Chapter 1

Lo’ranan was alone.

He smiled.

He swung the ax again at the base of the tree, squinting his eyes against the wood and bark that flew outward from each impact. The tree shuddered and tipped, crashing to the ground.

9 strokes, Lo’ranan thought to himself. A personal best.

After wiping his brow to clear the sweat, he walked down the length of the tree, deftly chopping off each branch from the trunk. Once this was done, he was left with a straight log about twenty feet in length. This he hewed in half with some additional blows from his ax, before dragging each piece to his cart, which sat at the edge of the forest as he worked just inside.

“Stay here, Quinlan,” he said to his favorite horse, the first of three he used to pull the cart. “I need another about this big, but I’ll have to go further into the woods to find it.”

Lo’ranan grabbed a rope and ducked back into the line of trees, ax in hand. The area where he’d spent the last three months had just given up its last suitable tree, and he knew of no others nearby. Resolved to fill his cart, Lo’ranan delved deeper into the forest in search of one, enjoying his senses awash with the world among the trees.

Springtime forest smells, from the musty moss – made more pungent by the recent rains – to the fragrant blooms of the occasional fruit tree in blossom, enveloped him. The sounds of insects and animals searching for a meal or a mate were not far off. The signs of life in abundance were easy to see.

Suddenly, Lo’ranan stopped.

A new smell wafted through the area he had just entered. Smoke. The sounds of the woodland creatures were gone.

“Who’s there?” he said gruffly, hand clenching his ax.

He heard a twig snap behind a tree to his right, and darted around it, ax at the ready.

“It’s just me!” said the figure that came into view, already cowering on the ground, arms outstretched as though to ward off an assault.

Lo’ranan threw his ax into the ground where it stuck, and helped the man to his feet.

“Trago, what in Acheron are you doing in here?” he demanded.

“I’m sorry, sir. I was just looking for mushrooms, after the rains we’ve had,” mumbled Trago.

Lo’ranan looked down to see a pile of various sizes of mushrooms which had fallen to the ground, next to what looked like very soggy kindling.

“I was trying to make a fire to roast them on, sir,” continued Trago. “But the wood is too wet – all I could get it to do is smoke.”

Lo’ranan put his hand to his forehead in a gesture of exasperation.

“What’s wrong, sir?” Trago asked.

“Nothing. And don’t call me sir,” said Lo’ranan. “I have things to do. Is it safe to say you’ll be fine here on your own?”

“Yes sir, don’t worry sir,” replied Trago. “I’m sorry, sir,” he continued, seeing the furrowing of Lo’ranan’s brow.

“Good,” said Lo’ranan curtly. He picked up his ax and strode away.

It didn’t take him long to find the ideal tree for cutting. He chopped it down as he had the others, and trimmed the branches like before.

13 strokes, I’m getting tired.

He tied the tree with the rope he had brought with him and dragged it through the forest, back to his cart and horses. He loaded the last of his timbers and climbed atop the cart.

“Time to go, Quinlan,” Lo’ranan said with a shake of the reins. “Take us to Xiphos.”

With that, the three horses began to amble northeastward, towards the town of Xiphos.

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