Creating a Sense of Wonder in Your Fantasy

read more There are all kinds of fantasy novels.  If you’re a genre writer, the first one that you might think of is Sword and Sorcery, or perhaps High Fantasy.  Typically, these are fantasies set in some sort of medieval world, much like Tolkien’s, but the authors may have very distinctive voices.

Yet there are lots of other possibilities.  We can have fantasies set in contemporary settings, science fiction fantasies such as Star Wars, fantasies set in historical settings, and complete otherworldly settings that defy categorization.

Whatever brand of fantasy you’re writing, the key emotional need that the reader is coming to have fulfilled is most likely wonder.  In short, the reader wants to experience a sense of wonder, to see something strange and new and grand.

That’s not always the case.  Some people read Tolkienesque fantasies in the hopes of feeling a bit of nostalgia, of renewing the experience that they felt when they first read Tolkien.  This has always seemed a bit odd to me.  I’ve seen readers who want to retreat to worlds where there are elves and dwarves and magic all put together in combinations that they’ve seen a dozen times.  In short, there isn’t any real sense of wonder to that literature anymore.  Instead, it’s something of a safe haven from the real world.  In most such novels, nothing bad really ever happens to the protagonists.

For me, such novels just don’t work.  Part of the joy of reading Lord of the Rings the first time was the sense of wonder that it aroused.  So in order for me to enjoy a fantasy, it has to have more than just a familiar world peopled by familiar character classes, with your mundane conflicts between light and dark.  I yearn for something unexpected.

I long for some strangeness in my fantasy, some terror and beauty and inventions that I’ve never seen before.  Unfortunately, not all authors are able to deliver the goods.  Have you ever read a fantasy novel and found that it wasn’t fantasy at all?  A few years ago, a novel came out that was all the rage.  Critics loved it.  It was beautifully written and had all of the right social messages, but the world was a stock medieval fantasy setting.  There was plenty of swordplay but no wizards, no magic, no inexplicable wonders to the world.  In short, I read it and thought, this could just as well be set in London in 1400.  In fact, it would have been far better if it had been set in the real world.  As it was, the book was more social commentary than anything else.

As a young writer, I had a couple of friends who wrote fantasy in a similar vein, and when they sent the books out to editors, the comment that they got was often, “Lacks magic.”  That’s a catch-all phrase that means, “It lacks a sense of wonder.”  I’ve seen people try to fix such fantasies by adding a magic system—usually a pedestrian one—and that doesn’t really save the novel. It’s not magic that the novel needs, it is wonder!

Here are some approaches that people take to creating a sense of wonder in fantasy:

  • Create a unique and interesting world.  This might be done by imagining a whole new world, including animals and plants; or it might be done by combining some culture from our own world with other fantasy elements.  For example, I might create an entire world based upon magic that works, using an Aztec culture.  Similarly, in creating that world, there may be all sorts of inventions—new legal systems or social systems, changes to basic laws of physics, and so on.
  • Create a magic system unlike anything seen before.  In my Runelords series, I researched every magic system that I could find before I devised my runic magic system.  Yet there are plenty of interesting sources for magic—natural features such as pools or trees might be magical; gods might grant powers to men; and so on.
  • Deal with characters in a way that is realistic and fascinating.  So often when authors attack a fantasy, they create stock archetypes.  If you look a little closer to home, you might well find some interesting models.  For example, you might try basing a character on someone like Gandhi or Hitler—or try someone who has far less notoriety but who somehow intrigues you.

Whatever method you choose to try to arouse a sense of wonder, just remember that your story is never about the system of power, it is more about the right use of power.  Whether your characters get their power by transferring attributes from one to another, as I do in the Runelords, or by biting one another on the neck, as in a vampire novel, ultimately the core of your story will be not “how do I get power?” but “what’s the right thing to do with it?”

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If you’d like to learn more about wonder and how to increase it in your story, I wrote a new book called Writing Wonder. This book defines what wonder literature means, and how to amplify the level of wonder in your story so that you can draw readers in. Writing Wonder is available on Amazon in paperback for $14.99. You can learn more here https://www.amazon.com/dp/1082226084.

Here is a short story written in the world of the Mystarria called Barbarians. This short story is one of a few that I have written in prequal to the Runelords series. You can find more of my short stories for $.99 on Amazon under my name, David Farland. 

here Barbarians

The smell of guts and dust and horseflesh told the tale: running steeds at dusk, a tight corner on a narrow mountain road, a carriage rolling over the cliff.

Dval stepped to the margin of the rutted dirt road and stood beneath a sprawling live oak. In the gloaming darkness he spotted wreckage a hundred yards downslope: a fine black carriage rested on its side without a door, so that it opened like the nest of a weaver bird. The carriage was of barbaric make—Mystarrian. They were a clever people, but did not understand the ways of true humans.

Instantly Dval crouched low, lest any survivors spot him, and pulled his dagger from its hip sheath. The handle of his obsidian blade felt comfortably familiar in his hand.

Near the carriage, trunks had tumbled open, spilling dresses and undergarments, while a pair of mangled horses lay broken over boulders. One animal struggled to breathe, while the other had given up the fight.

The driver had been thrown far downhill and lay wrapped around a tree, preternaturally still. Dval wondered what treasure they might have left behind. He knew that he should run and tell his uncle what had happened, for he was the leader of their tribe.

But the lure of treasure called. Dval bounded down the hillside, his leather moccasins whispering through dry grasses. The only sounds were the songs of cicadas among the scrub oak, and the distant screech of a burrow owl. Overhead, stars glimmered dully in a smoke-filled sky.

The smell of smoke worried him.

On the plains in the distance, crimson flames burned in a crescent, as if Fire itself had shaped a scythe to harvest the fields to the Mystarrians. Winds from the sea swept the scythe steadily westward.

The sight of flames filled Dval with foreboding. He had not yet heard of the “grey fleet” that had been sighted near the Courts of Tide. He had not heard of the inhuman “toth” and their strange ways. Yet all the events that would shape his destiny had been set in motion that day.

When he reached the wagon, Dval checked on the surviving horse; its cavernous breaths thundered in and out. Its back was broken, and it could barely lift its head, but it smelled him and stirred, a whinny that was part scream, then turned enough to see him. Dval rested one hand on the horse’s chest, to calm the poor creature. As its breathing eased, Dval studied the fine carriage—black lacquered wood without any markings. He found a door on the ground. Silver inlay in the black lacquer outlined a man’s face with a beard and hair made of oak leaves. He recognized the symbol of the king of Mystarria.

He found a guardsman near the wreck—a young knight in fishmail and helm. The fine steel would be worth a fortune, he knew, and the soldier wore a gold ring. Dval worked the ring free from the man’s fingers, put it on.

Farther downhill laid another woman, a young matron, with glazed eyes peering up into the stars, as if to ponder eternity.

Dval smiled. Keep pondering, woman.

The wounded horse cried. Dval loved horses, so he drew the knight’s bastard sword from its sheath. The blade was made of strange metal—a dull silver, neither northern steel nor brass. It was extraordinarily light. Runes inlaid along its length were like nothing made by men. The strange geometric shapes gleamed like silver fire in the starlight. This was a duskin blade, at least four thousand years old. He tested the blade’s edge with a thumb. It pricked like a wasp sting. Blood throbbed out.

Dval wondered where the blade had come from. Duskin blades were usually found at least a mile underground, in ancient tunnels.

He addressed the dead knight. “You’re a lucky man to have such a fine blade.” Then he saw how the man’s tongue hung out between his teeth. “Well, not that lucky.”

He strode to the horse, plunged the blade in its neck.

The horse lay down its head wearily, as if in relief, and the scent of copper filled the woods as it bled out.

He imagined its spirit galloping away in fields of dreams. 

Hoping for more treasure, Dval went to the overturned carriage, climbed the axletree, and peered inside.

At the bottom lay a girl, cradling an injured arm. She looked up and gasped. Deep-red hair framed a heart-shaped face, cheeks stained with tears. Like some northerners of legend, she had brown speckles on her face. He’d never seen freckles before. Her large green eyes engulfed him, pupils wide and black, filled with terror. She was a daylighter—one who could not see in the dark. She could not have been more than nine, two years his junior, perhaps three. Her left leg lay askew, badly bruised, possibly broken.

“Weir bisth dua?” she asked, trembling. Dval did not speak the uncouth tongue of Mystarria, but guessed at the question.

“Dval,” he said, pointing at his chest.

She tried to repeat it, using one of her own words. “Val?” Close enough. He nodded. She pointed to her own chest: “Avahn.”

If I crush her skull, he realized, they will think she died in the wreck. I can take their

treasure. . . .

He peered around for witnesses. Everyone else from the wreck seemed to be dead. He did not see any reason why she shouldn’t die, too. Their people had been at war since before either of them had been born.

But he felt guilty. He was in their territory. One of his uncle’s blood mares had been high on the mountain slopes, grazing in the lush alpine grass, but had “wandered” down into the hills, as they did to give birth.

When he’d told his uncle that the horse was gone, he’d said. “Are we not poor enough?

Go find the mare, you fool.” Always that sneer in his voice.

Dval hadn’t expected the horse to wander far from camp, but moccasin prints suggested that his cousin had actually driven the mare away as a prank.

He was trespassing in this land; the penalty for getting caught was death.

A cool wind blew down from the icecaps above, whispering over him, raising goose pimples on his arms.

A mournful howl arose from the woods downhill—a low moaning sound that ululated, then tapered off. It was the hunting cry of a dire wolf. The wolves in the Alcair Mountains were as large as ponies, each weighing as much as three hundred pounds. In winter they followed herds of shaggy elephants that roamed the Kakolar Plains, but in the summers they often foraged into the hills to hunt for elk. 

Sometimes their cries were filled only with ravening hunger, but this wolf was telling others that it tasted the scent of blood.

Dval crouched, frozen in indecision. If he left the girl and kept searching for his uncle’s lost blood mount, the wolves would finish her. He could simply come back and plunder the wreck later.

A deep growl sounded nearby in the oak forest, not more than a hundred yards away. There was no time to climb a tree.

Dval scrambled for safety into the carriage. The girl shrieked and shrank away. He was Inkarran after all, with skin and hair as white as aspen bark, and ice-green eyes that could see in the night.

He knew few words in her tongue. “Gud,” he said, pointing at himself. “I gud.”

She nodded, and tried to rise, but startled at a low growl outside.

They froze, trapped inside the carriage, while wolves began racing around it, panting, heavy paws mincing dry grass. A wolf howled, high and eager, inviting others to the feast. Dval raised a finger to his lips, begging the girl to keep silent. She nodded, then gently laid back down on the floor. Though she stiffened when her arm moved, she did not cry out. There was only one entrance into the carriage—the broken door above. Dval stood with sword raised upward, prepared to thrust.

For long minutes dire wolves growled and ripped at the dead outside, sometimes snarling at one another. He could hear padded feet circling the carriage. Dozens of them. Let there be enough to feed them all, Dval silently prayed to his ancestors.

He gripped the hilt of the unfamiliar sword so tightly that it felt as if his muscles with it. Long after he ached with fatigue, he stood peering up.

To relax vigilance is to die, he heard his uncle’s warning.

The girl hardly breathed.

Suddenly heavy paws scrabbled against the frame of the carriage above, and Dval was unprepared for the wolf that leapt through—a large black one, with grizzled hair turned to mist by starlight.

Dval stabbed upward blindly.

The girl shrieked. The dire wolf yelped in pain, scrabbled backward, and blood rained down. The girl kept screaming.

Did I kill it? he wondered. But the blow had not been deep. The beast would probably only be wounded.

An injured dire wolf will attack again, he knew, if only to prove its fierceness.

Outside, other wolves growled and yipped excitedly. Some sniffed at the carriage while others circled.

A second wolf put its paws up on the carriage and whined, sniffing at the opening. Dval jumped and lunged hard, taking it beneath the throat. It leapt away. Wolves danced about the carriage and growled in a frenzy. The girl shrieked some more.

“Shut up!” he shouted. “Fear draws them!” But the girl did not understand.

He slapped her face, shocking her into silence. “A rabbit screams like that when it wants to die.” He explained, but she did not know the ways of the forest.

Sometimes, when one faces a bear, the best thing to do is to sing. It confuses the animal and shows that one is not afraid. So Dval shoved the girl and sang now, an old battle dirge.

“I was born to blood and war,

Like my fathers were a thousand years before.

Sound the horn. Strike a blow.

Down to death or glory go!”

Wolves whimpered. One barked at the carriage.

Faster than a serpent, a wolf leapt up into the doorframe. Dval lunged with his blade; the wolf bit it. Blood spattered, but the blade twisted in Dval’s hand. He lunged, struck the wolf’s leg, but the beast growled and snapped. Fangs sank into Dval’s shoulder, close to the neck, crushing more than piercing.

Dval shoved the blade up with all his might, driving the creature away. His vision blanked; he stood blinking, blood in his eyes.

At his side, the little girl began to sing in her own crude tongue. Her voice caught with fear at first. It was not a battle song, but a lullaby, such as a mother might sing to a child to frighten away imaginary wights. As she sang, her voice grew in strength.

Sometimes, a song does not just show courage, it lends it, Dval realized.

He wiped spatter from his eyes. His shoulder was running thick with blood. He feared that it would only attract wolves, or that he would pass out.

The girl continued to sing, and struggled to her feet. She put her right hand around his, as if to hold hands.

In Dval’s land, when a woman took a man’s hand, it was a proposal of marriage. Was it the same among her people?

They were both too young, only children.

There was terror in her eyes still, and fierce intelligence. Her lower jaw quivered with determination.

She only seeks comfort, he thought.

She pulled up her skirt, drew an ornate dagger, its silver hilt crusted in gems. It was a pretty weapon, such as a wealthy merchant might carry. She peered at the opening above, as if to do battle.

Avahn waited for the wolves and wondered at her situation.

On sighting the gray fleet, her father had sent Avahn and her mother to safety in the mountains. But safety is an illusion.

Avahn’s mother had been thrown out the door during the wreck, and the silence of the woods spoke eloquently of her fate. Avahn didn’t want to look outside, see the inevitable.

Grief is invisible, but it bears a tremendous weight.

She didn’t know where she was, how to get home.

She wished that she were a runelord, that she had an endowment of strength. Her father had suggested that she take one, but . . . something always stopped her. Sometimes, the vassal’s heart stopped when the facilitators drew his strength away, or he would grow too weak to breathe. She’d never wanted to put someone through that.

Avahn knew little about wolves. The Wizard Goren said that a dire wolf is not afraid of a man. A lone man makes good prey. But he’d once said, “The smell of metal frightens them, especially if more than one man is near.”

Avahn and the boy were vastly outnumbered, but she determined to show no fear, even though her heart pounded as if it might break. Perhaps someday, if she grew to become a powerful runelord, she wouldn’t be so swayed by fear. Today was not that day.

The boy was bleeding badly. She knew that he might not be able to protect her much longer. There was nowhere for her to hide in the carriage.

She studied him. Dval was not huge. Like most Inkarrans, he was lanky and pale in the starlight. Only his calves were dark, for they had been tattooed with a tree, one that bore totems giving the names of his ancestors. He wore little besides his moccasins—a summer kilt, a necklace of wood beads, earrings made of dyed cotton. 

Another wolf leapt up on the carriage and peered in; Dval lunged, but it leapt away so fast, it seemed a creature of mist and dreams.

Once, from her mother’s castle at Coorm, Avahn had watched a silver fox out in a field on a green morning. There were mice in the field, and the fox danced about tufts of dry grass.

Any mouse that stuck its head outside its burrow risked getting eaten.

Their only hope was to stay inside. She thought about the Master of the Hounds, Sir Gwilliam. When given a new litter of wolfhound pups, he’d spanked the largest and explained, “Every pack of dogs has a leader. To control the pack, you must control their leader.” 

She tried to warn the boy: “Val, we must kill their leader.” She jutted her chin up toward the opening. He shook his head, not understanding. 

We only have to make it until morning, she thought. My father will send soldiers to look for us.

She did the only thing she could. She sang.

Five more times that night, wolves attacked, and Dval managed to strike deeply and drive them away, but with each hour his strength waned, and Avahn didn’t know how long he could continue.

Near dawn a crescent moon climbed overhead, spilling silver light down so that it glistened like a spider web.

Avahn worried. The grey ships had come to the Courts of Tide, and she’d seen fires in the valley shortly before dark. She did not know who set them.

All that she could do was keep singing.

When the sky began to brighten and the smell of morning dew filled the air, the leader of the pack came. It was a great wolf, larger than the others. It lunged through the doorframe without preamble, snarling and snapping. So quick was the attack that Dval struggled to repel it, thrusting his blade awkwardly.

Avahn was thrown backward, and the wolf made it halfway into the carriage, shoving Dval to the ground. It focused on the boy, bit him on the head.

Without thought, Avahn lurched forward and plunged her blade deep into the wolf’s neck. Its fur was so thick, she wasn’t sure how deep the wound was, but hot blood spurted from a vein at its throat, and the wolf yelped and snapped at her, and Dval scrambled away. The wolf’s strength was so great, it whipped its head sideways to bite her and slammed her into the wall of the carriage. She heard wooden struts crack from the impact, even as her ears began to ring.

Unconsciousness came so swiftly and completely, it was like falling into a deep dark bottomless pool. She struggled to remain awake, but struggling was no use.

Dval stabbed at the monster wolf, though he was on the floor. The light blade flickered up, and entered the beast’s torso as cleanly as if it were a sheath. 

The wolf growled and twisted its head away from Avahn, and he struck thrice more, slashing now. 

The wolf growled and backed away, leaving the entrance open to the starlight. Outside, the creature snarled ferociously and jumped about, like a hart struck by an arrow.

Other wolves yapped at it, and Dval waited for it to come back, for a wounded wolf was more dangerous than a bear.

But it raced about erratically, then gave a lonely howl just outside the carriage, a howl that made the wood paneling shiver. The beast couldn’t have been ten feet away. Dval could hear it panting louder and louder, as if it were growing more fatigued by the moment. Dval’s head was bleeding now, along with his shoulder, and he could hardly stand, but he remained on his feet, fixed his eyes on the opening overhead.

The pack leader is dying, he thought. But that seemed too . . . hopeful.

He waited for it to leap into the carriage again, but instead heard it get up, panting heavily, and wander toward the woods.

We all hide from death.

For many long minutes Dval stood waiting.

He felt he could stand no longer and began to float in and out of consciousness. If they come for me, he thought, I will be standing still.

So he held his striking pose, as dawn came. Nuthatches chirruped outside in the forest, and mourning doves called. Flies began to buzz inside the carriage, spinning, spinning, in lazy circles, and Dval’s head spun with them.

He waited, a monument.

I am stone. He told himself. I am stone.

The final attack came in the later afternoon. Dval must have fallen asleep on his feet. He wasn’t aware of a scuffle on the carriage or even a shadow filling the opening above him. All he felt was a tug as he was jerked from the carriage by his topknot.

He swatted with his sword in vain. A giant had grabbed him, and now held him dangling with one hand, while he wrested the sword away with the other. 

Dval would have preferred to face more wolves. 

The giant hurled Dval to the ground. He rolled and struggled to rise, but the giant slammed one huge foot onto Dval’s ribs, pinning him. “Stinkende theif!” the creature boomed in a voice more guttural than a bull’s. 

It was a hill giant, nearly nine feet tall, from the land of Toom. He was as burly as a great bear, and had to weigh a thousand pounds. No matter how Dval squirmed, he could not wrest free. Dval squinted up into the impossible sunlight. The giant’s hair was as blue-black as ink, and he wore rat skulls braided into his beard. He stank of rum and sweat and unnamable nastiness. 

Dval closed his eyes, blinded by the sun. Other Mystarrians surrounded him, men with drawn swords. Dval smelled of woods and crisp mountain air. These men stank of ale and grease and cities.

Some shouted at him, and one ripped the stolen ring from Dval’s finger while another man, with tears in his eyes, salvaged the duskin sword, taking the relic in both hands. Dval did not understand all of the accusations leveled against him, but one man drew his sword and strode forward, intent on taking Dval’s head.

Dval gritted his teeth and bared his neck. He stared into his executioner’s eyes as befitted a man who was no coward. The soldier raised his tall sword high, brought the blade down.

“Stobben!” the girl shouted.

The sword veered and bit into the ground near Dval’s head.

Dval looked up in time to see a knight in fishmail help the girl from the carriage, while six others circled Dval, eager for the kill. They forced him to sit on the ground in the sunlight, where his skin would burn and his eyes could not see.

They pulled the bodies of the wolves that he’d slain together, and laid them side-by-side. The pelt of a dire wolf was valuable. Few men had ever killed five at a time.

Avahn found her mother’s body downhill. Wolves had mauled it and pulled it into the shadows under the oaks. Only a bit of blue dress identified the corpse.

One of her father’s guards covered it with a forest-green cloak and tried to pull Avahn away, but she stayed rooted, let the tears flow long and hard while flies buzzed about. The soldiers kept the Inkarran boy on his knees, in the sun. In the bright light, she could see his hair like braided silver, running down his neck. The wool earrings were as crimson as blood. Many bites and scratches marred his smooth skin.

She begged them to let him go, but Captain Adelheim said, “He’s more than Inkarran. He’s Woguld. They’re all under a death sentence. Only your father can stay the boy’s execution.”

“He saved my life,” she said.

“He was robbing corpses, and he would have killed you,” Captain Adelheim said.

“But he didn’t,” she said vehemently.

One of the men mourned, speaking of her guard, “Sir Hawkins had grit in ‘im. Can’t believe he’d just die in a fall. He was too much of a man for it. The kid likely bashed ‘is skull with a rock!”

Sir Bandolan the giant sang of the boy in that grumbling, nonsensical way of theirs:

“Wicked he be.

Evil he does.

Why, oh why?

Because, because!”

“Right, lads,” another of Adelheim’s men agreed. “Let’s bugger him up.” He kicked the boy, knocking him over, and others cheered.

Avahn stared hard at Captain Adelheim. He was a fair man, with a red beard and piercing blue eyes. His frame and features were flawless. Silently she begged for compassion, but he just shrugged. Avahn whirled and slugged Dval’s attacker in the gut. 

The soldiers all roared in laughter. “Careful there, Pwyrthen,” one said, “or the princess might drop her aim a bit.” 

The soldiers backed away, then, leaving the boy to gasp on the ground like a landed trout. 

Avahn got one of her mother’s riding cloaks and put it over him, then settled at his side, prepared to beg her father for the boy’s life. She feared that it was in vain. For two hundred years they’d fought the Woguld. 

Seeking to distract their attention from the boy, she asked Captain Adelheim, “Did you see the men from the gray ships?”

His expression became grave in an instant, and the words seemed to wound him like an arrow. Softly, he said, in a voice husky with alarm, “It wasn’t men on those ships. There were monsters that came off them, things like reavers, with black leathery skin, and philia hanging like worms off of their head plates. But they stood up on two legs, like giants.”

She tried to picture such a creature, but her imagination failed. Captain Adelheim continued, speaking softly, as if afraid to admit this. “Three years ago, your father sent out an expedition to the ends of the earth searching for new territories. Legend said that there was a land beyond the Carrol Sea, and there have been hints of fertile plains and rivers filled with gold. But no ships that landed had ever returned. So your father’s scouts went, and they too never returned. Now, I think we know why. Now, we’re the ones that have been discovered. . . .”

“So the creatures landed?” she asked. “They’re the ones who set the fires?”

“Their ships never beached,” Captain Adelheim said. “The creatures just stepped off them, into the water, and walked on the bottom of the sea until they reached the shore. Yes, they set fires. But none of those beasts will ever return home.” He paused. “We call them toths.”

“Toths,” Avahn repeated. Fangs.

Avahn had never seen a reaver, only their skulls. She could not imagine what a toth might look like.

There is a moment in every person’s life where they recognize that they are going to have to survive through hard times. The night fighting wolves had seemed terrible, but Avahn knew in some deep part of her, that it was only the beginning. 

At midday, the King of Mystarria came–a plump man with sandy brown hair and a dark crown carved from oak, and robes of royal blue. He rode in with thirty men, circled Dval, studied him.

The king’s face was pale and drawn. He glared at Dval, and though he spoke to others, he growled with subdued rage. 

In the hills above them, Dval heard a woodpecker tapping. Peck peck. Peck, peck, peck, peck.

It was Woguld warrior speak, made by tapping a sandstone pebble against a tree. “We are here.”

The king and his men did not seem to notice.

Instead, the Mystarrians argued.

King Harrill was filled with grief at the death of his wife, and he strode over the field of wreckage like an angry badger, like a storm in the brewing. His eyes were bloodshot and glazed from lack of sleep, blazing like meteors. He’d been fighting all night, and now he paced restlessly, moving one direction first, changing in an instant. He went to the body of his wife, looked down at her remains, as if to fix them in his memory. The wolves had been at her, had ripped open her torso, eaten her liver first, ripped off her face.

As he gazed down, by degrees he seemed to collapse in on himself, as if every breath hit him like a blow. At first his face was hard with grief, then pale with shock, until at last his expression went blank and only loss was left in his eyes. Until that day, he had been called Harrill the Cunning, but many argue that on that day he became Harrill the Mad.

Avahn watched him, and could do nothing for him, for she felt the loss as keenly as he.

“My love,” he said at last, taking her hand and kissing it. “Until we meet again. . . .”

Suddenly there was a snarl at the edge of the woods.

Avahn whirled to see a wolf, the huge leader of the pack, come limping from the shadows. Crimson blood matted the fur on its chest, poured down its right leg to its paw. It lunged, blurring across the clearing. Knights shouted in warning and Sir Adelheim’s sword came ringing from its sheath.

The wolf raced toward her father and leapt, a heavy growl escaping its throat. Any common man would have fallen beneath its attack like a helpless doe. But her father was a runelord, with endowments of grace and brawn.

He did not cry out in terror or back away from the fight. Instead he ducked from the attack and leapt at the wolf, mailed fist swinging.

With three endowment of brawn, he slugged the beast. The air cracked as he hit, slamming into the wolf’s skull. Bits of bone and blood went flying in an arc, and something wet spattered Avahns’ face.

The giant wolf fell, its body a dead weight, and it did not move any longer.

King Harrill stared down at it for a long moment, as if trying to understand where it had come from, why it had attacked.

Finally he growled and whirled on Dval, raging as if the wolf were the boy’s fault, and shouted. “Why is that . . . bastard still alive?”

“He saved my life,” Avahn answered reasonably, stepping forward, so that she stood between her father and Dval.

“More than likely,” her father argued, “he’s the one who caused the wreck. They do it all the time, spook our horses at sunset, steal our crops in the night, murder travelers in their sleep. They’re barbarians, not even human.”

He shoved past Avahn, went to Dval, pulled his own battle axe, and raised it high. The boy, dazed and forlorn, did not cry out in fear. Instead, he spit at the king’s feet.

“No!” Avahn warned Dval, for she knew better than to test her father’s wrath. The boy raised his chin and offered his neck, glaring.

The king withheld the blow for a moment, then shook his head in admiration. “Oh, this one has spirit,” the king laughed. “I like him. I like him a lot, but I’m still going to kill him.”

Avahn shouted at her father, “Da, I trust him. We can trust him.”

“He’s a barbarian,” her father argued. He prepared to take the killing blow.

She stepped in front of the boy. “You train your knights for years, never knowing if their hearts will remain true in the fog of battle. This boy’s heart is true.”

The king jutted his chin toward her, and the giant Sir Bandolan grabbed Avahn’s shoulder, pulled her from harm’s way.

Her father drew back his axe, prepared to swing.

In that moment, time seemed to slow and the world went quiet. King Harrill hesitated.

Up in the forest above, a woodpecker pecked, and in the distance a squirrel called from an oak tree.

The king stopped, peered uphill curiously.

“Hear that?” the king whispered to his men. He grew wary. His eyes danced left and right, as if he were thinking faster than a water strider could dance above a pool. He whirled and searched uphill, to where green oaks spread over the dead grasses, casting deep shadows.

He shouted, “Come on, you bastards! I hear you up there. May you all taste my wrath this day!”

There was no answer from the silent woods for a long moment.

Suddenly a single archer stepped out from behind a tree. As a warlord of the Woguld, he wore a crimson breechcloth. A white silk cape flowed over his shoulders like a waterfall. A “sunmask” adorned his face, a silver mask with a face like an elk’s, with broad antlers, and black-glass covered eyes to guard against bright light. The blue tattoos of the warrior’s family tree wound around his calves, naming his ancestors and their deeds. He was glorious to look upon, regal and perfect.

He stood with his great bow, red as blood, its wings flaring wide, and nocked an arrow.

The king laughed and rubbed forefinger against thumb, the sign for “trade.” He pointed to Dval.

Avahn did not know whether her father was offering to buy the boy, or to spare his life for a price.

To Dval, it was the worst of insults. The folk of the Woguld did not trade in slaves.

Every man served his clan. The warlord up above them was his uncle, and Dval felt certain that his uncle would order his men to waylay these barbarians.

Instead, his uncle drew the bow and fired.

The arrow sped toward them, and Dval thought, “He will kill their king!”

Yet even as the thought came, he realized that the arrow was winging toward him. A flash to his side, a heavy thud—and Dval went flying from harm’s way, his face skidding into the leaves. The girl Avahn had shoved him, thrown him to the ground as the arrow whistled past.

Now she sat, holding her arm. Blood flowed from between her fingers, down her shoulder. His uncle’s arrow had lightly kissed her flesh.

Dval’s uncle called out, “Dval, what kind of fool are you? Do we not have enough enemies? You must save one?” Always that tone. “The friend of my enemy,” the uncle roared, “is my enemy!”

His uncle spat, turned, and strode into the stark shadows under the trees.

For a second, Dval knew the sorrow of one who has been dispossessed.

Yet Dval watched his uncle, and did not know who was more a barbarian—his uncle, the northerners around him, or Dval himself.

Perhaps we are all barbarians, Dval thought, struggling to be human.

Only one person here seemed truly human—the child Avahn, who crouched stoically, holding her wound.

After that, no one threatened to kill Dval. Apparently now that he was cast out from the Woguld, his death sentence was rescinded. By trying to kill him, his uncle had saved his life.

The soldiers gathered their dead in silence and rode down from the mountains into the forbidden realm.

Avahn took Dval’s hand. Together they rode down to the sprawling rat-infested cities of Mystarria, to her home at the Courts of Tide, where the war fires of the Toth still burned.

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