Bowl of Souls: Hilt’s Pride preview!!

Howdy folks! Exciting things are coming, foremost of which is a novella I am working on which comes out hopefully the 15th of December.

The history on this project is interesting. The concept for Hilt’s Pride came to me a long time ago when I wrote book one. Hilt was always a character that I was interested in. He was important to me as he mentored Justan for a while when he really needed it. I always intended to bring Hilt back into the story at some point, but he just didn’t fit back in until book five. Two years ago, I started writing Hilt’s Pride intending it to be a short story that I would publish on this blog, hoping to gain some interest for when I could find a publisher for book one. It sat here on WordPress’ servers until I put book three out in September.

I have been working on book four since book three came out, but is a large story and I knew it was going to take a while to finish. I wanted to come out with something by Christmas time for my readers and I had the idea for a collection of three short stories, the main one being Hilt’s Pride.

I started working on it and the characters came alive for me. I ended up embellishing the story and it grew and grew until I realized that it was going to stand alone as a novella. The other two short stories will have to wait.

The novella takes place during the events of Eye of the Moonrat just after Hilt leaves Justan in Renuel. The story deals with Hilt’s encounter with a mysterious woman he finds climbing a mountain. It is a stand alone story and you don’t need to have read the rest of the series to understand it, but it does contain revelations about many mysteries in the Bowl of Souls world including information about Jhonate’s past.

So without further adieu, here  is the first chapter of Hilt’s Pride:

Hilts Pride Coverlarge center lettering

Hilt’s Pride

Part I

 The girl with the golden hair had come to die. It was the only answer that made sense. Hilt glanced back at the woman as the gorc’s head hit the ground with a splash of dark blood.

She stood serene, as if unafraid of the goblinoids that attacked. Her hair gleamed golden in the morning sunlight. Her eyes were fixed on him, not in hope of rescue as one would expect, but in curiosity.

Hilt stepped back from the dead creature as the next gorc attacked. He knocked aside its rusty iron blade. Stupid thing. It had to know it was outmatched. He had killed five of its comrades already. Hilt swept the tip of his left sword across its face, taking out an eye. It stumbled back with a howl, clutching at the wound. Hilt glared at the others, giving his swords a menacing twirl.

The two remaining gorcs grabbed their wounded comrade and retreated around a large nearby boulder, sending angry curses back at Hilt all the way. The fight seemed to be over, but Hilt knew that there were more gorcs in the area watching from the rocks.

Gorcs were little more than a nuisance to a trained warrior. They were a shade smaller than humans, larger and smarter than a lowly goblin, but smaller and stupider than an orc. Gorcs were in fact born from goblins. It was said that one in ten goblins birthed a gorc. But gorcs despised their smaller brethren and formed tribes of their own.

Hilt didn’t care where the creatures came from. They were mere rabble, unfit to stain his blade. He wouldn’t have bothered if not for the girl.

He had first seen her earlier that morning climbing the steep incline of the mountainside alone. She had looked frail and vulnerable winding her way around the enormous boulders that littered the slope. Hilt had seen signs that the area was full of monsters and followed, intending to tell her to turn back. By the time he arrived, the gorcs had surrounded her.

Now that the immediate danger was over, Hilt turned to speak with her. But she was no longer standing there. The woman had turned back to the task of climbing the mountainside.

“Wait! Young lady!” Hilt caught up to her in moments. “Young lady, where are you going?”

“Young lady?”

She turned around and Hilt saw her up close for the first time. Now that she was out of the sunlight, her hair no longer gleamed golden. It was more of a dirtied blond. Her face was attractive, but weary. Her skin was tanned and wrinkled around piercing blue eyes. Her dress was long sleeved and woolen and quite dirty. This was a woman who spent most of her time outdoors, perhaps working the fields.

“I am surely no younger than you, swordsman.” She turned back to climbing the steep slope. “Now leave me be. There are plenty more monsters for you to slay.”

Hilt stared after her, blinking in disbelief. “Madam, I . . . I was not here to slay monsters. I was on a pressing mission when I saw the beasts surround you. I only followed you up here to keep you from getting killed!”

“Well you succeeded then. I am not dead.” she said, not looking back. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have my own ‘important duty’ to perform.”

He followed her up the slope a few moments more. “You truly aren’t going to thank me?”

“I never asked for your help, did I?” She took a few more labored strides up the mountainside, then paused and whirled around, her lips twisted into a scowl. “Just what were you expecting in thanks?”

“Expecting?” Hilt folded his arms across his chest. What an insolent woman. “When a man saves your life, isn’t thanks customary?”

“Oh! So you followed me up here seeking a reward? Hmph, you sound like nobility.” She eyed his clothing with suspicion. His garb was finely made but well worn and adjusted for easy movement. He wore leather boots, calf high with woolen breeches, and a white shirt covered by a chainmail vest and a fine overcoat. Sword sheathes hung at either hip and he had a small pack slung over his shoulders. “What did you want, a maiden’s kiss of gratitude? Well I ain’t no maiden!”

Hilt’s face wrinkled in confusion. “Madam I most definitely did not come seeking a kiss.”

She misunderstood the look on his face and gasped, one hand raising to her mouth. “A kiss not good enough? You see me, a baseborn woman all alone and think to take advantage? I think not. I may not be a maiden, but I’m not street trash ! Go look for your ‘thanks’ elsewhere. I’ll take my chances with the monsters!”

Hilt’s face went red and he sputtered in outrage as she turned and resumed her climb. “Foul!” he cried finally.

She snorted and resumed her climb.

“That was a most- . . .” he strode quickly up the steep slope and passed the woman before turning to face her. “That was a most foul accusation! I climb up here out of my way to save your life and I am rewarded with scowls and disparaging remarks?”

“There you are expecting rewards again,” she accused, taking a step backward. Her foot caught in her dress and she stumbled. She would have taken a tumble down the slope if Hilt had not reached out and grasped her arm. She struggled and slapped his arm as he pulled her to her feet. “Unhand me!”

Hilt made sure she had regained her footing before letting go, then raised both hands and took a step back. “I am sorry for my choice of words. I seek no reward. Truly. I just expected common courtesy is all.”

Her blue-eyed glare softened only slightly. “Alight then, you have your thanks. Now will you step aside, so I can get where I’m going?”

“I will not,” Hilt said, arms folded, his voice firm.

Her fists clenched, but she forced a smile on her face. “Why thank you, kind sir. It was a privilege to be saved by a warrior such as yourself. There, is that better?”

Even though it was forced, Hilt had to admit her smile was pretty. He shrugged. “A bit better, yes.”

“Then move it,” she said, the smile still frozen on her face. She took a step forward, but Hilt did not move.

“I refuse,” he said firmly.

Her eyes narrowed. “What do you want then?”

“Your safety,” he replied. “No matter how mean tempered you are, I cannot in good conscience allow you to continue any farther. The way ahead would mean your certain death.”

“And what makes you so sure?” she asked as her forced smile faded.

“For one, the gorcs are still watching us from the boulders below. More will likely join them and the only reason they haven’t attacked us again already is the fact that I left six of them dead down there. Secondly, do you see these signs, my lady?” Hilt gestured to a small pile of stones next to her feet. They were white and irregularly shaped, but stacked evenly to form a small pyramid.

She nodded. “Rocks. What of it?”

“Look around you,” he said, pointing to his right. Another similar pile of stones stood several yards away and she could see another one even further away. They seemed to be spaced apart evenly. “We crossed over similar signs earlier when we entered the gorc’s territory.”

She looked down at the piles and back up at him. “So we walked past piles of stones.”

“You don’t understand. The first signs we passed were made of plain stones set in a circular pattern. They are used to tell goblinoids when they’re at the border of another tribe’s territory. The stones here, however, are stacked in a pyramid shape used by goblinoids to mark areas of danger. In other words, these stone represent a warning to their own tribe members to stay away.”

“Good,” she said. “That means they won’t follow me up there. I hope you will follow their example.”

Hilt grit his teeth in frustration. “Why are you so determined to die?”

“I won’t die. At least I don’t think so,” she admitted, still seeming quite unconcerned. She tried to continue past him, but Hilt grabbed her shoulders with both hands, stopping her. She twisted and tore free from his grasp, nearly stumbling yet again. “Don’t you touch me!”

“Then tell me.”

“I will tell you nothing,” she spat.

“I have half a mind to throw you over my shoulder and carry you down this mountain,” Hilt said, his eyebrows raised at her ferocity.

“I would fight you the whole way!”

“You could not stop me. I could knock you unconscious if I had to. I would make sure you did not wake until I could take you to the nearest village and drop you off at an inn.”

“I would have no choice in that case.” Rage simmered behind her eyes, but she swallowed and gathered herself, then replied with complete calm. “However, if you did so, sir, I would only wait until you were gone and come back anyway.”

“Be that as it may, I will do exactly as I threatened unless you tell me why you are so determined to ascend this mountain.” Hilt said, jaw fixed in determination. “Tell me, woman, and do it fast because the gorcs are gathering in number.”

Hit pointed down the slope behind her. She turned to see that several more gorcs had joined the others and they were no longer bothering to hide. The one with the blinded eye was pointing up at them and snarling at the others. She looked back at Hilt and glared again.

“I can see that you are determined to continue, but do you really want to be caught and likely eaten by those creatures?” Hilt prodded. “I will make you this concession. Tell me the truth and if your answer is satisfactory, not only will I let you go on, I will go down and slay the beasts just to give you a better chance.”

She looked at Hilt’s unmoving stance and up at the long climb ahead, then down to the gorcs below. When she looked back at him her expression was resigned. “Fine. Since you must know . . . the prophet told me to come to this mountain and climb to the summit.”

Hilt blinked, then his eyes narrowed in intensity. “The prophet? Tell me, what did he look like?”

“Well, he was . . . his face . . .” Her brow wrinkled in confusion and she paused for a moment to search her memories, “I-I don’t know how to describe him, just his presence. He just . . . he just felt right. Like I was safe with him and that he would never lead me wrong.”

Hilt stared at her for a few seconds before placing his face in his hands, “Oh blast it all. How did he know I would be coming this way? Blast!”

“Excuse me?” she said, wide eyed at his reaction.

He put up a conciliatory hand. “Forgive my language. It’s just that he always does this. He makes people a promise and shoves them in my path.” The next time he saw the prophet he would be sure to tell him about it too. Hilt shook his head and sighed. “I suppose my mission will have to be placed on hold.”

Hilt reached for a leather strip that hung around his neck and pulled a slender tube made of a smooth gray wood out from under his chainmail vest. He lifted it to his lips and blew. There was no audible sound, but he felt it warm against his fingers and knew his message had been received. He nodded and tucked it back under his shirt.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I am telling my companion that I need his assistance.” Hilt said.  “He left Reneul before I did, but he has been taking his time. If I had not taken this detour I would have caught up to him by nightfall.”

“But how-? Why . . .?” Her eyes widened in comprehension. “Wait. No-no. You’re not coming with me.”

“Oh, yes I am” Hilt said. He turned and strode parallel to the piles of rock that dotted the mountainside. “Come along. It would be best to stay out of the area the gorcs marked. They wouldn’t warn their own people away without good reason.”

“But-!” She hesitated, then hurried after him. “You didn’t listen. I said ‘You’re not coming with me.’”

“And yet I am,” Hilt replied. He paused and looked back at her. “You know, since we are to be taking this little journey together, I really should ask your name.”

“Beth,” she said. “But I still haven’t agreed-.”

He gave her a deep bow. “Beth, my lady, so nice to meet you. My name is Hilt. And don’t worry, as soon as I get you to the top of this peak, I will take my leave and you will not have to see me again.” He turned and continued along the slope, glad that the first winter snows had not come yet. The slope was steep and footing was hard enough as it was.

She followed behind him in silence for a while, which suited him just fine. The line of white stone markers eventually curved and turned up the steep slope of the mountainside and Hilt followed it, skirting the edge of the line they marked. The ground was a bit rocky and stubbled with tufts of grass for easy footing, but it was a strenuous hike nonetheless. Hilt fumed that the prophet had stuck him with such an arduous task.

He kept looking back at the woman to make sure she was holding up. She trudged along right behind him with her skirts held up in bunched fists to keep from entangling herself. Her face was red and she was breathing quite heavily, but to her credit she wasn’t complaining. Luckily there was no sign that the gorcs had followed them.

They hiked to the top of the incline. The ground leveled off and the path was flat for a while before the next rise, so Hilt stopped so she could rest. He sat on a large rock and watched her stumble over and plop down on another rock a few feet away.  She slumped over and rested her forearms on her knees.

Hilt eyed her curiously. “So Beth, my lady, the prophet tells you to climb a mountain, and you come wearing that?”

She gave him an irritated glance. “It’s what I had on at the time.”

“But where did you come from? There are no villages anywhere nearby and you aren’t wearing a pack or anything. Do you have supplies? Food? Water?”

Her irritation turned into a glare. “He told me to go, and I went. What about you? You leave on an important mission from Reneul of all places going someplace urgently, and you throw it all away to climb a mountain with a woman that you obviously find quite crazy. All you have is that small pack on your back. Not exactly mountain climbing gear I would think.”

“I am a named warrior. I can take care of myself,” Hilt replied.

Beth snorted. “Pfft! Named warrior. Right!”

Hilt lifted his arm and showed her the rune on the back of his hand.

“Oh,” she said. “I didn’t-.”

“It’s usually the first thing people notice,” he remarked.

“Well, it’s not like I go around checking the back of people’s hands all the time just to make sure they’re not named.”

“It covers the whole back of my hand. It’s pretty hard to miss,” Hilt pointed out. “Didn’t you see me fighting?”

“I know a lot of good fighters and none of them are named,” she said. Hilt rolled his eyes. “What? I’m supposed to see your fighting skill and say, ‘oooh, he must be a named warrior’? Do I need to check your palms too just to make sure you’re not a named wizard as well?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Hilt said. He shook his head and stood. “Let us start this over, shall we?” He cleared his throat. “Good morning, Madam. I am Sir Hilt, a named warrior come to take you down off this mountain before you get yourself killed.”

He looked at her expectantly. She just stared back at him.

“Well,” Hilt prompted. “Your turn. Come on.”

A slight smile touched the corner of her mouth and she replied, “Why hello, Sir Hilt. I am Beth and I am climbing this mountain because the prophet told me to. I might let you tag along if you ask nicely.”

Hilt smiled. “Very good then. Since we are to be travel companions, would you mind if I take stock of our situation?”

She laid back on the rock and stretched out her legs. “Sure, go ahead.”

“The good news is that as far as I can tell, the gorcs haven’t followed us,” he said.

“Good,” she yawned.

“The problem is that it is going to take us maybe two days to climb to the top if we can make good time. We haven’t had any snow yet, but it is going to get cold especially at night.” He paused and looked at her again. “Is that dress really all you brought?”

“Do I look like I’m hiding anything?” she said, resting back on her elbows.

Hilt frowned. “How did you get here?” She just stuck out her feet in response so he tried again. “Perhaps the better question is where did you come from? There are no villages for miles from here.”

“Pinewood,” she said.

“You walked all the way here from Pinewood? You would have had to travel all the way through the Tinny Woods!” He was impressed with the woman’s ability to survive. The place was crawling with moonrats and the foul creatures would eat anything alive or dead.

“I was in the woods when the prophet found me. He told me to go and I went.”

“But how did you survive?”

She sighed. “I don’t know. I just walked east. When I was thirsty, there was a stream. When I was hungry, there were berries. At night I dug under the leaves and slept. I never saw a single moonrat. I heard them of course, but never saw a single glowing eye. Since then I haven’t worried. The prophet said I could do it, so I know I can.”

“So what did he tell you?” he asked.

“I told you,” she said with a dull stare. “Climb the mountain.”

“What were his instructions?” Hit prodded, growing tired of her obstinance. “What exactly did he say to you?”

“He said, ‘walk to the east. On the far side of the woods is a mountain. Climb to the top and you will find the answer you seek.’ I said, ‘When do I leave?’ He said, ‘Go now.’ I said, ‘Now? Wearing this?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Shouldn’t I prepare first? Pack supplies?’ He said, ‘If you go now, you will have everything you need.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ Then I started walking.”

Hilt looked at her askance. “You’re fooling with me aren’t you?”

Beth threw up her hands. “Fine. Believe me or not. That’s what he said.”

There was truth in her eyes and Hilt had to accept it. “Very well. It looks like the Prophet has provided our course. Nothing specific as usual, just, ‘go up the mountain.’ Let us see what means he has provided us with. What do you have on you, besides your dress? Anything?”

“And my underclothes, but no,” she said. “Thick wool socks on my feet. My shoes, and a needle and spool of thread that I had forgotten were in my pocket when I left. I had a hairpin but I broke it trying to pick the lock on the treasure chest I found back in the forest.”

“You what?” Hilt said, eyebrows raised.

“Now that time I was fooling with you,” she said, stone faced.

Hilt blinked at her, then laughed. “You did throw me off, there.”

She was unable to suppress a smile in return, “So the named warrior laughs?”

“You don’t know me. I am quick with a laugh,” Hilt replied. “But still, a needle and thread are a commodity to take note of. As for me, I am carrying my swords, a waterskin, a dagger, a blanket, a coil of rope, my flame stick, some leather strips, some parchment, a quill and inkwell, some dried meat, and half a hard loaf of bread. It seems we shall have to find nourishment along the way.”

“You carry all that in your little pack?” she asked, dubiously eyeing the bundle strapped behind his shoulders,.

“I am an efficient packer,” he replied. Too much bulk or weight hampered his movements and he never knew when he might need to draw his swords for battle. “Now we should really keep moving. I would like to put a lot more distance between us and those gorcs by sundown.”

She stood with a groan. “You worry about the gorcs? They didn’t give you much trouble before.”

Hilt snorted. “Gorcs are little trouble in the daylight. But at night, they could ambush us and with enough numbers I could have trouble protecting you. Come, let’s continue.”

He stood and resumed his route along the line of stone markers. They stretched along, small white dots in the mountainside as far as his eye could see, extending the length of the flat area and continuing up another steep slope. It was going to be a hard climb. Beth hurried up next to him, holding up her skirts as she kept pace. Her mouth was twisted like she wanted to say something, but they traversed the flat and rocky stretch of mountainside and nearly reached the next slope before she spoke.

“I still don’t understand why you’ve decided to protect me,” she said finally. “You said you were on a mission. Why the sudden change of heart? Why put the mission aside to help a woman past her prime on a hopeless quest?”

Hilt smiled. “My lady, you may not be a maiden, but you are hardly past your prime.” She was probably near forty, but he gave a kind guess. “What are you, thirty?”

She wasn’t fooled and gave him a knowing glare. “Thirty five.”

Hilt shrugged. “Still younger than I, and I am most definitely not out of my prime, thank you.”

“My age isn’t the point,” she said, letting go of her dress with one hand to waggle a finger at him. “You were all set to carry me down that mountain until I mentioned the prophet. What made you change your mind?”

“I am a named warrior. This happens from time to time.”

“What hap-!” As she stepped over a rock, her foot caught in the frayed hem of her dress. She tripped forward and fell to the ground, banging one knee and skinning the palms of her hands as she tried to catch herself.

Hilt stopped to help her up. He bent to grasp her arm, but reared back as she let out a stream of curses. He stood stunned and watched while she rose to her feet on her own and stomped her feet, cussing all the while, ending with, “I hate this dress!”

She turned and directed her glare at Hilt, who stood with hands raised, his face not betraying his thoughts. “What?” Beth spat. “I told you I’m a base born woman!”

“If I might make a suggestion, my lady.” Hilt began.

“Do you want a black eye?” she said, shaking a quivering fist at him.

Hilt paused. “No. But If I may-.”

“Stop calling me ‘My lady’. I am not your lady. I am a regular person who is having a very bad year! My name is Beth. Call me Beth!”

“I am sorry,” Hilt said. He saw tears in her eyes and realized that there was much more to her story than she had told him. “Beth, I have a suggestion. Something that might help with your current difficulty.”

“Wings? Can you sprout wings and fly me up this mountain?” She asked, wide eyed. A moment of silence stretched between them and a chuckle escaped her lips. She burst out laughing. She sat down on the ground and laughed until tears streamed down her face. “Gah! This is all so ridiculous! I’m sorry. I am sorry, Sir Hilt. I am crazy and I am sorry. Sorry for yelling at you. Sorry for dragging you up here after me. Sorry for everything.”

“It’s okay. It’s okay.” Hilt crouched beside her and offered her a hand. A note of sternness entered his voice. “Beth. Stand up.”

She accepted his hand and allowed him to pull her to her feet. While she dusted off her dress, he pulled his waterskin from its place at his side. He tossed it to her.

“Drink,” he said and she did so gratefully. He took off his small pack and opened it up, pulling out several long strips of leather.

“Thank you,” She said, wiping her mouth as she handed the waterskin back to him. He took it from her and replaced it at his side, then slung his pack back over his back.

“Now Beth, as I was trying to say, your dress is a nuisance. If you try to climb the mountain like this you are going to end up falling off a cliff or something. Now,” He lifted the leather strips and drew his dagger. She eyed the dagger and took a step back. He held it out to her hilt first. “What I am suggesting, is that we turn that dress into bloomers.”


“Do you know what I am talking about? It may be more of a south-eastern style, but . . .”

“Oh! Of course!” Beth smiled and took the dagger and leather strips from him. She began cutting the skirts of her dress down the middle. “Oh, I wish I had thought of it before! Some times I am so stu-. Hey! Turn around.”

“Sorry,” Hilt said and turned his back to her as she continued her work, splitting the skirt and tying one half to each leg with the leather strips. When she had finished, she told him to turn back around.

“What do you think?” The leather strips looked like they were trying to contain a pair of ridiculously puffy trousers. She lifted one leg to show her freedom of movement.

“If I didn’t know better, I would think you’ve done this before,” Hilt replied, stifling a laugh.

She handed the dagger back to him. “It was a fabulous idea. I would do a cartwheel if not for my aching palms.”

“Very good, shall we continue on?” Without waiting for a response he started up the slope, keeping an eye out for the path with the easiest footing.

He soon found a narrow trail worn into the mountainside that ran more or less parallel to the white stone markers. It seemed that the gorcs traversed this slope fairly often. This was fortunate, for it made the going easier, but it also meant that they could run into some of the creatures at any time. Hilt narrowed his senses, looking for signs of recent activity and listening for any sounds that could come from unwanted company. All he heard however was the scrape of their feet against the rocks and Beth humming a tune under her breath.

She was enjoying herself despite the steep climb. Being freed from the dress had put her in a good mood. Hilt was grateful for that, but at the same time, her humming was terribly out of tune. The worst part was that he recognized the song. It was one of his favorite tavern drinking songs and she was butchering it. She continued on, repeating the same verse over and over, each time just a little bit off. Finally he had had enough.

Hilt turned and said in what he hoped was a reasonable tone of voice, “No-no no. I believe you have that wrong. You see, the tune ends, ‘and they all gave her a spaaankiiing.’”

“What song did you think I was humming?” she asked.

“The Farmer’s Drunken Daughter.”

She laughed. “No. It was, The Dusty Dog’s Last Laugh.”

“No you weren’t. That song goes, ‘when the cobbler threw out the dry boooooones.”

“Pff! Where did you learn the song?” She shook her head. “It goes, ‘when the cobbler threw out the dryyyyyy bones!”

Her singing was even worse than her humming. Hilt grit his teeth. “I-. No-. Look that’s not the point. It doesn’t matter what the song is. Just-. Shh! New rule. No singing or humming.”

“No humming?” she wrinkled her nose. “Why is that a rule?”

“Look, we are following a gorc trail. I am trying to listen for signs that they are close, so shh!”

She looked around at the barren rocky mountainside. “Where would they be hiding?”

“This is their land. Not ours. They know where to hide. Just-just be silent until I am sure,” Hilt said.

“Fine,” she said with a shrug and they continued on.

The trail was well used and free of debris. It meandered back and forth in a series of switchbacks that took them up the steepest part of the incline. They made good time, but as they neared the top, Hilt’s concerns proved to be well founded. The sound of drums and gorc chanting began to echo down from the top of the ridge.

They crept up the last few switchbacks until they neared the top. Hilt motioned her to stay silent and left the trail, slowly climbing up the last stretch of the slope to peer over the top. Fifty feet ahead rose a sheer cliff thirty feet high. The trail they were on headed towards the cliff, then took a right and ran alongside it, leading to a wooded area bristling with pine trees. The sounds of the gorc camp came from that direction and he could see smoke wafting up from behind the trees. To his left, the line of white stone markers stretched on, ending at the cliff face. He swore under his breath.

Hilt slid back down to the trail and made sure to whisper to make sure his voice didn’t carry to the gorcs. “I’m afraid we have three choices, none of them particularly good.” He turned to see Beth lying on her side next to a large flat bounder, peering underneath. She reached one hand under the rock.

“Just a second, you sucker . . . there!”  Beth rolled to her knees and stood, dragging out a long brown snake. She gave Hilt a triumphant smile and lifted it by the tail. It arched and hissed trying to reach her, but she kept it at arms length. “Got it!”

Hilt put a finger to his lips and raised a cautioning hand, then slowly drew one sword, and whispered, “Beth. Listen carefully. Drop it and back away. That is a Brown Viper. Very poisonous!”

She rolled her eyes and whispered back, “I’m not going to let it bite me!”

“Just put it down,” Hilt said, ready to lop off its head as soon as she let go.

“Oh for goodness sake,” Beth said and in one fluid motion, swung the snake up over her head in a wide arc and whipped it against the rock. Then as it lay stunned and motionless, she took one step and crushed its head with the heel of her boot. She smiled at him sweetly. “And that, Sir Hilt is how a Pinewood lady hunts for supper.”

“I . . .” Hilt didn’t know how to react. He was both confused and impressed by this woman in equal measure. He sheathed his sword. “Very good then. Viper dead. So . . .”

She folded her arms. “Three bad choices?”

“Yes, three choices. At the top of the incline, we can either follow the trail to the right towards a gorc encampment, we can go straight and climb a sheer cliff, or we can go left and cross over the line of white markers.”

She frowned. “Why are we so afraid of crossing those white rock piles again?”

Hilt closed his eyes, then took a deep breath and released it slowly. “It could be anything. Creatures, natural hazards . . . For the gorcs to mark a part of their own territory in this way means that they fear what ever is over that line.”

“Ah, but I’ve got you with me, right? Nothing you can’t handle.” She smacked him on the shoulder, looped the dead snake over her arm and headed up the incline.

Hilt again considered knocking her unconscious and dragging her back down the mountain. Instead he joined her at the top, made sure that there were no gorcs in sight and led her to the left, crossing the white markers.


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