The Unforgiven: Skharr DeathEater #1
Looks can be deceiving…. In this case it's best not to underestimate anyone. Get ready for surprises around each corner with this new series.
The forest, as always, was beautiful at this time of year.
It was still technically spring, with lower temperatures thanks to the winds from the northern mountains that made the incessant brilliance of the sun a little more tolerable. The shade from the trees was perfect and birdsong filled the air, joined by the soft trilling of insects and babblings of tiny creeks as they wound cheerfully to feed into the River of Burin.
For Turvall, the beauty had undeniably faded after three days of walking through it, and all he could pay attention to was the dull ache that plagued most of his body. He told himself repeatedly that he was too old to travel like this—as if it would help—but it didn't appear to have any positive effect.
He could, of course, always ride the donkey that followed him, but old Yern was growing long in the tooth as well and trudged at an equally slow pace as the man leading him.
“I'm too old to travel like this,” he whispered again, leaned on his walking stick and against a handy tree trunk, and took a little time to rest his feet and give his arthritic knees a moment without the full weight of his body on them. There wasn't much of it and many had joked that his gray beard contributed most of that weight, but his old bones seemed inclined to disagree.
Those jokes had become as old as he was himself, but it only meant that folk paid more attention to his age and lack of physical strength, which suited him fine.
Of course, they were always accompanied by a cool mug of ale and a warm meal. Sometimes, people even offered him a nice dry corner in the stables to sleep in, well-padded with fresh hay. It had been days since he had experienced any such luxuries, however.
Yern snorted, shook his head, and nudged his leg gently.
“Patience, you cheeky ass. I only needed a moment,” the old man grumbled, pushed away from the tree, and scratched the graying coat on the beast's forehead. “Give me the use of four legs and I wouldn't have to stop so often. The gods only gave me two, and not of the best quality. As such, you'll have to bear with me—unless you care to bear me instead.”
The donkey stared at him, blinked slowly, and made no sound.
“Yes, that was a terrible joke,” Turvall finally admitted and tugged his beard gently. “I suppose that's what comes from having a donkey for company for days on end. I don't imagine you would know a joke or two to lighten the mood?”
Another dull stare from the beast provided sufficient answer.
“It appears you are aware of the difficulties of performing to an audience of one. And you're lucky enough to know that my drunkenness makes me a better audience, whereas you are always sober.”
Once again, no answer was forthcoming. Folk underestimated the healing powers of having something to talk at when alone for long periods, even if it made one seem mad to the untrained observer. Too many people possessed minds so vapid that they could only speak to others. They could never enjoy the pleasure of their own company and needed to surround themselves with empty voices of equal vapidity and call them friends.
Turvall had never felt the need to surround himself with such folk. The few voices he wanted to hear were those who generally didn't speak unless they had something of import to say.
Or at least something genuinely humorous, which was as valuable in a different way.
Yern's ears flicked back, and the old man resisted the urge to turn to see what he had heard. The beast's hearing was better than his own, but there were things that even he could detect without requiring the keener senses of the donkey that followed him so willingly.
Finally, the animal nudged him in the back, snorted loudly, and uttered a painfully loud bray to catch his attention.
“I know. I hear them too, old friend,” Turvall muttered and patted the beast on the neck. “Or smell them, rather. My ears, as large as they are, cannot hear as well as they used to, but my sense of smell has always been attuned to the stench of foul men who have not been taught the benefits of washing themselves regularly.”
His words were spoken loudly and he let his voice carry through the woods and above the sounds of the forest. Men who had lived and grown in the forest would have learned to cover their scents better to enable them to hunt and trap effectively without turning the rest of the creatures they shared the wooded lands with away. That meant these were foreigners. Not many people chose to live in the Druums Woodlands. Those who did were generally forced into it by the fact that of the three nations that bordered the woods, none sent troops in for patrols due to mysterious losses.
A few tribes and clans still called the place home, but he had long since learned that they moved through the woods without leaving tracks and without so much as being heard, seen, or smelled.
These were not those. They were brigands, most likely. Deserters were probably among them as well judging by the sound of rough, ill-fitting armor scraping the trees that they passed. Making a living by preying on the odd passerby was not a good living, not in these parts, anyway, which meant these were desperate men and likely moving on to greener pastures.
The fact that they thought they were sneaking up on him was interesting. Did they honestly think they were being stealthy?
Or perhaps the better question was why they thought they needed to sneak up on an old man with no visible riches or even a good store of food. There were seven of them, all armed and armored. If they thought they needed to be tactical about their dark work when circumstances didn’t demand it, they certainly wouldn’t progress too far in their chosen life of crime.
Then again, if they were the intelligent type, they wouldn't have tried to plunder travelers in the Woodlands.
One of them managed to move past him and gain the lead. It was only a matter of minutes now before the inevitable confrontation.
Finally, Turvall stopped and brought Yern to a halt as well a few seconds before the first man stepped out of the shadows of the trees. The stranger held a crossbow in his hands, pointed directly at his target’s chest.
The old man tried not to look too bored. Brigands tended to take offense at that.
“Drop your weapon,” said a rough voice behind him. He didn't turn and merely watched the man directly ahead.
“It's not a weapon, it's a walking stick,” Turvall pointed out and restrained a smirk. “It might be a weapon in the hands of Gendrall Monks but as you can see, I do not wear the robes of the order.”
“I said drop the weapon, old man!”
He sighed deeply and let his walking stick fall as the men approached from behind.
“Not the brightest to be traveling on these roads alone, are ya?” the apparent leader of the group commented, shoved him to the ground, and stood over him. “Someone as old as you should know that using the patrolled roads is safer. Then again, someone as old as you should know that staying home is best for grandfathers.”
Turvall paid no attention to man's poor attempts at insults and focused instead on the donkey who lowered his head calmly to browse a patch of grass that grew next to the path.
“Nothing to say?” he asked with a scowl. “Not even an attempt to help me or come to my aid? Some friend you are.”
“Captain,” the brigand with the crossbow called. “He's talking to the donkey. You think he some kind of witch or summat?”
“No, he's no witch.” The leader laughed, moved to the beast, and patted his neck. “He's gone mad from journeying by himself. Probably got kicked out of every other town he tried to settle in.”
“Folk get kicked out of towns for being witches too,” one of the other men noted.
“It's warlock, you dick-sucking morons.” Turvall grunted and pushed slowly to his feet as he tried to ignore the small twinges in his joints. It was possibly not wise to antagonize them, but he had a special disdain for stupidity. “Witches are women, warlocks are men. Do I look like I have tits to you?”
The group exchanged a glance as they considered the terminology they had just learned.
The crossbowman was the first to speak. “Is you one of them…warlocks, then?”
“Do you honestly think a warlock would allow a group of hapless deserters to sneak up on him? Or that a man who can call fire down from the sky like rain would allow himself to be pushed onto the ground?”
The group shuffled warily and the leader glared at Turvall.
“How does you know that we's deserters if you's not a war…warlock?” He sounded like the word was an unfamiliar taste in his mouth and had to work his jaw a few times to get it right.
“Because your armor and weapons are stamped with the mark of the Viscount of Benning. So either you killed the previous owners and took it from them, or you were outfitted and deserted. All things considered, I find the latter option more likely, don't you agree?”
The men nodded, unaware that they had been insulted. The truth was, it did make more sense, even to them.
“Fuck that shit, old man,” the leader finally stated. “We're taking your possessions and your donkey, and if you try to resist, we'll kill you. If you don't, we'll leave you alive.
With naught but the clothes on your back, unfortunately, which might as well be a death sentence for you, but those are the risks you take when you venture through wild territory.”
“So, the options are to die quickly at your hands or die slowly from the cold or starvation?” Turvall asked and looked at each man in turn. “Are you sure those are the options you want to present me with? Because if I'm perfectly honest, being gutted and left to bleed out does feel like the better choice.”
Once again, the group looked stunned. They hadn't expected to find a victim who preferred to die quickly.
“Well then, we might as well kill you and take your possessions,” the leader snapped, pushed him down again, and motioned for one of the men to come forward with a spear.
Turvall raised his hands to stop them. “Hold!” The brigand hesitated. “Or I can give you something a great deal more valuable—something that will allow you to leave these wretched parts and enjoy a few luxuries in life instead of scratching a living from unfortunate travelers, of which there cannot be many. I would do this willingly in exchange for leaving me my possessions and my donkey.”
The leader motioned for his men to stop their rummaging and narrowed his eyes as he stepped closer. “What d’you speak of, old'un?”
He pushed onto his elbows and finally into a seated position, leaned against a nearby pine, and eased himself into a more comfortable position. “Even you must have heard of the Mercenary Guild in Verenvan? ʼTis where folk of your particular leanings are able to make a legal living—and a good one—while living under the protection of Archduke Primor.”
The group exchanged glances.
“Of course,” the man answered and once again seemed oblivious to the suggested insult in the words. “But we’re not likely to earn ourselves a membership given our status as deserters. High-and-mighties tend to frown on that kind of thing.”
“Generally, you would be right, but if you show yourselves capable of great deeds and have the proof thereof, exceptions will be made. For example, if you were to clear a dungeon already on the Guild's bill of dangers, you would be presented with a membership to the guild without so much as a question about your more questionable past.”
The ruffians looked interested and inched closer to the old man, who remained seated and remarkably calm for a victim.
“It transpires that I am in possession of a contract with a map leading to one such dungeon. This was entrusted to me by the Lord Marshall himself to deliver into the hands of a group I deem capable of fulfilling the contract and collecting the reward, both that they might find within the keep as well as from the Lord Marshall. It would be sufficient to find you all comfortable lodgings in civilized company, with more work to follow.”
The brigand leader took another step forward. “I won't simply take your word on it, old'un. Hand it over. Show us.”
Turvall tried not to roll his eyes at the age-old tactic, but he reached into his coat pocket and pulled the scroll out. It was provided with a leather covering sealed in golden wax with the sign of an eagle with three arrows in its talons.
The foul-smelling man with a scraggly beard and tattered clothes under his armor snatched it out of his hands and peered at the inscription. It took him a few seconds of idly looking at it upside down before the old man realized he couldn't read.
He soon acknowledged his limitations and merely handed it to the crossbowman, who immediately turned it over and mumbled softly.
“For everyone to hear, idiot!” the leader shouted.
“Right. It says that the bearer of this scroll is empowered and protected by the Archduke Primor in their quest to accomplish the deeds written within. Any attempt to…in…inter…”
“Interfere,” the old man supplied helpfully, his expression neutral.
“Interfere in their actions will result in panel…penalties to be enforced by Grand Marshall Grimure.”
“How do we know if this is real?” the leader asked, nudging his captive with his foot.
“Touch the seal and you'll find it is marked by the seal of the Archduke,” he pointed out. “And the sting confirms that it was applied in the presence of his mage.”
The warning was a few seconds early but still unheeded as the crossbowman touched the seal with his thumb, snatched his hand away, and uttered a yelp of pain as he dropped the scroll.
“It stung me!” he shouted.
Turvall raised a bushy eyebrow. “I did warn you.”
“Very well. The scroll is as you claimed and we don’ have to kill ya for lyin’ t’us.” The leader shrugged and gestured for the man with the spear to approach again. “I also
hav’ta say you surrendered the best of your possessions without a fight.” He fixed the old man with a hard look. “A pity, then, that’ya would be able to tell the Grand Marshall that the scroll was stolen from you. As this would end poorly for us, we will have to kill you to silence yer gods-sucking blabbermouth.”
Perhaps the man was a little smarter than he had given him credit for, the old man decided. Anyone found in possession of a stolen guild scroll would be drawn and quartered, and if he survived, he would certainly return to the guild and report it stolen. He had hoped the men would take the scroll, complete the task, and return for a reward that would be delivered by four horses sprinting to the four corners of the earth.
Then again, that would have been a little too easy.
“Scour the old'un's possessions,” the leader commanded. “Take anything of worth. Then we gut the stringy bastard and leave him for the wolves.”
Turvall sighed and leaned back against the tree again. It seemed he would have to revert to his original plan. This was what always happened when he tried to be a little too clever with his dealings.
“You know, these lands were inhabited once,” he commented as he watched the men rifle roughly through his possessions that were still on Yern's back. “Druums we call them now, which translates to fools in some of the older tongues. Ancient blood rituals conducted over this soil steeped it with great power that made many a king and lord hungry to possess it. Battles were fought by the hundreds, which of course only succeeded in enriching the magic of the land. In the end, the land was so powerful that those battles that took place had cataclysmic effects on any who lived here. In turn, it wiped out entire civilizations with a destructive force that we can only imagine these days.”
The brigands paused in their looting and turned to look at him. There weren't too many folk who understood the history of the Woodlands. While there were numerous legends, few took the actual archaeological evidence into account.
“Those sacrifices are why the things that grow here are so hostile, as I am sure you have noticed,” Turvall continued, his gaze fixed on the earth as he scrawled markings idly into the packed dirt of the path. “Even those who survived the mass extinction were marked, unable to return to civilization and forced to live out their lives in eternal exile in these woods. Hence the name. Fools they were and fools they remain. As the legend goes, all those who enter here are equally fools. They could simply be inane rantings of storytellers attempting to earn their keep but in the end, there is a seed of truth mixed in. You men, for instance.”
The leader walked closer to him, took the spear from his man's hand, and pointed it belligerently at him. “What’ya rambling about, old'un? I'd ask if you've been drinking but you don't have any spirits in your packs.”
“Not anymore,” Turvall answered with a smirk and continued to draw in the dirt, although his fingers worked a little faster now. “But there are lessons to be learned from all parables. In this case, the lesson is quite simple. Do not underestimate the old, unarmed man who dares to walk in these woodlands on his own.”
The brigand narrowed his eyes and inched the spearhead toward his victim’s neck. His murderous intent was visible in his jaundiced brown eyes, but he stopped short of the violent act and focused on the ground that began to roil under his feet.
A hand reached through it and caught his ankle like a vice. He screamed in panic and tried to pull away but only succeeded in tripping when his feet tangled. The hold on his leg remained and he fell heavily, and it was quickly joined by a dozen others that stretched through the earth, found his neck, arms, and legs, and dragged him down.
The air suddenly filled with the stench of rotting flesh as hands erupted from the soil around the other brigands. Before any of them could fully grasp their danger, the grasping fingers took hold and yanked them off their feet.
“What the fuck?”
“Magic! Dark ma—” The crossbowman's voice was cut off when a spear punched through his chest. A body had joined a pair of hands on the surface.
Sometimes You can't outwit stupidity, so magic is necessary. I can't wait to find out more about the mysterious map, and who this “old man” really is. Check back in a few days for the next chapter.
Get Ready because The Unforgiven: Skharr DeathEater Book 1 can be pre-ordered on October 22, and you can grab your copy on Kindle Unlimited on October 26th.