Tarah Woodblade chapter 3 and update!

Well, folks, it’s crunch time.  It”s getting more and more stressfull here in Cooleyland with our big move coming up. I’m doing the writing while my wife is doing the packing and that has led to all types of fun times for all involved. The good news is Tarah is coming soon, (just weeks away).

In the meantime I thought I would post one last preview chapter for you guys to chew on. I hope you enjoy it. Let me know in the comments section below.

In case you missed them, read chapter one HERE and chapter two HERE.




Chapter Three

Tarah raised her arms, signaling a halt. The nobles jerked back on their reins, causing one of the horses to give out a nervous whinny. The trolls stopped their swaying and sniffed the air, saliva dripping from their open mouths. Luckily their eyesight was poor and the wind was blowing in Tarah’s favor. Like all common trolls they were tall and thin, with long wicked claws and large mouths full of razor-like teeth. Their skin had a greenish tint and extruded a glistening slime that had pooled on the ground around them.

Trolls are hard to kill, warned Tarah’s papa. Best to avoid them whenever possible.

“I know,” Tarah whispered, a shiver of fear rising up her back. Unfortunately, the creatures were standing in the middle of the road. She pulled her bow from its place over her shoulder and turned to Derbich. “Keep your voices low. They haven’t noticed us yet. Do any of you have a way to make fire quickly? Magic fire starters?”

“No.” Derbich answered, his eyes concerned.

“What are those things?” Bertwise whispered.

“Trolls,” Tarah said, but kept her focus on Derbich. “How bad do you need to be at the Mage School today?”

“Let’s go back to Sampo, Derbich,” Anna said, her voice a bit too loud. One of the trolls cocked its head and took a few steps in their direction. “We can come back tomorrow with armed guards.”

“Be silent, Anna.” Derbich turned a frown at Tarah. “I would much rather be there this evening, Miss Woodblade. That’s why I paid your man more than the standard guild rate.”

Tarah’s lips tightened. So her suspicions were right. She would have a nice chat with Bander when she got back to Sampo. “I can take you around ‘em. There is a ravine not far off the road. We’ll have to lead the horses.”

“I demand we go back to Sampo!” Anna protested. “I am NOT traipsing through the underbrush with creatures around!”

The trolls screeched at the sound of her upraised voice and began to run towards them. Tarah swore. “You three stay where you are. Don’t run unless they get past me.”

The trolls were coming fast. She would only have time for one shot and she had to make it count. Tarah reached back to her quiver and ran her fingers quickly over the fletchings, selecting an arrow she knew was steel-tipped. Gathering her concentration, she drew the arrow back and fired.

The arrow struck the lead troll between the eyes and drove deep into its skull. Tarah nodded in satisfaction as it tumbled to the ground. The other troll ran on heedless of its downed companion, its claws outstretched. Tarah dropped her bow and ran to meet it, her red staff in hand.

A troll fights without strategy, her papa said. Hunger is the only thought in its head. It’ll charge and swipe with its claws, trying to pull you in and bite you.

Yeah-yeah. Thanks a lot, Tarah replied. She was scared enough without the reminder. The thing was at least a foot taller than she was and by the way it barreled towards her Tarah knew that standing toe-to-toe with it wasn’t going to work.

Soon it was almost on her. Tarah darted to the side, just under it’s wicked claws, and swung her staff down low, using it’s momentum against it. Her staff cracked it across the shins and the troll fell forward.

It crashed to the ground so hard that Tarah heard the snap of breaking ribs, but the troll scrambled to its feet, heedless of pain, and turned to face her. Tarah planted her feet and the end of her staff met its face, striking it across the upper jaw and nose. The troll stumbled backwards as blood, teeth, and slime flew from its mouth.

For most creatures, such a horrendous blow would have ended the fight, but Tarah didn’t dare let up. Before the troll could right itself, she shifted her hands on her staff and swung again, her weight distributed perfectly to lend the blow as much power as possible. The staff struck its temple, shattering its skull.

The troll fell convulsing and Tarah struck again. Three more times, she bashed its skull, softening it up. Then, when its movements had stopped, she pulled an arrow from her quiver and stabbed through its fractured skull, pinning it to the ground.

Breathing heavily, she turned to see if the other troll was back up yet. When she saw that it hadn’t moved, she let out a sigh of relief and turned to face her clients.

Anne was staring at her, wide-eyed, her hand raised to her mouth in horror. Derbich gazed at her with respect, one eyebrow raised. Bertwise, on the other hand, wore an eager grin.

“That was amazing!” the young noble said and spurred his horse forward to get a closer look at the downed troll. Tarah raised her hand and opened her mouth to tell him to stop, but she was too late. As his horse lunged forward, she heard a loud snap.

“No!” she cried and rushed past the confused boy. A lump rose in her throat as she picked up her bow from the ground where she had dropped it. The impact of the horse’s hoof had split the wood down the middle. She glared at the boy. “You see what you did?”

“I’m sorry,” Bertwise said, confused by her reaction.

“Don’t worry, Miss Woodblade,” said Derbich. “We’ll buy you a new one.”

“M-my papa made it for me,” she said, her lips quivering. “It’s . . . not replaceable.”

Tarah Woodblade doesn’t cry. Tarah Woodblade doesn’t mourn. Not where she can be seen, Grampa Rolf reminded. Tarah swallowed her sorrow and swung the broken bow back over her shoulder.

“I insist,” Derbich said. “We can make an arrangement of some kind.”

Tarah shook her head, but felt an insistent nudge from her grampa and said, “We can settle up when we arrive at the Mage School. For now, I need to burn these things. Come on. Follow me.” She led them down the road and stopped them at the body of the first troll she had downed.

“It’s moving!” cried Bertwise.

The troll raised its head and began to push itself up from the ground. It opened its mouth and gurgled, releasing a rivulet of slime. Tarah could see the arrow slowly being pushed out of the wound as the creature’s brain healed. She swung her staff in a precise strike, smacking the end of the arrow and driving it back into the troll’s head. The steel arrowhead popped out through the back of its skull.

Anna yelped as the troll convulsed, then laid still. Tarah grabbed it by the leg. The troll’s skin was slick and rubbery and she fought a grimace off of her face as she began pulling it down the center of the road towards the second one.

“What are you doing?” Anne asked from atop her horse. “Let’s ride on.”

“We can’t, Madam Furley. They heal too quick. If we leave ‘em here, they’ll just attack the next person that comes down the road,” Tarah said, dragging the heavy troll past their horses.

Bertwise didn’t believe it. “How can it heal an arrow through the brain?”

“They don’t have much to heal,” Tarah replied.

“Troll brains are simple, Berty,” Derbich explained. “All they think about is eating. Besides, even if you cut their head off, they’ll just grow a new one and walk around as if nothing happened.”

“And the head you cut off will grow another body if you let it,” Tarah added, grunting as she pulled its body on top of its friend. “Once saw a troll cut into ten pieces. Two weeks later, came back to find ten trolls.” That was actually one of her papa’s stories, but Grampa Rolf would say telling tales was a good idea, whether the story was true or not. That’s how you grew your legend.

“The best thing you can do is leave something stuck through its brain until you can burn it,” Tarah continued. She looked down at the troll whose head she had smashed. The bones of its skull were already re-forming. She set down her pack and reached into the front pocket for her flint and steel. “Now hold tight while I set these things on fire.”

“Right there in the middle of the road?” Bertwise asked.

“Don’t want to burn down the forest,” Tarah said.

“I don’t like standing around here,” Anne complained. “What if there are more of those things around?”

“This won’t take long,” Tarah said through gritted teeth. If these people weren’t clients she would have chewed the woman’s ear off. Instead she kept her voice even.

“Don’t worry, dear,” Derbich said. “Trolls burn quite quickly. Their slime is flammable.”

“How efficient of them,” Anne grumbled.

Tarah turned her back on the woman and struck her flint against the steel, sending sparks onto the trolls’ glistening bodies. It only took a few strikes before there was a soft whoosh. The flames came up so suddenly that the horses shied away.

The trolls began to squirm as the fire ate into them and one of them jerked spasmodically, sending strings of burning slime across the road. One string landed on a slime trail the trolls had left earlier and Tarah rushed over as fire began to spread. She was able to kick dirt over the trail to stop the flame’s spread just before it reached a pool of slime at the forest’s edge.

“See, lady?” Tarah said. “That’s why I wanted ‘em in the middle of the road. Who knows how long they’ve been in the place leaving their slimy tracks every. . .”

Tarah’s voice trailed off. She walked to the edge of the road and crouched down. “No way,” she mumbled to herself, gazing at several slime-covered impressions in the ground. Their pattern was quite distinct.

“Do we really need to wait around here until those things stop burning?” Anne said.

“Just a minute longer,” Tara said. She opened her pack and reached deep inside to pull out a piece of folded parchment. She opened it and compared the ink drawings on the page to the impressions in the ground. They matched perfectly.

Gripping her staff tightly, she tucked the parchment under her arm and reached down with her free hand to touch the tracks. A deep hunger flashed through her mind and she snatched her hand back, frowning slightly. She couldn’t sense the mind of the creature that had left the track. The troll slime was in the way. She sat back on her haunches and looked at the piece of parchment again, her brow furrowed.

“Miss Woodblade? Is there a problem?” Derbich asked. The man’s voice was tinged with concern.

She shook her head and tucked the parchment back into her pack, then stood and turned to face them. “It’s nothing of importance, sir. We should move on.” He raised an eyebrow but nodded and Tarah added, “I’ll pick up the pace. We’ll still make it by dark if we hurry.”

She started on down the road towards the Mage School at a brisk jog, leaving the smoldering remains of the trolls, and the curious tracks, behind. The nobles had to urge their horses into a trot to keep up. To Tarah’s relief, they kept a slight distance, giving her time to mull things over.

When the drawing of the strange tracks had been given to her, Tarah had scoffed at the idea that such a creature existed. But now she had seen real proof. The tracks had belonged to a large beast with the front end of an ape and the rear end of a great cat.

She could feel her grampa’s smile. There was a lot of money to be made if she could track that beast down. Too bad the tracks had been so old. From the state of them, they had been left in the mud two rains ago and from the looks of the forest around, it hadn’t rained in quite some time. She bit her lip. The creature could be anywhere by now.

Tarah Woodblade doesn’t turn down an opportunity to make coin, Grampa Rolf reminded.

It’s too much of a stretch, grampa, she replied. Still, it was a lot of coin. She shrugged the thoughts away. She could worry about that later. The most important thing at the moment was to deliver the nobles to the Mage School.

Tarah kept up her pace and soon she was breathing heavily. She shook her head, refusing to slow. Three months of hiding had weakened her. Tarah Woodblade didn’t get winded. Not after a mile run. Besides at this speed, none of the nobles had bothered to speak with her.

The enormous Rune Tower loomed ahead and she ran on, her eyes taking in the scars of war all around her. The fighting had been heavy along this last section of road. Trees were broken, many of them charred, and huge sections of the forest had been torn up. Tarah didn’t let guilt touch her this time. This had been the result of battling with magic. Surely there was nothing one person could have done to help.

Tarah’s legs were burning by the time the walls of the Mage School came into view. She slowed to a walk, her jaw dropping. The walls had shrunk.

The walls used to be a marvel. Raised by powerful earth wizards, they had been fifty-feet-high and made of a single sheet of black rock and used to hang out overhead far above the ground, giving the oppressive feeling that they could collapse on her at any moment. Now, though they were made of the same black rock, the walls were maybe twenty-feet-tall at most. Tarah swallowed as she thought of the sheer amount of power that would have been necessary to bring those walls down.

The Furleys hadn’t seen the walls in their previous state. Anna gave out an awed gasp and Bertwise hooted in excitement. They urged their horses forward and soon passed Tarah in their rush to get to the gates.

Derbich let them race ahead, slowing down as he came next to her. “I must talk to the wizards, but I would like to speak with you afterwards if you don’t mind waiting, Miss Woodblade.”

Without thinking, she nodded and he hurried to catch up to his wife who was already at the front gate speaking to a guard and gesturing excitedly. Tarah walked on, watching as he caught up to them and calmed his wife. Before she reached them, another guard came from inside the wall and ushered the family through. They didn’t look back.

Tarah stopped and grit her teeth in consternation. Why had she agreed to wait? There was nothing to do outside but stand in the dirt and they could be gone for hours.

She looked up at the darkening sky. Surely there was no real need to stay. The Furleys had already paid the guild. If she started back to Sampo now she would be back at the Tracker’s Friend to throttle Bander by midnight.

She turned around, intending to do just that when she heard her papa’s voice chastening her, Be responsible, Tarah. If you see something dangerous in the woods, you got to warn folks.

Her shoulders slouched and she mumbled, “I know, papa.” Tarah looked back at the guards standing by the gate. There were two, one standing on either side of the wide gate, and both were looking her way. She headed towards one of them. He was a big man wearing a breast plate and carrying a spear.

“Hey you!” Tarah said and the man’s eyes widened in surprise. His face was weathered and a long scar wrinkled one cheek. “You in charge here?”

“Me? No. I’m just a student,” he said with a voice Tarah found high for a man his size.

“You’re a student?” she said, puzzled. “At the Mage School?”

A hesitant smile appeared on the man’s lips. “Naw. At the Battle Academy, Ma’am.”

“What’s an academy student doing standing guard at the Mage School?”

His smile faltered. “It’s a big place. Everybody helps with guard duty.”

Tarah frowned. The academy didn’t send students on guard assignments. More had changed than she’d thought. “I don’t have time to talk to a student. Where’s your guard captain?”

“Uh . . .” The student took a few steps back from the wall and looked towards the top of the wall. “Jerry!”

A helmeted head appeared at the top of the wall and peered down at them as it shouted back, “What?”

“This . . . lady wants to talk to someone in charge!” the student replied.

The person on the wall let out a sigh. “I’m coming down!”

A few moments later a guard dressed in full polished platemail walked from inside the gate, his helmet held under one arm. He was short, perhaps a full foot shorter than Tarah, but he had a wide-bodied frame. His shoulders were as wide as a man half again his size and his arms were huge. He approached them and Tarah realized from his stride that he was a dwarf. She hadn’t noticed right away because, unlike other dwarves she’d seen, his hair and beard were cropped short and neat. It reminded her of the way her papa kept his beard trimmed.

The student saluted him but the dwarf just scowled. “You call me captain when you’re on duty, kid,” the dwarf snapped. “And my name’s ‘Djeri’, not ‘Jerry’. understand?”

The man’s face reddened. “Yes, sir.”

Tarah found it strange to see such a young-looking dwarf addressing that grizzled man as ‘kid’. But then again the races with blood magic lived a long time. For all she knew, he could be hundreds of years old.

“Alright, Yerd, back to your post,” the dwarf said in dismissal and turned his eyes on Tarah. He raised one trimmed eyebrow at her armor and red staff, then met her gaze. His eyes were green. She’d never seen a dwarf with green eyes. “And what can I help you with?”

“You’re the guard captain?” she asked.

“No. Riveren the Unbending is in a meeting right now,” the dwarf said, his voice a deep baritone. “But I’m one of his sub-captains. You can speak to me.”

So Riveren was still in charge. The ‘Unbending’ moniker was new, but at least someone she knew had survived the war. “Okay, captain. I wanted to tell you that you guys have problems. We ran into trolls on the road here from Sampo.”

The dwarf didn’t look surprised. “How far from here?”

“About half way,” Tarah said. “There were two of ‘em.”

“Two trolls,” Djeri said, nodding. “Thanks for telling me. I’ll send some men down to take care of them.”

“Those trolls are dead,” she replied. “I burned ‘em and left ‘em in the middle of the road. The reason I’m warning you about ‘em is because there could be more. There was a lot of slime in the forest around the area. I had folks to guide so I wasn’t able to stay around and count tracks.”

“You killed them?” The dwarf looked her over again, his face thoughtful.

“Tarah Woodblade won’t be slowed down by a couple trolls.”

Djeri smiled. “You’re Tarah Woodblade? The hero of Pinewood?”

“I am,” she said and though she injected pride into her voice, something about the dwarf made her feel a little guilty saying it. “But I’m not from Pinewood itself.”

“I heard about you.” He gave her a respectful nod. “Most people thought you were dead, but the Pinewood folks said you were too tough to die. Where have you been?”

“It’s a long story,” she said quickly. “And it’s getting late. I really need to get heading back. I just wanted to warn you before I left.”

“Come on. There’s no need for you to leave just yet. Not when it’s just getting dark,” the dwarf replied and Tarah wondered where he was from. She had never met a dwarf that sounded so . . . human. “Why don’t you stay here for the night? Dinner’s just starting back at the barracks and there is a guest house open that you can sleep in.”

“I-I don’t know.”

“I insist,” he said with an encouraging grin. “Listen, the food here might not be dwarvish, but it’s way better than the turd soup they serve at the inns in Sampo. And I hear the beds at the houses are really nice.”

“Well . . .” Tarah hesitated. A bed sounded wonderful, but Tarah really didn’t want to spend the evening trying to explain where she’d been during the war.

Djeri took her hesitation as a yes. “Good. Yerd! Send a message to Wizard Beehn that we have a guest.” The big man nodded and ran through the gate. Djeri put an arm around her shoulder and urged her inside. “Thanks for warning me about the road. I’ll tell Riveren about it as soon as he gets out of the meeting. I’m sure we’ll send a patrol out at first light.”

Tarah sighed in acceptance and allowed him to lead her through the gate. The view inside the walls was pretty much the way she remembered it. The main road continued through vast manicured lawns to a cluster of class buildings and a clock tower at the center of the school. The enormous Rune Tower rose up behind it all, stretching endlessly into the sky.

That was the home of the wizards, the home of the Bowl of Souls, and more importantly to Tarah, the home of the greatest library in Dremaldria. Tarah had never been inside, but her mother had told her tales of it. She had always dreamed of roaming the library, reading the tales of the great adventurers of days gone by. But the wizards would never let someone like her in there.

Djeri paused to let her take it in, but he didn’t stop talking. “I’m sorry you had to deal with those trolls. We’ve had difficulty keeping the area clear. Ewzad Vriil and the moonrat mother left a lot of turds behind for us to deal with.”

Djeri led her to the left, away from the main road and towards the guard barracks. This area was much bigger than Tarah remembered. There were two new buildings and several neat rows of tents spread in the grass beyond.

As they came closer, Tarah could see men milling about as they came on and off the wall and heard the sound of sparring coming from the training grounds behind the buildings. “You seem to have a lot more guards than before,” she observed.

“Most of the men you see are students,” Djeri said with a shake of his head. “The majority of the graduates are either out on assignments or helping with the rebuild so our forces are stretched pretty thin. The wizards are letting us teach the students here until the new academy is complete.” The dwarf brought her to the largest of the buildings and Tarah caught the first scent of the food being served. “There’s so many of us here right now that the Mage School set us up our own dining hall. We’ve found it best to keep our students separate from theirs as much as possible.”

Tarah’s mouth watered and she realized she had hardly eaten all day. They entered a wide and open dining hall packed with tables and the clamor of talking men. At the back of the room, several servers wearing white aprons were standing behind tables laden with food, dishing it onto plates for the guards.

“The food line’s right here,” Djeri said, taking her to a group of men that were waiting to have their plates filled. “I’m sorry, but I’ll have to leave you here. I have other duties to attend to.”

Tarah frowned. “What am I supposed to do?”

“Just get your food and sit anywhere. No one will give you trouble,” he assured her. “I’ll tell Riveren you are here. I’m sure he’ll want to talk to you. One of us will return to show you to your guest house in a little while.”

The dwarf patted her shoulder and left and Tarah’s anxiety rose. As she watched the dwarf walk out the front door, she had to force the frown from her face. She replaced it with an expression of confidence and waited for her turn at the food, ignoring the curious stares of the men all around the room.

Her palms were sweating by the time one of the workers placed a large plate in her hands. She turned her attention on the food and gave nods to the workers as they piled various meats and vegetables on her plate. Each dish looked like a delicacy to her, covered with herbs and cooked to perfection. The last worker topped her plate with a large yeasty roll and Tarah stepped away eager to get started.

Now the question was where to sit. There wasn’t a completely empty table in the whole hall and the number of men watching her had increased. Sweat beaded on her forehead as she looked around the room and Tarah finally selected an empty spot on a table along the back wall.

There were four other men at the table, but none of them were looking her way. She sat at the end farthest from the men, setting her pack down next to her so that no one would try to sit there. The four men must have just finished a long shift, because they barely glanced at her with sleepy eyes before returning their gazes to their plates.

Watch and learn, Tarah. Watch and learn, said her papa’s voice and Grampa Rolf agreed. The best salesman is observant. Keep your eyes and ears open in every situation. You never know what opportunities may arise.

She didn’t care about opportunities in this place, but Tarah tried to listen to the conversations at the tables around her. Then she took her first bite and their advice was forgotten.

These academy men ate like kings. The roast beef was covered with gravy and fell apart in her mouth, the ham was smoked to perfection, and the roast duck had a sweet and slightly nutty flavor that made her wish she had the whole bird on her plate. The roll was soft and buttery, but the food that impressed her the most was a strange vegetable she had never tasted before. It was yellow in color and looked like a mix of tomato and squash, but had a smooth texture and a peppery tang to it.

As she ate, the weariness left her body and she realized that these academy men weren’t eating like kings. They were eating like elves. There was magic in this food. She felt like she could run all the way back to Sampo without stopping.

She was sopping up the last bit of gravy from her plate when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She looked up to see a guard in bulky plate armor standing beside her.

“You Tarah Woodblade?” asked a female voice.

“Yeah,” Tarah responded hesitantly.

The guard took off her helmet and Tarah saw a pretty face and a head of short-cropped blond hair. A horizontal line of black paint covered the guard’s face from nose to eyebrow. “I’m Kathy. Djeri asked me to take you to your guest house.”

“The dwarf sent you?” Tarah stood to find that this woman was almost as tall as she was and by the size of her plate armor, Tarah knew she must be very strong.

“He asked me,” the woman clarified. “Djeri’s a friend, but he’s not my boss. He was called into a meeting or he would have come himself.”

Tarah picked her pack up off of the bench beside her and shook her head as she shrugged it on. “You academy guards sure have a lot of meetings.”

Kathy smiled. “That’s what happens when you’re posted at the Mage School. Wizards love to talk. Come on. Follow me.”

They left the dining hall and walked back across the main road to the far side of the gates where a row of small houses stood. There were horses tied in front of one house and Tarah saw Derbich Furley standing next to them talking to a woman wearing mage robes. Tarah’s shoulder’s slumped. She had been hoping they would be staying somewhere else.

“This’ll be your place,” Kathy said, pointing to the house nearest the gate. She handed Tarah a key. “The wizards keep the place clean. We eat at dawn, but there’s always food in the dining hall, so you can sleep in if you want.”

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep at all after that meal,” Tarah said. “I can’t imagine what it’d be like eating that food every day.”

Kathy gave a half chuckle. “Yeah, you feel amazing the first few times, but you get used to it after awhile. I hardly notice it anymore. Anyway, it was nice meeting you.”

“And you,” Tarah replied. The woman nodded, then turned and walked back towards the barracks.

Tarah glanced quickly over at Derbich and was relieved to see he was still talking to the mage. She hurried over to the door of the small house and unlocked it, hoping to get inside before he noticed her.

“Miss Woodblade!” Derbich called and Tarah winced. He said one last thing to the mage before jogging over to talk to her.

Tarah frowned inwardly, but said in what she assumed was a polite tone, “Hello, sir.”

“So you are settling in, then?” he asked.

“I’ll be staying the night,” she said. “But I plan on leaving in the morning.”

“Ah, we may be here a week or so,” he said, looking slightly disappointed. “Would you consider staying and escorting us back?”

There was nothing she could think of that she wanted to do less. “Sorry, I can’t. I’ve got other things I need to do back home.”

“Ah, I understand.” Derbich hesitated a moment. “Miss Woodblade, I feel I must apologize for my family’s behavior.”

Tarah blinked in surprise. “Not at all. They were, uh . . . fine, sir.”

Derbich shook his head. “Nonsense, I know how horrible they were. I must ask you to forgive them. They are out of their element. You see my wife is, shall we say, sheltered. This trip is her first time out of Razbeck. In fact, it’s her first time to journey anywhere outside the city by any means other than coach. As for Bertwise,” He let out a regretful sigh. “I’ve tried to imbue that boy with common sense, but the noble court has corrupted him. I’m hoping life at the school will be good for him. Perhaps the wizards will teach him some humility.”

“I’m not sure the wizards have any,” Tarah replied.

Derbich chuckled. “Well, at least this talent of his means he won’t be taking over the family lands when I am gone. His younger sister is much more of a leader.”

“I see.” Tarah nodded in understanding. People with magic talent weren‘t allowed to rule. It was a law established by the prophet long ago and the Mage School itself enforced it. “Well, I wish your family well.” She turned to head into the house, but the man cleared his throat.

“Wait, I still need to settle up with you,” he said.

“Settle up?” Tarah said, unsure what he meant.

“Yes, I paid your man earlier, but there is the matter of your broken bow to attend to.”

Tarah had been trying not to think about it. “I’ve told you it isn’t replaceable.”

“Surely there’s something I can do to help,” he insisted.

Tarah had the urge to yell at him. What was he going to do, bring her papa back from the dead to make her another bow? But at her grampa’s silent urging, she said instead, “What do you propose?”

“I’ve been thinking on that.” Derbich pulled a coin purse out of his coat pocket and fished around inside. “I know that the bow was an heirloom, but perhaps this will help.”

Tarah frowned slightly. “Even if you gave me a handful of gold pieces, it won’t buy me a bow better than I can make myself.”

Derbich’s brow furrowed and he placed four gold pieces in her hand. “I don’t know about a handful, but this should at least help with material costs.”

Tarah swallowed. That was more than she had expected. “It will help. Thank you, sir.”

Derbich gave her a calculating look. “But you saved our lives today. So perhaps I can offer you something better.”

“Better than gold?” she asked.

“How about steady employment?” he suggested.

“What do you mean by steady?” Tarah asked.

“As long as you wanted it,” he said. “From what I saw at your guild house, it seems the Sampo Guidesmen have come under hard times. Come work for me. House Furley may not be the highest house in Razbeck, but I could use someone with your talents. I can provide you with steady work and good pay.”

“Leave the guild?” If she had been asked the day before, she would have been tempted to take it. “I . . . appreciate the offer, sir, but-.”

“It is a standing offer.” Derbich reached back into his purse and pulled out a type of coin Tarah had not seen before. It was slightly larger than a standard gold piece. The outer portion was made of silver while a golden disk sat in the center. “This is a Furley House mark. If you are ever in the City of Beck, come to my estates. Show this to the house guards and they will let you in to see me.”

Never close a door, Grampa Rolf said. Any business contact is a good business contact.

“Thank you, sir,” Tarah said. She took the coin and deposited it along with the gold in her pocket. “I will think on it.”

He patted her shoulder. “That’s all I can ask. Now, I must wish you a good evening. I hope we can do business together again.”

Tarah considered his proposal as he walked away. A steady job with a noble house? There could be worse ways to live. It was the kind of life her papa would have wanted for her. But that would mean leaving Dremaldria for good. It would also mean dealing with people every day. Tarah shuddered and turned back towards the cottage door.

She stepped inside to find a tidy living space. The arrangements were nicer than any inn she had ever stayed at. There was a central area with a table, two chairs, and a small cupboard and two identical bedrooms sat at either side of the space. A vase of fresh flowers sat in each room, filling the house with a fresh scent.

Tarah picked one of the bedrooms and threw her pack down just inside the doorway. She glanced at the intricate pattern on the quilt covering the bed. The wizards sure did their best to make the place inviting to their guests. Tarah frowned. This place made her feel like even more of a fraud.

She sighed as she unlaced and removed her armor. The sweaty stench of her underclothes made her wince. Tarah used the washbasin by the bed to clean up as best as she could and pulled a somewhat cleaner set of underclothes from her pack. Oh how she wished she were home. To have clean clothes and sleep in her own bed would have been so nice. She pulled back the quilt on the bed and looked at the clean white sheets, sure that there wouldn’t be much sleep for her here. Then she sat on the bed.

Tarah let out a sigh of a different kind. This was no straw mattress like at the inns she frequented. It wasn’t even stuffed with cotton like the mattress at home. She laid back into the luxuriant softness and smiled as she pulled the silky quilt over her. This had to be stuffed with down of some sort, though she couldn’t imagine what kind of bird had feathers that soft. And the pillow . . . she rubbed her head into it and smiled at the faintly floral scent. No she wasn’t sleeping tonight. This was far too comfortable to miss by indulging in something as ordinary as sleep.

She was snoring softly within minutes.

(End of chapter 3)

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