I've decided to release The Faerie Trader on Amazon. Right now, it's on pre-order for only .99¢!
This is a limited time offer. Once the book releases on April 23rd, it'll go up to $2.99 sometime that weekend.
For those who haven't already subscribed to my Castle World Fantasy Newsletter, you can read the first chapter below. Or just click the picture to purchase your pre-order copy.
“Ah, wonderful, wonderful. This should settle my debt with those blasted hoofers,” Jael Azazel exclaimed as he cut several matsutake mushrooms. The centaur clan loved adding mushrooms to their stews but hated having to collect them. His last trade with them had gone a little sour when the batch of wild turnips unknowingly rotted before he reached their domain deep in the Melodies Forest.
He shoved the morels into his collection bag hanging over his shoulder, then waded into a nearby stream.
Studying the clear waters for any fish, he dipped his large hands into the current and splashed his bearded face with the cool water. Once his goat legs were submerged, he also washed the mud from his hooves and picked a few stickers from the thick umber fur covering the bottom half of his body.
He needed to find a safe place for the night, somewhere off the main path that wound through the Forest. Whistling a lively tune, Jael hopped up the stone embankment, his hooves barely clinging to the slick mossy rocks. He still had enough rabbit stew left in the pot to get him through tonight. Maybe the centaurs would allow him to stay with their clan for a moon cycle. They always had plenty of food, comfortable caves to sleep in and enough brute force to keep the baddies away.
First, he’d need to get on their good sides again.
Jael shivered, then paused a moment to study the darkening shadows. Maybe it was time to go back home. If only he could make a profitable trade, then he’d have something to show for his wandering travels and long absence. Maybe then she’d forgive him and let him stay for a while. He missed his clan and the vale they lived in very much.
As he reached the top of the rise, Jael headed for his cart. It wasn’t much more than a grayed wooden box sitting atop two spoked wheels. He pulled it along by grasping the two poles or slipping his arms into the shoulder straps.
Strange how the more he walked toward it, the farther away it seemed.
Despite quickening his pace, the distance between him and the cart only widened.
“Oy! Stop!” Jael started running, his hands waving over his head. “Stop. Someone, stop my cart. It’s…rolling away?”
His whole life’s possessions, and all the hard-earned items he’d found to trade, were inside that cart! He shouted again, but it only rolled down the lane faster.
Had someone stolen it? Jael couldn’t imagine who would want that weathered old box cart. There wasn’t much inside of value aside from a few rare stones and plants.
The cart bumped along the narrow dirt trail toward a fork in the road. Surely, it would roll to a stop, hopefully before it hit that tall pine. He sped up to a gallop.
No, no, no! Don’t wreck, please don’t wreck. He’d built it with his very own hands and still had a few splinters to prove it.
The cart slowed a little. The distance between him and his livelihood closed. Almost there… he reached out willing his fingers to grab hold of a lead of rope trailing behind.
Then it turned onto the right fork.
Jael slowed for a moment. That road led toward the dwarf village. Oh no! That was the last place he wished to be!
“Oy! Hey! Thieves!” When the lane made another sharp turn, he caught sight of a woolen blue cap. Dwarfs for sure! How many had been sent to bring him in? Blast it all!
There must be at least two dwarfs, if not three of the conniving boogies.
“Stop! Okay, game’s over. I’ll come along nicely, just bring back my…” They increased their speed once the road headed straight through the thick woods again. Soon, they’d reach a bowl-like canyon where the dwarf colony lay.
Jael slowed to a stop. His cart headed straight for the entrance, an ornately carved stone arch sitting atop a rise surrounded by a wall of tall rocks, thick growth of vegetation, and two sentinel houses that reeked of Brownie stench. He blew out a long breath and, for a brief moment, considered simply building a new cart.
No! His fists clenched and he followed along, no longer running. Nope, he’d enter with his head held high. The cart was dragged up the stone stairs.
“Hey there,” Jael shouted. “Watch the…oh, never mind.” If he got it back in one piece, it would be a miracle and nothing more.
Ol’ Ravalin, the king of the dwarf clan, probably had sent his grunts after Jael’s head. They’d probably use the cart to build the pyre to torch him with.
Fighting back the dismal thoughts pounding in his head, Jael neared the archway, making a wide berth around the first brownie house, a mound of mud with round entrances spiraling up the length of the abode. The little nippers remained inside, seemingly uninterested in interrogating Jael on his business with the clan this time.
That wasn’t a good sign, either.
Once he reached the rise that overlooked the hamlet, he could no longer see his cart. His heart raced. Hopefully, they’d not take out their anger on it. Hopefully, they’d not take it out on him, either. Beyond the arch, the land dropped down into a rocky vale that surrounded a natural spring pond in the basin.
“Think!” He slapped his hands against the horns growing on top of his head. “Think of a way out.” His mind raced over the goods he had stashed in the cart. Not much. It had been a lean week. He patted the bag still hanging from his shoulders. Mushrooms…not enough. Not nearly enough to satisfy the dwarf king.
His shoulders slumped with hopelessness. The king had requested that he find the glowing stones that lined certain roads across the land. Jael had never heard of anything like them, but Ravalin insisted they were indeed real and could only be gathered by people of a certain type of character.
The king’s wicked grin had left Jael wondering if he would qualify. A nagging doubt had kept him from looking too hard for the elusive stones.
The Okbolds had shared tales of hidden roads covered in white, glittering stones that would lead one to the King of the whole land. He’d laughed at the time. Weren’t tales of a powerful king nothing more than silly nighttime stories told to entertain naive children?
The moment he stepped a hoof over the threshold of the village, two guards dressed in leather and silver gear appeared from the thick undergrowth on each side of the arch. They both pointed finely crafted metal spears at his neck. The one to the left gave a grunt and a jerk of his head for Jael to follow along quietly.
He headed along the narrow gorge carved into the side of the granite walls. Every once in a while, he came to an opening where the stench of dwarf sweat and coal fires wafted out. Could be worse, Jael mused. If they used trolls to dig their caves, the smell would be nearly unbearable.
However, this clan remained somewhat self-sufficient and depended on the brute strength of lesser dwarfs and slaves to pull from the land what was needed to survive.
Ravalin Chert was not a power-hungry ruler, nor greedy in nature. But he wasn’t a push-over either. He’d be furious over his requests going unheeded by Jael who was one of his top suppliers.
Jael chastised himself for becoming so careless. Perhaps a little greedy, himself, for the elves and centaurs paid more handsomely for goods than dwarfs did.
The third entrance they came to was adorned with carvings around the squat oaken door. The first guard rapped the butt of his sword against the wood. Grinding metal sounded from the other side before the door swung open.
“State your business,” said a female dressed in fine silks and gold-trimmed cape. Was this Ravalin’s newest mate? Was she important enough to bow to? The last thing Jael wanted to do was to insult a female dwarf. To his surprise, this one wasn’t built like most females of the clan. She didn’t even have thick, curly hair growing around her squat face. Some females had it growing over their faces, making them hard to tell apart from their male counterparts.
Jael placed his palm against his bare chest and offered a slight bow. “I was summoned, my lady. A few of your kinsmen confiscated my cart and brought it here. I’m assuming King Rav wishes to speak with me?”
Her narrow nose wrinkled as her pearly grey eyes took in his muddy fur and sweat-covered arms and chest. He probably looked like a wild beast to her, which in truth, he was.
Ravalin was friends with more humans than most creatures cared to associate with. It was well known that he liked to put on airs, acting and even dressing like humans from the Outlands.
To each his own, Jael mused.
“Enter, Faun.” The woman stepped aside. “I am Maroth Chert. I do not believe we’ve met before, though I’ve heard my mate bellowing about you quite often. Glad to see you finally answered his summons. He requires a special herb to cure an ailment that our healers have been unable to handle.”
She motioned for him to follow her down a series of twisting tunnels. “His patience is running out. I hope you’ll be of use. The last tradesman to fail him is still hanging from the gallows. Birds have nearly pecked his bones clean.”
Jael’s stomach churned, not just from the earthy smells coming off the burning oil torches, but the scent of something putrid. Something gone terribly wrong. He tried to only breath out of his mouth.
Maroth continued, “Be glad when they’re finished. The old badger won’t let anyone take down the poor fool until there’s nothing left but bleached bones. Since then, we’ve had trouble with trade. Think word got out about Rav’s malady, so they’re staying far away.”
They entered a large room where a roaring fire burned in the center fire-pit. To Jael’s surprise, natural sunlight filtered in through several tall glassed-in windows. Only Faeries and Kobolds were known to make glass and those who did live in the few cities that welcomed creatures into their midst.
“Who’s here?” asked a weak, gravelly voice from a dark corner of the room. Usually, Ravalin’s throne sat in that area, but this time there was a four-poster bed.
Jael sniffed the air again, detecting the scent of rotting flesh. This was bad. His hands clutched the bag’s straps as he neared the dais where the bed was placed. Maroth hurried forward and stuffed a couple of pillows behind her mate’s back.
“There you go, my rock. Good news, your trader Jael is here now. Perhaps the good fellow has something to help cure your ailment.”
Ravalin pushed her aside with a feeble shove of his shaking hand. “Good fellow my rotting foot! Conniver! Liar! Thief, no less. He takes our bests and returns with his worsts. Where are the goods I ordered, goat? The glowing stones? They can be boiled and the water used to wash away the infection eating at my leg, fool! Have you ever tried? After we’ve sheltered you? Offered protection when you’ve needed it?”
Ravalin’s piercing pale blue eyes narrowed on Jael. A sheen of fevered sweat covered the king’s brow and dampened his graying beard.
Jael bowed deeply until he crouched on the bottom step. “I beg the king’s pardon. The stones you speak of have not been found. I do not believe there is such a path running through the Melodies Forest. I do not recall what else you’ve requested of me, I’m afraid. You see, I deal with so many—”
“Liar!” Ravalin roared before going into a coughing fit.
His mate scrambled to fill a bowl full of water and held it to Rav’s scowling lips. “Drink, my pet. Let’s hear the faun out. Maybe tell him what the healers say you need and—”
At that moment, the doors of the great room burst open as three lesser dwarfs, all wearing linen shirts and leather-working pants, entered carrying familiar-looking baskets and a cloth bag that sent a shiver down Jael’s back, all the way to his trembling tail.
He sank onto his haunches, knowing this was going to be the end of him.
Pictures that inspired the writing process
Jackie Castle is an author, artist and dreamer. She lives in Texas with her husband, two grown children and her dog, Banjo. She looks for the extraordinary in the ordinary in everything she experiences.
J.R. Castle Fantasy Newsletter
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