This is the preface to my first novel...self published!
The harsh north wind moaned and rattled through the stark oak trees that lined the empty country road. The trees were lifeless, for all the leaves had fled months ago with the approach of winter, their skeletal branches clawed the dark night sky. The wind almost concealed the crunch of worn boot heels on the cinder surface. A solitary traveler, hunched against the cold, dry wind, limped slowly toward the only comfort, a rundown Inn. A thin trail of smoke crept up from its broken chimney toward the clear sky where diamond hard stars glittered. The Traveler moved stiffly up the worn stone stairs to the plank door of the Inn. Taking the verdigris-encrusted knocker in hand, he struck three times. The third knock was barely complete when the door squeaked open, revealing a large, potbellied man wearing a greasy apron. "Are ye comin' in or do I stand here and catch my death man?" He said gruffly, eyeing the Traveler up and down. The Traveler took a worn hat from his head, in the yellow light that spilled from the door it appeared that he was very old. "I fear I have no money Inn Keeper, but for a bit of stew and a corner of the hearth I'll spin a tale or two to entertain your guests." He stood shivering as the Inn keeper glared at him. "I don't give charity old man. But ye can warm yer self by the fire, and if your tale is a good one, perhaps another traveler will pay yer keep." The Inn Keeper said, a mere hint of kindness in his manner. "Thank you sir, and may the Gods favor you for your kindness." "Enough chat, get yer self in or be gone." The Inn Keeper stood aside to let the old man limp through the door. Inside, the Inn appeared clean, though worn. Smoking tapers were set at intervals along the dining area table. The fire in the fireplace burned fitfully as the wind caused the draw to run ragged. On either side of the fireplace there hung a ship's lantern, although as yet unlit. Above the mantle was the owner's pride and joy. In this place of honor hung one of the long swords used in the goblin wars, supposedly by his grandfather. As the Traveler saw the sword, his eyes brightened and his hand clenched, as if it held one of the gleaming weapons of old. In a moment his eyes dulled and his hand relaxed. As he made his way over to the hearth, the eyes of the other customers followed his limping form. He settled near the fire, and the other patrons resumed their low talk and continued eating. After a few minutes, the he removed his long cloak and hat and placed them next to his seat at the hearth. Under his outer garments he wore a worn leather jerkin and threadbare trousers. On the back of the jerkin, the faint heraldry of a noble house could still be made out. At a signal from the Inn Keeper, a plain serving girl brought a bowl of mutton stew to him. Looking up, he smiled at the Inn Keeper, who scowled back. "Remember yer story fer later old man." He said, turning to go through the batwinged doors into the kitchen area. As the night drew on, the other guests finished their meals and the dishes were cleared away. As it grew darker, the Inn Keeper lit the ship's lanterns and adjusted their wicks, until the flames held steady and their light filled the common room. A few of the guests retired for the night while the others ordered wine or ale or lit up bowls of scented tobacco. Some used the Inn's clay pipes, deftly breaking off the used portion of the stems and clenching the resulting clean, white stems in their teeth as they lit them. With a look that warned of the cold outside, the Inn Keeper signaled to the Traveler. Clearing his throat, the old man spoke in a dry, husky voice. As the story began, the light, that had briefly flashed as he saw the sword, grew again in his eyes. With no other sound but the crack of the fire, all the patrons listened, mesmerized, to the tale. "I'll tell you a tale of love, and love betrayed, of valor, and black treachery." He paused and coughed dryly. With another scowl, the Inn Keeper brought him a mug of cold ale. He drank thankfully and then continued his story. "The tale is of the Goblin Wars, of Lahilda and Shoran, the Elfin Princess and the Noble Man King. "Many years ago, before most of you were born, the Goblin hoards poured forth upon the land. Where they came from, some other land, or out of some hellish nether region, no one knew. Great were the battles that raged, Man, Elf and Dwarf, though of a sort to keep from each others company, formed the Alliance to battle the dark menace. "The Noble Man King, Shoran, led his mighty army into battle, and horrible was the slaughter." The Traveler closed his eyes and shuddered. "The Goblins came, and came, and none could stop their awful charge. It was said that the rear ranks of the horde fought with the front to be first to the battle line, so huge was their blood lust. But the noble king held the ground that led into the Elfin lands, he knew he must hold until the mighty Elfin warlords could ride to the rear of the hoard and, sweeping in upon the Goblins, destroy them. "He fought bravely, and it was when the strident cries of the war horns of the Elfin vanguard could be heard that he faltered, but for a second." He paused and drank more of the ale, unconsciously rubbing his leg, the one with the limp. "A Goblin, one of the leaders of the hoard, swung a huge war ax. Shoran saw the blow and attempted a parry, but was too late, the ax knocked aside the sword and struck him a telling blow." "Was he killed?" A young voice called from the smoky back of the room. "No, but the wound was grievous. A massive split from the hip to the top of his knee. He fell at the feet of the Goblin, whose evil face split into a sharp toothed grin. Shoran's last sight, before loss of blood drove him senseless, was the long shaft of an Elfin warlord's arrow as it dove into the Goblin's grinning mouth and, piercing its savage brain, killed it." The old man rubbed his leg again. "Though almost too late, the Elfin warriors had arrived and routed the Goblins, at least for a time. The Elves bound up the valorous Shoran and carried him deep into their forest land, to Lahilda, the Elfin princess, a healer unequaled before or since. "The man king laid as one dead for nearly a week, for the ax of the Goblin had been poisoned and it took powerful healing magic to cure the warrior. Indeed, a lessor man would have died. Then, late one night, as the Elfin fires burned low and the songs of the night birds sounded, Shoran awoke. "He first thought that he was in the warrior's paradise promised to those who die bravely. The paradise promised to those who die in the fight on the side of light, for surely this vision before him was one of the mercies that tend to the needs of the fallen warrior. Her hair was long, golden and straight. Her face glowed with an inner radiance. Her skin was smooth, her nose small and straight, with regal lines. Her almond shaped eyes, a smoky gray, with enormous depth and compassion's light. Her ears delicate, sweeping gracefully to their pointed tips. Shoran was smitten from the first moment. ""My Hero awakes" she whispered lightly, and no other words, for when their eyes met, the passion that consumes the soul of true lovers awoke in each of them. With a heave of strength Shoran sat up and clutched the Elfin princess to his breast, giving her a lovers kiss, and she returned it with equal passion. Then with his strength spent, Shoran collapsed into exhausted slumber, with a smile upon his lips, the fever dreams gone. "While Shoran's wound mended, the war continued. Sometimes the Alliance swept the foe back almost to Hellsgate, the point where the Goblins had first appeared. Other times the Goblins pushed the Alliance back to their strongest holds. Through it all, Shoran and Lahilda kindled the passion that had sprung up between them. After several months, a war council was called between Man, Elf and Dwarf. It was held on Midsummer's eve in the Elfin forest. Shoran, now fully recovered, sat for Man, his battle torn advisors around him. Dracen sat for the Dwarves, his squat powerful form nearly bursting the delicate elfin chair upon which he sat. For the Elves spoke Fantith, one of their mighty warriors, and the betrothed of Lahilda. ""Fellow members of the Alliance, I bid thee welcome to Elfhome." His rich, vibrant Elfin voice greeted them. "We are here to decide the fate of our land. The Goblin hoards are increasing each day. I fear that should we not take action, they will surely overrun us within a half month." Fantith gazed sternly at the gathered heroes. "It has been decided that a group of volunteers will undertake a dire mission. They must penetrate Hellsgate and fathom the source of the Goblin hoard. Perhaps if we understand the source of the hoard, we can stop it before we are overwhelmed." The Traveler paused, the only sound the crackling of the fire and the hiss from the ship's lanterns. With a thirsty smile he gestured to the Inn Keeper, who hurried to fill the mug again with ale, this time forgetting to scowl. After a drink of the ale, he continued. "Great was the commotion at his words. Several envoys tried to gain say them, but to no avail, for the words rang true , if bitter. Finally, the plan was agreed upon. Shoran, freshly healed and returned to strength through Lahilda's magic, Fantith, the Elfin warrior and Dracen of the Dwarves had volunteered for the mission. Though her heart was sore, Lahilda bid them a blessing for their arduous journey. When no one could see, or so it was thought, she bid Shoran good-bye with true love's kiss and a gift of a spelled sword. "It is magic." She whispered, "Let none save you, and those you must battle have the touch of it, and it will protect you." And with a final kiss she moved away into the soft night. Unseen by the lovers, Fantith, who had been betrothed since birth to the fair Lahilda, watched. In his heart started the evil fire of jealousy." As the Traveler paused to drink, he looked sad. "With stealth, the party of heroes left Elfhome before the sun awoke. Avoiding all contact, they made their way into the Goblin held lands. Many were the horrors they witnessed, much the Goblins had to atone for was seen, but as much as they wished to do battle, they refrained, they must complete their mission. Indeed, they avoided all like cowards. You see, they knew if even one of the Goblins learned of their mission they would be lost. "Their epic journey is a tale for another night. They reached Hellsgate at the dawn of Midwinter's Eve. They waited and watched for the proper time to enter, when no Goblins would see. Finally, when almost all hope was abandoned, it came to pass. It was the Goblins unholy sacrificial feast, where the most ferocious of the hoard battled to the death for the honor of being sacrificed to their blood god. The sacrifice was then eaten so all could partake of his strength. While all the Goblins cavorted and capered around the fires, the heroes made their way into Hellsgate." He paused and drank. With a low belch, he continued. "The gate was indeed a passage between worlds. At the other side of the gate a dread device of crystal and gold flashed and thrummed like a taut bow string as it wove the bridge between the worlds. An elite guard of Goblins protected it. The battle was fierce, each side neither giving or expecting quarter. Finally, with a thrust of the magic sword, Shoran felled the last goblin guard. The heroes fell upon the hell's engine. Dracen smashed at its gleaming coils with his war ax. Shoran smashed its crystal tubes with the magic sword. With a final smashing blow of his sword Fantith crushed a flat plate of crystal upon which strange writing danced, and with an ear rending explosion, it was destroyed. As the gate began to collapse, the heroes ran through it, though Dracen, the slowest of the group, lost his foot as the gate slammed shut. The wound was odd, it was as though it had been sliced clean and then burned to be sealed. It pained Dracen greatly, and he had to use his ax for a cane. "Unseen by the heroes, a group of Goblins, weary from the feast and carnage of the sacrifice, came upon the heroes as they tended Dracen's wound. With a savage howl, they fell upon them, war axes slashing. With the sword, Shoran held them back as Fantith helped Dracen to cover. Fighting a rear guard, Shoran followed. Behind some rocks, for a short while out of sight, our heroes rushed into the dark, for even though it seemed a short while that they had been in the gate, several hours had passed and it was now late night. "Stabbing the last Goblin of the pursuing pack, Shoran turned to check on his companions. As he turned, Fantith reached out and grasped the blade of the sword, for he had heard Lahilda's warning, with a calculated jerk he spilled his own blood upon it from his slashed palm, destroying the protection so carefully wrought by Lahilda . "Sorry" was all he said. With a momentary look of horror, Shoran glanced at Fantith and then back at his sword. With a grim expression he sheathed it. "Alternately helping Dracen, they hurried off into the night. As the Goblin hoard found the closed gate a howl of anger and vowed vengeance rose into the night. The most fierce of the hoard set off in pursuit. Almost at the edge of the Goblin lands, they were overtaken by the Goblin pack. Bloody was the battle. Standing upon his good foot and the stump, Dracen killed a score of them with his ax before he was brought down. Fighting as one possessed Shoran slew nearly half the pack in single combat. As the last Goblin fell to Shorans thrust, he turned to check on the fate of Fantith. Fate was blind, it was at that moment the rage of lost love had burned brightest in Fantith's heart, and with a savage cry he thrust at Shoran. Caught by surprise, and without the protection of the magic sword, he could not fend off the blow. The Elfin blade penetrated Shoran's mail like rotten cloth. Straight in, and straight out went the blade, its keen edge silent as death. With a look which spoke of bitter betrayal, Shoran sank to the blood soaked soil." The Traveler paused to drain his mug. "Did he die?" Asked the Inn Keeper, his duties forgotten. "No. Though wounded to near death, the hero's heart could not be stilled, for Lahilda's magic had been wrought well. The Elfin blade, by virtue of its keen edge, left a clean wound. The blade had missed the heart and the other organs, strengthened by Lahilda's spells, healed quickly. Shoran lived. He awoke, days later, in the caravan of a battle picker. Battle pickers recover the weapons and other items of value from battle fields." Again the Traveler eyed the sword. The Inn Keep looked to the floor, though none but the Traveler noticed. "Think not harshly of them, the times were hard. Many perished from hunger in the days of the Goblin wars, these pickers did what was needed to survive." The Inn Keeper brightened a bit. "Shoran mended quickly, his love for Lahilda, and the strength of her magic, spurred his recovery. Within days he was on the trail of Fantith, revenge burning in his breast. The trail led straight to Elfhome. "At the gate, the Warden of the Watch was dumbfounded. Here before him stood Shoran, reported killed! Needless to say, there was much commotion. The Elfin elder, Jerreth, came personally to greet the returning hero, though his heart was sad for he bore bitter news. "Where is Lahilda?" asked Shoran, "Surely she wishes to see me?" "My son," began the elder, "She has gone on. The word of your death took her spirit to live." ""You see," explained Jerrith to Shoran, "when one of the Elfin race lose the spirit to live, they fade, until finally they disappear, when Lahilda heard of your death, her heart broke. Losing her will to live, she faded, she went on." The Traveler's voice broke. ""Where is Fantith?" Shoran asked with quiet menace. "When Lahilda passed on, he too lost the will to live. He asked your forgiveness in his last moments." The Elder shook his head. "Why he asked it, we do not know." Without a word Shoran turned and left Elfhome, never to return." "What happened to him?" Asked a young girl, who had sat enraptured during the story. "Lahilda's magic was strong. Shoran lived, tormented by Lahilda's loss and Fantith's treachery. He watched his kingdom, after the Goblin wars, rise and fall. For a while, he served with the Patrol, finding for a time forgetfulness. Finally, tired of strife and indeed, tired of life, he wandered the lands. A lonely man pining for the love of lost Lahilda." He blinked back a tear from his eye. "What happened to the sword?" Asked a young guardsman, sitting near the girl. "Shoran gave the sword to the picker. You see, in the last battle, it was cracked, and since the magic was gone, it was useless." With a yawn, the old man stood and stretched. For a fleeting moment, the powerful form of a younger man could be seen through the patina of age. "I fear my friends that I am tired. Since I am penniless, the Inn Keep says I must ask you for contributions toward my lodgings." The Traveler looked around the room. "There is no charge old man. Stay as long as you like. The room at the top of the stairs is yours." Said the Inn Keep. Wiping a tear from his eye, he hurried into the kitchen. His limp more pronounced, the Traveler hobbled across the room. Nonetheless, he still managed a quiet dignity. He limped up the stairs and, turning into the first room, was lost to sight. "It's got a crack in it!" The guardsman stood looking at the sword over the mantle. In the room above, Shoran quietly wept until he fell into a sleep full of dreams of fair Lahilda . . .