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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

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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A Soldier's Honor 1

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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A Soldier's Honor 1

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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A Soldier's Honor 1

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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A Soldier's Honor 1