Merry Christmas to all and as a gift to you, here is the first chapter of the second Bowl of Souls series.
The series title will be: The Jharro Grove Saga and book one as you know is Tarah Woodblade.
I am really enjoying writing this book and getting to know Tarah and I hope you will too. Please feel free to use the comment section and let me know what you think.
My plan is to release Tarah Woodblade sometime towards the end of January so keep checking back for updates!
“You got money on ya?” asked one of the scruffy men, an evil gleam in his eye.
Tarah fought down her nerves and breathed in the situation using all the training her papa and grampa had given her. She sensed three men altogether, but the two standing in front of her were the immediate threat. They were unshaven and filthy and wore cast-off armor that had been badly damaged and messily repaired. She couldn’t see the third man, but she could hear him shifting his feet behind the bushes.
“Money? Why, are you beggars?” Tarah asked, arching one eyebrow coolly. This wasn’t good. These men were likely leftovers from the war. They wore swords, but didn’t move like trained soldiers so that meant they were probably Ewzad Vriil’s men.
“Beggars?” said the man, frowning. He wore a leather half-helm and his eyes were as yellow as his teeth.
“You asked for money,” she reminded. Tarah forced her body to remain relaxed. She planted her quarterstaff in the ground casually as if it were no more than a walking stick, but she knew that it was imposing. The wood was red as blood and the runes carved into it suggested unknown magic. “Strange. I wasn’t expecting any beggars this far from Sampo. I didn’t bother to bring any coppers to throw to you.”
The man’s sneer turned into a snarl and he drew his sword. The weapon was a longsword and of a much higher quality than she had noticed before. The pommel was worn and dirty but the blade was polished and there were a series of runes impressed along its length. It could have magic. “Does a beggar carry a sword like this?”
Tarah’s hand tightened slightly on her staff, but otherwise she didn’t allow any of her anxiety to show. She just wanted to get to Sampo. Why couldn’t they have been bears? She could handle three bears. Wild beasts were predictable. It was men she had difficulty dealing with.
“So not beggars.” She shrugged and rubbed her chin, giving them a look that suggested mild curiosity. All the while she kept her ears open for sounds of an arrow being drawn from the bushes. “Maybe you’re tax collectors then? Funny, you don’t smell like tax collectors.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” said the second man. He had a thinning mop of greasy hair that had probably been blond once. A cruel scar ran across his forehead. He laughed, but Tarah noted that his laugh was forced. He wasn’t as confident as the first man. “We’re tax men. Here to collect our fees.”
“You accept broken bones as payment?” she asked, giving him a bored look. Tarah twirled her quarterstaff with her right hand and planted it in the ground again. Inwardly she calculated how long it would take her to get to the man in the bushes. She hadn’t heard the creak of a bow being pulled back, but he could be readying a throwing weapon.
“You? Break our bones?” said the man with the fancy sword. He wasn’t as impressed by her act. “You’re big for a girl maybe, but no match for us.” He looked her up and down. “Least you sound like a girl. Wouldn’t know it by looking at you.”
Tarah’s jaw clenched. She knew what she looked like well enough. She was indeed tall for a woman, and her frame was more muscular than feminine, especially in her armor. At least he hadn’t made fun of her face yet.
“Ugly though,” the man continued with a snort. He looked at the thin-haired man. “What do you think, Hal? This a girl?”
Tarah’s hand tightened on her staff further, her arm muscles stiffening. She didn’t like that his words bothered her. She should have been used to the ridicule by now. She had always been plain, even as a child, and that was before the fight that bent her nose. Still, being called ugly always riled her up. She refused to let her feelings show and forced a yawn instead.
The first man’s flippant attitude had put his friend at ease. Hal smiled. “Hard to tell what she is under that leather armor of hers, Eddy. It looks nasty. What’s it made of? Dirty dog hides?”
“Moonrats,” Tarah replied and both men’s eyes widened as they looked at it closer. These men were a bit thick. Most recognized it right away. The dead gray color of the fur was one giveaway. Not to mention the moonrat tails that hung at her waistline, the shriveled hands on the ends of the tails were still intact. “They ain’t good eating so I had to do something with ‘em.”
The men took a step back. Moonrats were feared, especially as their numbers had grown during the war. But the shock on Eddy’s face didn’t last long. His sneer returned. “I know who you are. You’re Tarah Woodblade aren’t you? That hero?”
The sarcasm in the man’s voice shook her. She knew just how little of a hero she was. She had come back to face her actions and had been expecting the ridicule, but to hear it from this bandit . . . She made herself give her grampa’s teachings one last chance.
“That’s right,” she said confidently.
“Too bad. See, we got a special hero tax,” Eddy said. “Give us your money and weapons and we’ll let you leave . . . unmolested.”
“Unmolested?” Tarah sighed, shaking her head. “If you know who I am and you’re determined to be bandits, I guess I’ve got no choice.”
She shrugged the small pack she carried off of her shoulders. She set it onto the ground next to her, then removed her bow and quiver and laid them on top of it. Eddy grinned, thinking he had cowed her, but Tarah gripped her red staff in both hands and assumed an attack posture.
She gave him a menacing grin of her own. “I’m glad you decided not to be beggars. See, Tarah Woodblade doesn’t kill beggars. But I have been thinking of making my next set of armor out of bandit skin.”
Hal took two more steps back, his face white, but Eddy’s smile broadened. “You know, by what I seen, moonrat skin is pretty thin. I bet it makes a terrible armor.”
The man gave a slight nod and there was a rustle in the bushes. Before Tarah could turn, she felt a thump in her back. It had been a throwing knife after all. She heard the blade fall to the leafy ground. Eddy had been right about the thickness of moonrat skin. That was why her grampa had reinforced the leather with treated fiber mesh. Luckily the blade hadn’t hit a seam.
Tarah turned and ran for the bushes. The hidden man stood up in surprise and drew his sword. Tarah leapt and swung her staff down at his head. The man was able to bring his sword up in time to block, but the strength of her swing, assisted by her staff’s weighted core, slammed the man’s sword blade into his forehead and he crumpled to the ground.
Tarah didn’t have time to wonder if he was dead. She heard a roar behind her and twisted around to find Eddy bearing down on her, his polished longsword swinging. She swung one end of her staff up under the blade, knocking it high. Its keen edge missed her head by inches and she brought the other end of her staff down low, catching the side of Eddy’s right knee.
There was a faint popping sound and the knee bent in a way it shouldn’t have, but the man didn’t even wince. He spun around on his left leg, swinging his sword in a heavy two-handed slash. She blocked the attack, but the strength of the blow quivered through the wood.
Tarah’s eyes widened as she saw his face. Eddy’s mouth was twisted in a snarl, his eyes burning with anger. In her experience, most bandits gave up after a blow to the knee, but this man fought like a berserker. She had seen that same look in the eyes of her papa when he fought. Could this man have been one of them?
The thought slowed her reaction time and she didn’t make a counterstrike. He spun again, bringing his sword around at her other side, but as he swung, he shifted his weight to his right knee. His leg gave way and he stumbled to the side, crying out in pain. Tarah took a step back, letting the blade cleave the air where she had been standing. He fell to his side.
No, she told herself, this man wasn’t like her papa. He fought with rage, but not with skill. Her eyes darted towards his companion, but Hal wasn’t attacking. He was backing away, fear in his eyes. She gave him her best glower and he turned and ran. She took a deep breath and looked back to Eddy.
“Do you consider your knee payment enough?” she asked. “Or do I need to keep breaking you?”
“I’ll kill you!” he shouted and tried to climb back to his feet.
“I wouldn’t do that,” she warned. “You got some torn ligaments. You try to fight on that knee and you could do permanent damage.”
He roared and stabbed his sword into the ground to help him push to his feet. He stood, heavily favoring his right leg, and pulled the sword back out of the ground. She shook her head. She was no longer afraid, but she was still unsure how to deal with him. She thought on it as he limped towards her.
Her papa wouldn’t show mercy to a bandit. He’d say it’s best to kill the man. That way he could never be a threat to her or anyone else. Grampa Rolf would say leaving dead bodies behind was to be avoided. It would be better to knock him unconscious and take his sword; teach him a lesson.
Eddy reared back and as he swung his sword at her again she made her decision.
She swung one end of her staff up, knocking his attack to the side, and brought the other end around, connecting with the side of his knee again. This time the joint gave way completely. He screamed but refused to fall, she twirled her staff and connected with a blow to the back to his head that silenced him and dropped him to the ground.
She stood over his unconscious form and frowned. Why had she seen her papa in this man? They were nothing alike.
Tarah crouched beside him and removed his leather half-helm. She felt the wound behind his head and nodded. The helm had done its job as she had hoped and his skull was intact. She hadn’t killed him like her papa would have done, but with that knee, the man wouldn’t be accosting people in the woods again.
She pulled the sword belt and sheath from Eddy’s waist and glanced at the sword still clutched in his hand. Now that she looked at it, she could tell that the sheath didn’t match the blade. Likely the blade had been stolen and Eddy had just found a sheath it fit in.
Tarah pried the hilt from his fingers and her breath caught as a brief vision passed through her mind. There was an intense battle. Men were falling everywhere, some of them on fire, some even melting. Eddy was terrified. He saw the sword’s shining blade laying on the bloodied earth and picked it up as he ran . . .
Tarah blinked the thoughts away and shivered. She didn’t usually see visions like that unless she was tracking. She looked over the blade closely, impressed by its workmanship. Too bad it was of no real use for her. Her papa had taught her a bit of bladework, but she wasn’t a swordsman. She slid the runed blade back into the man’s ugly sheath and belted it around her waist. She would take it back to town with her and see if there was a reward. Surely a runed blade like this was worth something to someone. Maybe people were looking for it.
She took a deep breath and headed back to the bushes where she had struck the man who threw the knife. She winced as she peered over his unmoving body. The blade of his sword was wedged in his skull. She reached down and felt his neck but there was no pulse.
Tara shivered. This wasn’t the first man she’d killed, but she hadn’t killed many. Papa had told her that there would be times when killing was necessary. Grampa had taught her that if she was smart, she shouldn’t have to.
“Grampa, your way didn’t work this time!” she grumbled aloud. She knew what he would have said. ‘Come on, Tarah, you know there are no guarantees. Even the best salesman in the known lands can’t dissuade a man determined to die’. They’d had that conversation the first time she’d been forced to kill a man.
She looked down at the corpse and shook her head. She refused to feel guilty. It wasn’t her fault the man didn’t know how to block a staff blow. Still, she couldn’t avoid a bit of sadness as she checked his pockets for coins. Grampa had taught her not to waste an opportunity to make money.
The man didn’t have much, just a few silver pieces. His sword was rusty and plain, but the brace of throwing daggers he wore across his chest was in good condition. There were slots for five knives and the four remaining blades were oiled and had a decent balance. She took the brace and walked back to retrieve the knife that he had thrown at her earlier.
She lifted her pack from the ground where she had left it and pulled out a notebook. She tore a scrap of paper from the back page and scribbled a note on it, then walked back to Eddy’s unconscious form and tucked it into his pocket. She didn’t know if the man could read, but she felt it was sound advice. The note simply said: Become a farmer. Sincerely, Tarah Woodblade.
There was no reason to stay any longer. The third man had run, but for all she knew, he could have gone for help. Tarah collected her things and headed on through the trees. She followed Hal’s tracks for a few minutes just to be sure. He was headed north and east, out of the woods and into the plains. She didn’t think it likely that a large group of bandits would be confident enough to camp this close to Sampo and the Mage School, but if there was such a group, it was probably best to find out so she could warn people.
She crouched and gripped her red staff tightly as she touched a few of the tracks. As she did so, a series of images flashed through her mind. They weren’t strong visions like the one she had seen when touching the sword, but more like brief emotional glimpses. Hal was afraid of her. He was determined to leave the area. He didn’t expect the other two men to survive. His intention was to keep running.
She sat back on her haunches. It didn’t seem like he was going for help. She could keep tracking him and learn more as she went, but in reality, she knew he wasn’t a threat. Following him further was appealing only because it would help her delay her return.
Tarah turned and looked up through a clearing in the trees. In the far distance, she could barely make out the tip of the Rune Tower disappearing into the clouds. She knew exactly where she was. A few hours of hard walking and she would arrive in Sampo. She felt trepidation rise within her, but she grit her teeth and quelled it. She’d hidden away long enough. It was time to face her actions and pick up the pieces.
She walked through the fall leaves to the northeast until the trees gave way to vast grassy plains. The grasses were waist high and yellow and Tarah kept her practiced senses open for signs of hidden creatures. A short time later, she avoided a wasp mound that was hidden in the tall grass. This time of year they were dormant, but many people had learned the hard way that they could still be riled if you put a foot through their nest.
A grin played across her lips. She had tracked and guided people through these plains many times and the dangers were as familiar to her as the trails around her woodland home. After so long being away, she found them comforting.
She climbed a large grassy hill, knowing that she would be able to see the city when she reached the top, but when she crested it her smile faded. The familiar skyline of Sampo sat in the distance but, between the hill where she stood and the city, the landscape had changed.
The plains on this side of Sampo should have continued all the way to the city’s edge, interrupted only by the occasional road and a few small farmsteads. Now the plains were gone; burned away or churned underfoot. This was where Ewzad Vriil’s army had camped during the war.
Tarah swallowed as the anxiety she had been feeling for the last several months crept back into her chest. She tried to remind herself that there was nothing she could have done to change things. The good people had won without her help, but there was one fact she couldn’t avoid. Dremaldria had been forever changed by the war and while everyone else had fought, she had run away.
She hiked down the hill and made her way across a stretch of blackened earth to the Grandriver Road. This was the main route from Sampo to the great city of Gladstone at Dremaldria’s southern border and to her relief, there were still signs of constant use. She reached down to feel the tracks, but it was impossible to make sense of the jumble of emotions that filled her mind. Too many people traveled this road.
Tarah continued towards the city, glad to see that the last mile or so of the road had been leveled and the ruts filled in. This told her that the people of Sampo were getting back to life as normal. The final stretch was well-trafficked and had even been graveled.
As she neared the outskirts, she passed a large merchant caravan headed south. A dozen guards rode with it, Battle Academy soldiers by the look of them. That was a good sign. Perhaps the rumors of the Battle Academy’s destruction during the war had been false after all. If so, the region wasn’t as bad off as she had feared.
Sampo was the third largest city in Dremaldria, its streets sprawling over several miles. It was a major trade hub for the kingdom, sitting on the junction of the roads to Dremald, the Battle Academy, the Mage School, Malaroo, and Razbeck. As a result, the city was populated by a variety of races and cultures. This was immediately evident in the hodgepodge of buildings that lined its broad streets.
Tarah’s anxiety deepened as she approached. She had been in Sampo hundreds of times, but she had never been comfortable in the city. There were far too many people. She preferred the peace of the countryside. The city was blanketed with the dull roar of human activity.
The scars the war left on the city were evident the moment she walked in. Some of the buildings were fire blackened and many of the windows were boarded up. But the city was fast recovering. Building crews were hard at work repairing the damage and their hammerings and chiselings were drowned out by the calls of the merchants and hawkers that lined the road.
With this many people, she should have been able to pass through with some sort of anonymity, but her armor and red staff marked her too well. She saw stares from many in the crowd and a few even pointed. Tarah swallowed. Evidently news of her cowardice had spread.
She felt like cringing and running away, but she shoved those feelings down and called upon the litany her grampa had taught her. She was Tarah Woodblade. Tarah Woodblade didn’t cringe. She kept her back straight, shoulders up, her face calm and collected, and walked with purposeful strides, staff in hand, keeping her eyes forward and ignoring the passers by.
Her destination was on the northernmost side of the city and it would have been much faster to take side routes, but she stuck to the main streets. To take the quieter path could be seen as hiding from her shame and that would be counterproductive. Grampa Rolf would have told her to start rebuilding her reputation right away. Let the word spread that she had returned. The people may have heard Tarah Woodblade was a coward, but those that saw her now would have a hard time believing it. Or so she hoped.
Despite her outward show of confidence, her guilt weighed on her and all the looks she was getting made things worse. By the time her destination came into view the stress of it all had given her a throbbing headache. Lines of pain crept from the base of her neck up across the back of her head.
The Tracker’s Friend was a two story tavern and inn. To Tarah’s relief it looked to have survived the war with little damage. This was the place she stayed in Sampo when she had to remain in the city for awhile. It was also the official guild hall for the Sampo Guidesman Guild.
Tarah stepped up to the door, smelling the familiar scent of ale and wine that emanated from within. She reached for the door handle and saw that her hand was shaking. She tightened her hand on the handle and took a deep breath to steady herself.
The other guild members would be waiting inside. It would be up to them if she were to be kicked out. She was the best tracker among them. The problem was that few of them had wanted to let her join in the first place.
The Sampo Guidesman Guild was the premier tracker and guide guild in the region. Eastern Dremaldria was a dangerous place. The academy patrols kept the goblinoid population down, but even the main roads weren’t safe to travel alone. For people who couldn’t afford to pay for academy guards to escort them through hazardous areas, the guild was the next best thing. Most of Tarah’s jobs had come from the guild. If they dropped her, the task of rebuilding her reputation would be close to impossible.
Tarah pushed the door open and stepped inside. The common room of The Tracker’s Friend was rugged, but clean. The proprietor, Sly Milt, was a guild member himself, though retired. He kept the central area and bar well lit so as to be inviting to potential clients and unlike most taverns in Sampo, the place was free of tobacco smoke. Milt never liked the stuff.
Usually the place was full of patrons and guildsmen, but it seemed strangely quiet. Most of the tables were empty and Milt wasn’t at the counter. Instead there was a buxom woman in a clean white apron cleaning out tankards. Tarah frowned. Milt had never hired a tavern wench before. He felt they were a distraction.
Tarah looked around the room, gauging to see if she had any supporters present. No one looked up at her entrance, but the few men she recognized were just townsfolk. None of them were guild members. Had the war decimated the ranks of the guild?
“Why it’s Tarah Woodblade,” said a surprised voice to her left.
Tarah swore under her breath at having overlooked the man. It was Bander the Nose. He was one of her biggest detractors and, in Tarah’s opinion, a real jerk.
Bander wore a wide grin under his bulbous nose as he stood from his table by the door. “Holy hell, girl. We weren’t sure you were alive.”
“Yet here I am,” she replied, her expression giving away nothing.
“Well come on over to the bar. I’ll buy you a drink!” he replied loudly and everyone in the common room looked her way.
Tarah had to force her jaw not to drop. Bander never bought drinks. This was bad. He was smiling too hard. He was setting her up.
Bander turned and raised his tankard to the room. “Hey, everybody! It’s Tarah the Hero! She’s returned!” There was a loud shout of approval and men all around the room raised their tankards and called her name.
(Continue reading with Chapter Two HERE)