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The Southren Road

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Loved it! 😍

An epic fantasy story with a fully realized and descriptive world that was a joy to fall into.

Synopsis

Glorhelm, the exiled elven prince; Carant the wry druid; Rozeka, the mysterious witch; and Anagil, the dour dwarf. Unlikely travelling companions, they are nonetheless thrown together through various quirks of fate, and when they stumble on news of a strange quest, at first it seems to be nothing more than a way to make a living.

As the party journey through Tala, subtle clues begin to emerge that embroil the party in a tale far more important and desperate than they could have realised. And then there are the secrets help deep inside the companions themselves...

The Southren Road by Julian M. Armstrong is an epic fantasy story with a fully realized and descriptive world that was a joy to fall into. The story is about Glorhelm the elf and a group of his companions as they embark on a quest to help save and heal their ravaged land, Tala. This land has been completely devastated and its people are ready to begin anew. But what if the destruction is not completely vanquished? It is up to Glorhelm and his colleagues to find out!


That description seems fairly standard for a fantasy epic, right? While the storyline is similar to many other fantasy novels, The Southren Road stands out with its impressive writing, intriguing characters, and world-building. The strongest part of this book by far is the vast descriptions of Tala. The author built this world from the ground up and let it flourish within the pages of the story. I loved reading about it and found myself picturing everything very vividly. Additionally, I loved the characters so much. Maybe I’m biased, but I just love stories that involve other fantasy races like this one did, such as: elves, dwarves, druids, and witches. It was really wonderful to read about and discover not only each character, but also the various backgrounds and histories that each one carried with them. I think having a story that involves characters of differing races and backgrounds brings so much more to the table and I find myself really looking forward to seeing where the series progresses from here.


I would probably say that the type of reader who would enjoy this story the most is someone who is a big fan of classic fantasy epics. This story reminded me a great deal of the Lord of the Rings trilogy by Tolkien. It has such a classic feel to it that I think lots of fantasy fans will enjoy. I would also say if you are a fan of other classic fantasy authors such as Tad Williams, David Eddings, and Terry Brooks then you will most likely love this book as I did. 

Reviewed by

I am a librarian and a voracious reader with a never ending appetite for books! I read a variety of different genres, though my favorites are fantasy, LGBT fiction, science fiction, and YA. Last year I read over 350 books and there is nothing I love more than reading books and talking about them!

Synopsis

Glorhelm, the exiled elven prince; Carant the wry druid; Rozeka, the mysterious witch; and Anagil, the dour dwarf. Unlikely travelling companions, they are nonetheless thrown together through various quirks of fate, and when they stumble on news of a strange quest, at first it seems to be nothing more than a way to make a living.

As the party journey through Tala, subtle clues begin to emerge that embroil the party in a tale far more important and desperate than they could have realised. And then there are the secrets help deep inside the companions themselves...

The Leaf and Field

For the first time in his life, Glorhelm was completely without sight.

He could not even pick out the misty shapes, swirling images or whispering shadows that his elven eyes could normally see in the darkness. He was blind, groping pathetically along damp, cold walls of hard, unyielding stone, unaware of neither where his starting point had been nor his destination. As he fumbled his way through the gloom, he halted, his ears pricking up at a distant sound. Could they be playing tricks, compensating for the unaccustomed lack of vision? He paused momentarily before realising that the whirring sound was not merely his imagination. The sound built gradually in tension before being followed by a metallic, rhythmic chime, like a cracked bell blown by the wind in a long-deserted shrine. The chime grew progressively louder until Glorhelm had to cover his ears at the volume as he fought to keep unquestioning fear at bay.

Without any warning, there was a blaze of light, multi-coloured and dazzling with an abrupt and fierce intensity. The shock of the light was such that it felt almost like a physical force, pushing him back against the wall. Just as his senses began to feel like more of a curse than a blessing, the clanging stopped, only to be replaced by a more ominous sound: a mechanical ticking, bereft of soul or life. The light slowly faded and the elf found himself in a dark cavern, lit solely by the guttering flame of a single large candle, which cast the shadows of dark spirits on the far wall.

The shadows cast by the light moved slowly across the dark stone. Hidden memories from childhood, half-remembered tales and more recent horrors started to jostle for his attention, jabbering before him. Glorhelm steadied his shallow breath and tried to look beyond the shades, moving slowly and purposefully towards the candle’s flickering flame. All the time, the monotonous ticking continued, first from above, then left, suddenly below and then behind.

As he neared the candle, he felt such an overwhelming sense of panic and a desire to flee that he feared his knees were about to give way. Instinctively, he clutched at the small, insignificant-looking jewel that hung from a thin chain of dwarven gold around his neck. Whispering a few words of power through his dry throat, he held the jewel in front of him and the cave walls turned the red of blood, as if they were lodged in the very depths of Hell.

The candle was snuffed out by an unseen hand, and the darkness began to swirl once more, suffocating the light of the jewel. Soon Glorhelm found the darkness was pinning him against the rock of the far wall with such force that he could hardly breathe, let alone move. As the inky swirl began to envelop him forever, he looked into the jewel for some final solace. All he saw in the crystal was a reflection of him clothed as a dark elf – an outcast, not a hero. His father stood behind him with a single tear of blood running down that stern, grey, unsmiling face. There was the sudden pain of a knife, and then nothing.

 

***

 

Glorhelm’s eyes flicked open. From the other side of the shuttered window, he could hear street-sounds through his slowly receding nightmare. There was the whirring and churning of a barrel organ, lustily cranking its way through one of Lerwichamian’s most popular folk songs. He closed his eyes briefly and started to breathe deeply, relaxing the muscles in his neck and shoulders that were knotted with tension. Children’s voices and hasty footsteps in the street outside reminded him where he was. He was in Lerwichamian, the great northern castle city, not doomed forever below ground in some nameless tomb of rock. Lerwichamian was the seventh of the Seven Magic Kingdoms and the last of the Kingdoms to arrive in Tala, hundreds of years earlier. Only they, amongst their proud and noble companions, had survived the ravages of the great armies of Kankarion. Now it sat weakened but undefeated – albeit without a King – at the head of the Council of the North. The Council kept nominal watch over Tala in case the evil should once again return in numbers, but all knew it held limited sway after the huge losses during the war. All across Tala, the land was slowly beginning to be populated again, but there were still many places either deserted or filled with bandits, rildriks or rumours of nameless creatures.

The Council had stood by, helpless, as the most powerful of the Kingdoms, Vrangelya, descended into civil war, barbarism and decay. Then, during the long, bitter siege of Castle Lerwich and the surrounding city, they had watched Matochkin, Elbasan, Workum and Samaria be ground into dust. The ice palaces of Dubros had been overrun and now barely three hundred survivors of that land ranged on the inhospitable and bleak Northern Isles. Lerwichamian had watched the mighty rise and seen them fall.

The final reward for the brave defence of the castle and city, after three years of winter siege and starvation, was seeing the armies of Kankarion crushed at the Battle of Soligalich Hills by the alliance of unfettered men, elves and dwarves. Vast tracts of lands to the north were now the nominal possession of the state, but with too few left to populate them, they had fallen empty, left dark and forlorn after only a few years. Thus, the lands to the north began to become the lands of rumour and petty evil. An uneasy calm lay over Lerwichamian and the other lands that had managed to survive the great wars. Nameless creatures now dwelt in the rubble of the crystal towers of Vrangelya, and the Seven Magic Kingdoms were preserved only in memory. Even in their absence, however, they dominated the present. Although it was without a King, Lerwichamian still thought of itself as the one true survivor of the Kingdoms.

Glorhelm himself had been present at the Battle of Soligalich Hills, leading a company of elven warriors from his father’s realm of Sormina, which encompassed the elven woodland far to the south-east on the foothills of the Zephron Mountains. That had been forty years ago, and it had been the first time he had left his native realm and ventured as a first-born prince into the outside world. It was also the last time he had set foot in Sormina, for he had never returned as had been expected of him. Was this the cause of his nightmares? The visions of him as a dark prince, abandoning his father’s realm – and for what? He rolled in his fingers the jewel that lay around his neck and stared at the ceiling. It was a fragment of the Red Shard, most sacred of all elven relics and the sign of the Prince of Sormina. It granted subtle powers as well as just giving comfort, and it warmed away the nightmares until they were a distant memory.

His thoughts were suddenly broken by the light of day. A thin beam of dusty light had crept through the creaking shutters and, after sneaking silently across the floor like a malevolent spider, now danced madly on his eyelids. He shifted in his hard bed, and his eyes moved across the sparse room that was his current home. Two rough beds, a rickety chair that could barely support the weight of a child, a chest with a broken lock, and a chest of drawers with no handles, so one had to open the drawers with a knife. In the second bed, there was his travelling companion of many years, Carant Lanthris, a druid who, at the moment, was busy muttering and cursing in his sleep. Glorhelm sat up in bed and ran his fingers through his brown hair. Looking at Carant, he made the quick assumption that the druid would sleep for many more hours unless roused.

“Carant. It’s morning.” Glorhelm tried his best to wake his companion.

The druid mumbled something impolite and choice from the far side of the room and pretended to be asleep in the hope that his pretence would fool both of them. Glorhelm smiled slightly to himself. How many times now had this scene been enacted, this morning ritual? In how many inns, after how many travels and adventures, both successful and not so successful, had he tried to wake the druid from a deep sleep, occasionally one that had been aided by some of the innkeeper’s ale?

The Leaf and Field in Lerwich was certainly no exception. The previous night, Carant had started regaling a half-awestruck, half-disbelieving crowd with tales of unimaginable heroism and victory against all odds, laced with a generous dose of the druid’s rather fertile and liberal imagination. Glorhelm had retreated to a corner and rolled his eyes, amused yet also slightly awkward at such verbosity.

Elves were not given to excess or flights of fancy, and this partly explained the chasm of mistrust between them and men. Men had long regarded them as aloof, lofty and condescending, given to patronising their less long-lived relatives. Elves, on the other hand, often found men fickle, boorish and crude, lacking in craft or subtlety, prone to anger and wanton cruelty when the mood takes them. Glorhelm’s own father, Arnhelm, King of Sormina, the highest and greatest of all elven kingdoms, had warned him against men the day they had set out to join the armies at the Battle of Soligalich Hills.

“First there are the Gods, then the elves. Thirdly comes man, just above the level of base rildriks, goblins and beasts of the field. Talk to them like elves but trust them like a rildrik, for they would barter your soul for the price of a worthless trinket.”

Naturally, Glorhelm had treated his father’s remarks with the haughty disregard and cavalier contempt that had characterised his early adulthood. The majority of his kinsmen would only converse with men if they were druids with a shared respect for the forest, unless they happened to be in dire need. The bond between elves and druids was that of love, respect and honour for the great forests that still covered parts of Tala. The scale of the woodlands had greatly reduced over the time since Glorhelm had been born, but in many ancient places, time stood still, the trees protected from any change bar that of the seasons. Few men came out of the darkest forests alive and, should they be foolish enough to carry an axe, the trees would swallow them up before they could swing one blow.

It was time to take the waking of Carant a stage further, so the elf finally left his bed and went over towards the window. He flung open the shutters to reveal a warm, early autumn morning. Squinting in the sunlight, he looked down onto a busy street, all bustle and activity as the good inhabitants of the city went about their daily business, far removed from the worries of the good Prince of Sormina. The city was unusually full at the present time, as it was the autumn trading season. In a few weeks, most of the passing inhabitants would return to their own lands before the winter set in and many parts of the city would be cloaked in darkness, another legacy of the loss of life in the great wars.

A groan and a shuffle from behind him shook Glorhelm from his reverie and signalled that the druid had finally been roused from sleep. The elf turned back, into the gloom of their dusty hovel.

“A good morning to you, Carant. The sun dances on the streets below, making it feel more like summer than the start of autumn. It is a busy day – a day of markets, festivals and celebrations.”

The druid attempted to focus one bleary eye on the elf.

“Never again.” Carant’s voice was hoarse and dry. “What did they make that ale from, and why did I drink so much of it?”

“It was made from the dust of the towers of Vrangelya and the souls of a hundred worshippers of the dark maiden Patyar, my friend.” Glorhelm was pitching his exaggerated good spirits in just the right way to cause maximum annoyance to his old friend. “Only yesterday, you were singing the praises of his ale to the owner of the inn. How fickle are the souls of men.”

“Yes, well, we can all be wrong sometimes. Even elves have been known to make mistakes sometimes, so I’ve been told. The dust of Vrangelya, you say? More like the very ash from the Grey Mountains of the Nine Hells.”

Carant sat up slowly and gingerly in his bed, flexing his fingers as if he was uncertain as to how to move them. Then he got up, took a deep breath, and moved towards the window where the barrel-organ still ground out a folk melody.

“Hey! You there!” shouted Carant over the din. “Yes, you! You with the grinder and no sense of a melody.”

The organist stopped grinding, looked around, and took quite some time to locate the bellowing druid who, by now, was waving manically from the window above his head. At last he spotted Carant and dutifully cupped a hopeful ear in the direction of the druid.

“Ah, that’s better already,” sighed Carant. “Here now, here’s a copper to go and play in the next street – a florin if it’s the next town.”

The organist’s face was a curious mixture of insulted, bemused and annoyed. However, none of those emotions were enough to cause him to refuse money, and he caught the coin as it fell from the druid’s hand. As he moved his instrument, he made a parting gesture of a harsh discord, which made Carant’s eyes water. The organist left, feeling that his point had been made; anyway, it was well known that druids had no appreciation of music.

“The cheek of it. What a way to make a living – playing music so badly that people have to pay you to go away,” muttered Carant, dragging himself away from the window and rummaging aimlessly through his bag.

“Is it any worse than what we do, old friend?” Glorhelm murmured, letting slip his enforced joviality. Carant looked at the elf.

“Another nightmare? That must make at least four this week. This is starting to get worrying, my good elf. Anyway” – Carant’s voice changed abruptly – “isn’t that just a typical elf? Asking a question like that – not only before breakfast, but when I’m in no fit state to answer it.”

Carant hurried from the room, his voice echoing down the hall as he threw off curses and disparaging remarks about the quality of the establishment, before slamming the washroom door behind him.

Glorhelm watched him leave and smiled with a shake of the head. However, his question had been in earnest. It was a question that had been preying on his mind for a long while and he knew, despite Carant’s denials, that it had been on the druid’s as well. They had spent, or perhaps it was more like wasted, several long years dealing with small, petty problems out of the league of local law-keepers. It was shortly after they had taken on the basic task of finding and recovering a farmer’s prize boar that Glorhelm’s dreams of darkness and sense of futility had started. An elven prince, hunting down a pig for a handful of coins from an ignorant, belching farmer! At times, he also suspected the far reach of his father’s hand in his dreams, seeking out his son across the leagues of Tala. Whatever the reason, he had not left the tranquillity of his elven home to spend a lifetime waking up in shabby rooms, continually scraping together what money was available.

He moved round the room and slowly packed his belongings, a task that took him only a few moments. Leaving their room, he saw the door next to theirs was ajar, and peered inside. The room had been occupied the previous evening by their two current travelling companions, a taciturn dwarf from the western realms of Rozkia and a tall, languid female witch from the closed land of Gladewater. Their room was deserted and their belongings packed, a sight that made Glorhelm hope that they had seen the last of them. For all the superficial successes they had had together, it was a fraught collision of worlds.

“Never mix with dwarves,” mumbled the elf to himself, forgetting that he was now quoting his father’s prejudices once more. He could hear sounds downstairs and stepped lightly down the rickety staircase that led to the main area of the inn. Carant was already seated at a long table, alone, picking thoughtfully at a plain loaf, which sat with a frugal bowl of autumn fruits and cheese. Glorhelm joined him without speaking and helped himself to some of the blackberries, the first to be picked from the hedgerows to the north of the city. Carant was deep in thought with a melancholy air, and he toyed with the bread as if suspecting the very flour from which it was made. Finally, he sighed and raised a weary eyebrow towards the elf.

“As usual, you are right, old friend. What is a high-born elf, one of the ancient lineage of Sormina, and a druid of the proud coven of Malkos doing harrying scum and waking up in a place such as this? Somewhere along the way we lost sight of the stars we were meant to be following and fell from grace into this half-light.”

“Today will change for always,” replied Glorhelm, and his words surprised even himself.

“Very good. Pray, what does that mean?” asked Carant dryly. Glorhelm looked slightly bemused and shrugged.

“I do not know. I guess you would call it a feeling, although that is too feeble a word of men for such a...” Glorhelm struggled for the right word, but failed and ended up gesturing with his hands. “Something will happen today.”

“That is good. Let us hope it is not another pig then,” sighed Carant, as he took a swig of apple juice.

Carant checked their money, which looked as if it would last only a few more days, a week at best. The rest of their breakfast was shrouded in silence, broken only by the distant sounds of the street outside and the shouting of the innkeeper’s wife. Presently, the innkeeper cannoned through the set of doors as if propelled. He desperately tried to compose himself, mopping his brow with his towel and smiling nervously as he approached the two companions.

“Good morning, gentlemen. A good night’s rest?”

“No,” replied Carant. “If you must know, I have slept under better hedgerows and smelt rildriks that are fresher than the foul blankets you give to your poor, unsuspecting guests.”

“Ah. Ha ha!” The innkeeper’s laugh was shrill and nervous. “You are one for the jokes, sir, yes, indeed…” His voice trailed off and his eyes dropped to begin a study of the flagstones of his inn floor.

“Tell us how much we owe you and we will take our leave. It is clear from your face and your wife’s tone that we are no longer welcome in your house.” Glorhelm sighed, shot a glance at the door from which the innkeeper had made his sudden entrance, and watched it snap shut in an instant. The next sound was the bolts sliding back as the keeper’s wife locked the door in terror. Her husband could only look nervous and slightly apologetic. Townspeople such as these would suspect elves of all manner of terrible crimes, through nothing more than ignorance. Glorhelm had long ceased to be angry at such treatment, although Carant was more than happy to take the offence for him.

“May your beer turn as sour as the lemons of Dragstaf and your good lady wife be swallowed up into a dark pit lined with the tongues of a thousand harpies.” He bowed sarcastically and went upstairs to gather his belongings. When he returned, he counted out in precise detail the money they owed and made for the exit where Glorhelm already stood.

Out in the street, the earlier activity had become even more frantic. Today was not just a market day, but the Talan feast of Market-fair, the twenty-fifth day of Gestar, the ninth month. Wagons trundled by, laden with goods from lands both near and distant. Carts pulled by underfed mules and lumbering oxen made for the main market square, laden with all that the north could produce – salt, fish, animals, hides, weapons, armour and clothes made of wool and leather. Every so often a hint of something exotic came by – impossibly expensive spices and delicate potions and scents that hinted at lands mysterious and unknown. Small children ran alongside the carts and then gasped at the tricks of the street magicians. Music of every variety churned out from beggars, bands and professional musicians.

Glorhelm and Carant stood awhile and observed the scene of bustling chaos as their eyes grew accustomed to the daylight.

“I would have turned him and his wife into a knot of toads,” sighed Carant, “but I do not know the spell.”

Glorhelm smiled. “Elves are not to be trusted and are unwelcome in these people’s reckoning. They do not remember the great wars and the battles we fought alongside their greatest warriors. They are ignorant people, not evil. I bear the innkeeper no ill will… but I would shed few tears if that harridan of a wife of his was to disappear into the world of shades.” He turned once more to the druid. “Something is about to happen; it is in the air.”

“So you say and so you have said.”

“We have little money and little prospect of finding any, but our lives are in the hands of fate and at last the wheel turns our way, my friend. Let us go and locate whatever fortune may be ours.” Glorhelm strode off purposefully down the street and Carant sighed.

“Probably get our pockets picked.” He hurried to keep up with the elf as the latter strode purposefully into the morning sunlight.

After a few minutes, Carant and Glorhelm came to the main thoroughfare that ran from the port below to the city square and ultimately to the great castle that perched, dark and inviolable, far above the town on its great outcrop of solid rock. They turned and followed the road down towards the harbour. Over the heads of the crowd, they could see the glinting waters of Lake Vankarem, the great inland sea on whose shores Lerwich rested. It lay sparkling and glittering like reflected jewels in the autumn sun. On the lake, there were the sails of small ships, the flat blocks of the barges, and the triangular sails of the local fishing smacks. The country of Lerwichamian stretched out further than the eye could see, yet the lake was so vast that a further six states clustered around its bountiful waters.

However, the lake was not always as good-natured and pleasantly benign as it was today. Townsfolk needed only short memories to recall the winter tempests that could hurl all manner of beasts from the deeps, leaving them to roam the streets for a night of darkest terror. Mothers would see the ghosts of long-lost sons, and wives would hear the lonely tolling of the bells on their long-dead husband’s ships. The very worst storms were the subject of many a tale by the old captains in the harbour inns. They would tell, for the price of a mug of ale, of times when nameless denizens would raid the graveyards before the storm could break and the light of dawn would drive them back to their unquiet slumbers. Today it was hard to imagine that the lake could be anything other than a tranquil, calm stretch of impossibly blue water. Its waves lapped at the harbour walls like an obedient dog at its master’s feet.

“If I judged the tone of the dwarf’s brief words last night, they will be at the port,” said Carant as he pushed away the third beggar in as many strides.

“This is not to be the end of our association then?” wondered Glorhelm, although he knew his words were likely to be in vain.

“Whatever the natural dislike between elves and dwarves – and I will confess the dwarf Anagil is not the most amiable of companions – we do make a very complementary foursome between us.”

“This new-found comradeship, I presume it has nothing to do with the dwarf’s languid companion?”

“Absolutely not. This is purely professional,” Carant replied, but he found it impossible to suppress a smile as Glorhelm looked at him with a face of pure disbelief.

“In that case, we had best find the merry couple then,” concluded Glorhelm, and they started towards the docks.

Getting closer to the waters of the lake, they could see many flags flying atop the masts of vessels that bobbed gently, close to the shoreline. Most ships flew the castle above a blue wave, the symbol of Lerwichamian, but there was also the yellow star on blue, the motif of Caronia, and amongst many others, the unusual sight of the black flag of Nagaland, a closed and secretive state on the very southern shores of the lake. When they had finally pushed their way through the crowds, they began looking for the dwarf and the witch. Even in such a crowded and cosmopolitan place as the port, they were not hard to spot.

The dwarf sat cross-legged on a hawser, around which was wrapped a thick rope that tied a large ship firmly in place. He was hunched and hooded and pulled on a small clay pipe, whilst gently tugging at his steel-grey beard with his free hand. Hanging from a loop in his belt was a broad and perfectly weighted axe, which glinted in the sunlight. Over his back was slung a shield made of a substance known only to the dwarves of Rozkia and so assiduously hoarded that even the dwarves of other realms only knew of its existence by rumour. It was as light as wood yet stronger than the finest steel and could repel the blows of an ogre with barely a dent. Underneath his hood, slate grey eyes flashed occasionally from beneath wiry eyebrows, reflecting the deep, unspoken and unknown recesses of his thoughts.

His companion could not have been more different. She was a tall, very pale-skinned woman with an expression that could almost have been thought of as elven when seen from afar. She was dressed in dark, burgundy robes that contained a myriad of colours intertwined in the fabric, covering an attractive, lithe frame. It was her eyes, however, that invariably gained attention. Coloured the palest of blues, they would appear to be searching the far horizon for a glimpse of something in the distance, but could switch focus in a second on another’s face as if boring into their very thoughts. Her home, like that of Glorhelm’s, was far to the south in between the great tumbling rivers of the Lill and the Gladewater, the latter river giving the land its name. No evil had ever dwelt in those borders, and it was shrouded in mystery and legend, with customs unknown to the rest of Tala.

“Well met, good companions, Master Anagil and Mistress Rozeka!” hailed Carant as they approached the pair. Anagil did not acknowledge the greeting and continued staring darkly at a stone slab on the quayside. Rozeka did at least turn towards the druid, and although she did not return his greeting, she smiled briefly. Carant continued with undiminished enthusiasm.

“What news of fortune? What are the tales from the ships and triremes?”

Rozeka shook her head and replied in a voice that rang with mountain water.

“None. No news of fortune, ill or otherwise.” Her accent was pronounced, and it was clear that Talan was not her native tongue. Glorhelm sized up Anagil before sighing.

“Well, master dwarf. Your stern countenance is not a fair sight on such a morning as this.”

“Well, master elf.” The dwarf mimicked his words in a voice like granite in a rock fall. “Your thin frame brings little pleasure to my eye, to be sure.” He looked at Rozeka and frowned in such a way that Carant and Glorhelm felt drawn to look at the illusionist themselves. She appeared to be listening to a distant conversation, unspoken words carried on the gentle winds from the lake. Finally, she turned to face the three sets of bemused eyes that held her in their gaze.

“There are words in the air. Something is taking shape. Events. Great and important events.” She looked hard at Glorhelm.

“By the sacred woods of Marzja, another one,” muttered Carant.

Anagil looked long at Rozeka with a curious mixture of expressions and not a small sense of wonderment. Finally, he lowered himself slowly to the ground and straightened out his mail tunic.

“Well, tree-dweller.” He spoke to Glorhelm and not to the witch. “It appears that our paths are interwoven still. We are not yet to be parted, for good or ill. I suggest we make for the market square. Come.” The dwarf’s words amounted to a speech from such a normally reticent character. Carant made a questioning face towards Glorhelm and the latter just shrugged and followed the dwarf.

The road back up to the market square still bustled with life, and such was the nature of the occasion that very few stopped to stare at the sight of an elf, a dwarf, a druid and an enigmatic witch. The streets were well kept, certainly by Talan standards, and sewers ran under most of the main thoroughfares, avoiding the need to wade through filth – a common occurrence in less civilised areas. The market square was lined with great lime trees and the party was glad of the shade they offered, for the early autumn sun shone brightly. From the other end of the square, high on its outcrop of dark rock, sat the imposing sight of Lerwich Castle. A long winding path led up it to the only known entrance, a fact that had secured its prolonged existence during the great wars.

The square was busy and many townsfolk were taking the opportunity to drink and eat in some of the many inns and eating houses that fringed the perimeter. The party soon dispersed into the many stalls that had set up overnight and within minutes were deeply embroiled in haggling, trading and arguing over prices. Their money was short, so a few items of limited value yet of obvious use to the party were bartered for: water-skins, pouches and a stock of polished crossbow bolts, darts and arrows. Glorhelm found little to interest him, apart from the arrows, and wandered through the parade of charlatans and honest merchants. His curiosity was aroused by the sight of a crowd gathering in a corner of the square. Forcing his way towards the front, he was just in time to see an official-looking man of roughly fifty years of age and too many good meals struggling to ascend a small platform. He was dressed in the full regalia of the livery of Lerwichamian and flushed red from his exertion. Presently, he read out a notice after he had waved a cracked iron handbell to gain attention.

“Gather around, all citizens and travellers,” he began. “Gather around all outlanders, warriors, rangers and any of you who seek fortune, fame and great deeds that the bards will sing out in years to come.”

Satisfied with the small gathering that he had now attracted, the crier put down his bell, wiped his sweating brow on a small linen cloth and unrolled a long parchment. Coughing once to clear his throat, he began again.

“All those assembled here, hearken to the words of His Most Noble Baron Fro, descendant of Kings, rightful ruler of all of Lerwichamian and its dominions and dependencies, Keeper of the Seven Keys of Knowledge, protector of the Church of Haltor, leading statesman of the Council of the North and father of Princess Faro, most fair of all the Princesses of Tala.”

Glorhelm reminded himself that mankind liked to accumulate titles and honours in the same way that dwarves hoarded gold.

“On this, the great festival of Market-fair, on the twenty-fifth day of Gestar, I give notice of a task to be accomplished in the name of Baron Fro, most revered of all monarchs of Tala.”

A few in the crowd looked slightly unconvinced by this last remark but none dared to speak aloud.

“Any adventurers, true in heart and sound of mind, desiring of great deeds, of fame, fortune and lands, are requested to report to Lerwich Castle this afternoon. There they will be required to subject themselves to many tests to prove their worthiness. If chosen, a successful party will find wealth flowing through their hands like quicksilver. This proclamation is signed by Kajan Thar, Chief of Staff, by appointment to the Most Noble Baron Fro.”

His speech was finally over and the crier recoiled his parchment, stumbled off his platform and promptly went into one of the nearby inns to slake his thirst. Glorhelm looked at the crowd, who appeared less than impressed by the announcement.

“Must be the eighth time I’ve heard that one,” sneered one.

“Recruiting mercenaries for his dirty work now, I reckon,” whispered a second with a swift glimpse over his shoulder.

“I’ve heard rumours that it’s got something to do with the Princess,” conspired a further voice.

“Probably tried to escape the white tower,” snickered the second voice again. There was a brief moment of nervous laughter, but the crowd quickly dispersed and the speaker hurried away once he found himself alone with his words.

Glorhelm stood awhile in thought and contemplation until he was eventually joined by the rest of the party, the druid finally leaving two old men to play their board game without his help and direction. Once they had all assembled, the elf repeated the crier’s words.

“Strange,” said Carant with a frown. “We have little else on the horizon, so we may as well investigate this further. There is nothing in the way of detail.”

“I thought it strange as well,” said the elf. “No mention of what the task actually is makes me curious. Some of the crowd were saying that this announcement had been made many times before. Surely adventurers are not in such short supply.”

“I know nothing of Fro,” added Rozeka. “Is he good, evil or merely unscrupulous? He does not seem too loved by his people.”

“Judging by the wealth of the city and the people themselves, I would hesitate to say he was evil,” replied Glorhelm. “Unpopular perhaps, ruthless certainly, yet evil I think not.”

“It is said that he had dealings with the Eastern dwarves and is held in respect by them,” interjected Anagil.

It was decided to approach the castle on the basis that no one could think of a reason for not entering. It was thus that they approached the climb with few answers but many questions, the beating sun in a cloudless sky their unyielding companion as they ascended the long track towards the castle.


About the author

Julian M Armstrong (b. 1963) is a British author, based in Brighton & Hove on the South Coast of England. view profile

Published on July 17, 2020

Published by Rowanvale Books

80000 words

Genre: Fantasy

Reviewed by

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