It’s Here!

Available for download on the Kindle: The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge. This complete novella is a prequel to A Soldier’s Honor, and is now on Amazon for $0.99 on the Kindle. While it is not necessary to read this story before “Honor”, I do think it adds a bit more depth to the characters and world. I hope you will check it out, and if you like it please spread the word.

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The Bandits of Pratt's Refuge

Coming Soon!

As you may, or may not know… I have been writing a short story to go along with “The Scepter of Maris” series. It is a prequel novella that takes place about two years before “A Soldier’s Honor” and features some of the characters from that book. The story mainly focuses on Meric, Malina, and James, but there are a few other minor characters from Book One, as well as some new ones being introduced. It is certainly not necessary to read this before you read “Honor”, but if you are interested in how James first meets Meric and Malina, you will find it there. I will be putting it up on Amazon as a $0.99 download on the Kindle, so there is really no reason not to grab it and enjoy. Below is the cover and a brief synopsis of the novella.

The Bandits of Pratt's Refuge

 Horrible crimes have been committed on the road to Yost, a lakeside traders town in the Kingdom of Glendon. Already set to hunt down the ones responsible for the first set of murders, the Yost garrison commander Captain James Bridgewater discovers two more instances to lay at the feet of these bandits. The most recent crime is the worst of all, and it has James and his men more determined than ever to put a stop to it. With the help of two new allies, he will show these bandits the meaning of justice.

It should be up soon, but for right now it is being checked over by my amazing editor (also read sister) Leslie Dupree. Once I get it back and go through all of the revisions and any polishing I might deem necessary, I will put it up on Amazon. The cover is from Author Marketing Club (a very helpful site for aspiring authors), and will probably be temporary, just like the one for “Honor”. The new cover for “A Soldier’s Honor” is being done by an amazing artist (also read cousin) named Mack Beasley, and I hope to talk to him about doing one for this book as well. One of the hardest parts about self-publishing is not have the resources or money for things like editing and book covers. I am very fortunate to have people helping me along the way.

I will put up another post when the book is available for download, but for now… back to Book Two.

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The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge, Chapter Five

The next chapter of my prequel short story  (in progress and unedited). If you have not read any of it yet, here is Chapter One.

The Bandit’s of Pratt’s Refuge

Chapter Five: The Refuge

“That was amazing!” Weber said for the third time. Though, thankfully, at a more reasonable volume after Meric had warned him on the second repetition. Weber seemed determined that he know how impressive the speed and accuracy of his shot had been. After he let out a deep sigh, he heard Malina chuckle from somewhere behind them.

They had regrouped after finding the prisoner, and settled in while Wood (as Meric had noticed the men referring to the Sergeant) had his ‘chat’ with the man. Apparently, the prisoner had been very cooperative. Wood said the guy could not sell out his friends fast enough, and while they would not rely on the man’s word alone, they definitely gained some useful information. The revelation of the caves beneath the valley, alone, would have been worth the hassle of dealing with another prisoner, not to mention that they were indeed the ones responsible for the deaths being investigated. The number of men, placement of lookout position, and weapons available would be verified to the extent possible. Which was what they had gathered to discuss, along with strategies for taking the valley. One of the Cullen twins (Meric could not tell them apart, yet) was left to watch the prisoner after he had been bound and gagged.

They were looking at the map and deliberating the possible ways to enter the valley, which was running almost exactly north to south, when Meric noticed the troubled look on the Captain’s face. Bridgewater was so obviously not looking at Meric and Malina that he might as well have shouted their names. The Captain’s dilemma was understandable; the people best suited to scout out the area for information, where the two people he knew the least about. Could he trust them? It would not be an easy decision, but Meric believed that the Captain would have to place his trust in them. From what he had seen so far, they were the only two with the skill necessary for the task. While Weber was not hopeless, he had nowhere near Meric or Malina’s abilities. Even Woodard, who could move with surprising stealth for a man built like he was, could not match the two Rennick natives.

Putting the lives of your men in the hands of relative strangers was not a position to be envied. Meric left the Captain to his deliberations, and looked to Wood as he spoke about the vale. He was pointing out the locations of the lookouts according to their prisoner when the Captain called him and the Lieutenant aside. Handing the map to Baker, the Sergeant moved off in his superiors’ direction. While the three of them put their heads together, Meric joined the discussion with Malina and the rest of the soldiers. He would abide by the Captain’s final decision, but could only hope that the man agreed with his assessment.

“We take out the sentry on this hill overlooking the valley, and replace him with Meric. With his skill using that bow, he can start taking out the enemy just before we attack,” said Terry Cullen (or was it Perry? He still could not tell).

“Right,” continued the other Cullen. “Then we hit them while they are all confused.

“Good plan, Cullen comma P,” Woodard barked at the first Cullen that had spoken even as he approached the group, making half of them flinch.

Meric had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing out loud. He would have to make sure he was around the next time Woodard went to Brody’s inn. Having the two of them in the same room might be fun, especially if there was beer involved.

“Uh… thank you, Sergeant?” came the hesitant reply. He seemed to gather some courage and continued. “I thi-”

Don’t tax that brain of yours, Private. You okay with that plan, Vettor?”

“Yes, Sergeant,” Meric replied crisply, causing said Sergeant to narrow his eyes.

Meric could tell that the man was unsure if he was trying to be funny. Meric just looked calmly back at him until the man snorted and turned back to the others.

“Alright, here’s how it’s going to go down. Me, Vettor, and Malina will scout out the area first.”

He must have seen something in Malina’s face that made him pause, because he raised a hand to her.

“Hear me out. Vettor will take the eastern most hilltop overlooking the valley. That will be his side to scout as well. It should be a higher vantage point than the other side. I know you two would be better at getting around unseen by yourselves, but I’m gonna need you to go into the valley with the others, Malina. After scouting out the area, you’re gonna get me close enough to the other sentry, and then get back to the south end of the valley.

“We will split up so that there will be people entering either end. That idiot told me that the main cave entrance was kept hidden, in case someone found them out here. They have ladders in place to get to the entrances they use regularly. There are two; one for the boss and one for the rest of them. If trouble comes, they hit the caves and remove the ladders after they are up. Hopefully, we catch them off guard enough to prevent that, but there will probably be some of them in the caves already. Your job is to find that entrance, and lead the others to it.”

She nodded, satisfied enough with her orders.

“An hour after the sun drops below the tree line, me and Vettor take out the sentries and move into position, replacing them. Hopefully with no one the wiser. After that, we wait to a two hundred count, and then start raining down the confusion.” The last part was said with a grin.

Meric was not the only one to return the eager smile.

“Seven in the group to the south, the other three post at the northern end to keep anyone from getting away. If the prisoner was not lying, there should only be twenty-three of them left. If you sorry lot can’t handle two-to-one odds with this bunch of scum, then if you survive, you’ll wish you hadn’t when I’m done.” Woodard looked around at each of his men, and nodded his approval at what he saw. “Damn right! Let’s move out.”

 

#

 

Meric spent the last two hours of daylight scouting the area he was assigned and then reporting back. It was as Woodard suspected; these were a bunch of lazy, undisciplined ruffians. The one man he found on watch at the north end was sitting with his feet up, back turned to the outside, and drinking. The target up on the hill was also drinking, but at least he was looking in the right direction. He had also begun starting a fire just as Meric headed back to report, that would most likely back-light him nicely once the sun was down. When he reported to the others he mentioned that he thought there might be some ground traps at the entrance to the vale that he was assigned to check, because of the route the few men walking around took. They did not take any particular path until they got to a certain point, and then they always walked the same route.

Malina agreed and Woodard ordered Weber to take the northern end, as he would be more likely to spot these traps if those men needed to come in from that way, and the men at the south would wait for Malina to lead them in. Once everyone was briefed on their responsibility, the Captain stepped forward.

“With everything the prisoner has told us, added to the fact that the trail leads directly here, there is no doubt in my mind that these are the ones responsible for the killings we have been investigating. If you need more; Malina actually made her way into the valley and had a look around.” There were several surprised looks sent in her direction, and more than one nod of respect. “She overheard two men talking about the latest murders… one was… detailed in his retelling. They also have two young women caged up next to the eastern most cottage.

“Meric, make sure no one tries to use them as hostages.”

At Meric’s nod the Captain then took a moment to make eye contact with each of his soldier’s.

“If you can incapacitate any of them without putting yourself, or someone else in danger, do so. Otherwise, you put them down like the dogs they are. If they surrender… well, that is what the shackles you will carry are for. If they do not surrender… you show them the same mercy they showed that little boy.” As he finished, his voice was cold, implacable.

There was not a single person present that had any problem with those orders. Meric hated to take a life, but also knew sometimes it was necessary. Life was precious, and not to be thrown away needlessly. That knife cut both ways, though. These men deserved what they would get, and if he had to lose a little sleep over it, then so be it. He was certain that he would not be losing much.

They ended their briefing after going over the updates of traps and lookouts he Malina had made to the map, then moved out to their areas of responsibility. The sun had just set, and the sky was rapidly darkening, but Meric had paid attention when he was scouting earlier. He found his way back to the spot he had picked with no trouble. Settling in to wait, he divided his attention between his target and the moon, as it slowly crept higher. It was reasonably bright, but not full. It also would not be overhead any time soon, so they could not rely on it for light. Meric did  not think that would be an issue, since these men did not appear to have a lack of firewood. He could tell from the way the trees were lit up that there had to be a few big fires going down in the vale, and as he had thought, the man he was watching had a blazing fire going just behind him.

Shaking his head at the man’s stupidity, Meric studied the trees around the lookout for indications of wind. The orange glowing foliage did not even stir in the slightest, causing a slight grin to come across his features. Perfect.

When the appointed time came, Meric stood from his crouch and moved a step away from the pine he had been leaning against. Sighting his target even as he put tension on the bowstring, he breathed in deeply. When his right thumb brushed his ear, he let out the breath slow and even, adjusted slightly, and let fly.

Just as the string had slipped past the point of no return on his fingertips, another figure began to reveal itself from out of the darkness surrounding the firelight. With no hesitation, acting on pure reflex, another shaft was sent on it’s way. There was barely a second separating the two arrows as they crossed the distance to the, now two, targets. Meric could not tell due to the distance and lack of light, but he imagined that the second person barely had time to be surprised at the arrow sprouting from his companions chest before the second yard long projectile pierced his own heart. Both dropped dead without making any more sound than that of their bodies hitting the dirt.

Sprinting across the open area, he found the path up to the lookout post easily enough, and headed up as fast as the incline would allow him to go safely in the dark. Woodard would have a much easier time, since the western side of the valley was not much more than a big hill. He once again felt thankful for the lack of apparent skill or discipline shown by these men, as he followed the path leading up. Leaving an obvious trail right up to their lookout post was just one example of their ineptitude.

At the top Meric began a count in his head and made a quick check of the area just in case there might be another uninvited guest and then moved away from the fire and toward the inside ridge over looking the valley interior. He knew that he and Woodard would not be able to time their assault exactly, but they would be close enough. They were mainly going to be a distraction, so it might even be to their benefit.

Finding a spot that kept him from being visible due to the fire, but with a good field of view, he surveyed the dell and continued counting. He located the rock ledge that held the cave entrances about thirty yards down to his right, mentally marking it as a point to keep an eye on. The spot he chose would be a good one for keeping the bandits away from the cave entrance.

He had only made it to one hundred and twenty-three when a woman’s scream drew his attention to movement by the cottage below him. His earlier scan had shown the two make-shift cages, both with an occupant. He checked these again with a quick glance, and seeing them still occupied, he turned back to find a man dragging the screaming woman around the back of the cottage by the hair. She tried to fight back, but was jerked even harder by the hand fisted in her hair, causing her to stumble. The man pulled her into the shadows behind the cottage, but fortunately for Meric, the three large bonfires spread around the center of the vale were bright enough for residual light to reach them. It was not ideal, but he could see well enough for a shot.

By this time he still had over a sixty count to go, but he would not be able to wait. The man yanked the woman around to face him and then punched her in the face so hard she spun and landed face down in the grass. Not giving her time to recover, the man was on top of her quickly. She had not made it fully to her knees when he yanked her skirt up over her back and knelt down hard over her legs causing her to collapse. She struggled in vain, as the man’s hands went to his own waist to work on his clothes fastenings. He had just finished getting his belt loose when Meric’s arrow took him in the throat. The woman had never stopped struggling, so even as her assailant toppled sideways she was scrambling away. Rolling onto her backside, she continued crawling backwards until noticing the state of the man that had been attacking her. Confusion and fear had her looking around frantically. It did not take long for her gaze to make it up the hillside, and even though every instinct he had screamed at him to stay concealed, he moved until he was lit up enough for her to see.

He did not stay that way long. When he felt sure that she had seen him, he waved her in his direction, and then moved back to the shadows. What she did next would be up to her. Once more concealed by darkness, he surveyed the area again, looking to see if anyone noticed what had just transpired. Apparently they had not. He could see several men hanging around the fires, laughing and rowdy. Only one turned in the direction the man had taken, but he had merely shouted “watch out, she bites!” and went back to his drink while his nearby friends roared out laughter in response.

Despite all of this going on, Meric had not lost his count. Noise from directly below turned out to be the woman making her way to him, so he shifted his aim away from her to search out a new target. As soon as he reached two hundred he sent the knocked shaft on its way. Right into the left butt cheek of the ‘comedian’. He did not feel inclined to kill the grin that formed at the man’s high pitched scream.

 

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The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge, Chapter Four

The next chapter of my prequel short story  (in progress and unedited). If you have not read any of it yet, here is Chapter One.

 

The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge

Chapter Four: Getting Acquainted

It was slightly awkward for the first hour after setting up camp, but things slowly began to settle and the tension ebbed. After Malina reassured the man for a third time that she was not offended, Captain Bridgewater seemed to take it to heart and began asking the two Rennick natives some pointed questions. Since they had been hiding who they truly were for some time now, it was almost second nature to tell the story about their past to the soldier’s. Lying had never really come easy to Meric, but he had learned out of necessity.

The harsh reality of betrayal was a lesson that only needed to be taught once before it was taken to heart. If his own countrymen could turn on them in a heartbeat, then he would not chance the truth with strangers. There was enough of the story that was true, so he could at least assuage some guilt, and it helped to keep the tale from being too complex. The more details you had to make up, the bigger chance to slip up.

“Horses, you say? From that palomino’s line?” The Captain eased back and let his second take over.

“Mmhhmm… and Malina’s appaloosa, a few others,” Meric said, answer both of the Lieutenant’s questions.

“I had heard that someone bought the old Haskins place, but not who. So what made you decide to leave Rennick? By all accounts, there are a lot of people near the capital that appreciate good horses. They have that big race every year, right?” This came from Woodard.

Meric answered easily enough, but reminded himself to keep an eye on the stocky Sergeant. The man’s tenacity was readily apparent.

“Things changed in Parna… hell, the capital city was not the only place that felt the difference when King Titus was murdered. The new King was not exactly subtle. He is a tyrant, and any-”

“Meric,” Malina chided. “I doubt these good men want to get into a political debate tonight. Why don’t we skip over that part?.”

Meric quickly forced down his embarrassment at getting carried away. He had just been reminding himself about watching what he said, and here he was about to slip up moments later.

“Right… sorry. I guess we just needed a change. I have only ever heard good things about the King of Glendon, and had even visited Yost once, when I was younger, and remembered it fondly. It seemed like as good a choice as any. Malina and I, along with Brody and one other friend, got together, pooled our resources. Now, she and I own the farm and breed horses, Brody owns the inn, and our friend Silas helps out as needed.”

“So, you two are…” Captain Bridgewater looked back and forth between Meric and Malina.

Meric laughed as he shook his head vigorously.

“Gods, no!” That earned him a sharp elbow in the ribs and a glare from Malina, but he just laughed some more and continued. “She may as well be my sister. We have known each other for years and consider ourselves family.”

Meric was pretty sure that the Captain was glad to hear that, since the man seemed to be having a hard time keeping his eyes off of her. He was careful, but Meric caught him once or twice.

“You both appear to be very skilled trackers. Where did you acquire those skills?” While the Sergeant asked in a polite tone, the question could be considered invasive. A quick glance around showed that the Captain and Lieutenant knew this, but were still going to let it go. It seemed that Woodard was going to be their interrogator, how ever friendly he made the questions sound.

“I grew up in northern Rennick, hunting and tracking was an everyday part of my life. I grew to love it.” Meric shrugged and left it at that. That was the truth, just not all of it.

“My father was a Royal Scout,” Malina answered for herself. “Instead of a son to pass along his skills, he got me…”

“And since she can out track, out hunt, and out shoot any of the sons of his peers, he was one proud papa, and would let everyone know it.” Meric finished for her, causing her to blush, but she also smiled fondly.

Before the good Sergeant could resume his questioning, Meric decided to ask one of his own.

“Since it sounds like the crime back on the road was not the reason you are out here, I assume that these bandits have done this before?”

Bridgewater sighed heavily and nodded.

“Two other times that we know of. We need to question them to see if there is more, but the three we know of are enough to see them all hanged.”

Woodard mumbled under his breath, “if they live long enough to get questioned.”

Meric was pretty sure that the Lieutenant heard him, but the man ignored it and gave a brief overview of the other two crimes. When he was done, Meric could see the resolve in Malina’s eyes, and he imagined it matched his own. These men needed to be stopped.

“I am going to bed, gentlemen. I’ll get an early start, follow their trail until I find them or we need to camp again. Hopefully they aren’t too much farther.” Malina stood as she was speaking and moved over to her bed roll.

“Night.” Meric’s voice mixed with a few of the other men as she moved off and then he found his own bed, falling asleep not long after.

 

#

The subdued noises of the men packing up camp around him made Meric smile. There was no way that they were anywhere close enough to their prey to be overheard, but the soldiers were speaking in whispers and being careful not to make too much noise as they got ready to depart. Most of their caution was probably due to the steely gaze of their Sergeant as he he sat by the fire, already packed, and surveyed the men working. Having finished his own packing long ago, Meric watched them move about the campsite as well. The men joked or chatted quietly, but wasted no time getting their tasks done. They worked efficiently, and quickly.

“So… how far do you think we will need to go to find these criminals?”

The Sergeants quiet question brought Meric out of his musings.

“No telling, but that valley on the map you showed us last night seems a likely place. We are headed in the right direction, and it would be close enough for these men to use it as a base.” He shrugged and then continued. “It does not bode well for the families you believe have made a home there, but that makes me even more sure that they would settle there. Ready made place to sleep, fresh water, and it is secluded enough that no one is likely to find it without some luck or knowing it is there.”

“Today, then.” The man ran a hand through his short brown hair, and then nodded. “A few hours before the sun sets. Sunset might be a good time… catch them off guard. I doubt they have the kind of discipline necessary to keep a proper watch. We hit them at dusk.”

Meric just nodded.

“You any good with that bow? Could you take out a sentry from a reasonable distance?” the Sergeant asked.

Meric had to fight a smile before he responded.

“I am fair to middling.” Then the grin broke loose. Before he could say anything in regard to the smirk that came over the Sergeants face at his response, Malina’s soft, barked laugh came from just behind him.

“Don’t let the modesty fool you Woodard; he’s better with that bow than anyone you’ll likely ever come across… and I know that’s a pretty bold statement, but I stand by it.”

Woodard just pursed his lips and gave her a serious nod. The Captain had walked up to stand next to her as she finished speaking and he was the one to respond.

“I guess we will find out soon enough, providing that we are right about our destination. Sergeant, I want to get moving in the next few minutes.” With that, Bridgewater turned and walked in the direction of his Lieutenant.

Malina squeezed Meric’s shoulder, gave Woodard a head bob, and let them know she would go ahead and start out. She would follow the trail, leaving markers for the rest of them as she went. A minute later both men stood and left in separate directions; Woodard to get the men moving, and Meric in the direction Malina had taken, by way of the horses.

The pink and orange sky to the east blended into a purple and black as his gaze moved west, and was steadily getting brighter. The area they had camped was not as heavily wooded, so plenty of the morning light reached them as they broke camp. Allowing the soldier’s to make quick work of breaking camp. The night had only cooled minimally, so Meric checked the extra water skins hanging from Ferron and Losa, Malina’s appaloosa, to make sure they were full. It was going to be another hot day. That done, he moved his attention back to the campsite. Weber was headed his way and beyond the approaching soldier, he could see that Woodard had everyone ready to depart. After settling into his saddle and resting his longbow against his left thigh, Meric began to guide his horse out of the clearing, leaving Losa to be lead by Daniels once more.

 

#

They had been following Malina’s markers for an hour after taking a short break for lunch, when Meric mentally came to a more focused attention. To any observer, it would have looked like he had just kept on his casual scan of the woods around them. Even Weber, who was looking right at him as he relayed a story from his youth, kept on talking and gesturing with his tale. Apparently his companion did not notice the single unfamiliar bird call that came just a second ago. Meric continued to watch the area in front of them, but instead of a lazily scanning for markers, he was now intently searching for something else that did not belong. Something out of place.

A few minutes later he saw it; about fifty yards ahead and just off to the left. It was not much and he might not have noticed it without Malina’s warning, but now that he caught sight, it was obvious. Continuing his calm perusal of the area ahead, he shifted his grip on his bow and set his reins on his lap. Once his right hand was free; he whispered a command to Ferron. As his mount came to an abrupt stop and stood stock still, he straightened in his stirrups, pulled, knocked, and loosed an arrow as fast as he could. Apparently it was more than fast enough, because the shaft was sticking out of the tree trunk six inches from a sparsely bearded face, the red fletching still quivering wildly, when the man in hiding let out a shout and fell backwards.

As soon as he had let fly, Meric urged Ferron into motion, and arrived at the man even as he started scrambling backwards. By the time Meric’s feet hit the ground, he heard another rider coming to a halt right behind him. A quick glance told him it was Woodard, and he stopped and drew another shaft to cover the man that was still awkwardly crawling backwards. After taking a second to be impressed at the quickness of the Sergeant’s reaction, he stepped sideways to let Woodard handle the potential prisoner.

“Stop,” said Meric.

When he noticed the sharp head of the arrow so close and aimed at his head, the man quit moving. Woodard squatted down in front of him and looked him over. He was not in much better shape than the man they had captured the day before. More sober perhaps, but tattered and dirty. His eyes also got very round when he saw the uniform worn by the stocky man in front of him. Woodard wiped the sweat from his brow and spoke to the quaking man.

“You out here alone?”

“No! No, I got lads meetin’ me up any minute. You best be on your way. We ain’t lookin’ for no trouble…”

“He’s alone. At least, there is no one close by.”

At Woodard’s questioning look Meric explained.

“Malina gave a warning call. One call, one unknown individual. She would also have checked the area thoroughly to make sure.”

“I have… and he is alone, though the valley is only an hour farther on.” Malina materialized out of the trees ahead of them and walked back their way.

Woodard looked at her for a moment, and then focused back on the stranger. The grin he turned on the man was not friendly. Meric watched the man’s face go pale and start jabbering as Woodard stood and stepped toward him.

“You and I are going to have a nice chat about your friends,” the Sergeant said in a deceptively calm voice.

Chapter Five ->

 

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Last Chance!

Today is the last day of the FREE promotion for ‘A Soldier’s Honor’ on Kindle. The promo has been going on since Thursday, and it seems to be doing well. If you have downloaded the book, I hope you enjoy it. If not, head over there and get it right now. Today is your last chance to get it free. After you download your copy, I would ask that you let a friend know; every copy downloaded is one more person that might like the book and recommend it to another friend. Spread the word! Once again, thanks to all of you for helping. Now… back to book two.

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