Some of you may be wondering, "What gives? No chapter post this weekend?" The answer is that I did not want to detract from the excitement of today's launch of "Identity", my first short story e-published by Rogue Phoenix Press!
The story is launching at a download price of $2.99. Click here to buy directly from the publisher in HTML, PDF, or Kindle formats, or you can purchase from Amazon or Barnes & Noble for your Kindle or Nook. Look below for a sneak peek!
Joseph, a solitary hunter, has discovered an elven girl being chased by a search party through his woods. Though she calls him by a strange name, he agrees to help, hiding her in a secluded spot and striking out with some of her clothing to leave a false trail...
After another half-mile, he turned right and leaped out of the stream on the same side he'd entered, heading toward his most recent campsite. He hoped it would appear to the hunters that their quarry was trying to double back and confuse her trail. The dogs might pick up his real scent once they reached the camp, but he was all through these woods every day, half the time dragging bleeding game or offal. If they could pick up his freshest trail amidst all that, then they would eventually find him wherever he fled, so he pinned his hopes on the belief that they couldn't.
With practiced movements, he scaled a large poplar and shoved the elf's clothing scraps into a high fork that was invisible from the ground. When the dogs took to baying at an obviously deserted tree, with any luck it would force their masters to assume they'd lost the trail.
With a couple of deft leaps Joseph was back on the ground, retracing his steps to the stream as closely as he could without running into the hunters. He trusted his stealth, however, and ventured close enough to catch a glimpse of them through the underbrush as they passed; three large men on black horses with two more on foot looking for sign and holding the dogs. The riders were not heavily armored, but they sat their saddles as though accustomed to being so, and their faces were cold and stern.
He considered climbing a tree and felling them all with arrows, but he had no quarrel with them, no notion of why the elf girl had felt compelled to run in the first place, no just cause to do these men harm. Trusting his speed as much as his stealth, he observed them for a time, but they spoke little and gave away nothing that helped him to understand the strange goings-on in his woods.
Finally, once confident they would not immediately pick up his trail from the campsite, he sped back to the stream and the elven woman waiting in the bank dug-out. She was clearly overjoyed at his return, but he motioned for silence and she remained so.
"Now," Joseph said quietly, keeping one ear open to the forest sounds outside the recess, "just what is going on here? Who are you?"
"I am Kaillë Windsong, daughter of the chieftain of the Windrider clan."
"How do you come to be here, and in such a state as I found you?"
"My village was attacked. Many died and many fled. I have been running for nearly two days. I do not know why they still follow me."
"Why do you call me Azrith?"
Now the elf was clearly puzzled. "I don't understand."
"I don't know you. By your introduction, I take it you didn't expect me to, but you seem to believe you know me, and you call me this name I have never heard. I would have that explained before things get even more out of hand."
"It is the most ancient legend of the Windrider clan. In the hour of greatest need, when wicked men attack, the survivors will find Azrith, a man of the wood who will bring deliverance."
"I am sorry, Kaillë, but I am not this man."
"But you must—"
"My name is Joseph, and I'm a simple hunter. I don't plan on 'delivering' anybody today."
"But there was more, and everything rings true...apart from the name. Isn't it possible—"
"I will hear no more of this! You say you do not know why these men are after you?"
"Well, it's plain enough you aren't carrying anything, so it must be something about who you are. A chieftain's daughter could fetch quite a ransom."
"No," Kaillë disagreed, "there would be no one to pay it. Father and the rest of my family did not survive." Her voice was even and calm, betraying no pain or anger.
Damn her elven stoicism. Scream, weep, do something. "Alright," he continued, "not for ransom...then what? What could they possibly gain by your death or capture?"
"I'm sorry, Az...Joseph... I truly do not know."
"Well, I'll..." Suddenly Joseph stopped speaking, tilting his head toward the mouth of the dug-out. "The birds are alarmed. Your enemies must be searching upstream. If they pick up a scent again, we're done for. We have to run."
Kaillë stood and Joseph was glad to see she had already gathered and tied his oversized cloak so she could move quickly. He motioned for her to follow, leaping over the fallen alder and dropping on the far side. Once there, he turned, reaching up to help the much shorter elf down from the crest of the fallen trunk. Just as their hands clasped, a raucous horn blast smote the woods, followed by the frenzied barking of two dogs. Kaillë had been spotted.
Joseph's mind raced. He never doubted his skills in the woods, but they had not been pitted against human minds since the wars. Despite the strangeness of his situation, he felt a pang of guilt for failing to note the enemy's approach before it was too late, but there was no time now for apologies. Instead, he clenched Kaillë's delicate hands and dragged her down from the tree, pulling her into his arms as he darted into the woods, sensing the limp weariness in her frame as he carried her.
He had to move, had to get them into thick enough brush that the men were forced to abandon their horses, at the very least, for he could never hope to outdistance mounted hunters. Still, he realized even that tactic would not be enough, not now. As he moved from the stream, he knew the dark-clad men had seen him, however briefly. Now that they had reason to follow this other scent, they had no doubt picked up in his camp. Now that they were this close to a fresh trail, there would be no evading those dogs.
One problem at a time, Joseph chided himself. He knew of a place half a mile into the woods where he thought he could force the riders to foot, draw them into a marshy part of a feeder stream course, gain the high ground. He just wasn't sure he could get there with a spent elf maid in tow.
He barely had the time to try. Charging uphill, he passed a deer run that paralleled the stream and was horrified to realize by the approaching cadence of hooves that the hunters had found it, thundering toward his path just yards behind. Digging his feet into the earth, he tried for a desperate burst of speed into the brush, but with the sudden hiss of a whip, the breath seized in his throat, his feet flying out from under him as Kaillë tumbled from his arms.
If the preview sparks your interest, click straight to Rogue Phoenix Press, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble to download your copy today! If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask via comments here or directly to me through the Contact form. I look forward to reading your reviews of the story on all the sellers' websites!