derision or belittling. The CreatorKing seemed a myth, a legend weak mothers used to scare their children into obedience. After falling in with Anrad however, there were times Borlan began to wonder if the CreatorKing might be more than an old wives’ tale after all.
The sound of Anrad’s machete began to recede as he moved farther into the forest. A soft whimper to the right of the tree caught Borlan’s ear. He stayed motionless and closed his eyes once again in an effort to listen more closely. The noise did not sound like a human though he had initially thought it to be a child. Leaves rustled in the night wind and a whine filtered through the air. Borlan relaxed. It was a dog and it sounded as if it was in pain. He removed the torch Anrad had set in the earth and whistled softly. Seconds later, the dog whined once more. Guided by the noise, Borlan crawled on his free hand and knees through the brush, stopping a few times to untangle his long leather cloak.
The dog was lying on its side with its hind legs caught under a heavy branch. It saw Borlan and growled low in its throat. Borlan created a hole in the ground to hold the torch and then turned his attention back to the dog. He crooned quietly to animal and slowly moved his hands to the branch. “Easy, my friend. You’ve nothing to fear from me. Easy.”
Although the animal continued to growl, Borlan closed his hands around the tree limb and lifted it. As long as he kept away from the dog’s jaws, he knew it couldn’t hurt him. The wanderer grimaced as he took in the damage. Both hind legs appeared to be broken. Borlan untied a small pouch from his belt and removed items to make a splint. Although he and his companions seldom went looking for trouble, they had had their fair share of it; enough to teach them the wisdom of carrying weapons and bandages.
As he worked to repair the animal’s leg, he hummed a tune he had learned as a child. The words spoke of ancient wars and brave deeds and courage beyond imagination. He hoped the dog understood he was singing the song to encourage it.
The growls turned into whimpers and whines and Borlan tried to be as gentle as he could. He admired the dog’s sleek brown fur and realized the animal was actually rather large. If Borlan were to lay next to it, the dog’s height would match his own minus several inches. He wondered what it was doing in the forest since it looked healthy and well-fed and so lacked the appearance of a stray.
After several minutes, he finished his task. “All right, my friend. I haven’t met any wild beasts in my journey through this forest but I’ll stay by you through the night nonetheless.” Borlan extinguished the torch, humming all the while, and sat against a tree nearby the wounded animal. Far-off, he could still hear the strong and methodic strokes of Anrad’s machete as his friend blazed a path through the forest and into the night.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
King Arlian paced about the council chamber, his bushy eyebrows dipping lower and lower. He tightened the sash of his dark blue nightgown in frustration and then slackened it with a grimace. His ample girth didn’t allow for any sash-tightening endeavours. “Blast it, Halsted! You disturb my slumber to tell me my son has been abducted?” The king of Crilantra smote his fist against the paneled wall and winced at the pain. “Dorian is three years from thirty and a warrior with skills to rival Tulane Gryn himself, rest his soul. Whatever scrape he’s managed to get himself into, he can easily manage to get himself out of.”
Halsted merely lifted an eyebrow at his sovereign’s outburst. If Arlian wasn’t so naïve about the lands beyond his southern borders, perhaps he would have shown more concern at the prince’s disappearance. “Your son went missing three days ago, Arlian and tonight, one of the Scalzans brought word of a Sea Captain who carried the prince onto a ship shackled in irons.”
“Scalzans.” Arlian sniffed irritably and paused in front of his brother. “As if you can believe those arrogant merchants. They think because their city happens to be a bustling port, they are the heart of Crilantra’s industry and so rivals to the CreatorKing Himself. Blasphemous, that’s what they are. Blasphemous and arrogant fools. I ought to increase the taxes in Scalza.” He smiled, rather pleased with his own suggestion. “Yes, that should do it. Increase the taxes.”
His brother afforded much amusement. Halsted chuckled as he watched Arlian’s self-satisfied face. What a fool! “As you wish, but that will not solve the issue of Dorian’s kidnapping.”
“Kidnapping, my foot!” Arlian’s voice heightened and his brow furrowed once again. “The boy likes shenanigans, Halsted. You know this. Even after he pledged his life several weeks ago, he still likes shenanigans. He has a thirst for adventure, my son does,” Arlian said with pride. “Gets it from his mother, rest her soul.” He turned away and headed for the door of the chamber. “Shenanigans, Halsted. Rest assured, that’s all this is. Shenanigans.” With that, King Arlian left the room and returned to his bedchamber.
Halsted sighed in irritation at his brother’s antics. Although he was the youngest of the pair, he often felt as if he wore the garb of the wise older brother better. At times, seizing the throne had crossed his mind but he wasn’t a bloodthirsty man and he loved his brother though he thought him a first-rate fool. His only reason for wanting the throne was to give the people of Crilantra the ruler they deserved. One who actually took a vested interest in their affairs and especially in their potential enemies. South of the Ilthran River, which served as Crilantra’s southern border, lay Zenadar. Its ruler, Hirshak, ever sought to extend his lands and add to his plethora of slaves. Arlian refused to have any dealings with the tyrant, which Halsted commended, but he also refused to consider Hirshak as a serious threat to Crilantra’s peace and safety. Halsted knew his brother would come to rue the day he ever underestimated Zenadar and its dictator.
In the meantime, Prince Dorian required his full attention. He rose from the table and gathered his cloak about him. The lamps in the council chamber burned through the night so he left the room without bothering to extinguish them. Halsted hurried through the halls of Castle Trevenien and out to the stables. Saddling his mare, he rode into the Elrak Vale which lay below the castle.
The night was cold as Autumn drew to a close. Some stars could be seen in the black vault of heaven but heavy clouds veiled most of them. Halsted hoped the Naslowkin would still be awake when he reached them. If Arlian wouldn’t listen and take matters seriously, Halsted would have to enlist the aid of those who would.
A few hours later, as dawn began to tinge the sky, Halsted rode into a small hamlet beside the Elrak River. Many visits to Elrak had etched the Naslowkin’s home firmly in the man’s memory. A two story cottage stood just outside of the village, its eastern windows facing the sunrise. Halsted dismounted and loosely tied the mare to a tree. He patted the horse’s neck in appreciation. “Rest easy, Linden.”
He strode to the cottage door and knocked. “My friends, it is I, Halsted, brother to the King.”
A few minutes went by and he heard footsteps coming down the staircase. The door opened, revealing the sleepy face of a young man who looked to be no more than twenty-three. His wavy black hair was ruffled from sleep and it gave him a rather endearing look.
Halsted chuckled as the man blinked hazily in the rosy dawn. “I am sorry to awaken you so early, Ranger, but I need your help; yours, Toria’s, and Hunter’s.”
Ranger gestured inside. “Certainly.” He closed the door behind the King’s brother and yawned cavernously. “Would you like breakfast, my lord?”
“I wish my visit to be brief and I have no desire to trouble you more than is necessary.”
Pulling a cloak about his shoulders for warmth, Ranger waved a hand dismissively. “You are royalty, Sir Halsted. Providing you with a meal is not a burden. In any case, you must have ridden through the night to arrive in Elrak.” He turned to the kitchen as the remaining cottage dwellers came down the staircase. “I’ll get a fire going and begin breakfast.”
“Sir Halsted!” Red-haired Toria Winslow bowed low as she saw the man. “Are things amiss at Trevenien?”
Halsted dipped his head to the lady. “I am afraid so.” He looked between Toria and the man who stood next to her. “I sought you out so early because I stand in need of your aid. My nephew has been abducted.”
Toria gasped and put a hand to her mouth. “Prince Dorian is missing?” She turned to the tall brawny man beside her. “We must help, Hunter. It’s our duty and we owe that much if not more to the Prince.”
Setting a hand on Halsted’s shoulder, Hunter guided him to the kitchen. “Please sit with us for breakfast, my lord, and tell us all.”
Halsted felt the coiled power hidden within the man’s gentle hand. Though young in the eyes of many, the Naslowkin were powerful forces to reckon with. Rumour had it that the legendary Zenadarian slave-escapee Kaash Swinger had trained the trio himself. If anyone could find Prince Dorian of Crilantra, it was these three. Though not related by blood, they shared a bond nothing could sever, forged by hardship and deep trials. Once slaves in Zenadar under Hirshak’s cruel fist, they escaped with Swinger as children, traversed the barren Wilderland and survived the ruthless Drids of Flint Valley. They seldom spoke of the horrors of Zenadar, the Wilderland, and the Drids and few dared to ask. The three marvels were largely responsible for single-handedly keeping the peace in the northern reaches of Willan though their home lay here in the Elrak Vale in Crilantra. The Wild North remained untamed but slowly, these young warriors had begun to reign it in and bring its peoples into a sort of union.
As Ranger and Toria lit a fire in the hearth and went back and forth to the smoke-house for meat, Hunter sat with Halsted and listened intently to the man’s tale.
“Three days ago, Dorian disappeared from Trevenien without a word. His sister, the Princess Gilane, was the last to speak with him and could offer no insight as to his whereabouts. He merely mentioned that he was going for a ride one morning and never returned. King Arlian believes his son is off on one of his notorious ‘shenanigans’ as he likes to call them but the facts say otherwise. A Scalzan merchant reported seeing one of the Sea Captains dragging a shackled Prince Dorian off a quay and onto a ship last night.” Halsted leaned in across the wooden table. “The king refuses to take his son’s abduction seriously and I beg you to avoid his mistake. I cannot enlist the help of Crilantra’s knights and soldiers simply because I am not the king but I can plead for yours, Hunter Nasha, and that of your friends. What say you?”
Hunter stared directly into Halsted’s eyes. “What would you have me do, my lord?’”
Halsted’s voice was firm and resolute. “Ride to Scalza. Question the Sea Captains who may be in port and only the Sea Captains. The Scalzan merchant has been sworn to secrecy on pain of death. If word should spread of the prince’s disappearance, so would panic and unrest.” He lowered his voice, though no enemies were nearby. “If a Sea Captain took him, I fear he may be on his way to Erikasia. It is a four week journey across the Maturan Sea to Jarlquin’s land.”
The back door to the cottage slammed shut as Ranger and Toria returned in time to hear the tail end of Halsted’s suspicions. Toria frowned and leaned against the table. “You fear Jarlquin has a scheme against the throne, my lord?”
Halsted shrugged slightly. “I cannot say anything for certain but if the prince was taken across the Maturan, Erikasia is the only land which lies on the other side of that ocean.”
“Then to Erikasia we must go.” Ranger set the meat in a cauldron in the hearth and stoked the fire. “We’ve left the Rundle brothers in charge of the Wild North so those lands will be all right without us for several months if need be.”
Hunter nodded his assent. “We’ll leave for Scalza as soon as we can get our horses saddled, my lord. We know one of the Sea Captains and if he is in port, we can book passage on his vessel. If not, we’ll wait for him to lay anchor.”
“What of the delay, Hunter?” Toria’s frown deepened. “If the Prince has indeed been abducted, even a week’s delay in going after him might be detrimental. What if we could have saved him by booking with the first available ship instead of waiting for one we know?”
Ranger shook his head, though the question hadn’t been addressed to him. “The Sea Captains won’t fight one another though their relationships are always on shaky ground. If we somehow managed to overtake the other ship, a pitched battle on the sea would only add to the trouble. We’ll have to look for Prince Dorian on Erikasia itself.”
“He’s right,” Hunter agreed. “Delay is inevitable no matter what. It’s a week’s ride to Scalza and that will put the prince’s captors about two weeks ahead of us. The Sea Captains are skilled but even they cannot shorten a two-week lead on a four-week journey. And I’d rather battle on land than sea if at all possible.”
Halsted smiled apologetically. “If I could give you soldiers, I would, but I can’t and even if I did, it would attract Jarlquin’s undue attention. News of a warrior-band landing on the continent would surely make its way to the emperor.”
Toria smiled back. “I mean no disrespect but we work best on our own anyway and soldiers would slow us down. I appreciate your offer nonetheless.”
“Thank you.” Halsted dipped his head in response. “Thank you all for coming to Crilantra’s aid and to that of the prince himself. I know you will shun gold or any such reward as payment so please accept my deep gratitude on behalf of King Arlian and Princess Gilane. If you find Dorian, the kingdom will ever be in your debt.”
Ranger winked. “It is already in our debt. What with clearing the Wild North and curbing the occasional bouts of trouble in the Elrak Vale, I’d say Crilantra owes us an island of gold.”
Rolling her eyes, Toria turned away to look in on the food sizzling in the cauldron. “Pay him no mind, my lord. Finding Prince Dorian will be reward enough.” She chuckled as she stirred the pot. “But the gold would not be unwelcome either.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~