The Dark Places

Reynard wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. Even in the cool air of early autumn, bringing down these trees was no easy feat and made for a long day’s work. These old hardwood trees took forever to fall, but the wood they provided would burn long into a cold winter’s night.   It was good honest work but far removed from his village, deep in the dark forested lowlands of the Tessian River. 

The old oaks and elms loomed over him, their still dense foliage warding off sunlight, enveloping him with shadows. The stand surrounded them, muffling the sounds of his exertion and the presence of the other two work party members. It made him feel alone when he stopped and looked at the tall sentinels surrounding him. Their faceless existence tolerated his company, not that they had a choice. 

“Break time!” came a shout echoing amongst the trees. Reynard turned to see the leader of his group, Pytr Nilson, snake his tall, lanky form from between a pair of large trees.

Pytr brushed back his long sweat-matted gray-streaked black hair and gestured to Reynard. “You got any water left?”

Reynard tapped the water skin at his feet with a boot. “Yes, plenty.” He let the ax slip to the ground and grabbed it. With a grunt, he hurled the water skin toward Pytr, who snatched it out of the air.

The man yanked the stopper, tipped the skin, and guzzled water as it splashed and dripped down his matted beard and over his heavy cotton shirt. “Ah!” he sighed, wiping his lips with his forearm. “Have you seen the boy?”

Reynard shrugged, “Not since we arrived this morning.”

“He’s probably sleeping somewhere. Better call him in.”

Cupping his mouth, Reynard turned and bellowed into the forest, “SORKIN!” After the muffled echoes, silence greeted him. Drat, that boy, where was he? 

After several more shouts and a few minutes, a beardless young man appeared, his heavy linen tunic stained with sweat, an ax resting on his shoulder.

“Where have you been?”

Sorkin blinked a few times before glancing at the dull, stained ax blade on his shoulder. “Cutting wood, apparently.”

Pytr laughed. “Well, what else would you be doing? Or maybe you were daydreaming about Gretta.” He nudged Reynard.

Gretta Lenzil, clearly the prettiest girl in the village, had all the hearts of the young men and perhaps some of the lusty hearts of the older ones. 

“Oh, not Gretta, I’ll bet,” Reynard chimed in. “Perhaps the widow Danby then,” he said with a smile.

Pytr roared. Danby looked like the wrong end of a horse and smelled like one too.

Sorkin blinked and looked between the two men. Pytr clapped the younger man on the shoulder, nearly causing him to stumble. 

“Relax, boy, we were just kidding.”

With a poisonous glance, Sorkin glared at Pytr.

Reynard grabbed his satchel and looked inside. “You hungry, boy?”

Sorkin looked at him. “Oh, yes, I guess I am.”

“Here!” Reynard whipped his arm toward Sorkin, who awkwardly dropped the ax and caught a small sack.

Reynard pulled out a hunk of bread and cheese from his satchel and sat heavily on a nearby stump. He looked up to see Sorkin staring into the sack. “Is there a problem?”

Sorkin looked up at him. “No.” He dug out some cheese, eyed it carefully, and sniffed it.

Reynard ripped off a chunk of bread and nipped off some cheese to go with it. Danby might look like a horse, but she baked like an angel. He looked up to see Sorkin chewing some cheese with his eyes closed.

“This is fantastic,” he said as crumbs dribbled down his chin. He stuffed most of the cheese into his mouth.

“Whoa, take it easy,” Pytr said. “You’ll choke on it if you aren’t careful.”

Sorkin looked at him but chewed rapidly and swallowed, though not without some obvious discomfort. “You got anything to drink?”

Pytr proffered the waterskin. Sorkin took it and swallowed several large gulps.

Reynard tasted bile in his throat and put his food back in the satchel. His stomach was hungry but unsettled. He didn’t know why, but these woods gave him the creeps. He looked up at Pytr.

“You suppose we’re the first ones in here?”


“No,” Sorkin said with a pinch of bread between his thumb and forefinger. He gave it a sniff and popped it into his mouth.

“How would you know?” Pytr shot back.

Sorkin’s eyes flicked in his direction. “Ah, well, that’s my guess anyway.”

Pytr rolled his eyes. “These woods are virgin stands, good solid and thick,” he said, slapping a nearby tree trunk. “No one has been in here. Not for a long time anyway.”

Reynard looked at the trees grimly. “No matter, I don’t like the feel of this stand. They feel almost alive. Nothing like the trees near the village.”

“You sound like an old woman,” Pytr scolded.

Reynard growled back, “I do not take rumors lightly. Some say these woods are haunted by evil spirits that devour the minds of those they enter and who never see their homes again.”

Pytr blew out a loud breath, “Nonsense. Nothing lives in here except squirrels and snakes.”

“That’s not what I heard,” Sorkin said, his eyes flicking between the two men.

“Oh, this should be entertaining,” Pytr laughed. “How about you tell us about it? I could stand to hear a good story.”

Sorkin blinked. “All right. I will then.” He sat down on a stump and cleared his throat.

“What do you know of the Shadowless?”

Pytr waved the question away. “Yes, I’ve heard of them. My mother used to tell us stories about them, so we wouldn’t play in the forest after dark. So, you’re going to tell us a ghost story?”

Reynar rubbed his chin. He, too, had heard the stories. But unlike Pytr, he still harbored a fear of the formless creatures who devoured the souls of those they possess, but there was no way he’d let either man know that. “Oh, let him tell the story.”

“In the beginning, not even the Shadowless knew they were different than the wild creatures they lived among. But they soon realized they could leap into the bodies of creatures around them and maintain that existence until the forms they occupied no longer suited them. Then they would move on to other animals, accumulating skills and experience and achieving self-awareness. In the old forests of the piedmont, they lived a lean and meager existence during bitter, long winters and short temperate summers. Rains fell each spring, bringing forth new life and opportunities to grow. And grow they did, from a select few, into hundreds of creatures, spreading beyond the ancient uplands into the more fertile and temperate forests and primeval swamps. 

Life, such as it was, was good solid, definable, and predictable. But that changed when the newcomers arrived, first in small numbers. Their fitful and pitiful attempts often ending in disaster – whole families finding their way into the soil, only to fertilize it for the next group to arrive. But the newcomers were resilient, relentlessly scratching and clawing an existence out of the earth, chopping down the trees, hunting the animals the Shadowless relied on. The invaders reshaped the land to meet their needs, not the Shadowless. As the cancer of the invaders’ existence grew, the Shadowless watched. Some wanted to fight back, but most did not – so they retreated further up the slopes to the foot-hills from whence they came, into the thinner forests of the uplands.”

Suddenly Pytr shivered. Reynard noticed. “You okay?”

Pytr glared at him briefly. “Yeah, fine.” He looked away. “Just caught a chill.”

“Okay, Sorkin,” Reynard said, looking at the younger man. “Go on.”   

“A lean existence became a meager one. They left the elk, deer, and fox for the goat, eagle, and snake. But the invaders followed, picking and hacking their way over precipices and passes, relentlessly taking away places of refuge, closing off paths of escape. In desperation, some dove deep into the caves – scraping out an existence amongst the bats, snakes, and lowly spiders. The rest scattered to even more remote areas.

As sanctuaries disappeared, so did their community. They lost touch with the other clans – and their numbers declined steadily until only a handful were left – a small pitiful remnant of a sizeable and glorious clan. So they decided to risk everything and head back to the lowlands, and the wild forested lands near the river, where some Shadowless were rumored to have taken refuge. They took courage from the fact that the invaders had not penetrated there and hoped that they could survive, perhaps even regain some of the vigor they once had.

For some time, they did find safety until the sounds of axes echoed among the trees, and the destruction began anew. There was no consideration of escape this time, only a desire to strike back.”

Sorkin paused and slowly drank from the waterskin, never taking his eyes off Reynard.

Reynard grinned, “So what happened?”

Pytr visibly tensed, staring him down. “That is up to you.”

Reynard’s curiosity wavered; he was beginning to feel uneasy. “Me? What do you mean?”

Sorkin straightened and picked up his ax. “Do you want to be a messenger or an example?”

A shiver ran down Reynard’s spine as he helplessly scoured the menacing faces of Sorkin and Pytr. He couldn’t fathom their motives but knew he had no choice. He nervously replied, “Your home?”

Sorkin glanced up at the looming trees and spoke softly yet firmly, “This is ours now. Tell your people what happens to those who dare to step here again. Leave us alone, and we will leave you in peace.”

Dread filled Reynard as he stumbled backward, away from these two imposing figures. His thoughts circled from his family’s fear-stricken faces to the repercussions that would soon follow this encounter. They wouldn’t believe him about these men, so more would come in search of them. But it would not be him who led them here. His life meant far more than risking it in the dark places.

Princess Rachel Goes to Summer Camp (Chapter 2 — Morning of Doom)

Dawn arrived, much to everyone’s chagrin, except, of course, Mom and Dad.

The door to Rachel’s room drifted open. “Oh, honey.”

A muffled groan drifted out of the bed. “Huh?”

Rachel popped an eye open. Wearing Hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts, Dad looked down at her. Next to him stood Mom in a sundress and wide-brim hat.

Rachel groaned. “I take it you’re leaving.”

Mom answered, “That’s right, dear, but we wanted to say goodbye.”

Rachel burrowed under the pillow. “Ugh, I can’t believe this.”

Dad pulled the pillow back. “If you need to reach us, just let Tim know. He set up a way for you to talk to us.”

Rachel peeked from just above her blankets. “You expect me to rely on Tim’s magic?”

Mom frowned. “I understand he doesn’t have the best reputation wielding magic, but I’ve seen him do it successfully. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have you rely on it.”

“Oh, alright.”

“Have fun at camp, and remember we love you,” Dad said.

“You’d love me more if you took me with you.”

“Sorry, but that ship has sailed,” Mom said, then flashed an amused look at Dad, and they both laughed. “Or should I say that ship will sail to Coconut Island at noon?”

“Oh, good God,” Rachel groaned into her pillow. Her parents patted her blanketed form and then left.

Rachel rolled over and pulled the sheets over her head. Perhaps she’d wake up and find it all a dream.

Three hours later, someone kept poking her in the back. What now? Something round and wet licked her neck. “Ewwww!” She rolled over. Oscar, her pet pig, squealed at her. “Oh, what do you want?”

His pink-skinned form jumped down and scrambled toward the door.

“I get it; you want to eat.”

Oscar threw his head up and down.

“If you think I’m making waffles, forget it.”

Snuffling carried on into the hallway. Rachel stumbled out of bed, grabbed a robe, and headed toward the door. As she approached the top of the stairs, though, Oscar glared at her with narrowed eyes.

“Don’t worry, I won’t eat any bacon.”

He squealed and skittered down the stairs.

In the kitchen, she found Tim sitting slumped over on a stool in front of the stove. He perked up. “Good morning, Princess. Did you see your parents before they left?”

She nodded, then drifted over to find some instant gruel. Oscar raced into the kitchen, slammed into a stool, and knocked it over. Rachel barked at him, “Oscar, settle down. I’ll get you something.” She reached up, grabbed a large bowl, and set it on the floor.

Tim frowned. “Is he always like this?”

“Only when he is hungry.”

“How often do you have to feed him?”

“Pretty much all day.”

“Oh, joy.”

She poured the instant gruel into a bowl, but Oscar, being Oscar, couldn’t wait and dove in. He snuffled, bit, and chewed the boxed manna with wild abandon.

Tim watched Oscar eat, then scratched at his beard. “That reminds me, I must send my ex-wife an alimony check.”

Rachel looked up. “Say, you’ve never told me about your marriage to . . . What was her name?”

“Lilith,” he said with an involuntary shiver. An awkward silence grew between them as Rachel poured a bowl of instant gruel for herself.

“Well? Tell me about her. How did you meet?”

Tim sat silently, then frowned and shrugged. “I was summoning demons.”

“Good lord, why were you doing that?”

“I needed someone to fill out my taxes.”

“But you don’t earn anything.”

“What difference does that make? Anyway, I summoned a demon, and this beautiful woman showed up instead.”

“Ah, so that was Lilith.”

Tim shot an annoyed look at her. “Uh, no. Anyway, this woman was incredibly horny.”

Rachel nearly spit out her gruel. “Oh my gosh. You did not just say that!”

“Yup, she had horns all over her head and was pissed about being summoned. That’s when she tried to eat me.”

Rachel stared at him. “What did you do? Zap her with your wand?”

“I wish. Instead, I screamed like an elementary schoolgirl and ran for the door. But when I threw it open, there stood a pale-faced, raven-haired woman with looks that could kill.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

“No, the demon took one look at her, opened a portal back to Hell, and disappeared.”


“I thought as much, so I invited her in.”

“So, was it love at first sight?”

Tim looked at the ceiling. “Love is such a multi-faceted word; I’m not sure it is the best one to describe that situation.”

“I guess this part is PG?”

Tim nodded.

“So, what made you want to marry her?”

“Since she was already living with me, I figured, why not?”

“Wait, back up a bit. How did you end up living together?”

“Pretty simple. She wouldn’t leave.”

Rachel chuckled. “So, how was the marriage?”

“At first, it was okay, but then she started nagging me, criticizing everything I did, like she was trying to change me. Then she crossed the line, so I got rid of her.”

“What line was that?”

“The one I drew on the floor to protect myself from demons. Lilith crossed it, and she disappeared. Turns out she was a demon, after all.”

Rachel looked askance at him. “Really? You didn’t notice she was a demon?”

“I should have been suspicious given all the demon-like behavior, shoe shopping, obsession with Yankee candles, romantic comedies, and a dog-eared copy of 50 Shades of Offwhite.”

“I’m not sure that qualifies as ‘demon-like’ behavior.”

“It does in my book, so there.” He blew a raspberry.

She shook her head and sat, picking at the gruel before her.

“What’s bothering you? Is it because you must go to summer camp?”


“What exactly is the problem?”

“What if I don’t fit in, and none of the other girls like me?”

Tim chuckled.

Rachel glared. “What’s so funny about that?”

“Okay, fitting in is just another way of being compliant. Or, in other words, being fake just to satisfy others. As opposed to being liked, which means having people enjoy your uniqueness. You can’t have both.”

“I can fit in or have friends, but not both?”

He shook his head, “No, you misunderstand me. Someone will like you if you are genuine, kind, and polite. Those who lift you up and are honest without being mean are real friends. Those who want everyone to act as they do, say what they want to hear, and participate in reprehensible or cruel behavior are not people you want to ‘fit in’ with anyway. Chances are, you’ll find someone you can get along with.”

“I suppose you are right,” Rachel replied. “I just don’t want to spend all my time figuring out who is honest and who is fake.”

“The process goes a lot quicker if you stay true to yourself. The longer you put on airs, the longer it takes to find someone who can be a friend.”

Rachel finished her gruel. “Do you have a lot of friends?”

“I have a few,” Tim replied. “Probably no more than a handful, but I trust them. That is the one thing I require above all else. I can handle someone being critical if they are honest. But if they can’t be honest, I don’t have time for them.”

A resounding series of thumps came from the front door. “Were you expecting someone?” Rachel asked.

Tim shook his head. “Not until tomorrow. That’s when Mustypants is supposed to come over and escort you to Princess Summer Camp.” More thumps came from the front door.

“Are you going to get that?”

“Why not you?”

“Because I’m twelve, and you’re the adult.” She tried not to add “sort of.”

Tim shrugged. “Ah, well, I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I tried to use magic to get rid of my bed head but sneezed as I finished ‘on my body set my hair,’ and now I’m stuck to my chair. It should wear off in another few minutes. Can you get the door?”

Rachel rubbed her eyes. “Honestly, how do you take care of yourself?”

“It ain’t easy.”

Vengeance Deferred

[ An excerpt from “The Dragon Heartstone,” book 2 of my Westfal series. ]

The road along the Silver River snaked with it, undulating over many ridgelines that radiated from the northern end of the Krador Mountains. Small, scattered patches of woodland lined the turns and twists, filling valleys and spilling along the shorelines.

Hiding in the dark underbrush, Riasean rubbed his arms, struggling to keep warm. Even as he ate berries and roots scavenged from nearby plants, his stomach complained. Throbbing in his legs remained constant from his unyielding pace. But he dare not slow, not even for a moment. Otherwise, he might lose sight of Faline. The tempo she kept amazed him as she moved east along the road toward some unknown destination. He had hoped she might slow or even stop to rest, but he had not been so lucky.

He licked his lips to keep them moist, staving off thirst until he could dart to the river and drink his fill. While his body cried out, he focused on his goal–to bury a knife into Faline in the same savage way she had done to Larah.

Yet, when Faline did stop at noon, he enjoyed the respite, fighting off the desire to race forward to finish the job. As he caught his breath, his attention stayed on his blonde-haired, black-robed quarry.

* * *

Faline stood, eyes closed, focusing her mind eastward. Her body screamed in pain, despite the simple Druidic charms and spells she had used to mask the effort. Despite the discomfort, there remained the need to locate the Shatain, the shadow warriors bound to her. Using black magic, this task would have been simple. But that was no longer an option. She tried to compensate, using skills not tapped in centuries. Taking a deep breath, she pushed her consciousness beyond the limitations of her ancient Druidic training. Yet, once again, the effort came up empty. A sigh escaped as exhaustion and despair poured in. Maybe tomorrow. For now, she must continue moving along this path, marshal the patience required to cross northern Bretagne, and close the distance with the Shatain.

Opening her eyes, she took in her surroundings and let the aesthetics wash over her. Autumn colors graced the trees, and brilliant sunlight streamed through the branches as they drifted in the still-warm afternoon breezes. A faint memory of a similar sojourn floated by in another time and place. What had it been called? Her mind sifted through almost a millennium of memories before returning to the correct phrase: destiny quest. This journey was much like that one, where she had to leave the sanctuary of Avalir for a year. Like then, she traveled alone, with only her Druidic training to sustain her.

She had gained—and lost—much since then. Most notably, her dark arts ability had been eliminated by the healing received from the Grail of Culloden. Still, she had survived. With a final glance at the beauty surrounding her, she dismissed it. Such things served no purpose, least of all hers. Once more, she stepped upon the path.

She kept trying to reach the Shatain during brief pauses until the sun sank beneath the far distant Black Shadow Mountains and plunged the area into darkness. To continue risked losing the trail. Likewise, she could no longer ignore her physical need for rest. To her left, a ridge jutted out into the river. Near the top, a clearly defined outcrop revealed a cave opening that might provide shelter.

She slipped off the road and picked her way up the stony slope of the ridge. As the darkness deepened, she grasped at hand holds in the grayish moss-covered rocks and slipped a few times as she sought to gain a foothold. With sweat slipping off her forehead and her breath rising in clouds in the cooling night air, she finally arrived at the cave opening. By now, the surrounding darkness was so thick she could not see into the cave. She grabbed a stray rock and muttered, “illustras [Light].”

The rock’s surface erupted in light, and holding it aloft, she probed the entrance. With a sigh of relief, it proved to be empty and full of smooth rock crevasses, any of which she could comfortably settle into. Satisfied, she turned to the cave mouth and, with a sweep of her arm, charmed it with a simple warning spell. Finding a secluded spot in the wall, she tucked herself into it and pulled her cloak around her. With a final gesture, she raised the rock and whispered, “extinguere [Extinguish].”

The light flared out, and the cave fell into darkness. The cave walls dully reflected the moonlight, which also lingered on the tendrils of fog rising from the river waters below. The sound of rushing water beat incessantly against her ears, drowning the doubts and concerns in her mind. Sleep soon followed.

* * *

As Riasean slipped up the slope toward the cave opening, his eyes stayed focused on the crest. His experience and training allowed his hands and feet to easily find their way into gaps in the surrounding surfaces. The nearly cloudless night, with some ambient moonlight, was a perfect killing moon. These ideal circumstances allowed him to ignore the nagging voice of reason, cautioning against pursuing personal vendettas. Killing was simply a means to an end, a bag of gold to support a precarious existence. There is no gold this time, but finishing this viper would be satisfying. But then what?

While he could ignore his doubts, such was not the case for the rising fog. The streamers of mist floated past his eyes, obscuring the crest until his line of sight extended only a few feet. Clambering over the last moss-covered rocks, he emerged outside the cave. Pulling his obsidian knife, he peered inside. His half-Elvish eyes swept the surroundings and quickly revealed the coiled-up form of the she-witch. Gripping the hilt tighter, he stepped into the cave entrance. In an instant, the world disappeared into a grayish haze of impenetrable mist.

His sense of awareness tingled; everything had changed drastically. He stood perfectly still, knife in his cocked arm, scanning the mist. The rushing water sound had disappeared, as had nearly every physical feature he had to orient himself. What was going on?

“Riasean,” a voice echoed out of the darkness. “I mean you no harm.”

He swiveled toward the sound, knife at the ready. “Who is this?” he hissed.

A form seemingly coalesced out of the fog, “I am Lenor.” The figure approached him, appearing as a woman in dark blue clothing, her long brown hair pulled back into a braid that ran down to her hips. Piercing silver, cat-like eyes studied him, even as he backed into a protective crouch.

His mind churned. This must be a Caretaker, one of those powerful but unpredictable immortal spirits. He’d encountered one before–and it had saved his life–but only after binding his life thread to Larah’s.

“What do you want from me? Why do you stand between me and my prey?”

Lenor’s eyes sparkled in the moonlight. “You will not harm her, for that is not your destiny. I am giving you a new task.”

Riasean tensed. “I do not care what you intend; you will not stop me from ending the life of the she-witch.” He tightened the grip on the knife and stepped toward the Caretaker.

She laughed in a high, cold, piercing tone that set his nerves tingling. “Do you really think you have a choice in this matter,” she said, then snapped her fingers. The fog disappeared, and the curled-up form of Faline lay at his feet. “Do what you want, and see what happens. But be forewarned. It will not be what you expect.”

He looked down at the woman, her youthful face framed by stray curls of blond hair. Her chest rose and fell, even as he stood over her with a blade. It would be easy to clamp a hand over Faline’s mouth and slash her unprotected throat.

But his instincts knew better. Nothing was easy, even if it looked that way. Lenor continued to study him like a cat watching its prey. She was playing with him. “Why do you protect this viper? She deserves no pity, least of all from the likes of you.”

“Who are you to make such a judgment? How many life threads have you snipped before their time? Did none of them deserve compassion or pity?” The Caretaker flashed a close-lipped smile. “Our ways are simply beyond your understanding. Everyone has a purpose and a plan for their life, and whether that aligns with what mortals want, it matters not.”

Lenor’s words stung, even as he acknowledged their truth. He dropped his knife arm to his side. “What do you want me to do, and why should I?”

“You are to retrieve the Dragon Heartstone and give it to The Watcher–the Brin Shar, and if you do this, then what was lost will be returned to you.”

Lost? What was this fiend talking about? Riasean’s chest tightened. Like a bolt of lightning, the context of what she referred to raced to the front of his mind. But he immediately rejected it. “Larah? She is better off without me and has others to look out for her. Besides, why should I want to retrieve this artifact for you?”

“You must find the Dragon Heartstone, or Larah will die,” Lenor stated without amplification.

Riasean gritted his teeth. “Is this another of your entrapments? Like when you bound my life to Larah’s to help her retrieve the Grail?”

“No. What I said is merely a statement of fact. If you wish to ignore this, then you know the consequences.”

Riasean let the warning wash over him before looking again at Faline’s sleeping form. “When I do this, will I be able to kill this wretch?”

Lenor smiled in reply.

He sighed and sheathed his knife. “Very well then, what must I do?”

* * *

An hour later, guided by dim moonlight, Riasean rode a horse along the road, hastening to where it forked. The east road continued across the northern extremes of Bretagne, and the south road meandered through the Shadowlands, a high plateau of striated rock outcroppings, before emptying out onto the broad flatlands leading into the heart of Bretagne. So once again, a Caretaker had pulled strings, forcing him to perform like a marionette. Still, she did provide him with everything he asked for. His fingers ran through the horse’s mane as he peered ahead. No longer focused on pursuing Faline, his mind touched on his memories of Larah, and a dull pain throbbed in his chest. Struggling to not linger on what could have been, he focused on the darkened trail. He hoped the task before him would fill the emptiness inside.

* * *