Here's a sample of something new I'm working on. Tentatively titled The Elf Wars, Book 1 - Dragomir, is intended to be a more in-depth look at the fantasy world I created in the Splinter Series.
This excerpt is from the introductory chapter and lays the foundation for the rest of the story. I hope you enjoy.
“War is coming?” Lorna Affensheld asked, startled by her brother’s news. She pushed through a dense clump of weeds to catch up to him. “It can’t be true,” she said, grabbing him by the elbow. “Can it?”
Thorn stopped, turning to face her. “Negotiations broke down between the tribes last night. Father said the high council adjourned without renewing the peace accord.” Her brother sighed, shaking his head. “So, yes, war is coming.”
He shrugged and readjusted the equipment bundle he carried on his back before turning away. “Father says it’s been coming for a while,” he said over his shoulder. “The king of the mountain elves refuses to end the slave trade with Bortavia, so the council had no choice.”
“But war? Is there no other way?” Lorna struggled to keep pace with her brother.
“That’s up to the king. But his envoy said the agreement with the Bortavian pirates was too lucrative. The king is adamant. In his words, we are ‘choosing lesser races over the welfare of elves,’ which is something he will not abide.”
“What lesser races does he mean?”
“Humans, since they make up most of the slaves.”
“I don’t know why they need slaves. It doesn’t seem fair.”
Thorn smiled at her. “I’m sure the humans feel the same way.”
“If there is war, can the other tribes defeat him?”
“Unlikely without an unacceptable loss of life. That’s why no one has tried to stop him before.”
“So, why now? What is different this time?”
Thorn stopped. “An alliance of elves, trolls, dwarves, and especially humans is growing. Father believes this will give us the advantage against the strength of the king’s mountain stronghold.”
“Will you have to go?”
Thorn shook his head. He pointed ahead toward a thick wall of gray fog blocking their way. “My job is more important than wielding a sword against my own kind. The wall needs constant tending.”
Lorna stared at the dense mist in their path. “The wall.” She took her brother’s hand in hers. “I’m glad you brought me with you this time. I can hardly wait to see it.”
“The first time is special. I remember mine.” He squeezed her hand. “Stay close. There are dangers in the mist.”
“What dangers?” Lorna hesitated, pulling her brother to a stop. “I have no weapon. How will I protect myself?”
Thorn shook his head. He tapped Lorna’s forehead. “The danger is in here. And your protection, too.”
“The mist barrier is intended to confuse and deter trespassers. You may hear voices urging you to turn around, to abandon your task. That’s to keep people from reaching the wall.”
“How do we get through?”
“Don’t listen to the voices. Stay focused on our destination and never let go of my hand.”
Lorna exhaled through pursed lips. “Okay. Let’s go.”
They stepped out of the sunlight, passing into the dark, cold, and damp of the fog barrier. She squeezed her brother’s hand, wrapping her free arm around his for added safety.
“I can’t see anything,” she said. “Are we going the right way?”
“We’re going the right way. Keep walking.”
Go back, she-elf. Death waits ahead. Return home and live another day.
She snapped her head around, searching for the owner of the voice.
“Remember,” Thorn cautioned, “the voices are only in your mind. They’re not real. Close your mind to them.”
You’re going the wrong way. Turn around.
“I’m not listening,” she whispered, furrowing her brows in concentrated effort.
“Good. Keep telling yourself that.”
Go home. The one you love is with another.
“No!” Lorna stopped. She released Thorn’s arm and turned back.
He held her hand tight. “The voices lie. Keep walking, Lorna. We’re nearly there. Are you all right?”
Lorna squeezed her eyes shut and focused on how to shut out the voices. The lies came, taunting, urging her to go back. She tried to ignore them, but it took great effort. Then, she remembered how her father had fitted the barn with a heavy door to keep the wolves from the cows.
I can do the same in my mind.
She envisioned a barn door in her mind and placed it between her and the lies. When she finished, it was like closing a door. One moment the voices taunted, urging her to run home. In the next, she slammed the mental door, and the voices went silent.
She sighed with relief, nodding. “I’m better now.”
The rest of the way, though miserably cold and dark, was absent the lying voices.
Time seemed to stand still. She could not tell how long they had been in the mist—a minute or an hour. She felt as if they’d walked for miles, though was certain they had not.
Eventually, the darkness receded, the air brightened, and she could make out shadows and trees beyond.
She quickened her pace, pulling her brother’s hand as she exited the enchanted mist. Stepping from the gray fog, she turned her face up and let the sun warm her skin.
Thorn released his grip on her hand. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Lorna turned, jerking a thumb behind her. “Is it always like that when you come?”
He nodded. “Always. Like I said, it’s the wall’s defense. Too easy to become lost in the mist.” He pointed to the south. “At least we don’t have the wide chasm to cross.”
“How much farther is it?”
“Not far. The last leg is the shortest, but steepest.” He grinned at her. “See if you can keep up.” He turned and pushed on up the hill.
Lorna followed, though she slowed while negotiating the steep incline. The climb was bad enough, but barbed vines and thick, tall grass covered the ground, requiring she test each step before moving ahead. She watched her brother as he made his way and followed in his footsteps.
Thorn stepped into the clearing and stopped. He called over his shoulder, “Have you fallen behind again?”
“Don’t tease. I’m right here,” she said, wiping her face damp with sweat.
He turned. “Look at you,” he said. “I didn’t hear you. Well done.”
She swiped an errant lock of dark brown hair back from her face. “You make enough noise for us both.” She pointed up the incline. “How much farther?”
“A bit more of this,” he kicked at a clump of tall weeds. “Then it opens up the rest of the way.” He shaded his eyes from the sun. “When we reach the crest, we’ll set up camp.”
Lorna looked over her shoulder down the hill. “How long will this take?”
Thorn laughed. “Worried he’ll find another girlfriend while you’re away?”
She glared at him. “No. I just—”
“Relax. I was joking.” He rested his hands on his hips. “Don’t worry. We’ll be back by tomorrow evening. Besides, what’s your hurry?” He swept an arm in an arc. “Look at this place. It’s magnificent.”
From their vantage near the crest of the hill, the valley floor, verdant, lay spread out before them, with the snow-capped peaks of the Blue Mountains to the east. The dark hint of the Serpent Mountains stained the horizon toward the south. Wisps of clouds chased each other across the sky. Lorna spied an eagle on the wing in the distance.
She nodded. “It is beautiful.”
“Walk beside me the rest of the way.” Thorn turned, resuming the trek up the hill.
Lorna caught him, her satchel swinging from the shoulder strap. She rested a hand on it to keep it from banging as she walked.
“Good.” Thorn pointed at her satchel. “It’s best to move silently through the world. Go unseen and unheard. Become one with nature.”
Lorna laughed. “You sound like father.”
Thorn shrugged. “He’s not wrong. His beliefs are why our family has the contract to maintain the wall. This small portion of it, anyway.”
“When you have no magic, how do you maintain the wall?”
He raised one brow. “I have magic. All forest elves do. Some just have more than others. I don’t have much, but magic isn’t needed to keep vines and weeds from taking over. I remove everything within ten paces of the wall. It needs nothing more than that.”
“I don’t think I have any.”
“Give it time. Maybe it hasn’t wakened yet.”
Lorna thought about their destination and asked, “Do you ever wonder about the far side?”
“The wall? Of course. But it’s foolish thinking about it. Even if we could, we’re forbidden to pass through.”
“It’s a shame. To see Fae, if only once, is my dream.”
“As I said, it’s foolish wishing for something that will never happen.” He stopped, tilting his head. “Listen. Do you hear that?”
Lorna said, “A soft hissing sound?”
Thorn nodded. “Wall song.” He took her hand. “Come on. We’re close.”
He pushed through a last stand of trees, his long strides forcing her to walk at an uncomfortable speed. When they reached the crest, she moved up beside him and gasped.
Thorn draped an arm over her shoulder, pulling her close. “Welcome to the wall.”
Lorna’s voice, a low whisper, was tinged with awe. “Oh, my. It’s beautiful.”
“I feel the same way every time I come here,” Thorn said. “Yes, it’s beautiful. And it’s alive.”
Lorna swung around to look at him. “Alive? How—”
“Ancient faery magic. The histories tell of its creation many thousands of years ago. War between the races resulted in this.” He pointed at the shimmering barrier with its shifting rainbow colors. “The two worlds forever separated. This mortal world and Fae, the land of faery.”
Lorna took several steps toward the wall. It reached the clouds, seeming to go on forever. The living barrier stretched far as she could see in either direction, following the curves of the land. Iridescent shades of blues and greens flowed along the wall’s surface, merging with yellow, orange, and red before becoming violet, then purple, then blue once more. The river of color moved in a continuous evolution, ascending, changing color, then cascading, flowing along its length. This dance of color was hypnotic.
She looked back at Thorn. “The colors look like they are chasing one another. And the sound.” She cocked her head. “You’re right. It’s like music.” She held out her hands toward the wall. She spun, her eyes wide. “I can feel its power touching me.”
Thorn nodded. “That must be your talent. Your ability to perceive powerful magic.”
“Is it safe to be here?”
Thorn lowered his equipment, then stood, stretching his back. “We’re fine. We don’t have enough magic to interest the wall. But it samples all who approach, taking something for itself from those with strong magic. They say it’s how the wall endures. Come, help me set up camp. We can get some work done before nightfall.”
After Lorna finished putting her things away, she stood, staring at the incredible sight of the dividing line between worlds.
She felt drawn to it.
Vines, weeds, and many small bushes encroached on the barrier, embracing it, their mass blocking out some colors. Lorna got the impression the wall attracted them too.
“If you’re ready, we should get started.” Thorn walked past, a short-handled axe in his belt, and a shovel in one hand. In his other, he carried a small scythe, which he offered to her. “You might need this. Be careful, though. It’s sharp.”
“Don’t worry about me.” She swung the curved blade, slicing through a thick vine. “Father taught me well.”
Thorn pointed toward the right with his shovel. “All right. You take that direction. I’ll go this way.” He gestured over his shoulder. “See who gets more done.”
She spent the remaining daylight helping her brother clear growth from the wall. It wasn’t hard work, and she made good progress—though not as good as Thorn. He made it look easy. She watched him whenever she took a break. He worked with the same efficiency as he did back home. That always impressed her.
Lorna thrilled at working next to the wall. She believed she could feel the wall’s appreciation for her labor.
Perhaps Thorn is right and that’s part of my magic.
During one break, she rested a hand on the wall, feeling its pulse, the rhythm of its music. “I wish I could see what you’re guarding,” she whispered. Looking skyward, she added, “Is there no way over or around you?”
She felt no response, only stoic silence, save for the music in her head. Returning to her work, she allowed the soothing sounds and hypnotic colors to ease her labor.
Time slipped by.
As the sun dropped below the treetops, Lorna halted her work and stepped back from the wall, her mouth slack. The river of color glowed in the dim light. She turned away and stifled a laugh. The glow painted the leaves on the trees in shifting color.
“Thorn?” she said, her voice a weak whisper.
Her brother appeared at her side. He rested a hand on her shoulder. “Noticed, I see. Thought you would like that.”
She turned her face up to his. Faint color danced across his face. Lorna covered her mouth to keep from crying out. “Oh, my.” She turned in a circle. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Thorn shrugged. “It’s pretty, but the light makes sleeping difficult. Takes time, but you get used to it.” He laughed. “My first trip, I didn’t get any sleep. Almost didn’t finish my work.”
He took her by the elbow. “Enough work for today. Let’s eat.”
She let him lead her but could not look away from the wall. “Alive,” she said, awed.
The lights kept her up long after her brother retired.
Lorna woke, lying in the same spot where she sat last night.
She shook her head, feeling foolish, then stood to loosen the kinks in her legs and side.
When she turned, Thorn was sitting by the fire, smiling up at her. “You look tired. Stayed up all night, did you?”
“Most of it. I guess I fell asleep watching the colors. Don’t remember.” She yawned and stretched. “Don’t worry, I can work.”
“You’ll sleep well tonight.” He stood, tossing the dregs of his mug into the fire. “Come along. We’ve a full day ahead of us.”
Her hunger had not wakened, so she tore a hunk of bread from the loaf and stuffed a piece of cheese into it. This she stashed in the pocket of her tunic for later. Her thirst, however, announced itself. She poured water from a half-full skin into her mug, gulping it down before hurrying to catch up with Thorn.
Retrieving the scythe from Thorn, Lorna moved along the wall toward the spot where she stopped the day before. She trailed her hand along the wall as she went, feeling its texture, listening to the message of the music as it spoke to her.
Strength and longevity. Eternal safety.
Returning to her labors, she worked tirelessly, removing the tangle of unwanted growth. A particularly thick clump pressed against the wall, and she attacked it, slicing through the knot, tossing the waste clear, exposing the myriad-colored wall. All the while, the dance of color with its attendant music moved across the surface. The combination soothed her as she worked.
If Thorn allows, I’ll come back again and again.
The sun warmed her while she toiled. And, once more, time slipped by. When Thorn called her to stop for their noon meal, it amazed her how much she had cleared.
“Keep that up and you’ll replace me, sister.” Thorn winked and held out a mug of water for her. “Glad you came?”
Lorna wiped her forehead with her sleeve. “Oh, yes. Can I come back?”
Thorn laughed. “Not sure I could stop you.”
She accepted the plate of jerky and cheese he offered, ate quickly, then hurried back to the comfort of the wall and the joy of hard work.
Lorna had little trouble with most of the vegetation—it came away easily and she made good time until she came to an unusually heavy mass of vines and weeds. Her scythe cut through most, but the extra effort tired her.
Lack of sleep, I suppose.
Her breathing grew heavy as she fought to clear away a section clogged with stubborn foliage. Behind the mass of weeds, she uncovered a large circular spot, the vibrant color washed out, faded and gray. She furrowed her brow. The dance of color continued around this stain, seemed to avoid it, but the dark spot remained, slowly rotating.
She backed away, a sudden feeling of dread washing over her. “Thorn,” she called, her voice unsteady.
Thorn came to stand next to her. He wiped his brow with a shirtsleeve.
She extended a hand toward the black spot. “Is that supposed to be there?”
Thorn squinted. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen—”
“It doesn’t feel right,” she interrupted, putting a hand to her chest. “Here.”
He moved toward the blemish, which looked to be spreading—its center now chest high to him.
Lorna took a tentative step forward. “No. Don’t.”
He turned. “What’s wrong?”
She touched her ear. “Can’t you hear? The music… there.” She indicated the darkening blemish. “It’s different. Dissonant, foreboding. I don’t like it. Come back.”
“It’s fine. The wall won’t harm me. I need to see.” He moved closer.
Despite her growing unease, Lorna followed, but at what she considered a safe distance.
Thorn leaned closer, inspecting the roiling circle of black. He put a hand to the spot, then flinched, jerking it back. “Ow. Hot.”
He held his burned hand and backed off a single step. As he did, the stain split open and a massive black claw emerged, grasping for him. He back peddled, tripped, and fell as the claw closed on empty air.
Thorn scrabbled away, kicking at it when the claw snapped.
He was nearly out of reach when the thing seized him by the leg. He shrieked, pulling at the talons piercing his flesh as blood flowed from several wounds.
Clawing the ground did nothing to slow him from being dragged across the dirt and up against the wall.
He braced his hands on either side of the gaping hole as his leg was pulled into the black.
Lorna screamed but could not block the sound of her brother’s body breaking as the clawed hand dragged him into the wall.
She raced forward, seizing one of Thorn’s thrashing hands in hers, dispite the horror. She pulled until her shoulders screamed with pain but could not free him.
His tortured, pain-filled eyes met hers. “Run,” he said, his voice a wet wheeze.
A mighty jerk threatened to snatch his hand from her grip, but she clamped tighter, pulling against whatever was taking her brother. But try as she might, Lorna could not stop him from being sucked into the black hole. Incrementally, with each successive tug, he slipped further into the black ooze—when his face vanished, the wind carried his last screams of agony away.
Still, she pulled, even when her hands vanished in the black vortex. She braced her knees against the wall on either side of the stain and leaned back, straining, yelling with the effort.
A final, tremendous jerk upset her balance, and she fell forward. The wall’s breach surrounded her, drawing her into its inky black depths.
Excruciating pain forced a throat-tearing scream from her. It felt like all her joints were being separated, like a slaughtered lamb. She held onto Thorn’s hand long as she could, but the pain finally forced her to let go, and he was gone.
She struggled, reaching out for her brother, but could see nothing in the dark. Lorna felt herself moving, slipping through the ooze toward some unknown end. She feared what awaited.
Despite the pain, she remained conscious long enough to be drawn through the wall. Ultimately, the black hole vomited her from its dark tunnel, depositing her into the faery realm. More pain assaulted her as she fell onto hard ground amid a cluster of sharp boulders, the impact driving the breath from her lungs.
Lorna got painfully to her feet and froze. She opened her mouth to scream, but a wheeze was all she could manage. What lay before her wasn’t the fantasy land she dreamed about—no luxurious gardens or sweet-smelling flowers.
She had landed in a nightmare.