The Unforgiven (Skharr DeathEater Book 1) by Michael Anderle

Chapter One

The forest, as always, was beautiful at this time of year.

It was still technically spring, with lower temperatures thanks to the winds from the northern mountains that made the incessant brilliance of the sun a little more tolerable. The shade from the trees was perfect and birdsong filled the air, joined by the soft trilling of insects and babblings of tiny creeks as they wound cheerfully to feed into the River of Burin.

For Turvall, the beauty had undeniably faded after three days of walking through it, and all he could pay attention to was the dull ache that plagued most of his body. He told himself repeatedly that he was too old to travel like this—as if it would help—but it didn't appear to have any positive effect.

He could, of course, always ride the donkey that followed him, but old Yern was growing long in the tooth as well and trudged at an equally slow pace as the man leading him.

"I'm too old to travel like this," he whispered again, leaned on his walking stick and against a handy tree trunk, and took a little time to rest his feet and give his arthritic knees a moment without the full weight of his body on them. There wasn't much of it and many had joked that his gray beard contributed most of that weight, but his old bones seemed inclined to disagree.

Those jokes had become as old as he was himself, but it only meant that folk paid more attention to his age and lack of physical strength, which suited him fine.

Of course, they were always accompanied by a cool mug of ale and a warm meal. Sometimes, people even offered him a nice dry corner in the stables to sleep in, well-padded with fresh hay. It had been days since he had experienced any such luxuries, however.

Yern snorted, shook his head, and nudged his leg gently.

"Patience, you cheeky ass. I only needed a moment," the old man grumbled, pushed away from the tree, and scratched the graying coat on the beast's forehead. "Give me the use of four legs and I wouldn't have to stop so often. The gods only gave me two, and not of the best quality. As such, you'll have to bear with me—unless you care to bear me instead."

The donkey stared at him, blinked slowly, and made no sound.

"Yes, that was a terrible joke," Turvall finally admitted and tugged his beard gently. "I suppose that's what comes from having a donkey for company for days on end. I don't imagine you would know a joke or two to lighten the mood?"

Another dull stare from the beast provided sufficient answer.

"It appears you are aware of the difficulties of performing to an audience of one. And you're lucky enough to know that my drunkenness makes me a better audience, whereas you are always sober."

Once again, no answer was forthcoming. Folk underestimated the healing powers of having something to talk at when alone for long periods, even if it made one seem mad to the untrained observer. Too many people possessed minds so vapid that they could only speak to others. They could never enjoy the pleasure of their own company and needed to surround themselves with empty voices of equal vapidity and call them friends.

Turvall had never felt the need to surround himself with such folk. The few voices he wanted to hear were those who generally didn't speak unless they had something of import to say.

Or at least something genuinely humorous, which was as valuable in a different way.

Yern's ears flicked back, and the old man resisted the urge to turn to see what he had heard. The beast's hearing was better than his own, but there were things that even he could detect without requiring the keener senses of the donkey that followed him so willingly.

Finally, the animal nudged him in the back, snorted loudly, and uttered a painfully loud bray to catch his attention.

"I know. I hear them too, old friend," Turvall muttered and patted the beast on the neck. "Or smell them, rather. My ears, as large as they are, cannot hear as well as they used to, but my sense of smell has always been attuned to the stench of foul men who have not been taught the benefits of washing themselves regularly."

His words were spoken loudly and he let his voice carry through the woods and above the sounds of the forest. Men who had lived and grown in the forest would have learned to cover their scents better to enable them to hunt and trap effectively without turning the rest of the creatures they shared the wooded lands with away. That meant these were foreigners. Not many people chose to live in the Druums Woodlands. Those who did were generally forced into it by the fact that of the three nations that bordered the woods, none sent troops in for patrols due to mysterious losses.