All posts by James R. Barnes

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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It’s Free!

Who doesn’t like free? Starting today, and ending on Saturday, March 1st my book will be available for FREE on the Kindle. It’s a three day promo through the Kindle Select program to help get the book out there and into more hands. If you already have a copy of the book, and you liked it, please spread the word. Every little bit helps, and I definitely am thankful for all of the help I can get.

Getting the word out is how you sell more books. I have already seen this in the short amount of time I have had the book available. Recommendations by family and friends has basically been my most successful form of advertising, and I thank you all. If you would like to help even more, and have a free minute here or there: a review on Amazon would be greatly appreciated. Reviews are the life’s blood of writing, and favorable ones help sell books.

If you are more about the hard copy when you read, then there is still a giveaway going on Goodreads until March 17th. You could win 1 of 5 copies of the trade paperback version of the book.

Thanks again for your help, and wish me luck!

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Just a Quick Update

Now that the book is out there in both versions, I just wanted to take a moment to post a quick update. It is a pretty great feeling to have the book actually selling, and I want to throw out a quick thanks to everyone who bought a copy; I really hope you enjoyed it. I am hard at work on book two, but writing is what I do in my spare time, not how I make a living, so please be patient with me. That is not to say it will take forever; it seems to be rolling right along, and I like how it is turning out so far.

For those of you that are still on the fence about buying the Kindle edition of the book, you are in luck. Next week the book will be available for a three day free promo through the Kindle Select program. Starting Thursday, Feb. 27th through Saturday, Mar. 1st ‘A Soldier’s Honor’ will be available for FREE on the Kindle. Get your free copy and enjoy!

If you do not want to wait, and you have an Amazon Prime account, you can always borrow the book from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library and read it on your Kindle device.

From the Amazon website:

“The Kindle Owners’ Lending Library is available to Amazon Prime members—paid Amazon Prime, paid Amazon Student, 30-day free trial, and customers receiving a free month of Prime benefits with a Kindle Fire device—who own a Kindle device. The Lending Library features over 500,000 titles, including many New York Times bestsellers. Books borrowed from the Lending Library have no due date and can be delivered to other Kindle devices registered to your Amazon account.

Note: Books that are borrowed from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library can be read only on Kindle devices.”

For those of you that do not have a Kindle, but would still like the digital version of the book, a Kindle app is available for most smart phones, tablets and your PC. You will still need to have an Amazon account, but you can read via the app on any of those devices.

Digital books not your thing? There is always the paperback version. The price is a bit more, but you do get the tactile feel of having a ‘real’ book in hand. If you need to keep your book purchases to a minimum (like I do), you can always enter for a chance to win a copy on Goodreads.

If you love to read, and do not have a Goodreads account, you are really missing out. It is a great social site for readers and authors to find new books and old, connect with other readers who enjoy the same books, and find many of your favorite authors to keep tabs on. You can rate the books you add to your library, put them on shelves you can label whatever you like, or review the books you like to help others decide. There are tons of different communities to join, or even make your own.

Again, thanks to all of you for your support.

The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge, Chapter Three

Chapter three of my short story (in progress and unedited). Here is Chapter One and Chapter Two.

Chapter Three: Pratt

Virgil Pratt was a satisfied man. Well… except for the hangover. The view from where he stood would probably make one of those sensitive, foppish types spout some of that poetry crap and tear up. The small valley he had set his operation up in was nice. Green trees, tall grass and bushes, two nice little cottages with gardens and animal pens, a small brook running through the middle. Right out of a bard’s song. He saw something entirely different as he squinted in the painful mid-day sun and finished relieving himself over the rock ledge.

The trees were great for lookout posts. The tall grass and bushes at either end of the hollow hid several bear traps and trip wires. One cottage was his headquarters, and the other was for storage. The brook… well, they used that the way most would, but they sure were not writing any songs or painting any pictures of it. That was just what you could see from the outside. Well hidden by an overgrowth of trees and bushes, the cave entrance below him was only discovered by pure accident. He was pretty certain that the people that were living in this valley before he took it over had been unaware of the collection of rooms and tunnels that the opening revealed. The rocky outcrop was only about three stories high, too big for a hill, but not big enough to call a mountain.

The other side of the valley was even less impressive; more a brush covered knoll that stood just tall enough to make this dip in the land an actual valley. It did have one feature that made it ideal. The tunnels below spread out under a good portion of this valley, and one of those led to a cleverly disguised exit. Whoever made these tunnels, was pretty handy with a chisel. The exit looked like any other part of the rock formation on the hillock. The rest of the tunnels were also well made, and as far as he could tell, laid out in a big square pattern with a lot of interconnecting passages and rooms in the center.

The place looked like it had been abandoned a long time ago. There was no furniture to speak of, and it appeared that it had been well cleaned before the owners left; the only things marring the neatness were the thick layer of dust, numerous spider webs, and signs of wild animals having used the place for a den.

Virgil had stumbled upon the caves when he was passing through the valley almost five months ago and heard some people shouting back and forth.

 

-X-

 

He caught a glimpse of one man in dirty, rough-spun tunic and trousers, wiping a sweat rag across his brow and shouting to someone out of sight about a pig. Virgil ducked back into the nearby bushes so he could hide until he knew how many men were out there. A couple of farmers he could handle, even with the busted up leg and bruised ribs he had due to his hasty retreat from Haley, but he wanted to make sure it was only two. As he burrowed farther into his hiding spot, he glanced around and that was when he saw the crease of darkness in the rocks.  As he had entered the valley he stayed close to the high, rocky hill on the southeast side and that was where his current hiding spot was; in some dense foliage growing at the foot of the hill.

The voices gradually became more distant, but instead of going out to check on them he decided to see what the dark mystery crease was. Always too curious, he did not stop to think that the opening might not a simple cave he could crawl into and hideout for the night. The growth around the hole was a tight squeeze, and he had to back up twice to unhook his shirt when it got snagged. While he cursed his slight beer gut as he wriggled between two bushes, he was also feeling pretty good about his potential hideout. The fact that it was so overgrown meant that the voices probably did not know it was there. When he finally reached the spot, he discovered a cave entrance big enough for him to walk through upright once he moved some branches out of the way. His smug smile was gone in the same instant that he realized the solid ground for his next step was as well. He was fortunate that his tumble was only for a short distance, and that he landed without breaking any bones. His ribs sure did not like the treatment, though.

 

-X-

 

He chuckled at the memory, even though it caused his head to ache a bit more, and turned away from surveying his Kingdom. Pratt’s Refuge, he called it. A nice little haven for himself and some of his closest friends. Admittedly, he only had one person that really fit that title, but the other men and a few women that had joined him here were kindred spirits. Tired of others trying to run their lives, treating them like trash, or bringing them low just because they did not want to live their lives as not much better than slaves.

Virgil knew first hand what kind of life that could be, and he wanted none of it. His father had been a farmer, the money he earned with his own sweat taken by the tax collector. He had to grow enough to sell at market just to get by, only so he could pay someone else to be able to live on his own land. Oh, they said all of the land belonged to the King, but did the King clear the land? Did he till it and farm it?

The more money they demanded, the more his father drank himself into oblivion. Eventually they lost the farm, though how someone could take land that rightfully belonged to his father for no reason and say it was the law, he had no idea. Then to top it all off, they throw his father in jail for correcting his own wife. She had almost died, but even Virgil agreed that she had it coming, with her constant nagging and back talk. When a man is punished for providing firm discipline to what is rightfully his property… well, that sounded like a slave to Virgil. Sure, his father had taken a strap and his fists to Virgil too, but it was usually deserved.

Virgil scrubbed a hand down his face and mentally scrubbed those thoughts away at the same time. His mood was black enough, especially after the rude wake up.

There was still some of the rowdy shouting that had roused him from sleep, going on just outside the storage building. Burt’s group was making the racket, and he was about to yell at them to shut up when the man himself noticed they were being watched.

“Hey, Boss! You missed out on this one. Wooo! It were some kinda fun.”

Burt was still drunk, but that was not uncommon. It sounded like they had a decent haul this time.

“What’d you get?” His head hurt too much for small talk.

“Not too bad a haul. Leather goods…” the pause was for Burt to quench his thirst. “Ahhh. Nice stuff, too. Prob’ly get a good price for it, but that weren’t the best part.”

If his head was not so close to breaking open, he would have yelled at the man for spilling a good bit of the wine he tried to drink. Burt seemed oblivious, lost in thought about his recent outing, he just wiped an arm across his mouth and grinned up at Virgil.

“Great. Finish putting it away, and then keep it quiet. I’m tryin’ to rest.”

“Wait, wait. You gotta hear this. So we stop this family, right? The boys pull the father and kid off the wagon and drag ‘em out of the way.”

“Burt.” The drunken fool just talked right over him.

“Well, what do I do? Still in the wagon, screaming her head off, is the prettiest little piece of tail you ever did see. So I drag her off to the grass where it’s soft, right?”

“Burt.” A little more forceful this time.

“Had to get a couple of the boys to help hold her down. She was a fighter. Ha! Anyway, you should have seen her. She had the softest, bigges-”

“Burt!” He had to practically scream to get the man’s attention, and the resulting spike of pain almost made him puke. He squeezed his eyes shut, and his put his head in his hands for a second. When he was able to open his eyes and look up Burt was eyeing him nervously.

“Shut the hell up. You can tell me about it later. I’m going back to bed.”

He did not even wait for a response, he just turned to go back inside. The rock shelf he stood had two more of those ingenious hidden exits, made so that you could not tell they were there from the ground. One for him, one for his men. He left his open for light after he passed through. A glance at the bed had him tempted to crawl back in for a few more hours, but one of the lumps on the bed was squirming a little, and he was not sure he wanted to hear another person’s voice right this second. As enjoyable as last night had been, and he was pretty sure Burt’s fun could not match the enthusiasm of the two girls now sleeping off the drunk in his bed, he just wanted quiet. His bare feet were nearly silent as he crossed the room and entered the one adjoining.

The basin sitting atop the small round table in the center of the room was filled with cool water from the well, and judging by how cool it was, had been put there not long ago. The cool water felt very soothing as he splashed it across his face, and the skin of water that had been laying next to the large bowl was even more needed. Just as cool as the basin water, it tasted like a little bit of heaven to his parched throat, and he drained the skin in a matter of seconds. The towel on the other side of the table was used next, and he allowed himself a small smile of pride as he thought of what a good maid he had.

The two families that once lived in this valley had been easy to get rid of. Both of the men were cowards, pleading for the lives of their families and crying like little girls right up to the point that he cut their throats. Next came one of the wives, her screaming in a long continuous shriek only broken when she had to take a breath. His aching head pulsed at the memory of the noise. The other wife had been a bit more interesting and one of the only two in the group to put up a fight. It was actually a disappointment to have to kill her, but she just would not quit fighting. That left two teenage boys that were easier to handle than the men, and one older teenage girl. He knew she would he a handful, and was the only other one to put up any kind of fight.

The fight had mostly left her when he killed her mother. The daughter was a rare beauty with long brown hair, and very nice curves for a girl that could not be more than seventeen. Luckily, he had found a room in his new home that could be bolted from the outside. The week he spent exploring the caves while he recuperated, helped by the supplies he had stolen from his new, unaware neighbors, had revealed a few surprises. An artisan well with cool, sweet water, the lockable room that might have been a prison cell, and hidden room that must have been overlooked when the previous owners left. It had a rack with a two short swords, a spear and an axe in one corner. There was a desk that had parchments with some kind of foreign chicken scratch written on them (they were good for starting a fire, though), a chest he had not been able to open at the time, and some other vases and bits of useless junk.

He had put the weapons to use on the families and after having some fun with the girl, locked her in the room until he could figure things out. She had been a fighter, biting and scratching, but by the time he was done, he was sure she knew how things were going to be from now on. He had eventually tired of that game, and now used her as a maid, with one of the others watching her as long as she was out of her cell. She had fought that too, and he had to promise that he would keep the other men away from her as long as she did her job well. The threat that she would be given to his men if she messed up had been used a few times, but he found that she worked better if he left her alone. Since they had caught two women in their raids over the last few weeks, and had some others join the Refuge that were more agreeable company, he had let her be. Threats were given out to the boys, and he had actually needed to back those up once, but that had been it.

Feeling a bit more alive now, he slipped his boots on and headed out to find some food and then check on Burt’s haul. If it was good enough, they could lay low for a while and start sending people out with the stuff they had taken over the last month to sell in Yost. This was how a man should make a living; take from those too weak to protect it. And if anyone did not like it… well, just let them try and stop him.

Chapter Four ->

 

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Proof!

I just received the proof for the print version today. It is definitely a different experience having a hard copy of your own book in hand. How that might feel never crossed my mind, even through the process of getting it set up for ‘print on demand’ via the createspace.com site.

It took several tries, some trial and error, and learning a few things I did not know about Scrivener (awesome writing software) and MS Word, but I finally submitted the correct files to get it printed. The actual submission process was not that difficult. I found the site to be pretty user friendly. It was quick and painless, and if not for the need to reformat and review multiple times it probably would only have taken me a half an hour, tops. That is only to submit the files, of course. Then I had to wait for Createspace’s review process, which they guarantee takes less than 24 hours. They were right, it took less than that each time I had a ‘do-over’.

Next time I will have a better idea of what I am doing, and should have a much less stressful time of it. Now all I have to do is go through the proof, and if I feel it is ready to publish, I approve it to be placed on the website for sale. They offer many channels to sell through, but it will definitely be listed on Amazon along with the Kindle version.

So, there it is… it’s a pretty neat feeling, and I hope it gets the book out there and into the hands of some non-kindle users.

The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge, Chapter Two

Here is the second chapter for my short story. It is still a work in progress, being written alongside book two of ‘The Scepter of Maris’ series. It has not been edited, so please keep that in mind. Chapter one can be found here: The Bandit’s of Pratt’s Refuge.

 

The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge

Chapter Two: First Impressions

 

Meric watched the reactions of the two men closely. Only the barely perceptible flinch of the Captain gave away that his presence was not completely expected. Even their separation looked rehearsed, or at least like nothing out of the ordinary. They were merely moving to greet the newcomer, and that just happened to allow them room to swing their weapons. Of course, he had chosen his own position with care. Six good paces gave him more than enough room to put arrow to bow, loose, and move away from the one left standing before he could be reached. Having watched the soldiers for a bit before moving in, he knew that would leave him plenty of time to get away. Even their tracker would not be able to keep up with him in the forest. He would take the Sergeant out, since he was on the left, easier to sight. Usually he tried to chose the most dangerous man to take out first, but he had a feeling a mouse would starve on the difference when it came to these two. Both men moved like they were well acquainted with a fight.

Not that any of that would come to pass. He would never attack these soldiers and was certain that they would not attack him either, unless he provoked them. The situation was just an exercise to keep his skills sharp. He knew that he should not have done it, but could not help himself. Other than hunting, it was hard to find ways to push himself enough to keep the old skills honed. Brody had his hands full with the new inn, so he never had much time. Silas was more interested in hunting than training. Then there was Malina, and that was just a waste of time. He could never track her well enough to get the drop on her, and she always managed to sneak up on him. She was just too good. His father always talked about becoming part of the surrounding to the extent that even if someone’s eyes passed over you they did not register it because they did not see anything that was out of place. Malina was quite adept at doing this. It was not something he had entirely mastered, but judging by the ease with which he had been able to slip by these soldiers he was getting better.

He took a casual look about to ensure he still had space to work with. The brush was moderate, and the pine and oak trees were spread out enough that he could see most of the men in the party. Someone had drawn their attention to the three of them, and now all of the men were headed their way. They formed a half-circle behind him to keep him from running, but he really had no desire to do that. The only reason any of them had even seen him was because he wanted them to. From the look of things, they were going to take days to find the men who were responsible for the horror back at the road. He and Malina could lead them to the men by tomorrow. He was here to help, so he might as well get started convincing them.

“My name is Meric Vettor,” he began. “My friend and I were out hunting south of here, and on our way back we came across the family that had been murdered back at the road.”

The crackle of leaves and pine needles alerted him to one of the soldiers behind him moving in his direction, causing him to tense up. He immediately forced himself to relax again. He was not here to fight, at least not the good guys, and he would not resist if they decided to take him into custody. As long as they listened to what he had to say, he would cooperate with them.

“Hold up, Daniels.” The stocky Sergeant spoke to someone behind Meric without ever taking his eyes off of him. “I think I’ve seen him before. You’re friends with that fella that bought the Soldier’s Rest from Pete, right?”

“I am, though the man he purchased it from was named Bertrand.”

Meric was not sure if that was a test, or the man did not really know. Either way, he saw no reason not to be truthful. When the soldier grinned at him he assumed it was in fact a test, though what it proved he had no idea.

“Right, Bertrand. Anyway… I’ve seen you in there a few times. Your friend Brody seems like a good enough sort.”

That did not really feel like it required a response, so Meric kept quiet.

“Why don’t you fill us in on how you got involved in this.”

“As I mentioned before, we came across the mess back at the road and decided to investigate. We-”

“Why?” This came from the Captain.

“Why? Why did we come across them, or why investigate?”

“Investigate,” the man replied tersely, and the unspoken ‘you idiot’ was clear to everyone present.

“Right.” He tried to hide the slight embarrassment that struck. “The men that did that deserve to be punished, and since there was no one else around… we thought we would track them, find their hideout and then notify the garrison in Yost.” He felt no need to tell them that there might have been a little bit of justice meted out when they found them, so he just shrugged and went on. “It’s best not to let a trail get too cold if you can help it; better to follow and then go get reinfor… uh, authorities.”

“Of course,” the Captain said with no small amount of sarcasm. “Did you find them?”

The man looked a little unsure, and judging by his tracker’s skill Meric could understand his concern. Malina was unknown to these men, as was he, so they could not know the skill level they possessed. He did not want to come across as conceited, so he kept the fact that his friend was probably the best scout they would ever meet and he was better than most. It was unimportant and they needed to get moving.

“There are seven of them… well, six now.”

His eyes rested on the prisoner as he finished speaking. The man was trying very hard not to meet his eye, and attempted to scoot backwards when Meric’s attention hit him.

“This one was a couple hours behind the others, drunk and singing some lewd song as he staggered through the woods. We caught him on his way deeper into the forest. I got ahead of him and made some noise while coming toward him. Sure enough, he was so wasted that he thought it was his friends returning. Said ‘Hope you boys ain’t comin’ back for seconds’. Then he laughed so hard he almost fell down.” Meric could feel the anger resurfacing as he recalled the words. “When he had calmed down he said ‘cause I done finished her off’.”

The prisoner got a panicked look and tried to shift back again as the Sergeant stepped up to him.

“He’s lyin’! I ain’t done nothin’!” He was drawing another breath to continue when his gag was replaced.

Now all eyes but the Captain and the Lieutenant were on the trussed up killer. After a quick look was exchanged between the officers, the Lieutenant started to give out orders.

“Tate, get your horse, you are taking this man back to town. Sergeant Woodard, get them ready to move out. Mister Vettor, it sounds as if you have some skill in tracking. Would you be so kind as to lead the way? Private Weber will join you.”

Meric just nodded and walked east once more. He understood that they had no reason to trust him, so he did not blame them for the caution. The pace he set was a good bit faster than the men had previously been traveling, but he made certain to point out all of the signs he was following to the Private. Hopefully this would set their minds at ease, and they would realize he was not leading them into a trap. They would not completely drop their guard, not if they were competent, but they might be more open to his help if he earned their trust.

For the next three hours he led them unerringly along the path that the bandits had taken, only pausing once for a water break. He had retrieved Ferron about a hundred yards beyond where he met the soldiers, and handed the reins off to one of them so he and Weber could continue on foot. The destrier would follow along with the other horses unless there was trouble, in which case, a whistle from Meric would bring him running.

He and Weber continued to chat quietly as they walked, only pausing in the conversation when Meric wanted to show him something. If not for the heat, and their mission, the walk would have been enjoyable. Several blue jays having an animated discussion, the rustle of foliage, and the quiet murmurs of the men behind them, blended into the background as he and Weber chatted.  The Private had mentioned that his only tracking ability came from teaching himself, since he loved to hunt. This led them to discussing the best areas around Yost to find game, and Meric had just begun telling him about a spot he found a week ago when a familiar bird call stopped him in his tracks.

“That was…” The man next to him had a confused look on his face as he tried to figure out what to say.

“Out of place?” Meric finished for him. When Weber nodded, still perplexed, Meric grinned at him. “It’s from the grassy plains region in southern Rennick. I did tell you I was with a friend.”

Meric gave a return call of another bird native to his homeland and then turned back in the direction of the rest of the soldiers to wait for them all to catch up.

“My friend will be joining us momentarily,” he told Bridgewater and Keller as they arrived.

The Captain just nodded and scanned the area ahead of them, waiting patiently as far as Meric could tell. He heard the rustle of some bushes about fifteen feet behind him, and just before he turned he saw Bridgewater’s eyes pass over that direction and then jerk back. Knowing Malina had only made the noise so she would not startle anyone, he tried not to laugh when it looked like the good Captain had indeed been surprised. He had to rethink that impression when the man spoke.

“Your friend is a woman.” Disbelief filled his statement.

Before Meric could answer, Malina threw a hand on her hip, cocked her head and responded in a voice dripping with sarcasm.

“Wow. I can see why they made you a Captain, with such keen observational skills. Don’t they have women in the Glendon military?”

Fighting his grin was becoming increasingly difficult, and he could see the Sergeant struggling as well. The Captain was obviously flustered, but recovered well enough to answer very quickly.

“Of course. They just… uh… usually-”

Meric raised a hand to cut the man off.

“If you plan to finish that sentence with anything about doing laundry, dishes, or cooking, I should warn you… from this distance, she could put an arrow through your eye before you could even think to duck.” He knew his grin was no longer hidden.

“Meric,” Malina chided. “I’m sure that Captain Bridgewater was going to say nothing of the sort.” Her voice was so sweet then that it even made him nervous.

“Right.”

“Besides, he’s much too handsome to go ruining his face… I would aim much lower.” Her eyes flicked down and back up.

Bridgewater had actually started to blush until that last sentence, then his eyes went round, he swallowed hard and then looked a little ill. He was not the only man that looked uncomfortable either. He had seen her do this kind of thing before, and it was always effective. In one short statement she had reinforced the fact that she was a woman, but also let them all know she was not to trifled with. Meric loved her like a sister, had for several years, and knew her to be a sweet, incredibly caring woman that most people adored once they got to know her. Sometimes it was easy to forget that she was a battle-hardened, decorated veteran of a bloody war, and could indeed hold her own against most opponents. The slender, pretty brunette just came up to his shoulder and her size could give these soldiers the wrong impression. They did not know her, and might think because she was a woman she was less capable. She would not hold it against them as long as they were respectful. If they were to work together, the soldiers would learn just how badly they were mistaken.

The two of them had been through much together in the years-long war Rennick had fought with the Orcs not too long ago, not to mention all that they had been through since. Betrayal by their King had sent them on the run together alongside a few others. With Brody and their other friend Silas, the four of them had made a new home here, and it would not hurt to make friends with the local authorities. If they could help them, they would.

“We should get moving. I found a good spot to camp ahead, and we can make it before dark if we move now.” Malina looked at the Captain with one eyebrow raised, waiting.

Bridgewater appeared to have recovered while Meric’s thoughts had wandered, because he nodded to her respectfully and signaled his men to carry on.

Meric found Ferron and patted the palomino’s neck before he swung into the saddle. There was no longer any need to follow a trail, they could just follow his friend. She would lead them to the campsite, and tomorrow they would catch up to the band of murderers they were hunting. He was very much looking forward to that.

Chapter Three ->

 

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Now Available!

Well, I finally did it. I am officially a published author (ok, so it’s self-published, but I think that counts). The book cover is temporary, and I am working on making a map, but for now the book has been published on Amazon for Kindle. I am pretty nervous, and it took a while to talk myself into finally pushing that “save and publish” button. However, it is now a done deal; A Soldier’s Honor is out there in the world.  Please take a moment to check it out, and help spread the word.

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Thanks, and wish me luck. Now… back to book two.

The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge, Chapter One

I have been working on this alongside book 2 and decided that I wanted to start posting it here. It is a short story about some of the characters in my books. So far, I am only on the third chapter, but I pretty much have the whole story outlined. I will post it a chapter at a time, when I have them ready (in my opinion). This is not edited, so please keep that in mind. I will eventually try to get that done, but in the mean time, this is just for fun. The story is set about two years before ‘A Soldier’s Honor’, and involves some of the main characters from that book, as well as a few new ones. Any thoughts or comments would be appreciated. I hope you enjoy.

 

The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge

Chapter One: On the Hunt

The loud, rattling hiss of the wind tearing through the trees was the only sound present as Captain James Bridgewater squatted down to examine the body. When the hot breeze finally died off, the silence left behind seemed to ring deafeningly in his ears. While this victim was less brutalized than the other two, it was by far the hardest to look at. Several yards to his left, a man had been severely beaten and his throat had been slit. The woman laying in the trampled down grass on the other side of the road had endured worse; bruised and bloody with only shreds of clothing left, it looked as though they had taken their time with her before ending her life in the same way. Reaching out to close the lifeless eyes in front of him, he shut his own to try and block out the image of the child’s accusing stare. The boy could not have been more than ten or eleven years old. There had only been a jagged hole under his chin where it looked like a dagger had been thrust, mocking the innocence of the young life. Otherwise, it looked as if he were resting peacefully in the shaded rye grass alongside the road to Haley.

Tomas’ throat clearing snapped James into action again. He turned to his First Lieutenant, noticing the simmering anger just under the surface. He was sure that there was not a man on the detail he had mustered for this hunt that did not share the sentiment. They were already planning to hang the bandits responsible for this, as it was not the first murders that they had committed, but this was the first time a child had been killed. That was most likely due to luck, since none of the other groups of victims had a child accompanying them. Between what had been done to the woman and the murder of the child, he found himself almost hoping that the men responsible would resist being taken in.

“Have the men scour the area, see if there was anything left behind by the perpetrators,” James told his second.

“Yes, Sir.”

The man turned sharply and walked over to the back of the ransacked wagon that the family had been using. James spent a moment watching, and when the Lieutenant did not move off to speak to anyone, he looked around to find the men already busy doing what he wanted. James merely grunted, and stepped over to the man’s body to do a quick inspection. It was not the first time Tomas had anticipated his orders (or even the tenth) and got things moving. Tomas Keller was the kind of second that any superior officer would love to have in his command; smart, efficient, and dedicated.

There had been two other cases of bandits attacking people on the road between Haley and Yost. Since Haley was just a small town, barely more than a community of fishermen and farmers with only a four man guard detachment, the task of investigating had fallen to the Yost garrison commander. While he could have delegated this to Tomas, and knew the man was perfectly capable, things were quiet in the city and he felt responsible for the violence done to people he was sworn to protect.

He had just started an investigation into the first attack, and already had Tomas organizing a detail to hunt these bandits down when he heard about the second. It turned out that the second crime had actually happened first, but it had taken over a week for the information to reach him. The victims had been from Haley, but were on the road returning south from Yost when they were attacked. It had taken the intervening days for someone to miss them, then call for a search to be undertaken. By the time they had been found and reported, a similar scenario had taken place for the second attack, only this time in Yost. Now James and his men had come upon this scene as they headed out to hunt down the criminals, and he feared there could be more that they did not know about.

He sighed heavily and stood. There would be time later to account for his failures, right now he had a job to do. Even though it was only mid-morning he was already starting to sweat and now that the summer sun was well above the tree tops in the cloudless sky, he knew it was only going to get worse. The breeze could not even be counted on for much relief, because all it did was push the already hot air around. This summer was shaping up to be a brutal one. Swiping his forearm across his brow to catch a trickle heading for his left eye, he walked in the Lieutenant’s direction. They needed to get moving, and see if they could track these criminals down.

He cursed the lack of foresight about needing someone with scout training, but when he had taken command of the garrison there had not been anyone on the roster with those skills, and so he had not thought twice about it. Why would you need a scout in the city. Yost was a sizable port on Lake Fomar, trading with all of the nearby towns, as well as other towns around the body of water. They even dealt with cities from the neighboring kingdom on the far side of the lake, maintaining good trade relations between Glendon and Rennick. The people from Rennick that he had met were not much different than his own countrymen, and there were even some of them that lived in Yost. An innkeeper and a cooper were two that came directly to mind. All of this combined to make Yost a thriving city with plenty to keep his guards busy within the walls of the town. In the seven months since he had taken command, he had never needed to venture into the countryside surrounding Yost.

Now that lack of preparedness could only hinder their search for justice. He moved to stand next to Tomas when he saw First Sergeant Steven Woodard approaching.

“Sir,” the man addressed Tomas. “Private Weber believes he has found a trail he should be able to follow. I have ordered him on ahead with Private Benson following to mark the trail for the rest of us. The men will be ready to go shortly.”

James scanned the area and confirmed that all eight men left were headed to, or already mounting their horses. There was no denying the small bit of satisfaction he felt as he watched, and it was a much needed confidence boost at the moment. He may have been negligent where the areas outside his city were concerned, but his focus on training and discipline were shining through. In less than a minute, he and Tomas were the only ones not yet in the saddle and formed up. Woodard gave the order to send the others forward, letting his superiors move at their own pace.

They had been moving east at a slow pace as the Private ahead worked at following the trail, becoming frustrated when he had to backtrack more than once. The breeze rustling the treetops seemed to taunt them, as it disturbed the foliage above while not even so much a single leaf shifted at their level. The heat and slow advancement were starting to get to him as they waited, yet again, for Weber to relocate the trail. Mopping the sweat out of his eyes once more, he turned his head in Tomas’ direction,  deciding to talk to him concerning personnel and the need for someone with scout training, when he heard Weber shout out. Woodard called for the unit to halt and started forward at the same time as James and Tomas.

As they pushed through the brush to get to the man’s side, they could hear a muffled grunt. James started to scan the area for Benson when he noticed him just on the other side of Weber. Both men were looking down near their feet, and when he and the others cleared the last of the bushes separating them, they found what held their attention.

A man lay there, trussed up at the wrists and ankles, which were then tied to each other. He grunted again and then let out a moan that was nearly inaudible due to the gag stuck in his mouth. They all stood looking down at the man for several minutes, none moving except for Woodard. He had moved off almost immediately, calling to the men and ordered them to fan out and search the near by woods for anyone else. James turned back from his quick glance at the Sergeant just as the man spun back to join them.

“Well… anyone want to make a guess?” James did not really expect an answer, because he was sure all of them were as shocked as he.

The man finally came to his senses enough to notice he was surrounded. He started to say something through the gag, but cut off when his eyes fell to their uniform tabards. His eyes widened in panic at the dark blue trimmed in silver with the falcon crest (well… one of them did, the other was swollen shut) and he immediately started trying to get away. Which, given the way he was tied up, only resulted in him flopping around a lot and gaining very little ground. He eventually stopped, good eye squeezing shut for a moment, before he slumped in defeat. Woodard had rejoined them at about this time and knelt on the matting of dead leaves and pine straw at the man’s head. James watched the man’s eyes widen again as he caught sight of the dagger Woodard now had in his hand. The Sergeant put the blade to a pale cheek and spoke firmly.

“If you shout when I remove this gag, I promise you it will be very short lived. Understand?” he asked the quivering man. James knew that Woodard would not actually kill him for shouting, but he could understand the bound man’s belief when he heard the cold emotionless words. The Sergeant could be damn scary when the need arose.

At a vigorous head nod, Woodard began peeling the suppressing cloth out of his mouth. James appreciated Woodard’s caution, and tried to tell himself that he was not being prejudiced at agreeing with his soldier that this man looked more criminal than victim. His mismatched and dirty clothes, ragged hair, and bad teeth combined with the way he had reacted to their uniforms were all painting a clear picture for him. He would work harder not to be so judgmental in the future, and he could be wrong now, but he did not think that was the case.

“Name?” Woodard still held the dagger where the man could see it as he questioned him.

“Mark.” The man’s wary eyes shifted around the group.

Woodard tapped the blade to the prisoner’s forehead a few times.

“When I ask you a question, Mark, I expect you to give me full answers. Name.”

“Willis, Mark Willis. I didn’t do nothin’ wrong. I was just mindin’ my own when these two… two… highwaymen came along, roughed me up, an’ robbed me. I didn’t do nothin’. I’m straight as an arrow, me. I swear,” he was still shaking when he finished.

“Do you know anything about that family that was killed back at the road?”

Even the black eye that had formed paled considerably when he was asked this, and he started trying to shift away from the dagger.

“No! It weren’t me! It was those highwaymen. Vicious, they were. Look what they did to me.” The man turned his head this way and that, showing off the split lip and bruised eye that could be seen even through the dirt smudging his face.

“Why didn’t they just kill you like the others?”

“Eh… eh… I don’t…”

“I don’t think we will get much out of him, sir. Maybe after he stews a few days in a cell. I suggest we carry on.” He addressed James this time since Tomas had moved off.

“Very well. Leave someone to watch him and we can continue.” James’ instincts told him the same thing.

Woodard nodded and then snapped out some commands.

“Carver, come check him out before we leave. Tate, once he’s done, you will keep an eye on the prisoner.”

James saw the junior Private’s shoulders just barely drop before he caught himself and answered in the affirmative. James turned away while he tried to fight the grin that was threating only to face Woodard, who was not even attempting to cover his mirth. Several of the men were just visible as they moved through the trees in their search and he guessed that Tomas would be rounding them up soon, since they obviously were not finding anything. While he waited, he turned back to Woodard.

“How do you think he really ended up here, like this?”

Before the Sergeant could answer, a voice he did not recognize did it for him.

“I can probably help with that.”

James started slightly and dropped a hand to his sword. Woodard did not even flinch as he casually turned to the newcomer. Both of them had also stepped away from each other immediately, gaining room to move if needed. Holding his free hand up to show that it was empty, the stranger nodded to them.

He was standing about six paces away, leaning on a longbow and now looking down at the prisoner. It did not go unnoticed that the free hand he was holding out in an attempt to look non-threatening just happened to now be much closer to the quiver full of arrows at his shoulder. The stranger was wearing light-weight hunting leathers in various shades of green and brown, and was well within the perimeter his men were now searching.

Chapter Two ->

 

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Setting, Character, or Action?

When I am writing, these are what I use to drive the story. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Now, as I have stated before, I am not a professional. Whether or not I know what I am talking about will remain to be seen until my first book is published and we can see if anyone likes it. Until that time, I will just talk about what works for me personally. So… why am I stating the obvious? I have read way too many books that use only one of these things at a time. It always makes the story fall flat for me. The best books are the ones that use a combination of at least two of these, but all three is even better. Generally, when you read a review that complains about the writer boring you to death with the details, it is due to the focus being strictly on just one of these aspects at a time. The author fills the pages with back-story; overburdening you with the life history of their protagonist all at once. While I want a character to have character, too much at once can drown out the story that is being told.

All action is the same thing, but can be more easily altered to include one of the others, if not both. Someone has to be doing the action, and/or it has to take place somewhere. Mixing in a little setting is the simplest way to give the writing a bit of life. Make the environment around the character(s) work as a prop, whether it’s useable objects in the area, time of day, weather, or obstacles inherent to the place chosen.

Setting can be the most obvious, but also more difficult tool to work with. In the fantasy genre, setting is usually the one thing the story has to have a lot of. Especially if you are building your world from scratch. You will have to describe the world to the reader, but do it in a way that does not overwhelm them. I do not know anyone that loves the ‘info dump’ when they begin a new book. However, sometimes you need to get the info out there to help give life to your world. On the other hand, confusing the reader is worse (as far as I am concerned) than information overload. At least that way they can skim through (yes, I know… don’t look at me like that) the detail heavy parts. I hate nothing more than going back through something I have read, thinking that I missed something, only to find out it just was not there. What works best for me is to intersperse the details throughout the book. It is much harder, but if you can do it right… having the characters experience the world instead of just walk through it always makes for a better read to me.

When you can weave these things together, mixing them as you go, it makes the story flow more smoothly. Driving the plot along with not only who and why, but also when, where, and how in mostly equal parts, you give the reader a more vibrant story. They get to experience the world you have created, not just read about it. That, to me, is what it’s all about.

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