Excerpt from Souls of the Everwood
I’m hopeful that my second venture with Blue Oranda will be published in the next week. It’s a different series than the Crimson Hawks, which I call the Krueger Chronicles. This series has a darker tone than the Hawks and a bit more magic. I consider it something of a dark fantasy “western” as it shares some elements with that genre as well. Here’s a look at the beginning:
Krueger adjusted the leather patch covering the remnants of his right eye. Nine years had passed since he had lost that eye as a member of the Forest Guard, standing alongside the Fey against the Shadowspawn. His life had changed on that day. At one time, he thought he might become accustomed to the empty socket, but it never felt quite right even after all these years.
Today, it was worse than ever, and with every mile the Red Company traveled he fought the urge to rub it. At least, he knew the reason it was bothering him.
He was back in the Everwood.
He bent his neck to stare up at lofty boughs and listened to the rustling of the leaves and groaning of branches. The veterans of the Forest Guard always said that was how the ancient trees spoke to each other. When he had first been recruited to that band of woodsmen and hunters, he discounted most of their stories, even the ones he had enjoyed, as the sort of myth and lore that men left too long in the forest would imagine. Instead, he focused on the facts of woodcraft. He had learned how to recognize every leaf, every plant, every bug and animal and recognize the subtle signs of the change of seasons or the presence of something that didn’t belong. His old commander, Gerhard, had told him that he’d one day grow to be a legend among the Forest Guard. It wouldn’t have been a bad fate for an orphan without a family, a gutter rat from Ostburg. Of course, that was before he had lost his eye and they’d cast him out. All he had left from his time was his eyepatch, an old key they’d left in one of his pouches and his memories.
He wondered how much he had forgotten about the wilderness.
There was one person that he would never forget… Elianna.
Captain Raff’s scarlet cape looked appropriately like fresh blood as he rode at the head of the men of the Red Company. A bright feather plume rose from his large hat and the easy manner with which he rode gave the impression of a traveling minstrel coming to town, rather than a hard-bitten mercenary who had forgotten more men that he had killed than he remembered. He could be a noble fop and make ladies giggle at a ball one hour and then spend the remainder of the eve drinking a pub full of sailors under the table. He’d seen the captain with a rapier, and the man had noble blood somewhere, because he had studied the sword. He’d never seen a man with better blade skill – a combination of quickness and deadly accuracy. In only a few weeks, he’d learned all of this about his captain, and the man had earned Krueger’s respect.
It helped that the Captain had the courage to look him in his good eye when they talked.
Krueger was new to this group of mercenaries, but he held a decent sense of loyalty to them. They had taken him in, and after he had left his last profession, he needed something. He had a new identity now, Krueger, the dirty swordsman of the Red Company who shot men dead with a pair of ensorcelled guns even with only one eye. A momentary smile broke through the mask of a distant expression he commonly wore. It amazed him how many men were surprised that he could hit anything with a pistol, much less carry a brace of them into combat.
The others were a mishmash of ruffians, lost souls and ne’er-do-wells. Three of the young ones seemed the types who had run away looking for adventure. They constantly spent their time joking and laughing and he privately hoped they’d live to share retirement drinks, but he knew the odds were piss-poor. Standing out from the rest of the company, Ripper was a massive hulk, maybe part-Ogre, with a mess of scars and a mouth full of gaps and disjointed teeth from pit fighting. Saren was the only woman with them and Ripper’s constant companion. She was a giantess in her own right, perhaps an inch taller than Krueger, easily mistaken for a man. She always wore a leather mask, which covered her cheeks and forehead, probably to hide some kind of disfigurement. He didn’t know what bond she shared with Ripper and didn’t care to. Most of the others kept to themselves, each loaded down with their own dark burdens, but the captain had found a way to keep all of them in the company. For Krueger, it was a place to belong.
His grey walked slowly and the day tasted faintly of rain. To his ears, the jangling of blades, irregular clopping of horses and coughs and snorts of men sounded like a cacophony here in the forest. Every animal for a mile would know where they were. The smell of moss hung in the air mixed with the aroma of old wood. The scents brought back memories of slipping between the shafts of sunlight that found their way to the forest floor and the whisper of an arrow in flight, followed by the solid thunk it made when it struck home. He couldn’t help but also remember the subtle perfume of wild flowers clinging to the Fey who they fought alongside, especially Elianna.
He could never forget her, never escape his memories of her, no matter how hard he tried.
His heart beat hard in his chest, and he found himself looking from beneath the brim of his hat for her. He knew that the old men always said the Fey were fickle in their affections, and he had barely had that. Merely a soft touch here and there and a gentle smile and that one day when she had embarrassed him during a hunting exercise. And of course, she was there when he lost the eye. He wondered if she even knew in the chaos of that battle that it was a blow intended for her that he had intercepted. He wondered if she was the one who made sure he woke up in the chirurgeon’s tent alive, instead of becoming fertilizer for the great trees. He wondered about many things, and he knew that he was hoping and dreading the thought of seeing her again, as if he were a youth struggling for a glimpse of his first crush. If the others only knew, they would have teased him until he was near the point of murder.
He wasn’t sure if he saw or heard the King’s men first, but they stood with pikes crossed on the road in brilliant red and gold livery, though Raff’s cape made the royal red look like mud brown in comparison. The mercenary company kept their easy pace, taking their cue from the captain, while the garrison of soldiers shouted and rushed about in a great commotion. Either the sergeant in charge had a noodle for a spine or the men had their nerve spent. They looked panicked.