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Note: This chapter begins the series' run on my website, which is free and will remain so. It can serve as a starting point for the series as a whole, but it actually follows Secrets of Temborn, available on kindle for dirt cheap. This book can give you a fuller understanding of what's going on. I hand no idea, when I started the series, that I'd move to a free forma. Sorry about that.
The road they followed was broad and level, guided on both sides by the smooth, well-tended farmland surrounding the city of Temborn. Worked by people of good hearts and strong backs, these lands had been farmed for the past several generations. All the way back to the birth of the current age, when the new gods woke a frightened and confused new generation of mortals from the seed of the old world, these lands had been tended with great care. From parent to child and onward, the toil of these lands put food on family tables here and throughout the surrounding region.
As they passed the farmland, the Fry siblings remembered their own youths spent on a similar farm. Curtis, the oldest of the group and always the strongest, had spent his childhood helping their father work the land and fend off threats. Gale had never been content to work like his older brother, and had spent most of his childhood shirking family duties as often as he could manage. Lissa had never been as strong as her older brothers, but she'd proven adept at helping her parents deal with the clergy each season when they came for the family's contribution.
For over a week, nothing much happened along the road. They encountered other travelers of course, but no one that really mattered to them. Merchants driving over-laden wagons pulled by over-burdened animals, often guarded by underpaid mercenaries, were the most common people encountered. Yet there were also individual travelers, pilgrims and the occasional outcast.
What they saw most often, however, were unsavory types and the results of their efforts. Though they didn’t encounter any brigands during that week, they saw plenty of indication. They saw merchants whose guards were sporting fresh injuries, and whose wagons were marked by the strikes of arrows and crossbows. They met individual travelers who looked at the small well-armed group with distinct fear and quickly hurried past them.
Worst of all, they encountered bodies from time to time. Over the course of that first week they saw at least four corpses; three at one location, and another poor lone body left in the center of the road. Brigands were the work of that lone body, and gnolls had clearly been the death of the first three. Traveling the road, even in the lands of Elissah, was a dangerous thing to do.
On the eight day of their journey, they encountered another two bodies. Two young men, clearly pilgrims on their way north to visit Elissah’s home, lay on the side of the road. At first the group didn’t stop, though each of them looked on with a sad expression. It was Lissa who stopped, with a frustrated sigh, staring at the bodies.
“Come on kid, nothing we can do,” Gale said, putting a hand on her shoulder.
“We can bury them,” Lissa said.
“Patrol will come by, that’s what they’re for,” Curtis chimed in reassuringly. “They’ll take care of everyone we’ve seen along the way, don’t worry.”
“I know that, but I can’t stand it,” Lissa’s frustration only seemed to grow.
“Lissa, the patrols exist specifically so people like us don’t have to do that—” Curtis began, but Lissa shot him a horrified look.
“Of course we have to!” She said, wide-eyed.
“I don’t mean it that way,” Curtis said reassuringly, holding his hands out defensively. “I want to help them as much as you do; Elissah knows I sure wouldn’t want to be left lying there, unburied, no reapers to take me on. What I’m saying is that the patrols are equipped with everything to get the job done. Plus they’re well-armed, and there’s always enough of them to stay safe during the job.”
Gale stepped closer to the bodies and looked down at them, then turned back to Lissa. “He’s right, kid. Poor fuckers were killed by gnolls; that much is obvious. The more time we spend here, especially taking time for a burial, the more chances we’ll meet those same gnolls.”
“Good! Someone needs to deal with them!” Lissa suddenly became angry.
“We can’t—” Curtis started, but then he saw Lissa’s face and his shoulders slumped. “Dammit Lissa, I understand. I really do. But we can’t really do anything. Gnolls are everywhere around here, you know that. There’s even worse things than gnolls too, and we sure as hell don’t want to meet any of them.”
“But the church is trying to fix that, and I’m part of the church,” Lissa said, her frustration mounting.
Marissa stepped forward, and gave Lissa a comforting smile. “You are helping, Lissa. You have already cleansed an ancient temple of the old gods, and now you are helping me to save my people.”
Lissa’s face dropped and she gave a little sigh as she was reminded what they were doing, so Marissa pressed on.
“These poor men will be tended to; the patrol that comes by will see they are given proper rest. It feels wrong to leave them here, I agree, but your brothers are correct. If we linger, we may suffer the same fate.” She held out her hands in a gesture of helplessness.
After moments of silent deliberation, Lissa finally nodded her head with a sigh. Curtis put his arm over her shoulders and gave her a little hug. “I’m sorry Lissa, really. It feels cruel, but you remember dad’s stories of how bad these roads were before the patrols.”
“Couldn’t walk a day without seeing another body,” Lissa quoted their father.
“Right, and a lot of them were people who’d been trying to help the bodies they came across,” Curtis smiled sadly. “The patrols cut down on all of that, and it’ll get better every year.”
With slumped shoulders, Lissa nodded and continued walking; Bindi huddled against her shoulder, sensing her sadness. As the group proceeded onward, Lissa couldn’t help but look back at the two young men lying on the side of the road. “I’m including them in our prayers, tomorrow morning,” she said firmly.
“I have no doubt Elissah will listen,” Marissa smiled.
The group continued on, and didn’t encounter much else for several days. The surrounding farmlands gradually gave way to sparse forest, and by this point the group could see massive trees on the northern horizon. Starwood, the great trees that dwarfed all others; standing tall even above those was Nolai, the tree in which Elissah herself spent most of her time.
“That’s one hell of a tree,” Kern commented one afternoon.
“You’re telling me. We’re still at least two weeks away from it,” Curtis chuckled.
“Wait, we’re going into Starwood?” Gale asked in a surprised tone.
Curtis laughed, and gave his brother an incredulous look. “What did you think ‘three weeks north’ meant?”
“Like I fucking give two shits about geography!” Gale snapped.
Kern bellowed with mocking laughter, and Curtis quickly joined in.
“Stop it you two,” Lissa chastised them, and she gave Gale an apologetic smile. “Three weeks north of Temborn we’ll enter the Starwood, and about another week further north we’d hit the edge of this fragment.”
“That’s just fucking great,” the thief grumbled. “So we’re going directly to Elissah’s personal forest. Nice.”
No one replied to Gale’s grumbling, but it was clear why he might be upset. A church of Elissah was one thing, but the goddess’ personal home was another thing entirely. A professional thief and lifelong criminal, Gale was not one that would be fully comfortable surrounded by the enforcers of divine law.
“Place is probably fucking crawling with paladins,” Gale said what everyone was thinking. He immediately grimaced, and turned back to look at Lissa. “Not that…I mean I’m not saying that they’re bad, really, just…” He gave up trying to explain, and growled as he turned back forward.
“Gale, you know the paladins are only interested in enforcing divine law, not mortal law. Besides, you’re going to behave yourself, aren’t you?” Lissa said with a smile.
“Doesn’t make me feel any better,” Gale muttered.
“It’s alright, I understand,” Lissa replied. “Personally I’m terrified too, but for different reasons.”
“You’ll be fine,” Marissa said confidently.
“I’ve got butterflies in my stomach,” the young priestess admitted, laughing nervously.
Curtis glanced back at her. “You never made a pilgrimage?”
“No,” Lissa admitted. “I was planning on it, but haven’t yet. My studies were down south, and I spent the last year getting used to my new duties. I was going to make my pilgrimage maybe next year some time.”
“Looks like you’re making it early,” Kern chuckled.
“I don’t know if we’ll have time,” Lissa said, looking back at Marissa. “We’re going to see that wizard, who knows whether we’ll even be in the Starwood long enough for me to visit Nolai.”
“I’m not sure,” Marissa said in a distracted voice, looking off into the trees.
“Is something wrong?” Lissa asked.
Kern, at the back of the group, noted the elf’s gaze and followed it. “What? You see something?”
“Probably just an animal, but I could be wrong,” the elf replied.
“Keep your eyes open,” Curtis muttered as he looked around. “We’ve been lucky so far.”
They didn’t speak much more after that, as everyone kept their attention focused almost entirely on the surrounding forest. The terrain around them was not smooth and rolling as it had been among the farmland, and even though the trees were small they did block vision fairly well.
Eventually, as ever, the sun began to dip close to the horizon. The eastern sky gradually shifted to a lovely shade of purple, and their road darkened with the shadows of the surrounding trees. Curtis came to a halt, and the rest of the group followed suit, as the soldier looked around them appraisingly.
“This looks like a fairly good spot to stop for the night,” he said absently, pointing to a relatively clear area by the side of the road. “Cover from the wind, off the road, and no guarantee we’ll find another spot before dark.”
Kern nodded his head. “Want me to start setting up?”
“What about the noises Marissa heard earlier?” Lissa asked, looking nervously into the trees.
“She’s your friend, not mine; you trust her, I don’t,” Curtis said as he waved Kern to follow him. “We’ll set things up; you can keep an eye out for elf nightmares.”
The instant he said that, Marissa gave a sudden strangled gasp and clutched her spellbook with trembling fingers. Even Curtis and Kern stopped, as everyone looked at her in surprise. Her handmaidens’ eyes were equally wide and frightened, as they huddled close together.
“Marissa?” Lissa stepped toward the elf, and touched her arm gently.
The touch on her arm startled her, and Marissa jumped before she managed to recover. She cleared her throat, and made a visible effort to steady her trembling hands. “What he said, it…it makes a lot of sense of…” she looked out to the trees. “Seeing and hearing aren’t the right words, I haven’t seen or heard anything.”
Imra muttered a quiet phrase in elven, easily discernible as a frightened curse even to those who didn’t speak any of the elven languages. The three handmaidens clutched each other for support, even as Marissa moved close to them.
“What the hell is wrong with the elves?” Kern growled.
Wide-eyed, and unable to control her trembling, Marissa looked at Lissa with a pleading look. “We have to keep going,” she whispered urgently, “this place is not safe.”
“What is it?” Lissa began to grow frightened, looking around them at a forest that made no threats.
“Wraiths,” the elf replied, her throat constricted in terror.
“Oh, bullshit,” Curtis waved his hand dismissively. “No such thing. There’s plenty of real, live, terrible beasts we have to worry about, there’s no such thing as undead. No zombies, no skeletons, they’re old-world myths.”
“Elves are different,” Marissa snapped at him, her patience no match for terror.
“Well, be scared all you want. Camped or not, we’re not making it past this part of the forest before it gets dark,” Curtis growled back. He and Kern continued setting up for a campfire and sleeping spots. “We’ll set watch, like always, so shut the fuck up about your stupid ghosts.”
Marissa looked to Lissa for support, but Lissa only shrugged. The priestess was clearly frightened, even if only for her friend than of some mythical terror.
“At least we’ll be ready, right?” She tried to smile encouragingly, but it wasn’t very believable.
With a long, heavy sigh, Marissa nodded her head. “We will not see the morning untouched,” she said, trembling. She led her handmaidens, still clutching each other in terror, to the small campsite. The elves began to help set things up, all the while keeping wide, frightened eyes on the surrounding trees.
Slowly, everyone began to settle in for the evening. The four elves huddled, trembling, watching and waiting.
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