As promised, here is chapter two of Tarah Woodblade. If you missed chapter one, check it out HERE.
I am back hard at work getting the book finished so you can read the rest. Please enjoy and let me know what you think in the comments below!
Trevor H. Cooley
“The hero?” Tarah mumbled in shock as she glanced at the cheering men in disbelief. What was this about? Tarah was unable to keep the surprise off her face as Bander led her to the bar.
The tavern wench gave her a wide grin and handed her an ale-filled tankard. “Wow, Tarah Woodblade. So good to meet you.”
Tarah simply frowned at her and looked back to Bander. “What’s this about? Where is everyone? Where’s Milt?”
“The war hit the guild hard, Tarah,” Bander said, the smile sliding from his face. “Tolbo and Zeem are dead. They were killed by Vriil’s men while trying to get folks out of the city. Gerrat the Owl and Jared are still missing. We think they’re dead. Heck, we thought you were dead until just now. Everyone else is out on jobs including Milt. He had to come out of retirement until we can get more members in. He hired Sara here in the meantime.”
Tarah’s frown deepened and she looked down at the frothy ale in her tankard. So that was it? Their ranks were decimated so they were willing to overlook her cowardice? She heard her grampa’s voice excitedly telling her that this was an opportunity. Yet she felt her guilt swell. These men hadn’t exactly been her friends, but what if she had stayed and fought instead of running away? Could she have somehow done something to save them?
“But at least you’re back,” Bander said, a reassuring smile on his face. He slapped her back. “Why, with Tarah Woodblade as a member, we’ll be just fine.”
Tarah knew she should be relieved, yet her unease grew. This was too good to be true. This had to be a set up. Bander was acting too nice. Bander was never nice.
She slammed her tankard on the bar and grabbed the front of his shirt, jerking him close. “What are you up to? Patting my back? Talking nice to me? Usually all I get from you is, ‘Hey, Ugly’.”
Bander’s face reddened and he looked away. “I-um. I’m sorry about that. You didn’t deserve it and . . . that was before.”
“Before what?” she said with a glower.
“Before I learned about you,” he said, then lowered his voice and gave her an apologetic glance. “Listen, I admit that I used to think you were just a braggart. Then, once I saw you in action, I was a bit jealous that you were a better tracker than me.”
Tarah’s eyebrows rose and she let go of him. Bander the Nose admitting she was better than him? He had been the guild’s best tracker before she’d come along.
He straightened his shirt and cleared his throat. “But hey, that was before I heard what you did during the war.”
“And what did you hear?” she asked. Surely this was where his ridicule would begin.
“Well,” he said. “The rumors started spreading around right after the war ended, and at first I didn’t believe it, but I just got back from a trip guiding some of the Pinewood refugees home and the stories they told . . .”
Tarah steeled herself for the punchline, expecting him to bust out with a laugh and call her a coward to her face.
“I gotta say, that was some amazing stuff you pulled,” he said with an amazed shake of his head. “Guiding fifty villagers to safety? In the dark? In the middle of a full-on invasion by the moonrat witch? I never could’ve done it.”
“Fifty?” Where had he gotten that number? That night was a blur to her, but surely there hadn’t been that many.
“Was it more than that?” The same awed smile she had seen on Bander’s face when she first entered the inn reappeared. “All I can say is wow. You really are a hero.”
Tarah cocked her head at him in surprise. The man actually sounded genuine. She didn’t know how to respond at first, but then Grampa Rolf’s training took affect.
Tarah cleared her throat. “Fifty does seem like a small number. But then again, that was a crazy night. I would’ve saved more if I hadn’t been so busy fighting monsters off so the others could escape.”
Bander laughed. “That’s what they said you were doing. Unbelievable! I mean that’s the kind of thing you hear about the academy greats, but you’re a woodsman. One of us!” He lifted his tankard to her and raised his voice. “Here’s to Tarah Woodblade! Making the Sampo Guidesmen proud!”
The common room erupted in shouts of agreement as everyone lifted their tankards. Tarah blinked and took a drink along with them. Usually she hated ale, and the ale at the Tracker’s Friend was fouler than most, but she barely noticed the bitterness. When she slammed her tankard back down on the bar, she noticed it was half empty. The tavern wench promptly filled it back to the brim.
Tarah couldn’t believe her good fortune. That night in Pinewood had been over six months ago, just before the war hit the Sampo area. She was relieved that Bander hadn’t asked where she’d been since.
“So,” Bander said, putting his own tankard down and smiling at her. “Where have you been? Most of us thought you were probably dead.”
Tarah repressed a wince and lifted her tankard to her lips again while she thought of how to answer. She had intended to come clean about running away, but the situation had changed. She took a few swallows and realized that the ale was less bitter than usual. This didn’t seem like Milt’s regular recipe.
Don’t get drunk, warned her papa’s voice in the back of her head. Grampa Rolf’s voice agreed. Drinking ain’t for you. When you’re in a tavern, let the others get tipsy. Tarah Woodblade keeps her mind open for opportunities.
That’s what I’m doing, she replied and set the drink down. “I nearly did die, Bander.” She needed to distract him from his question. “Uh, got in a bit of a rumble on the way here, in fact. Ran into some bandits on the edge of the Mage Woods.”
Bander frowned. “Vriil’s men?”
“That’s what I figure. They looked the type,” she replied.
“We’ve had problems with them ever since the war ended. I hoped they would just go back to wherever it is they came from, but lots of them have been hanging around the area, harassing folks.” His frown deepened. “Did you leave them alive?”
She looked away. “Tarah Woodblade does what she has to.”
He nodded approvingly. “Good riddance. I hope the whole lot get themselves killed. The academy’s been sending out patrols, but thousands of those dirt-eaters ran off after their leader was killed. The jail’s full of them.”
“So the academy is still around,” Tarah said. “I’d heard rumors that they were destroyed.”
Bander shook his head. “Well, the academy itself was destroyed. But everybody got out before it blew up. Where have you been? I thought everybody knew that.”
Tarah’s face reddened and she came up with something quick. “After what happened in Pinewood I had moonrats and monsters chasing me all the way to the border.” As soon as the words left her mouth, she regretted it. Stupid! That story left too many holes. Before Bander could process what she’d said, she added. “You know, those bandits I ran into had something on ‘em.”
Tarah slid the polished sword from the ugly sheath at her waist and set it on the bar top in front of him. “It looks like a magic blade of some kind to me. Is anyone looking for swords lost on the battlefield?”
Bander’s brow furrowed as he looked at the runed surface of the blade. He ran a finger along one of the runes and let out a low whistle. “Yeah, I’d say you’re right. I don’t know what it does, but I can always tell when something’s got magic in it. It has a certain glow to it, you know? As far as lost swords, we don’t have any jobs posted about any. You could take it to the academy post down at the Mage School and see if anyone recognizes it.”
“I was hoping to head home.” Tarah hadn’t seen her house since running away and she was worried that something might have happened to it.
“I heard one guy say a guard gave him five gold for a fancy spear he found,” Bander added.
“Five?” Tarah’s brow furrowed. That was a more than decent finder’s fee. The best reward she’d had was two gold and that was the day she had tracked and returned the mayor’s prized pony.
“You know what, if you wanted to head to the Mage School, you could also make some extra money on the side,” Bander said. He gestured to the wench. “Sara, can you hand me that job? The one that I posted this morning?”
“Sure, love,” Sara said and headed over to the job board on the far side of the bar.
Tarah gave Bander a disapproving look. “Love?”
“That’s . . . that’s just what she calls everyone.” Bander laughed nervously. “Hey, don’t get the wrong idea. I’m a married man.”
“Most of you are married. That’s why Milt never hired any serving wenches before,” Tarah said shaking her head as the buxom wench returned, paper in hand. “I’m surprised he did it now.”
“You want anything else, love?” Sarah said, slamming the paper on the bar top and giving Tarah a flat look. Evidently she had overheard.
Tarah ignored her and picked up the paper. She glanced at it and looked back at Bander. “A guide job? Just taking a family to the Mage School?”
“A couple and their son,” Bander replied. “They think he has magic talent and want to take him to the school to get checked out.”
“That’s more like guard work than guide work,” Tarah said. Most people didn’t bother to hire a guide from Sampo to the Mage School. It was a well traveled road, impossible to get lost on. It had been a few years since the last time she escorted anyone there. “Is the road still that dangerous three months after the war?”
“Of course not,” said Bander. “And I told them that. But they’re insistent and paid up front. I was going to do it myself, but I really shouldn’t leave. Milt asked me to stay behind and watch the place until he or one of the other senior members got back.”
“I don’t know.” Tarah rubbed her face. She really wanted to check on her house and heading to the Mage School would delay her return a day or two. Tarah thought about the drawing sitting in her pack and realized she had a third reason to head to the school. It was possible that there were three ways to make money in that short trip . . . Grampa would never forgive her if she passed up a deal like that.
Bander smiled urgingly. “Come on. They paid full guild rate. This little job will net you five silver dremals. That’s good money. I’ve never known you to turn down work.”
“You’re right,” she said, stepping back from the bar. “Tarah Woodblade doesn’t turn down a good job. I’ll do it.”
“Good,” Bander said. “They’re staying at the Birch Inn. And they want to leave right away.”
“I can read the instructions, Bander,” Tarah replied, shaking the paper at him before tucking it into her waistband.
He nodded, his smile fading and Tarah realized that she was acting incredibly rude. Bander usually deserved such treatment, but not today. Besides, Tarah Woodblade was stern. Not rude. She cleared her throat.
“Thanks for the job, Bander. And, uh, for being nice.” Tarah lifted her tankard from the bar and raised her voice as she turned to the sparsely filled hall. “To Sampo and the Guidesman Guild!”
Bander smiled again as shouts of agreement echoed through the hall. This time Tarah only allowed herself one swallow of ale. She slammed the tankard onto the bar and forced herself to give the tavern wench a nod of thanks, then headed for the door.
After the dark confines of the guild hall, the light of mid-day stung her eyes but Tarah blinked away the discomfort and strode down the street with a slight smile on her face. That had gone better than she could have imagined. No one knew what she had done. Tarah Woodblade was bigger than ever.
Once again she noted the stares of the passers by, but this time she recognized them as stares of awe. She gave a slight nod to each of these admirers and for a time she allowed herself to enjoy the looks. It was good to feel the hero. Tarah turned down a side street, hoping to make a stop before picking up her clients.
Her steps slowed as the burned-out facade of Ollie’s Bookstore came into view. She stopped in front of the once familiar entrance, one hand rising to her open mouth. Through gaping holes in the building’s outer walls, she could see blackened timbers and the ashy remains of books.
She stepped back and looked around. It seemed that the fire had been started in the bookstore itself. The stores on either side of the building had been freshly repainted as if they had only sustained minor damage, but there were no signs that Ollie’s place was being rebuilt.
Tarah swallowed and she hurried on, eager to put the building far behind her. She wondered what Ollie had done to anger the occupying forces. Had they burned it as an example to others? Ollie’s had been her favorite bookstore in Sampo and she knew that if Ollie was still alive, his store wouldn’t be sitting like that.
Someone in the crowd called her name as she walked past, but Tarah didn’t acknowledge him. She couldn’t. The feeling of guilt had come rushing back. The people of Sampo may not know what she had done, but Tarah did.
Back straight! Tarah Woodblade doesn’t slouch, Grampa Rolf reminded her and Tarah realized that she had lost her composure. She straightened her back and wiped away the tears that had begun to well in her eyes. That’s better. Tarah Woodblade doesn’t cry. Tarah Woodblade is tough as iron. Tarah Woodblade is confident. Tarah Woodblade fears nothing.
Tarah nodded and continued towards the Birch Inn. Though she was grateful for her grampa’s support, she couldn’t shake the guilt that gnawed on her. Her face impassive, she whispered quietly, “But I ran. People died and I wasn’t here.”
People die all the time, Grampa Rolf said. You can’t be responsible for other people. Worry about taking care of yourself first.
You can’t save everyone, her papa’s voice agreed.
Tarah didn’t reply. This time their assurances sounded hollow. She might not have saved everyone, but she may have been able to save Ollie.
The Birch Inn had the reputation of a middle-quality establishment, but it aspired to higher clientele. The boards that covered the building were white washed and the wooden roof tiles painted red. A stable boy stood out front to take horses and a greeter wearing only mildly stained finery stood at the front door.
Tarah didn’t want to go inside. The stench of whisky and cleaning solvents that came from the common room was too strong. She motioned to the greeter and handed him the job posting, telling him that she was there to pick up the family.
She didn’t have to wait long. A few moments later, the door burst open and a boy burst through the doors. He had light brown hair and freckles along with the gawky thin body of a young teen. He looked around excitedly and was followed shortly by a flustered-looking overweight woman. She wore a fur cloak that seemed much too heavy for the fall temperatures.
“Berty!” she called. “Never go running off alone. Especially in an uncouth foreign town!”
“But mom, one of the Sampo Guidesmen are here for us! I’m perfectly safe,” the boy whined.
The woman glanced around. “I don’t see anyone.”
Tarah cleared her throat and the woman swung around to face her. “I’m Tarah Woodblade of the Sampo Guidesmen Guild. I’m here to take you to the Mage School.”
The boy’s face fell. “A lady?”
The woman’s brow furrowed in concern. “There may be a mistake.”
“I promise you there’s not,” Tarah replied with a good natured smile. Usually this sort of reaction put her on edge, but after the events of the day she found it almost refreshing. This was the attitude she had been trained to deal with. “I’m the best guide in the guild.”
The door opened again behind the woman and a tall man with graying hair and a thin mustache stepped out, the job sheet in hand. The woman clutched his arm. “Derbich, dear. This ‘woman’ claims to be our guild guide.”
He turned his gaze on Tarah, one eyebrow raised. “Don’t worry, Anna, the young man inside told me she’s quite good.” He handed her the paper. “I am Derbich Furley of Razbeck. This is my wife, Anna, and son, Bertwise. I have signed the document and I believe all is in order.”
From the fine look of their clothing and the way Derbich had introduced himself, Tarah surmised that these people were minor nobility. Or at least they wanted to be seen as such. She hadn’t heard of house Furley, but Razbeck politics weren’t her specialty. Tarah looked at his signature on the paper, then nodded before folding it and tucking it away. “Very good. You ready to leave right away?”
“Are you sure, dear?” the woman said to her husband, distrust on her face. “She looks . . . uncouth.”
Don’t show anger, but be firm, Grampa Rolf’s voice said. Increase your client’s confidence.
“Tarah Woodblade is never ‘uncouth’.” Tarah replied, keeping her expression neutral. “As for my appearance, I’ve been on the road for a long time and had to fight off beasts and bandits on the way. I would’ve stopped to clean myself up, but I was told you were eager to get to the Mage School.”
“Beasts and bandits?” the boy said, his eagerness reappearing.
“We are pleased to have your services,” the man said, ignoring his wife’s concerned look. “The stable boy should be bringing our horses around any moment.”
“Good,” Tarah said. “I’ll have you there by nightfall.”
The stable boy came from the back of the inn a short time later leading three horses that were laden for travel. They looked to have come a long way. Tarah saw a flash of silver as Derbich tossed a coin at the stable boy.
“Hey lady, don’t you have a horse?” Bertwise asked as he mounted his own.
“Not for this trip,” Tarah replied and looked to his father. “The roads will be pretty congested until we get out of town. Keep close.”
She led them to the main square where all the major streets joined and took them down the Mage School road. Several people in the crowd waved at her and she nodded back at them. Tarah hoped that the family was seeing the interaction. Perhaps the respect the crowd was giving her would ease the woman’s mind.
Like the Grandriver Road, this one had also been recently maintained. Tarah kept a swift pace and as the family followed behind, she mulled the day’s events. The sight of Ollie’s shop kept coming up in her mind. If she had stayed in Dremaldria, would she have saved him?
What you should be wondering about is your pay, Grampa Rolf suggested.
That was true. Derbich had tossed the stable boy a silver piece as a tip. These people would have paid better than guild rate. Was Bander ripping her off? Normally that wouldn’t have surprised her, but after the way he had acted in the guild hall . . . She shook her head. Perhaps not much had changed after all.
Tarah pushed the thoughts away. There was no use worrying about it now. She focused on the road ahead, noting the various scars in the landscape that told of the battles fought along the way.
The family kept to themselves for the first two hours and Tarah enjoyed the quiet. Then the boy rode up to Tarah’s side. He brought the horse uncomfortably close to her so that he could speak without his parents hearing.
“So why do you wear that ragged armor?” he said. “Momma says it doesn’t even look functional.”
“It works fine, thank you.” She was well aware that it needed repair, but there was nothing she could do about it until she got home. “It stopped a throwing knife just this morning.”
Bertwise wrinkled his nose at her in disbelief. “Why is your staff painted red?”
“It’s not paint. It’s a rare type of wood.” She paused for effect. “Dipped in the blood of many monsters.”
“No way,” he said in awe. He reached out. “Can I see it?”
“No,” she said and continued to walk forward, her eyes moving back to the woods around them. There was something in the air. A strange scent.
“Okay, fine,” the boy said, his voice oozing irritation. He sounded like someone who wasn’t used to being refused. “What happened to your nose?”
Tarah was quickly remembering just how much she hated teenage boys. She let out a calming breath. “I got in a fist fight with a giant.”
“Right,” the boy said in disbelief. “Looks like you lost.”
“Tarah Woodblade doesn’t lose.” She gave him a wicked grin. “The giant might have bent my nose, but I took off its head.”
The boy snorted, but she saw a hint of belief in his eyes. “Is that a true story?”
“My stories are always true,” Tarah lied. Her stories were only partially true. “What about you? Why do your parent’s think you have magic?”
“I was real mad at my mother one day and I don’t know how I did it, but the wall in my bedroom turned to mud and melted,” the boy said, his voice proud.
Tarah nodded. She could believe it. A picture formed in her mind of Bertwise throwing a rich-boy tantrum and melting a wall. Papa had told her that magic could do strange things when its power was first awakened.
“And that’s not all,” Bertwise added. “Mom thinks I got that new spirit magic stuff too.”
“Never heard of it,” Tarah said. She suppressed a frown and jogged forward a bit, looking into the bushes to the side of the road. Something was bothering her about the area and she wasn’t sure what it was.
Berty pulled up next to her again “Yeah, spirit magic is a kind of magic no one knew existed before. The Mage School just announced it a few months ago.” He gave her a proud grin. “And I have it. Mom says I’ll be one of the most important students at the school.”
“And what does this new magic of yours do?” she asked.
“I can read a person’s mind,” he said confidently.
“Oh really?” Tarah closed her eyes briefly, extending her other senses. She didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary. What was it about the road that was bothering her? “What am I thinking then?”
“Well, I can’t tell unless I’m touching someone,” Bertwise said. “Actually it works best if I put my head against their chest.”
Tarah snorted. “Well that ain’t happening.”
“I don’t want to put my face against your nasty armor!” The boy said, his face red. “I was just saying my magic works best that way.”
“Right. I’m sure that line works great with the maids in your castle,” Tarah said.
“Look, if you don’t believe me, just let me hold your hand,” he said. She snorted again and he blinked. “I mean, grip your hand. Sometimes I can tell what people are thinking even from that.”
“I don’t think so,” Tarah said.
“Come on,” the boy said. He leaned out of his saddle stretching one hand out to her. “Let me prove it.”
She glanced back at his parents but they were deep in conversation, looking at each other. She sighed and moved her staff to her left hand and reached up to him.
The moment the boy grasped her fingers, she felt a strange tugging sensation and the boy’s eyes widened. Tarah jerked her hand back. “What was that?”
“You’re frightened,” Bertwise said in surprise.
“Tarah Woodblade fears nothing,” she replied coolly, but her heart was thundering. What did he see?
“No. You act tough, but inside . . . you’re afraid of everything.” A grin spread across his face. “Dad, you hired us a coward!”
“Don’t be stupid, boy! I-.” Tarah caught a whiff of that strange scent again and this time she identified it. She swallowed.
“You what?” he said.
“Shh!” Tarah said, one finger to her lips. “Stop your horse.” She waited for the boy’s parents to catch up.
“What were you two talking about?” the woman asked.
“We need to pick up the pace,” Tarah said. “I think there’s danger nearby.”
“On this road? Don’t be ridiculous,” Anne replied.
Derbich wasn’t as foolish. “What is it?” he asked, his eyes focused.
Tarah knew better than to tell them, especially the woman. It was okay for a guide to make people wary; a wary client stayed close and obeyed. But scaring clients was a no-no. Scared people do stupid things. “Just keep close, but don’t ride past me unless I tell you to.”
Derbich nodded and Tarah ran ahead and the family urged their horses into a trot, keeping close to her. The smell grew stronger as they went and Tarah’s concern grew.
“Please don’t let there be more than one,” she whispered.
They came around a bend in the road and Tarah saw them. Standing in the middle of the road swaying slowly were two trolls.
(End of chapter)