Scott Marlowe
Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Tis the season for 99 cent deals

We may be approaching the end of 2013, but we're still in the middle of the Holiday season. What better way to end the year than with a couple of eBook sales?

The Hall of the Wood and the first book in The Alchemancer series, The Five Elements, are each priced at 99 cents from now until the end of the year at Amazon.com.

The Hall of the Wood is a standalone fantasy novel that leans toward the traditional side, with strong Tolkien overtones. It's a tale of mystery and suspense, with plenty of adventure, magic, alien races, and dark witchcraft. More than a few readers have commented on the "strong female characters" and the "interesting, fast-paced plot."

The Five Elements is steamfantasy, which is a mix of fantasy and steampunk. Think fantasy without elves and steampunk without the Victorian slant. It features infernal machines, demons, sorcery, sword fights, and a pair of main characters who grow in opposite directions until, at the last, they find themselves with opposing goals instead of a common one. The Five Elements was chosen as a self-published gem of 2013 by Fantasy Review Barn and is fairly well regarded by readers.

Click on the images above to get each novel for 99 cents from now until the end of the year.

The Hall of the Wood–On sale until EOY

The Hall of the Wood, my standalone tribute to the likes of Tolkien and all the classic, epic fantasy out there, is on sale for 99 cents through the end of the year. It's a small way I hope to spread some Christmas cheer.

I've been toying with a new product description for the book. Check it out below. Of course, I'd appreciate any feedback.

Jerrick Bur returns to a home he does not recognize. The King's Patrol has vanished. Their Hall stands empty. An invading army encroaches upon the fringes of the forest and folk whisper of a sitheri witch brewing evil from the darkest hollows.

Once a patroller, always a patroller, and so Jerrick is duty-bound to investigate. He is joined by Kayra Weslin, knight errant, and her chronicler, Holly, who go to answer a plea for help from nearby Homewood. Along with Murik Alon Rin'kres, an eslar sorcerer who harbors a secret purpose all his own, the four attempt to unravel the mystery of the missing patrollers. They soon find tales of their disappearance frighteningly untrue as they are forced to ally themselves with an evil far more deadly than any of the other adversaries facing them.

If that doesn't sound like your thing and you think something more along the lines of steam fantasy might, be sure to check out the just released novel, The Nullification Engine.

The Hall of the Wood (2nd Edition) Preview–Chapter 3

The Hall of the Wood is back in an all-new 2nd Edition. Here's a preview in the form of chapters 1 through 3, released one per week, to give you an idea what it's about. Here's an index of all three preview chapters.

Buy The Hall of the Wood at: [ Amazon ] [ BN ] [ Kobo ] [ iBookstore ]

3. A Call of Heroes

THEY BROKE CAMP EARLY. THE trail started steep, but lessened once they made their way down to the waterfall's base. From there, they followed the creek until snow on the ground faded to patches and then nothing at all, and evergreens yielded to great, billowing willows; white-barked birch adorned with leaves of yellow, orange, and red; and, closest to the creek, needle-straight aspens. The afternoon grew increasingly warmer until dark clouds settled in and began to emit a light rainfall. Jerrick stopped at one point to wring water from his cloak and to announce, with little fanfare and a sour expression on his face, that they'd reached the Simarron.

"Will the trail take us directly to Homewood?" Murik asked.

Jerrick gave up on his efforts with his cloak. He was soaked through, and likely to remain that way until they reached shelter. "Not directly, no. It turns south some miles ahead and eventually intersects Bandits' Way. If we leave the path and head east once the trail turns, though, we'll still reach the road and save some time in the process. Once at the road, we'll head north to Homewood. We'll be there by tomorrow afternoon."

"What is this Bandits' Way?"

"Its proper name is Belkin's Way. It's named after Lord Belkin, a knight of old. The last I heard the tale, Belkin held off a force of a hundred goblins come down from the Ugulls while refugees in the area fled to safety. The battle took place somewhere along the path of the road, down near Holden Bridge people think. In Lord Belkin's honor, and because the bridge already had a name, it was decided to name the road after him."

"Interesting, but I still do not see—"

"There used to be a significant bandit problem south of here, down near Brinnok. The bandits—thieves and murderers to the last—became a big enough problem Vrannan regulars were called in to root them out. The bandits held their own well enough against caravan guards, but they weren't much of a match for Vranna's finest. Most fled north into the Simarron. The soldiers, figuring they'd done their duty, didn't pursue. Eventually, the bandits regrouped and started plying their trade again. Only now they preyed on those traveling Belkin's Way. The road's name was never officially changed, of course, but locals just started calling it Bandits' Way after that.

"When I was with the King's Patrol, we tried dealing with them, but the effort proved difficult. We mostly issued warnings, set traps, denied them food and other resources. Made their lives miserable, in other words. Some took the message to heart and left. Others stayed. But, unless the Hall came up with a way to finally deal with them, they're still a danger. By traveling east instead of waiting to intersect the road farther south, we may avoid being robbed or worse. This is all assuming we don't just run into them out here somewhere, of course."

As Jerrick indicated, once the trail began to turn, they left it behind to make their way deeper into the forest. Lesser trees vanished, for the great blackwood oaks of the Simarron ruled here. The oldest of them were hulking, intimidating specimens that spoke of potent Earth Power culminated over a lifespan of more than a thousand years. Jerrick had been just shy of seventeen when he'd first walked under their boughs. He remembered looking up, the branches so intertwined he barely saw the light of day. Their trunks, thicker than the span of his arms held outright, stood higher than the tallest of man-made towers. Their leaves were larger than his hand splayed out. Never before had he been in such awe. The feeling returned as even Murik felt compelled to pause and pay silent reverence.

They were both staring upward when they heard someone approaching. Murik and Jerrick exchanged glances. Highwaymen, or more travelers? Whoever they were, they made no attempt at hiding their approach: neither voices nor heavy footsteps were kept low or held in check. Jerrick identified at least two voices. In between bouts of arguing, he also heard the distinctive neigh of a horse.

Two women came into view from around a blackwood oak. At the sight of Jerrick, Murik, and Ash, they both stopped. One made no further movement. In fact, she froze. The other narrowed her gaze and lowered a hand to the hilt of a sword.

"Hello," Murik said, his voice full of greeting and cheer.

The one with her hand on her sword looked from Murik to Jerrick. She wore armor: a blue surcoat over plate and chain. From her shoulders hung a fine, blue cloak so long it almost touched the ground. Her other hand held the reins of her mount. Her gaze was not friendly.

"Hello, friends," Murik said again. "My name is Murik Alon Rin'kres. You are?"

The other one, the one who had frozen up, managed to move her lips in a greeting of her own. "Well met." This one wore no armor, but a shirt which was dirty and torn, leather breeches, and a simple jerkin. A plain, hooded cloak, soaked through, hung heavy from her shoulders. She wore a dagger at her belt which Jerrick doubted she'd much skill with. She looked about to add to her terse greeting, but stopped to clear her throat and take a deep breath first. "Well met, Murik Alon Rin'kres."

She looked a girl in Jerrick's eyes—not yet a woman, but not a child either. That she had been spooked or frightened was obvious from the way her hands trembled, though she must be cold as well, given that her hair and clothes were plastered to her skin from the rain. Though she was no worse off than any of them, some simply weren't cut out for the wilderness.

The girl gestured at her armored friend. "May I present to you Kayra Weslin, of the House of Weslin and Knight-Esquire of Kallendor."

The other's lips remained sealed in a tight, firm line, but the woman nodded at each of them.

"My name is Holly, Herald and Balladeer." Then she looked at Jerrick and waited.

Only when Jerrick saw all eyes on him did it occur to him to offer his own name. "Jerrick Bur, of Rell."

"But once of the Simarron Hall of the Wood," Murik said.

"Yes, once of the Simarron Hall."

"And your dog?" It was Kayra who spoke. The woman had yet to relax her stare.

"Ash," Jerrick said. "His name is Ash."

"So," Murik said, "what brings a knight of the Order and her …"

"Herald," Holly supplied.

Murik smiled. "Yes, of course, and her herald. What brings the both of you this far from the road? We are still far from the road, aren't we?" The last question was directed at Jerrick.

Jerrick pointed in the direction from which the two women had come. "An hour or so that way."

Holly and Kayra exchanged glances.

"We thought the road was in that direction," Holly said, pointing another way entirely.

"Afraid not," Jerrick said.

Kayra's expression turned into a scowl, while Holly emitted a slight sigh. The two women exchanged glances again. Holly tried smiling at the other. It was met by a tight-lipped stare that, after a heave of the woman's shoulders, finally relaxed.

"Might as well tell them," Kayra said.

Holly turned her attention back to Murik and Jerrick, took a deep breath, and blurted out, "We were robbed!"

Jerrick had never heard anyone so excited about having been victimized. Then, as she began her tale, Jerrick realized it was not the act itself but the telling which had the woman so excited.

"We were traveling Belkin's Way," Holly said, "heading north from Brinnok. Though it was morning, the woods all around were dark as night. Suddenly, bandits plunged from the woods from all sides, surrounding us. There were at least twenty of them—"

"There were six," Kayra interrupted.

"There were twenty," Holly insisted, "though only six confronted us. The others waited in the forest. They were rough, unshaven men, hardened from a life of thievery. Their leader, a bald man with only one eye, demanded we turn over our goods. Kayra laughed from Aurum's back, drew her sword, and engaged the leader. Two other brigands moved to stand against her. Kayra beat them back, thrusting and parrying their every move. Finally, they grew tired of the fight, turned, and ran back into the woods." The delight in Holly's voice faded as she went on. "Unfortunately, while Kayra held off the three bandits, the others made off with my horse and most of our supplies. But Kayra wasn't ready to admit defeat." She picked up the tempo again. "So we plunged headlong into the forest in pursuit and—"

"Wound up hopelessly lost," Kayra said in conclusion.

"Yes," said a dejected Holly. "We left the road, failed to find the bandits or my horse, wound up lost, and, well, here we are." She threw her hands up. "They stole nearly everything we had, including my mandolin. We've been trying to get back to the road ever since."

Her story complete, Holly took a moment to run her hands through her chestnut hair, using the dampness already there to slick it back. It was short, and didn't hold well.

Ash, who had been eyeing Aurum since the horse's appearance, chose that moment to slink forward toward him. The destrier made no reaction at first, huffing but otherwise seeming unconcerned. Still, Jerrick knew the trouble the dog might cause. Just as he was about to warn Ash away, the knight's steed stamped its hooves on the ground and made to rear. The motion was enough to startle Ash, who scrambled backward. Kayra grabbed hold of the horse's bridle, controlling the animal and staving off any further mayhem. Ash barked once, but he did it from a safe distance.

"Well," Murik said, "perhaps we can at least get you back to the road. From there, your journey is your own … unless, of course, our destinations happen to be the same?" He looked expectantly from one to the other.

"We go to Homewood, and then to your Hall," Kayra said, nodding at Jerrick, "to answer a Call of Heroes."

"A Call?" Jerrick asked with some alarm. He thought of Aliah's words again.

"Yes," Holly said, "one was issued by the Hall." Holly looked with surprise at them. "Neither of you know about it?"

"This is the first I've heard of it," Jerrick said. "If Murik knows anything, he's said nothing to me."

Murik admitted his own ignorance before he asked, "What can you tell us about it?"

"Unfortunately, not much," Kayra said. "We received word of it just a week ago when we arrived at Brinnok. The Call had already been issued and answered numerous times by others before us. No news had returned to say how they had fared, though. The Call itself said little enough, only that strange happenings had occurred and they required assistance from all willing and able." She paused, gathering her thoughts before continuing. "As a knight-esquire, I travel in search of a deed worthy enough to justify my promotion to the rank of knight. When I saw the Call's proclamation, I knew we needed to respond."

This new information gave Jerrick much to think on. Coupled with Aliah's warning, it gave him no peace. But without any further knowledge, he was unsure of what questions, if any, to ask. It surprised him when Murik posed a question of his own.

"This Call," he said, "when was it issued?"

"I don't know for sure," Kayra said, shaking her head. "Maybe four or five months ago."

"Nothing was said regarding the 'strange happenings'?"

"No. The Call was vague on the exact threat."

Murik chewed on his lip for a moment, then, with head lowered, he strolled away, lost in thoughts of his own.

"We'll take you to Homewood, if you like," Jerrick said. "We're going there anyway, and four will travel safer than two."

Murik was agreeable, and so Jerrick led them all to Bandits' Way. It took only the hour he had estimated. The road was revealed as a crude, narrow strip of dirt meandering from the outlying farmlands of Brinnok all the way north to Homewood. Trees lined its either side and, through the drizzle, they found the way deserted as far as the eye could see.

"Homewood isn't far," Jerrick said. "We'll be there before nightfall."

Thoughts of a dry roof and a warm bed drove them on with no breaks. Only Kayra did not last long on her feet. Her armor was heavy and not suited for such travel. But she'd Aurum, and no one took issue that she rode while they walked, though Jerrick wondered aloud why she wore the armor at all.

"You'll be up half the night drying and oiling it to keep the rust away," he said.

"I know," Kayra said, a note of dejection in her voice. "Today was supposed to have been my grand arrival in Homewood. The knight in shining armor riding in to save the day, or some such thing." She let out a mocking laugh. "Little did I realize it was going to rain most of the day, or that we'd be waylaid by bandits, or that …" She sighed. "Let's just say this has not been my best day. Nor have things gone my way of late."

Jerrick was surprised at her frankness. He didn't know this woman at all, but something told him she did not reveal chinks in her armor often. That she had weaknesses, Jerrick had no doubts. Everyone did. But if she admitted those weaknesses to herself, or let others see them … That was another matter entirely. Jerrick cast a sidelong glance at her. She wasn't much older than Holly, he realized. It was sobering to think he was twice their age. Once, he'd been young too, arriving in the Simarron wide-eyed and full of ambition. Perhaps his goals were not as grand as a knight's, but he'd wanted to prove himself. He supposed he had. He was always well regarded as a patroller. As squad leader, he'd earned the respect of his men. But he'd chosen to leave that life and begin another. The decision still haunted him. "I know what you mean," he said, more to himself. "I know what you mean."

The rain never stopped, but it did lessen. Once, a train of wagons three deep hove into view, heading south from Homewood. Kayra and the others yielded the narrow road to them. As they passed, Holly issued a greeting. Neither the wagon masters nor the stone-faced guards, who walked beside the caravan with halberds in hand and broad swords at their hips, acknowledged her. Then, the wagons faded from view and were gone.

"Well," Holly said, "they certainly weren't very friendly."

Jerrick just shook his head, remembering past encounters along this road as pleasant exchanges of news and local gossip. Shaking his head some more, he gestured at Kayra to take the lead again.

Jerrick's thoughts drifted back to the Call. Patrollers prided themselves on self-reliance. It was a good thing, too, for there were few willing or able to lend them assistance if and when they needed it. Brinnok, the closest major city, lay several weeks away. Though they possessed a contingent of soldiers, mercenaries, and no doubt a wizard or two in their employ, offers of assistance from them were few and far between. Brinnok relied on the patrollers of the Simarron Hall to guard their frontiers, to warn of goblin activity, and to slay any creature violating their lands. But when the patrollers required aid, like when the bandits took up residence in the forest, the dignitaries of Brinnok had invented one excuse after another why they couldn't help. Jerrick didn't understand all the politics, but he knew the relationship the Hall maintained with Brinnok was tenuous at best. He also knew the situation must have become dire for the Hall to have issued such a plea.

The forest to either side of the road gradually opened up as the travelers approached several farms. Smoke drifting from chimneys and a few dim lights shining through drawn drapes were the only signs of life. They left the solitary farms undisturbed, reassurances from Jerrick that Homewood was not far urging them onward. Then, the frontier town came into view.

Like so many other border settlements, Homewood began as a place of safety amidst an inhospitable and often dangerous wilderness. The first settlers, a hardened lot of trappers, hunters, backwoodsmen, and farmers, often congregated at the early settlement seeking provisions, shelter, and protection from the night's denizens. Even in those early days, Homewood enjoyed the protection of the Simarron Hall. The King's Patrol had been there for as long as anyone remembered, guarding Vranna's frontier against goblin invasion while maintaining a vigilant eye for other dangers. As Homewood grew from a seldom-visited way station into a burgeoning community, the comforting presence of the patrollers and their Hall helped attract additional permanent residents.

Now, approaching the woodland outpost, they spotted flickering torches shining through the afternoon's gray like beacons guiding wayward travelers. The entirety of the place was ringed by a wooden palisade so high not even the roofs of the buildings on the other side poked over it. The only entrance was a single, large gate sealed shut. The road led directly to the gated entrance.

Jerrick thought it strange the place was so tightly shut, and he related as much to the others. Homewood always welcomed travelers, whether they were frequent visitors or newcomers. At night, the gate was closed. But never during the day as it was now.

Jerrick led the others the remainder of the way to the gate. Torches, the ones they had spied from a distance, were lit to either side of it. The others looked to Jerrick, unsure if a challenge from inside was forthcoming or if they needed to announce their own presence. Jerrick shrugged, walked up to the gate, and pounded on it with his fist. There was no immediate indication anyone had heard him. Jerrick was about to knock again when the door's spy-hole, located at eye level, shot open with a sharp creak. In its open square was framed a man's unshaven and scared face.

"Welcome ta Homewood." The words were spoken in a bored, routine manner. "State yer business."

Holly politely stepped forward and said, "We have come to answer the Call sent out by the Hall of the Wood. We travel in the company of a knight of the Order, and request a night's—oops," she said, giggling, "stay in your good town."

Jerrick thought Holly's answer a bit overdone, but he let the knight's herald have her say.

The guard's eyes became slits as he took in each member of the group. "A knight, ya say?" His gaze lifted to the mounted woman.

"Yes," Holly said. "May I introduce Kayra Weslin of Kallendor, Knight-Esquire of—"

The peephole slammed shut, leaving Holly with her mouth open and the wet and weary travelers with bewildered expressions. Jerrick was just wondering if he needed to pound on the gate again when they heard an inside latch drawn. Moments later, the gate creaked inward. Without hesitation, the group entered Homewood. At the wall's other side, they watched as the guard latched the gate tight once more. When he was finished, he turned to address them. The man wore a chain hauberk with leather pants and boots. A short-bladed sword whose leather-wrapped hilt was tarnished and worn hung from an equally tattered belt.

"The market's closed fer the day, but you'll find food and a hot bath at Jay's Tavern. 'Tis straight ahead and ta yer left." They saw the man was missing a few teeth. Those remaining to him were stained yellow and black from chew. The habit was confirmed as the guard paused long enough to eject a stream of saliva from his mouth. Wiping the spittle from his stubbled chin, he went on. "Yer horse," he said, nodding toward Kayra, "can be stabled at the livery, if it pleases yer knightship. End a' the road and ta the right, past ol' Varg's blacksmith shop." He started to walk away without further comment, but then stopped and said over his shoulder, "The Call a Heroes … it came from here, not the Hall. Naught's been heard from them patrollers fer some time now." Before any had a chance to respond, the man shambled off, entered a small guardhouse which shared one wall with the town's palisade, and slammed its door shut. The door creaked back open of its own volition, then slammed again, this time staying shut for good.

"So now what?" Holly asked.

Jerrick knew his own plan. "I'm for Jay's Tavern for a hot meal, a room, and a bath."

"I think we all shall join you," Murik said.

"I'll see to Aurum," Kayra said, "then meet you there." She motioned the horse onward, and they trotted off.

"Shall we find the tavern?" Murik asked. "I, for one, am eager to be out of this constant drizzle." He shook the rain from his cloak for emphasis. No one mentioned that he somehow had stayed the driest.

Strolling down the muddy street, they saw few crisscrossing the main thoroughfare. Those who did wore coats with hats pulled low or cloaks with hoods drawn, and all moved with a hurried step. Not one of them paid any heed to the newcomers, though Ash encountered his own greeting party in the form of three mangy mutts. All outgoing caravans had left for the day, though they saw a series of wagons being outfitted for the morning. They passed these by, noting the wagon master, a rough-looking man, and the caravan's owner, a snout-nosed, long-necked raspel merchant chittering directions to his lead worker. Both looked their way briefly, but neither offered a greeting. Such unfriendliness came as no surprise to Jerrick given their experience on the road in. Still, he was taken aback by the contrast between the folk he remembered and those he now encountered. Shaking his head, he at least found comfort in the familiarity of the town itself as he looked from place to place.

There was Homewood's guard station, Blek Thunderaxe's carpentry shop, and Rupert's Trading Post. Across the street was Davlin's Fur and Tannery and, next to it, Homewood's abattoir, where a third-generation butcher plied his trade. Cabins lined a road which branched off from the main street. Some were occupied by year-round denizens of Homewood, while others stood empty until some well-to-do merchant came along needing privacy and a place to stay free from the noise of places like Jay's. Farther down, more shops, houses, and other dwellings lined the main street. The group came to a halt before reaching them, though, as Jerrick gestured toward a rare two-story building, whose sign read, in big, faded letters, Jay's Tavern. Next to the lettering were two frothy flagons of beer carved into the sign, both nearly tipped over and spilling their contents. Under cover of the tavern's awning, Jerrick and Holly took the opportunity to remove their wet cloaks and stomp some of the muck from their boots. Murik kept his cloak about him. His boots needed no cleaning, for they were as if new.

"Jerrick?"

The voice, low and grizzled, came from a slight figure seated in a rocking chair in a shadowed corner of the porch. Jerrick took a few steps toward him.

"Yes, my name is Jerrick. Who are you?"

A balding and grayed head stuck out from the shadows. One of his eyes was closed permanently, while the other scrutinized the patroller. "Why, Jerrick, it is you!"

Instant recognition dawned on Jerrick. "Old Man Jasper!"

The patroller strode forward and embraced the still-seated oldster. Jasper returned the hug with enthusiasm.

"How have you been, Jasper?"

Old Man Jasper pulled a quilted blanket closer about him. "Oh, fine, just fine."

Jerrick looked to Holly and Murik. "Jasper's been a permanent fixture around these parts for longer than I've been alive. He's the best trapper the Simarron's ever seen."

Jasper cackled. "Oh, I mighta been the best, but not no more. Age has crept too far inta these ol' bones."

"Nonsense." Jerrick smiled at the man.

"How long has it been, Jerrick? Four, five years?"

"Something like that."

"Why, I haven't seen the likes a ya since ya ran off fer that girl. How is that wife a yers?"

The question gave Jerrick pause, but he answered before the silence grew too heavy. "She's well."

"So, what brings ya back ta these parts?"

"The Hall. We've heard some things. Perhaps later, if you've the time—"

Jasper leaned close. "If yer wantin' ta know what's goin' on, Jerrick, best talk ta Relk."

"Relk?" Jerrick remembered his old friend, a hunter and trapper much like Jasper, only younger by many years. Relk spent most of his time outside the walls of Homewood, living amidst the outback of the Simarron. When he did venture into town, it was usually for very brief stints. "He's here?"

Old Man Jasper nodded, gesturing with his thumb toward the interior of Jay's. "Inside. Been here a couple a nights. Brought in quite a catch this time around, too. He'll no doubt be headin' back out sooner rather than later."

The two spoke a moment longer before Jerrick excused himself and the others. Leaving with a promise to catch up later, Jerrick herded the others, including Ash, who'd shaken off his greeters, into Jay's.

 

* * *

 

Jerrick, Murik, and Holly were just in the process of paying for two rooms and dinner all at once when Kayra, her horse settled for the evening, entered and offered to pay for everything as a gesture of thanks for leading Holly and herself out of the wilderness. Jerrick and Murik, while appreciative, refused to accept. Kayra's insistence won out in the end, however. Then, with a time close to early evening set for them to meet up again, they all retired. Jerrick, Murik, and Ash shared one room, while Kayra and Holly took another. Hot baths and a change of clothes were the first priority for all. Since all of Holly's belongings had been on her stolen horse, including extra clothes, Kayra sent out for a clothier, who provided the woman with new, clean garments. Kayra again insisted on paying, feeling responsible for their ill-fated encounter on the road. Holly protested, but the knight's persistence was without equal.

As the designated time arrived, Jerrick emerged into the hallway dressed in a clean shirt and breeches, with the worst of the road's dirt wiped from his boots. He left his bow and sword behind in the room, but kept his hunting knife at his belt. He opted not to shave, but had thoroughly washed and combed his hair so it looked much neater than it had throughout the journey thus far. The others promptly joined him. Murik remained garbed in his usual clothes: a leather vest worn over a long-sleeved shirt, a pair of leather breeches, and his eslar cloak. He kept his wizard's staff close and housed his sword and dagger in their jeweled sheaths at his side. Holly's new garments consisted of leather woodsman's breeches and a simple tunic tied at the waist by a leather belt. Kayra emerged last. She had removed her armor and, in its place, wore cotton breeches dyed brown with a blue tunic. Her hair, previously woven into a single braid, remained so. Ash emerged the same mangy dog he had been upon entering the tavern.

Once they descended to the common room, they each saw a scene not unlike the one they had found upon arriving. A subdued tone hung over the place as people sat huddled about round tables, conversing in muttered whispers or not at all while they nursed drinks and picked at food. Soft music greeted them as a journeyman balladeer played a melancholic tune from the corner of the room, while barmaids quietly strolled about, carrying drinks and food to the sparse crowd. A dwarf with a braided beard manned the bar. Requests for drinks being light, he spent his time sucking on a pipe and blowing lazy puffs of smoke into the thick air. A healthy blaze, the only warmth in the room, burned in a hearth set at one side of the room. Holly wondered out loud if the people were preparing for a funeral. A few patrons shot her irritated looks, but they turned away and went back to their business when Kayra's stare met theirs.

They found Jerrick's friend Relk seated at a table large enough to accommodate them all, and so they joined him after the proper introductions had been made. Jerrick and Relk immediately slipped into an easy conversation, while the others sat in silence, taking in the sights and sounds of the place as they listened to the woodsmen's conversation. When a barmaid strolled up to their table, they ordered food and drinks. Before long, the table was covered with dirty plates, spent ale mugs, and a trio of empty spiced-wine cups before Kayra. Beneath the table, Ash chewed merrily away on a massive soup bone.

The music stopped as the traveling minstrel called for a break. Relishing the strong ale, Jerrick took a long draft, only to find himself staring at the flagon's bottom once more. About to call for another, he paused instead as the tavern door swung open and four unshaven men wearing a patchwork of clothes and armor entered. Their weapons were equally diverse: axes, short swords, and hunting knives hung from thick belts. They were a clamorous lot, loud and boisterous as they galumphed their way to a table and yelled for drinks.

Holly followed Jerrick's gaze as she looked over her shoulder. Her head immediately spun back around for a quick moment before she shot her gaze back toward the men once more. "That's my mandolin!" She gestured at one of the men, who'd such an instrument hanging over a shoulder.

"How can you be sure it's yours?" asked Murik.

"Trust me, I know. That's definitely mine."

"She's right," Kayra said. "Two of them were amongst the bandits who robbed us." The woman rose. "All of you, stay here. It is my honor alone which demands satisfaction."

"Need I ask if you're sure it's them?" Murik asked.

"It's them. I never forget the face of someone I've crossed swords with."

Holly put out a hand to touch her friend's forearm. "Kayra, don't. There's too many."

"Worry about them, not me."

The knight strode directly up to the quartet of bandits. Though her sword leaned within easy reach against the nearby wall, she chose to leave it behind. When she reached the men's table, she planted both feet apart and waited for their attention. One took note of her immediately, motioning to his fellows, who were too busy drinking and laughing to notice themselves. When all four eyed her, Kayra spoke.

"I am Kayra, of the House of Weslin and Knight-Esquire of the Order. Yesterday, on the road into town, you and some of your fellow thieves robbed me and my friend."

One of the men looked Kayra over with a critical eye. "So what? Ya want yer stuff back or somethin'?" He laughed. "Too late fer that! We sold it all already!" His cohorts joined him as he broke out into a series of loud guffaws.

"Except for the instrument, it seems."

"What instrument?" asked the thief, who had unslung the mandolin and now held it.

"The one in your hand, you sot."

"Who ya callin' a sot?"

The man rose. As he came around the table to stand before Kayra, his eyes appraised the woman's figure and a broad smile played out across his face. "Here now, lass, yer a fine-lookin' one. Mayhap me and you can head on up ta one of Jay's rooms and discuss this like—"

Kayra slammed her fist into the brigand's face. Blood spurted, and the thief yelped in pain as he stumbled back and fell onto the table. His friends laughed as blood streamed from underneath a hand he held to his nose. They grabbed his arms, shoving him back up as they verbally prodded him back into the fight. Indignant, his eyes took on a wild look, and still holding the mandolin in one hand, he swung it at Kayra's head like a club. "Why, ya stupid—"

Ducking beneath the clumsy blow, the knight turned about and grabbed the man's outstretched arm. She pressed her fingers into his wrist, forcing a cry of pain from him as he released the instrument. Kayra snatched the mandolin out of the air, then smashed her elbow into the thief's stomach. He doubled over in agony. She disentangled herself from her assailant just as a second brigand lunged at her from behind. Sensing his approach, she sidestepped his charge. Moving too fast to stop from ramming into a neighboring table, he sent plates and flagons flying everywhere, and as he attempted to right himself, he slipped, hitting his forehead hard on the table's end. The thief slumped to the ground, unconscious.

Kayra turned just as the first brigand, ready for more, took a vicious swipe at her with a knife he'd pulled from his belt. She backed from that first attack, then backed some more as the man slashed at her. Then she butted up against a table and could go no farther. A look of delight crossed her attacker's face as he brought his arm back for the kill. In that instant, Kayra sent one, then two quick jabs into the man's broken nose. His howl of pain was silenced as Kayra launched her boot into his groin. He doubled over in agony, his mouth opening wide to issue a silent scream. Kayra grabbed a flagon from the nearby table and crashed it down on the back of the thief's head. Knocked senseless, he fell flat to the ground.

Kayra looked at the two remaining brigands, both of whom had remained seated throughout the conflict. Neither of them dared meet the knight's stare.

Leaning over each of the prostrate men, Kayra removed their purses from their belts. She opened each, performed a cursory inspection of their contents, then said to the two seated men, "Take your fellows and be gone. I'm keeping these," she said, holding up the purses, "as compensation. Now, be off!"

Kayra turned and walked to the bar. Behind her, she heard the men's chairs slide back and their booted feet stomping on the wooden floor as they gathered their fallen comrades and made for the exit. She reached into one of the purses, and a flash of gold sailed toward the dwarven bartender.

"For the mess."

The barkeep caught the coin in midair, bit into it, and smiled. "Any time, dame knight!"

Jerrick, along with everyone else at the table, had stood the moment the second brigand had risen, ready to jump into the fray if necessary. Holly urged them not to, however, as Kayra's honor demanded she handle this herself. So they hung back, relieved when Kayra finished off both the ruffians. Now, the knight returned to their table and sat. The tavern's other patrons, who had paused to watch the outcome of the confrontation, returned to their own business. Ash, who had taken no notice of the commotion, continued to gnaw away at his bone.

Jerrick looked at the woman with grudging respect. He'd heard enough tales about those of the Order and their prowess in combat, but never thought to see one lay out two much-larger men with nothing but her bare hands.

Kayra handed the undamaged mandolin to Holly, who squeezed her friend's arm for a moment and offered a thank-you. The knight smiled a moment—the first such gesture of kindness Jerrick had seen from the woman—then drained what remained of her spiced wine and ordered another. A moment later, they heard the barkeep shouting it was on the house.

Holly, delighted at the return of her instrument, slipped into her own world as she held the mandolin close and plucked and tuned the strings with practiced fingers.

With the excitement over, Jerrick thought it best to get to business. "Relk, I need to ask you about the Hall."

"Aye, the Hall." The man's eyes dropped and his expression took on dour seriousness.

"It's been more than four years since I've been to Homewood or the Hall," Jerrick said. "The gloom I see everywhere is not how I remember this place. What's happened to bring this darkness down on these people? More importantly, what news of the patrollers?"

Relk took a gulp of ale. "Folk are scared, that much ya no doubt can tell. That's the reason fer the doom and gloom. They've got good reason to be frightened, too."

Murik chimed in. "Perhaps if you start at the beginning."

Relk took another swig from his tankard, wiped the froth from his beard, and then, after releasing a healthy belch, said, "I can't tell ya much a the Hall itself, only 'cause I haven't been there a late. But I've heard and seen things aplenty in the forest. In times past, I'd cross paths with a patroller or two every so often. Not that my business was ever anything ta concern them, mind ya. I'm just a simple trapper, after all." He flashed them all a grin, then lowered his voice as he went on. The others were forced to lean in to hear. "A while back, maybe six or seven months ago, they stopped checkin' in. I thought maybe they figured I didn't need lookin' after, but then I ran inta some other woodsmen who told the same tale. Just like that, poof!" Relk's hands came up in balled fists, then he spread his fingers wide in emphasis. "What's stranger, 'twasn't just the wood-folk who no longer ran inta them. 'Twas everyone! No one's—I mean, no one's—heard from them patrollers fer a while."

"The guard at the gate said as much," Murik said.

"Aye, but there's more," Relk said. "I stopped here in Homewood fer a night or two after that, ta catch up on news and such. Well, when I ventured back out ta the Simarron, somethin' was different." He paused to take another drink. "The woods had grown dark, and I'm not talkin' about from the sun goin' down. Oh, 'twasn't sudden, but as I traveled north toward the Hall—not my usual direction, mind ya, since I do most a my trappin' ta the east—the whole time I swear somethin' was watchin' me from the shadows. The oaks didn't even look right. I dunno how ta explain it, but they almost looked … sick. Well, with those eyes on me, I decided it'd be best ta stay clear a the Hall, and I turned east back ta familiar ground. It wasn't until then that the feeling left me, and things returned ta normal." Relk took yet another draft from his flagon, this time a long, deep one.

Jerrick knew Relk was a hardened man who did not spook easily. But he was a woodsman, and prone to their superstitions. Jerrick wondered in the back of his mind if perhaps some of those fears had taken hold, leading his old friend down a road of false manifestations.

Kayra asked, "What of the Call? What can you tell us about it?"

Relk nodded knowingly. "The mayor a Homewood issued it after contact with the patrollers grew stale. Oh, he sent some people up there before issuing it. Jaslin's husband, that fella Rodal, Kert, the tanner's assistant, and a few of the town's guards. All I know is not a one a them returned."

"None at all?" Holly asked, with widened eyes.

"Well, one, but the poor man's mind's gone. 'Twasn't like that before he left. But he's a stark-raving-mad lunatic now, if ya get my meaning."

"What's his name?" Jerrick asked. "Perhaps he can tell us something."

Murik added his agreement.

"I reckon he won't say much. Nothin' you'd understand anyway. The fella's name is Graewol. Ya can find him at the blacksmith's shop most times."

"Perhaps in the morning we can talk to him," Kayra suggested.

The others agreed.

"And what of Greth?" Jerrick asked.

"Ah, now ya be gettin' ta the heart a what's got the good people a Homewood so worried, my patroller friend."

"What is Greth?" Kayra asked.

Jerrick was about to explain when Holly beat him to it.

"Greth … I've heard that name before." Her features narrowed in concentration for a moment before her face lit up. "Oh, I remember! There's a brief reference to it in a story my bard master used to tell. The entire story is rather long, but the part mentioning Greth goes something like 'and so the goblins—'"

"Goblins!" Kayra said, too loudly, as the surrounding tables took notice.

Holly shot Kayra a look of reproach, raising her voice as she went on. "'—were driven back to their dark mountain fortress, Greth, where they plot and wait for the King's Patrol to wither, die, and forget their duty so they might one day emerge anew and cast a shadow of Darkness over all.'"

Relk nodded approvingly. "Aye, 'tis the tale a the Battle a Brakken Pass ya tell. 'Twas the goblin filth's last stand, and one they sorely lost. Their few survivors fled back to Greth, where 'tis said they remain ta this day, waitin' and watchin'."

"Which is what they'll continue to do as long the patrollers stand ready," Jerrick said.

"Yes. But now, people are beginnin' ta wonder, and worry. If somethin' has happened ta them patrollers …" Relk just shook his head.

The group fell into silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Relk took the opportunity to finish off the last of his drink and excuse himself.

"I'll be here till mornin' if ya need me fer anything."

"You're actually going to sleep in a bed?" Jerrick asked, smiling. It was unusual for the trapper to sleep on anything but dirt and leaves. Even more unusual for him to remain within Homewood overnight.

Relk laughed. "No, more likely the floor. The guard won't open the gate after nightfall. Not without a bribe, anyway. Mayor's new rule. Yer lucky ya arrived when ya did, otherwise you'd be stuck out in the cold. Speaking a the mayor, I reckon he's heard a yer arrival and will be wantin' ta talk ta ya. The fat slug's probably been sleepin' all day, otherwise he woulda come sooner. Ah, well, when ya see 'im, give 'im my regards fer keepin' me trapped in his town all night."

Jerrick rose and extended his hand, which Relk shook with vigor. "I'm afraid you leave me with more questions than answers, my friend," Jerrick said. "I thank you, nonetheless."

Relk said his farewells to the others, wished them well, and made his way to the stairs leading up to the tavern's rooms.

Jerrick watched his friend go, then, returning to his seat, cleared his throat and said, "There's something else. Something I haven't told any of you yet." He looked around the table, seeing their full attention upon him. "When I started this journey, I didn't know anything about any of this trouble. I meant to return to the Hall to … well, to visit old friends, nothing more. But now …" Jerrick paused, taking a swig of ale. He swallowed hard before continuing. "The first night I was in the mountains, before I ran into Murik at Eagle's Nest, something happened. Several hours before dawn … I was woken, by a mist—a green mist—rising from a nearby stream. When I went to investigate, I found the current still. The surface looked like a window. When I looked into it, I saw the face of a woman, an old friend. Her name is Aliah. She was here in the Simarron. She spoke to me. Cried for help, actually."

"Was she in danger?" Kayra asked.

"Not at first, I don't think. But she said someone was coming, that she wouldn't allow them to take her. She was frightened. Then her face vanished from the water and everything returned to normal."

"Did she say anything else?" Murik asked.

Jerrick swallowed again. "She said they were all dead. I don't know who she meant."

"The patrollers?" Kayra asked.

Jerrick shook his head. "I don't know. Maybe. She disappeared before I found out for sure."

"The means by which you communicated with her is known to me. Is she a sorceress?"

"She's a half-dryad, the daughter of a forest sprite."

"Ah, a friend to water faeries, then. That explains much," Murik said, though he offered nothing else.

Kayra took a long pull from her wine cup. "If your friend—this half-dryad—did speak of the patrollers, then we could be walking right into occupied territory. Possibly right into a trap." She looked at Jerrick. "I'm sorry, but this must be said: The goblins may have overrun the Hall, killed everyone, and even now plan an attack on Homewood."

Jerrick had already thought that particular scenario through. He had hoped to find news proving such speculation wrong, but everything up to this point only corroborated it.

"If the Hall has been overrun," Holly said, "then maybe we should head back to Brinnok to let the governor know about it. At the very least, he can send the city garrison—"

"No," Kayra said. "If we go back now, with no proof, they'll do nothing, and we will have wasted precious time, for we'll just have to come right back here to find it. By then, it might be too late."

"Agreed," Jerrick said. "I'm for the Hall, to see for myself. If it has been taken over and the patrollers are … gone, then I'll head to Brinnok straightaway and let Vranna's soldiers deal with the goblins."

"What is this sudden talk of 'I'?" Kayra asked.

"The patrollers are my business, and I will not ask—"

"You have no need to ask. We were all committed to this journey before this night. I, for one, plan to follow through on my commitment. While I will not speak for Holly, I know she is as resolute as I."

Holly's lips formed a nervous half smile, but she nodded her affirmation.

"I am also committed to the stated course of action," Murik said. "I will complete my journey to the Hall and see what has happened there."

"Are we all in agreement, then?" Kayra asked. "We travel to the Hall of the Wood together to discover what fate has befallen the patrollers?" She waited for each of them to agree. "I don't know what destiny has in store for us, but we've been brought together for a reason. Of that, I have no doubt."

Jerrick opened his mouth to say something, but then just shook his head, took another drink, and stayed quiet. He put little stock in destiny or fate, but let the others think what they liked. If nothing else, he did feel better for the company.

Murik stood. "With that, I take my leave of you. The rain has stopped, and I think I shall take a brief walk about town before I retire for the evening." Murik gathered his cloak about him, picked up his knotted staff, and walked outside.

Those who remained barely had time to take another drink before Relk's prediction concerning the mayor proved true. As Murik exited the place, a balding man with a short beard and a round waist entered. His arms waved about enthusiastically as he spotted the newcomers and proceeded directly for them. Without pause, he introduced himself as Billard, Mayor of Homewood, before greeting each of them in turn. Kayra rose, informing him they answered the Call of Heroes and pledging to help in every way possible. Billard bubbled with excitement as he expressed his immeasurable gratitude, ordered them all another round of drinks on him—or, more likely, out of the town's purse—and pledged all the resources at his disposal to their cause. He even went so far as to offer them a modest reward, but all joined Kayra in turning it down. They readily accepted provisions and other supplies, though.

As the drinks Billard had ordered arrived, Kayra asked the mayor quite pointedly, "Relk mentioned others who had ventured to the Hall. What happened to them?"

Billard's jovial manner disappeared. "I'm afraid none have returned, including our own who were the first to journey to the Hall. Of them, only Graewol came back. We issued the Call only because we knew not what else to do. As you no doubt know, the nearest city is Brinnok, and they've always some excuse for sending aid. We might appeal to the duke, but that takes time. In the meanwhile, if something has happened to the patrollers, we wish to help them."

"How many other heroes have answered the Call?" Holly asked.

Billard's face contorted as he thought for a moment. He started counting on his fingers, then finally said, "Twenty-three others. In fact, three dwarfs left just a week ago. Said they'd be back in no time."

The three party members stared at the mayor, waiting for him to relate their fate.

Billard squirmed under their scrutiny, then, his lips curling into a half smile, he said, "Their definition of 'no time' must be different from our own, for there has been no sign of them … yet." He emitted a chuckle, which faded into a sigh. "But I have a feeling good fortune has come upon us this time. You, good knight, are the first of the Order to answer our Call. That, combined with a patroller returned home and a bard whose songs I must no doubt hear before you leave, and …" Billard looked about, his plump cheeks jostling back and forth. "Wasn't there another with you? An eslar, if rumors are true. Oh well, no matter." The mayor of Homewood rose. "I shall see that all of your needs are met and waiting for you in the morning. Good night to you."

Without further comment, the Billard shuffled off, leaving them to look at one another with befuddled expressions.

"Strange man," Holly commented.

The two women excused themselves for the night, leaving Jerrick alone at the table. He ordered another ale, and as soon as it arrived, took the drink outside to the tavern's porch. Ash, his soup bone devoured, followed in silence. Jerrick found an empty chair, lit his pipe, and smoked.

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The Hall of the Wood (2nd Edition) Preview–Chapter 2

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2. Stoney Creek

JERRICK WOKE JUST PRIOR TO dawn. Rubbing sleep from his eyes, he found himself alone. The fire, its surviving wood charred and cold, had not been rekindled. He listened for last night's wind, but heard nothing. Still, it was cold, and as Jerrick draped his heavy cloak around him, he heard a laugh, lighthearted and cheerful, resounding from outside the tower. The laugh was followed by a succession of barks.

Jerrick walked down the tower's outside stairs to find Murik seated upon the Looking Stone, an elevated, oblong-shaped rock so named because it provided the best perch from which to observe the surrounding landscape. Ash sat next to the eslar, his ears perked, tail wagging, and tongue hanging unceremoniously from his mouth. They each sent visible breaths into the frigid morning air. As Jerrick shuffled to the base of the Looking Stone, Murik smiled down at him.

"Good morning, friend."

Jerrick grunted a reply.

"I tried not to wake you. Do you wish to join us?"

"Me and Ash need to be on our way."

"I see. But the dawn will be here momentarily. I'm sure it shall be a spectacular sight. Surely the road can wait a few moments longer."

Looking to the dark sky, Jerrick saw the first colors creeping over the horizon. Murik was right about the view being spectacular. How many years had it been since he'd witnessed it? Too many, he decided. This journey was one of recovery and restitution, not urgency and haste. The road wasn't going anywhere. Jerrick clambered up to join them, pushing Ash aside as he sat. The dog padded to the other side of Murik and seated himself once more.

The sun's rays touched the western peaks first, morphing them from dark, hulking mounds into majestic, snow-covered mountains. As the sun continued its inexorable rise, the great shadow cast by the eastern range receded to reveal a wide, wooded valley far below. At its center, Jerrick saw a meandering river carving its way through a sliver of a canyon. Densely packed pines spread out in waves from either side to climb the surrounding mountains before giving way to barren, snow-capped peaks. To the distant north, misty clouds floated over the horizon as they gently brushed the mountaintops. Snow covered all, the sunlight casting a heavenly sheen of orange across valley, mountains, and trees alike.

Jerrick thought of Kendra, who had enjoyed waking before dawn most mornings to witness the rising sun and the splendor it brought. It had been her favorite way to start the day. That morning, she had been sitting on the porch with her morning tea when her water broke. From the very start, they knew something was wrong. Kendra had screamed such awful sounds. He'd been in the barn. When he heard her, he ran to the house, thinking to do … he didn't know what. In the end, he was helpless to do anything other than hold his wife's hand and watch the life drain slowly from her eyes. Their child was dead before it ever left her. The ruin it left behind became his wife's doom. You killed her. He remembered those words more than anything else. There were things he should have told Kendra. Secrets he buried, thinking they no longer held weight. He'd been wrong.

Jerrick found his admiration of the morning's beauty replaced by an acute sense of loss. He sat there for a time, staring out into the vast expanse, trying to think of nothing but always coming back to his wife, their child, and what could have been. Beside him, Murik remained silent. Finally, Jerrick stood, descended from the Looking Stone, and reentered the ruined tower without a word. Shortly thereafter, Ash came bounding in after him followed by a slower-moving Murik. Jerrick had been right about him favoring one leg; the man walked with a limp. Jerrick cast him a sidelong glance, but otherwise ignored him as he packed his belongings in preparation for his and Ash's departure. It was Murik who broke the silence.

"I don't recall if you mentioned your destination last night."

"I didn't," Jerrick said, more brusquely than he intended. He took a breath, and said more evenly, "The Hall. The Simarron Hall of the Wood."

Murik's face lit up. "Then our destinations are identical. Perhaps, were we to travel together, the journey might be safer, and the time pass more readily. What say you?"

Jerrick halted his packing for a moment. Companionship, aside from the four-legged kind, might help keep him distracted from darker thoughts. But the eslar, with his handicap, might slow Jerrick down. For Aliah's sake, haste was paramount. On the other hand, leaving Murik out here alone was not an option. Duty, if not decency, had its demands. With that, the decision was made, and so he accepted Murik's proposal.

The pair set off immediately. Better to leave the cold behind than to tarry about in it, or so they reasoned. They ate their breakfast—Jerrick's jerky along with dried fruit and nuts provided by Murik—while on the move. Jerrick set a torrid pace; he felt he had to. He was pleasantly surprised as Murik, who made heavy use of his gnarled walking stick, not only matched it, but did so with no complaints. As they hiked, they conversed little. Occasionally, Murik asked a question about local history or made a comment concerning the geography they traversed. Those times, the two settled into a brief conversation, but that was all. They stopped once at midday to rest and eat a small meal. Jerrick had them up and moving again in short time, though, as he hoped to reach Stoney Creek before nightfall. Ash spent much of his time around Murik or wandering ahead by himself, ignoring Jerrick altogether except to shove past him every so often as he made his way from Murik at the rear to the point position. The first glancing impact only mildly annoyed Jerrick. After the second, however, he was irritated enough that when Ash next attempted to pass, Jerrick intentionally blocked the narrow path. Ash glided happily past him regardless of his efforts, which only annoyed Jerrick all the more. Ice and snow slowly gave way to naked earth. The air was mostly still. Here there was plant life once more: prickly bramble bushes surrounding clusters of pines becoming denser the farther they descended. Soon, the tall pines were all around them, their needles covering the ground like a blanket. Then the sound of rushing water reached their ears.

"We'll need to cross," Jerrick explained once Stoney Creek was in sight. "Once we're on the other side, we can make camp for the night and pick up the trail in the morning. There are two ways to cross the creek. The first is closer, but requires a surer foot." He emphasized the location of the crossing by pointing his finger across the expanse of trees still separating them from the waterway. "The other will take us out of our way a bit, but not by much. We'll have to backtrack a little once we reach the far shore, but it has the advantage of being the easier crossing." Jerrick paused. "I mean no insult, but with your leg, perhaps the second—"

"If you deem the first crossing the quicker of the two, then, by all means, let us cross there." Murik held his walking stick across his body as he spoke. The eslar's face was lit by an odd smirk.

Jerrick lifted his brow. "It's wider than you might think."

Murik only stood there with that amused look upon his face.

Shrugging, Jerrick said, "Come on, then."

While the two were talking, Ash had gone ahead. They found him running back and forth along the creek's narrow shoreline, splashing through the water.

In girth, Stoney Creek was more river than creek, with an aggressive flow and a plethora of rocks of all shapes and sizes jutting above the surface. Water moving between these created a myriad of small waterways and diminutive falls. In the distance, they heard the crash of Crystal Falls. They remained at high elevation, and the water was fatally cold. Ash was protected from cursory splashes by his waterproof undercoat, if not a brief soaking. Jerrick had made the crossing more times than he remembered. But Murik, with his leg … Jerrick did not look forward to building the fire big enough to dry him should he fall in.

"The rocks form a sort of natural bridge," Jerrick explained. "I've done this a hundred times, so if you just follow me from rock to rock, you'll be fine."

Murik nodded his understanding. If he was worried or concerned, he gave no indication.

Jerrick looked him up and down once more, then started across. Ash followed with excitement. The initial part of the traversal was easy, as the rocks were low and flat. But these quickly gave way to large, irregular boulders separated by wide gaps of rushing water. One such opening had a fallen tree trunk spanning it. Jerrick shuffled lithely across, reaching the other side. With one leap, Ash bounded across behind him. Jerrick came to another gap, this one without a bridge. Even worse, the rock on the other side sat higher than the current one. Confident in his ability to make the leap, he backed a few paces, started running, and jumped across. His knee hit the rock, but he managed to pull himself to the top. He turned just as Ash, who had barely waited for Jerrick to get situated, made his own attempt. The dog landed off the mark, in a precarious position, his upper half held in place only by rear claws which scrambled for purchase. He started to slip backward when Jerrick reached out and grabbed him, heaving him the remainder of the way up. Rubbing his knee, Jerrick looked for Murik, who he expected to see close behind. Instead he saw him exactly where he had left him. Jerrick was about to yell, to find out when he planned on following, when instead he found himself stunned into silence.

The eslar held his walking stick before him with both hands. Jerrick swore, for the staff glowed with golden fire. Murik just touched the tip of that staff to the surface of the water. Jerrick watched, fascinated, as the creek hardened and froze, the effect spreading from the point where Murik's staff had touched all the way across to the far bank. Without hesitation, Murik stepped out onto the frozen creek. In moments, he had closed the distance between him and Jerrick. Ash barked as the eslar drew near.

Murik gestured at the dog, who floated from the rock down to the icy floor. Ash whined, but only until he was set down. Then his tail wagged so fast Jerrick heard the whoosh of it parting the air.

"Shall you join us as well?" Murik smiled, quite enamored of his demonstration. "It's quite safe." He tapped the end of his wizard's staff, whose glow had dissipated, on the ice in emphasis.

"No!" Jerrick's reply offered no opportunity for rebuttal, as he turned away and sought out the next stepping stone.

Murik shrugged. There was a certain measure of joviality in his blue-black face, a hint of mirth in his pure-white eyes. "Suit yourself." While Ash ran circles around him, the dog's barking eliciting laughter from the eslar, Murik crossed the remainder of the creek.

Back on his rock, Jerrick felt … misled. Murik had said nothing about being a sorcerer. Jerrick didn't like magic, if only because he didn't understand it or trust it or think anyone sane should have anything to do with it. It was dangerous, and unpredictable. Given the choice, he'd prefer to have nothing to do with it. If Murik had said something sooner, he might never have agreed to accompany him. With nothing to do for it now, Jerrick shook his head and completed his crossing in his own time. Never once did he step on the creek's icy surface.

At the other side, he found Murik and Ash lounging upon a flat rock. Murik tossed pebbles onto the frozen surface as Ash lay quietly at his side. Jerrick sat, refusing to meet the eslar's stare. He noted that, in places, the surface of the creek had already started to break apart.

"You didn't say anything about being a wizard," Jerrick said. "You said you were a 'traveler.'"

"Well, I am a traveler, and a wizard. I am a traveling wizard, if you like." The eslar smiled, quite pleased with himself.

Jerrick rolled his eyes and glowered, deciding to wait for a more thorough explanation later. "Come on," he said, standing. "We can make camp for the night up ahead." Without waiting, Jerrick headed downstream, toward the top of Crystal Falls.

They made camp amidst a thicket of pines a short distance from the creek where the cascading falls provided a pleasant backdrop. With just over an hour of daylight remaining, Jerrick immediately set about catching their dinner. First, he gathered a series of stout pine boughs, which he instructed Murik to trim of all smaller branches. The eslar pulled out his dagger without a word and got started. While Murik kept busy, Jerrick walked to the bases of several trees. At each one, he cleared away the layer of pine needles and dug about a foot into the ground. He returned to camp with a small handful of wood grubs. Pulling out some rolled fish line from his pack, Jerrick used his knife to cut long lengths, which he then tied off at the end of each of the branches. Producing a hook for each, he tied these to the lines. Then, he stabbed the poles at regular intervals into the soft shore, making sure the hooks drifted within stagnant pockets where fish most likely sought refuge. In no time, Jerrick had caught enough trout for dinner, with some left for morning. Meanwhile, Murik took the liberty of starting a fire. They ate in silence as the last of the sunlight disappeared behind the mountains. Once they were done, Jerrick took out a pipe, from which he soon blew puffs of smoke into the crisp air. The leaf—Rell's best—managed to dispel some of his earlier annoyance at the eslar.

"I apologize if I frightened you at the creek crossing," Murik said. "Such was not my intention."

"You didn't frighten me. Just surprised me, is all." Jerrick took a long draft from his pipe, blowing a trail of smoke into the air on the exhale. "You should have said something sooner about being a wizard."

"You're right. But I felt caution was needed, just as you no doubt did. Sorcerers—especially ones who are eslar—are sometimes looked upon with undue … suspicion, shall we say?"

I wonder why, Jerrick thought. "So why reveal yourself at all?"

"If we are to journey to the Hall together, we will need to trust one another. Keeping such a thing from you for all that time might have the opposite effect, don't you think?"

Jerrick nodded. The eslar was right about that.

"So, tell me," Murik said, "what takes you to the patroller's Hall?"

"Just visiting old friends." It was true enough, and seemed to satisfy the eslar, for he nodded, sat back, and did not press Jerrick further on it.

"The Hall is a place of learning, is it not?" Murik asked.

Jerrick nodded. "That, and more. The Hall of the Simarron is one of two halls. The other is Merrow Hall, deep in the Merrow Woods. There was a third in the Alzion Mountains, but it was destroyed long ago during the Second Great War and never rebuilt. The Alzions are still patrolled, just without the benefit of a patroller base."

"Are you, then, a patroller?"

"At one time. Still am, I suppose. I was a squad leader for a time, then a rover."

Murik settled into silence. Jerrick studied him for a moment, seeing, for once, the eslar without his usual mirth.

"The night will be dark one last time this evening," Murik said.

The sorcerer's words were so soft Jerrick barely heard them. Looking heavenward, Jerrick confirmed the statement.

"Another, say, eight days," Murik said, "and we shall see the moon full again."

Uncertain what direction the eslar's conversation was headed, Jerrick nodded. He supposed that was right.

"Forgive me," Murik said, his gleeful demeanor returning. "A sorcerer's whimsical nature throws even myself askew sometimes."

Jerrick raised a brow, but accepted the explanation. Then he said, "I've told you my reason for traveling to the Hall. What is yours? I don't recall any visits by sorcerers during my time there."

Murik took his time answering. When he did, his words came out slowly, as if he chose them with care. "I am seeking an associate. One I have not seen in some time. Word reached me that this person dwelt at your Hall, so I set out to see for myself."

The Hall was a way station of sorts, home to many more than just patrollers.

"What if this person is not there? What if he's moved on already?"

It happened often enough. Life at the Hall was not for everyone.

"Then my search will continue elsewhere."

Neither spoke much the remainder of the evening as they settled in for the night. Ash was already asleep by the fire. Murik soon followed as he bid good night to Jerrick, who stayed up a while longer to finish his smoke. Soon, his own drowsiness caught up to him. The fringes of the Simarron were only a day away now. After that, one more to the town of Homewood, and then, finally, on to the Hall. Jerrick's mind drifted away into the mist of dreams, and he slept.

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The Hall of the Wood (2nd Edition) Preview–Chapter 1

The Hall of the Wood is back in an all-new 2nd Edition. Here's a preview in the form of chapters 1 through 3, released one per week, to give you an idea what it's about. Here's an index of all three preview chapters.

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1. A Warning

JERRICK BUR STARED IN DISBELIEF at the green haze emanating from the creek. Blinking away sleep, he thought it a remnant of a dream until, with uncanny deliberateness, it wafted, rose, then billowed over the banks, transforming from oddity to potential threat in the span of a breath. Jerrick's mind cleared as patroller instinct took hold. Grasping the sword he always kept close, he scuttled back. He'd only just managed to stand when the fog engulfed him.

Jerrick!

The voice echoed from the walls of the narrow canyon, making it impossible to tell from which direction the speaker called.

"Who's there? Show yourself!"

Jerrick … please …

Jerrick crouched, waiting and watching, but he saw nothing but smoky emerald in all directions. The canyon grew deathly quiet; even the sound from the rush of the stream had disappeared. Jerrick counted ten heartbeats before curiosity tugged at him. He rose, and padded toward the source of the fog. His bare feet were sloshing in the water before he realized he'd reached it. Immediately, he saw why the noise from the stream had grown quiet: the water was completely still, as if time itself had stopped. Mesmerized by the stillness, Jerrick looked deep into the now mirror-like surface. The reflection looking back at him was not his own.

The delicate, feminine features were familiar. Her eyes, the color of jade, and the smooth, emerald hair brought back many memories. He struggled to say something, but found no words adequate to greet the impossibility of the face looking back at him.

Jerrick … please … you must help me!

The tears streaming down her cheeks shook Jerrick from his trance.

"Aliah! What—how is this possible? Help you with what? What do you mean? Where are you?"

Dead �� they're all dead … She was sobbing.

"Who's dead? Who—"

You must return to the Simarron. There is so little time. You must help me!

"I'm on my way to the Simarron now. Who's dead, Aliah? Help you with what?"

I cannot go on alone. You must return. Together— She stopped to look over her shoulder. When next she spoke, her face loomed large on the still, watery surface. They're coming! Anger gave strength to her voice. I will not allow them to take me. Then, with renewed urgency, There is so little time, Jerrick. Please hurry!

"Aliah, wait! What of the King's Patrol? What—"

Her visage faded. As it disappeared completely, the mist contracted, sucked back into the water from which it had sprung. Jerrick, frustrated, interrupted the surface with his hand, but there was nothing there. Then, the last of the mist disappeared, the water's flow started again, and all returned to normal.

Jerrick sat back to find Ash standing next to him.

The dog had disappeared sometime during the night, and must have only now returned. Absentmindedly, Jerrick put an arm around him as disbelief and confusion warred with each other. Dead … they're all dead. Aliah's foreboding words echoed in his mind. Was she talking about the patrollers? How could they all be dead? The notion struck Jerrick a heavy blow, and he found the need to rise. They're coming. Who was coming? There was no telling. But Jerrick had seen the fear in her eyes. It was not something he'd seen there often.

Jerrick shook his head clear. He was sure of only one thing: there'd be no more sleep tonight. Best he break camp and get moving. Whether coincide or fate, the Simarron was already his destination. Aliah couldn't have known that, yet still she'd sought him out. They'd been friends—still were—so of course she had. But that she'd enlist his aid and not the patrollers already in the forest … There was no answer. Better to reach the Simarron than waste time speculating.

It took only a moment to kick dirt on the last of the glowing embers of his campfire and gather his things. With weapons at his belt, pack slung securely over both shoulders, and his bow held in one hand, Jerrick motioned to Ash to get moving. The dog took off running, disappearing into the darkness. Ash was a solitary creature, a frontier dog. He'd pick his own path, only remaining close when the terrain or the path made doing otherwise impossible. Theirs was a relationship built on tolerance.

Partial moonlight allowed Jerrick to maintain a solid pace. Already, he was deep in the foothills, his home of recent years behind him, with the rising slope of the mountains underfoot after only an hour of walking. The familiarity of the trail afforded him time to ponder not so much the warning his friend had delivered, but the deliverer herself. Aliah Starbough. A creature of the woods if ever there was one, but one who ultimately had wanted to experience more than her own little corner of the world. She'd left the Simarron even before Jerrick had. He hadn't seen her since, and so didn't know when she'd come back to the woods. Jerrick himself hadn't been back for just over four years now. Like Aliah, he'd sought something more, but returned now because that life was no more.

As if to remind him of what might have been, Ash popped out from the brush ahead. Tongue lolling, the dog sat, and waited. The look he gave as Jerrick approached suggested a singular desire: food. The sun was rising now, and Jerrick supposed it as good a time as any to break his fast. He found a fallen log to sit on and ate in silence, tossing Ash his share of their jerky. Jerrick hadn't packed for two, but the dog had insisted on following him. He didn't know why. Ash didn't like him. Jerrick's introduction those years ago had caused a reordering of the hierarchy. Most dogs adapted to such change. Not Ash. The dog's loyalty belonged to the one and only person who had raised him from a pup. There was no replacement for her. Ash would never understand how much Jerrick agreed with him on that point.

As soon as Jerrick began stowing the remainder of the food, Ash stood, bounded down the trail, and disappeared from view once more. Jerrick followed at his own pace. Only when the trail grew steeper and more rugged did he see Ash again, for then the dog chose to stay in view as he blazed the way more slowly. With evening drawing near and the fringes of the mountain's cold already touching them, Jerrick stopped and made a patroller's camp: a small fire for cooking, with a bedroll laid out next to it. A comfortless arrangement for most, he found the simple efficiency of it settling. He tried not to think of the green mist and Aliah's plea as he warmed a meal of porridge sweetened with sugar. He shared more of the jerky between them and let Ash eat the remainder of the porridge. The dog licked the pot clean, leaving Jerrick to clean it more properly. Jerrick had already fitted himself with fur leggings, an undercoat of deerskin, and a jacket to help stave off the growing chill. The mountains were cold at the best of times, so he'd sleep dressed as he was now for the next several nights. Sleep came, but only fitfully. Morning began with a quick meal, and then they were moving again.

Evergreens were thick until they surmounted the tree line. What remained was a barren landscape moving ever upward to the great, snowy peaks of the Ugulls. They'd stay below the worst of the snow and ice by making their way between those peaks. They found shelter that night in a low spot nestled amongst a jumble of boulders either exposed by wind or brought here by a landslide of old. There was no wood for a fire, so they ate a cold meal and retired immediately. Ash remained in camp, sleeping close for warmth more than anything else, Jerrick figured. They started out early the next morning, nearly reaching the trail's highest point close to nightfall. Knowing better refuge lay ahead, Jerrick pushed them on a little farther, until Eagle's Nest came into view.

Eagle's Nest was a place of old. Once called Eagle's Tower, soldiers and patrollers alike had stood at its crenellated top to watch in all directions for the goblins and gorgons once infesting this part of the mountains. That duty, if it had ever been truly needed, was no more, as was the Eagle's Tower of the past. Now, the only portion remaining of the roofless structure was its uneven stone walls and, leading up to them, the chipped and cracked remains of a staircase carved from the very rock. The only purpose Eagle's Nest served now was as a wayfarer's station, a bivouac for travelers seeking a temporary respite from the wind and the mountain cold. Most times, the ruins were empty. The trail over the Ugulls was infrequently traveled, less so this late in the year. Another month, and with the first snowfall, the trail became impassable. So it was with some surprise that Jerrick smelled the smoke from a fire. No lighted emanation greeted them from behind the walls of the ruins as they closed the distance, but Jerrick's closer proximity confirmed the smoke, as he saw it now, rising lazily. Eagle's Nest was already home to one visitor this night.

"Hello, there!" Jerrick called out.

It was customary—and good sense—to announce one's presence in such circumstances. When the way across the mountains was traversed, it was most often by merchants, missionaries, or the occasional patroller. Given the present lack of wagons and pack animals, Jerrick ruled out the first. The second, perhaps. The third … no reason to get his hopes up.

No one had replied, and so Jerrick called out once more. He waited another few seconds, and when he still heard nothing, decided to mount the stairs and try again. Ash went ahead. Once, the stairs must have led to a sturdy door. Now, there was only a dark opening. Jerrick was about to call out again, but, slightly annoyed, he wondered if he ought to step forward and throw caution and courtesy to the wind. Ash made the decision moot. One moment the dog paused before the entrance, the next he was gone from view. Jerrick swore under his breath. There being nothing else to do, he went in after him.

Inside was the expected fire burning at the center of the circular room. On one knee, facing the flames, was a man wrapped in a dark cloak. Busy warming his hands, he seemed at first to take no notice of either Jerrick or Ash, who stood halfway between Jerrick and the stranger. But then the man's head turned ever so slightly, and the fire's light revealed skin neither black nor white, but whose exact color was indeterminate from his silhouette alone. The stranger spoke with a tone of welcome. "Ah, other travelers walking the weary road. Please join me at the fire and warm yourselves."

Jerrick kept his distance. He saw no sign of weapons, though the stranger's cloak might conceal any number. Jerrick figured the man had to be alone; there was nowhere for anyone else to hide. That, and he saw only one leather pack and a gnarled walking stick propped up against the wall. Hanging from the stick was a trio of conies, dressed and ready for skinning.

"Are you alone?" Jerrick asked. Despite the signs, it seemed worth confirming.

The man's hands stopped their motion. "Hmm? Why, yes. I am alone."

Ash glided forward, his attention fixed more on the rabbits than the stranger.

"Perhaps you should stand, and turn around. Slowly."

"Hmm … Oh, yes. Never can be too trusting, after all. Very well." The man rose and turned, empty hands extended away from his body.

Jerrick saw right away the man was an eslar, who dwelt far to the north and east and who rarely trafficked beyond their own borders. Jerrick had seen their kind only a handful of times, when merchants of theirs ventured to the Hall to trade goods and knowledge of the forest. This one was much like those others, with blue-black skin and russet-colored hair cut short. He had a hawkish look to his face, a nose which tapered at the end, and, most unusual of eslar traits, eyes stark white and devoid of color. Those eyes were unreadable, but the tilt of his head and the beginnings of a smile on his dark lips suggested something between curiosity and amusement. Clad in worn leather breeches, high boots much like Jerrick's, and a cuffed white shirt beneath a fur-lined leather vest, he stood taller than Jerrick, but by his posture seemed to favor one leg more than the other. Forearms were covered by metal bracers, and his traveling cloak—dark blue and much too thin to provide adequate warmth at their current elevation—shimmered in the light of the fire like no other material Jerrick had ever seen. At his belt hung a short sword and dagger, both resting in jeweled sheaths. Though his age was indeterminate, the eslar's demeanor suggested the callowness of youth had been left behind long ago.

Ash, whose attention remained on the conies, now looked at the stranger. The eslar held his hand out, a gesture Ash accepted as he padded in to sniff. The hand wasn't enough; Ash took his leisure sniffing boots, legs, and crotch. Jerrick admonished him for the last. The eslar remained unperturbed other than to let out a short burst of laughter as Ash performed the last part of his inspection.

"We're a long way from Panthora," Jerrick said. "What business brings you to Eagle's Nest?" Once, demanding such answers was well within his rights. Now, he supposed patroller instincts died hard.

The eslar lowered his arms. "Is that what this place is called? Eagle's Nest? How intriguing …" Still facing Jerrick, he looked about, taking in the high, empty walls as if constructing in his mind what the tower must have looked like in its former glory. Finally, he answered Jerrick's question. "I am but a simple traveler, come through these mountains on my way to the Simarron Woods to the east. My final destination is a place called the Hall of the Wood. Perhaps you've heard of it?" The eslar did not wait for an answer. "I came across these ruins and, as it was getting dark, thought it a good place to stop for the night."

The answer satisfied Jerrick, and Ash as well, who took it upon himself to lie down by the fire.

"My name is Murik Alon Rin'kres, of Isia."

Jerrick stepped forward to clasp the eslar's outstretched hand. "Jerrick Bur, of Rell."

"Rell … I'm afraid I've not heard of it. And your dog?"

"His name is Ash. But he's not mine."

Murik moved back to the fire, where he knelt next to Ash and rubbed his side in long, even strokes. Ash closed his eyes in ecstasy. "He is a beautiful animal, though a tad dirty. Not yours, you say? Is there someone else with you?"

"No. I meant only that Ash has a mind of his own. He calls no one 'master.'" Once he had, but not since … Jerrick left the thought unfinished. "Accept my apologies for the reception."

Murik waved a hand in dismissal, then gestured toward the modest blaze. "Please."

Jerrick moved closer to the fire, readily absorbing its warmth.

"I was about to indulge in a small repast. You and Ash are welcome to join me." Murik gestured toward the conies. "Though I fear the meal may prove rather meager."

Jerrick removed his pack, setting it and his bow against the wall as he moved to inspect the rabbits. There were three, all of good size. "These will do just fine. Thank you."

"Think nothing of it."

"One rabbit each, then. I have bread and some vegetables in my pack."

Murik looked confused for a moment. "Oh … yes, of course! One rabbit each. I'm afraid I forgot about Ash here."

At the sound of his name, the dog plopped himself into Murik's lap.

"He certainly is friendly," Murik said, "though I had my doubts when I first saw him. He's quite big."

"He's friendly enough," Jerrick said, "especially when he knows there's food coming."

They said nothing more as Jerrick saw to skinning the rabbits. While Murik kept the fire up, Ash licked his chops in anticipation. With the rabbits cooked, Jerrick retrieved the promised loaf of bread and what remained of his stock of carrots and turnips from his pack, and they ate. Ash tore into his meal, gobbling the whole affair down in minutes. Jerrick and Murik took their time, savoring each greasy bite.

While they ate, a biting wind kicked up, creating a persistent howl which swept over and around Eagle's Nest. The trio was protected well enough within the ruined tower, but a harsh chill still embraced them, and they took turns keeping the fire up. With their bellies full, the two men settled into an easy silence. Ash had already dozed off near the fire. Every once in a while, one of his legs jerked out or he softly whined before growing quiet again. Murik showed a genuine interest in the history of Eagle's Nest, so Jerrick related what little he knew of its former glory as a scout post. Eventually, the conversation died away and the two bid each other good night. Jerrick, his sword and knife close, lay listening to Murik's soft breathing as thoughts of Aliah filtered through his mind.

They're all dead.

Jerrick remained awake a long time, thinking on the words and the fearful expression of the woman who had spoken them. The Hall wasn't far now. Soon enough, he'd have an answer.

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